Out of Epiphany: an Unlikely Story

One of the main biblical narratives for the Epiphany season is an unlikely story about Magi from the east seeking out Jesus to worship Him. Like these men, we are unlikely recipients and witnesses of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Topics: The Gospel | Missional Living

After finally watching the 1999 film The Sixth Sense, my friend came running into my office—absolutely shocked—and said, “He was dead the whole time!” We’ve all had experiences like this before—moving from ignorance to insight, from obliviousness to comprehension, from darkness to light. These moments tend to shape and form us because they are unforgettable. My friend was so astonished by the final revelation of The Sixth Sense that he had to come tell me about it, and while I was shocked that he had avoided being spoiled on this infamous movie ending for nearly 20 years, I remember my own surprised reaction the first time I saw the film, as well. We are attracted to these kinds of stories where the truth—so hard to see though it’s right in front of our eyes—is revealed. And once we see it, we can’t un-see it.

The Church Calendar has a season devoted to this kind of experience. It is called Epiphany—a striking realization that changes everything. Following Christmas, Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Jesus Christ, and one of the primary biblical stories referenced during this season is of the wise men visiting Jesus after His birth.

This is a familiar story, found in Matthew 2:1-12, but I encourage you to go read the text again. In summary, wise men from the east come to Jerusalem hoping to find the newborn King. Herod, fearful of a potential royal rival, encourages the wise men to find Jesus and report back so that he can also worship Him (but really so he can seek out and destroy the threat to his throne). The wise men are led by a star to the house where Jesus is and, in perhaps the greatest epiphany of all time, they fall down and worship Jesus, offering Him precious treasures before returning home without reporting back to Herod.

Though now a familiar part of our Christmas narratives, these Magi were unlikely recipients and unlikely witnesses of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which has beautiful implications for us as we enter into the season of Epiphany.

Unlikely Recipients

The Magi were unlikely recipients of the gospel due to their social status, their proximity to Jesus and their ethnic heritage. Though we refer to them as “wise men,” they were wise “only in a secular sense”—men who studied the stars and interpreted dreams. They were likely looked down upon in a Jewish context, yet they are among the first to come to a realization of the King and His kingdom.

The epiphany of the Magi is our first taste that the gospel is meant for all of those who will come from the east and from the west to worship Christ the King.

Matthew only tells us that  these men were from “the east,” but many scholars interpret that to mean Babylon or Persia, places inhabited by enemies of the Jews. While Herod, the representative of the Jewish people, rejects Jesus, the nations, as represented by the Magi, recognize Jesus. He came to His own, but His own did not receive Him (John 1:11). In a wild plot twist, God invites the least likely to worship a Jewish King to be among the first to worship Him.

Like the wise men, we are all unlikely recipients of the King and His kingdom. We, too, were once far away, but we have been brought near through the blood of Christ (Eph. 2:13). The Magi were guided by a star, and like them, we cannot find Jesus on our own. This Epiphany season, be reminded of the first time you believed upon Christ and of the glorious humility God demonstrates in the Incarnation. Though we are the least likely, we have received the good news and have been invited to worship the one true King.

Unlikely Witnesses

Not only were the Magi unlikely to receive the gospel, they were also unlikely to be some of its first witnesses. These wise men from the east had no business seeking out the King of the Jews. After all, according to Jewish tradition, this king was only coming to save Jews, not Gentiles. The epiphany of the Magi is our first taste that the gospel is meant for all of those who will come from the east and from the west to worship Christ the King (Matt. 8:11). The wise men prostrate themselves, literally falling down in front of King Jesus, foreshadowing that one day the nations will also pay homage to Him; every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that He is King (Phil. 2:10)

But the wise men did not stay in Bethlehem. Matthew tells us that after worshiping Jesus, “being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way” (Matt. 2:12). The wise men become some of the first missionaries of the kingdom of God. The Epiphany of Christ the King is the beginning of a holy revolution. Jesus is not simply King of the Jews, He is the true King of the Nations. It is not enough for Him to have the allegiance of a single people group. He wants allegiance from every tribe, tongue and nation (Matt. 28:19).

Like their epiphany all those years ago, our epiphanies of the lordship of Jesus Christ fuel the Great Commission. 

Just like the Magi, we are unlikely witnesses to Christ’s gospel message. We were once in darkness, but we have now seen the light (Eph. 5:8). The Epiphany season helps us to remember the shocking reality of the kingship of Jesus Christ. We are called to remember that we once walked in the domain of darkness. We walked in ignorance. We walked in futility. Our minds were darkened, and our hearts were dead. But in God’s great mercy, He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of His beloved Son (Col. 1:13).

The wise men are only the beginning. Like their epiphany all those years ago, our epiphanies of the lordship of Jesus Christ fuel the Great Commission. We have seen the truth, and we cannot un-see it; we must go and tell others. Eventually, all people will recognize the kingship of Christ, and at His Name every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:10-11). It is this vision—this epiphany—that sends us, unlikely recipients and unlikely witnesses, to testify of the good news of Jesus Christ.

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