Today’s Story is found in Matthew 2:1-12
Often times even in our preaching and teaching schedule we sort of celebrate the event of Epiphany during Advent yet it actually comes in the official church calendar on the 6th of January.
What is Epiphany? Is it as Merriam Websters defines “an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being“? (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/epiphany) . Or could be suddenly knowing the truth that set you free? What Epiphanies do we find in our story today? And why is it that we celebrate Epiphany on Jan. 6th?
To see all of today’s questions, click here.
To answer the date question you may need to know more of HIStory. Last week we looked at Adam and Eve’s story from Gen. 3. Our forbears were shown much grace in the garden by God when they were banished for their own good because God foresaw that if they ate from the tree of life the consequences of their sin would be eternal.
Think about that for a moment. What if the worst thing you had ever done was replayed for you for all eternity! And there was no dying to escape it, no way to erase it, you just had to live with the ever increasing effects of it. How would that change your life?
But God showed great mercy by having our forbears ejected from His presence until their sin could be atoned for. (Genesis 3:22-24 (NIV)) Have you thought of it that way? As divine mercy?
And we saw last week that God promised that Satan would not prevail even as God banished him to slither for the rest of eternity. Because through HIS Son, Jesus Christ, the payment for Adam’s sin would crush the head of the snake and clear the way for a return to the Garden for all who accept His gift of salvation.
That return would not be without some necessary sanctification and cleansing that had so corrupted everything sin touched. People were not immediately perfected inwardly and outwardly. We would still live in a world that reaps the effects of Adam’s sin until the final consummation that awaits Christ’s return.
Until then as the Apostle Paul said, we would have to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13 (NIV). God would change us from the inside out in time.
Paul openly confessed that he struggled daily with dying to the old nature and being renewed by the power of Spirit and God’s Word as he fought the good fight. It would be a messy process but in the end he knew that Christ would be victorious in His life.
You might be wondering what this has to do with Epiphany?
To see all of today’s questions, click here.
Well, like Paul all who are a part of the church have two natures that constantly battle within and that effect the world around us. Rest assured the old or “sin nature” (cf. Gal. 5:17) is going to ultimately lose the battle but in the mean time we still suffer from both the consequences of Adam’s sin and our own sin especially when our pride refuses to give in. And that sin and its consequences is not reserved for just those who are new to the faith. It reaches even the highest levels of leadership.
We see this throughout HIStory. From the birth of the church onward when and where sin was allowed to reign the church of God fractured and split again and again. And Epiphany or at least the celebration of it on Jan. 6 or not is evidence that somewhere along the way pride won out.
Some say it was back in the 15th century when the Gregorian calendar was adopted by more than half of Christendom. And the rest stayed on the Julian calendar because it was the main calendar at the time of our Lord’s birth as they saw it.
The difference between the two calendars and why some adopted one over the other is written in the annals of history and there are plenty of interesting stories about it on the internet. But one thing that has in some ways spanned the divide is this Holy Day called Epiphany. This may be because the Eastern Orthodox Church decided not to adopt the Gregorian calendar when Pope Gregory made it the official calendar of the world nor did later on in 1930 when the last holdout countries in Europe made the switch.
So to this day Epiphany is 12 days after our Christmas and it is still celebrated as a day off in many countries throughout the world. It is celebrated in remembrance of the day a supernatural manifestation of God led the wise men from the east to bring gifts for the Christ Child. Christians in our part of the world would call it Orthodox Christmas Eve. But that’s not quite the way the Orthodox see it.
Yes it is filled with gift giving and in some ways actually makes more sense than the western tradition of Christmas Eve. with the coming of Santa from that aspect. Though one could easily argue that the wise men brought their gifts to Jesus not to each other. So gift giving on the basis of their arrival is still a bit skewed either way. Nevertheless the tradition of giving out gifts on Epiphany makes more sense than trying to weave a story that requires a fictional being traveling the world giving gifts to children who are not on the naughty list. Just saying…
Regardless of when you celebrate the wise men’s arrival one thing remains. HIStory tells of the actual event that happened and is worthy of repeating. And that story is found in Matthew 2:1-12; if you have your Bible turn with me there.
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'”
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route” (Matthew 2:1-12 (NIV).
To see all of today’s questions, click here.
Are you a truth teller? Does it really matter how we tell this wise story? Or what elements we include? What would you say are the necessary truths to be told about HIStory in this story? How do you know they are true?
Well I suppose you can never go wrong with just reading HIS Word verbatim. At least then you know you are telling HIStory. But what about all the other traditions that have arose about Epiphany? What do we know for sure?
We went to a great play just before Christmas where the Wise Men showed up. And then there was Jonas who acted as the “Three Kings’ during our Youth Christmas presentation. That was cute. But was it HIStory or a made up story? And does that really matter?
What do we know from HIStory about this special event?
