This Sunday, I preached on Epiphany, which is when the Church around the world celebrates the revelation of the Gospel to the Gentiles, often in the person of the magi who came from the East to worship the Christ child in Bethlehem. This precious event shows us that God’s kingdom is one without borders, where anyone who thirsts for righteousness can enter in.

Here, I’ll provide the sermon, along with the introduction and concluding exhortation.

Same song, different day

Picture three scenes. They have very different contexts, but they each have something in common. Try to figure out what that is:

Scene 1: A.D. 57:[1] Paul is arrested in Jerusalem, charged with bringing Gentiles into the inner courtyard (Acts 21:27-36)—this “crime” doesn’t exist in the Old Covenant!

Scene 2: A resolution from the Clarendon Baptist Church, in Alcolu, SC, in October 1957, in the wake of cultural backlash against the Brown v. Board of Education decision:[2]

We believe that integration is contrary to God’s purposes for the races, because: (1) God made men different races and ordained the basic differences between races; (2) Race has a purpose in the Divine plan, each race having a unique purpose and distinctive mission in God’s plan; (3) God meant for people of different races to maintain their race purity and racial indentity [sic] and seek the highest development of their racial group. God has determined “the bounds of their habitation

Scene 3: Post 9/11 America. Conservative evangelical Christians ramped up their anti-Muslim rhetoric.[3] You hear repeated statements about how Islam is bloodthirsty, a religion of hate. Jerry Vines, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, declared Muhammad was a “demon-possessed pedophile.” A church member gave me a book that argued that the antichrist will be a Muslim. There arose a cottage industry of evangelical charlatans who claimed they were former terrorists who knew “the truth” about Islam. I heard a missionary’s wife refer angrily to Muslims as “bastards of Islam.

What do these three scenes have in common?

The urge to exclude people “not like us” (whatever that “us” might be, it doesn’t matter what) from God’s kingdom—implicitly or explicitly:

  • Scene 1. There is no biblical warrant for a physical barrier between Court of Gentiles and the temple proper.
  • Scene 2. No biblical warrant for segregation in God’s family based on race.[4]
  • Scene 3. The implicit (and often explicit) message was, “Muslims are dangerous, Muslims will kill you, and President Obama is likely a Muslim who wants to impose sharia law.”

What does God say about this urge, this tendency of ours, that’s common to every culture? Who can join God’s kingdom?

Our passage today, from Matthew 2:1-12, tells us all about that. We’ll tackle it in two movements–(1) the foreigners arrive in Jerusalem, and (2) the foreigners arrive in Bethlehem.

Greek translation nerdiness

I translated two portions of the passage. I put that info here, just because I can’t think of another place they ought to go. If you know Koine Greek, and you’re interested in my translation and my syntax notes, then read on. Otherwise, skip this section.

Matthew 2:1-2 translation

Now, after[5] this Jesus[6] was born in Judean[7] Bethlehem in the days of Herod the King—listen to this, now![8]astrological scholars [9] from the East arrived in Jerusalem. They were asking everyone, [10] “Where is the newborn King of the Jews?[11] We[12] saw his star from[13] the East and we’ve come to worship him!”[14]

Matthew 2:9-11 translation

Now, after they heard from the king, they went out—and look![15]the star they’d seen in the East led them onward, until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When[16] they saw the star, they rejoiced with an unspeakable joy.[17] They went[18] into the house and saw the child with Mary,  his mother, and they fell on their knees[19] and worshiped[20] the boy. Then, they opened up their strongboxes and presented the child with gifts[21]—gold, worship incense,[22] and fragrant ointment.

Exhortation

Why did God bring these Eastern scholars to Bethlehem, that night?[23] Because the angels made the same announcement to them, that they made to the shepherds up to two years before, at the same time—it just took them nearly two years to get there!

Contrast that with what passed for the “Jewish nation,” at the seat of power in Jerusalem:

  • a dying, homicidal king—with delusions of grandeur!—who hatches a plan to kill the Messiah
  • scribes who are the worst example of civil servants = they can tell the scholars how to find the Messiah, but can’t be bothered to worship Him themselves![24]

Why did nobody else follow that star that dark night outside Jerusalem, to see what it meant? It’s possible these scholars from the East will rise up in judgment with the Queen of Sheba and the people of Nineveh (Mt 12:41-42)—because they believed when they had so little revelation. But the folks who ought to have known best … didn’t believe a word of it, or were too occupied with their lives to care

What is God teaching us?

