Today we celebrate “Epiphany”, the visit of the Magi to the child Jesus in Bethlehem. The Bible doesn’t tell us much about these magi, these wise men. They were probably astrologers rather than kings - men who studied the stars above to try and understand what would happen on earth below. And they were Gentiles, not Jews – foreigners from the East. Some scholars think they came from Persia, others suggest Arabia. We do know they brought three gifts to Jesus, but we don’t know how many Magi there were – maybe three, maybe more!
Despite our uncertainty about the identity of these visitors from the East, we can be sure of some things about the first Epiphany: it had Cosmic significance, it had Christ at the centre, and it had Contrasting effects…
- Epiphany… had Cosmic significance!
I’m a very amateur astronomer. I have a telescope at home, and I always love looking at the night sky. I even have an app on my phone that tells me what star, sateliite or planet I’m looking at when I point it in the sky! I find the night sky mesmerising in its beauty, mindblowing in scale and an awe-inspiring example of God’s creative power.
The Magi loved the night sky too, and the Bible tells us it was an event in the heavens that brought these wise men to Bethlehem. A new star had appeared in the sky, a star which convinced them that a new king of the Jews had been born (v.2). Epiphany, you see, was an event with cosmic significance.
There are lots of theories of exactly what this cosmic event was. What event in the heavens did God use to guide the magi? I watched The Sky at Night programme a few days before Christmas, and they went through the likely candidates for what the wise men saw. Some scholars suggest it was a comet, others suggest a supernova (an exploding star), whole some suggest it was a conjunction of two planets (probably Jupiter and Saturn). The Sky at Night presenters plumped for a comet as the most likely explanation.
But whatever it was, the heavens were signposting the birth of this baby. A baby who was the eternal Son of God, the Word of God made flesh, the one through whom all things had been made. The star was a sign in the cosmos that its Creator had come to earth. The Second person of the Trinity who had once flung every stars into space now lived as a child on Earth. Its appropriate that a star above signalled his arrival down here below.
- Epiphany…had Christ at the centre!
One thing almost everyone knows about Epiphany is the three gifts that were brought by the wise men: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. From a material perspective, they were valuable gifts. Gifts that must have helped the holy family get by when they fled to Egypt soon after.
But like the star in the sky above, these gifts were spiritually significant too, and help us understand the identity and mission of the boy born in a manger.
Firstly, the gift of Gold points to Jesus’ royal identity. He was a descendant of David, Israel’s greatest king to date. Yet Jesus was destined to be an even greater monarch. He was God’s promised Messiah, the man who would rescue God’s people and rule over an everlasting kingdom. A king who calls us to trust and follow him today.
Secndly, frankincense was used by priests in the Jerusalem Temple. Priests acted as mediators between God and mankind. The sacrifices and prayers they offered enabled people to enjoy a relationship with God.
The Bible book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus came as our great High Priest. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and then lived and died, to make it possible for us to have friendship with God forever. Above all, it was at the Cross where he offered a perfect, once for all sacrifice to his Father:
- A sacrifice that was sufficient to take away the sins of the world.
- A sacrifice that removes every Christian’s guilt before God.
- A sacrifice by a perfect priest, which we remember when we share bread and wine together at the Lord’s Supper.
Myrrh, meanwhile, was often used to anoint a corpse. It reminds us of the shocking truth that Jesus was the baby born to die. Our Saviour came to lay down his life at the Cross for our forgiveness, only to rise again forever at Easter.
Taken together, the wise men’s gifts remind us that Jesus is the great King, the perfect priest, the one who defeated death. They are a great guide to who Jesus was and what he came to do. They put Christ at the centre of Epiphany.
- Epiphany…had Contrasting effects!
Finally, the first Epiphany was full of contrasts. For a start, this great king of cosmic significance was to be found in Bethlehem not in Jerusalem. He was living in humble surroundings not a royal palace. Something which even the wise men did not expect (v.2).
But the biggest contrast at Epiphany was between the attitude of these wise men and the attitude of Herod and his henchmen. The wise men responded to the birth of Christ with joy and gratitude. They travelled from afar to meet him, and brought expensive gifts with them. When they arrived, they bowed down and worshipped him (v.11).
Herod, in contrast, responded to the birth of a rival king with jealousy, anger and violent opposition. Even the chief priests and teachers of the law were indifferent to the birth of their Messiah in Bethlehem (v.4-5). They knew who he was and where he was, but made no effort to find him for themselves.
As I conclude, can I encourage us all to respond to Christ in the right way this New Year. Not with opposition, like Herod, or indifference, like the Jewish leadership. But, like the wise men, with faith, self-sacrifice and joyful worship.
Let’s pray…Lord Jesus, thank you that you came to be our great King, our perfect Priest and our risen Saviour. Help us to worship you like the wise men, and follow you wherever you lead us this year. Amen.