After the birth of Christ, wise men from the east came looking for the child because, as they reported to Herod, King of Judah, they had seen the star announcing His birth. The prophecy which had alerted the magi to look for a star was undoubtedly the one given through Balaam almost 1500 years earlier, during the time of Moses. Balaam declared,
There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel.
Innumerable writers have attempted to identify exactly which star the wise men saw. Some have theorized that it was a supernova. But secular history records no supernova near the time of Christ's birth. Others have theorized that the star of Bethlehem was a brilliant heavenly body mistaken for a single star, whereas it was really a conjunction of planets. But the wise men were sophisticated astronomers, and they would not have failed to notice the separate planets converging beforehand and diverging afterward. Yet others have imagined that the wise men saw the message of Christ's birth written into the disposition of one or planets in relation to the backdrop of constellations. But it is doubtful that God would have bestowed legitimacy on the methods of astrology. Moreover, no alignment of celestial bodies could have pointed to Judea as the child's birthplace.
The true identity of the star is revealed by clues in Matthew's Gospel.
When they [the wise men] had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
Notice three things.
- The interjection "lo" marks the moment when, to their great surprise and wonderment, the star reappeared to guide the wise men on their way. The placement of "lo" in the narrative shows that they sighted the star immediately after they departed from Jerusalem.
- In Greek, the verb tense in the statement, "The star . . . went before them," is imperfect. A more precise translation would be, "The star . . . was going before them," indicating that the star was in motion ahead of them as they traveled south from Jerusalem (1).
- The place pointed out by the star is not said to be the village of Bethlehem, but the very place where the child dwelt. The magi needed no help to find the village of His birth, since the learned men of Jerusalem had already named that village, and no doubt Herod had told the magi how to get there, or perhaps had furnished guides. The magi needed help only to determine which child in Bethlehem was the one they were seeking.
It is obvious that no celestial body could perform the feats attributed to Christ's natal star. No celestial body moves through the heavens at the pace of travelers on the ground, and no celestial body ever moves south along the celestial meridian. Moreover, if the star moving ahead of the magi had been a celestial body, it would have kept to the south and led them beyond Bethlehem (2). Finally, the position of a celestial body cannot be used to locate an object the size of a human dwelling.
For these reasons a legion of commentators ancient and modern have believed that the star was a supernatural visitation of some sort (3). One reasonable possibility is that the star was an angel, perhaps Gabriel, manifesting himself as a point of brilliant light in the distant sky. The magi would likely have called him a star even if they perceived that he was closer than the other stars of heaven. In Scripture, a star often figuratively designates an angel. For example,
And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star fall from heaven unto the earth: and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit.
Just as an angelic star once pointed to the lowly but godly origins of the Christ, so an angelic star will point to the infernal origins of the Antichrist. The message blazoned on the sky by these stars past and future can be understood only by wise men.
It is reasonable to suppose that the angel who conducted the wise men to Bethlehem was the same one that caught their attention back home, probably in Babylon. He must have risen into their sight from the quadrant of heaven that they would have associated with the skies over Palestine. So, in fulfillment of Balaam's prophecy, the star rose out of Jacob.