What Is the Meaning of Epiphany?

The celebration of Epiphany, therefore, calls us to make this truth known to the world. We shine it out, we reveal it. We do not keep the truth of redemption to ourselves. After all, the gospel is too good not to share.

The cross a heart on straw

The celebration of Christmas closes on January 6, otherwise known as the Epiphany of the Lord.  On this day, the Church celebrates the visit of the Magi. Sages from the east journey for miles under the guidance of the heavenly star and bow before Jesus, presenting him with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We know the story well.

Have you ever asked yourself why this visit is so important? After all, the church has named this day a feast day, a day of celebration equal to that of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. The gospel of Matthew, furthermore, chooses to tell of this visit as opposed to the visit by the shepherds.

In fact, Matthew spends more time describing the visit from the Magi than he does describing the birth of Jesus itself.

Like all matters of our faith, we do ourselves a disservice when we see the events of Scripture as simply events of the past. Doing so severs ourselves from the very life that Jesus invites us into. The celebration of Epiphany is not something we nostalgically remember.

Epiphany speaks to us, it declares us the truth about Jesus and ourselves. Below are three ways that the Epiphany of the Lord is important to our faith.

1. Salvation to the Gentiles

The word epiphany means a revelation. In theology, the word “epiphany” is used to describe how salvation is ultimately revealed in the presence of Jesus. What was once hidden and obscure in the pages of the Old Testament is made plain in the light of Christ’s birth.

Through Jesus, God’s plan of redemption is made known. Shockingly, however, this redemption includes the Gentiles. Epiphany, therefore, is not merely the truth of salvation in Christ, it is the revelation that salvation comes to all nations.

Paul writes, “This mystery is that the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise of Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians: 3:6). Paul is bold in his language.

Through Christ, Gentiles are part of the “same body,” the chosen body, the body of faith. The promises of God, thought to be reserved for the Jews alone, have now been extended to all nations, and all people.

For us today, this is nothing new. As Christians, we have long accepted this truth. The gospel is good news to all. This revelation, however, was controversial in the first-century world. The word “Gentile” (Greek: ethnos) described someone outside the nation of Israel.

Gentiles were not Jewish, and as such, were not considered part of God’s chosen people. Gentiles did not follow the Torah, worshiped other gods, and often engaged in cultic practices prohibited in Israel. For all these reasons, Gentiles were considered cut off from God’s promise of salvation.

The birth of Jesus, however, reveals that God always longed to save to Gentiles. Israel had believed that the Messiah would re-establish the glory of Israel. Instead, Jesus works to bring all things, and all people, together (Ephesians 1:10).

Jesus comes as the savior, not just of the Jews, but of the entire world. “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile — the same Lord is Lord of all, and richly blesses all who call on him.  For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Romans 10:12).

The Epiphany of the Lord, therefore, is the revelation that no one is left outside God’s goodness and love. All can come and receive grace mercy, and forgiveness.

2. The Meaning Behind the Magi

It is this revelation that is fully displayed in the visit of the Magi. The Magi are foreigners (read: Gentiles) who recognize the significance of Christ’s birth. From the very beginning, people outside of Israel respond to the kingship of Jesus.

The visit of the Magi illustrates that Jesus is King of all Kings, and Lord of all Lords. He is the savior of all.

Furthermore, the visit of Magi fulfills several Old Testament passages. Psalm 72:10 speaks about kings presenting the anointed one with gifts.

Similarly, the prophet Isaiah describes how “all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord” (60:6). Scripture tells how the Messiah will be recognized by the nations, and how representatives of the nations will come bearing gifts.

The visit of the Magi fulfills these scriptures. These passages, therefore, look forward to the day of redemption — the day when God’s anointed savior will be revealed to the world. This is why Matthew describes this scene in detail.

Matthew’s gospel is concerned with the various ways Jesus fulfills messianic prophecy. The visit of the Magi is not simply a quaint tale of visitors bringing gifts to a newborn baby. Their presence, and the specific gifts that they bring, testify that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah.

3. A Call to Ministry

We can easily lock Epiphany in the past, believing it to be nothing more than a tale describing gifts to the newborn Christ. When we do this, we disconnect the meaning of Epiphany from our lives.

What if, however, the Epiphany of the Lord is not simply a past event? What if Epiphany does not only reveal who Jesus is as Lord of the nations, but also the ministry that we have?

Jesus is Lord of all. Thus, the gospel is to be preached to all people and all nations. Christ commissions his disciples to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea, in Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Christ’s lordship is to be proclaimed to the nations, and for the nations. Paul described this mission as the need to “bring to the gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:9). In other words, the revelation that Christ brings salvation to all is too good not to share.

As Christians, we bear this same commission. We hold the same call to bring the boundless riches of Jesus to those around us. In shining a light on the truth of Christ, Epiphany shines a light on the truth of our call as Christ’s disciples.

What Does This Mean?

Do you know anyone who would benefit from the riches of Jesus? Do you know anyone who might need to hear the truth of Christ’s presence, his love, and his gift of forgiveness? Of course, you do.

We all know people who are struggling with worry or anxiety, who are going through difficult times; we all know people who feel isolated and alone.

As disciples, we are called to share the truth revealed in Jesus’ presence.

To those living in the land of darkness, feeling dismayed or dejected, we are called to share the news that “a light shines on you” (Isaiah 60:1); to those feeling saddened and mournful we bear the message that Jesus is “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25); to those feeling alone, we bear the message that Jesus “will be with you to the end of the ages” (Matthew 28:20).

These are the boundless riches of Christ, the eternal truths that all are invited to experience.

The celebration of Epiphany, therefore, calls us to make this truth known to the world. We shine it out, we reveal it. We do not keep the truth of redemption to ourselves. After all, the gospel is too good not to share.

For further reading:

What Does It Mean to Be in the Presence of God?

How Can I Identify Messianic Prophecies in the Old Testament?

How Was There Peace on Earth at Jesus’ Birth?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Dangben


SWN authorReverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.