Epiphany is about a brilliant light coming into the world for all the nations.
Christmas in Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes the royalty of the savior sent by God. Epiphany glorifies even more the royal servant, whose righteousness and power shine like a beacon light for all the nations.
Epiphany is about light shining, and the great Isaiah passage of Epiphany summons Zion to shine with the reflected light from God’s “dawning” upon her. (The verb and noun “dawn” appear three times in 60:1-3, translated in NRSV as “risen” and “will arise” as well as “dawn.”) This light is to shine in a darkness, deep darkness that enshrouds the peoples of the world, the nations (“Gentiles”; see Special Note on “Gentiles” below).
This is a breathtaking view, a vast panorama exceeding a Disney World laser-light spectacular. Here is the scene: all the world is a vast black space when a piercing light cuts through from the east and illumines a glorious city on an elevated summit (see Isaiah 2:2). The city on the hill shines for all the distant lands that have only that brilliant glow to guide them as they move to redistribute the wealth of all the world according to new priorities, now manifest as the righteousness and peace given by the Lord of all creation.
The great light that shines on Zion attracts all the wealth and glory from among the nations, and as they bring the wealth toward the center, they also bring the dispersed sons and daughters of the mother city now restored to her glory. Among the tribute flowing to Zion from Midian, Sheba, Kedar, and the like, are gold and frankincense. Such gifts constitute “the praise of the Lord” from the nations.
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
The Psalm selection also focuses on the tribute and enrichment from the nations, but now the emphasis is on God’s rule through God’s king instead of the glory of God’s city. The psalm is a prayer uttered on behalf of God’s king by the king’s people.
The psalm has a superscription, “For Solomon,” that is, for “the Son of David.” In the prayer the king is seen as the source of blessing for the whole natural realm, producing “prosperity” (shalom, verse 3) for the people and rain and showers for the earth. More especially is the king the source of justice and righteousness for the poor and oppressed of God’s people. The tribute prayed for from the kings of Tarshish and Sheba is deserved because “he delivers the needy when they call, / the poor and those who have no helper” (verse 12, NRSV).
This king redeems the poor from oppression and violence, “and precious is their blood in his sight” (verse 14). This is the kind of rule by the Son of David that will attract the devotion of the nations and cause them to stream to God’s city with gifts and new orientations of their power and wealth!
The Epistle selection from Ephesians is one of those passages overloaded with lofty thoughts and pregnant phrases, too rich to be exhausted in a short reading. The relevant thread, however, is “the mystery of Christ,” which concerns the Nations. (Gentiles means “nations” in both Hebrew and Greek.).
The “mystery” is that the true assembly (church) of God’s people is not confined to the people of Israel, but is destined from of old to include the nations. It is these nations who are here told about the mystery: “…that is, the [nations] have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (verse 6, NRSV). Through the gospel of which Paul was made a special servant, these nations are being brought in from the distant lands to share in the blessings that God’s King has brought to those who turn (repent) and reorient their lives toward the rule of God.
The conclusion of this inspired line is that “the mystery” is revealed to the heavenly powers themselves, that the nations are joined with Israel in the church of Jesus Christ, “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (verse 10, emphasis added).
The multi-ethnic and multi-cultural church of Jesus Christ is a revelation to the heavenly beings themselves!
The exalted language and imagery of the message about the nations used in the previous readings is left behind by the Gospel reading for Epiphany. Here a series of simple circumstances are related very concisely. We do not even hear of these magoi while they are still in the east, but they simply appear in Jerusalem and say, Where is the king? We learn only later that they had previously seen a star leading them from the east (verse 9, alternate NRSV translation, “in the east”). Here there is no fanfare or spectacular laser light show; only some ambassador types trying to get local directions in order to make an appearance in a very modest court. Where the prophets and the psalmists exulted in pyrotechnic language to refer to worldly realities that were more modest, here the divine aura behind the simple events is significantly understated.
The narrative presents without emphasizing that these are lofty representatives of the nations of the world, come to find the secret king whose coming changes the whole world. (The light they saw came from the east, like the dawn.) Here royal gifts are presented in an utterly unassuming way. The modesty and the secrecy of the real identity and destined work of God’s saving King are preserved. Only those with special wisdom (knowing the “mystery”) are aware of the cosmic import of what has happened and know how to conduct themselves accordingly. Their welfare and their secret are preserved by God, and these sages “left for their own country by another road” (verse 12).
The light which Epiphany is about had come into the world, and only a few knew it.
Special Note on “Gentiles”
In Christian tradition, the season of Epiphany includes the reading of many Biblical texts that refer to “the nations,” often rendered in English translations as “the Gentiles.” I have problems with this translation, and this seems the right place to discuss it.
Let’s begin the discussion provocatively: There are no such things as “Gentiles” —unless you are speaking Latin. “Gentiles” is mostly used to translate the Hebrew haggōyīm and the Greek ta ethnē. Both of these terms mean “(the) nations,” and they should be so translated in all but a few marginal cases. We get “Gentiles” because that is the Latin word for “(the) nations,” and English translators early on took over the Latin term instead of translating it.