  • That His kingdom has never had nationalist borders—it’s always been open to anyone who worships and obeys Christ. 
  • That sometimes the people who “know God” don’t Him at all.

What does God want us to do with what He’s saying—how can this make us more like Christ?

  • The church must accept anyone … if they come to worship and obey Christ. The shape of truth application depends on context. In Jesus’ cultural context, it meant non-Jews could actually be part of God’s family.
  • In a 2022 American context, it could mean many things. Think of a type of person (a cultural “other,” a true believer) with whom you’d be “uncomfortable” worshiping God on a Sunday morning, and then resolve to shove your discomfort aside.
  • Gentiles in Israel, black Christians in white churches, Muslims in American churches—who will be the next?

Epiphany teaches us that the only borders around God’s kingdom should be:

  • do I believe Christ is Lord and King?
  • have I bowed before Him in worship?   

And now, here is the sermon:


[1] My date here is from F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), p. 475.

[2] Quoted in J. Russell Hawkins, The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Support White Supremacy (New York: Oxford, 2021), p. 45.

[3] See Laurie Goldstein, “Seeing Islam as ‘Evil’ Faith, Evangelicals Seek Converts,” in New York Times. 27 May 2003. https://nyti.ms/3HO1M0A. “Evangelicals have always believed that all other religions are wrong, but what is notable now is the vituperation.” See also FBFI Resolution 02.02 “Concerning Islam.”

[4] On the sociological role of this issue as early as the antebellum era, Mark Noll has written: “It was no coincidence that the biblical defense of slavery remained strongest in the United States, a place where democratic, anti-traditional, and individualistic religion was also strongest. By the nineteenth century, it was an axiom of American public thought that free people should read, think, and reason for themselves. When such a populace, committed to republican and democratic principles, was also a Bible-reading populace, that proslavery biblical case never lacked for persuasive resources,” (The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), p. 34).

[5] The participle γεννηθέντος is temporal.

[6] The article with Jesus in Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ anaphoric. John Broadus notes, “Literally, the Jesus, the one just mentioned; ‘this Jesus’ would be too strong a rendering, but it may help to show the close connection,” (Gospel of Matthew, in American Commentary, ed. Alvah Hovey (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886), p. 15).

[7] A subjective genitive. There is more than one Bethlehem in the ancient world; e.g. Bethlehem of Zebulun (Josh 19:15). This “Judean Bethlehem” simply clarifies where Jesus was born.

[8] The particle ἰδοὺ is meant to draw attention to what follows. It’s a deliberate interjection to arrest the reader’s attention (BDAG, p. 468). Most EVV don’t translate it, which I think is a mistake. It might not make for smooth literature per se, but it’s what Matthew wrote, and we need to do something to catch the reader’s ear, in the same way.

[9] The terms “wise men” and “magi” communicate nothing. The term has its origins in the court magicians of the East (e.g. in the Babylon of Daniel’s era) who were experts in astrology, interpretations of dreams and visions, and other occult arts (BDAG, p. 608, 1). Later, into the NT era, the term broadened and referred to refer to a wide variety of men interested in dreams, magic, books, astrology, etc. (Carson, Matthew, p. 85).

It’s this last sense that fits best, here. “Matthew is probably using the word in a more general sense for the learned court advisers of Mesopotamia or Persian whose work involved studying ancient and sacred texts, as well as watching for movements of planets and stars that might be interpreted as divine messages,” (Mark Krause, “Wise Men, Magi,” in Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry et al. (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2016). The term could also refer to actual sorcerers or occultists, like the pre-conversion Simon (Acts 8) or the unfortunate Elymas (Acts 13). That is not likely, here.

So, I went with astrological scholars, because of the influence of the star. I could shorten it to “astrologers,” but that makes them sound a bit like New Age kooks.

[10] The participle λέγοντες is present-tense, and the context suggests they were asking repeatedly. Herod only “heard this,” they didn’t ask him directly. Herod sought them out. He could only have heard about their quest if they’d been asking many people, repeatedly. So, I translated this with an iterative flavor. It is attendant circumstance, contra. Quralles (EGGNT, Mt 2:1), whose preference for a purpose participle here would lead to an over-translated mess.

[11] A more literal rendering would be: “where is the one who was born king of the Jews?” (ποῦ ἐστιν ὁ τεχθεὶς βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων). The participle is the subject (Christ), and “king” is a predicate nominative, denoting an attribute the infant had from birth.  

[12] I dropped the explanatory γὰρ completely. 

[13] The preposition is spatial. 