We know from both Biblical and extra biblical sources like Josephus that their arrival was when Herod was King of Judea. It is widely accepted that King Herod was ruler until 4bc when he died suddenly. That date actually comes from Josephus who tells us that Herod died around a lunar eclipse and astronomers know of only 3 that fit the timelines presented in the Scriptures.
Scientists who study such things say there was one March 13, 4bc, very late in the evening and no others until two occurred in 1 B.C. One was on Dec. 29th, 1BC.
But we also know from historical documents that a major census had been taken between May and September in 4bc. No census is recorded near the other dates. So when we read in Luke, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register” (Lk. 2:1-2). We have evidence that these events actually happened and can with a reasonable degree of certainty say sometime between 4BC and 1BC, the census, which brought Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem took place.
We also know from John the Baptist’s ministry, which according to the historical references in the Scriptures began when he was 30 years old, that the date must have been between 4bc and 1ad. If his ministry began in the year AD26 we can back track the date about 30 years give or take six months to arrive at Jesus birth.
From Luke’s account it was the fifteenth year of Roman ruler Tiberius. Historically that tells us that John was born in the year 5bc.
And of course we know that Elizabeth his mother was six months pregnant when Mary already pregnant with Jesus had come to visit her. So, from the historical and biblical evidence we know that Jesus was born before 4bc and likely around the year 5bc.
What difference does all this make? Well, if Jesus Christ is who He claims to be and not just a mythical figure created by deranged minds, then His life can be traceable historically. And it is!
For example, Matthew writes in verse 1, “behold, there came three kings riding on camels from the east to Jerusalem” (Mat. 2:1).
IS that what you read in your Bibles?
“”We Three Kings”, also known as “We Three Kings of Orient Are” or “The Quest of the Magi”, is a Christmas carol that was written by John Henry Hopkins, Jr., in 1857. At the time of composing the carol, Hopkins served as the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and he wrote the carol for a Christmas pageant in New York City. It remains one of the most popular and most frequently sung Christmas carols today.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_Three_Kings)
Funny how we can easily lay aside HIStory for their stories. Isn’t it? Is this how Biblical illiteracy begins? You know, blur the truth just enough to create either doubt or an alternate reality. Keep telling that version of the story until the truth is lost in fiction.
The Biblical account makes no mention of three Kings! Never mind the rest of that. It simply doesn’t say. But what does HIStory tell us?
In verse one we have well known and hated King Herod the ruthless ruler of Judea. This is a literary device written to help us pinpoint the timing of the event accurately in HIStory.
Then Matthew sets out to answer details like, Who came, Where were they from, Why did they come.
The innumerable wise men were actually Gentiles from the East who apparently had been studying the stars according to verse two. Some scholars say they were “astrologers or astronomers… the word magi was used of Medes, and Persians and other gentiles who were “teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augers, soothsayers, sorcerers etc.”(Strongs).
These were the Gentile Brainiac’s of Christ’s time. This gives us two very important details. 1. Gentiles, even very educated pagans, can search and find the Messiah to worship Him. 2. It doesn’t happen without God’s help. God guides them to find Jesus. He uses all things at His disposal to guide and direct people who truly want to know. Too much education need not be a bearer to the Gospel. But we know that places of higher education today often hinder faith by imposing alternate stories as facts.
These wise men had not only studied the stars but they also knew some of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming Messiah.
They asked Herod, “Where is he that is born the King of the Jews? We saw His star…and have come to worship Him.”(2)
It would seem that they knew the prophecy of Balaam found in Numbers 24:17 which reads, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel…”
Next we find out that this news has an unsettling effect on a man whose selfish ambition and jealousy is notorious. As I said before Herod murdered his own sons when they grew old enough to be a perceived threat to his kingdom. He was not interested in any competition — especially from a baby that could rouse the attention of a caravan of strangers from the east.
But Herod was shrewd as a snake. Matthew tells us that Herod called together all the chief priests and scribes and demanded that they tell him where this Christ child was to be born.
These priests and scribes had no need to pull out the dusty scrolls and carefully search them. They had lived under this man’s tyranny long enough that they were, like the rest of Israel, waiting for the Messiah to come and put an end to it.
Their answer was on the tips of their tongues. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.”(6)
It was common knowledge that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem. We know this from the people’s reaction to Jesus later in his life.
In John 7:40ff we read, “On hearing Jesus words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.” Others said, “He is the Christ.” Still others asked, “How can the Christ come from Galilee? Does not the Scripture say that the Christ will come from David’s family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?” That scripture they mentioned is Micah (5:2).
Herod wasn’t going to take any chances. In a cunning and conniving manner he asked the Wise Men to return to him after they found the Christ child so he too could pay Him a visit. Of course, if he had been honest with the wise men, they would know his murderous intentions and not tell him where Jesus is. Instead he uses the same tactics that the snake did in the Garden of Eden. Deliberate but delicate deception.
