Epiphany and Gospel-Passion for the Nations
Today is Epiphany, the day on which the Church celebrates the arrival of the Magi to honor and give gifts to the Christ child. The Magi were foreigners come to honor Christ as king. Matthew is commonly known as the gospel to the Jews; so it may strike some as somewhat peculiar that the first evangelist would place an account of the journey of these (non-Jewish) Magi prominently near the beginning of his gospel. When we remember, however, that the Old Testament – the Psalms and Isaiah not least – is full of passages that anticipate the day when Israel’s Messiah shall rule the nations, it shouldn’t surprise us that the gospel to the Jews would highlight a vignette in which representatives of the nations flock to worship “the child who has been born king of the Jews” (Matt 2:2).
Given this focus on the gospel for the nations, the lectionary yesterday directed us to Ephesians 3:1-12, in which Paul explains the mystery that God has kept hidden for ages, namely that “the nations have become co-inheritors and participating members of the covenant promises in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:6). That the nations have been incorporated into the promises of God to Abraham and his descendants drives the passion of the apostle to the Gentiles. It is that passion that motivated him to write (despite his sufferings) in hope that the churches – then and now – would catch his passion. So, as we celebrate and anticipate the ongoing in-gathering of the nations, here are three reasons drawn from Ephesians 2 and 3 for why we as Christians should have a passion for getting the gospel to every nation.
1. Because God is Passionate about the Nations
There’s a reason that the gospel accounts of Christ’s suffering and death have come to be known as passion narratives. Our word “passion” comes from a Latin word that means to suffer, and if you care so deeply about another person that you are willing to suffer for them to the point of death on a cross, then it’s safe to say you are passionate about them. When Paul starts talking about what is accomplished in the cross in Ephesians 2:11-22, his focus is on its instrumentality in creating peace between Israel and the nations. The uncircumcised have been reconciled to the circumcised; those alien to the commonwealth of Israel have been made citizens; strangers to the covenant are now participating members. “The blood of Christ” has done away with division and hostility between Israel and the nations to create “in Christ” a “new humanity in place of the two” (Eph 2:13-15). The cross is not only about individual forgiveness (it is about that because that’s how you get in!), but also about creating a worldwide and international single people of God in Christ. If the cross means anything, it means that God is passionate about incorporating the nations into the family of Abraham through the preaching of the gospel. And if God is that passionate about the nations, then his people must be passionate too.
2. Because We are the Nations
If you are reading this as a Christ-following Jew, then you are permitted to skip on to number three. I’m writing as an American of Irish descent, which means that when Paul writes in Ephesians 2:11-12 about the Gentiles who are “aliens from the commonwealth…strangers to the covenants….having no hope and without God in the world,” he is talking about me, and everyone else who is not physically descended from Abraham. Of all people, we should be passionate about getting the gospel to the nations because we are the nations. Those who by grace have been “brought near by the blood of Christ” and made citizens of the commonwealth of Israel and members of the covenant have benefited incalculably from the passion of God for the nations. Shall we now not also passionately desire the unreached peoples of the world to likewise share in those rich blessings of God’s extravagant mercy? We should be passionate about getting the gospel to the nations because the passion of God has brought the gospel to us.
3. Because an International Church Displays the Richness of God’s Wisdom
This is the plan, the design, the point of everything. This is what history is all about. If you want to know why God made all things, why God made you and me and the world, the answer comes in Ephesian 3:10; he did it so that “through the Church the wisdom of God in its many-splendored variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” As someone once said, “It’s not about you,” and it’s not about me. As it turns out, it’s about God. Creation is about God. History is about God. The Church is about God, and about displaying the magnificently rich and varied wisdom of God. I’ve read that the Greek word rendered above as “many-splendored” is one that would be used to describe a garden with every imaginable color of flower. That’s the rich variety of the wisdom of God, and richness like that could never be properly displayed in a single homogeneous people-group. It takes a diverse people to display the beauty of the multifaceted wisdom of God. Thus the mystery of God has been revealed: the nations have been incorporated into the one people of God. God desires a Church made up of every nation because God has designed the Church as the stage on which is displayed the magnificence of the beauty of his incomparable glory. If we want the world to marvel at the wisdom of God, then we ought to be passionately taking the gospel to the nations in order that the wonder of the wisdom of God might be displayed as he has designed.
So, how’s your passion for the nations this Epiphany? I hope it’s on the rise and that the words of the Psalmist will well up within you:
May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all the nations. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon the earth. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you (67:1-5)!