The epiphany of Christ

Epiphany, traditionally January 6th, is the day in the church’s year when the ‘appearance’ of God to the world in Jesus Christ is celebrated. In the Western church this is linked to the visit of the magi when Jesus was revealed to the Gentiles as “the king of the Jews” (Matt 2.1-3). In the Eastern church Epiphany celebrates the baptism of Jesus when God declared him to be his Son and the Spirit descended upon him (Mark 1.9-11). Although a key festival in the liturgical churches, in many other churches Epiphany often does not feature and instead the focus tends to be on the new beginnings offered by the New Year. Nonetheless in the latest British Baptist worship manual, Gathering for Worship there is a section on Epiphany where the emphasis is on ‘Christ for all nations’. In this and next week’s blogs I want to explore how the term epiphany is used to describe the ‘appearance’ of Jesus in the world. We shall discover that the way in which it came to be understood in the later church is not as rooted in Scripture as initially might seem to be the case.

The Greek word for epiphany (epiphaneia) means an ‘appearance’ and appears six times in the New Testament: 2 Thess 2.8; 1 Tim 6.14; 2 Tim 1.10; 4.1,8; Titus 2.11. Its cognate verb (epiphaino) appears in Luke 1.69; Acts 27.20; Titus 2.13 and Titus 3.5. There is a related Greek verb phaino which appears some thirty times in the NT and means ‘to appear’, and sometimes ‘to shine’. The addition of the prefix epi, however, intensifies the meaning of ‘epiphany’, giving the sense of a remarkable or indeed glorious appearance.

In his description of a sea storm Luke used the verb (epiphaino) in a secular sense: “”When neither sun nor stars appeared (epiphanonton) for many days, and no small tempest raged, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned” (Acts 27.20): i.e. the sky was so overcast that the sun and stars ‘made no epiphany’. Of course, the sun and the stars were still there – but they were nowhere to be seen.

In classical Greek the verb was often used of the dawn, when the sun leaps over the horizon and comes into view. It is used in this way in the Benedictus as a metaphor for salvation, where Zechariah declares: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us , to give light (epiphane) to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1.78,79). A Swiss scholar commented: “The eschatological light of the Messiah suddenly illumines the dark world of the dying… But Luke does also have in mind the Christian message, which leads also the Gentiles from blindness to sight, and from death to life (Acts 26.17-18)” ( Francois Bovon, Luke).

In popular Hellenistic religions epiphany became a technical term to denote “a visible manifestation of a hidden divinity, either in the form of a personal appearance, or by some deed of power by which it is presence is made known” (Arndt & Gingrich, A Greek English Lexicon to the NT). With the development of the emperor cult in the East of the Empire the two notions of a spectacular state visit and a moment of divine revelation were combined, and  the term ‘epiphany’ was used to described the emperor’s “stunning and spectacular” appearance when the public worshipped the emperor as the “son of god” (Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters)

It was against this background that Paul used the term ‘epiphany’. In the first place it describes the ‘parousia’, the coming of Jesus at the end of time, when Jesus, the true Lord, would be revealed as the judge and lord of all: see :2 Thess 2.8; 1 Tim 6.14; 2 Tim 4.1,8; and Titus 2.13; 4.1,8.  However, at this time of the year, I want to focus on the three passages featuring the word ‘epiphany’ or its cognate verb which refer to the first coming of Christ. This week we shall look at 2 Tim 1,10; and next week at Titus 2.11 and 3.4.

In 2 Tim 1. 9,10 Paul wrote: “This grace…. has now been revealed through the appearing (epiphaneia) of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality through the gospel”. In 1 Tim 6.16 Paul had subversively described Jesus as “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and lord of lords”. Is he here also contrasting the appearance of Jesus with that of the Roman emperor? If so, is Paul through his use of the term ‘epiphany’ alluding to the birth of Jesus or to his victory over sin and death through the cross and resurrection of Jesus? Bearing in mind that scholars have likened the resurrection/ascension as the enthronement of Jesus as Lord of all (see Phil 2.9-11), I would argue that although the “appearing” (epiphaneia) of Jesus may include a reference to the incarnation, the destruction of death and the bringing of life and immortality to light must surely refer in the first place to the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

Thanks to the cross and resurrection, death has been “abolished”. Death, of course, is still a reality. However, as Arndt & Gingrich in their Greek-English Lexicon to the NT made clear, the Greek verb Paul uses here (katargeo) means “to make ineffective, powerless, idle”; they understand 1 Tim 1.10 to refer not to doing away with death, but rather breaking the power of death. A parallel is found in 1 Cor 15.55, where Paul says that death has lost its sting (1 Cor 15. 55) and is reminiscent of a serpent’s sting (see Rev 9.10): Christ has drawn out the poison, absorbing it in his own person on the cross. Or in the words of Thomas Oden: “Death is no longer a horror but the gate by which one passes from this broken world into fuller life with God” (First and Second Timothy).

Our Saviour Jesus Christ has “brought life and immortality to light”. Probably life and immortality are synonyms; alternatively “life” may refer to the new life that Jesus offers us in this world, and immortality to life in the world to come. Notice that the “immortality” of which Paul writes has nothing to do with the Hellenistic idea that all humans naturally possess an immortal soul, for as Paul had written in his previous letter, Jesus  Christ “alone has immortality” (1 Tim 6.15) The good news is that Jesus “has abolished death and brought life and immortality  light” (2 Tim 1.10), and as a result,  new life is,“there for the asking” (N. T. Wright The Resurrection of the Son of God).

So what does this mean for us as we approach Christmas? We need to proclaim that the Christ Child who came to Bethlehem is the Saviour who died on the Cross and the Lord who was raised on Easter Day.

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