The Epiphany: Manifest to the Gentiles
January 7, 2024

The Epiphany: Manifest to the Gentiles

Passage: Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
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The Epiphany: Manifest to the Gentiles
Ephesians 3:1-12 & St. Matthew 2:1-12
by William Klock

 

This morning the kids moved the magi from the credence table—their place in the East—and brought them to the manger to worship the new-born king.  In real life, the trek of the magi was a much longer.  The magi were astrologers from Persia.  Their journey was no easy thing.  Imagine their weeks on the trade routes, crossing rivers and deserts, passing through city after city and village after village, as they made their way to Israel and to Jerusalem.  They had seen a star and someway and somehow they had discerned from that star that the King of the Jews had been born.  And not only that, but that this King of the Jews, in particular, was unique—was worthy of this long journey and was worthy of the expensive gifts they brought, was worthy of their worship.  They knew of the birth of other kings—even other kings in Israel—but they didn’t undertake long journeys to honour them.  This was different.  Maybe it was something about the star.  Maybe they knew something about Israel’s prophets as the Jewish exiles rubbed shoulders with the people of the Babylonian and Persian empires.  However they knew, the magi were compelled to do the unthinkable—to make this great trek to visit, to pay homage to, to worship a foreign king—and in the ancient Near East, that meant to worship that king’s god.  Maybe they even knew that in this kingly baby, Israel’s God had taken on flesh.  We don’t know.  But something absolutely extraordinary drove them to worship this king of a conquered nation.  No one did that in the ancient Near East—and, especially, no one travelled great distances to do it or brought expensive gifts.  A conquered king was a loser and so were his gods.  But in this king, they recognised something that had never happened before in the history of the world and these foreigners, these gentiles, came to see, to confirm, to know, to honour—to give glory to this king and his God—maybe even having a sense that the two were one and the same.  It was an epiphany: God made manifest in Jesus.  First to his own people, represented by the shepherds we read about on Christmas, and now made manifest to the gentiles, represented by these kings from the East.

 

We’ll come back to magi and to our Gospel, but first, listen again to St. Paul in our Epistle, Ephesians 3, as he writes to his brothers and sisters in Ephesus:

 

  For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles

 

Ephesus was a predominantly gentile church that Paul had started when he visited the city on his second missionary journey.  Now he’s writing to them some years later as he sits in prison, having been arrested for proclaiming the good news about Jesus.  He goes on:

 

—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.  This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

 

This was, as we say, Paul’s “thing”.  This was for him the great mystery—not “mystery” like Sherlock Holmes or Scooby-doo, but mystery in the sense of a great, earth-shattering revelation that changes everything.  We might say an “epiphany”.  For Paul the great mystery was first the revelation that Jesus really was the Messiah, but then when he’d had the chance to work through all the implications of that great truth he was confronted with this one: “that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Jesus the Messiah through the gospel.”  Most people would have thought this was a thoroughly un-Jewish thing to say.  Even that it was blasphemy that gentiles—unclean dogs!—were coheirs with the people of God.  A few of them, sure, but only after they’d been purified and circumcised and committed to observing torah.  And then they weren’t really gentiles anymore.  But Paul’s realised that, in fact, once you get the story of God and Israel straight, it would be hard to come up with anything more Jewish than this conclusion that the gentiles are, in Jesus, fellow heirs, members of the same body, and part of Abraham’s family.  This is what the story was working towards all along, even though hardly anyone realised it anymore.  As he says as he continues, ministering this truth was his calling:

 

  Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.

 

The Jews of Paul’s day had got their own story wrong and no longer had any sense that “salvation is for the Gentiles”.  As far as they were concerned, they were God’s people, God cared about them, God would deliver them from their oppressors and put them on top, and one day he would rain down destruction on all the unclean people of the word.  Salvation was for the Jews, they might have said.  Even those first Jewish Christians were still thinking in this vein.  Jesus was their Messiah.  There were a few gentiles who believed, but they had to first become Jews.  And there were the Samaritans who believed.  That was a challenge to this kind of thinking, but until Paul, no one seemed to have this vision of the deliverance, of the salvation of the Gentiles—at least not on a large scale.

