Today is not only New Year’s Day, but as per the Christian calendar, it is also Epiphany Sunday, which is basically the Sunday we talk about the wise men who visited baby Jesus and gave Him great gifts. But there’s more to it that just that.
If you have an epiphany, it’s like a light bulb came on, you have an ah-ha moment, a moment of sudden revelation or insight. The word epiphany means “to show, make known, or reveal.” Which means the purpose of the day of Epiphany is to celebrate the reveal of God in human form, as a baby. The significance behind the visit of the wise men is that their visit and long, long journey to get there was all done to expose this baby as the Christ child, as the Lord and King of Kings to the world.
Technically, the day of Epiphany isn’t till January 6th, the 12th day after Christmas. Yes, the twelve days of Christmas is a real thing that started nearly 1500 years ago. Contrary to what most people think about the twelve days of Christmas, it doesn’t refer to the days leading up to Christmas. Instead, the twelve days of Christmas begin on December 25th and end on January 6th.
Over the years, many traditions have taken place all over the world to celebrate these twelve days. Today, some families still choose to mark the 12-day period by planning daily Christmas-related activities, but for many, things go back to business as usual on December 26th.
And in case you’re wondering about that strange song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” well there might be more meaning that you realize in that song. Most people would agree that it’s a rather ridiculous sounding song. What type of true love ever gave gifts like swimming swans and leaping lords to his or her sweetheart? Many people believe that this is just a fun Christmas carol that began as a type of holiday game in the 1700s, but there’s a religious legend that suggests a deeper meaning.
The story goes back to the 1500’s when teaching the Catholic faith was illegal in England. The Catholic Church went underground, and priests disguised important elements of their teaching by creating poems that would seem silly to people who didn’t know their true meaning. This song is believed to be one of those teaching tools.
The True Love of the song might not be someone’s sweetheart at all, but rather a code for God. The recipient of the gifts in the song is said to be anyone who has accepted Jesus Christ as the Son of God and as their personal Savior. And the religious meaning of the twelve gifts?
Under this theory, the various gifts break down as follows:
12 Drummers Drumming = the 12 points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed
11 Pipers Piping = the 11 faithful apostles
10 Lords A-leaping = the Ten Commandments
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23)
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12)
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord)
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
5 Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the Torah
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Love, the Theological Virtues (1 Corinthians 13)
2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
The partridge in the pear tree, represents Jesus Christ
One thing we do know is that each verse builds on the previous one, serving as a really effective way to annoy family members on road trips.
For many Christians, the definition of Epiphany isn’t just the reveal of God as flesh, but also a reminder of God’s unlimited love and mercy for all people. Tradition says the wise men were men of high position from Parthia near ancient Babylon, where the Israelites were held in captivity for 70 years.
This would mean to the Jews, they were considered Gentiles. Gentiles were all but enemies of the Jews. So it’s a little odd that Gentiles, the wise men, were the ones who first publicly recognized Jesus as Lord and King. It would have made a whole lot more sense if they were Jews, since the Jews were the ones waiting for this Messiah to come. But here we see once again, God telling us that Jesus was for all people.
It’s believed that Mary gave the accounts to the authors of the two gospels that tell of Jesus’ birth, and if so, she would have told her side of the story, so we don’t actually get to hear from the wise men themselves.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, 2 “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”
3 King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. 4 He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”
5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:
6 ‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are not least among the ruling cities of Judah,
for a ruler will come from you who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. 8 Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”
9 After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! 11 They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
12 When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.
There are few things that I ponder on when I read this story.
King Herod – They called him Herod the Great! Great is not the word I would use for him. He was ruthless and an evil man. He was so ruthless that he even murdered many in his own family.
But he thought he was big stuff, and that’s because the land of Israel was basically divided into four political districts under Rome’s control. Samaria, Galilee, and Idumea (i·doo·may·uh), and Judea, and King Herod was appointed king over all four political districts. Bethlehem and Jerusalem were in Judea and only about 5 miles apart and that’s where this story happens.
When the wise men entered Jerusalem asking where the newborn king of the Jews was, King Herod was greatly disturbed, and he had every reason to be disturbed. See Herod although, confirmed by the Roman Senate as the king of the Jews, he was not a rightful heir to the throne. Scripture says that God promised the coming Messiah (the King) would be a descant of David.
2 Samuel 7:12-14
12 For when you die and are buried with your ancestors, I will raise up one of your descendants, your own offspring, and I will make his kingdom strong. 13 He is the one who will build a house—a temple—for my name. And I will secure his royal throne forever. 14 I will be his father, and he will be my son.
And as the leading priests and teachers of religious law told Herod, the scripture also says, the King will be born in Bethlehem.
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel, whose origins are in the distant past, will come from you on my behalf.
Herod would have known all of this. Not just because the leading priests and teachers of religious law told him, but because he was half Jewish. However, he was certainly more eager to please his Roman superiors than the Jews. Although he did expand and beautified the Jerusalem Temple, but placed a Roman eagle over the entrance. When he helped the Jews, it was only for political purposes and not because he cared about their God.
