Lectionary Commentaries for January 6, 2015
Epiphany of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12

Stephen Hultgren

Matthew 2:1-12, the visit of the magi, is the gospel reading for Epiphany.

Some congregations choose to use the Epiphany readings on the second Sunday after Christmas. In the Western Church, the visit of the magi seems to have been associated with Epiphany from the beginnings of the festival.1 The origins of the Epiphany festival are obscure. As the name suggests (epiphaneia), however, the festival seems to have focused from the beginnings on the “revelation” of God in Jesus (originally including celebration of the birth of Jesus, before the Christmas festival was instituted).

Popular interest in the story may focus on such things as the names of the magi (or “three kings”),2 the giving of gifts, the star of Bethlehem, and King Herod’s machinations. However, the historical details of the story are difficult to substantiate.3 It should be observed that the story has an important narrative function in Matthew. The visit of the magi to “worship” (or “pay homage to”) Jesus alarms Herod, who, after he has been fooled by the magi (2:16), will resolve to kill all the (male) children in Bethlehem and environs two years and younger. Herod’s plot constitutes the reason for the holy family’s flight to Egypt and return. The flight to and return from Egypt together with the slaughter of the innocents serve to make Jesus into a type of both Moses (who was also delivered from a cruel tyrant; Exodus 1-2) and the nation of Israel as a whole (God’s “Son” whom he called out of Egypt; Matthew 2:15; Hosea 11:1). As such Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy and of the (hi)story of Israel. Later in Matthew Jesus will play the role of a new Moses (5:1) and of a new “Israel” in the wilderness who remains faithful to God in temptation (4:1-11). So also the story of the magi shows Jesus to be the fulfillment of prophecy (see below). The interpreter and preacher must keep the story’s narrative function and theological emphases in mind.

The story in Matthew can be divided into five scenes: the arrival of the magi (2:1-2); Herod’s alarm and consultation of the priests and scribes (2:3-6); Herod’s request of the magi (2:7-8); the magi’s visit and adoration of the Christ child (2:9-11); and the departure of the magi (2:12). The first, third, and fourth scenes are punctuated by the verb “worship” or “pay homage” (proskynein), which highlights a main feature of the narrative: the magi take the role of the Gentiles who will come paying homage and bringing gifts to the Messiah according to Psalm 72:10-11. The sincerity of the magi’s worship of Jesus is contrasted with Herod’s insincere pledge to worship Jesus. In reality, King Herod will try to eliminate this newborn, rival “king of the Jews,” who threatens to usurp his title! Matthew probably has Jesus’ death already in view when he has the magi refer to Jesus as “the king of the Jews” (2:2) rather than as Christ (cf. 2:4), in anticipation of the charge under which Jesus will eventually be crucified (27:11, 29, 37) (Matthew uses the title only in these places).

The magi, who are said to come from the “East,” give the story an exotic flavor. Ancient magi were persons reputed to be adept at astronomy as well as various occult arts, such as astrology, interpretation of dreams, fortune telling, and magic. Here they are clearly thought of as astronomers or astrologers, who have found the rising of a star to be of world-historical significance. It was a common idea in antiquity that the birth or death of great men was accompanied by heavenly signs.4

But there is more than meets the eye in the identification of these magi as from the “East”. The word used for the “East” in the story, anatolai (plural)/anatole (singular), really means “the rising,” that is, the rising of the sun (our word “orient” comes from a Latin word with the same meaning: oriens). The word anatole would have had a number of resonances for the first Greek-speaking, Jewish-Christian hearers of Matthew’s story. First, the rising of the sun in the East readily suggests the imagery of light, which is often associated with salvation in the Bible. The Old Testament reading for the day (Isaiah 60:1-6), to which the magi story clearly alludes (see especially verses 5-6), begins with the words, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” The verb for “has risen” here, in the Septuagint translation, is anatetalken, from the same root as anatole. Isaiah’s vision of salvation includes a pilgrimage of the nations, who will come to Israel’s light, to worship the God of Israel. The Gentile magi are to be understood as enacting the fulfillment of this prophecy.

