Epiphany: Worshiping Christ is the response of true faith

Today is Epiphany, a day that many in the Christian church observe in remembrance of Christ’s first appearance to the Gentiles, which were the magi. Epiphany has been on the church calendar since at least the fourth century. But who were the magi, those mysterious travelers from the east who showed up in Jerusalem looking for “he who has been born king of the Jews”? What place do they have in the unfolding drama of redemption?

We’ve all seen manger scenes that show three wise men gathered in a stable with Mary, Joseph, and some shepherds - whether it be the modern ones that appear every Christmas or ancient ones, like the 14th century painting above by Giotto. We may also be familiar with the old Christmas carol, “We Three Kings.” In reality, the facts about these magi have been obscured in the folklore that has overshadowed the biblical record in Matthew 2.1-12. It’s important that we separate legend from fact.

First, Scripture never says that there were three wise men. Matthew tells us that there were three different types of gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – but not that there were three wise men. It is far more likely that they numbered more than three, given the long journey they made from the east. They came from the Parthian Empire, which was beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Crossing dangerous and lawless lands, they undoubtedly traveled with a large number of assistants and guards. They probably resembled a small army, making their arrival to Jerusalem very noticeable.  

Second, despite what is sung in the popular Christmas carol, the magi were not kings. From what we know about the magi, both from the Old Testament as well as ancient Persian and Babylonian texts, the magi were assistants to kings and rulers. They were a priestly caste in Babylon and Persia practicing an ancient form of Zoroastrianism, which was the official religion in Persia from about the 6th century BC onward. They were experts in the science of astronomy, but blended it with the superstition of astrology. They were specialists in dream interpretation, wizardry, and magic. But they also served as scientists, mathematicians, doctors, and legal experts. They were considered the leading scholars in Babylon and Persia, and were the advisors to kings and rulers, and partly responsible for choosing the kings of Parthia.

This is why Herod treads carefully when speaking to them. He doesn’t throw them in prison or have them executed because he knows this could invite the wrath of the Parthians. Instead he took the diplomatic approach. He assumed that these magi served as advisors to high officials.

Remember when Nebuchadnezzar had his dream? He assembled his magi and asked for an interpretation. Later he made Daniel the chief prefect over all the magi in Babylon. This may provide a clue as to how the magi in Matthew 2 knew about the birth of the Davidic King. It very well may have been a prophecy they discerned from the days of Daniel.

They also expected a star at his birth. Numbers 24.17 reads, “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” As scholars of ancient texts, the magi evidently knew this prophecy. This Old Testament text provides some background to what the magi say when arriving in Jerusalem: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

The star that these magi saw was probably not a natural phenomenon like a comet or supernova, but a supernatural revelation by God, leading them to Christ. Just as God led Israel through the wilderness, appearing as a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, he led these magi to the place where Christ was born. Whatever it was that they saw, it “went before them,” as v.9 says, “until it came to rest over the place where the child was.”

They followed the star to a house, not a stable or inn. “And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.” The magi saw Jesus when he was only a baby or toddler, and yet they believed the promises. They worshiped him as a king. They presented him with costly treasures, as gifts of honor and devotion: Gold, the most precious metal then known to man, was a common symbol of royalty; frankincense, an expensive and fragrant resin, was used as incense on the altar in the temple; and myrrh, a curious gift for a newborn king, often used as a stimulant and anesthetic. When Jesus was crucified, he was offered a myrrh and wine mixture to dull the pain, but he refused it.

These were very costly gifts, which, providentially, were likely used to finance Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt. They were acts of devotion. They were acts of worship. And worship is the response of true faith.

True faith in Christ leads one to worship Christ. Like these magi, the one who loves Christ and acknowledges him as Lord, bows before him in worship. He cannot be stopped; he must come to Christ. These magi traveled a long way. If they came from Babylon by the main trade route, it meant they crossed at least 800 miles. If they averaged 20 miles a day (the norm in the ancient world), it took them about 40 days. It was costly and inconvenient. We often fail to appreciate the cost, fatigue, and danger involved in travel in the ancient world. Yet, they were determined to come and adore he who would be given the throne of his father David.

As the 19th century Anglican pastor J.C. Ryle put it, the faith of the magi “deserves to be placed side by side with that of the penitent thief. The thief saw someone dying the death of a criminal, and yet prayed to him, and ‘called him Lord.’ The wise men saw a baby on the lap of a poor woman, and yet worshiped him, and confessed that he was Christ…Let us walk in the steps of their faith. Let us not be ashamed to believe in Jesus and confess him, though all around us remain indifferent and unbelieving. Have we not a thousand times more evidence than the wise men had, to make us believe that Jesus is the Christ?”