Herod had many enemies so if Jesus really was an actual heir to be born in the town next door, Herod felt trouble was sure to arise. This was a great threat to his seat in power.
The text tells us that not only was Herod disturbed, but so was everyone in Jerusalem. You’d think knowing the Messiah, who you have been waiting you’re whole life for as well as so have many generations before you, was born would bring you comfort and joy. But they weren’t happy.
Now, I don’t think they were disturbed necessarily in the same way Herod was, but if God entered our world today, what would you do? Would you do anything different in your lives? Would you try to hurry and make things right? Or would you do nothing, thinking that it’s too late to change and make excuses for your actions?
Or would you acknowledge Jesus as the rightful King of your life and at least acknowledge your wrong doings and then move towards Him?
What I think was happening, is that like most of us, we don’t always like to admit our mistakes and take ownership of them, and neither did they. Therefore, the scriptures say they were deeply disturbed. Maybe not all in the same way as Herod, but still disturbed. Things have not changed that much. Just the thought of Jesus still disturbs people today.
As for the wise men, the scripture says that they saw a star. The book of Numbers 24:17 in the Old Testament talks about a star: “A star will rise from Jacob; a scepter will emerge from Israel.” But how did they know that the star represented the Messiah? How did they know this was the right star to be following? Some say this star was extra bright because it may have been a conjunction of three planets, and others offer other explanations, but either way God, who created the heavens, could certainly have created a special star to signal the arrival of his Son in any way he wanted to.
There are a couple of reasons to consider. They could have been Jews themselves…or at least descents of Jews who remained in Babylon after the exile and would have known the OT prophesies of the Messiah’s coming. So they followed the clues…there are a hundred plus prophesies in the OT.
Or they may have been eastern astrologers who studied ancient manuscripts from around the world. Because of the Jewish exile centuries earlier, they would have had copies of the OT in their land.
Or they may have had a special message from God directing them to the Messiah, like the shepherds, Mary and Joseph all had. Nothing is impossible with God. We just don’t know because we don’t hear the account from the wise men themselves.
Either way, we know the wise men followed a star traveling hundreds of miles to see the king of the Jews, and Herod knew this which is why he was so deeply disturbed as well as the others.
It’s not like the wise men were the only ones who knew the Old Testament prophesies. The leading priests and teachers of religious law knew them as well. Matthew repeatedly highlights their knowledge of the OT prophecies; yet they were not the ones who went and worshiped this newborn king. Why didn’t they know it was time? Ironically, these same religious leaders became Jesus’ greatest enemies later on.
According to the scripture, the wise men didn’t know the specifics of where in Bethlehem to find Jesus. But yet they came in confident asking where the child is. In that day, traveling hundreds of miles would not have been easy or very safe. It would have taken months to accomplish.
And to be honest with you, no matter how many manuscripts gave you clues as to when it would be or how bright a star would shine, it’s still a little absurd to follow it for hundreds of miles just to see a newborn child…unless…you believed.
This is what it’s all about. Believing who Jesus says He is. Believing and trusting in His promises, and having hope for the future. Having faith.
The wise men took this absurd trip all in faith. What they did is the essence of true worship—honoring Christ for who He is and being willing to give Him what is valuable to you. Going way out of their way, bringing gifts of great worth and worshiping a baby for who He is. Can you image how they felt when they actually found Him?
Many times, we expect God to come looking for us, to explain Himself, prove who He is, and give US gifts. But those who are wise, seek Him and worship Him, not for what they can get, but for who He was, is and will always be.
In the Book of Isaiah there are multiple references to mountains, and also to valleys and deserts. And God is often depicted as making a way for his people over, through, and around these obstacles. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low,” says the prophet. “The uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” (40:4).
These words of hope for the ancient exiles held captive in a foreign land, continue to inspire us. We too are a people in need of hope. As this year ends, we look back and can see the effects of natural disasters and diseases, economic hardship, and in the worst cases violence and war. All of creation groans for the day the world is made complete and ultimately delivered from the curse of sin.
In the meantime, despite the broken world we live in, we continue to have faith with the prophet that God is making a way for us. It is not mere wishful thinking on our part. It is proven by the fulfilled promise of Christ entering our world as an infant, then suffering death on a cross for our sins. Christ the Lord is making a way for us over, through and around all the obstacles.
Perhaps most remarkable, is that the God who does not need our help, invites us and makes a way for us to participate in proclaiming the good news of redemption.
O Zion, messenger of good news, shout from the mountaintops! Shout it louder, O Jerusalem. Shout, and do not be afraid.
Embrace the privilege of being a joyful and obedient messenger of the Gospel that has delivered you from exile and captivity. And know…
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who brings good news, the good news of peace and salvation, the news that the God of Israel reigns!
May we all fully embrace the invitation to participate in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed. Let us “Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere!”