The Star that Led to a King
We’re all familiar with the story of the wise men who came to see Jesus sometime after he was born. We tend to assume that Jesus was a newborn when they came, but the fact is that he was probably closer to two old. We know this for two reasons. First, he is consistently referred to in this chapter as a young child (vv. 8, 9, 11), instead of an infant. And second, unlike the shepherds, they found Jesus and his parents living in a house, not in a manger (v. 11). This, coupled with the fact that Herod sought to kill the boys in Bethlehem under two years of age, leads us to believe that Jesus was probably almost two when the wise men arrived.
Tradition tells us that three wise men came, but the only basis for this is the fact that there are three gifts mentioned in verse 11. We even have this thought echoed in our Christmas hymn We Three Kings. This, however, is nothing more than speculation and the exact number of wise men makes no difference.
But who were these wise men? The Greek word μάγοι (from which we derive our word magi) is found only here and in Acts 13. It seems to refer to Persian officials who would have been a combination of priest, teacher, advisor to the king, physician, astrologer and perhaps sorcerer. In Acts 13 Elymas the magi is called a sorcerer, a false prophet, a child of the devil and an enemy of all righteousness (vv. 6, 8, 10).
If the wise men of our text were, in fact, astrologers, this would account for their interest in the star that led them to the newborn King. But then we might wonder how they knew that this star signaled the king’s arrival. In verse 2 they say specifically that the star announced the birth of the King of the Jews. How could they have been so specific? This is what we want to look at this morning.
A Strange Star
The star that led the wise men to Jesus is a very strange phenomenon. The word translated star (τὸν ἀστέρα) in verse two and throughout the text is the ordinary word used for star in the Greek language, and it simply means star.
But since the star in our text lead the wise men to a specific house, which no ordinary star could do, most commentators believe that this star must have been something else. Scholars have suggested it could have been a meteor, a comet, a conjunction of planets, a nova or even a supernova. These suggestions are very unlikely, however. For example, an ordinary meteor is too short-lived. It could not possibly have guided the wise men on a trek of several hundred miles. As for comets, novas and supernovas, there is no record of such things during the time period in which Jesus was born. Although there was a conjunction of planets about this time, it’s hard to imagine how this alone could account for the star identifying a particular house.
In the ancient world it was commonly held that occurrences in the heavens parallel events that take place on earth. A falling star, for example, indicated the death of a national leader. Certain emperors were so concerned about this kind of prophecy that they exiled any sorcerers who made predictions based on falling stars. But in this case, of course, we have a rising star. Perhaps the wise men took that to be exactly the opposite.
In any case, this star does not appear to have been an ordinary star. The wise men saw it when they were in the east (v. 2), but Herod and the Jews apparently had not seen it. According to verse 7, Herod had to inquire when the star appeared. If the star had been in the western sky directing the journey of these eastern visitors, then certainly it could have been seen from Jerusalem. Yet, apparently it wasn’t always visible even to the wise men. In verse 9 they seem surprised to see it again. Moreover, it’s uncertain whether the star actually moved as the men traveled from the east, but verse 9 indicates that it did move as the men traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, a journey of approximately six miles. And then it stood directly over the house where Jesus was it stood still.
Now, what kind of star could this have been that was seen by some but not others, moved around and sometimes stood still? And how could any star identify a specific house as the place where the young child was? The answer is in verse 2. The wise men said that it was his star, i.e., a star specifically associated with the arrival of the King of the Jews. I tend to think that it was like the Shekinah glory in the Old Testament. Just as the cloud and pillar of fire directed the Israelites in the wilderness, the glory of God led the wise men to the baby Jesus.
Why then did they call it a star? It was probably because they had no idea what it was. Unique events are extremely difficult to describe. Sometimes the best we can do is to use words that are familiar to us.
In any case, we’re interested in the importance of the star for the unfolding of God’s plan of redemption in Christ.
The Messiah’s Star
One of the earliest predictions of a Savior mentions a star. Numbers 24:17 says, I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.
