This time of year, lots of people think about a journey that the wise men made to visit Jesus while he was very young, and the gifts they brought to him. We read about that journey in Matthew 2v1-12.
Something which captures the imagination of anyone reading or hearing that story is that they were guided by the light of a star. They had a personal aid to enable them to find what they sought. They weren’t following a human guide; they had no chart to lead them. Instead they were brought to the child Jesus – and this just shows how carefully you need to read these words; notice not the baby, he’s in a house and he’s got to be around 2 years old because of Herod’s effort to kill every boy under 2 – the child Jesus. Poetic license sometimes creeps into the traditional nativity story! But this part of the story is telling us something important – there is a message here.
For a start, let’s just appreciate why this was so unusual. What do stars normally do? They do move – all except the pole star – but very slowly. They hang over western or eastern horizons. But they can’t possibly hang over a person. People 10 miles apart would both say the same star was directly overhead due to the huge distances. Yet this was “over where the young child was”. It would need to be as low as a helicopter for that! So that’s the first unusual thing.
Why haven’t lots of other people seen it and come to the same place? A star hanging that low in the sky would have been like a magnet. Could it be that only these men could see it? Herod couldn’t!
Now you could explain all of that by the fact that it is a miracle – amazing things happen which have no physical explanation. The Bible contains many miracles – look at the parting of the Red Sea for example. It’s no surprise that the birth of one who would heal and raise the dead is marked by a miracle.
Or could it be that this object is called a star because it resembled a bright object like that in the sky, it’s a helpful way of describing it to readers, but actually was it something else entirely?
We’ll come back to that, but firstly, let’s ask how did the wise men know that a bright light in the sky meant the King of the Jews had been born? They weren’t Jews, they came from a long way away, and why were they interested anyway?
The magi were a group of people who probably came from a far-off place called Babylon. Why would anyone in Babylon know anything about a promised Messiah?
We have to go back into the Old Testament for this, and find a Jew who was living in Babylon who taught wise men about the God of Israel. That man was Daniel.
It’s a very good way of developing a better understanding of the Bible to keep asking questions like this, and to keep looking at different parts of the Bible to try and link things together. Very often, questions about the Bible are answered in the Bible, if you look in the right place.
Daniel taught a group of people that centuries after his time, a promised Messiah would be born who would deliver the nation of Israel and also bring hope to people of all nations and races, not just the Jews. This meant that around the time Jesus was born, lots of people were waiting and watching for that event to happen. When Jesus was only 8 days old, there were people waiting in the Temple to see him who had been there a lot longer!
Some of the passages Daniel may have shown these wise men could have included Isa 60v1-6. If you have a look at it, you might spot links with the passage in Matthew 2 from earlier. We know this was written about 7 centuries before the wise men visited Jesus. This could have been why they were waiting to see a bright light in the sky. There is another passage in Numbers that talks about a star coming out of Jacob. We know that the Jews in Bible times understood this to be talking about the coming Messiah.
This is another prophecy, and the thing about prophecies is that they very often contain symbols. Here, the star is a symbol. It stands for something else. Just as Jesus is himself called a star in the book of Revelation at the end of the Bible.
So now we’re getting back to those questions of what this bright object really was, and why did it behave the way it did?
The heavenly objects in the sky, including the stars we see, are there to declare the glory of the God who made the universe. (see Psalm 19v1).
Luke 2v8-20, which is the only other Gospel passage containing information about the birth of Jesus Christ, describes an extremely bright light appearing in the sky, personally visible only to these few shepherds on the hills, telling them that Jesus had been born, and it says “the glory of the Lord shone around them,” (v9).
There are other occasions in the Bible where an extremely bright light occurs in the sky and it is said to be the glory of God. At the transfiguration of Jesus at the end of his life we read “Jesus was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light,” (Mt 17v2). In Acts 22, the glory of God was a shining light to Paul the Apostle, that blinded him. When we read the star ‘appeared’, that word is almost always used to describe the glory of God appearing.
All of these things are pointing us to the glory of the Lord God, the Father in Heaven. Could it be that the wise men saw and were guided by the light of the glory of God? Herod, and everybody else, was blind to it just as the Egyptians couldn’t see the pillar of fire which led Israel across the Red Sea.
So why is it appropriate for that to be the case with the wise men? Because there has never been a more perfect embodiment of the glory of God than in His son, the Lord Jesus Christ. He was the glory revealed in flesh (John 1). We might ask, why should the nativity story be all about the glory of God? But the answer is, because that’s what Jesus was all about.
Here was the one who was the perfect Son of the Father (see Hebrews 1:3), who would demonstrate and highlight the glory of His Father for his whole life, and he would especially do that in the way he obeyed His Father even to death on the cross.
So the story that children learn as infants, the wise men coming to the baby Jesus guided by a brilliant light, is the story of how the world first saw this glory – and what it meant for the world.
Ultimately this glory will supplant even the objects in the sky, that’s how bright it is.
We think back to the wise men and the gifts they chose to give the child. The way the text is written it appears that they selected from their vast treasures some appropriate gifts to give the child. And what they select actually shows their understanding.
They knew Jesus would be a king one day (symbolised by the gold). They knew he would act as the mediator between God and men, a role that in the Old Testament was filled by the High Priest who would offer incense (frankincense). And they knew he would give his own life in order to declare the righteousness belongs to God alone (myrrh, the embalming scent).
How unusual it is for so much to be known about a child when he is under the age of 2 years old – how could his future be mapped out so clearly and correctly?
Because this child would fulfil all that was written about him, all that was required of him by His Father. And so, like every story about Jesus, it leads forward to what he would do. You can’t separate out the story of his birth from the story of the rest of his life – something which is ultimately far more worthy of celebration. Remember, 2 Gospels describe his birth. 4 describe his sacrifice, death and resurrection.
The gifts the wise men bring point to what Jesus would do in his life. But most importantly, to what he would achieve by his death. That he would give mankind a way back to God, a way to be made right with God despite their sin.
We too need to follow the star to appreciate the glory of God. The star in this story reminds us that it is the whole of Jesus’ life we should remember and celebrate, because even his birth was pointing forwards to those things that he would do.
So how can we seek the glory of God? Where would we find it? And where would it lead us to? We are privileged to have the Word of God, the Bible, available to us. This is where we seek Jesus.
What should all this make us want to do? What is the effect of all this upon us? Well perhaps we should be like the wise men – maybe that’s the reason we’re told about them!
- We too could make an effort to find out about Jesus and seek God’s glory through the Bible
- We could leave our comfort zone and be prepared to live a different sort of life
- We could bring a gift – and the best gift we can bring is an understanding of what he has done
- And finally we could wait for prophecies to come true – there are more to come!