The Truth About The Star – And Why It Matters


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 no travelers from the East followed the star. Rather, the magi—another name for astrologers who studied the heavens—saw the star that indicated a king had been born in Judea while they were still in the East. 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, the home of the sitting king.

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 in Scripture. 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.

This post is a lightly edited version of one that appeared here in November, 2012.

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Published in: on December 3, 2018 at 4:50 pm  Comments (7)  
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Heroes Of Christmas – The Magi



Wise men still seek Him, the little Christmas saying goes. The problem is, the term wisemen is misleading. The Bible does record an event involving visitors from the East who came to worship the new king born in Judea.

These visitors were not kings, necessarily. And they weren’t men known for their great wisdom. There also were an undisclosed number of them. Some scholars project from other historical records that a caravan traveling some distance could have included as many as three hundred people.

But that’s conjecture. What we know for fact is that these visitors were magi—astrologers, soothsayers. Kinda close to wizards. OK, that’s the fantasy writer’s spin on things. Sticking with what we know of the word used in Scripture, magi refers “to 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.” (Strongs Bible Dictionary accessed through the Blue Letter Bible)

We know they came from somewhere in the East, so some scholars have suggested the possibility that they may have been familiar with Jewish prophecy because of Daniel’s influence upon the Babylonian wisemen. Except, they didn’t know the prophecy about were the new king was to be born.

Just like the shepherds, the magi are subject to much speculation that has hardened into legend that’s difficult to dislodge. Too bad, because what the Bible reveals to us is pretty impressive.

As a result of their study of the heavens, the magi knew something, but they didn’t know everything. They knew a king had been born in the land of Judea, but they didn’t get the parentage right or the place of birth right or the kind of king he proved to be, right.

Still, based on what they knew, they went. In other words, they acted. That’s more than we can say for the chief priests and scribes who knew where the Messiah would be born, knew that these magi had seen his star indicating his birth, and still didn’t go to worship him. Even though they were the religious leaders of the day, they played it safe while these men from afar, not only made the dangerous journey, but were willing to ask for directions. OK, that’s a little humor there. But not far afield.

These magi were also humble. I mean, they came all that way to worship a toddler. Jesus could have still been an infant, but given that Herod later killed all the boys two years old and younger who had been born in that region, and that he did so because of the information he learned from the magi about their journey, it’s likely that Jesus was a year old maybe a year and a half or even two years old. Regardless of His age, these men who came such a long way, knelt to give him homage.

Then, too, the magi were pretty generous. They brought expensive gifts to give to the new king. As it happened, the items proved to be symbolic, but it’s unlikely they selected them because they thought a baby would need gold or a rich perfume used for the temple incense or an embalming spice. The thing that’s notable here is that these gifts had to cost the magi something. They were not ordinary and they were not inexpensive. Maybe the magi were rich, but even so, they weren’t hoarding their wealth.

There are a few other things we can conclude about the magi, but one more I’d like to highlight. They were not above listening to God. They didn’t mind changing their plans or changing their directions, so when they received a warning in a dream not to go back to Herod and report the whereabouts of the Messiah, they listened. And again they acted. Did they argue about it? Did they all have the same dream so they knew the warning had to be true? The Bible doesn’t tell us these details.

But it tells us enough to know the magi who came to honor Christ were men we can respect and admire, certainly for their willingness to act on the knowledge they had, for their humility, for their generosity, for their obedience to God’s message.

Published in: on December 21, 2017 at 5:18 pm  Comments (5)  
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Why Shepherds?


Two distinct groups of people received notification that Jesus was born.

The wisemen we understand because… they were wise! And they had something to give the infant King. Three somethings: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold, the fitting mineral for a king; frankincense, the fitting incense for worship; and myrrh, the fitting perfume for embalming a body. OK, the last one may have had Joseph and Mary wondering, but I digress.

In reality, despite the many manger scenes to the contrary, the wisemen, who had some distance to travel once they recognized that a king had been born in Judea, were late arriving. The first group to show up was a collection of local shepherds.

Shepherds in first century Judea were hired workers, poor men with little future. Which is precisely why the angel announced the Messiah’s birth to them, conventional wisdom says. They fit what we now understand as Jesus’s purpose for coming to earth. He’s for the Everyman.

Maybe. Maybe that’s why the shepherds received the angelic announcement that Christ had been born. Kind of a bookend from the poor side that, along with the opposite rich wisemen, would encompass people of every station in life. It’s a good theory.

The shepherds also represented the people who weren’t doing all the religious ceremonies to make themselves acceptable to God. So some scholars have speculated that’s why they got picked.

