Epiphany Magi salesianity_blogspot_comIn 2016, the three-year Lectionary uses readings from Year C until the first Sunday of Advent, when Year A begins.

Epiphany is Wednesday, January 6. Many churches using the Lectionary will have had Epiphany readings on Sunday, January 3.

Those who were unable to get to church can read the Epistle, a discussion of which I published yesterday.

Today’s post concerns the Gospel, which comes from Matthew. What follows is the Lectionary reading from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

Matthew 2:1-12

1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,

2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;

4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.

8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.

10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Matthew writes of wise men from the East (verse 1). As we know, these were the Magi — astronomers, astrologers and king-makers. They were highly respected and close advisers to rulers in Persia, the Parthian empire and Media.

In those lands, the Magi and others had expected a new king for many years. Part of this was because that part of the world had lost power and territory to Rome. Another reason was that, during the Babylonian captivity, the prophet Daniel was there. He spoke of a king to come — the Messiah. Daniel was made the chief of the Magi (Daniel 5:11).

John MacArthur tells us:

Consequently, the eastern empire was looking for a king.  They had a king called Phraates IV who deposed because he was inept, and they were looking for a king …  And these wise men then, when they came, or these Magi really felt maybe this is the monarch we’ve been looking for.  Maybe this is the one who can take the reins and be the invincible king we need and lead us against the Roman opposition, and we can gain back the world we once conquered.  There was a time when the Babylonians and the Medo-Persians ruled the world.  And so they were looking for a king.  And beyond that, I believe these Magi also were looking for more than a king.  I think that they were real god fearers, and I think they saw not just the politics of it, but I think they saw the religion in it.  I think they were recognizing that this was an unusual act of god to bring about his anointed king, the one prophesied in the Old Testament.

It would have taken several months, possibly a year or two, to make the journey to Jerusalem. It is also possible that there were more than three Magi. There might have been a dozen wise men and they might well have had a military escort of soldiers with them. That would have been a noticeable entourage arriving in Jerusalem.

This also means that Jesus was not 12 days old but several months old.

Interestingly, Judea ignores the star that guided the Magi, who were Gentiles. So far, only the local shepherds noticed it. The other Jews of the time saw nothing.

The Magi went to Jerusalem, the most important city, thinking the new king would be there (verse 2). Other versions of the Bible use the word ‘worship’ rather than ‘homage’. The wise men were not only going to bring the child gifts but bow before him and possibly kiss his foot in reverence.

Herod heard of this and was frightened that he might lose his power base, even though, at age 70, he would meet his demise before this baby would be old enough to challenge him (verse 3).

The people of Jerusalem were also frightened by what Herod might do as a result. They were not wrong. Soon afterwards, he decreed that all babies under two years of age in and around Bethehem were to be slaughtered.

Herod called for the religious authorities — the chief priests and scribes — to tell him where in ancient prophecy the Messiah would be born (verse 4). They told him the birth would take place in Bethlehem of Judea (verse 5). From there would come the prophesied ‘ruler who would shepherd’ the people of Israel (verse 6). This comes from the opening verses of Micah 5. Here is Micah 5:4:

And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
    to the ends of the earth.

Note that the prophet used the verb ‘shepherd’ rather than ‘govern’ or ‘rule‘.

MacArthur points out the incredible difference between the Magi’s reaction and Herod’s to the Messiah’s birth:

He knew there was more than humanity here.  He knew there deity here.  He, like the wise men, knew it.  Amazing that his reaction was so different, isn’t it?  One decides to worship, the other decides to murder.  He panics and he’s angry.

MacArthur has this observation, which I hadn’t before considered:

He’s true to his plotting mind, and he’s too shrewd to kill the Magi, and probably too impotent, because there were a 1,000 Persian soldiers likely, and his own army was away on some other skirmish.  He had little choice, and he didn’t want to kill them anyway, because if he killed the Magi, he would kill the source of his information about the child.  And the child, who was the potential king, would be undiscovered and unscathed, and he didn’t care about the Magi at all anyway.  All he did was want to get rid of the child

Matthew records that Herod met secretly with the wise men asking them precisely when the star in the East appeared (verse 7). As he sent them to Bethlehem, he asked them to return and let him know where the child was so that he, too, could pay ‘homage’ (verse 8). He was an evil man.

Matthew Henry notes:

The greatest wickedness often conceals itself under a mask of piety.

