Christmas According to Matthew #3

The Star Still Leads Us to Jesus

Matthew 2:9   |   Sam Taylor   |   December 16, 2012

Central Idea:  The Star of Bethlehem still leads us to Jesus.

Introduction: Next to the cross, and perhaps the fish, the star of Bethlehem, is one the most prominent symbols of Christianity. At Christmas time its presence is everywhere. All over the world, perched on the top of millions of Christmas trees, you will find the star of Bethlehem. You will find it above the ceramic figurines in the nativity scenes in our homes. We will see the shining star above the silhouettes of wise men on camel back beautifully depicted on Christmas cards. You will find it pinned as a broach on women’s sweaters. This week I purchased a book of stamps and there is was again, the star of Bethlehem on commemorative postage stamps. Everywhere you go, there it is, the star of Bethlehem!

Ironically, we actually don’t find very much attention given to the star of Bethlehem in the Bible!  In fact, it is mentioned in only a few verses in the second chapter of Matthew and nowhere else.

For centuries historians and astronomers have tried to explain what the unusual sight could have been. And, certainly, it must have taken an extraordinary celestial event in order to motivate the wise men to travel 500 miles from Babylon to Jerusalem.

I. What was the star of Bethlehem?

A. The least likely explanation is that it was a “shooting star,” a meteorite. Certainly an especially dramatic meteor would capture the interest of the ancient wise men. But, meteors don’t match the properties of the star described in Matthew. In Matthew 2: 9, we are told that the star “stood still” or “stopped” over the place where the child was. Meteorites don’t stop. So, the star of Bethlehem could not have been a shooting star.

B. The star of Bethlehem might have been a “new star,” in other words, a nova or supernova. A supernova would certainly be a remarkable event that would capture the attention of the magi. They would take it as a celestial sign worthy of a king.  But, the appearance of a super nova would be so spectacular that virtually everyone would have seen it or have known about it. At the peak of its burn, a supernova can shine so brightly that it can cast shadows at night and be seen during the day! But, Matthew’s narrative clearly indicates that King Herod and his court had not noticed the star. In verse 7 Herod asked the wise men “the exact time the star appeared.”  Herod would never ask that question if the star had been a supernova.

On the other hand, if it were a “common” nova, it could have attracted the notice of the Persian wise men, who carefully studied the stars, without attracting notice from others like Herod or the priests and scribes in Jerusalem. Chinese astrologers did record that a nova appeared in the year 5 B.C. So, actually, the theory of a nova fits better. But, the account in Matthew indicates that the star was seen in the east and then, some months later reappeared in the western skies over Bethlehem (Matthew 2:9-10). That is inconsistent with the properties of novae (rhymes with eye). Novae burn brightly for a couple of days then return to their original brightness or burn out completely. They do not reappear and they do not move about in the sky. It was not a meteor. It was not a nova or a supernova.

C. The star of Bethlehem may have been a comet.  Certainly a comet would have been of great interest to the wise men and they would have interpreted it as a very significant omen. We are told that Halley’s Comet passed by earth in the year 11 B.C. And, whenever Halley's Comet comes it appears twice – first as it approaches the Sun and then again, after going around the Sun. So, a comet is somewhat plausible. But again, it doesn’t fit very well with the Biblical record; because King Herod, the chief priests and the scribes were clearly unaware of the star. And they could not have overlooked a comet.

D. The star of Bethlehem may have been a supernatural light.  Scripture records that, for 40 years, God led the Israelites through the desert with a “pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.” (Ex. 13:22)  If God led the Israelites through the desert by a pillar of fire, it is possible that He led the Persian wise men across the desert in a similar same way. A bright supernatural light in the sky that appeared to the wise men and led them to Jesus is consistent with everything Matthew tells us about the star of Bethlehem. It might have been that!

E. The star of Bethlehem could have been a once-in-a-life-time[i], extremely close conjunction of two planets, known to the ancients as “wandering stars.” At the present time, this is the best scientific explanation there is. And it also fits remarkably well with the star’s description found in Matthew.

It is now possible, with the use of highly accurate computer programs, to determine the position of the stars and how they would appear in the sky from any location on earth at any time in during the past 5,000 years!” That capability has led astronomers to a fascinating discovery . . .

