The Irony of the Epiphany
I have just read this from the Protestant Desiring God website and I think it raises a very interesting issue which I might summarise as follows: the danger of a disconnect in the matter of faith and discipleship between the head and the heart, i.e. the danger that the knowledge (biblical, theological, philosophical…) one might accrue in one's studies becomes an end in itself and a source of pride, preventing one from having "eyes that see and ears that hear" the presence of Christ in one's life. It is an attitude which results in an insensitivity to the action of the Holy Spirit, the source of all true enlightenment for the mind and heart. Knowledge is very important but it can only take us so far. We might know about Jesus, but do we truly know him in the sense of having had a deep personal encounter with him?
January 6 has long been the date the Western church has observed the feast of the Epiphany. From the Greek for “appearance” or “manifestation” (epiphaneia), Epiphany marks the appearance of the Son of God among us in fully human flesh.
In particular, the day has become identified with the visit of the magi, those pagan astrologers who make their surprising appearance in Matthew 2 to worship baby Jesus.
It is not only striking in Matthew 2 that the religiously uncouth magi are seeking to worship the newborn Jewish king, but that the religious leaders of the day are not. The pagan astrologers bow their knee (verses 10–11), but the Jerusalem religious bow their back (verses 3–8).
An Easy Answer for the Religious
Herod’s wickedness is apparent. Insecure, disturbed, deceitful, murderous, of course he does not really intend to honor the child but to kill him. But don’t miss the role of the religious leaders. Verse 4 says that Herod assembled “all the chief priests [Sadducees] and scribes [Pharisees] of the people, [and] he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.”
So here we have the trained theologians of the day. They know all the biblical jargon. They’ve read and re-read and re-re-read the Scriptures—and memorized them. And it’s a piece-of-cake answer for them. “Where is the Messiah to be born?” Bethlehem. Check Micah.
A Strange Indifference
But here’s the tragic thing: They know the answer, but none of them acts on it. None of the trained theologians go to Bethlehem. Dirty shepherds leave their flocks and go to the manger. Pagan astrologers traverse far, hundreds of miles and months on the road. Meanwhile, the religious leaders, full of insider jargon and Bible knowledge and pat answers, don’t bother to make the relatively short five-mile journey to Bethlehem to actually see this baby that all their theological classes should have prepared them for.
Commentator David Turner calls it “the strange indifference” of these Bible-answer-guys who have amassed loads of scriptural knowledge but don’t act on it. Their heads are filled with verses, doctrines, and religious facts, but their hearts reject the very Messiah their training should have pointed them to.
The Danger of Religion
Is the warning here not obvious for those of us who have taken class after class and read Christian book after Christian book? Many of us are all too familiar with the church jargon. We can say all the rights things to appear pious. We’ve memorized Scripture. We know how to sound very churchy in our repeated use of precious theological terms and concepts. But biblical training does not guarantee that our hearts are inclined toward worshiping the true king. Religious language and learning can cloak the kingdom of self.
Note the contrast between the pagan astrologers and the religious establishment. The magi don’t know much, but they rejoice exceedingly with great joy (verse 10) at the true revelation from God they have received, while the religious leaders with all the answers and books about books about books are disturbed along with Herod and refuse to bow the knee in their hearts.
Don’t Take Jesus for Granted
“The religious leaders,” writes Turner, “replete with scriptural knowledge, react with apathy here and with antipathy later [when they crucify Jesus]. The magi, whose knowledge is quite limited, nevertheless offer genuine worship to the born-king of the Jews.”
Note this from the African Bible Commentary (page 1111):
The successors of these [religious] experts would be at odds with the adult Jesus, and in the end they would conspire to put him to death. The most knowledgeable church people often include those who take Jesus for granted. It is a dangerous situation to be in. It is no less a sin than the outright hatred of Herod, for in the end it leads to the same destiny (where Herod failed to kill the baby Jesus, the chief priests succeeded). Our pride in our knowledge of Christ, the Bible, and the church may turn out to be a snare in the end.
For the Religious and the Magi
A word to the modern-day chief priests and scribes, the religious establishment, the well churched: Bible knowledge from all the classes and all the books can be precious fuel for worshiping the true Jesus or a scary excuse for keeping Jesus at arm’s length. Increased knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate into increased worship.
And for those more like the magi, the non-churched “pagan” and de-churched disenfranchised: You may not have any Christian background (or you did and rejected it, maybe because of the religious). You may not know the Christian jargon. You don’t fit nicely into the church-goer box, and yet you’re being drawn to Jesus. And this whole church scene may feel really foreign, but we want you with us. We want the magi. Please don’t let imperfect Christians scare you away from the perfect Christ. Let the astrologers come to Jesus, and do not forbid them, for such is the kingdom of heaven.
(Via Desiring God Blog)