Our Lord’s Epiphany in 2 Tim 1:9-10

I was meditating recently on this text:

2Ti 1:9 [God] hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began, 10 But is now made manifest by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel:

The word “appearing” is the Greek word “epiphany” ἐπιφανεια. It is the basis for the feast of Epiphany celebrated in January in liturgical churches to commemorate the appearance of God in our Lord’s incarnation. But is this really what epiphany means?

Elsewhere in the NT this word refers only to  the Lord’s return.  (A.T. Robertson claims that ἐπιφανεια is used of the incarnation in Tit 2:11 and Tit 3:4, but what appears there is the grace (2:11), kindness, and love (3:4) of God, not the person of our Lord.) Most commentators treat our verse as an exception. The only one I’ve read who does not view it as an exception is J.D. White in the Expositor’s Greek Testament. He writes:

The ἐπιφανεια here must not be referred to the Incarnation, considered as having taken place at a particular moment in time. It includes it; the ἐπιφανεια began then; and will be continued, becoming ever brighter and clearer, until its consummation, to which the term ἐπιφάνεια is elsewhere restricted.

It struck me today that this may not be an exception at all. Careful attention to the flow of the passage and the structure of this verse suggests that the reference here, as in all other NT texts, is to the Lord’s future return, and not to the incarnation.

The passage is built around six aorist participles. The middle two are passive: “given” and “made manifest.” The two on either side, “saved” and “chose” in v. 9 and “abolished” and “brought-to-light” in v. 10, are active. The Father is clearly the subject of the active participles in v. 9, and it makes sense for us to understand him as the subject of the last two as well.

If we look more closely at the last two participles, we observe that the second one is modified by a phrase introduced by the preposition δια, rendered in our version by “through [the gospel].” This phrase tells how God has brought life and immortality to light: he has done it through the gospel.

How about the next-to-last participle, “abolished [death]”? This blessing has not yet been realized. 1 Cor 15:25-26 teaches that death is the last enemy to be abolished (καταργεω, the same verb as in 2 Tim 1:10), at the end of our Lord’s rule, as recorded in Rev 20:14. The prerequisite for abolishing death is our Lord’s return. And immediately before the participle “abolished” in 2 Tim 1:10,  we have the reference to our Lord’s epiphany. Like the phrase modifying “brought-to-light,” it is also in a phrase introduced by δια, “by [the appearing…].” The use of the aorist “tense” for the participle “abolished” is no obstacle to understanding it of an event yet to take place. The use of the aorist throughout these verses is what a grammarian would call “gnomic,” setting forth a general and timeless truth. Our version already understand the aorist as gnomic at the start of v. 10, where it translates “is made manifest,” an aorist participle, with an English present tense. We should understand “abolish death,” not as a claim about when something happens, but simply that it happens, and that God makes it happen. God abolishes death, and he does so by means of the appearing of our Lord.

I suggest that the epiphany phrase explains how God abolishes death, just as “through the gospel” explains how he brings life and immortality to life. Here’s a translation that makes this connection clearer. I translate the aorists as English presents to emphasize their gnomic nature:

2Ti 1:9 [God] saves us, and calls us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which is given us in Christ Jesus before the world began, 10 But is now made manifest. By the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ he abolishes death, and brings life and immortality to light through the gospel:

So there is no exception. The epiphany of our Lord in 2 Tim 1:10, as everywhere else in the NT, refers to his future coming in glory to set up his kingdom over all the earth. The incarnation is a wonderful event, but we ought not to call it “epiphany.” That hasn’t happened yet, and we should eagerly look forward to it.

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