The Irony of the Epiphany

January 6 has long been the date the Western church has observed the Feast of the Epiphany. From the Greek for “appearance” or “manifestation” (epiphaneia), Epiphany celebrates the appearance of the Son of God among us as one of us — both fully divine and fully human — and marks the end of “the twelve days of Christmas” that begin December 25.

In particular, Epiphany has become identified with the arrival of the magi, those pagan astrologers who make their surprising appearance in Matthew 2 to worship baby Jesus.

It is not only striking in Matthew 2 that the religiously uncouth magi are seeking to worship the newborn Jewish king, but that the religious leaders of the day are not. The pagan astrologers bow their knee (verses 10–11), but the Jerusalem religious bow their back (verses 3–8). This is the great irony in the Epiphany.

An Easy Answer for the Religious

Herod’s wickedness is apparent. Insecure, disturbed, deceitful, murderous — of course, he does not really intend to honor the child but to kill him. But the subtle sin of the religious leaders is perhaps just as sinister, if not more.

Verse 4 says that Herod assembled “all the chief priests [Sadducees] and scribes [Pharisees] of the people, [and] he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.” Here are the trained theologians of the day. They know the biblical jargon. They’ve read and re-read and re-re-read the Hebrew Scriptures — and memorized them. “Where is the Messiah to be born?” It’s a piece-of-cake answer for these guys: Bethlehem. Check Micah.

A Strange Indifference

This is so tragic. They know the answer, but none of them acts on it. None of the trained theologians go to Bethlehem. Dirty shepherds leave their flocks and go to the manger. Pagan astrologers traverse far, hundreds of miles and months on the road. Meanwhile, the religious leaders, full of insider jargon and Bible knowledge and pat answers, don’t bother to make the relatively short five-mile journey to Bethlehem to actually see this baby for which all their theological classes should have prepared them.

Commentator David Turner calls it “the strange indifference” of these theological-answer-guys who have amassed loads of biblical knowledge but don’t act on it. Their heads are filled with verses, doctrines, and religious facts, but their hearts reject the very Messiah to which their training should have pointed them.

The Danger of Mere Religion

Is the warning here not obvious for those of us who have taken class after class and read Christian book after Christian book? Many of us are all too familiar with the church jargon. We can say all the right things to appear pious. We’ve memorized some Scriptures. We know how to sound Christian in our repeated use of precious theological terms and concepts. But biblical training does not guarantee that our hearts are inclined toward worshiping the true king. Religious language and learning can cloak the kingdom of self.

Note the contrast between the pagan astrologers and the religious establishment. The magi don’t know much, but they rejoice exceedingly with great joy (verse 10) at the true revelation from God they have received, while the religious leaders with all the answers and books about books about books are disturbed along with Herod and refuse to submit to the long-awaited king.

Don’t Take Jesus for Granted

“The religious leaders,” writes Turner, “replete with scriptural knowledge, react with apathy here and with antipathy later [when they crucify Jesus]. The magi, whose knowledge is quite limited, nevertheless offer genuine worship to the born-king of the Jews” (page 87).

Note this from the African Bible Commentary:

The successors of these [religious] experts would be at odds with the adult Jesus, and in the end they would conspire to put him to death. The most knowledgeable church people often include those who take Jesus for granted. It is a dangerous situation to be in. It is no less a sin than the outright hatred of Herod, for in the end it leads to the same destiny (where Herod failed to kill the baby Jesus, the chief priests succeeded). Our pride in our knowledge of Christ, the Bible, and the church may turn out to be a snare in the end. (page 1111)

For the Religious and the Magi

So today, on this Feast of the Epiphany, here’s a reminder to the modern-day chief priests and scribes, the religious establishment, the well churched: Bible knowledge from all the classes and all the books can be precious fuel for worshiping the true Jesus, or a scary excuse for keeping Jesus at arm’s length. Increased knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate into increased worship.

And here’s an invitation for those more like the magi, the non-churched “pagan” and de-churched disenfranchised: You may not have any Christian background (or you did and rejected it, maybe because of the religious). You may not know the Christian jargon. You don’t fit nicely into the church-goer box, and yet you’re being drawn to Jesus. And the whole Christian scene may feel really foreign, but we want you with us. We want the magi. Please don’t let imperfect Christians scare you away from the perfect Christ. Let the astrologers come to Jesus, and do not forbid them, for such is the kingdom of heaven.