Two things happened historically which we recall in this Christmas season.
I need hardly remind you of the first event: God’s divine Son being born as a regular human being. This was the future King of kings — being born in a shed and not a palace, to poor parents, not to people of influence.
But what did it mean? The birth was a world-changing event, but immediately following was the growing realisation of the spiritual shift that it represented.
God is always speaking — and revealing — and mainly He does that through His word. What He is saying now, is pegged to what He has said before. So we ca explore together what this spiritual event means for each of us, following the story the Bible tells us.
• See this week’s verse-by-verse Bible study on the main Bible passages set for Sunday, January 8 and underlying this article
Epiphany is the rather churchy name for a particular season of spiritual realisation. God cannot be seen — He is Spirit and can be known only by spiritual revelation. We each have to get that for ourselves. It’s always Epiphany season for God, and we don’t need to be in a church building to encounter Him. We just need to want to.
Hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth, some prophetic people were seeing part of the picture. God was beginning to reveal it! One of the psalmists wrote:
Endow the king with Your justice, O God, the royal son with Your righteousness. May He judge Your people in righteousness, Your afflicted ones with justice.
May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores bring tribute to Him. May the kings of Sheba and Seba present Him gifts. May all kings bow down to Him and all nations serve Him. For He will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help…
He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in His sight.
Excerpted from Psalm 72:1-2, 10-14
Already we can see how that worked out.
There were supernatural signs at the time. For the shepherds, it was as if heaven opened for a moment. They were told by an angel what it meant and what they should do — right that moment, with urgency.
Others were stirred up to see the signs , and to respond. There were people, especially in Persia, who studied the night sky and saw meaning in its movements — especially if a new light, a new star, appeared. To them, it often meant the birth of a king, the heavenly announcement of a new rule. And there was a spiritual dimension to this — the legacy of Daniel, the young prophet exiled to Persia hundreds of years earlier, whose legacy was a body of people who knew about God and how to study His word. These were spiritually-aware scholars, and when they saw something different, the new light in the sky they noticed at the time of Jesus’ birth, they knew they had to make the long, slow journey to discover who he was and offer their tribute.
They had probably studied the words of Isaiah recorded long before their time:
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and His glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
“Lift up your eyes and look about you… look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy… to you the riches of the nations will come.
“Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.”
Isaiah 60:1-6 excerpted
To those practised in reading the signs around them and in the sky, the words “the LORD rises upon you and His glory appears over you” had particular force. God was revealing what they should do.
In life, we continually face situations and need to make good choices. If we maintain a close connection with God, He will be giving us insights, and leading us. Now Matthew takes up the story, as the party of influential sages from Persia arrived. It is a story of twists and turns, of refugees escaping and returning, full of instances of God’s timely guidance and allusions to what God had said in past predictions:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed… He asked the chief priests and teachers of the law where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.’ ”
Then Herod… found out from the Magi the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find Him, report to me, so that I, too, may go and worship Him.”
…They went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
On coming to the house, they saw the child with His mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped Him. Then, they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and His mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill Him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod.
After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
So he… went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea [and] warned in a [further] dream, he withdrew to a town called Nazareth in the district of Galilee… So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
Matthew 2:1-23 excerpted
Why would Persians, from another country and culture, seek to worship the one they recognised as the king of the Jews? But what so threatened evil Herod, who saw ” a ruler who will shepherd My people Israel” as a threat to his shaky hold on power — attracted these Gentile followers of God.
The first worshippers of Jesus were literal outdoor-living shepherds, the lowliest legal occupation, people who were not considered good and upstanding Jews. Rather the opposite — their testimony was not accepted in a court of law.
Matthew uses his story of the Magi to make the point that Jesus came for all — we might say, for people not like us. Among the first worshippers were non-Jews! This was a spiritual turning point — and a mystery. Jews did not understand it and baulked at Jesus’ teaching of it, as we discover later in the gospels.
This concerns a very important principle that — at this point — God is revealing. So it is a truth that has been there — Moses referred to it and the prophets, especially Isaiah, brought words about it — but hidden, because up until the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it was simply not understood by those who saw themselves God’s chosen people, who felt that they had a special entitlement.
If special, certainly not exclusive. And Paul, a trained scholar and Pharisee by background, found himself the one with the call to take the good news of Jesus, His kingdom and His salvation — to Gentiles.
What changed? The clues, in this teaching taken from the letter to mainly Greek-culture Christians in Ephesus, is “the mystery made known to me by revelation… as it has now been revealed by the [Holy} Spirit…”
These believers didn’t need a special Lord’s Day for Epiphany. They lived in revelation — the life of the Spirit, leading them, teaching them and strengthening them. As indeed He does for Spirit-filled disciples of Jesus today.
This is Paul writing in Ephesians 3:
Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly.
In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that, through the gospel, the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
…This grace was given [to] me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things.
His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to His eternal purpose that He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In Him, and through faith in Him, we may approach God with freedom and confidence.
You know God gave me the special responsibility of extending His grace to you Gentiles… God Himself revealed His mysterious plan to me…. God did not reveal it to previous generations, but now by His Spirit He has revealed it to His holy apostles and prophets.
And this is God’s plan: Both Gentiles and Jews who believe the Good News share equally in the riches inherited by God’s children. Both are part of the same body, and both enjoy the promise of blessings, because they belong to Christ Jesus. By God’s grace and mighty power, I have been given the privilege of serving Him by spreading this Good News.
… I was chosen to explain to everyone this mysterious plan that God, the Creator of all things, had kept secret from the beginning.
…This was His eternal plan, which He carried out through Christ Jesus our Lord.
Because of Christ and our faith in Him, we can now come boldly and confidently into God’s presence.
Ephesians 3:1-12 excerpted
A church worship calendar gives a certain structure to remember key events and major teachings. And the spiritual revealing of God around the fully divine, and also for a time, fully human, Person of Jesus, is a mystery until the Holy Spirit enables us to get it, and see God’s purpose in it.
The take-away from this is learning not to rely on our own understanding, but to seek the Lord’s all-important revelation and leading. And it can be a struggle! We are so used to facts and statistics, evidence-based practice and scientific rationale, that to admit our need of spiritual discernment seems to go in the wrong direction. But it’s a ‘both… and’ need. All wisdom is God-given, and submitted to Him, it is all instructive.
The mistake to avoid, at the beginning of this New Year, is the mistake we see confronted all through the New Testament, and in Paul’s teaching here. He doesn’t name it as ‘exclusivity’, but as we follow the narrative in Acts and the teaching he offers, we see some who want to maintain a separation, a protection of their perception of exclusive rights — while God is doing the exact opposite in growing His church. Paul was resolute in condemning the slide into church becoming a club — in his experience, a club of Jewish believers, or later in Corinth, a class-divided club.
The shepherds and the Magi show Jesus to have come on a mission, not just to His own, but beyond. Will we turn from doing our own thing, and join Him?