 

The irony is that today we’ve made the opposite mistake.  We’ve so dehistoricised, flattened out, and universalised the story that we’ve all but forgotten that “Salvation is from the Jews.”  “Salvation is from the Jews.”  That’s what Jesus said to the Samaritan woman and they ought to ring in our ears too.  They ought to remind us of the great story of the God of Israel and his people.  St. Paul writes in today’s Epistle to explain his unique apostolic ministry to proclaim the good news about Jesus to the Gentiles.  It has been my experience that many Christians have never stopped to consider just how odd Paul’s ministry would have seemed at the time.  They’ve never stop to think, because we have largely removed the gospel from its narrative and historical context and unnecessarily flattened it to communicate its universal nature.  Occasionally we need to recall that, even though “God so loved the world,” it is also true that “salvation is from the Jews”.  Why is that important?  Think again of the big story.  Out of a world that had lost all knowledge of him, the Lord chose and called Abraham and from him created a people whom he made holy and in whose midst he lived.  He gave this people his law and his presence and made them unique amongst the nations.  Jesus was born a Jew—one of those people.  He was the Jewish Messiah.  He fulfilled the Jewish law and the words of the Jewish prophets.  He proclaimed good news about a coming kingdom and a coming judgement to Jews and for Jews.  While gentiles were welcomed when they came to him, he made it clear that his ministry was to his own people.  The evangelists lay the blame for Jesus’ death with Jews.  The gentiles had their part in it—hinting that they would eventually also have a share in his resurrection—but it was Jesus’ own people who betrayed him and demanded his death.  Even in his death by crucifixion, Jesus foreshadows the means of execution that the unrepentant Jewish rebels would face when judgement came a generation later.  Jesus literally took the death of his people on himself in that sense.  It cannot be stressed enough that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, lived and died for the sake of the Jews and to bring their story to its climax.

 

We can’t just skip all that to get to John’s announcement that God so loved the world that he gave his Son, because when we do that, we short-circuit the story, we leave out most or all of the bits that show us how God, in Jesus, has been faithful to his promises made under the old covenant.  And in that, we cast a veil over his glory.  It was necessary for Jesus to fulfil the story of his own people, because only then would the Gentiles see the faithfulness of Israel’s God, be drawn to what they saw, give him glory, and in the process be incorporated into the new people of God by faith.  In this, too, we see that the means by which the Gentiles are incorporated into the new Israel fulfils the message of Israel’s prophets and glorifies the Lord.  While it is certainly true that a dehistoricised and flattened gospel has brought millions to the Lord Jesus, it is also true that communicating the gospel within its context communicates the faithfulness of God as the basis for our own faith with far greater depth and builds upon a firm foundation whereas so much that passes today for evangelism and Christian faith is merely subjective.  We try to draw people to Jesus by appealing to their needs and wants, but what we see in Paul’s ministry—and what we see especially in Revelation—is the gentile nations being drawn to the God of Israel by the revelation of his glory in Jesus the Messiah.  In the New Testament, the gentiles come to Jesus, because in him they see a God who is faithful and worthy of glory—a God unlike anything or anyone known in the pagan world.  Again, Christians today need to understand just how weird Paul’s ministry would have seemed in his day—even, at first, to the other apostles.  Again, most believed that the good news about the Jewish Messiah was for other Jews, and of little interest (or even relevance) to gentiles.  Jesus radically changed what it meant to be the people of God, but in many respects, it was not until St. Paul emerged from his wilderness sojourn that this dramatic change was really grasped by the fledgling Church.

 

Of course, Israel’s ministry to the Gentiles was there all along.  The Lord set Israel apart before the watching nations.  She was to be his witness.  Through her he would restore and reconcile humanity to himself.  But as Paul points out in our Epistle, this “mystery” was largely lost on Israel—on previous generations.  And yet there it was from the beginning, all the way back in Abraham’s day—if anyone was paying really close attention—that the Lord’s intent was to one day bring the Gentiles into his family and to make them fellow heirs with those who were children by birth rather than adoption.  This truth had been revealed by the Spirit to the prophets of old and, in the same way, had been revealed to the apostles—who took some time to parse it out—and to Paul it was a personal commission: to proclaim the good news about Jesus to the Gentiles.  Paul adds here that this mission is not simply to ordinary people, nor is it a matter of personal piety.  As Gentile believers come into their inheritance in the Messiah, the Church becomes both a witness and a challenge to the rulers of the Gentile world.  This diverse body of Jews and Gentiles of every sort, living in unity the inheritance given them by Jesus, announces that he is Lord and that a new age is breaking in.  Just as was the case with Israel, the lords of the earth can submit in faith to the lordship of Jesus or face the judgement to come.