[14] On “worship,” see the discussion at v. 9. Why hadn’t Jerusalem and Bethlehem embraced the boy as the Messiah, in light of the shepherd’s testimonies (cf. Lk 2:17-18)? It’d been two years, after all! Probably for the same reason some Christians today are extremely skeptical at reports that God still performs miracles. For example, few people have heard about Ed Wilkenson and his son, Brad, whom God miraculously healed of an atrial septal defect, with two holes in his heart. The boy and his father prayed for deliverance, and even had special intercession from their church, but all seemed hopeless as the boy went in for surgery. They determined the holes had disappeared, which had not been the case on x-rays done just the day before. The doctors were flabbergasted, and had no explanation. Brad is still fine, is now an adult, and played baseball later that same week. There was no surgery. See the account, with footnotes from personal interviews and review of medical documentation, in Craig Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 1:430-432.

What were these ramblings from these loser shepherds, anyway? Meh. Where’s the video evidence!? Away with them!

[15] Again, we have the particle of interjection, and it must be translated. “[L]ooking up to heaven as

they set out on their journey, they once more behold their heavenly guide,” (A.B. Bruce, The Synoptic Gospels, in Expositors Greek Testament (6th ed.), ed. W. Robertson Nicole (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910), p. 73.

[16] ἰδόντες is an adverbial, temporal participle, contra. Charles Quarles, who believes it is causal (Matthew, in EGGNT, Mt 2:10).  

[17] A literal translation would read something like “they were filled with very great joy” (ἐχάρησαν χαρὰν μεγάλην σφόδρα). The verb is passive, which is curious. It’s well-nigh impossible to replicate a passive sense of ἐχάρησαν, so in English we do an end-run around by changing the verb to something like “were filled,” or we drop the passive sense and do “they rejoiced.”

[18] ἐλθόντες is an attendant circumstance, following along after the exquisite joy they felt when they at last reached their destination, contra, Quarles (EGGNT, Mt 2:10), who thinks it’s temporal.  

[19] Πεσόντες is also attendant circumstance. 

[20] The word means “to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure,” (BDAG, p. 882; see also Abbott-Smith, p. 386). It could refer to reverence and submission to a human authority figure with no implication of deity (cf. Mt 20:20). However, the context here is worship to the child as the Messianic King—this is their self-proclaimed mission (Mt 2:2), and Herod and his court know it (Mt 2:3-8). One could quibble whether worship to Christ as divine is in view, or merely as “the king.” Most EVV use “worship,” except for the NEB, REB (“paid homage”) and the CEB (“honored him”). Broadus preferred “do homage,” because the scholars appeared to only honor him as king, not as deity (Matthew, p. 18).

[21] The three gifts which follow are accusatives of apposition, explaining what these gifts are—hence the em-dash.

[22] Λίβανον is a balsamic gum from the Boswellia sacra tree, native to southern Arabia and northern Somaliland. When the material hardened, it produced exquisite resin which was typically used for burning incense in religious ceremonies—including temple liturgy (e.g. Ex 30:34; see James Knox, “Frankincense, in Lexham Bible Dictionary). It is better to render it as “pure incense” or something similar; cf. Jay Adams, John Phillips = “incense,” and Julian Anderson = “fine, sweet-smelling incense.”

[23] I believe we have a solid circumstantial to argue that (1) angels announced the Savior’s birth to these Eastern scholars at the same time as they did to the shepherds in the field (cf. Lk 2:8-20), (2) that they followed the star to find the boy, (3) the star acted as a divine GPS and was not a natural phenomenon, and (4) they just now arrived after perhaps two years journey, to worship the boy. This accounts for (1) how they found out about Christ’s birth, and (2) why their knowledge (i.e. a newborn king of the Jews, born somewhere near Jerusalem) comports so well with the announcement the angels made to the shepherds.

Speculation regarding the star is generally absurd, and Broadus sums it up rather well (for the argument seems to have advanced nowhere since his day!): “Taking Matthew’s language according to its obvious import, we have to set aside the above explanations, and to regard the appearance as miraculous; conjecture as to its nature will then be to no profit. The supernatural is easily admitted here, since there were so many miracles connected with the Saviour’s birth, and the visit of the Magi was an event of great moral significance, fit to be the occasion of a miracle,” (Matthew, p. 17).

[24] Broadus: “The scribes should be a warning to all religious teachers, in the pulpit, the Sunday-school, the family; they told others where to find the Saviour, but did not go to him themselves,” (Matthew, p. 21).

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