Advent series: The return of the Bethlehem Star

Scientists have long debated the identity of the mysterious star that led the Magi to Bethlehem. Before looking at some of the attempts to explain the star, however, it is important to look at the biblical account.

By Ken Boa, Reflections Ministries


Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 

–Matthew 2:1–2, 9

 A full reading of this passage reveals three notable qualities of the star:

  1. The star failed to catch the attention of the general public.
  2. After the star appeared to the Magi to lead them to Bethlehem, it disappeared and reappeared.
  3. Finally, unlike an ordinary star, this star had a directional capacity that enabled the magi to pinpoint the precise location of the Messiah’s house (verse 9).

Many have attempted to explain the appearance of the star as a natural phenomenon. Perhaps the Magi saw a meteor shower, or an especially bright star or planet, such as Saturn or Venus. The most popular view identifies the star as a planetary conjunction: a close meeting or passing of two celestial bodies that had special meaning to astrologers of that day. Others say it might have been a comet or a supernova, or perhaps a combination of two or more of these phenomena.

None of these explanations, however, do justice to the biblical account. In the first place, they do not explain why the star was not visible to everyone, or how it led the Magi to the specific house where Jesus was. More importantly, these views attempt to explain with natural phenomena something that was really supernatural.

The most likely explanation of the star is that it was the brilliance of the glory of God himself.

The most likely explanation of the star is that it was the brilliance of the glory of God himself. This was the same glory that “shone around” the shepherds as the angels announced to them the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:9). In the Old Testament, the Lord appeared to Moses in a burning bush and to the Israelites as a pillar of fire. Significantly, that pillar of fire was meant to guide the Israelites through the wilderness, just as the star guided the Magi.

If we are to read the account of the Magi in the context of the rest of Scripture, it’s reasonable to conclude that the star that guided them was the light of the glory of God, revealing his incarnate self to those who were awaiting him.

More than this, the same glory that preceded Christ’s first advent will also be associated with his second advent. Just as the light of God’s glory proceeded from him on the first day of creation (Genesis 1:3), and just as his glory shone when the Word became flesh (John 1:14), so his glory will shine at the new creation, when “the glory of God gives [the city] light, and the Lamb is its lamp” (Revelation 21:23 NIV).

In all of these instances, God appears as a brilliant light in his self-revelation to his people.

Let us remember that we live between two advents. We are called to live with wisdom and prudence in light of the first advent of Christ and in anticipation of the second. The same presence of God that shone at Bethlehem, and that will ultimately shine in that heavenly city for which we are waiting, is even now dwelling in all who have put their trust in Christ.

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