They were lowly, they were without pretense as to their standing before God, they were poor.

All this might be true, but I think there’s something else more important, and it has to do with why these shepherds received the announcement and not another set, say from Bethel: they believed.

The angel of the LORD stood in front of them and God’s Shekinah, His glory, shone around them. Needless to say, they reacted like virtually everyone else who had an encounter with an angel: they just about passed out with fear. They may have fallen on their faces, covered their heads with their arms, ducked behind the nearest boulder. Anything to ward off this person of obvious power.

Before anything else, the angel calmed them down. They didn’t have any reason to fear him or his message. In fact he’d come to give them great news. And not just for them, but for, well, everyone. Then the announcement:

today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

He didn’t stop there. He went on to give them a sign. A strange sign, I think. I mean, God’s glory shining around them seems like a pretty powerful sign.

    More of that, please. Aimed at those owners of the vineyard just the other side of the plateau who chased away our flocks last week. They need a good dose of God’s awesome power, I’d think! Let them quake in their sandals for a few minutes. Or an hour. Just saying.

But no. The sign the angel passed along provided identifying features that would allow them to find the newborn baby. What would mark Him as different from any other baby that might be born that same night? Well, for one thing, He would be wrapped in cloths.

Some scholars say that was normal—babies in those days were all wrapped in cloths; no cute little baby outfits for them. Some say the cloths were akin to the strips used to wrap a body in preparation for burial—definitely out of the ordinary. Not sure, but I tend to lean toward the idea that this was uncommon. Otherwise, why mention it as an identifying feature? It would be like saying today, you’ll find the baby wrapped in a baby blanket.

    Well, thanks very much for all that help distinguishing this baby from all other babies!!

No matter, the second part of the sign the angel gave is irrefutably unique. The baby they’d be looking for was in a manger. Clearly, a feeding trough was not the normal bed for a newborn. Find the manger holding an infant, wrapped in cloths, and you’ve found the Christ Child.

The_Shepherds011What does all this have to do with the shepherds believing?

I mean, they saw the angel and God’s glory and then a host of other angels praising God. They were eyewitnesses.

To the announcement.

They still had to respond to what they heard. They could have sat around and debated what they’d just experienced. They could have discussed whether or not the message was true or whether any parent in their right mind would put a baby in a feeding trough.

Apparently they did none of those things. Rather they made the decision to track down this baby. They knew exactly what to look for.

So they’d need to knock on a few doors, make a few inquiries and find out what woman may have just given birth. Then they’d stop by and check out the sleeping quarters of the little guy. Shouldn’t be too hard.

I wonder how many doors got slammed in their faces. How many times they got yelled at, or ignored. But they persisted.

No matter how many people they roused from their sleep or disturbed with their questions, they needed to go to see “this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2:15b).

They determined to “go straight to Bethlehem.” They did not doubt that “this thing” had really happened. They didn’t dismiss the announcement as something not intended for them.

    Some mistake. The angels got the wrong field. In fact they were probably looking for the palace. It’s a few miles west. Up the hill. Can’t miss it.

No, the shepherds believed that Messiah was born that very day, that God had made it known to them, and that they could find this baby based on the sign given them by the angel. So they went. No hesitation.

They put feet to their belief. And when they found Jesus, “they made know the statement which had been told them about this Child” (Luke 2:17).

Two reactions to their announcement: “all who heard it wondered.” Let the debate begin!

“Do you think they really saw an angel?”

“How else would they have known a baby was born?”

“But they’re shepherds!”

“Yeah, but what they said matches what we’re seeing here—a baby in a manger! Who would make that up?”

“Maybe they saw the baby first and decided to claim some oracle told them about it.”

“But why would they do that?”

And on and on.

The second reaction was Mary’s. She treasured what they said, pondering it all in her heart.

She’d take this one bit of evidence, this second declaration that her child was special, this account delivered by shepherds who said they saw an angel, just as she had when she first learned about this little boy she’d just brought into the world.

She’d think about it all, and as the years went by, in the end, after Christ’s resurrection, she’d add her faith to that of the shepherds.

Published in: on December 23, 2016 at 2:36 pm  Comments (8)  
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Wise Men And The Seeking Thing


christmas-background-2-1408232-m“Wise men still seek Him,” the signs say. At one time I even had those words as the title of a Christmas bulletin board in my classroom. It sounds sort of profound. And Christ centered.

But here’s the thing. In my experience, it doesn’t seem like we seek God so much as God seeks us.

First, God isn’t hiding. He has purposefully and dramatically made Himself known. That’s what the first Christmas and the ensuing thirty-tree years were all about. Jesus came to show Mankind the Father.