The verb anatellein appears with equal significance in other texts. We may mention first Numbers 24:17 (Septuagint), which speaks of a star that will rise out of Jacob. This verse was interpreted messianically in Judaism, and it is easy to see how a star could become a symbol for the Messiah. The star of Bethlehem is to be understood against the background of that text. The star indicates that the Messiah has arrived. Anatellein appears again in Matthew 4:16. Matthew comments on Jesus’ appearance in Capernaum with a citation of Isaiah 8:23-9:1, which speaks of light shining on those who dwell in darkness. Matthew chooses the verb anatellein (not in the Septuagint). His usage is very similar to Luke 1:78-79, which speaks of the “dawn (anatole) from on high” that “will break upon us” (NRSV), to give light (epiphanai) to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, also an allusion to Isaiah 9:1; 60:1-2.

Finally, the word anatole is used in Jeremiah 23:5 with a different, but related meaning. Here the word refers to the righteous branch of David, that is, the Messiah. The branch that shoots up from a tree is a “rising” of a different kind (cf. Isaiah 11:1).

These (and perhaps other) Old Testament texts have undoubtedly lent their emphases on the coming of light, of the Messiah, and of salvation to the story of the magi. While Matthew’s gospel ends with the risen Jesus’ command to the disciples to go out from Galilee to make disciples of all nations (28:19), the gospel begins with an anticipatory visit of the Gentiles to Judea to worship the newborn Messiah. The magi stand for all the nations, including us, who would come to worship Jesus, the Messiah of Israel (Psalm 72:10-11), and see the manifestation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus (Isaiah 60:1-2; cf. John 1:14; 2 Corinthians 4:6).


1 Hans Förster, “Epiphany (V),” Religion Past & Present (ed. H.D. Betz et al.; 13 volumes; Leiden: Brill 2008), 4.506.

2 That the magi were kings is only a later Christian tradition developed under the influence of Ps 72:10-11. That there were three magi/kings is not stated by Matthew but was deduced from the three gifts in Matt 2:11.

3 Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 188–89.

4 Brown, Messiah, 170.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 60:1-6

Michael J. Chan

Isaiah 60 casts a magnificent vision of Zion’s future — full of light, prosperity, and prestige.

This city, whose history is riddled with the wreckage of war and marked by the scars of empire, will exchange the sounds of violence and ruin for the clamor of reconstruction and international traffic. To gain a fuller appreciation for what this text hopes for and how it imagines Zion’s future, one must move beyond the boundaries established by the lectionary (Isaiah 60:1-6) to include the entire pericope (Isaiah 60:1-22). When considered in its entirety, the oracle can be broken into three broad movements: vv. 1-3, 4-17, 18-22.

Isaiah 60:1-3 is flooded with divine light: “Arise, shine, for your light has dawned; the presence of the Lord has shone upon you!” (v. 1). Darkness will afflict the earth, but upon Zion “the Lord will shine” (v. 2). The echoes of the plague of darkness (Exodus 10:21-29) are clear, only this time, it is unleashed on a global scale: The whole earth will be plunged into darkness, and Zion alone will mediate divine light to the nations and will become a lantern by which kings will walk (v. 3).

Reading Isaiah 60:4-17 is like standing in front of a slow moving parade, and this may very well be the point. The authors enjoin their readers, “raise your eyes and look about” (v. 4). What does one see? Not only returning exiles (v. 4) but “the wealth of nations” (v. 5): camels, dromedaries, gold, frankincense, flocks, rams, offerings, silver, laborers to restore the city, vassal kings, and lumber, will adorn Jerusalem’s streets. Like other great imperial capitals of the Near East, Jerusalem will “suck the milk of the nations” (v. 16). One thing is clear: Zion’s fortunes have been reversed: “Bowing before you, shall come the children of those who tormented you; prostrate at the soles of your feet shall be all those who reviled you” (v. 14).

The astounding claims continue in Isaiah 60:18-22. The familiar clamor of violence will cease to haunt Jerusalem’s blood-soaked streets. Instead, the walls and gates of the city will be renamed, “victory” and “renown” (v. 18), to commemorate Zion’s new status. Not only will violence cease, the whole nature of creation will change: the sun and moon will retire from their celestial duties, because the Lord himself will be Zion’s everlasting light (vv. 19-20). All of Zion’s people will be righteous and will possess the land forever (v. 21). Even the smallest will become an entire class, and the least a mighty nation (v. 22). Peace, prestige, and power — these are Zion’s destiny.

“Reversal.” This is the word that best describes the hope expressed in Isaiah 60. Through the power of God, the oppressed are put into power; those once stripped of resources and goods not only receive what was taken from them, they become exceedingly wealthy in the process; those driven far from Jerusalem return. The world, the text claims, is about to be turned on its head.

