The word epiphany means an appearance or manifestation, particularly of a divine being—or an illuminating discovery, especially one that comes unexpectedly.
Epiphany marks the first manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles. It signals that God loves Gentiles as well as Jews—that God’s plan of salvation includes Gentiles too. That might seem a moot point now—of academic interest only. The church has embraced Gentiles for centuries. Most Christians today are Gentiles. Isn’t this a dead issue?
It would be a dead issue if Epiphany were only about the inclusion of Gentiles in the church. That is hardly the case, however. Epiphany is much more. It is a celebration of the breaking down of dividing walls—the end of hostilities between groups of people (Ephesians 2:14). Epiphany challenges us to reconsider all the people whom we see as outside the pale—outside the boundaries of God’s love. It challenges us to abandon our tribalism (racially, nationally, denominationally, etc.) and to expand our tents to welcome even those whom we would prefer not to love. It is a burning issue, because loving those outside our tribe is difficult—but Christ makes it possible. That is the Epiphany message.
We celebrate Epiphany on January 6 (or the nearest Sunday). Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost were the great holy days for the early church. Christmas came along later.
MATTHEW 2:1-12. THE CONTEXT
“Matthew’s sublime story of the adoration of the Magi has often been better understood by poets and artists than by scholars, whose microscopic analysis has missed its essence” (Hare, 12). What a wonderful insight! The difference is one of attitude. The poet and artist approach scripture with wonder and affection—with the heart. The scholar approaches scripture systematically and analytically—with the head. Both have their place, but this story shows how Christ enriches those who bring him their hearts. The Magi came with joy in their hearts to see the Christ child, and God allowed them to see wondrous things.
Matthew tells a very different story than Luke:
• Instead of shepherds, Matthew gives us Magi from the East.
• Instead of a stable, Matthew takes us to Herod’s palace.
• Instead of a manger, Matthew shows us gifts fit for a king.
• Instead of angels, Matthew tells us of dreams.
Although, at our Christmas pageants, we group shepherds and wise men together around the manger, the shepherds came from nearby and the wise men from afar. The wise men’s visit probably took place long after the shepherds had departed. Mary and Joseph remained in the vicinity of Bethlehem and Jerusalem until Jesus had been circumcised and presented in the temple (Luke 2:22-38). Mary also needed time to recover from the delivery before traveling to Nazareth. Presumably the wise men visited during the latter part of Mary and Joseph’s visit to Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Matthew includes a number of dark elements in his story:
• Joseph resolves to put Mary away quietly (1:19).
• Herod kills babies in an attempt to do away with the newborn king (2:16-18).
• Joseph and his family flee to Egypt to escape the murderous king (2:13-15).
• Joseph and family return to Nazareth rather than Bethlehem (2:19-23).
There are a number of important parallels between the stories of Moses and Jesus:
• Pharaoh ordered that all Hebrew baby boys should be killed (Exodus 1:16, 22), just as Herod does (2:16-18). The baby Moses was at risk, just as is the baby Jesus.
• Moses was saved by the intervention of Pharaoh’s daughter (Exodus 2:1-10), just as Jesus is saved by a dream warning Joseph and Mary to flee (v. 11).
• As a young man, Moses, fearing for his life, fled from Pharaoh (Exodus 2:15).
• The Lord told Moses, “Go back to Egypt; for all those who were seeking your life are dead” (Exodus 4:19), just as an angel will say to Joseph, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead” (Matthew 2:19-20).
Matthew clearly intends for us to notice these parallels—and to see Jesus as a Moses-like figure. However, we need to remember this significant difference: While Moses (at God’s direction) saved Israel from its slavery, Jesus will save the world from its sins.
Another Old Testament allusion has to do with the story of Balak and Balaam in Numbers 22-24. There are at least four parallels between that story and the story of the Magi:
• A wicked king (Balak)
• A pagan soothsayer (Balaam)
• God’s intervention to foil the king’s plan
• A star (Numbers 24:17)
MATTHEW 2:1-2. WHERE IS HE WHO WAS BORN KING OF THE JEWS?
1Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod, behold, wise men (Greek: magoi) from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, 2“Where is he who is born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east, and have come to worship him.”
