Deciphering the Mysteries of the First Christmas

"For we saw His star and have come to worship Him." Matthew 2:2

“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.” Matthew 2:2

Sometimes in the Bible, we read about events that don’t seem to make sense. Take the Christmas story, for example. How was it possible the Magi followed a bright star hundreds of miles to a manger holding the newly born Jesus? And how did the shepherds know where to find Jesus? And just how did Mary manage to travel on the back of a donkey a full nine months pregnant? That alone should puzzle any of us.

Many Christians have questions, but God has something more for us to learn from the Christmas story.

Gabriel’s Visit

The entire Christmas story in the books of Matthew and Luke are stunning and incredible in many ways.

First, we find an angel appearing from nowhere to deliver a message to a teenager named Mary in Luke 1:26-38. The Bible does not tell us what Mary was doing at the time, but we know the angel suddenly appeared to tell her she was about to be pregnant. It doesn’t take much to understand her shocked reaction in verse 34.

“Then Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be since I do not know a man?'”

You can imagine what might have been going through Mary’s mind at that moment. Even after the angel Gabriel tells her she will conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit, it’s still hard to wrap one’s brain around it. Nevertheless, Mary did indeed conceive, and she gave birth to the Savior of the world nine months later.

This is the power of God, but He wasn’t finished yet.

Planting an Idea

While Mary was busy trying to convince her fiancé, Joseph, that she had not committed adultery, the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus decreed a census of all the men in Israel.

The census established a series of surveys taken every fourteen years, each being a headcount for military conscription. Up to this time, Jews were not allowed to serve in the Roman army. But Augustus decided to change this rule, which is why he established the census. Initially, it did not include personal property and income amounts. But eventually, Augustus required this information so he could create a poll tax.

What is amazing about this event isn’t that Augustus took a census, but that it was the first one ever. Never before had a ruler wanted to count every able-bodied man in his kingdom. It’s obvious God was at work.

And so, Joseph, being of the house of King David, returned to his and David’s hometown of Bethlehem. He and his very pregnant fiancée packed up their belongings, placed it all on the back of a donkey, and started the ninety-seven mile trek to Bethlehem.

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.” Micah 5:2

God placed the unheard-of idea in Augustus’ head to take a census that would require Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem. Without such a compulsion, Jesus would not have been born in Bethlehem as prophesied but Nazareth. He still would have been the Messiah, but the evidence of that fact would have been weakened. God was very careful to ensure every prophecy regarding the birth of His Son, Jesus, was fulfilled.

Jesus would not have been born in Bethlehem if Caesar Augustus had not made unusual decision to order a census.

A Celestial Conjunction

One element of Christmas we all know is the bright star in the sky that guided the Magi to Jesus. For decades, many astronomers have tried to explain how such a bright light could have possibly occurred. Some have suggested it was a meteor, while others say it was a nova or supernova.

One possible idea is the fact Jupiter was in conjunction with Saturn by one degree in 7 B.C. Together, they passed through the sky three times that year, creating a “super conjunction,” according to astronomical charts. Such a display in the sky would have certainly gained the attention of people like the Magi, who regularly studied the stars.

Four years later, Jupiter was in conjunction with Venus within the constellation Leo in 3 B.C. Leo was highly regarded as a sacred part of the sky whenever it appeared over ancient Israel. Later, individual Christians correlated the constellation to Jesus as the Lion of Judah.

When Jupiter, Venus, and Leo all aligned in August of 3 B.C., the sun’s reflection created an overwhelming light. Such close conjunction would have appeared in the eastern dawn sky, making it very easy to see for the Magi “in the East (Matthew 2:2)” to see.

The Planets and Stars Align

During the day, Venus would disappear, but Jupiter and Leo continued to shine. And this, along with other incredible star conjunctions, continued for ten months, certainly alerting the Magi and giving them plenty of time to travel to Jerusalem until they met with King Herod in the late spring of 2 B.C. Bible theorists speculate that Herod’s chief priests and scribes probably missed these incredible events because they always occurred in the pre-dawn hours, a time when the priests and scribes were likely sleeping.

According to star charts, Leo began to sink in the sky in June of 2 B.C. But, Jupiter and Venus continued to move closer together until they were within only 0.6 arc minutes of each other (for reference, the stars in Big Dipper’s handle are 12 arc minutes apart). The two planets appeared to be almost on top of each other. During the twilight evening hours, it must have looked like a bright beacon in the sky.