God of course knew of Herod’s intentions and later warned the wise men after they found Jesus to go home in a different direction (cf. Mat. 2:12).
No matter how hard the evil tries, God can always find a way to foil Satan’s best-laid plans.
So the wise men leave Herod’s court and God supernaturally shines a great light to lead these wise men to Christ. It’s an Epiphany – a divine or supernatural event.
Some scholars over the centuries have tried to make this light a scientific phenomenon. They say things like Halley’s Comet was over that part of the World at that precise moment. Or there was a convergence of several heavenly bodies that made it look like an extra bright star.
We know now that Halley’s wasn’t and can prove that scientifically. And yes God could have rearranged the stars and planets that night which would still have made this an Epiphany. A divine or supernatural event!
But since the Scriptures say that this star went before them and stopped over the place where the young child was. Seems unlikely that it was a normal star or comet from that description. And verse 10 says they were overjoyed with the sign in the sky! Surprised or delighted might be another good description for their reaction. God had lead these Gentiles to the King of the Jews!
Looking at events in that part of the world today clearly makes this a miracle.
Epiphany – it was clearly a supernatural event. Just like the cloud that guided the people of Moses day, and the pillar of fire that guided them at night through the dessert, the star of Bethlehem had some unusual characteristics as well. (cf. Exodus 13:21-22)
This is closer to HIStory than much of the 21st century Christmas card art. Though to be fair the clothing seems closer to 16th century and I don’t remember seeing cherubim in Matthew’s account. So there was some artist license taken. But Ricci clearly depicts the house rather than the manger. A child rather than an infant.
The same verse says that when “they saw the child with his mother Mary, they bowed down and worshiped him” (Mat. 2:11). These gentile wise men had come all this way to worship the King?
Think about that for a moment. How far would you go to worship Jesus? To what extent does your worship of Jesus show the devotion and persistence of those wise men?
Now notice too it doesn’t say they worshipped them nor does it say they worshipped Mary. But they worshipped the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and presented “Him with their gifts.”
What was the first gift the wise men presented in this passage? Was it Gold, Myrrh, Frankincense?
Was it not their gift of knowledge and their sacrifice of time? We focus in on the materialistic or tangible gifts and they are important but long before those gifts are presented these wise men had already begun giving. In their diligent studying of the stars and their willingness to travel from afar they sacrificed something of greatest value in search of the Messiah. Time.
The greatest gift we give whether to God or our fellow man is our time. It is the one gift that you will certainly run out of no matter how rich you are on this side of heaven. Once spent it’s gone.
Yet sometimes bring the leftovers to the Lord. Leftover time when everything else we want to do is finished, then, if there’s time, we’ll serve the Lord. Leftover money when all our desires have been met, then if there is anything left — well that is for the Lord. Leftover energy — when our day has run its course — if we’re not too tired maybe we’ll pray together and read the Bible.
But the wise men left everything to find Christ and brought Him choice gifts…their finest treasures, the labors of their life. Gifts fit and acceptable for the King of Kings!
Know the true story, HIS story.
- What if the worst thing you had ever done was replayed for you for all eternity! And there was no dying to escape it, no way to erase it, you just had to live with the ever increasing consequences of it? How would that make you feel and act?
- What great act of mercy did God do in Gen. 3:22-24(NIV)?
- Did you remember to observe Epiphany on January 6th?
- What is Epiphany? Or should we ask what is an Epiphany?
- Are you a truth teller? Does it really matter how we tell this wise story? Or what elements we include?
- What would you say are the necessary truths to be told about HIStory in this story? How do you know they are true?
- Who are the main characters in Matthew 2:1-12(NIV)
- Are there 3 kings mentioned in this passage? (Mat. 2:1,3(NIV))
- What or who are Magi? (Mat. 2:1,8(NIV))
- When did this visit occur? During who’s reign? (Mat 2:1; Luke 2:1-2(NIV))
- Why was a power ruler worried? (Mat. 2:1,3-6(NIV))
- Why was Jesus born in Bethlehem? (Mat. 2:6,8; John 7:40-43; Micah 5:2(NIV))
- How were the Magi led to Jesus? (Mat. 2:9-10(NIV))
- Where did the Magi find Jesus? (Mat. 2:11(NIV))
- What did they do when they found Jesus? (Mat. 2:11(NIV))
- Where did they go after they found Jesus? (Mat. 2:8,12, 16 (NIV))
- What Epiphany(ies) happened in Matthew 2:1-12 (NIV)?
- What did Herod do when the Magi didn’t return? (Mat. 2:16(NIV))
- How old was Jesus when these events took place? (Mat. 2:1, 16; Luke 1:26,56; Luke 2:1,2 (NIV)) How do we know?
- What was the first gift of the Magi to Jesus? What ought to be our gift to Jesus?
Lord, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12)
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