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea” (v. 1a). Jesus’ birth is recounted in Matthew 1:18-25. The more detailed account is found in Luke 2. For information on Bethlehem, see comments below on verse 5.
“in the days of King Herod” (v. 1b). This is Herod the Great. His sons, Herod Archelaus, Herod Philip, and Herod Antipas, will succeed their father upon his death in 4 B.C. Herod the Great was, in many ways, a truly great king. He kept the peace. He built the Temple. He was sometimes generous.
However, Herod was genuinely paranoid—murdering rivals, real or imagined. “He murdered his wife, Mariamne, and three of his sons. Augustus, the Roman emperor, once said that it was safer to be Herod’s pig (Greek: hus) than Herod’s son (Greek: huios). Approaching death, Herod had a group of elite citizens of Jerusalem arrested and imprisoned, with orders that the moment he died they were to be killed so that some tears would be shed when he died” (Augsberger). The Massacre of the Innocents (2:16-18), modeled after Pharaoh’s killing of Israelite babies (Exodus 2:1-10), is thus very much in keeping with Herod’s character.
“wise men (magoi) from the east came to Jerusalem” (v. 1c). These magoi come to Jerusalem, because the capital city is the logical place to look for a king. We know little about these magoi from the East:
• They were probably members of a priestly caste in ancient Persia, possibly followers of Zoroaster.
• We call them kings, but Matthew calls them magoi, which we transliterate “Magi.” The word “kings” might come from Psalm 72:10, which speaks of the kings of Tarshish rendering tribute and the kings of Sheba and Seba bringing gifts. See also Isaiah 60:6, which tells of the people of Sheba bringing gold and frankincense. That is reminiscent of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon (who, like Jesus, was a son of David) and her gifts of gold, spices, and precious stones (1 Kings 10:1-10), but the Isaiah verse is future-oriented and points forward to the gifts which these magoi bring to Jesus.
• We think of these magoi as astrologers because they are observing stars (v. 2), and astrology was considered a learned occupation. However, from the perspective of the Jewish people, magoi look to the stars for answers that legitimately come only from God.
• The word magoi is also found in Acts 8:9-24 and 13:6-11, where it is translated magician or sorcerer. From the perspective of the Jewish people, magoi work magic using demonic powers. They are far from the kingdom of God, which makes these magoi especially useful for Matthew’s purposes as he shows how the Messiah brings salvation even to Gentiles—even to Gentiles who might be magicians or sorcerers.
As a side note, astrology and horoscopes are still popular. The fact that Matthew treats these magoi kindly does not mean that astrology or horoscopes are legitimate. They constitute an alternate religious system—incompatible with Christian faith, because they ascribe too much significance to the movement of stars. God is in control—not stars. God’s use of a star to guide these magoi to Jesus was a one-time thing. God’s primary means of revelation are prophets, scriptures, sacraments, and Son—not stars.
• Most significantly, the wise men are Gentiles. Matthew’s Gospel is very Jewish, but he introduces these Gentile worshipers at the beginning, preparing us for Jesus’ last words to his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (28:19—the Greek word translated “nations” is ethne, which also means “Gentiles”). We are struck by the contrast between these Gentiles, who follow the star to Jesus, and the chief priests and scribes, who know the scriptures but who do nothing to seek out the Messiah, whom they have determined to be only five miles (eight km.) away in Bethlehem (v. 5). God’s people ignore the Messiah, while pagans eagerly seek him out.
Matthew will treat favorably a Gentile Roman centurion (8:5-13) and a Gentile Canaanite woman (15:21-28). He also includes women, including women of questionable repute (Rahab), in Jesus’ genealogy. He makes it clear that the barriers that separate people from each other do not separate them from God’s love. As the writer of Ephesians will later say, “he…has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:14). That work began at the nativity. Epiphany challenges us to consider who we might consider to be unworthy (welfare mothers, kids with baggy pants, smokers, Muslims, etc.) and how we, the church, might reach out to them in Christian love.
We think of the wise men as three in number because they give three gifts, but they could be any number. Storytellers named them Melchior, Caspar (or Gaspar), and Balthazar, but those names are not found in scripture but “first appear in a mosaic in a 6th-century church in Ravenna, Italy” (Encarta).