 

Now we turn over to today’s Gospel, Matthew 2:1-12, which dovetails with what Paul has written in the Epistle.  Here’s the truth that Paul writes, manifest in the story of Jesus.  Matthew writes:

 

  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.

 

While St. Luke recalls the events of the night Jesus was born and shows us the shepherds visiting one of their own, one who will follow in the footsteps of David as both king and shepherd, St. Matthew tells of Jesus’ birth in passing and puts all the emphasis on Jesus as King.  Magi, these astrologers from an eastern land, have seen a heavenly sign that heralds the birth of a king in Israel.  They desire to pay him homage and to give him gifts.  As I said earlier, they knew that this was no ordinary king.  There had been no star heralding Herod’s birth.

 

Naturally, they look for the King of the Jews in Jerusalem.  Herod knows nothing of the birth of a king, but was politically astute enough to recognise the political nature of the magi’s claim and paranoid enough to take action.  Matthew makes it clear that if Jesus is indeed the King, then Herod is not.  Again, Matthew emphasises the kingship of Jesus in the report of the priests to Herod.  They cite Micah 5:2—and it’s not clear if this is their paraphrase or Matthew’s—but they point Herod to Bethlehem.  And yet, in the paraphrase we see again an important bit of context.  Micah speaks, not of a universal king per se, but of one who will be king over Israel.  This king will shepherd the Lord’s flock—a bit from verse 4 that the priests add to their paraphrase of verse 2.  The Messiah is the King of Israel.  It is only once Micah has established that the Messiah will be King over Israel that he goes on to tell us that this King “shall be great to the ends of the earth” (5:4).  Both the Magi and the priests highlight Jesus’ kingship specifically over Israel.  Again, “salvation is from the Jews”.  It is because Jesus is King of Israel, in fulfilment of the Lord’s promises through the prophets, that the good news about him goes out to the Gentiles.  The magi are the first, who foreshadow the future.  Matthew bookends his Gospel with Gentiles.  Here the magi come at Jesus’ birth, Gentiles come to worship a very uniquely Jewish king and to give him glory.  And at the end of the Gospel, Matthew records the commissioning of the disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations”.  The good news is only good news to the Gentiles because it reveals that the God of Israel is unlike the gods of the nations: he does what he says he will do and he fulfils his promises to his own.  Think again of Revelation and how the nations there, the nations that worshiped the beast and frolicked with the great prostitute, discovered in the downfall of the beast that the kings and gods of this world can’t hold a candle to the God of Israel revealed in Jesus, to his power and might, and most importantly, to his faithfulness.  Specifically, he fulfils his promises to his people in Jesus.  It is this faithfulness just as much as the amazing report of Jesus risen from the dead and the defeat of his enemies that draws the Gentiles to give glory to the God of Israel and to submit in faith to Jesus, the King of the Jews.  Of course, this carries the same ramifications for Caesar and the other rulers and gods of this age as it did for Herod.  This is what Paul stresses in the final verses of our Epistle.  Their days are numbered, for as the royal summons to the King goes out, Jesus “shall be great to the ends of the earth”.

 

Brothers and Sisters, the gospel about Jesus is good news, because it reveals the faithfulness of God.  He does what he says he will do.  He fulfils his promises.  He does so like no other.  And that’s reason for us to trust him, to give him our allegiance, to worship him and to give him glory.  And to proclaim his good news to the world.

 

I want to close with the Collect for today, because it offers a wonderful comparison between the magi and ourselves.  They were drawn to Jesus by sight and we by faith, and so we look forward in hope to the day on which we, too, will see his majesty on full display.  It’s the prayer of Gentiles who have seen the glory of the God of Israel revealed in the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.  It is a thanksgiving for what God has done in Jesus, creating a new Israel in which the Gentiles are fellow heirs, and it looks forward in hope to the day in which Jesus will set the cosmos to rights and to be revealed in all his glory as both King and God.

 

Let’s pray: O God, who by the leading of a star manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: mercifully grant that we, who know you now by faith, may at last behold your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

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