May we have faith like the magi and worship Christ the Lord.

Happy Epiphany,
Pastor Brown

 

New Year, New You?

With a new year comes new hopes, new goals, and new aspirations. Even if we are weary of making resolutions for fear of repeating past failures, we probably have something we want to achieve this year. Maybe your goal for 2017 is to lose some weight and get into better physical shape. Maybe it’s being a better steward with your money. Maybe you hope to finish school this year, or get accepted to a school. Maybe you want to read ten books this year, or do some home improvements, or check something off your bucket list.

Those are all good things. It’s good for us to set reasonable goals for ourselves and make progress in areas of our lives that need it. It’s good to improve in our self-discipline, our vocations and our skills. Seeking to do our very best at something glorifies God.

But it’s important for us to understand that self-improvement is not the chief end of man. We live in a culture that seems to think that self-improvement and reaching your goals are the greatest virtues in all of life. A New Year’s greeting from Oprah Winfrey reads, “Cheers to a new year and another chance for us to get it right.” I’m assuming by “get it right” she means, “get life right.” But who gets to say when one has finally got it right? And how do you know when you’ve finally arrived?

The fact is that none of us have ever got it right. To get life right we must love God and love our neighbor perfectly. Adam had a chance to do that in the Garden of Eden. He had every opportunity to obey God and fulfill the covenant of works. Of course, the sad story is that he failed – not only for himself, but for the whole human race whom he represented. Ever since his fall, human beings are conceived and born with the condition of original sin, that is, guilt and pollution. Adam didn’t get it right, and neither have we.

But one person did get it right: Christ. He got life right by truly loving God and loving his neighbor perfectly. He lived a righteous life, obeying God in everything. His love for others was so great that he gave himself to be punished in their place for the sins they committed. And the good news for those who haven’t got it right in this life is that through faith in Him – faith apart from any achievement or improvement on our own – we are made right with God. And we get to enjoy life in fellowship with him and his people in his covenant of grace.

That is the blessing of a new year. For the people of God, a new year means much more than another opportunity at self-improvement or realizing our dreams. For the people of God, the great blessing of a new year is that it is another year of life in fellowship with God in his covenant of grace.

Whether or not 2017 proves to be a good year or a bad one for me, and whether or not I reach my personal goals, the God who has committed himself to me in his covenant of grace has promised to lead me through another year of my pilgrimage to the shores of glory. He has promised to sanctify me by his Word and Spirit, work all things for my good, and use me in the advancement of the gospel in the world. This makes a new year exciting for the Christian.

So go on, set some reasonable goals for 2017. Enjoy the new year! But let’s not lose sight of the chief end of man: to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Pastor Brown

 

Two Women, Two Covenants

“In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.’” (Luke 1.39-45)

If you’re familiar with the gospel story, you probably remember this scene, at least vaguely. You may have seen it depicted in renaissance paintings like this one (“Visitation”) from the late 15th century by Domenico Ghirlandaio. Mary rushes to see her relative Elizabeth to tell her the big news: she’s pregnant! “Oh, and an angel from heaven told me it will be a boy and that he’ll be given the throne of David.” Big news indeed.

But there is far more to this scene than two women sharing in the joy of an expected child. Luke records this event because it signals a great turning point in history. It anticipates the transition from the old covenant to the new. While this scene is not an allegory, Elizabeth nevertheless represents the old covenant. She is old (1.7: “advanced in years”), yet her once barren womb now carried the last of the old covenant prophets: John the Baptist. He would be the last in a long line of voices crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

Mary, on the other hand, represents the new covenant. She is very young and in her womb was the promised Messiah to whom John the Baptist pointed. In Elizabeth’s womb was an old covenant prophet who would “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” (1.16). But in Mary’s womb was the Lord their God. In Elizabeth’s womb was a prophet who would not drink wine or strong drink. In Mary’s womb was One who would change water into wine and announce the arrival of the kingdom of God. In Elizabeth’s womb was a prophet who would proclaim the Mosaic law. In Mary’s womb was the One who would fulfill that law by his obedience and death, bringing eternal life to all those who trust in him. “He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the old covenant” (Heb 9.15).

