The Star of Bethlehem
INTRODUCTION: There are so many amazing aspects of the events surrounding Christ’s birth, but one that has especially made its way into our decorations, cards, carols and nativity scenes is the Star of Bethlehem. The account of the star has fascinated Bible students and astronomers for centuries. Some claim it was a conjunction of planets, some say a comet, others a supernova in the sky. So what was this star, and why is it important? What was God’s purpose behind the Star of Bethlehem? Those are some of the questions we will seek to answer through this morning’s message.
As we seek to understand God’s purpose for the star, it will be helpful to consider a number of things.
I. Consider the heavens
First of all, consider the heavens. Have you ever gone outside on a clear night and looked up into the night sky? Probably on vacation, right? We get so busy during normal life. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? About a thousand years before Jesus was born, King David (one of Jesus’ ancestors) sat out under the night sky and wrote:
“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4)
David was awestruck by the beauty and the majesty of God’s handiwork. And yet he had no conception of the vast distances and sizes of the objects he observed. We have so much more knowledge of the universe today. And so when we look at the heavens, we should be even more awestruck than David when we consider the wonders of the universe in which we live.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. He created the galaxies and the stars, and he set them spinning in space in astronomical precision. The book of Genesis in the Bible tells us that God gave us the stars in the sky to give light on the earth and to “serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years.” (Genesis 1:14) God designed the universe with order, and as the ancients studied the night sky, they observed this beauty and order.
For the most part, they found the sky was predictable. As the great star wheel turned above the earth, each of the stars stayed in relative position to each other. The moon and the planets moved independently of the stars, but you could still plot their course in the sky. Then, of course, there were also many surprises. Meteor showers, comets, sudden flare-ups in the sky – many of the ancients viewed these as signs or portents in the heavens.
And so it was that the Magi, astrologers from the East, noticed something unusual in the sky around the time of Christ’s birth. Something out of the ordinary caught their attention and spurred them on to make the long journey to Jerusalem. But remember, if God had not first created a universe of such order and precision, this star would not have stood out to them. So before we can consider the miracle of the star, we must first consider the heavens, the beautiful order of God’s handiwork in the stars of the night sky.
II. Consider the Scriptures
When the Magi got to Jerusalem, they began to ask the people: “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.” (Matthew 2:2) Somehow they connected this star with the birth of Christ, and they came seeking Christ to worship him. You might wonder how they could possibly have made such a connection. And for that, we must next consider the Scriptures.
Long before Christ came into the world, the Scriptures foretold his coming. God chose the people of Israel to be his very own, and he gave them the law, the sacrifices, the temple and the promises – all of which pointed forward to Christ. One of those early promises was recorded in the book of Numbers, where it was prophesied: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.” (Numbers 24:17) This promise was connected to an earlier prophecy about the scepter in Genesis which says: “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.” (Genesis 49:10)
Taken together, these prophecies speak of a ruler who will come out of Israel from the tribe of Judah and to whom the obedience of all the nations belongs. Now in the Numbers prophecy, the star is symbolic of this ruler who is to come. And yet it is easy to see how the Magi may have related the image of the star in Numbers to this mysterious star in the east as a sign that the King of the Jews was finally born into this world. And if the obedience of the nations was his, then this Christ was not only King of the Jews but he was a king for all people, and so it was appropriate that even these Magi from a distant land should come to worship him. These may have been just some of the prophecies that the Magi were familiar with.
You might wonder how the Magi would know the Jewish scriptures. Well, if you think back to your Old Testament history, you will recall that when the people of Israel were not faithful to God and his covenant, God scattered them among the nations, sending them into exile. One of those places was Babylon, later conquered by the Persians. The prophet Daniel lived during this time, and he actually served as an advisor for both of these kingdoms. And some of the other advisors at this time were also called magi.
But whether or not it was Daniel who passed these teachings along, because of the exile, the Jewish scriptures were known in these other lands, and so the Magi had access to the prophecies of scripture. Being astrologers, they would have been particularly drawn to those passages in scripture which spoke about stars.
Another Messianic prophecy that may have influenced them would be Isaiah 60 which says:
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Isaiah 60:1-3)
Whatever Scriptures they knew, somehow they were able to make the connection between the star they saw rising in the east and this ruler who was prophesied in the Old Testament. And so they came to worship him.
III. Consider the miracle
So far we have considered the heavens, we have considered the Scriptures. But if we are going to understand God’s purpose in all this, we must also consider the miracle. Because it is clear from Matthew that this was no ordinary star. It was a miraculous sign sent from heaven to mark the birth of God’s Son.