He adds:

See how strangely he was befooled and infatuated in this, that he trusted it with the wise men, and did not choose some other managers, that would have been true to his interests. It was but seven miles from Jerusalem how easily might he have sent spies to watch the wise men, who might have been as soon there to destroy the child as they to worship him! Note, God can hide from the eyes of the church’s enemies those methods by which they might easily destroy the church when he intends to lead princes away spoiled, his way is to make the judges fools.

The Magi set off for Bethlehem, the star once again guiding them (verse 9). Then the star stopped, shining over the place where the Holy Family were living (verse 10). The wise men were ‘filled with joy’.

Henry explains:

God would rather create a new thing than leave those at a loss who diligently and faithfully sought him. This star was the token of God’s presence with them for he is light, and goes before his people as their Guide. Note, If we by faith eye God in all our ways, we may see ourselves under his conduct he guides with his eye (Psalm 32:8), and said to them, This is the way, walk in it: and there is a day-star that arises in the hearts of those that enquire after Christ, 2 Peter 1:19. 2. Observe how joyfully they followed God’s direction (Matthew 2:10). When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. Now they saw they were not deceived, and had not taken this long journey in vain. When the desire cometh, it is a tree of life. Now they were sure that God was with them, and the tokens of his presence and favour cannot but fill with joy unspeakable the souls of those that know how to value them.

And:

Now they could laugh at the Jews in Jerusalem, who, probably, had laughed at them as coming on a fool’s errand.

Imagine how grand that occasion was. The wise men — Gentiles — were the first to worship Jesus. They knelt before him and ‘paid him homage’ (verse 11) — meaning that they probably kissed his feet, as one did with a king in those days.

They gave him three gifts. Gold was the traditional kingly gift. As I noted in my post of January 3, fragrant frankincense was used by the high priests. The Old Testament records their use of it when praying and giving sacrifices, the scent was intended to make these pleasing to God. Myrrh had three uses: perfume, healing unguent and, more importantly in Jesus’s case, an embalming element.

The wise men then left the Holy Family. They had a portentous dream and, consequently, did not return to Herod. Instead, they returned home by another route (verse 12).

Note that the wise men were not disappointed to find Jesus in humble conditions.

Henry has this analysis:

these wise men were so wise as to see through this veil, and in this despised babe to discern the glory as of the Only-begotten of the Father they did not think themselves balked or baffled in their enquiry but, as having found the King they sought, they presented themselves first, and then their gifts, to him.

They presented themselves to him: they fell down, and worshipped him. We do not read that they gave such honour to Herod, though he was in the height of his royal grandeur but to this babe they gave this honour, not only as to a king (then they would have done the same to Herod), but as to a God. Note, All that have found Christ fall down before him they adore him, and submit themselves to him. He is thy Lord, and worship thou him. It will be the wisdom of the wisest of men, and by this it will appear they know Christ, and understand themselves and their true interests, if they be humble, faithful worshippers of the Lord Jesus.

In closing, MacArthur describes the different, yet coherent, ways the Gospel writers present Jesus:

In Matthew, He’s the sovereign; in Mark, He’s the servant.  Notice the ultimate contrast.  He is the sovereign; He is the servant.  Two extremes.  And then you come to that same kind of extreme contrast in the last two.  In Luke, He is the Son of Man, and in John, the Son of God.  Two absolute opposites; man and god, sovereign and servant.  And so the dimensions of Jesus Christ fill in all the space between those two in both cases.  The sovereign god and the servant man, and everything in between that fills up all that He is.  This is the principle behind the diversity in the four gospels … 

… Matthew at the very beginning emphasizes that Jesus Christ comes from David.  He comes originating in Abraham as it were in terms of the Jewish race and coming through the line of David, which is His right to reign and rule.  And so the beginning of this gospel is unique to Matthew.  No other gospel begins this way.  Matthew begins this way because Matthew presents Him as king.  And so Matthew traces the Lord’s lineage from Abraham through the royal line of David … 

Mark has no genealogy at all because the lineage of a servant is irrelevant.  So there is no genealogy at all in Mark.

And Luke presents Him as the Son of man.  And since Luke presents Him as the Son of man, Luke takes his genealogy all the way back and starts with Adam.  Because Luke wants us to know that He is a man from the loins of the first man, Adam. 

And John, the fourth gospel who presents Christ as the Son of God, bypasses all human genealogy and simply says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  And so he goes immediately back to eternity past and establishes the eternal essence of Christ. 

John does not cover the events of Epiphany, however, his Gospel alludes to them quite clearly (John 1:11-13):

11 He came to his own,[b] and his own people[c] did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

May Epiphany prove to be a significant closing feast day for us as Christmastide draws to a close — now and in future.

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