One thing the author of Isaiah 60 did not change, however, is the organization of imperial power. The differentials and binaries present in Near Eastern empires — and many empires, for that matter — remain unchanged in Isaiah 60’s vision of the future. There is zero tolerance for disobedience in this new system: “For the nation or the kingdom that does not serve you shall perish; such nations shall be destroyed” (Isaiah 60:12). The forgiveness, compassion, and redemption promised to Zion will never be available for those who disobey the new empire in this new reality: disobedience is death. New empire, same as the last?

These observations raise an important set of questions, especially given the fact that this text is used to inform Christian thinking about the future of creation. While profound in its capacity to imagine a new and hopeful future, Isaiah 60 is never able to move beyond a discourse of domination, despite Israel’s own story of redemption from oppression in Egypt. In its worst moments, this text is a revenge fantasy that longs for one’s oppressors to be the oppressed, for the masters to be the servants, and for the system of economic oppression to be tilted in favor of the victims. At the very least, one can say that Isaiah 60 doesn’t go as far as other Isaianic texts, which imagine Zion as a place where violence ceases to exist (Isaiah 11:9; 65:25).

Do we really want our advent hope to be funded by texts like this? Is the power one finds in the cross and Advent, where divine power manifests itself in weakness and suffering, the power one finds in this text? Does such a text remain a useful source for Christian eschatological thinking?

Martin Luther gave us a profound lesson in how to wield divine power in his essay, “The Freedom of a Christian.” Although certainly not dealing with the kind of political power imagined in Isaiah 60, there is deep wisdom in his claim that all the riches of heaven are given to us in Christ, not in order that one might subjugate others, but rather that the Christian might empty himself, take on the form of a servant, and “in every way deal with his neighbor as he sees that God through Christ has dealt and still deals with him.”1 The divine power we have in Christ, in other words, is power for the neighbor. Great power, of course, enables the domination of those who are weaker. Terrifying is the fact that great power actually enables us to act out our revenge fantasies. But if we take a cue from Luther, then we realize that power does something else; it frees us, not to subjugate, but to serve, not crush but to heal, not to extract resources but to provide them for those less fortunate.

So in the end, should one preach Isaiah 60 and its ilk? Yes, absolutely. Preach it, talk about our hope in God’s ability to remake our fractured world, and to reconcile on earth what has already been reconciled in heaven. But when you do preach on Isaiah 60, also use it as an opportunity to teach your congregation that biblical interpretation is not about uncritical adoption of what the Bible claims. Rather, biblical interpretation is always and at every time dialogical. It evokes a conversation between the reader and the text.


1 Martin Luther, Martin Luther: Selections from His Writing (ed. John Dillenberger; Garden City: Doubleday, 1961), 75.


Commentary on Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Fred Gaiser

On the festival of the Epiphany, the church celebrates the coming of all nations to God’s light, now shining forth in Jesus of Nazareth. In Christ, the kingdom of God is thrown open to all!

We need not, and probably should not, claim that the writer of Isaiah 60 already had in mind the wise men of the Gospel; but Matthew surely had Isaiah 60 in mind when he wrote of the coming of these wise men “from the East.” We learn in Matthew that they came seeking the child who had been born the “king of the Jews.” For Herod, that notion was bad enough, but the vision of the wise men, broad as it was, was not broad enough. The news would get worse for coming generations of would-be monarchs and emperors. This child, this Jesus, was not to be just king of the Jews, but, like God, “king of all the earth” (Psalm 47:7). Psalm 72, celebrating Solomon’s kingship, doesn’t quite get to that point, but the church’s confession will do so.

Significant as that confession is, it has its problems, and those are evident in Psalm 72 — and, to a lesser degree, in Matthew 2.

The problem with the role of king is not only its male imagery (imagery and language that are, alas, unavoidable as we discuss this psalm), but also its vision of the ruler as a kind of overlord to which all must bring tribute. In Matthew’s account, the gifts of the wise men seem to be just that: gifts, freely given. But in Psalm 72, those gifts are “tribute,” as that which comes from a “vassal” (for example, 2 Kings 17:3), or something “imposed” (2 Kings 23:33). Is the “gold of Sheba” (Psalm 72:15) given willingly, or is this an example of how the enemies of Israel must “lick the dust” (Psalm 72:10), as the psalm’s parallelism suggests? The coming of the nations in Psalm 72, and to some degree in Isaiah 60, is at least slightly ambiguous. Yes, they come, but do they like it? The preacher will want to avoid any sense of requiring the “nations” (like us) to bow down (you better!), moving instead to inviting them to join all believers in bowing down because of the overwhelming graciousness of this new ruler.

