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An Epiphany about Epiphany

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People often speak of having an “epiphany” about something – describing a sudden insight (often profound!). The word “epiphany” does not just refer to these occurrences, however, as it is also the name of a Christian holiday that falls on January 6. Unfortunately, this holiday is forgotten by many Christians today (especially those in the Protestant and Evangelical streams of the church), so I wanted to shed more light on this day and why I think it is important for us to remember.

The Biblical Basis for Epiphany
The primary events behind Epiphany are often remembered as part of the Christmas story, as Epiphany marks the story found in Matthew 2:1-12 of the arrival of the wise men or “magi” from the East who saw a star and journey to give gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus and to worship him (Matthew 2:11). While these visitors are often included when telling the Christmas story (and in nativity scenes), their appearance does not seem to happen at the same time as the shepherds we hear about in Luke 2 for a number of reasons. First, Matthew tells us that the magi visited a house in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:11), while the shepherds find Jesus lying in a manger (Luke 2:12) – it’s unlikely that this feeding trough would be found in a house! In addition, we see that Jesus is called a “child” in Matthew 2:11 rather than a baby like in Luke 2:12 and 17 (though the word child does appear in Luke 2:18). Their visit most likely occurred a year or two later in light of Herod’s command to kill the baby boys younger than two years old (Matthew 2:16) and the amount of time it would take to come from their unknown homeland (most likely Persia or Arabia).

Since the word “Epiphany” literally means “manifestation” or “appearance,” some churches remember other events at Epiphany that also marked the revelation of Jesus to the world, such as the wedding at Cana (John 2) and the baptism of Jesus. But because Epiphany stands as more than a single day – the start of a new season that begins 12 days after Christmas (now you know why there is a song called the 12 Days of Christmas) – other traditions have focused on the appearance of the magi and included remembrance of these other events in the season of Epiphany (for example, the first Sunday after Epiphany has often been marked as “Baptism of our Lord” Sunday in the church calendar).

The Background of Epiphany and Its Significance
The story of the magi does not tell us how many individuals came to visit and worship Jesus (three is a good guess because of the number of gifts, but there could have been more, with some early Christians thinking there were 12!) as the number of them is less important than the reason and background for their visit. Their arrival fulfills the promises mentioned in Isaiah 60:3-6 and Psalm 72:10-11 that important foreigners would worship the chosen king of Israel. The imagery of those Old Testament verses is a reason people often think of these wise men as kings, as the verses mention kings bringing gifts, but it seems best to view them as prominent people rather than kings. The significance of this event comes from the fact that these men were not Jews – they were Gentiles – coming to worship the Jewish king. Thus, Epiphany is a reminder that Jesus comes for people of all nations. 

The Truths We Are Reminded of When We Celebrate This Day
I don’t necessarily think we need to have a special celebration for Epiphany (though if you are having a party, please invite me!), but I do think this is an important holiday for two reasons that I think can give us an “epiphany” about Epiphany. 

First, it is a reminder that the “Christmas story” is not something that happens all on one day – it is a story that continues long after December 25. May the truths of Christmas stick with us here two weeks after our celebration! May we not be like Herod the Great or the people of the city of Jerusalem who were “troubled” by the news of Jesus’s birth (Matthew 2:3), but like these wise men who took a lengthy journey that started on Christmas day and ended long afterwards. Let us take the joyous news of Jesus wherever we might go; no day or distance should contain this message or our joy!

Second, the holiday is a reminder that Jesus has come for people of all nations; it is not just good news for me and my family, but for people of other families, neighborhoods, and countries. It is a day that calls for us not just to worship Christ with our own gifts, but to share with the world around us the love that we see in Christ, the salvation and forgiveness that we find in him. Epiphany thus stands as a day in which we should remember and pray for the missionaries who are seeking to reveal to the world that the Lord has come and also a day to remind us that we are His missionaries to bring this message to our world. Christmas is a day in which we remember that a gift has been given to us in the King Jesus, and Epiphany is a day to remember that this gift is for people of every nation. 

Questions about the Bible or theology? Email them to Pastor Brian at Theology@WeAreFaith.org. You can also request to receive weekly emails with our blog posts by filling out the information on the right side.

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