Epiphany 2023 (Observed)| Matthew 2:1-12| Pastor James Preus| Trinity Lutheran Church| January 8, 2023
The Epiphany story of the wise men, or literally translated magi visiting Jesus is filled with the unexpected. It is unexpected that Gentiles, foreigners from the east would come to Jerusalem seeking to worship the “King of the Jews.” It is unexpected that the King of the Jews would not be born in the palace in Jerusalem, but rather in poverty in the small town of Bethlehem. These events are so unexpected that they cause all Jerusalem to be unsettled and most people do not believe it.
Yet, if you look at Holy Scripture and consider it God’s Word, which has the power to predict the future, these events are not surprising at all. The prophet Isaiah prophesied in chapter 60 that foreigners would come on camels bringing gold and frankincense. Again, Isaiah prophesies in chapter 11, “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire.” The Psalmist declares in the 117th Psalm, “Praise the LORD, all nations! Extol him, all peoples!” And of course, God promised Abraham, “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” So, it should not surprise anyone that foreigners from other nations should come and worship the promised Christ. And the prophet Micah explicitly declares that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem, as the scribes and chief priests told King Herod, so that also is no surprise.
And so, Epiphany for us is a second Christmas! As God long foretold the birth of His Son to be the Messiah and Redeemer of His people Israel, so He long foretold by His prophets that this Messiah shall be the Redeemer of all the nations. When the angel instructed Joseph to name the child Jesus, because He would save His people from their sins, by His people he did not mean the people of Israel alone, but all who would come to faith in Jesus as their Savior. When the magi followed that star to Bethlehem where they worshiped the Christ child as Matthew records, God broadcasted to all the nations the message, which the angel gave to those Bethlehemite shepherds, “Unto you is born … a Savior!” Epiphany is a second Christmas, because it proclaims to the nations that Christ is born for them as well.
Today, it is popular for biblical scholars to claim that the wise men did not worship the baby Jesus as their God, but merely revered Him as they would any other earthly king, because the word for worship can mean either to worship a deity or simply to revere a king. Unfortunately, even the Lutheran Study Bible has a footnote, which states, “Unclear whether the Magi worshiped Jesus as true God or revered Him only as an earthly king.” However, the idea that the magi did not worship Jesus, but merely revered Him as any other king is absurd. Let us review the facts recorded by Holy Scripture, which show for certain that the magi worshiped Jesus as their God.
First, who are the so-called wise men? The text actually calls them magi, which is where we get the word magician. The Greek translation of the Old Testament includes the title magi among the enchanters, sorcerers, and Chaldeans, who served King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. Ironically, these wise men didn’t prove to be very wise when they couldn’t tell King Nebuchadnezzar his dream and interpretation. In Daniel chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar is so enraged at the magi and other wise men for failing to tell him his dream, that he orders them all to be killed. Included with the wise men was a certain Judean captive named Daniel and his three friends. Daniel saved the lives of the magi and other wise men by telling Nebuchadnezzar his dream and its interpretation.
So, how is it that these Gentile magi, descendants of pagans who were at best scam artists and at worst sorcerers of demonic arts, how is it that they came to Jerusalem asking for Him who had been born King of the Jews? How did they know that that was His star? Why have they come to bow down before Him? There are two possible explanations.
The first is that God revealed it to them directly that this strange star in the sky was a sign that the King of Jews had been born and that they should follow it. The Bible does not say that God revealed that information to them directly, but it is possible. God did reveal to them in a dream not to return to Herod. And somehow the magi got the information that that star signified the birth of the King of the Jews. If God revealed to them directly that the star signified the birth of the King of the Jews and that they should go and pay homage to Him, it is hard to believe that they thought this child to be just another earthly king.
The second possibility is that these magi had learned something from the Holy Bible. As I mentioned before, Daniel the Judean rescued the magi and other wise men from Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel certainly taught those in Babylon the teachings the Old Testament. It is probable that these magi hundreds of years later had learned the prophecy of Numbers 24, “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.”, as well as the prophecy of Jacob to Judah from Genesis 49, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” If the magi believed the star was the fulfillment of Scripture that the Christ had been born from Judah, they certainly did not think this baby to be merely an earthly king. They came to worship him.
So, whichever way the magi discovered that this star was the sign of the birth of the King of the Jews, that information would tell them that this was not just some earthly king worthy of a polite bow.