We have gotten rid of “Gentiles” in modern dictionaries of Biblical Hebrew (Brown-Driver-Briggs and Koehler-Baumgartner under gōy), but it still appears in dictionaries of New Testament Greek (Thayer, Abbott-Smith, Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich under ethnos), not to mention the dictionaries devoted to theological terminology of the New Testament (Cremer, Kittel-Friedrich-Bromiley, and The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology [ed. Colin Brown]). The presumed justification for “Gentiles” is that Jewish usage in the post-Exilic and New Testament periods used “the nations” to refer to everybody else besides Jews, especially for religious purposes. Thus, gōyīm became a pejorative term meaning the unbelievers, “heathen” (often used by the King James translators) and “pagans.” This is a correct statement about Jewish usage in the New Testament period, but for people who spoke Hebrew, what was heard in this reference was “(the) nations,” not some third term between Jews and nations called “Gentiles.”
There are acres of writings that could be brought to the table here, but let me cite only one height of absurdity to which clinging to “Gentiles” can come. “…[T]here is generally a marked dissolution of the concepts of nation and people in Jewish piety, so that references are to the Gentiles rather than to the nations” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. II [Eerdmans, 1964; original German 1935, two years into the Nazi era], p. 368. Emphasis is mine. I have not checked the German here; the “Gentiles” may have been helped along by the translator.). References are to “the Gentiles” rather than to “the nations”! This is, of course, an oxymoron. The Gentiles are the nations—in any ancient language, at least.
As a discipline of thought, I have systematically avoided the term “Gentiles” for the last couple of decades. In Biblical texts it can always be translated “(the) nations,” when the reference is to political units, or “the people(s) of the nations” when the reference is to populations. (When referring to the peoples, “people of the nations” can be thought of as similar to “people of color” in current politically correct American speech.)
It is important to note that the Biblical terms are nouns. In both Hebrew and Greek, it is “the nations” or “people of the nations.” Whenever you see “Gentile” as an adjective, you are reading a modern writer, not a Biblical writer. When modern writers use “Gentile” as an adjective, they mean “non-Jewish,” and sometimes it’s important to force the modern writer to be clear about that. There is no such thing as “gentile” in between “Jew” (or “Israelite”) and non-Jew.
Why bother? Avoiding “Gentiles” is important only if you are trying to retain the overtones and nuances of “the nations” in the books of Isaiah, Psalms, and other post-Exilic writings—and carry those nuances over to New Testament texts, especially those used in Advent and Epiphany seasons.
There is one discussion of “the nations” in a theological dictionary that does not fall into absurdities about “Gentiles.” (I know of this one; there are undoubtedly others as well.) This is A.R. Hulst’s discussion in Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament (ed. Ernst Jenni and Claus Westerman, tr. Mark E. Biddle; Hendrickson, 1997), Vol. 2, esp. pp. 916-918. In his discussion, Hulst uses the Hebrew term gōyīm rather than either “Gentiles” or “nations.”
Hulst, along with many others, observed that in the Deuteronomistic era of Israelite religion a definite theory of “the nations” was developed and embodied in the Deuteronomistic writings (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Kings, and Jeremiah). In this theory, the land of Israel had been taken from the “the nations,” who resided there before, and given by Yahweh to Israel. The previous nations had not served Yahweh, and instead practiced “abominations.” Many enclaves of those nations had survived the conquest period and remained as “snares” to lure Israelites to their (forbidden) religious practices—especially by marrying their daughters and sons to Israelites. The Deuteronomistic and prophetic writings warn loudly and repeatedly against yielding to these deadly enticements of “the nations”!
It is worth repeating that this was strictly a theory; it was not what really happened in early Israelite history. However, for the “Yahweh-alone” religious movement (that from the time of Elijah on created the essentials of what became the Jewish scriptures), this theory became the religious reality by which faithful (and often elite) Israelites lived.
Which meant that, if faithful, they lived in separation from “the nations.” Hulst writes:
Now Israel’s separation is deeply rooted in the OT… Deut never mentions that Israel may have the assignment of bringing salvation, to call the gōyīm, near and far, to faith in the one and universal God. One sees the gōyīm as potential seducers, thus an impending danger. The gōyīm could at most admire Israel (Deut 4:6); preferably they should be satisfied with their own religion and not burden Israel.
As is well-known, however, another trend is also visible in the OT in other passages, those which are aware that Yahweh chose his people so that it could be a means for him to proclaim salvation to the peoples of the earth and thus to bring the whole world to a recognition of God’s majesty. Beginning with the basic promise in Gen 12 and continuing through later statements in Exod 19, this line leads to Isa 60. But here too a feeling of religious superiority easily arises. One must go through the depths to be rid of this feeling and to come to a correct view of Israel’s task of bringing blessing in relation to the salvation of the gōyīm. Exile and diaspora can be valued positively in this regard. The servant of Yahweh is the light of the gōyīm (Isa 49:6), of all humanity: suffering for the well-being of the world comes into view. (TLOT, vol. 2, pp. 917-918.)
This long-term and redemptive view of the nations—which includes the view that the nations at first make war on Zion and its Lord, but then are attracted to Zion as the source of blessing—is presented especially in the book of Isaiah and in the psalms that celebrate the Reign of Yahweh and of Yahweh’s Anointed. Historically, it was the ancient vision of the Zion tradition before it became enmeshed with the Deuteronomic compromises of the time of Josiah (and probably of Hezekiah before him).
In the exilic and post-exilic periods this vision of the nations is expressed by those voices that speak most clearly of Zion’s shame and restored glory through Yahweh’s judgment and salvation. These are the texts that most clearly defined, for early Jesus followers, the meaning of “the nations” as a part of their Advent and Epiphany messages.
And the overtones and nuances of this redemptive view of the nations tend to get lost when the poor “nations” show up in our English texts as “the Gentiles.”