Despite its ambiguity, the psalm at least hints at this positive aspect of the worship of the nations. Finally, all nations pronounce the king “happy” (or blessed) because they find themselves “blessed” in him (Psalm 72:17; carrying forward the promise of the blessing of the nations through Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12:3). Nevertheless, the king of the psalm remains Israel’s king, not really their own. There will still be a way to go.

And how will they or we get there? We will need to consider other aspects of the psalm and of its king — aspects that are more compelling to the hearer (and hopefully to the nations), leading them to bless the king just because they will, not because they must. It is not really good news for the preacher merely to point out the phenomenon that nations come to the king (or to Jesus). That is just information. Tell me why, that I may come as well.

And how does the psalm tell us this? The logic (or theo-logic) is found in the grammar and structure of the psalm, formal elements that amplify the crucial content of the righteous monarch’s rule:

  • judging rightly (indeed, with God’s own justice)
  • prosperity for all
  • the flourishing of creation
  • care for the poor, the weak, and the needy
  • freedom from oppression

These are familiar biblical themes, often urged by the prophets. Interestingly, here they are seen as the tasks of the king, the one whom the prophets often accuse of failing in these very duties. Here, the roles of monarch and prophet are not at odds, rather they become one — as the church confesses they do in Jesus (along with the role of priest).

Normally, I do not favor attempts to “fix” Old Testament texts by too quickly finding Jesus behind every figurative bush, but for Psalm 72 little fixing is needed. The psalm itself proclaims the prophetic work of liberation, justice, and care for the oppressed that Jesus took upon himself in his first sermon (Luke 4:16-21).

So, those are the themes. How are they amplified by the psalm’s structure and grammar? We see that clearly in the verses that go beyond today’s assigned text. As a reminder, the lectionary verses are chosen (and others omitted) for liturgical reasons. Properly to turn a liturgical text into a preaching text will almost always require looking at and often including its larger context. That brings us to Psalm 72:12-15a, where, following all the jussive “may he’s” of verses 1-11 (continuing in vv. 15b-17), we get this significant breakthrough:

May, may, may …

For! (Hebrew ki; 12a) — because he delivers and cares for the needy and saves them from oppression

So! (Hebrew waw; 15a) — therefore, may he (like Spock?) live long and prosper1

May, may, may …

The ki (Hebrew) is the “key” (English) to the text. Bad pun, but the point is important. May all these things happen to the king, not just because he is king, certainly not because he can enforce subservience, but because he does the Messiah’s work of caring for “the least of these” (Matthew 25:45). To this, at last, we can come not because we should or must, but because we want to, because we are called to, because we can, because we can’t not. This is where we belong.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 3:1-12

Sarah Henrich

The writing style of the author of Ephesians seems at first glance more sing-able than preach-able.

Set it to music and let the organist have at it! One subordinate clause follows another. One image piles upon another, just as we saw in Ephesians 1:3-14. Yet, as in the opening cadences of this letter, we find themes made powerful by the repetition of certain words and by the very grammar of the passage. This passage lays before us opportunities for exploration of less familiar concepts that may be of great value to contemporary Christians. There is an open-endedness implied, a process in which God’s revelation is precisely that, God’s to grant as God will. At the same time, that revelation is in accord with God’s creative activity and promises. One hears the conviction that although time may pass at nearly interminable length for us, God is neither deterred nor distracted from being known by all God’s creatures (see “all things”, for instance, in v. 9), not least the Gentiles who had not known God. It is only through the gift of revelation (unveiling) that reliable and surprising new insight comes (insight which profoundly affects social relationships). Why would insight from God prove surprising? Perhaps because it seemed unpredictable. Perhaps also because God’s wisdom is both multi-faceted and inscrutable. Because God is patient, persevering, and powerful in working out God’s will (cf. energeian, v. 7), it is important that these mysteries of God are reliably good news.

