The Star and the Sign

The “star” and the Wise Men are inseparably connected with the Christmas story and the first coming of Jesus Messiah.  The “star” has long been the subject of casual discussion as well as theological debate.  But whatever one thinks about the “star” it cannot be denied that it appears everywhere at Christmas time; on Christmas cards, nativity scenes, in advertising, in pageants, as tree ornaments and in dozens of other random places.  But biblically what was the “star” and why was it in the story?  And does it have anything to do with the second coming of Jesus Messiah?

THE STAR OF MATTHEW 2.  In most nativity scenes, the Wise Men (3 of them) are there with the shepherds, Mary, Joseph, the baby and a variety of animals.  But that scene is not really accurate.  First, the Bible never gives the number of Wise Men who came to Bethlehem.  But more importantly, it clearly lets the reader know that they were never there at the birth of Jesus.  The text of Matthew 2 indicates that they arrived well over a year later and, when they did get to Bethlehem, eventually found Mary and the child Jesus in a house in that town.
This common confusion about the arrival of the Wise Men (who are not “kings”) extends to the matter of the “star.”  The word “star” (aster) has as its root meaning the concept of radiance or brilliance. It is used in the Bible of people, angels, Christ as well as those luminaries in the sky.  So the word has a variety of meanings and is not limited to a luminary in the sky.  There are a number of indicators in the story of Matthew 2 which inform us that the “star” is not a literal star.  When we look carefully at the account in Matthew 2, there are a number of facts which become apparent.  First, the “star” did not guide the Wise Men from the east to Bethlehem. They saw the “star” in the east and went to Jerusalem because they were convinced that this “star” was a sign of the birth of the king of the Jews. (We do not know for certain how they knew this; though the prophecy of Balaam, the prophecies of Daniel and the presence of a Jewish community in Babylon may have contributed to their knowledge).  They went to Jerusalem because what more logical place to find Israel’s king but the capital city of Jerusalem.  When they got to Jerusalem, the Wise Men were informed by the scribes that the king (messiah) would be born in Bethlehem which was located about 4 miles south of Jerusalem.  Then when the Wise Men exited Jerusalem they rejoiced because they once again saw the “star”.  So the “star” did not behave like a normal, literal star in that it appeared, then disappeared for months and then reappeared outside of Jerusalem.  Also, it guided from north to south as well as appearing in the east before appearing in the west.  None of this is the behavior of stars or alignments of planets.  Secondly, the “star” guided the Wise Men for about four miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and then “stood over (the house) where the Child was” (2:9, 11); not over just the town or a neighborhood.  No star or alignment of planets could pinpoint the exact house where the young child Jesus was living. Literal stars simply cannot point to such a specific location.  If the “star” was not a literal star then what was it?  I would suggest that it was the appearance of the glory of God; what is often referred to as the “Shekinah”.  This glory of God appeared and guided the Israelites in the wilderness.  It had a continuous presence of God over the Tabernacle and on the journey to Canaan.  I would concur with Dr. Arnold Fruchetenbaum’s analysis of the “star” in his book “Messianic Christology”.

“By this star coming in the form of light, what we actually have is the appearance of the Shechinah Glory….The Shechinah Glory is the visible manifestation of God’s presence.  Whenever God became visible in the Old Testament, this is referred to as the Shechinah Glory.  In most cases, the Shechinah Glory came in the form of a light, fire, cloud or some combination of these three things. Over in Babylonia a light appeared, a brilliance, a radiance that may have looked like a star from a distance and yet had actions and did things which no star can do or does do.  What these Wise Men actually saw was the Shechinah Glory.  When they saw this…unusual brilliance, they deduced from it that it was a signal that the King of the Jews, the Messiah, had been born.”  (Messianic Christology, pp. 143-144)

So, to signal the coming of the Messiah, the glory of God was seen in the heavens by the Wise Men.  The meaning of this signal was so clear to them that they embarked on the long, long journey to Judea. So the “star” was a sign that Jesus the King had come.  Now, might this “star” also make an appearance at the time of His Second Coming signaling the return of Jesus the King?

THE SIGN OF MATTHEW 24.  Jesus taught that immediately preceding and in connection with His Second Coming to earth a sign would appear in the sky (Matt. 24:30).  The significance of this sign would be understood by all the earth’s inhabitants, many of whom are unbelievers and who will be gripped by great grief.  And this sign will be connected with the coming of Jesus Messiah (“Son of Man”) in the clouds with power and great glory.  So, immediately preceding His coming there will be a sign.  The word “sign” is semeion.  This word is used to refer to an unusual or miraculous event that carries a special meaning.  The “sign” points to a reality that has even greater significance than the sign itself.  For example, this word is used by John to refer to the miracles of Christ.  They were not only miraculous events but pointed to something even more significant; that being the presence of the King and some characteristic of His kingdom (e.g. in His kingdom blind people will see: Isaiah 35).  So the sign in connection with the Second Coming is a miraculous event that points to something greater than itself; namely, the coming of Jesus.  The passage in Matthew 24 strongly suggests that the “star” of Matthew 2 will make another appearance; the appearance of the Shekinah glory indicating the presence of God the Son.

So, while we might observe that the “star” in connection with the first coming of Jesus has been widely misunderstood; we can say with confidence that there will be no such misunderstanding at the Second Coming.  As we celebrate Christmas and the first coming of the Savior, we are wise to keep an eye toward heaven from which comes the Savior who will take us to be with Himself.  And then, seven years later the sign in the sky will signal His return to earth a second time.