The Gospel of Matthew records how wise men came from the east to the land of Israel to search after the King of the Jews. The wise men were led to Jerusalem and then Bethlehem by a bright star in the sky.
We don’t know exactly how far east the men had come from, but they were probably from the area that had previously been Babylon (now Iraq), which was famous for producing philosophers and astronomers.
The wise men may have been descendants of such people. We do not know exactly how many wise men there were. It may be there were three, because there were three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh given to the baby Jesus.
One thing we can be sure about is that the wise men went on a journey of several hundred miles knowing that they would experience cold, hunger and danger. There were no tarmac roads, sign posts and service stations.
Instead, they had to travel hundreds of miles across rough terrain with animal transport and limited provisions. There was the danger of illness, robbery and arrest. Even when they arrived in Jerusalem there was the possibility of a hostile reception.
So what motivated the wise men to go on such a long and dangerous journey? Why was it worth risking so much to find the King of the Jews? The answer is that the wise men somehow knew that the most important thing in life was to find the true and living God. They may have found great satisfaction in astronomy and philosophy, but they knew that their greatest need was to find God and be at peace with him.
The fact that man’s greatest need is to find the God of the Bible is still true today. There are many people who assume that careers and money will bring happiness, only to find that status and wealth are not satisfying. Indeed, many rich people struggle to build lasting marriages and other relationships. The only way to lead a fulfilled life is to love and serve the God who upholds all things.
How did the wise men know that the star of Bethlehem signified the King of the Jews? There is no doubt that Daniel (and other Jews from the Old Testament) taught the Babylonians about the God of the Bible. Daniel would have taught the Babylonians the prophecy that a Messiah was due to come to Israel (Isaiah 9:6) who would be the King of the Jews.
And Daniel would have taught the prophecy that a star would come out of Jacob (Numbers 24:17). It is likely the wise men who travelled to Bethlehem had heard of the promise of a Messiah and the prophecy that a star would signify his coming.
But whatever they had learnt from their education, the most important reason for their journey would have been a calling from God. When they saw the star, God would have made them believe that it indicated the coming of a king who would save people from their sins. And God would have given them an irresistible urge to seek the newborn King.
God still works in the hearts of people today by encouraging them to seek after the Saviour. Perhaps God is calling you to seek after the Saviour? Perhaps you have wondered about attending that local evangelical church? Perhaps by God’s providence you have received this newspaper?
I believe the star of Bethlehem was a super-naturally created star rather than a natural event like a supernova or planetary alignment. The fact that the star went before the wise men to Bethlehem and stood over the location of Jesus strongly suggests the star was supernatural. Normal stars don’t move along lanes and then stop over a building!
The star of Bethlehem was a wonderfully appropriate miracle. Jesus came from heaven, so it was appropriate that a sign should come from heaven. Jesus is the light of the world so it was appropriate that a light signified his birth. The Bible teaches that the heavens belong to God, whereas he has given the earth to men (Psalm 115:16). So it is not surprising that God announced the birth of his Son through a miracle in space.
The star of Bethlehem is also appropriate because Jesus is the bright morning star. Each time we see the bright morning star (Venus), we are reminded not only of the star of Bethlehem but that the Lord Jesus will one day return in glory to judge the world.
Another important feature of the star of Bethlehem is that it is the kind of miracle that human magicians cannot mimic. Pharaoh’s magicians could mimic Moses by making their rods turn into serpents. But even the cleverest magicians cannot put a star into space. In the book of Job we read how only God can move the stars (Job 38:31-33).
The star of Bethlehem was a wonderfully effective means of navigation. In fact it was the ultimate in satellite navigation! It was a Sat Nav that was divinely controlled and utterly reliable in operation.
Wise men still seek and find Jesus today. They are not led by a star but by the Spirit of God.
Stuart Burgess BSc, PhD, CEng, MIMechE is Professor of Engineering Design at the University of Bristol.