What Should Christians Know about an Epiphany?
By Whitney Hopler, Crosswalk.com
Have you ever experienced a sudden spiritual revelation? If so, it may have been an epiphany. What is an epiphany, and what happens when you experience one? Learning what the Bible says about that can help you move closer to God.
What Is an Epiphany?
An epiphany is a moment of sudden and great spiritual insight. It is often associated with times when God surprises people by showing them something wondrous about himself and his will. As a result of experiencing an epiphany, people understand their relationships with God in new ways, which helps them grow in wisdom and feel awe.
The English word “epiphany” comes from the Greek word “epiphaneia,” which means “appearance” or “manifestation.” God appears to people in fresh ways through epiphanies by giving them important spiritual revelations.
People use the word epiphany in different ways. Generally, they speak of an epiphany as a sudden spiritual revelation. When the word is capitalized, it refers to the Christian holiday called Epiphany, which is usually celebrated 12 days after Christmas. Epiphany commemorates how God incarnate as Jesus Christ revealed his divinity to the Magi (also known as the three kings or three wise men) who visited young Jesus. Matthew 2:9-11 says: “…the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” Another way people speak of an epiphany is as an appearance or manifestation of God. That can refer to any instance when God shows up in a tangible form. Most often, when people talk about an epiphany, they mean an experience in which they suddenly understand the essence of something spiritual.
Were There Epiphanies in the Bible?
The Bible is full of stories of epiphanies that come from God, as he reveals himself and his will to people. In the Old Testament, God often speaks to people through prophets, and prophets experience epiphanies when God speaks to them. In the New Testament, God continues to speak through epiphanies – especially as he reveals his divine plan to incarnate as Jesus to save humanity from sin.
One powerful way people experience an epiphany in the Bible is through a theophany – a tangible manifestation of God. That includes the “angel of the Lord” appearances in the Old Testament (Genesis 16:7-14, Genesis 22:11-18, Exodus 3:2, 1 Kings 19:1-8, 2 Kings 19:35, and other passages), which many scholars believe are Jesus showing up before his incarnation. One of the most famous epiphanies in the Bible is also a theophany. It happens when Moses encounters God on Mount Sinai. Exodus chapter 3 describes that encounter, during which Moses asked God for his name to tell the Israelites. Exodus 3:14 records: “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.’” That is a powerful moment of revelation, since God reveals both his name and his nature to Moses.
In Genesis chapter 28, the prophet Jacob has a dream that is also an epiphany. Genesis 28:12-15 describes it: “He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: ‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” That epiphany leads Jacob to understand his relationship with God in a new way, inspiring him with awe. After waking up, Jacob says in Genesis 28:17: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
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The Bible also features epiphanies that people experienced after encounters with angels who brought them messages from God. For example, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she would give birth to the Son of God. Luke 1:28-38 reports: “The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.’ Mary was greatly troubled by his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.’ ‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’ The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth, your relative, is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.’ ‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ Then the angel left her.” During that epiphany, Mary realized the significance of her role in God’s plan.
The apostle Paul (whose Jewish name is Saul) experienced an epiphany that changed his life dramatically – from someone who tried to murder Christians, to someone who risked his own life to spread the Gospel message. Acts 9:3-6 reports: “As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’” This was a moment of great spiritual revelation, as Paul realized that Jesus was the Son of God and that he was to preach Jesus’ message of hope to other people. When Paul got up from the ground, he was blind, so the men traveling with him had to lead him to a house. God then gave him a vision during the prayer of a man visiting that house to heal his eyes, and God also reached out to that man, Ananias, to call him to do so. Acts 9:17-18 says: “Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord – Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here – has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit. Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized,”. That epiphany is a moment of great insight that leads Saul (whose Roman name is Paul) to become a highly influential leader in the early church.
How Should Christians View Epiphanies?
We should view epiphanies as surprise gifts from God. Every time we experience an epiphany, we can respond with gratitude and learn the spiritual lessons God is teaching us through that sudden revelation.
Epiphanies remind us that it’s important to constantly seek to know God more. When we feel awe as a result of encountering God’s wonder during an epiphany, we become motivated to keep seeking closer relationships with God. My book Wake Up to Wonder describes many ways to do so, including prayer and meditation, time in nature, lifelong learning, and worship. In Jeremiah 29:13, God tells us: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” As we seek God, we’re bound to find him through epiphanies when he reveals more about himself to us.
We should also be sure to evaluate the epiphanies we experience in light of their alignment with God’s Word, the Bible, to make sure that they’re genuine. God will often use the Bible to speak to us in fresh ways that can lead to epiphanies. Hebrews 4:12 declares: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” We can ask the Holy Spirit to help us evaluate and confirm the authenticity of epiphanies.
Epiphanies are sudden moments of insight that can inspire us with awe and strengthen our faith. In the Bible, these moments often come from God, as he reveals himself and his will to people. Through these moments of revelation, God reveals his divine nature and purpose, and calls us into closer relationships with him.
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Whitney Hopler is the author of the Wake Up to Wonder book and the Wake Up to Wonder blog, which help people thrive through experiencing awe. She leads the communications work at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. Whitney has served as a writer, editor, and website developer for leading media organizations, including Crosswalk.com, The Salvation Army USA’s national publications, and Dotdash.com (where she produced a popular channel on angels and miracles). She has also written the young adult novel Dream Factory. Connect with Whitney on Twitter and Facebook.