January 6: The Epiphany of Our Lord

Image result for wise men painting

Matthew 2: 1-12

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:
‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;
For out of you shall come a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.’ ”
Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.

One of the singular, but powerful heresies of our day is that God’s prophecies for Israel as a specific nation located on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea remain unfulfilled, but in recent years they are now beginning to be fulfilled. Israel has reemerged as a nation, and soon the temple shall be rebuilt, and the sacrifices will resume.

Against this understanding of the Old Testament prophecies regarding Israel is the long-standing view of Christianity that the Church, not the modern state of Israel, is the continuation and fulfillment of the prophecies. The Church is the grafting in of gentiles on the olive tree (cf. Romans 11), and Christ’s work gives meaning to promises given to Israel. As such, Israel as a nation can certainly be seen as God’s working in history – worked in His capacity as the raiser and destroyer of nations – but not as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.

Abraham is indeed the “father of many” not by blood, but by faith. The “rebuilt temple” is not some brick and mortar structure centered in Jerusalem, but Christ’s body, rebuilt in three days. The sacrifice to end all sacrifices is Jesus’ death on the cross. He is the high priest to end all priests. All the promises and prophecies about kings, conquest, Armageddon, and battle are to be spiritually understood. So on and so forth.

“All Israel will be saved,” says St. Paul. Well of course that’s true, because “Israel” is metaphorically God’s people, that is, those who are being saved, including both remnant and gentile.

In any event, Matthew’s Gospel contributes as much, if not more, than any of the other New Testament books toward this outlook. Matthew is typically seen as the “Hebrew Gospel.” It begins with a genealogy going back to Abraham. He quotes the Old Testament prophets more than any other evangelist. He famously works with the “Jesus as New Moses” theme. And yet, his Gospel contributes powerfully to the view that the Church will take over the story of God’s people from ethnic Israel.

It begins with the wise men. They fulfilled one of the prophecies from Isaiah (Isaiah 60) that “The Gentiles shall come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising. …The wealth of the Gentiles shall come to you.”

Isaiah 60 reads as a prediction of Israel’s triumph over enemies, in the sense of this passage: “[T]hose who afflicted you Shall come bowing to you, And all those who despised you shall fall prostrate at the soles of your feet; And they shall call you The City of the LORD.” But when we see how this is fulfilled, we recognize the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies are not what they may seem, or, how modern Christian Zionists interpret it.

For instance, in the above passage, it would appear that Isaiah 60’s theme is that Israel’s enemies will be humbled before them. With glorious vengeance, those who hated Israel will be forced to fall at Israel’s feet, like those kings of old whose necks were forced under the feet of victorious Israelite kings, as Israel reaped the plunder of its conquest.

Instead, the actual fulfillment is that different kinds of kings (wise men) will come, not forced but unforced, the “falling prostrate” will not be in the sense of being humiliated, but in the sense of humble worship, and the wealth bestowed would be quite voluntary. The victory is real – How many gentile nations to this day have sizeable populations who claim Christ the Jewish king as their primary king? Do nations today even dare assert a king anymore, and yet a Jewish king reigns unchallenged in the hearts of billions? – but the manner of victory is not as we’d suspect.

It involves a baby, a humble family, a flight to Egypt, and lots of innocent murder. It involves gifts which arguably were used (a) to help pay for said flight to Egypt and (b) to bury said baby 33 years later. It’s not as we’d expect.

But that sets the tone for the rest of Matthew, and for the rise of Christianity. Quickly in the Gospel, we see John the Baptist warning the Jews, “[D]o not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.”

We see such children when we see the laudably great faith of the centurion and a Canaanite woman. Of the former, Jesus said, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

The Lord began His restoration of the fallen world order with Abraham, but already with Jesus we realize the line of Abraham is not a blood line, but something else. Jesus was not Joseph’s blood son, and yet He claimed Joseph’s line. How so? Through adoption, because Joseph named him. This is the new way God makes children, not through reproduction and bloodlines, but through naming.

So it shouldn’t surprise us when Matthew’s Gospel concludes with these words, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”

The Psalm long ago promised, “All nations whom You have made Shall come and worship before You, O Lord, And shall glorify Your name.”

This began with the wise man, and is continued with the baptized who continue to offer worship. What worship? Worship like, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be forever. Amen.” That is the worship of gentiles, the “plunder” a Jewish king gains from subjects across the globe.

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