This was more than a meeting of two pregnant women: this was a great turning point in history. The fullness of time had come. The Messiah had entered the world in the womb of a virgin. The new covenant comes to the old, and the old submits to the new with joy! “But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises” (Heb 8.6).

Like Elizabeth, we too are greeted with good news – the gospel announcement that there is a Mediator available for us, One who reconciles sinners to God through his life, death, and resurrection. Like Elizabeth, we too rejoice and worship the fruit of Mary’s womb: “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” (Heb 12.24).

 

Pray for our mission in Bucharest

Last month, my wife and I had the joyful opportunity to travel to Bucharest, Romania to visit Rev. Mihai Corcea, Christ URC's missionary in Romania, and his lovely wife Lidia. It was a tremendous blessing to spend time with this precious couple in their native country and see the infant church plant firsthand. Sometimes when we pray for God to open doors for the gospel and plant new churches where there are none, it seems little more than a dream. But in his kind providence, God made what seemed impossible possible. He brought Mihai and Lidia across the world to spend three years with Christ URC while Mihai completed studies at Westminster Seminary California and an internship at our church. God then allowed Mihai to sustain his ordination exams under Classis Southwest, and then called him through the council of Christ URC to serve as a missionary in Romania. At last, Mihai and Lidia returned to Bucharest, found a meeting place for the church, and the work has begun. A church is being planted in that city, a church that proclaims Christ in every sermon, worships God with reverence and awe, and reaches out to the community with the gospel. God has answered our prayers! Soli Deo Gloria!

On November 13, Rev. Corcea, Rev. Andrea Ferrari (our missionary in Milan, Italy) and myself, with the approval of our Consistory and the advice of our Classis, ordained Mr. Claudiu Stefu as the church's first elder. The Lord had been preparing Claudiu for this call for several years as he waited for Pastor Corcea's return from the U.S.. After meeting with Pastor Corcea over several months for biblical instruction on the office of elder and in the polity of the Reformed churches, Claudiu was deemed ready and humbly accepted the call to serve as the church's first elder. Please pray for these leaders - Pastor Corcea and Elder Claudiu - that they will remain faithful and encouraged in the long and slow process of making disciples. And pray for the work, that the Lord will continue to bring people to faith and strengthen them through his means of grace.

You can read regular updates about the work on the website Reformation Romania.



 

Maybe you are like Jonah

The story of Jonah getting swallowed by a fish is really a story of Jonah being rescued by God. God did not give up on this self-serving prophet who wanted to do things his own way. If God wanted to give up on Jonah, he would have let him drown. He did not need Jonah to accomplish his purposes. God has every resource at his disposal. He could have easily used someone else to go to Nineveh, someone much more faithful, whose heart had some compassion and mercy toward others. He rescued Jonah not because he needed Jonah, but because Jonah needed him. You see, this really wasn’t about the Ninevites so much as it was about Jonah. Jonah was in need of God’s rescue – not just from drowning, but from the hardness of his own heart.

And we all need rescue from that. We are all like Jonah in that way, badly in need of mending. Jonah’s problem was that he was self-righteous, judgmental, and lacked mercy. He looked down on people like the Ninevites. Rather than finding his identity and self-worth in the steadfast love of the Lord, he found it in his own morality, and in the fact that he was an Israelite and not a pagan Gentile.

From God’s perspective, this made Jonah the perfect man for the job. God deliberately brings Jonah into this situation in order to sanctify him. God’s love for his own means that he will continue to sanctify us, even when we don’t see our own need for sanctification. God did not give up on Jonah, and he will not give up on you.

Maybe you are like Jonah. Maybe you struggle with self-righteousness and a lack of compassion toward outsiders. Maybe you tend to base your identity and self-worth mainly on how hard you work or how moral you are, so, naturally you look down on those you perceive as lazy or immoral. You have a tendency to disdain those who believe or practice something different from you, and you feel superior to them.

If so, know that God has promised to sanctify you and do a work of grace in you. He never gives up on those who belong to him. At times, he may let you run. He may let you wander to a far country for a while. If you harden your heart to his Word, he may give you over to your hardness for a season. But eventually, in his love, he will come for you, even if it means sending you into a storm where you are stripped of everything. He does this not to punish you, but because he loves you and has promised to bring you to completion. He will go to the greatest lengths to rescue you if necessary. That’s what he did with Jonah, and that’s what he does with all his children.

*From Pastor Brown's sermon on Jonah 2. You can listen to it in its entirety here.