I always find the events surrounding the most important birth in the world fascinating. And it seems as if each Advent season, something new captures my attention. Just what was the deal with the star the wise men saw that drew them to Jerusalem to speak with king Herod? I certainly don’t offer anything conclusive, I’m no astronomer, nor do I have some secret knowledge that scholars through the centuries have lacked, but some textual observations to bring perhaps a bit more clarity …
1- Matthew is the only Gospel writer that records the piece of the story including the wise men from the east and the star (Matthew 2:1-12). Remember Matthew was written for a Jewish audience, an audience well acquainted with the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures. It appears the idea of the star being connected to the Star Prophecy of Numbers 24:17 may have been in Matthew’s mind and a detail he felt important to his audience. This Star Prophecy came to represent the coming of a great deliverer for the nation of Israel. The “War Scroll” found at Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) as well as its role in the Jewish holdout at Masada give ample historical evidence that the Jewish people zealously held to the star prophecy and the “star that would come out of Jacob”. Of course they understood it to be a King, and in the Christmas story it represents the symbol of a King or the announcement of a King. So I believe we could conclude that it was an important part of the story for the Jewish readers in proving that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah – Star.
2- Wise men in the east (astronomers) knew what to look for, they were studying the heavens. Hmm … Lots of celestial occurrences have been identified to try and attach a reasonable explanation to the physical event of the Christmas star. And in each case the timing, location in the sky, or plausibility seems rather forced, or at best a guess. Here’s what we do know, these non-Jews were directed by some occurrence in the heavens to pack up and head a great distance to Jerusalem. They recognized something unique was happening, but not everyone could observe it. Contrary to popular Christmas pictures there was most likely not a huge star with its tail pointing like an arrow down to the Bethlehem location. It took a trained eye and mind to observe this celestial anomaly, one that even Herod’s wise men had no knowledge of. If everyone could have seen this like a neon sign in the sky, would not there have been huge crowds lined up to see what the strobe light was advertising? At least a few months had passed since the birth of Jesus and it still appeared to be relatively unknown to many (2:3-4), but not to the wise men.
3- When the wise men got to Jerusalem, had their visit with Herod, and were sent off to Bethlehem, the text says the star “went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was”. Even if Matthew doesn’t have the proper astronomical vocabulary to scientifically describe what is happening, it still seems quite clear that something unique (dare I say supernatural) is going on. But again, only to the trained eye, otherwise why wouldn’t Herod’s soldiers just have followed the star also and killed baby Jesus? So, God directs these wise men to the new King and they worship with great joy. Angels announced the birth to shepherds, and the heavens announced the birth to the wise men, it’s not like this was a normal natural birth in the first place. So, I’d propose this is one of those events in Scripture where science and faith appear together – wise trained scientists who exercised faith and embraced the supernatural.
4- What to make of all of this? I offer two conclusions. First, this was yet another picture of the divine invading the human. God entered the realm of man. Heaven came down to earth. The supernatural broke through the natural. And God included the wise men of the east to validate this occurrence. Second, this event marked to the Jewish readers that the “Star Prophecy” was not just for the nation of Israel, but for the world. Worshippers come from outside of Israel to bring gifts to this unique King, and the heavens declare that this king is for the whole world, announced in the heavens not only to Jewish shepherds but for all peoples. A divine announcement that a Savior has come to redeem mankind from every tribe and tongue!
So friends, let’s be people of great joy, like the wise men. Let’s fix our minds on the God who created the universe and can use every part of it to declare His glory. Let’s be people who care about the nations, all of them, and capture God’s heart for the world at Christmas time. A Savior indeed has come who alone takes away the sin of the world. Rejoice with exceedingly great joy (2:10)!
Looking to the Star,