The star was miraculous in at least two ways. First of all, the timing was miraculous. The star appeared at the time of Christ’s birth. We read in Matthew that “Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.” (Matthew 2:7) Why was it so important to know when the star had appeared? Because Herod wanted to know how old Jesus was – because he was planning on killing him. And in fact, when the Magi did not return to him as planned, Herod “was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.” (Matthew 2:16)
Secondly, the movement of the star was miraculous. It started and stopped, and it pointed the way. We know the Magi initially saw the star in the east, they made the connection to Christ, and then they came to Jerusalem. There is some question as to whether the star led the Magi all the way from their home to Jerusalem, or whether it reappeared once they reached Jerusalem and then led them to Bethlehem. But either way, as they traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, “the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” (Matthew 2:9)
So what was the Star of Bethlehem? There have been many attempts over the years to identify this star. Here are the four most common explanations:
- A comet: The early church father Origen was the first to suggest that the star may actually have been a comet. Halley’s Comet made an appearance in 12 B.C., but that is much too early for Christ’s birth. Another comet appeared for about seventy days in March and April of 5 B.C. That is closer to the time frame of Christ’s birth, but it does not explain the miraculous movement of the star toward Bethlehem. Also, comets were generally considered omens of evil rather than bearers of good news.
- A conjunction of planets: Others have suggested that the star was really a conjunction of planets. Johannes Kepler, one of the fathers of modern astronomy, pointed to the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C. (later joined by Mars in February of 6 B.C.). However, once again the timing is not quite right, and it does not explain the movement of the star. Also, planetary conjunctions are fairly brief events, lasting at the most for several nights and in their most compact configurations only for a few hours.
- A supernova: Kepler actually preferred a different explanation himself – the possibility that the Magi saw a star that had gone supernova. A supernova is basically an exploding star. It is a spectacular event as the star suddenly flares up in brilliance and maintains that brilliance over a period of time due to a series of internal explosions. The last supernova that occurred in our own Milky Way galaxy took place in 1604. It is reported that the star was so bright you could actually see it in the daytime. Now the ancients sometimes got comets and novas confused; they often called novas “comets without a tail.” There are reports of a tailless comet in the year 4 B.C. which may actually have been a nova. The timing is close, but once again it does not account for the movement of the star.
- A manifestation of God’s glory: And then finally it has also been suggested that the star was a manifestation of God’s glory, similar to the shining cloud that led the Israelites through the wilderness, except higher in the sky. The advantage of this suggestion is that the cloud in the desert is an actual Biblical example of a shining object that moved and stopped and provided clear guidance for those who followed. This is a good possibility, but then you have to wonder why the Magi called it a star. Perhaps that was the only word they had available to describe what they were seeing.
We cannot really explain the Star of Bethlehem, but when all is said and done, we have something much better than an explanation. We have a mystery. We have a miracle. And the miracle of the Star of Bethlehem is one of the many wonders of the Christmas story that draws our hearts to worship the Lord each Christmas season.
IV. Consider the purpose
But even if we cannot explain the Star of Bethlehem, we are not left in the dark as to its purpose. God’s purpose for the Star of Bethlehem was simply to point the Magi to Christ. God used the star to catch the Magi’s attention and bring them to Jerusalem. It was there that they received a fuller revelation of Christ from God’s Word, when the teachers of the law opened the Scriptures and pointed them to Bethlehem as the place of Christ’s birth.
King Herod … called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, [and] asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “`But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'” (Matthew 2:3-6)
And then the star went on ahead of them to Bethlehem until it stopped over the place where Christ was. It is at this point in verse 10 that we read: “When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.” (Matthew 2:10) Why were they overjoyed? Not so much because they saw the star, but because the star had led them to their goal. It had pointed them to Christ.
I would maintain that this is still God’s purpose for the star today. God doesn’t want us to get all hung up on the various attempts at explaining the star away or trying to figure it all out. Just as the purpose of a reading lamp is to shed light on the book you are reading, or the purpose of a spotlight is to highlight the person on the stage, so the purpose of the star is to point us to Christ. And we should let the star do just that.
CONCLUSION: Jesus is the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies. He is the ruler who came out of Israel. The obedience of the nations belongs to him. He is the Christ.
It’s interesting, the gospel of Matthew begins with foreigners from a distant nation coming to worship Christ. And the gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus’ commission to the church to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19) Jesus is not only the King of the Jews. He is the only Savior for the world. And so the star also has a missionary thrust. It is a reminder to us that we are to share the good news of Jesus with everyone, everywhere we can, both here where we live, and around the world. We are to make disciples of all nations as we point them to Jesus.
And so every time you see a star this Christmas, I encourage you to think about Jesus. When you place the star on your tree, remember Jesus. When you hear Christmas carols referencing the star, worship and celebrate Jesus. And when you think about the star and how it led the Magi to Christ, ask God with whom he would have you share the good news of Jesus this Christmas. Jesus is the reason for the season. The purpose of the star is to point us to Christ.
So every time you see a star this Christmas, think about Jesus. When you place the star on your tree this Christmas, remember Jesus. When you hear Christmas carols referencing the star, worship and celebrate Jesus. And when you think about the star and how it led the Magi to Christ, ask God, “With whom would you have me share the good news of Jesus this Christmas?”
You see, Jesus is the real “star” of Bethlehem. He is the star attraction. He is center stage. He was the motivation for the Magi’s journey and the reason for their rejoicing. He is the reason for our celebration of Christmas today. The babe in the manger is the centerpiece of every nativity scene. Jesus is the reason for the season. The purpose of the star is to point us to Christ.
© Ray Fowler
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By Ray Fowler. © Ray Fowler. Website: http://www.rayfowler.org