“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” (v. 2a). For the longest time, I assumed that these wise men were asking Herod for directions—an unwise move, given Herod’s reputation for paranoia and violence. However, a more careful reading shows that they came asking for directions (v. 2) and Herod heard of it (v. 3). Matthew doesn’t say that they asked Herod for directions.
Anyone who has traveled with someone who will not stop to ask directions can appreciate the humble wisdom of these magoi, who did ask.
This title, “king of the Jews,” will reappear at the end of this Gospel as Pilate asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (27:11)—and when the soldiers mock him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (27:29)—and as a sign posted on the cross as the criminal charge against him, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (27:37). Matthew obviously considers it important to establish that Jesus is, indeed, King of the Jews.
“For we observed his star in the east” (v. 2b). Scholars have tried to identify the star that led the wise men. Halley’s Comet would have been visible in 11 B.C., and Jupiter and Saturn came together brightly in 7 B.C. However, there has been no agreement regarding the star, nor is there likely to be. This star does not behave as stars do, but stops over the place where the child is (v. 9-10). This is a supernatural rather than a natural occurrence—a sign from God, who has power even to stop stars in their tracks.
“and have come to worship him” (Greek: proskunesai—from proskuneo) (v. 2c). Proskuneo combines the Greek words pros (to) and kuneo (kiss or adore). It can be used for a greeting between equals, but in the New Testament is used to mean worship (of God) or respect (for a person of superior status).
MATTHEW 2:3-6. IN BETHLEHEM OF JUDEA
3When King Herod heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he asked them where the Christ would be born. 5They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is written through the prophet,
6‘You Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are in no way least among the princes of Judah:
for out of you shall come forth a governor,
who shall shepherd my people, Israel.'”
The differences between Jesus and Herod could not be greater.
• Jesus was born in a stable; Herod lives in a palace.
• Jesus is a helpless infant; Herod possesses great power.
• Jesus will prove to be a man of great compassion; Herod is cruel and violent.
“When King Herod heard it, he was troubled” (v. 3a). Why would a king be troubled about a baby? Perhaps it is paranoia. As noted above, Herod murdered any potential rival to his throne—even members of his own family. Perhaps his paranoia is fed by feelings of illegitimacy. Many people in high positions feel like pretenders, wondering when their legitimacy will be questioned and their power stripped from them. Herod has more reason than most to feel illegitimate. He is of Arab descent, and rules at Rome’s pleasure. His father gained power by supporting Julius Caesar, and was named procurator of Judea by Caesar in 47 B.C. His family ruled the area for a century and a half. The Jews, who want a king of their own, resent Herod. Given half a chance, they would overthrow him. Even though Herod is not a Godly man, he would worry about a God-ordained king born to take his place.
“and all Jerusalem with him” (v. 3b). “All Jerusalem” would seem to include two groups. The smaller group, the power elite who owe their power to Herod (including some religious leaders), fear losing power if Herod is replaced with another king. The larger group, the general population, fear what Herod might do in a murderous rage. It is also possible that Matthew is implicating the Jewish people, even at this early stage, of opposition to Jesus. They will later share in the guilt of the crucifixion, but Matthew may be linking them with Herod even at the beginning of the story.
“Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people” (v. 4a). These are Herod’s wise men—members of the Sanhedrin, those who rule over the religious realm. In verses 3-4, Matthew gathers together the people who will serve as Jesus’ opponents through his lifetime—all Jerusalem, the chief priests and the scribes.
• Caiaphas is high priest (Matthew 26:3, 57; John 18:13, 24), but his name is closely linked with Annas, his father-in-law, who may have preceded him in that office (John 18:13; Luke 3:2). We will see Annas and Caiaphas again as Jesus is being prepared for crucifixion (John 18:13, 24).
• The scribes are experts in Jewish law. We will see the scribes frequently in Matthew’s Gospel, where they will be in conflict with Jesus on nearly every occasion.
“he asked them where the Christ would be born” (v. 4b). The wise men have identified the baby as “the child who has been born king of the Jews” (v. 2a), but Herod equates that description with the Messiah.