The story behind this prediction makes its meaning clear. For one thing, it was spoken by Balaam, a corrupt prophet who was far more interested in financial gain than in serving God. Even his dumb animal had better sense than he did. But sometimes God uses less than holy men, and even stupid animals, to utter great truths. Another instance of this can be found in the New Testament. Shortly before Jesus’ arrest, Caiaphas the high priest predicted that one man had to die in order to spare the nation. He meant that assassinating Jesus would save the Jews from the wrath of Rome, but as the high priest of God he unwittingly predicted the substitutionary death of the Lord Jesus Christ for the sins of his people. John wrote about this as follows: And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation (John 11:51). Regardless of how much Balaam or Caiaphas understood, the Spirit of God spoke infallible truth through them.
Now, remember what Balaam did. As Moses and the Jews were making their way to the east side of the Jordan River, they sought passage through the land of the Amorites, who not only turned them down, but came out to fight against them. As a result, they suffered a humiliating defeat, losing everything they had and learning that it simply doesn’t pay to resist God. At this point the story continues with Balak, king of Moab, he was afraid that the same thing would happen to him. Numbers 22:2–4 says, And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. And Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many: and Moab was distressed because of the children of Israel. And Moab said unto the elders of Midian, Now shall this company lick up all that are round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field. And Balak the son of Zippor was king of the Moabites at that time. So what did Balak do when he saw these seemingly fierce people on the horizon? He sent for Balaam, a prophet known for his greed, and offered him a great reward if only he would curse the Jews and drive them out of his land. The problem, though, was that whenever Balaam tried to curse the Jews he found that he could only bless them.
The star prediction is Balaam’s fourth blessing. In it God promises to bless the Jews and punish the Moabites because of this incident. Actually, God promises to punish all the children of Sheth (i.e., arrogant and obnoxious boasters) for resisting and defying God’s purposes in behalf of his people.
This is important for two reasons. First, it explains how the wise men knew to look for a star. The Moabites, you see, were close relatives of the Jews, having descended from Abraham’s nephew Lot (Gen. 19:37). Balaam was an eastern seer or prophet. Because easterners tended to be extremely superstitious, they would no doubt have remembered his prediction. This would have been true generally of people who lived east of Palestine, whether Moabites or Persian or any other people. Second, it explains the prediction itself, for in providing salvation for his people and protecting them from their enemies, Jesus would not only be the Savior of his people but also the judge and king of all the earth. Therefore, even Herod’s murderous plot against the boys of Jerusalem could not ultimately prevail. And the fact that Jesus is judge and king of all the earth also means that he will call people to himself from lands outside Palestine. The wise men from the east are one such example.
Another important prediction can be found in the ninth chapter of Isaiah. We’re all familiar with verse 6, which we read and hear often during the Christmas season. It says, For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, etc. But note what precedes this in verse 2: The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. Both here and in Numbers, the light that will shine is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ himself. Matthew 4:16 tells of its fulfillment at the beginning of Jesus’ preaching ministry. Jesus is the star that arose out of Jacob and the great light that shone on those who sat in the shadow of death. In Revelation 22:16, based on these very passages, he calls himself the bright and morning star.
Today we hear a lot about stars. Our stars shoot baskets, play rock guitar or flicker on the movie screen. They’re the people who enamor us with talents and abilities that exceed our own. But a star need not be so. It can be anyone or anything that brings a little joy into our lives. A song Debby Boone popularized a few years ago, although it may not use the word star, shows that this is so. Her song was “You Light Up My Life.”
Of course, Jesus is much more than someone’s sweetheart, and the joy he gives goes far beyond the romantic interest of young people. It’s the steadfast joy of knowing God. Zacharias took note of this in his song celebrating the birth of his son, John the Baptist. John, he said, would give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins. How would remission of sins come? Zacharias continued: Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring [the day star, i.e., the sun] from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:77–79).
The first chapter of John’s gospel also refers to Jesus as the light. It says, In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.… That was the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world (vv. 4–5, 9). Along with this, we must note the numerous times that John quotes Jesus calling himself the light of the world (John 8:12; 9:5; 12:46). And, then, II Corinthians 4:6 says that we see the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
When we say that Jesus is the light, we mean that he is the truth. He is the truth about God. He is the truth about creation and providence. And he is the truth about our salvation. The only way that we can know about God or creation or salvation is through him.
Light Upon Light
Of course, the star that led the wise men to Jesus wasn’t literally Jesus. I’ve taken you through all this material to show you the appropriateness of the symbolism. Just as a star of some kind led a few eastern visitors to the King of kings, so the Star of Jacob leads those who believe in him to a knowledge of God and eternal life.
If we were to stop here, however, we still miss quite a bit. In a doxology near the end of his first epistle to Timothy, Paul described Jesus as one who dwells in light which no man can approach unto (I Tim. 6:16). So, not only is Jesus the light himself, he also surrounds himself with a glory and light that surpasses our anything that we can imagine.
Some of the light that surrounds the Lord Jesus Christ is the light of his church. This, of course, is a derived light. The church is light only because it proclaims the truth that Jesus has revealed to it in the pages of Scripture. And yet the Bible often speaks of the church as light. In the first chapter of Revelation, for example, the apostle John had a vision in which he saw Jesus in his glory. Most of the details of John’s description are not relevant to this discussion, but verses 13 and 16 are. Verse 13 says that Jesus walked in the midst of seven golden lampstands, and verse 16 says that he held seven stars in his right hand. The symbolism is explained in verse 20: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches. The angels of this image are probably the pastors of the churches of Asia Minor, to whom John originally wrote the book of Revelation. It is the pastor’s most important responsibility to preach the Word of God, so that everyone in the church can shine with the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Consider these passages as well. Daniel 12:3 says that the righteous will shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus called his disciples the light of the world (Matt. 5:14), a designation that in other places he applied to himself, and then commanded them to let their light shine before men (Matt. 5:16). And Paul in the second chapter of Philippians encouraged believers to shine as lights in the world, noting that the world is crooked and perverse and therefore needs to hear about the light from us (Phil. 2:15–16). And three times the New Testament calls believers the children of light (John 12:36; Eph. 5:8; I Thess. 5:5).
The point here is that the light of Christ must shine in all his people. Our light is weak and pale in comparison to his light— he shines with the effulgence of the sun, and we are more like flickering candles — but we are to shine as lights nonetheless.
From this we see that the wise men were wise indeed. They had enough light to recognize that God was active once again in providing the salvation that he had promised so long ago. He was about to undertake that great work of redemption that had been promised through the greedy prophet Balaam. Most of the world leaders in the first century paid little or no attention to the birth of the baby Jesus. Herod even tried to murder him, believing that he was a threat to his government. If the star that led the wise men to Jesus was generally visible to all men, then most people went to bed the night it appeared without thinking about it twice. But the wise men were different. They followed the star. They went where it led them, i.e., over a distance of several hundred miles, and they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy when it stopped at its destination. They knew that this was the only way to find the King sent from heaven. And when they found the baby Jesus, they worshiped him with their most prized treasures —gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The world would be a lot better off today if more men would imitate the example of the wise men, who followed the star of the eastern sky to the Star of Jacob, who died for our sins and rose again for our justification. May it be, as one of our hymns says, that men “with willing feet ever seek thy mercy seat.” May it be especially true of us!
There are many things about Christmas that have nothing to do with the Bible. Neither Christmas trees nor mistletoe can be found therein. The Bible says nothing about Santa Claus, snowmen or “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.”
But a star is a necessary part of Christmas. This, of course, does not mean that we should make an idol of stars, for it was not the star itself that was important what the star did. It led the wise men from the east to the one who is himself the star and the light of the world.
Likewise, the star of Matthew 2 reminds us that our most important work in this world is to seek the Lord Jesus Christ and his mercy. And we should not rest content until we know that we can be found in him and in him alone. Amen.