This Christmas season I have featured a number of posts on carols as well as Dr Paul Copan‘s theological perspectives from his article ‘The First Christmas: Myths and Realities’. (Previous posts on this article include ‘Compliments of the season to all my readers!’, ‘Angel imagery in Christmas carols’ and ‘Jesus’s nature as depicted in Christmas carols’.)

Copan, a theologian and author, has written several books about Christianity in light of the Bible. Highly recommended, in my opinion, is his book Is God a Moral Monster? It gives an excellent explanation of God’s actions in the Old Testament.

In his article about Christmas Copan explains the meaning of the feast of the Epiphany — Twelfth Night (January 6) — in light of Scripture (emphases in bold mine outside of first line and Bible verses):

6. When the wise men show up in Bethlehem, they come to a house. Matthew 2:11 states: “After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

These gifts are highlighted as indicating the fulfillment of what the Old Testament scriptures anticipated. A new covenant was in the making—one involving Gentiles (cp. Zech. 14:16: “all those who survive of the nations . . . shall go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts”). So when the Gentile wise men/magi come from afar to visit the newly born king Jesus, they bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Of course, there were probably other gifts, but these are highlighted because of certain Old Testament references anticipating the coming in of the Gentiles to worship the true God and to honor his Messiah/King. Isaiah 60:6 speaks of the dawning of the restoration (when the “glory of the Lord has risen upon you” [60:1]). It mentions exiled “sons” coming “from afar” (4) and “the wealth of the nations will come to you” (5). Camels from Midian, Ephah, and Sheba (the south) will come: “They will bring gold and frankincense” (6). In the kingship/messianic Psalm 45 (cited in Hebrews 1), the king’s garments are fragrant with “myrrh” (45:8). This psalm speaks of Israel’s king as being over the “princes in all the earth” and “all peoples [Gentiles] will give you thanks forever and ever” (15-16). The magi’s coming signals the coming in of the Gentiles because the day of the Messiah has dawned. The end times have arrived.

Furthermore, the magi saw Jesus’ star rising in the east (Mat. 2:2). We anticipate this from Balaam’s prophecy of “the days to come” (Num. 22:14)—that “a star shall come forth from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel” (Num. 24:17).

The Gospels portray a Jesus who is reaching out to the Gentiles. He is telling the Jewish people to give up their nationalistic and social agenda and follow His agenda (N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,1999], 27). Jewish leaders were preoccupied with traditional symbols: land, temple, law (especially Sabbath and food laws), kinship (ethnic heritage) and blessing (material possessions). Jesus criticizes the entire temple system and pronounces judgment on it (symbolized by the temple-cleansing). It was necessarily tied to the old covenant with national Israel; Jesus complained about the failure of the ruling priests in when He cleansed the temple. Instead of being a place of prayer for Gentiles and for regathering Israel’s exiles, it fostered oppression and neglected the needy (Marvin Pate, et al., The Story of Israel: A Biblical Theology [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004], 167-8).

Previous Epiphany reflections from 2011 and 2012:

A Lutheran pastor reflects on the Epiphany

More Lutheran reflections on the Epiphany

Remembering the Epiphany in chalk