What is Epiphany?: a brief summary

Edward Burne-Jones, The Adoration of the Magi; silk, wool and cotton fabric; 1904.

Today, January 6, we celebrate Epiphany, which is also known as Three Kings Day. Epiphany begins a season of the church year that runs up to Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. (Some traditions celebrate Epiphany-tide through Candlemas, the feast of the the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, on February 2, marking 40 days from Christmas day.)

Epiphany comes from the Greek word epiphaneia (ἐπιφάνεια), which literally means ‘appearing’ or ‘manifestation.’ The word appears in Paul’s second letter to Timothy in a passage which sheds light on the heart of Epiphany:

This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing (epiphaneia) of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. (2 Timothy 1:9-10)

Epiphany celebrates the appearing of Jesus as the Savior of the world, and particularly his revelation to the Gentiles, or nations. This is why Epiphany is often associated with the arrival of the Magi to acclaim Jesus as king and offer their gifts to him in Matthew 2:1-12. Two other episodes of Jesus’ life often associated with Epiphany are Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:13-17) and the first miracle of turning water into wine at Cana (John 2:1-12), both of which are manifestations of Jesus’ identity and power, marking the beginning of His public ministry.

Epiphany offers an important opportunity to thank God for the light we have received through Jesus Christ and the significance of His saving work, not just for one people group, but people from around the globe. We can also reflect on how our ordinary lives are impacted by the light found in Jesus Christ, both His teaching and His life.

These words from Isaiah 60:1-3, are often read on Epiphany, and serve as a wonderful basis for worship today:

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.

The Way of Herod: a reflection on the death of the holy innocents

Choosing a way is sometimes an exercise in seeing contrasts.

It is not light alone that helps us to see the world around us best. It is through high contrast that vision improves. For example, it can be difficult to distinguish one thing from another thing in the dark. However, it is not light alone that helps to improve our ability to see. 

It is the contrast in our vision that differentiates between blue skies and rocky brown mountains, between green leaves and red apples in a tree, between rich dark soil and Springtime flowers emerging from it. Likewise, it is easiest to see the right way when it is contrasted with another way. So I want us explore the way of Herod the Great, who plays a significant role in Jesus’ early years, first appearing in Matthew 2 in the episode with the magi. 

While there are several “Herod” figures in the Bible – this was a big and multi-generational family – the “Herod” in Matthew 2 is Herod the Great. Herod was born in 72 BC, and ruled in one way or another in the Holy Land from 47 BC until his death in 4 BC. He was not Jewish, but Idumean, and became King of Jews in 37 BC based on his family’s allegiance to the Roman authorities since the time of Marc Antony. While viewed as Jewish by the Romans, the Jewish people never fully recognized Herod as their king. 

Herod instituted many significant building projects, including a massive remodeling of the Jerusalem Temple, but became increasingly paranoid and violent near the end of his life.

When the Magi follow the star in search of the newborn king, their journey leads them to King Herod.

“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, and all Jerusalem with him.” (Matthew 2:1-3)

Here we see something about Herod’s way. He wields power in a way that is disturbing to people. This became increasingly true in his later years. Herod sought after power, marrying Mariamne, the daughter of one of his opponents, but later in life, he executed her when it seemed she threatened his power. Herod had ten wives and each of their children vied for power against one another. Herod executed more than one of his children when they sought at times to come against him. When the Scripture tells us in Matthew 2:3 Herod was disturbed and all of Jerusalem with him, it is no joke. The way that Herod the Great used his power during this time was disturbing to people. 

A little later in the same episode we something else about Herod’s way. He uses knowledge for his own ends and to mix it with deception. When the chief priests and teachers of the law tell him that the Messiah will arise from Bethlehem, Herod does not use that knowledge to soften his heart but to harden his heart against this possible prophesied king. Then he asks the magi to report back to him where this new king is after they find him so, he says, “that I too may go and worship him” (2:8). This is a leader bent on consolidating his own power at any cost. Truth is meaningless and he bends it to his own will. This is the way of Herod the Great. 

But it doesn’t end there. It continues with violence. The Magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, but to go another way. And this leads to another revelation about Herod’s way.

“When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.'” (Matthew 2:16-18)

Along with wielding power in disturbing ways and bending truth toward his own ends with deception, Herod controls the situation through violence. While there are no extrabiblical accounts confirming what happened here, it is entirely consistent with Herod’s activities at the time.

