Epiphany: 'The Magi' by Henry Siddons Mowbray (1915)

Epiphany: ‘The Magi’ by Henry Siddons Mowbray (1915)

By Stephen Green

Matthew 2:1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,
6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.


As I write, we are in the season of the traditional church year called ‘Epiphany’.  Epiphany is one of the oldest Christian feasts. It was celebrated from the end of the second century, well before the Christmas holiday was established. It begins on Twelfth Night and the traditional Epiphany season ends when Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.

The word is from the ancient Greek, epiphaneia, “manifestation, striking appearance.” An ‘epiphany’ in colloquial usage is ‘a moment of sudden and great revelation or realisation’.  In the Gospel of Matthew it is the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, represented by the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12).

Rev Tim Schenck writes: ‘The word magi is a Latin version of the Greek magoi, referring to a sect of eastern holy men. (It’s where we get the word “magic”). The original Magi were a hereditary priesthood of the Medes (present day Kurds). … The key thing is that they were Gentiles – non-Jews – and thus were symbols that, embedded in the Incarnation, was an offer of salvation freely offered to all people.’


We are taught in scripture not to worship the host of heaven, but on the first of January those of us following the Lamplight Bible Reading Plan will have read:

Gen 1:14 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:

The bright light in the sky was there for the wise men for a sign. How many wise men were there? More than one, because it is plural, and if the church has historically assumed there were three, for the number of the gifts, I’ll go along with that. But the number of men is not nearly so important as the gifts, foretelling our Lord’s ministry and credentials.

Did they know what they were prophesying as they packed up those gifts? What drove them to choose those things? Did they realise the significance of their offerings? Did they know they were giving gold to mark his majesty as King, frankincense to designate his priesthood, and myrrh to foretell his sacrifice as saviour?


Even as we sing ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’ and go through the reason for the gifts, it is easy to miss their true significance.

In Israel, the offices of judge and then king on the one hand and priest on the other were separated. No mortal man could hold both at the same time. You were either king or you were priest.  You could not be both.  When Saul tried to usurp the office of priest he was deposed as king:

1Sam 15:22 And Samuel said, Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.

King Uzziah fared little better when he tried to take over the priesthood:

2Chron 26:18 And (the priests) withstood Uzziah the king, and said unto him, It appertaineth not unto thee, Uzziah, to burn incense unto the LORD, but to the priests the sons of Aaron, that are consecrated to burn incense: go out of the sanctuary; for thou hast trespassed; neither shall it be for thine honour from the LORD God.  19 Then Uzziah was wroth, and had a censer in his hand to burn incense: and while he was wroth with the priests, the leprosy even rose up in his forehead before the priests in the house of the LORD, from beside the incense altar.

The pagan rulers of Canaan, Assyria, Egypt and every other nation around Israel were priest-kings. They exercised a totalitarian dominion. But Israel was different. Too much power was never concentrated in the hands of one man. If power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, the kings of Israel were at least to be spared absolute corruption. They were never allowed to become totalitarian. It follows that an earthly totalitarian regime, be it communist or fascist, is a regime of antichrist.


Only two righteous people in the Bible were ever priest and king at one and the same time. The first is the mysterious Melchizedek:

Genesis 14:18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God.

Melchizedek appears in our Bibles for three short verses. We know he was righteous, because he was the priest of the most high God, and because that is what his name means, from the Hebrew tsidek (It is still a Jewish name; remember the 1970’s folk singer Neil Tsedaka?). He can be argued to be a theophany, a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ himself:

Hebrews 7:3 Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually.

The writer of Hebrews diligently explains that Christ’s priesthood, vividly foretold by the Wise Men, is after that of Melchizedek, and not of a kind with Aaron. Abraham gave tithes to Melchizedek, and Aaron is descended from Abraham.  It follows that any priesthood of the order of Melchizedek is superior to one of Aaron.

So Jesus Christ is the one other righteous person in the Bible who is both priest and king. That makes him a totalitarian ruler, I hear you say. Yes, it does, but he is allowed to exercise dominion over every aspect of human life because he is God.

Léon Bonnat's 1880 depiction of Christ's Crucifixion

Léon Bonnat’s 1880 depiction of Christ’s Crucifixion


So what of the myrrh? Is it as powerful an image as the gold and the frankincense? In spending so much time arguing for the combined kingship and priesthood of Christ am I relegating his sacrifice to third place?

No, because this is the genius, if you like, of the Christian faith. It means that even at Christ’s birth we are already looking forward to his death and resurrection. The myrrh, for me, makes him approachable, this one out of whose mouth goes a sharp two-edged sword.

But in another sense I am out of step with today’s church. Because much of the church – at least in the West – regards the myrrh with awe and pays little attention to the gold and the frankincense. For many of us, Christ’s sacrifice is everything and his rule and priesthood are of slight importance.

Jesus is indeed a powerful Saviour. He is the only one who can save. His precious blood washed away the sin of everyone who believes. Yet Christ as personal Saviour seems all there is of him for too many believers today. The nearest some of us come to Christ as King is him ‘ruling in my heart’. Possibly. On a good day. And Christ as High Priest? What are you talking about? Melchizedek? Who’s he?  ‘King of kings’? Just words in a song.


Christians need to hold the three Epiphany gifts and what they symbolise in balance.  Let us not spend so much time feeding and interceding for the hungry (a priestly function) that we forget the need for their redemption. Let us not spend so much time remembering ‘what Jesus has done for me on the cross’ that we forget both our duty to our fellow-men and our prophetic calling to proclaim Christ as King of kings.  Equally, let us not get so caught up in the forth-telling prophetic that we forget to support the food bank and to preach the Gospel to the individual right in front of us.

In a sense it comes back to the old tension between Incarnation Theology (feeding the hungry), Redemption Theology (saving souls) and what I call Ascension Theology (preaching the ascended Christ as King of kings).  The latter is proclaiming Christ as sitting on the right hand of the Throne of Grace.  Christ demands to rule in the affairs of men. He calls us to pray for repentance in our land and to work for Godly government now and always.


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