Epiphany: God speaks to us all

The story of the three Magi (magicians) in Matthew 2 reminds Aaron Neff that God is always revealing God's self in unexpected ways.

Photo by Robert Thiemann on Unsplash

The Twelve Days of Christmastide come to an end on January 6, a day when we remember the Magi who visited the recently-born Jesus. I love the story of the Magi. But the truth is, despite the popular legend that identifies them as kings from India, Persia and Arabia, we actually don’t know a lot about who these particular Magi were. What we do know about them, we must infer based only on the little that is mentioned in Matthew 2:1-18. The most significant detail we’re told about them is the noun used to describe them — “Magi.” The Greek word that the Gospel writer Matthew uses is magos. You can probably see a similarity between “magi” and the word “magic.” That’s no coincidence. These “wise men” who came to visit Jesus were magicians. Specifically, they seem to be practitioners of forbidden magic. They were sorcerers. Let me explain.

Did you know that Matthew 2 isn’t the only time Magi are mentioned in the Bible? There are three other places we encounter them. In Daniel 2, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II employs a group of Magi to use divination to interpret a mysterious dream he had. Unlike the other civilizations of the Ancient Near East, in ancient Israel and Judah, divination was strictly forbidden. It’s no wonder, then, that in that story, the Magi fail to interpret the king’s dream and only Daniel succeeds. In Acts 8, a man named Simon (who, although he isn’t called a magos, was a “practitioner of magic”) offers the apostles money to teach him how to use the “magic” of the Holy Spirit. The apostle Peter rebukes him and tells him the Holy Spirit is not a source of “magic” nor is the Holy Spirit’s power something to be bought with money. In Acts 13, a man named Elymas (who is described as a magos) was offended by the apostles’ preaching about Jesus, and he actively worked to persuade people not to believe in Jesus. The apostle Paul calls him a “son of the devil” (v. 10).

So, you can see, the overwhelming portrayal of Magi in the Bible is not very positive. They appear to be sorcerers who often opposed the work of God. Yet, it is “Magi from the East” who came to worship Jesus in Matthew 2. If you were writing a story about people looking for Jesus, Magi would be the most unlikely characters to describe doing such a thing! Yet, in the story of Matthew 2:1-18, they seem to be the only ones who are, in fact, looking for Jesus. That’s kind of the point of the story! The Magi didn’t know the Law of Moses. They may have never even heard of a Messiah. They were astrologers, and all they knew was that the stars told them to look for Jesus, and so they did. The miracle of the Magi is that the God of Jesus spoke to them in their context so that they could find Jesus and worship him.

I love the story of Epiphany because it reminds me that no one is too far beyond God’s ability to reach with the good news of Jesus. If you took a moment to think about a person that you think is farthest from God than any other person you know, just remember: you never know what God may be doing in their life. This applies especially to people who you don’t personally know. If you see a person that doesn’t appear to have much of a spiritual life or a person that doesn’t seem to worship the way you do, just be careful of your next thought, because you never know what God might be doing in their life. They may be on their way to finding the hope, joy, love and peace of God. The last thing we should do is give them a reason to turn back. Instead, let’s stand ever-ready to help them on their way. To me, that’s the meaning of Epiphany.