Star of Bethlehem – Divine Preparation for the Incarnation

A Christmas Meditation

The naiveté  of those who doubt that Jesus is the messiah because they suppose that he arranged to fulfill the requirements and prophecies of the messiah himself always amuses me – particularly at this time of  year when the preparations of God for the arrival of the messiah are so apparent.

It reminds me of the naiveté of the comic character Calvin, of Calvin and Hobbes – an active and curious child who with his stuffed tiger (who is alive to Calvin) always gets into amusing situations.  In one instance Calvin asks his father:

“Dad, how come old photographs are always black and white? Didn’t they have color film back then?”
His dad answers him:
“Sure they did. In fact those old photographs are in color. It’s just the world was black and white back then.”[1]

They proceed to discuss why all photos are color photos, but the world was once black and white – thus black and white looking photos. Such is the case with those who believe that Jesus just arranged to fulfill the prophecies himself.  You must have a very limited, childlike knowledge of the events of Christmas to believe a mere human was capable of all that transpired. Yet, apparently some do. Lee Strobel relates how he had tried to explain away all the prophecies that Jesus fulfilled by supposing that Jesus just arranged his life to fulfill them. He relates it as follows:

“My first line of defense was that Jesus may have intentionally maneuvered his life to fulfill the prophecies so that he would be mistaken for the Messiah. For instance, Zechariah 9:9 predicted that the Messiah would ride a donkey into Jerusalem. Maybe when Jesus was getting ready to enter the town, he told his disciples, ‘Go fetch me a donkey. I want to fool these people into thinking I’m the messiah. After all, I’m anxious to get tortured to death!”[2]

He realized that could not be true since many prophecies concern things Jesus – as a mere human – could not control.  As this is the Christmas season and Christians around the world are celebrating the coming of God in the flesh in the person of Christ, let me relate three preparations God made for the arrival of the messiah that Jesus could not have done himself – were he a mere human. There were signs in the heavens, preparation on earth, and preparation among God’s people.

Signs in the Heavens: The Star of Bethlehem

Consider the divine preparation that had to have occurred before the birth of Jesus in order for there to have been a “star of Bethlehem.”

The Gospel of Matthew records:

2:1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born.

5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'”

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.
10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.

There are many problems here for a mere human. We’ll focus in on two:

1. How do you make a star appear that will let Magi know that you – the messiah – the king of Israel – are about to be born? And or course how do you pull it off before you’re born? (Matt 2.2)

2. How do you get the Wise Men to come to Jerusalem from far distances to worship you as a baby?(Matt 2.11)

For Magi to see “his star in the east” (Matt 2.2) – clearly there had to be something happening in the stars that led them to this conclusion.  What was it that they saw? This  deals with the identification of the Star of Bethlehem.  Some posit that the star had to be supernatural[3], primarily because of the motion of the star (Matt 2.9), and an assumption that the star hung low enough that it pointed out the exact house the messiah is in. But that is not what the text implies.

The text suggests that the Magi had to search for the child (Matt 2.8), in Bethlehem, which is south of Jerusalem. When they leave Jerusalem, the star which had risen in the east, had turned south, and stops over Bethlehem – causing the Magi to rejoice (Matt 2.10) that it is confirming the direction they need to head in. Both secular and Biblical researchers are converging on the same answer as to how the motion was accomplished: Retrograde motion of a planet[4]. But what caused the Magi to start the journey in the first place? The identification of the star of Bethlehem is a difficult task, and many have opinions on it. It appears to me that just as the Jews misunderstood the comings of Jesus – thinking there would be two Messiahs with one coming instead of one Messiah with two comings; I believe many Christians have misunderstood the star of Bethlehem – believing it to be a single event – when actually it was a series of events. I offer my interpretation here, recognizing that new data may change it, but as of the data available now, the following seems most plausible:

What motivated the Magi to head to Judah?

It wasn’t a single sighting, but a series of sightings of the motions of a particular heavenly body: Jupiter – the largest planet and the “king” star.  It was involved in not one, not two, but three conjunctions that the Magi would have seen as significant, and two of those conjunctions were triple conjunctions. We know that the Magi saw the star more than once because they saw the star before they left for the journey to Judah (Matt 2.2), and again when they left for the journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (Matt 2.10). Here are the events I believe motivated them:

 These events were:
Event One:
The triple conjunction of  Jupiter with Saturn – between May and Dec, 7 BC

The Symbols:
Jupiter the king planet,  crowning (triple conjunction) Saturn – which some gentile nations believe control the fate of the Jewish people.

The Magi’s likely interpretation:
A King is coming to the Jews. Now they’re watching to see what else happens.

Event Two:
The Triple conjunction of Jupiter the king planet, and Regulus the king star in the constellation of Leo – Sept, 3 BC

The Symbols:
Jupiter the King planet crowning (triple conjunction) Regulus the King star in the constellation of Leo – the Lion. The Lion is the symbol of the tribe of Judah.

The Magi’s likely interpretation:
A King is coming to the Jewish tribe of Judah.
This would have been confirmation of the previous sign.

Event Three:
The conjunction of Jupiter with Venus, June, 2 BC

The Symbols:
Jupiter the king planet joins (conjunction) with Venus the mother planet, June, 2 BC creating briefly – as in a moment of conception  – a single, exceedingly bright star to the naked eye.

