Jean’s Gospel: Epiphany: Christmas of the Gentiles
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.’ After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.” (Matt 2:1-12)
Epiphany (which means manifestation) commemorates the visit of the magi to Jesus in Bethlehem. On the night Jesus was born, God gave the Jews a sign that their Savior was born through the appearance of an angel to nearby shepherds. However, Jesus came also for those who are far off – for the gentile nations. Therefore, God gave the gentiles a sign that their Savior too was born through the appearance of a special star to the magi who were from Arabia or Persia. The Epiphany of Christ to the magi is also known in Church tradition as Christmas of the Gentiles.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” (Isa 9:2)
The light (of the star) may have shined for the magi in the east, but when they arrived at Jerusalem, they found no light, only darkness. Why were the residents in the capital (except for a few), including Herod, the chief priests and scribes, not aware of the birth of their King? Why were the Jews not celebrating the restoration of the monarchy to the House of David? Did no one else see the star rising over Israel? One can only imagine the astonishment of the magi when they encountered the utter state of ignorance and indifference among the residents of Jerusalem.
“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matt 2:2)
When the magi could no longer follow the rising star for directions to Jesus, they would next be led by Scripture. (God desires that we seek Him in His Word, which provides our faith with a sure foundation.) When word of the magi’s inquiry reached Herod, he gathered the chief priests and the scribes who easily located Micah’s prophesy: “They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ” (Matt 2:5-6, quoting Micah 5:2)
“If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:31)
Micah’s prophesy functioned as a second guiding light for the magi searching for Jesus. As Peter, writing later, teaches: “we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (1 Pet 1:19). Jesus is the “bright morning star.” (Rev 22:16)
But what was guiding Herod and the priests and scribes? They also knew Micah’s prophesy. What was their guiding light?
The Priests and the Scribes. These men were experts and teachers of the Scriptures, but they did not come to Jesus. As educated men, likely of the Sanhedrin, they might have been the first to joyfully set out for Bethlehem to honor their King. But they feared Herod more than God. So they remained with Herod and hardened their hearts.
Later when Jesus did not appear with splendor and power, the priests and scribes apparently dismissed the visit of the magi as a hoax. Thus Jesus grew up among them in anonymity, just as John the Baptist later said to the priests and Levites: “among you stands one you do not know” (John 1:26). The priests and scribes knew the Scriptures inside and out and yet were blind in unbelief.
Herod. Herod was not an expert in the Scriptures, but he knew how to use them for his own purposes. He apparently believed the Scriptures were the Word of God, yet he foolishly set himself against the Word, thinking he could sabotage and foil God’s plan. Herod attempted to use Micah’s prophesy for evil, to preserve his kingdom, by destroying God’s Anointed One. Even the devil knows the Scriptures. However, Solomon teaches a greater truth: “No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the Lord.” (Prov 21:30)
The Wise Men. These were men “who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” (Luke 8:15) The magi traveled far at personal risk and cost to find Christ. They did not despair at the ignorance and indifference of the leaders in Jerusalem, but held fast to the Word of God spoken through the Prophet Micah. Upon leaving Jerusalem, the star reappeared to the magi, leading them to the precise house where Jesus was staying. “And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.” (Matt 2:11a)
The magi were neither wise like Herod, who amassed a kingdom and great wealth, nor like the chief priests and scribes, who achieved great status and positions among the people. The magi were wise like children, as Jesus would later teach by way of prayer: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” (Luke 10:21) The magi likely were held in contempt by the wise men of Jerusalem, but they were wise in the things of God. Only through the eyes of childlike faith could the magi behold their young King alone with His peasant mother in a small village outside Jerusalem. May our Father in Heaven protect us also from the ways of the world and grant us childlike faith which beholds our Lord and Savior who has reconciled us to God through the blood of His cross. Amen.
“Hail, Thou Source of every blessing, Sovereign Father of mankind!
Gentiles now, Thy grace possessing, In Thy courts admission find.
Grateful now we fall before Thee, In Thy Church obtain a place,
Now by faith behold Thy glory, Praise Thy truth, adore Thy grace.
Once far off, but now invited, We approach Thy sacred throne;
In Thy covenant united, Reconciled, redeemed, made one.
Now revealed to Eastern sages, See the Star of Mercy shine;
Mystery hid in former ages, Mystery great of love divine.
Hail, Thou all-inviting Savior! Gentiles now their offerings bring;
In Thy temples seek Thy favor, Jesus Christ, our Lord and King.
May we, body, soul, and spirit, Live devoted to Thy praise,
Glorious realms of bliss inherit, Grateful anthems ever raise!”
“Hail, Thou Source of Every Blessing”
by Basil Woodd