Herod was the son of an Idumean father and an Arabian mother. While his parents had adopted the Jewish religion, Herod (considered a half-Jew by most Jews) would need help from Jewish scholars to understand the intricacies of the faith.
“In Bethlehem of Judea” (v. 5a). Bethlehem, five miles (eight km.) south of Jerusalem, was David’s birthplace. Matthew identifies it as Bethlehem of Judea to distinguish it from Bethlehem of Galilee, located a few miles north of Nazareth. Bethlehem is a small town, a lowly place, an appropriate setting for Jesus’ humble birth. However, it is also proud, having been the birthplace of David, Israel’s greatest king.
It is worth noting that King David’s origins were also humble. He served as a shepherd, a lowly occupation. When Samuel asked Jesse, David’s father, to bring his sons so that Samuel might determine which one God had chosen to be king, Jesse did not even think to include David, his youngest. It was only when Samuel had disqualified the other sons that Jesse sent for David. David’s early fame came when, unable to manage a man’s armor, he faced Goliath armed only with a slingshot. But he became Israel’s greatest king. Humble beginnings—a great end! Now this humble but proud town gives Israel its Messiah.
“for this is written through the prophet” (v. 5b). The prophets quoted are Micah (5:2) and Samuel (2 Samuel 5:2). Matthew has a higher interest in the fulfillment of scripture than any other Gospel writer.
“You Bethlehem, land of Judah” (v. 6a). Micah 5:2 speaks of “Bethlehem of Ephrathah,” which people in that time and place would have understood as Bethlehem of Judah. Matthew changes Micah’s wording to place additional emphasis on Jesus’ Judean heritage (France, 72).
Here Matthew establishes not only that the prophets foretold Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, but also that the religious establishment has reason to understand what is happening and yet does nothing about it.
“are in no way least among the princes of Judah” (v. 6b). Matthew makes a significant change in Micah’s wording at this point. Micah spoke of Bethlehem as “one of the little clans of Judah,” but Matthew changes that wording to “are by no means least among the rulers of Judah.” Matthew’s intent was to show how God had blessed the little town of Bethlehem by having the messiah to be born there.
The wise men got their first clue from nature, seeing a star in the East. The information from that source, however, was incomplete. They need the scriptures to inform them more fully. They must come to Jerusalem, the center of Jewish worship, to be led by the scriptures to Bethlehem. But “knowing the scripture is not enough to bring one to authentic Christian worship. The chief priests and scribes know the Bible, but they miss the Messiah” (Long, 19).
“for out of you shall come forth a governor, who shall shepherd my people, Israel” (v. 6c). This is the point of the verse from Micah—that a ruler will come from the small, insignificant town of Bethlehem—a town that, as a consequence of Jesus’ birth, will no longer be insignificant.
MATTHEW 2:7-8. BRING ME WORD
7Then Herod secretly called the wise men, and learned from them exactly what time the star appeared. 8He sent them to Bethlehem, and said, “Go and search diligently for the young child. When you have found him, bring me word, so that I also may come and worship him.”
“Then Herod secretly called the wise men, and learned from them exactly what time the star appeared” (v. 7). Herod is concerned about the exact time, because that information will help him to track down the baby.
“He sent (the wise men) to Bethlehem, and said, ‘Go and search diligently for the young child. When you have found him, bring me word, so that I also may come and worship him” (v. 8). Herod wants to kill the infant who poses a danger to his throne. Rather than sending his troops to Bethlehem, which might alert the people of Bethlehem and allow the baby and family to escape, Herod decides to involve the unsuspecting wise men in his treachery.
Herod will give orders to kill all the children in Bethlehem two years old and under (v. 16), drawing the lines broadly enough to be sure of removing the baby who threatens his throne (2:16-18). This suggests that Jesus might be as old as two years when the Wise Men appear at his home. Herod’s efforts will prove futile, however, because God will warn both the wise men and Joseph, who will flee to Egypt with his little family (2:13-15).
The treachery that Jesus will endure later in his life begins in his infancy, as does the hypocrisy of his enemies.