Secondly, people seem to be more interested in dodging and ducking and hiding from God. Or flat out denying and rejecting Him. C. S. Lewis wrote of his reluctance, his fight, actually, against God. He called Him his adversary once and wrote this of his conversion: “That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (Surprised by Joy).

It seems to me, the people who fall into the category of “seeker” are more apt to be hiders ducking behind the quest for the spiritual in order to avoid God and His claim on their lives. Scripture says clearly that anyone who truly seeks, finds.

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him! (Matt. 7:7-11)

Consequently, it seems to me the seeking process isn’t some protracted, drawn out, involved study of world religions or long nights of deep meditation. Those kinds of things are hiding tactics, more likely to obfuscate than to reveal. God has told us what we need to do to find Him: look at His Son Jesus.

Jesus said to [Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.”

So there’s Christmas in a nutshell. When we look at Jesus come down from Heaven, we are seeing the Father: His love for the lost, His sacrificial heart, His generosity, His mercy and grace, His forgiveness, His humility, His desire for reconciliation and peace, His goodness.

Do wise men seek Him today as they once did over two thousand years ago? Those ancient magi thought they were going to find the King of the Jews, and they did. But they also found the Creator of the world, the Redeemer of Mankind, the Friend of sinners.

Whoever seeks Jesus on those terms is bound to find Him.

Published in: on December 23, 2013 at 6:36 pm  Comments (4)  
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The Truth About The Star – And Why It Matters


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.

Published in: on November 29, 2012 at 6:39 pm  Comments (3)  
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The First Christmas Quiz


We know all about the first Christmas, right? I mean we hear about the details in Christmas carols and programs and sermons, see them depicted on cards and church bulletins and manger scenes. But do we know the Biblical version? Here’s a fun little quiz to find out. (Feel free to print it out and pass it along if you’re interested). Answers at the bottom.

Directions: based on what the Bible says, decide if the following statements are true or false. (Hint: if the Bible is silent on the matter, it should be considered false).

1. Jesus’s birth was predicted to Joseph by an angel in a dream.

2. Mary was a virgin at the time of Jesus’s birth.

3. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph’s place of residence.

4. The innkeeper told Joseph there was no room in the inn

5. Jesus was born on a cold winter’s night.

6. The stable was a wooden structure.

7. There were kings from the east who visited Jesus after he was born.

8. There were three of these visitors.

9. These visitors followed a star from the East to Jerusalem in search of the Christ child.

10. The star which the visitors saw was an especially bright star.

11. The visitors arrived on camels.

12. Herod told the visitors to go to Bethlehem.

13. These visitors came to Jesus and saw Him in the manger where he had been placed after birth.

14. These visitors were joined by shepherds who came to worship Jesus.

15. The shepherds also saw the star which had guided the other visitors.

16. A host of angels appeared to the shepherds and sang praised to God.

17. In a dream God warned Mary that Jesus’s life was in danger.

18. Mary and Joseph took Jesus back to Nazareth to escape the danger.

19. Mary remained a virgin and never had any other children.

20. God can do the impossible, which makes belief in the Christmas miracles possible.

– – –

Answers:
1. true – though His birth was also predicted to Mary
2. true – see Matthew 1:24-25
3. false – they were from Nazareth and only went to Bethlehem because it was required by the government
4. false – the innkeeper doesn’t make an appearance in the Biblical account
5. false – the Bible doesn’t say what kind of a night it was
6. false – the Bible doesn’t describe the stable
7. false – the eastern visitors were magi or wisemen specializing in such studies as astrology
8. false – the Bible doesn’t specify how many magi there were—only that they presented three types of gifts
9. false – they saw a star in the East and went to Jerusalem where they would expect to find a king; they then followed the star from Jerusalem to Bethlehem
10. false – the Bible never refers to the star as bright
11. false – the Bible doesn’t mention camels
12. true – after learning from the scribes where Messiah was to be born, Herod told the magi
13. false – the magi came to a house.
14. false – the magi didn’t arrive the night Jesus was born; the shepherds who were already in Judea went immediately after they heard the birth announcement
15. false – the Bible doesn’t mention that the shepherds saw the star
16. false – Scripture doesn’t say these angels sang
17. false – God warned Joseph, not Mary
18. false – they went to Egypt, not Nazareth
19. false – Mary had a number of other children, among them James who wrote the book of the Bible that bears his name.
20. true – Gabriel stated this to Mary when she asked how she being a virgin could give birth to a son (Luke 1:37)

Questions? Read Matthew 1:18-2:15; Luke 1:26-38; Luke 2:1-20. Or feel free to ask them here.