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Jesus' Star in the East?

One of the more difficult questions for any serious student of Scripture to answer is, "How did the Magi know that a star would appear in the east to lead them to the Christ?" In Matthew's Gospel, we read of the Magi coming to Herod and asking, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him" (Matt. 2:2). So how did the Magi hear about Jesus' revelatory star? A prima facia reading of the Old Testament does not seem to answer this question. In fact, there seems to be a total absence of any reference to a special star appearing to indicate where the Christ was to be born. While commentators and theologians have attempted to solve this great mystery, Jonathan Edwards, in his sermon, "Seeking After Christ," offered, what I believe to be, the most satisfactory explanation about how the wise men might have known about this revelatory star and its redemptive significance. He made the following suggestion:

"These words are a part of the story of the wise men that came from the east to see and to worship Jesus Christ after his birth. ’Tis not known who these wise men were. There are various opinions about it. This is certain: that there was at that day a very great expectation in the world of some great person that was to arise in Judea that was to rule over the world, which probably arose from the Jews being dispersed all over the world, as they were after the captivity into Babylon, and so their carrying the prophecies of the Messiah with them.

And ’tis most probable that those wise men that came from the east were some that had received instruction from the holy writing of the Jews that had been carried into the east, first to Babylon, which was many hundred miles to the east of Judea, and afterwards to Shushan in Persia, which was yet a great deal further to the east. There was Daniel, that great prophet exalted to great dignity, and there was Nehemiah, and there was Elisha and Mordecai; and these had the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning Christ with them. And Daniel himself, who was set over the wise men of the east as their master, was himself a great prophet and wrote one of those books of Old Testament prophecy—whose prophecy of Christ is in some respects more particular than [that] of any other prophets—and probably wrote it in Persia when he was in great dignity there, and doubtless left instructions among the great and wise men of that eastern part of the world, whose master he was, concerning Christ, and probably might leave his own prophecy and the other prophecies of Scripture concerning the Messiah in their hands.

The word in the original that is translated wise men is magai. And learned men observe that there is to this day in those eastern parts of the world, and particularly in Persia, a sect called by this very name, Magai or Magi—and have been time out of mind—that have many parts of the Old Testament in their hands and have had ’em delivered down from their forefathers for a great many ages. And it is supposed that they received ’em from the Jews that were carried captive, and particularly from Daniel.

’Tis certain that those wise men or Magi that came from the east to see and to worship Christ, had some further instruction and direction than they had by the light of nature, and that two ways:

1. They were probably instructed [in] one of the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the star that should arise out of Jacob. This they probably had from Balaam’s prophecy. Num. 24:17, “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall arise out of Israel, that shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.”

Balaam himself, who prophesied thus, came out of the east and, it may be, from the same country that those wise men came from, and there might leave his prophecy.

2. They were instructed by immediate direction from heaven. There was [an] extraordinary hand of God stirring them up to come and seek Christ, and directing them how to find him; as is manifest, because God caused a miraculous star to appear for their direction. This star appeared to ’em in their own country together with an intimation from God that Christ now appeared in Judea, as appears by the second verse. They see this wonderful star and they knew it was a sign that Christ was come, and so came into Judea. It seems this star appeared to them a while and then disappeared; and they came to Jerusalem to inquire after Christ and, while they were diligently seeking him, the star appeared to ’em again, as in the next verse before the text: “When they 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.”

And then come in the words of the text: “and when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”

Four things may be particularly noted:

(1) Whom they had been seeking. They sought Christ. They had come a very long journey to seek him. We read of some that came from the utmost parts of the earth to see the wisdom of Solomon. And probably these came from as great a distance to see and to worship Christ, that was now born into the world to be the Savior of the world. They had doubtless undergone a long fatigue. It was a tedious and wearisome journey, and they had been inquiring of the priests and scribes where they should find Christ.

(2) We may observe how it was discovered to ’em where Christ was. They saw a bright and lovely star that was the emblem of his glory. This arose to them to enlighten and direct them. This star represented Christ, who is called a star rising out of Jacob in Balaam’s prophecy, and is said to be the bright and morning star (Rev. 22:16).

(3) We may observe what kind of effect this discovery had upon their minds. The effect was joy in them. As the star arose to their view, joy arose in their hearts.

(4) The degree of this effect. The joy was exceeding great; they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

1. Jonathan Edwards (2003). Sermons and Discourses, 1739–1742. (H. S. Stout, N. O. Hatch, & K. P. Farley, Eds.) (Vol. 22, pp. 287–289). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

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