For contemporary believers all these claims so confidently made and given now for us through the wisdom of Christ embodied in the church, are indeed good news. Ephesians puts before us a God whose fullness is rich and calls for our best learning, discernment, and engagement. Ephesians puts us in a world, that reign of God although the author does not use that language, in which we may expect to be surprised, not only by C. S. Lewis’ “joy,” but also by new insight (sunesin), understanding, knowledge, all of which may create for us new neighbors whom God has from the dawn of time intended for us.

Let me begin with a little attention to the structure of the passage. Over and over again in these verses the writer points to the purpose of God in two distinct ways. One way is by the use of Greek indications of the purpose of event. In a second and connected method, the author underlines explicitly and implicitly God’s agency in these events.

As to purpose, check out verses 1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, and 10. The author moves from the purpose for which he has stewardship (oikonomian) of God’s grace for the sake of the Gentiles to whom he writes. This stewardship has a purpose, namely that of revealing to the Gentiles a mystery that they had previously not known. The purpose of the revelation was to enable Gentiles to trust the insight of the writer and become as a people (v. 6) co-inheritors, one body, sharers in the promises of the gospel. This great gift, emphasized by the repetitions of the preposition syn attached to three consecutive nouns, was not the end of the story, however. One thinks of Isaiah reminding Israel that their own covenant relationship with God was a great and unmerited gift the sharing of which was their calling (Isaiah 49:6).

Not least because God is the creator of all things (v. 9), it is the calling of the churches/assemblies (who, we recall from v. 6, are “one body”) to make known to leaders and authorities (v. 10) the “many-faceted wisdom of God.” The high calling of Christians together is the sharing of God’s very wisdom which, for this author, is many-faceted. The word polypoikilos shows up only here in the New Testament. Because God is creator of all, God’s wisdom concerns even the leaders and powers of heaven. Because God’s wisdom (sophia) is many-sided or varied and inscrutable (anexichniaston, v. 8: see also apokekrummenou from apokrupto, v. 9), making known this wisdom requires the very boldness and freedom (parrhesia, v. 12) which we already have (exomen, a present tense verb, v. 12).

At the same time that churches are challenged by the good news and gift of receiving revelation of God’s mystery in order to share it as a call to the highest powers, they/we are humbled and encouraged by the constant reminder that we are given this insight, given this revelation, granted lives as co-inheritors of God’s promise. Passive verbs with God as an implied subject abound. Such verbs are used to describe the writer’s own calling (vv. 2, 3, 7, 8). Such verbs describe also the calling of the churches (vv. 2, 5, 10). The source of gift and calling is made explicit as well, lest we attribute them to any of those lesser, but still strong, powers and authorities on high (v. 10). In v. 2 it is the stewardship of God’s grace which was given. In v. 4 it is the mystery of Christ the understanding of which is to be shared. In v. 5 revelation happens by the spirit, as in v. 7 the grace of God was given by the working of God’s own power. Christ Jesus as agent appears in 11 and 12 (by his faithfulness, dia tes pisteos autou).

Thus does the author reassure his hearers of the validity of promises of their inclusion as children of God who share in the very body of God’s people. Likewise, he assures them of the high seriousness of a calling that speaks to boldly to power through discernment of the very mysteries planted in creation and brought to light (see v. 9.) Thus also does the author establish God’s great fidelity even in the midst of sudden turn to include Gentiles as part of God’s people. It is, of course, through Christ that all this has come to pass, from the concrete circumstances of the writer (v. 1) to the confidence and boldness of grace bestowed on all believers (v. 12). Christ is mentioned five times by name and/or title and understood as the antecedent of autou (v. 12). It is the mystery, the promises, the riches, and the faith of Christ that are shared for the empowerment and inclusion of a people who once were no people.

For preaching? My goodness, there is so much. The trustworthiness of God over time, experienced and enacted in ways that could not be predicted or anticipated. The generosity of God in giving, giving, giving for enlightenment, discernment, hope, confidence. The commitment of God to create reliable leaders and re-create us as bold speakers of the truth. The call of God’s people to find a way to utter those promises of inclusion, belonging, and the ongoing passion of the creator for the creation. The presence of Christ and the reality of a savior crucified and raised (note those passive verbs), who with the spirit shapes and empowers life throughout the cosmos. The reality that even our call to speak truth to power is a humble calling, for all is not yet clear or settled in such a way that any of us can know for certain. That what makes us who we are as believers, our glory, our visible reputation (doxa, v. 13) is to abide in confidence of God’s calling and our own, in the faithfulness of Christ.