MATTHEW 2:9-11. THEY OFFERED HIM GIFTS
9They, having heard the king, went their way; and behold, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over (oikan–the house) where the young child was. 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. 11They came into the house and saw the young child with Mary, his mother, and they fell down and worshiped (Greek: proseknesan—from proskuneo) him. Opening their treasures, they offered to him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
“They, having heard the king, went their way” (v. 9a). Bethlehem is only five miles (eight km.) from Jerusalem, so it would not be difficult for the wise men to find it, even without the assistance of the star. It is quite possible that they started in the right direction before seeing the star that would then appear to them.
“and behold, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them” (v. 9b). Matthew gives us no idea whether this star might have been visible to other people as well as the wise men. Given Herod’s concern and the involvement of all the chief priests and scribes (v. 4), it would seem that Herod’s people would have noticed a visible star and would have followed it to see where it would lead. It seems likely, then, that God has made this star visible to the wise men and invisible to Herod’s people.
“until it came and stood over (oikan—house) where the young child was” (v. 9c). Stars do not stop in their orbits. This is not a natural phenomenon, but a sign from God. The Magi find Jesus in a house (v. 11).
“When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy” (v. 10). Note the contrast between the joy of these Gentiles and the fear of Herod and Jerusalem. The people who should be ready to receive Christ with great joy are instead afraid. Those least likely to care anything about a Jewish Messiah receive him joyfully. During his ministry, Jesus will turn many assumptions on their ear, and he begins this work in his infancy.
“They came into the house” (v. 11a). The Magi find Jesus in a house. Matthew’s reference to a house differs from the manger of Luke’s version of Jesus’ birth story (Luke 2:1-20). There are at least two possible explanations.
• First, it is likely that the manger area where Jesus was born (Luke 2:7) was part of a house, and the Magi may have come to that house.
• Second, a number of scholars think that a considerable time, as much as two years (see comments on v. 16), has elapsed since Jesus’ birth. If that is the case, this could be a house where Joseph took up residence with his little family sometime after Jesus’ birth.
“and saw the young child with Mary, his mother” (v. 11b). There is no mention of Joseph here, although chapter 1 recounted his genealogy and his obedience to the angel’s command. He will reappear at 2:13, where the angel will tell him to take his family to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous plans—and Joseph will once again obey the angel’s command.
“and they fell down and worshiped him” (proseknesan—from proskuneo) (v. 11c). The word proskuneo is the word that you would use to picture ordinary people paying obeisance to a king. These great men see in this baby someone much greater than they. They kneel to Jesus, anticipating the day when “every knee (shall) bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, and that every tongue (shall) confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).
“Opening their treasures, they offered to him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (v. 11c). The gifts seem odd for a baby. We expect baby clothes and toys. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh, however, speak to Jesus’ future.
• Gold is a gift fit for a king.
• Frankincense is used in temple worship (Exodus 30:34)—a gift fit for a priest.
• The high priest uses myrrh as an anointing oil (Exodus 30:23). It is also used to prepare bodies for burial, and Nicodemus will bring a mixture of aloe and myrrh to prepare Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:39-40).
Psalm 72:10-11 speaks of kings rendering “the king” (Psalm 72:1) tribute and kneeling before him and offering gifts. Isaiah 60:1-6 mentions gifts of gold and frankincense.Those references have given rise to the idea that the Magi were kings (Hagner).
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh are not only expensive gifts, but they are also portable. Very soon (2:13) an angel will tell Joseph to flee Herod. Joseph will not be able to take many possessions, but he can carry gold, frankincense, and myrrh to sell along the way and thereby finance the journey to Egypt. Perhaps these gifts are God’s way of providing for the journey that lies ahead.
MATTHEW 2:12. HAVING BEEN WARNED IN A DREAM
12Being warned in a dream that they shouldn’t return to Herod, they went back to their own country another way (Greek: hodos).
Try as he might, Herod cannot derail God’s plan for the salvation of the world. The Herods of this world are no match for God—or God’s people. God enlightens these wise men with regard to Herod’s intentions, so they avoid Herod on the way home.
The Magi return to their own country by another way (hodos). In other words, they don’t use the expected route, but pick an alternate route designed to bypass Herod and his minions.
In the New Testament, hodos is also used as a metaphor for human behavior.
Jesus will use hodos to speak of the “narrow way” (7:13) and “the way of righteousness” (21:32)—Godly lifestyles that lead to life (7:14).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan