Christmas Eve a bright star shone over a lowly stable–or so all the pictures and videos and Christmas cards would lead us to believe. A busy star, that, because the same legends have it leading the wisemen from wherever they lived in the East to that same ramshackle stable, with a little side trip into Jerusalem.
Even when I was young, I had some serious questions about this popular notion about the Christmas star. First, why did the star lead the wisemen to the wrong place before it led them to the right place? And secondly, if it was so bright, why didn’t other people go see what it was pointing to? I mean, would they ignore such a dramatic heavenly sight?
As it turns out, much of our ideas about the star are legend, not Biblical fact. Take the first point–the idea that the wisemen followed the star from their home in the somewhere East to the wrong place, Jerusalem.
A careful reading of Scripture shows that initially there was no star following. Rather, the magi–another name for astrologers who studied the heavens–saw the star that indicated a king had been born in Judea. They decided to pay homage to this king, so they packed up their caravan and went to the most likely place you’d find the heir to the throne–the capital city.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” (Matthew 2:1-2)
Upon arrival, of course, they learned that, oops, no heir had been born to Herod, which could only mean one of two things–either a coup would occur overthrowing Herod, which was unlikely since Rome ultimately oversaw who sat on the throne, or the promised Messiah of Scripture had been born. Most Jews, it seems, believed He wouldn’t unseat Herod, but Rome, at least as far as it held jurisdiction in Judea.
Herod checked with the scholars familiar with the prophets. From them he learned that the promised Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and that’s the information he passed on to the magi, all the while making his own plans to do away with this child that just might be a threat to his own rule.
When the magi packed up and headed out of Jerusalem, that’s when they saw the special star again. They recognized it as the same one they’d seen in the East, and this time it moved in front of them, only to stop when it came to the place where Jesus was–not a manger any longer but a house.
So why didn’t others join the wisemen and follow this star too? I mean, Scripture says “all Jerusalem” was troubled–unnerved, perturbed, perplexed–by what the wisemen had to say. A star, a king, magi come to worship? Wouldn’t “all Jerusalem” then be only too eager to see where that bright star was going? They’d been waiting for generations. Couldn’t this be it???
Well, the thing is, nowhere in Scripture does it say this star was bright. The wisemen saw it and recognized it because they were wise men. They made it their business to study the heavens, to learn the secrets of God.
Here’s what Strong’s Concordance says about the magi:
the name given by the Babylonians (Chaldeans), Medes, Persians, and others, to the wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augers, soothsayers, sorcerers etc.
It’s uncomfortable to think that God spoke to these non-Jews in a way that seems so different from the one He used with the Jews and later with the Church. No sorcery, He said. No divination, no interpreting of omens:
There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. (Deut 18:10-11)
Yet clearly the magi saw in the heavens the proclamation of the birth of God’s Son. This brings to mind a verse in Colossians in which Paul says “… the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation ” (1:23b – emphasis mine).
So what if the star declaring Jesus’s birth wasn’t an isolated incident? What if God, through His omnipotence, put the gospel message out there in any number of ways for men who wished to worship Him?
But that’s speculation on my part. What isn’t speculation is that the star didn’t lead the wisemen to Jerusalem and Scripture says nothing about the star being particularly bright.
And this is important because … ?
For one thing it illustrates how easily we come to believe something we’ve heard over and over and seen time and time again, regardless of its Scriptural underpinnings. For me, the star is a reminder to be cautious. The faddish interpretations of Biblical events just might be built upon a legend, so it’s imperative to examine ideas in light of what Scripture actually says.
Secondly, it shows that even the wisemen needed to verify their findings with Scripture. God didn’t send them an errant sign that inadvertently took them to Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem. No, they made that mistake all by themselves.
Thirdly, if God had wanted the whole area to drop everything and run to see the baby Jesus, I don’t doubt that He would have made the star particularly bright or sent the host of angels to Jerusalem instead of to a handful of shepherds going about their regular duties. In His divine wisdom, though, He chose a small reception party–actually two separate parties by two divergent groups: lowly shepherds and foreigners. The latter were not Jews. They were people from Somewhere Else.
Above all, it seems to me that the star, which apparently the Jews laden with Scripture completely missed, shows that God intended His Son to be the Savior of the world. He was not the political powerhouse the Jews were looking for. He was and is the King available to all who wish to bow the knee, to worship and adore Incarnate God, born to save.