On August 12, in the year 3 B.C., a very close alignment of two “wandering stars,” occurred. These were the two brightest objects in the night sky: the planets Venus and Jupiter. This alignment or conjunction was visible from the Middle East looking in an eastwardly direction. It happened in the early dawn. (Show picture #1)

Astronomers have determined that, on that morning, the two planets were separated by only about 12 minutes of arc. As a comparison, the separation of the stars Mizar and Alcor in the handle of the Big Dipper is also 12 arc minutes.[ii]  (Show picture #2) That distance is so close that their bright beams of light would have merged and, to the naked eye, they would have appeared to be touching each other.[iii]

This event would have been by far the brightest most spectacular object in the sky. In fact, it would have been the brightest star that any person living had ever seen. So, why didn’t King Herod and his counselors know about such a bright object in the sky?  In Babylon, these planets were just 4 degrees above the horizon at 4 A.M. and just 19 degrees above the horizon at 5.17 A.M. at which time sunrise would have made them invisible. In other words, this conjunction, as striking as it was, appeared only for short time, early in the morning when most people were sound asleep, and very low in the sky. Striking as it was, it appeared at a time and in a place that most people would not see it . . . except, of course, for people like the magi who stayed awake carefully studying the starry sky!

But there is more. . .  When we read Matthew 2:9-10, the most natural reading of the narrative indicates the following sequence of events: The wise men first observed this extraordinary event while they were still in the east. What they saw was so unusual that it convinced them to go to Jerusalem, a difficult journey of 500 miles.  Several months later they arrived and met with King Herod and his counselors, asking, “Where is He who has been born king of the Jews?”  Learning that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, they departed. Sometime, after they left Jerusalem and set out for Bethlehem, the star reappearedto them—the same star they had seen months ago! And when it reappeared they were overcome with excitement. It is very important to see that the star of Bethlehem is described in the Bible as appearing twice. It appeared to them first in the east and, months later, it to them again as it appeared in the sky over Bethlehem. The reappearing, once-in-a-life-time, close conjunction of Jupiter and Venus behaved precisely like that!

Conclusion: We cannot be dogmatic, but there is a growing consensus among scholars is that the star of Bethlehem was most likely a dazzling once-in-a-lifetime, extremely close conjunction of Jupiter and Venus. That explanation is scientifically supported, is proven to have occurred around the time that Jesus was born, and fits very well with the Biblical account in Matthew.

II. What does all this mean? Why all the talk about the appearance of brilliant shiny stars at night at the time when Jesus was born?

A. The star of Bethlehem is actually an extremely important part of the Christmas story. When it first appeared, it pointed the wise men to Jesus. And it still points people to Jesus. It points to His exalted position and incomparable greatness.

B. Think of it like this: If the star of Bethlehem was in fact a perfectly natural (though highly dramatic) astronomical event—and it seems very likely that it was—then it means that the announcement of His birth was planned and set in motion from the moment God created the universe.

C. If what we have been saying about the nature of the star of Bethlehem is true, it means that at the big bang, when God first flung the stars and spun the planets out into the empty blackness of space, He did so in such a way so that the appearance of the most brilliant, the most dazzling, the most extraordinary star ever seen by that generation would appear at the precise time that His Son Jesus was born! Wow!

D. Now, do you understand how important the star of Bethlehem is to the story of Christmas? Do you see what the star of Bethlehem really means? The Star of Bethlehem is still pointing people to Jesus: It points us to His incomparable greatness. It points us to His exalted position in the universe, that even the orbits of the planets in space have been precisely timed to signal His birth.

III. Conclusion: This morning the star of Bethlehem still leads people to Jesus. Have you come to Him? If Jesus is so incredibly important that at the moment of creation God arranged the timing of the stars to announce His birth, if He is so important to have an birth announcement like that, then let us come to Him!

 [i] The conjunction of these two planets happens about once every 13 months. But, only very rarely does their conjunction line up so closely that they appear as one star. Approximately only once every 200 years, or less than once in a life time.
[ii] Joe Rao, Was the Star of Bethlehem a star, comet ... or miracle?, NBC, Dec. 23, 2011
[iii] Interestingly, this conjunction appeared in the constellation of Leo, the Lion, the symbol of royalty and the symbol of Judah. That fact may have helped the magi to associate this star seen to their east with Israel located to their west.
Picture #1: National Geographic photo showing more typical conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, seen from France looking westward. This photo was taken in March, 2012.

Picture #2: Wikipedia picture of big dipper showing the conjunction of two stars: Mizar and Alchor separated by 12 minutes of arch—the same approximate separation of Jupiter and Venus on August 12, in the year 3 B.C.