The star was so beautiful, large, and clear,
That all the other stars of the sky
Became a white mist in the atmosphere.
And by this they knew that the coming was near
Of the Prince foretold in prophecy.
Thus wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow concerning the star of Bethlehem, which of all the signs and wonders surrounding the first Christmas is perhaps the most mysterious.
The Bible says that some time after Jesus was born, “Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him’ ” (Matt. 2:1-2). The Magi obviously had an interest in astronomy. Probably they were astrologers, men who consulted the stars to make predictions about what was happening in the world. As they studied the heavens, they saw something to indicate that a king had been born in Judea, but what, exactly, did they see?
There have been many theories. Some Christians think that the star was a supernatural light–something never seen before, or since. They imagine it hovering over the Magi on their journey, directly guiding them until finally coming to rest a few feet over the house where Jesus was. Others think it was a comet or a conjunction of planets. Johannes Kepler thought it was a supernova–an exploding star. Still others think it was a meteor shower. Just this year the noted British astronomer Sir Patrick Moore published a book arguing that the bright light that identified the birthplace of Christ could only have been caused by shooting stars [The Star of Publishing, Canopus, 2001].
What are we to make of this and other theories? The place to start is with the biblical facts. First there is the word “star,” which seems straightforward enough. However, the Greek word does not settle the matter because it can also refer to other heavenly objects.
The next fact to notice is that the Star of Bethlehem made a sudden appearance. Literally, the Wise Men saw it “rising in the east” (Matt. 2:2). Presumably they had never seen anything like it. Otherwise, why would they have followed it? The star’s sudden emergence is confirmed by King Herod, who “called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared” (Matt. 2:7).
The star disappeared just as suddenly as it appeared. This is why the Magi stopped in Jerusalem to ask for directions instead of going straight to Bethlehem. Then the star reappeared! This is the clear implication of verses 9 and 10: “After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.”
It is of course possible that the Magi saw some supernatural light that God kept bringing in and out of the sky as needed. However, in that case one would expect other people to have seen it and perhaps even to have followed it. The trouble is that there is no record of any such celestial event during the appropriate time period. Nor are there any records of comets or novas. In all probability the Star of Bethlehem was a subtler sign, the kind of thing that only experts like the Magi would have even noticed.
The most convincing explanation is that they witnessed several conjunctions of Jupiter, the planet that represented kingship. A number of such conjunctions took place in the years leading up to the death of Herod. In its annual program “Star of Wonder,” Chicago’s Adler Planetarium makes a persuasive case for one of these celestial events. This view is also advocated by Craig Chester of the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy, who writes,
In September of 3 B.C., Jupiter came into conjunction with Regulus, the star of kingship, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo. Leo was the constellation of kings, and it was associated with the Lion of Judah. The royal planet approached the royal star in the royal constellation representing Israel. Just a month earlier, Jupiter and Venus, the Mother planet, had almost seemed to touch each other in another close conjunction, also in Leo. Then the conjunction between Jupiter and Regulus was repeated, not once but twice, in February and May of 2 B.C. Finally, in June of 2 B.C., Jupiter and Venus, the two brightest objects in the sky save the sun and the moon, experienced an even closer encounter when their disks appeared to touch; to the naked eye they became a single object above the setting sun. This exceptionally rare spectacle could not have been missed by the Magi [Craig Chester, “The Star of Bethlehem,” Imprimis, December, 1993, Vol. 22, No. 12].
When the Magi saw this “star,” they headed for Jerusalem. The Bible does not say that they followed the star at this point in their journey, but only that they went to Judea. They did follow the star to Bethlehem. They would have seen Jupiter and Venus in the south, and followed it the five miles to Bethlehem. When they reached the village they would have seen it above the horizon–from their perspective stopping over the place where the child was.
If one of these astronomical events involving Jupiter is the right interpretation, it is a remarkable testimony to God’s sovereignty. It means that from the very creation of the world, God organized the solar system–and indeed the entire universe–in a way that would signify the birth of his Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ.
It is also a remarkable testimony to God’s grace. How strange it is that the Savior’s birth was first revealed to astrologers. God had always forbidden astrology. Nevertheless, he used a heavenly sign to lead the Magi to Jesus. This does not mean that God condones horoscopes. It does mean that he speaks to people where they are, in ways that they can understand, in order ultimately to lead them to himself. The Magi did not know anything about Jesus when they first set out for Judea. But they followed the one clue that God gave them, and in the end they met him as their Savior and Lord.
Jesus said “he who seeks finds” (Matt. 7:8). That is still true today. Everyone who truly seeks after God will find him. God is not likely to send you a star, or even a planetary conjunction. But he has given you a clue. Tonight he has led you to a church where a word from God will be preached from this pulpit. If you keep seeking him you too will find him.
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