Coming between Christmas and Lent, Epiphany has an important message for us.
Samuel C. Degner
In everyday English, an epiphany is a revelation or an insight. For example, a woman puzzles over a problem at work all day. Then, during her commute home, she has an epiphany: the answer suddenly materializes in her mind.
It’s not exactly how we use the word in the church year, though there is a connection. Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means “appearance” or “manifestation.” In the New Testament, forms of the word usually refer to Jesus’ first or second coming. For example, Paul writes of the grace of God that “has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:10, emphasis added). He also points ahead to the Last Day, “the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13, emphasis added).
Thus, the Epiphany season is a time to focus on God appearing on this earth in the person of Jesus—“God in man made manifest,” as we sing in the hymn “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise” (Christian Worship 82)— and what the Scriptures reveal about him.
The Savior of all
The season begins with the festival of the Epiphany of Our Lord, observed in Western Christianity on Jan. 6. Traditionally it is a day to remember the coming of the wise men (Matthew 2:1-12). As we hear about Magi from a distant country visiting the Christ Child, we see Jesus appear as the Savior of all nations.
While this may seem obvious to us, it would have been a revelation to many of the Jews of Jesus’ day who had lost sight of the Messiah’s mission to be a light for the Gentiles and to bring salvation to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:6). It took a while for this idea to sink in even with Jesus’ disciples—even after Pentecost. When God sent Peter to preach to the gentile Cornelius, Peter said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him” (Acts 10:34,35, emphasis added). And when the Gentiles believed his message and received the Holy Spirit, “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles” (Acts 10:45, emphasis added).
Jesus is the Savior of all people. If you’re not surprised by these truths, it’s because you’ve already had your “aha” moment. It happened when you came to faith—perhaps even when you were baptized as a baby. That was the day Jesus appeared to you. It’s when you had your “epiphany.” But we need the reminder.
The man boarding the plane in front of you is wearing a turban. What comes to mind first—evangelism or terrorism? Five minutes into the service, a man slides into your pew, looking and smelling like he lives on the street. Is your first impulse to lean toward him and help him with the hymnal or to shrink back in the other direction? God’s foremost thought regarding all these people is their salvation. That’s not always the first thing that appears in our minds. Don’t we know that Jesus is the Savior of all?
An almighty Savior
Epiphany also reveals that Jesus is the all-powerful God. No one would have guessed it by looking at him, but he made the claim and backed it up with miracles. Nathanael doubted that the Messiah could come from Nazareth until Jesus told him he had seen him under a fig tree before they ever met. That was Nathanael’s “aha” moment: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel” (John 1:49). Shortly after that, Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding at Cana—“the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11). Yet later we find those same disciples surprised by Jesus’ power. When he calmed the storm, they said, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” (Matthew 8:27).
So, perhaps the only thing surprising to you so far is how surprised Jesus’ disciples could be. But his power is important for us to remember. Consider the stubborn problems in your life: The disease that knows no cure. The depression you can’t shake. The temptation that won’t leave you alone. The relationship that never gets better. The kids who won’t listen. Does it occur to you that Jesus is fully capable of fixing what’s broken or helping you handle the brokenness? So often we agonize over our problems as if we’ve forgotten that Jesus is the almighty God.
Like his disciples, we need to be reminded of these things, and the Epiphany season does just that. In fact, it reveals even more.
At the end of the Epiphany season, we get front-row seats to another “aha” moment for the disciples. At the top of a mountain, Jesus was transfigured, and Peter, James, and John got to see a little glimpse of who he really is. But the Father’s voice from the cloud proclaimed more than Jesus’ divinity: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 17:5). God put his stamp of approval on everything Jesus did, said, and thought for 33 years. Just let that sink in! It matters because what Jesus did counts for you. Through faith in him, you are just as much God’s child as Jesus himself, just as beloved and pleasing to your Father as he is.
Remember what John the Baptist reveals to us this Epiphany season when he says, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). He was looking back to the Old Testament lambs sacrificed for the people and ahead to Jesus’ suffering and death. It wouldn’t have been hard for those watching Jesus during Holy Week to see how he was like a lamb, being led uncomplaining to the slaughter. What no one would have known, however, was that this sacrifice would take away the sin of the world. So John—and Jesus and his apostles—proclaimed it: God’s Son appeared on this earth as the sacrifice that removes our sins. Our slowness to believe and quickness to forget are forgiven by his blood.
These truths never would have dawned on us. But Jesus appeared as a light dawning on the land of the shadow of death (Matthew 4:16). He reveals himself to us through his gospel. That’s the whole point of Epiphany.
And it happens all year long. Any time we remember our baptisms, we are reminded of our perfect standing in God’s family. Whenever we take his Supper, Jesus is in, with, and under the bread and wine to forgive us. Every time we hear his Word, Jesus comes to us in grace, strengthening us as we look forward to his appearing in glory.
These are the little epiphanies we constantly need!
Author: Samuel Degner
Volume 107, Number 01
Issue: January 2020