This supernatural event may have been what guided the Magi hundreds of miles to Bethlehem. Their astuteness of the skies and knowledge of prophecy are what likely prompted them to search for Jesus.

A supernatural celestial event is what compelled the Magi to follow what they thought was a bright star to find baby Jesus.

Other Curious Magi Questions

For those who wonder how the Magi could precisely follow a star for only six miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (after they first met with King Herod), they already knew the prophecy in Micah 5:2. They knew the King of the Jews was to be born in Bethlehem.

And regarding how they found the exact place where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus all were, we have no definite answer. But it may have been something as simple as asking the neighbors, which is indicated by the use of the present participle of “saying” in Matthew 2:2.

“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 have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.'”

Such use of grammar in Matthew 2:2 shows the Magi went around town asking everyone they encountered where a baby had been recently born. Bethlehem was a very small town with maybe 200 people. Many people would have known about the recent birth of a baby.

Science Isn’t Everything

Science alone cannot fully explain what happened in the sky the year the Magi visited baby Jesus. Astronomer Hubert J. Bernhard at San Francisco’s Morrison Planetarium fully admitted this in a lecture in 1967.

“If you accept the story told in the Bible as the literal truth, then the Christmas Star could not have been a natural apparition. Its movement in the sky and its ability to stand above and mark a single building; these would indicate that it was not a normal phenomenon, but a supernatural sign. One given from on high and one that science will never be able to explain.”

[Related Article: Was the Star of Bethlehem a Star, Comet…or Miracle? by Joe Rao]

God alone controls the heavens. He created them (Genesis 1:1), He counts the stars and knows them by name (Psalm 147:4), and He alone ordains what the stars do.

“It is I who made the earth and created man upon it. I stretched out the heavens with My hands, and I ordained all their host.” Isaiah 45:12

Only God could have aligned the planets and stars for almost a year so the Magi could find Jesus and worship Him. And God is still performing miraculous signs that lead us to Jesus so that we may worship the one true King.

Did the Shepherds See the Star?

An important distinction to note regards the shepherds. Most Christmas stories on television and in books depict them finding Jesus in a barn with the “star” shining overhead. But if astronomical charts are correct, there was no giant, bright star of any kind that night.

We do not know the exact date of Jesus’ birth, and many scholars believe it very likely was not in December. However, historians had determined King Herod’s death to be sometime between 4 and 1 B.C. Therefore, both Jesus’ birth and the Magi’s discovery of Him later must have occurred during this timeframe. And that lines up with the previous discussion of what historical astronomical charts show.

But notice the account of the shepherds in Luke 2. There is no mention of any stars, only the glory of the Lord shining around them.

“And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid…So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the Babe lying in a manger.” Luke 2:9,15-16

Obviously, a visit from all the angels of heaven is an enormous event. One cannot fathom such a thing. But there was no star. These priest shepherds only had information from the angels to go to the City of David, which they instantly would have known was Bethlehem.

And once they saw Jesus, they could not contain their excitement.

“Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child.” Luke 2:17

[Related Article: The Real Truth About the Shepherds on That First Christmas Night]

There was no star yet in the sky when the angels visited the shepherds in the fields to tell them Jesus the Messiah had been born.

God’s Will for You

Whether it is the sudden idea of taking a census, a conjunction of planets and stars, or a personal visit from heavenly angels providing direct information, God indeed moved heaven and earth to ensure the fulfillment of prophecy.

Why would God go to so much trouble?

It wasn’t just for the sake of prophecy alone. God did (and still does) these things simply to compel us to find Jesus, surrender to His grace, and worship Him. And God will continue to do this until Jesus returns to claim His kingdom. Jesus Himself tells us this in John 4:23.

“But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.”

God would do anything to draw you to His saving grace. He is seeking—not hoping and wishing, but actively seeking—us to worship Him. And this is His will for us.

We may not be able to explain everything that happened the night Jesus was born or even months later when the Magi visited, or any other part of the Bible. Some parts will not make immediate sense to us. But His will for us is always the same.

God still invites us to go and find Jesus and then make widely known His glory and love every day to everyone we meet until we finally see Him face to face one wonderful day.

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