Next, we have the star. This star was not some regular astronomical event, and the magi knew this. It guided them for up to two years! And then, when they got to Jerusalem, it disappeared. We know that it disappeared for two reasons. First, they told Herod that they saw the star in the past tense. Second, after they left Herod’s palace, the star appeared to them again. And it led them until they arrived at the boy’s house in Bethlehem. So, this is a moving star that can direct them to an exact house. This is a supernatural star, a divine message. The magi know they are not visiting an earthly king.
Next, we have the fact that the chief priests and scribes read from Micah chapter 5 that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem. Matthew presents us with a condensed paraphrase, but certainly the scribes read the full account which declares that from Bethlehem would come forth a ruler of Israel, “whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” From ancient days means from eternity. Before the magi left Herod’s palace, they heard from Holy Scripture that this King of the Jews they are going to meet comes forth from eternity. That baby in a manger to whom they will give gold, frankincense, and myrrh is the eternal God!
Next, we have the fact that the magi left the king’s palace and left the king’s city to go to a humble little town, to a poor shelter, to bow down before a baby, who sleeps in a manger. The idea that these men think they are visiting an ordinary monarch is ridiculous. These men are coming to worship their God!
The magi’s visit to baby Jesus was prophesied in holy Scripture hundreds of years before they visited Bethlehem. The Holy Spirit planned this visit from eternity. These sages traveled hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles, journeying for up to two years to lay their gifts before the king of the Jews. And they left the palace to pay homage to a boy in a shed. The Holy Spirit didn’t plan from eternity, prophecy from hundreds of years, and have magi travel over a thousand miles so that they could be mistaken as to what they were doing and whom they were honoring! They knew they were worshiping the Christ.
Why is it so important that the magi knew they were worshiping the Son of God in Bethlehem? Because these magi foreshadow our worship of this King. As the shepherds knew that the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes was their God, so knew the magi. As Simeon and Anna in Jerusalem knew that baby Jesus was Christ and God, so knew the magi. And so do we know. We’re not showing respect to an earthly dignitary. We have come here today to worship our God! Epiphany is for us a second Christmas, because today we remember that the King of the Jews came to save all nations.
The gifts the magi give foreshadow Christ’s death and our worship of Jesus. Gold foreshadows the tomb purchased by a rich man in which Jesus was laid dead. Frankincense foreshadows that Christ would offer Himself up as a sacrifice, a pleasing aroma acceptable to God (Ephesians 5:2). The myrrh foreshadows the spices, which would be rubbed on Jesus’ dead flesh as he was wrapped in burial cloths and laid dead in the tomb. So, as the Holy Spirit orchestrated this meeting between the Gentile magi and Christ Jesus, so he orchestrated these gifts to foreshadow that the King of the Jews would make atonement for all our sins and the sins of all nations.
The gifts the magi give foreshadow our worship of Christ today. The gold given represents not only our tithes and offerings, but our treasuring of Jesus in our hearts above all riches of the world. The frankincense foreshadows our prayers and praises to God and our confession of Christ before men, which rise up to God in heaven like incense. The myrrh, which foreshadows Christ’s burial in the tomb also foreshadows the mortification of our flesh. The myrrh reminds us that we should repent of our sins each day and put to death the old Adam in us, so that we might rise to new life in Christ Jesus our King.
After the magi had worshiped the baby Jesus as their God and offered them their gifts, God warned them in a dream not to return to Herod. Herod claimed that he too wanted to worship the Christ, and the magi believed him (further proof that they believed Jesus to be God. Why would a king leave his palace to worship a boy in a stable?). But the magi did not return to Herod. They went home another way. Herod represents Satan. He is at war against Christ. The magi here teach us that we too after worshiping Jesus must not return to Satan, but we must go back home another way. You aren’t the same after worshiping Jesus. Jesus has rescued us from Satan’s clutches. He has granted us an inheritance in heaven. Those magi went home children of Abraham, co-heirs with Israel of the promise of Christ. So, we, heirs of God’s kingdom must not go back to Satan’s kingdom. We have seen the light. We have laid our gifts at our King’s feet. Our course leads us to Christ’s kingdom. So, as we mortify our sinful flesh and offer our praise to God, we flee from Satan lest he tempt us into shameful sin and unbelief.
As the Holy Spirit planned from eternity and by means of His holy Word and Star guided the magi to worship their God in the manger, so the Holy Spirit has planned from eternity and by the means of His holy Word and Sacraments has guided you to worship your God in the Holy Christian Church. Today, we celebrate Christmas again, because the Holy Spirit has caused Christ to appear to us. Amen.