What Did the Wise Men See?

Bethlehem Star a Mystery! That might be the headline if the birth of Jesus as described in Matthew 2:1-12 took place today. What was the star that the wise men saw? How could a star far out in space travel ahead of them to Bethlehem? There are many questions the Bible leaves unanswered.

The fact that science cannot explain it has led skeptics to mock the Scriptures on this subject. No natural explanation for the star described by the wise men can account for its unique properties. But that does not mean the record is a myth or a fairy tale. It simply indicates the star was supernaturally prepared and sovereignly directed by Almighty God, the Creator of all things.

The wise men (or magi) were members of the Persian court who studied the stars and made predictions based on what they saw. Thus they were familiar enough with the visible constellations to notice when an new star “appeared” (vs. 7). To them it portended a special event of some kind. But how did heathen fortune tellers in another land make the connection to a “King of the Jews” (vs. 2)? Though it is not mentioned, they may have received a revelation from the Lord, perhaps through the angel Gabriel who was actively involved with the events of that first Christmas (cf. Lk. 1:26-27).

Whether this occurred or not, apparently the ministry of Daniel, long before in the Babylonian (later Persian) court, had left a legacy of awareness of the Hebrew Scriptures. Daniel’s own prophecies also spoke of the Messiah’s coming (cf. Dan. 9:24-27). And centuries before Daniel’s time, a mercenary prophet named Balaam presented a messianic prophecy. By revelation from the Lord He declared, “I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; a Star shall come out of Jacob; a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel” (Num. 24:17).

If the star appeared at the time of Christ’s birth, it may well have been six months to a year later when the magi arrived in Bethlehem, since Persia was hundreds of miles distant. (Manger scenes picturing the shepherds and the wise men gathered together in the stable are in error. By the time the wise men arrived the family was living in a “house” and Jesus was a “young Child,” vs. 11.)

And that is hardly the end of the mysteries of the star. Did it appear to the magi, and then disappear for a time? The wording of vs. 2 seems to imply that possibility. (Perhaps the night sky was overcast for awhile.) The trip to the capital city of Jerusalem may have been based more on their own logic than on divine direction. They expected that a new king would be born in the capital city, with great fanfare and celebration. Little did they know how shocked Herod would be to hear about the birth of a potential rival (vs. 3)!

While the men were in Jerusalem the star–whether identifiable by its colour or its unique brilliance–reappeared (vs. 9). This time in the southern sky, since Bethlehem is a few miles south of Jerusalem. More remarkably, it seemed to move, leading the men onward, until it stopped over the place where Jesus was. J. B. Phillips paraphrases vs. 9, “[The star] went in front of them as they traveled until at last it shone immediately above the place where the little Child lay.”

This precise movement indicates that even if it had originally been in the distant heavens, it was now low enough to provide precise direction. An unusual “star” to say the least! Rather than being a true star in the sense of a distant sun, it may have been something else, star-like in appearance. It could have been an angel. Or a manifestation of the Shekinah, the glory light of God by which He revealed His presence to the Old Testament saints (cf. Exod. 25:22; Ps. 80:1). The phenomenon may have been similar to the pillar of fire by which the Lord led Israel through the wilderness (Exod. 13:21-22).

This could also explain why no one else seems to have observed this incredible sight. God may have sovereignly blocked the view of others, as He did when the pillar of fire stood between the camp of Israel and the Egyptian army (Exod. 14:19-20). But why do that? Why convey the announcement of Christ's birth to some peasant shepherds, and few other Jews? Why bring the Gentile magi to Bethlehem, and no others? We simply do not have all the answers--not yet.

We do know that the shepherds were men of faith (Lk. 2:8-20). And that they likely raised sheep to be offered in the temple sacrifices. Perhaps the revelation to them in particular was because this One who was born would bring the fulfilment of all the symbolic offerings of Judaism. The wise men were clearly men of faith as well. And possibly their involvement is a foreshadowing of the time when Christ will return to reign over all as "King of kings"(Isa. 9:6-7; 60:1-3). In the future, "the kings of the earth [will] bring their glory and honour into [the heavenly city]" to worship the Lamb (Rev. 21:23-24).

In vs. 2 the wise men tell Herod, “We have seen His star in the East.” “East” is more literally translated “in its rising,” or “when it rose.” It is the same Greek expression Zacharias uses to say, “The Dayspring [Daybreak] from on high has visited us” (Lk. 1:78). No doubt Zacharias called to mind the words of Malachi near the end of the Old Testament which promised, “The Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings” (Mal. 4:2).

This was a supernatural event. But the Bethlehem star, whatever it was, symbolized the dawning of a new day, and signaled the coming of One who said of Himself, “I am the light of the world” (Jn. 8:12), and called Himself “the Bright and Morning Star” (Rev. 22:16). To the extent they realized the true identity of the Lord Jesus, it is no wonder the wise men bowed before Him in worship (vs. 2, 11).