With the population of Bethlehem at this time being roughly 1000 people, and given typical rates of birth and infant mortality, there were probably around 20 children who were killed in this episode. Such a terrible but small-scale event might not have been more than one more in a series of Herod’s terrifying deeds. 

This is the way of Herod the Great:

  • wielding power in disturbing ways 
  • using knowledge for selfish ends and bending truth with deception
  • controlling situations through violence

May we choose a different way in our approach to living. May we turn from the way of Herod and turn to the way of Jesus.

Don’t be Troubled by Dangers: an exhortation from John Chrysostom

Titian, Flight into Egypt; Oil on canvas; c. 1508.

While studying for my message at Eastbrook from this past weekend, “Refugee Messiah,” I came across these words by St. John Chrysostom from homily 8.2 on the Gospel of Matthew that were very encouraging in these days.

But why was the Christ child sent into Egypt? The text makes this clear: he was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” From that point onward we see that the hope of salvation would be proclaimed to the whole world. Babylon and Egypt represent the whole world. Even when they were engulfed in ungodliness, God signified that he intended to correct and amend both Babylon and Egypt. God wanted humanity to expect his bounteous gifts the world over. So he called from Babylon the wise men and sent to Egypt the holy family.

Besides what I have said, there is another lesson also to be learned, which tends powerfully toward true self-constraint in us. We are warned from the beginning to look out for temptations and plots. And we see this even when he came in swaddling clothes. Thus you see even at his birth a tyrant raging, a flight ensuing and a departure beyond the border. For it was because of no crime that his family was exiled into the land of Egypt.

Similarly, you yourself need not be troubled if you are suffering countless dangers. Do not expect to be celebrated or crowned promptly for your troubles. Instead you may keep in mind the long-suffering example of the mother of the Child, bearing all things nobly, knowing that such a fugitive life is consistent with the ordering of spiritual things. You are sharing the kind of labor Mary herself shared. So did the magi. They both were willing to retire secretly in the humiliating role of fugitive.

[John Chrysostom, Gospel of Matthew, Homily 8.2 from Manlio Simonetti, ed., Matthew 1-13, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture 1a (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 31.]

The Way of Jesus and the Way of Herod

This past weekend we began a new series “Power in Preparation” at Eastbrook Church. This begins the second part of our extended journey through the Gospel of Matthew. This message is a study in contrasts drawn from Matthew 1:18-25 and Matthew 2:1-18.

You can view the message video and outline below. You can follow along with the entire series here and the devotional that accompanies the series here. You could always join us for weekend worship in-person or remotely via Eastbrook at Home.


“When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under.” (Matthew 2:16)

A Conversation about Ways

  • What it means to choose a “way”
  • The consequences of certain ways (Proverbs 14:12)
  • Jesus: “I am the way…” (John 14:6)

The Way of Herod

  • disturbing power (2:1-8)
  • knowledge and deception (2:4-8)
  • controlling through violence (2:16-18)

The Way of Jesus

  • incarnate power (1:18, 20)
  • grace and truth (John 1:14)
  • saving through humility (1:21)

Dig Deeper

This week dig deeper into the contrast between Jesus and Herod in one or more of the following ways:

Eastbrook at Home – December 27, 2020

Eastbrook-At-Home-Series-GFX_16x9-Title

Join us for worship with Eastbrook Church through Eastbrook at Home at 8, 9:30, and 11 AM. This weekend we conclude our series “Family Tree,” which explores the genealogy and early years of Jesus in Matthew, chapters 1-2. This week we will look at the visit of the Magi from Matthew 2:1-12.

Join in with the Eastbrook 365 daily devotional for this series here.

We also continue in-person services at 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 AM this weekend at the Eastbrook Campus, but you do need to RSVP ahead of time. Find out more info here.

Each Sunday at 8, 9:30, and 11 AM, you can participate with our weekly worship service at home with your small group, family, or friends. This service will then be available during the week until the next Sunday’s service starts. You can also access the service directly via Vimeo, the Eastbrook app, or Facebook.

If you are not signed up for our church emailing list, please sign up here. Also, please remember that during this time financial support for the church is critical as we continue minister within our congregation and reach out to our neighborhood, city, and the world at this challenging time. Please give online or send in your tithes and offerings to support the ministry of Eastbrook Church.