The Magi’s likely interpretation:
A King will be born to Israel (King by birth and divine right, not declared as by conquest, or setup as king by a ruling authority as Rome had setup Herod King over the Jews.)

At this point they’ve seen enough.  They’re convinced – they’ve had 3 signs in the heavens – A king is coming – in the form of a baby – to Israel. So they make arrangements (no rush the baby has not been born yet), and ride to the capital – Jerusalem and ask where the child who “has been born king of the Jews” is. (Matt 2. 2) The chief priests tell them the child is to be born in Bethlehem, and they depart – in time to see Jupiter – the star they’ve been watching – go into retrograde motion – in the direction of Bethlehem  – where they need to go, and where it stops. They rejoice that their sightings and interpretations have been confirmed. (Matt 2.10) The new born king is in Bethlehem – both the scriptures and the star indicate that.

The text implies it was not the star that located the house for them, but their diligent search (Matt 2.8), which Bible scholar D.A. Carson points out would have been helped by the shepherds who “did not keep silent about what they saw.”[5]

So what motivated the Magi, and how do you get them travel to Jerusalem from far distances? You produce signs in the heavens that could be read like a book – preordained since the creation of the the universe – since the stars in the night sky move like clockwork. These stars would both announce the event and direct them to the general vicinity of it (Judea), then confirm the city location (Bethlehem) upon arrival. An impossibility for a mere man, but child’s play for God, the King of the universe. 

Preparation on Earth

Now Jesus was born to Mary, the wife of Joseph who lived in Nazareth, not Bethlehem. How do you get the mother of the messiah to be in right the place (the city where scripture says the messiah is to be born – Mic 5.2) at the right time? (When messiah is born?) Once again, this is child’s play for God, for as scripture tells us:

The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.
Prov 21.1

Both Mary and Joseph are in the line of David. How do you get them to Bethlehem? Simply put it in the heart of the king to issue a decree to make them return to their home town:

2:1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.
2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)
3 And everyone went to his own town to register.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.
Luke 2.1-3

Since Caesar issued the decree for the census, Mary and Josephus were required by law to return to the city of their ancestors – Bethlehem. Once again, directing the hearts of kings before you’re born is an impossibility for mere humans, but child’s play for God, the King of the universe.

Preparation among God’s people
Let me hazard a guess: There were no righteous people or prophets eagerly  waiting to see you and proclaim you the messiah of Israel when you were born, right?  How could any mere human arrange this before they were born? Yet this is precisely the situation we find at the birth of the true Messiah. Scripture records  the righteous man Simeon (Luke 2:25-35) waited years to see the messiah, and spoke eloquently about him when he did. And God had placed the prophetess Anna in the temple years before the birth of the messiah (Luke 2:36-38), so she was “conveniently” there to proclaim the redemption the child would bring.  Again, impossible for a mere human to arrange before birth, but child’s play for God, the King of the universe.

Closing Thought
Clearly the “messianic maneuvering” as Strobel called the theory that Jesus just maneuvered his life to fulfill prophecy is dead on arrival.  To any who care to look at the signs and preparation it’s laughably false. Unless of course by “messianic maneuvering” you mean that the Jesus, as the pre-incarnate Christ, Son of God,  Creator of the Universe (John 1.3) did the maneuvering when he was creating the heavens and the earth (Gen 1.1) and placing the stars as signs (Gen 1.14) to point to the season of his advent – ordaining them to be in the proper positions at the time of his arrival on earth.  When put in that perspective that is a proper way of understanding the messianic maneuvering that prepared for the arrival of God the Son coming to achieve redemption for man.

Duane Caldwell | December 24,  2019 | printer friendly version
 


Notes

1. Bill Watterson, Scientific Progress Goes “Boink”, A Calvin and Hobbes Collection,  Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1991, p. 23
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2.Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ, Student Edition, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001, Kindle Edition, loc 549
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3. Positing a completely supernatural star: Jason Lisle, Don De Young and Danny Faulkner, all featured on Answer’s in Genesis site. Faulkner gives a lengthy critique of Larson’s theory (see note 4)
The Star of Bethlehem” (Lisle, November 7, 2006)
What was the Star of Bethlehem“, (De Young, December 24, 2002) (Also featured on Creation.com)
An Evaluation of The Star of Bethlehem DVD“, (Faulkner, December 22, 2010)
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4. Rick Larson, targeting a Christian, audience presents a compelling but incomplete case for both the identification of the star, and it’s apparent motion in his DVD “The Star of Bethlehem“, (2009)”; a theory originally proposed by Ernest L. Martin in The Star that Astonished the World” (1991)
He leaves out a few elements which I have added to my presentation.

Also pointing to the same events that Larson does as a possible solution are the secular astronomers of the thoroughly secular series The Universe Ancient Mysteries solved (A spin off of The Universe) – in the episode titled  Star of Bethlehem (2014)

5. D.A.Caron “Matthew” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol 8, Grand Rapids, MI:Zondervan, 1984  p.59
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Kenneth W Funk

Thanks bro. Merry Christmas from Oahu.

George Hawke
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Thanks Duane. Happy Christmas from Australia.

Simmons (2015) believes that the magi found the holy family in Nazareth, which is in the opposite direction (from Jerusalem) to that of Bethlehem. In this case it would be the “star of Nazareth”, instead of the “star of Bethlehem”! Could your astronomical explanation work for another location like Nazareth?

Simmons K M (2015) “The origins of Christmas and the date of Christ’s birth”, JETS, 299-324.