From This Point Forward
Starry Gazes: In Heavenly Light
by David Jeremiah
In 1543, just before his death, the Renaissance astronomer (and Catholic cleric) Nicolaus Copernicus shook the foundations of man's understanding of his place in the universe by publishing On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres — the book that many believe jumpstarted the scientific revolution.
What did he say? That the sun, not the earth, was the center of our planetary system. Not only did he posit that the earth revolves around the sun, and not vice versa, he also said that the earth was not the center of the universe — only the center of gravity and the moon's orbit around us. He also saw that the distance from the earth to the sun (93 million miles) was basically imperceptible compared to the distance from earth to the outer limits of the universe. And nearly 500 years later, we still haven't seen the edges of the universe, even though we have telescopes thousands of times more powerful than what Copernicus used.
Hurrah for Hubble!
The Hubble Space Telescope has been the rock star of astronomical research since its launch in 1990. Carried into orbit by a NASA space shuttle, it was put in place 380 miles above the earth's surface. Gliding through the heavens in its silent orbit, it has sent back pictures that have done more to expand our knowledge of our universe, and earth's place in it, than anything before. The birth of stars, the death of stars, galactic formation and collision, black holes — more than 700,000 pictures were taken and beamed back to earth in Hubble's first 15 years. They have been widely available — NASA's website, National Geographic magazine, and other places — and I hope you have seen them. The Hubble Space Telescope has brought the universe home to planet earth. The images make us wonder: What lies beyond the reach of Hubble's lenses? What is there yet to see?
To get an idea of the size of the universe, consider the following:
- Planet earth is 93,000,000 miles from the sun.
- One light year is six trillion miles. (Light travels 186,000 miles per second, or 6,000,000,000,000 miles in one year.)
- The Milky Way Galaxy, in which our solar system exists, is 100,000 light years across. (That's 60,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles.)
- It is estimated that there are 350,000,000,000 galaxies like ours in the universe. 1
- And in those galaxies, it is estimated there are 70 sextillion stars (70,000 million million million; or 7 followed by 22 zeroes; or 10 times the number of grains of sand on planet earth's beaches and deserts) according to a study by Australian astronomers. 2
Not even the Hubble Telescope can confirm that number, of course. The truth is, no one knows how many heavenly lights are hanging in mid-space: some being born, some dying out, and some providing magnificent lights as portrayed by Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh in his most well-known piece, "Starry Night." The painting depicts swirls of light trailing across a blue-black sky, and light moving silently above while the earth sleeps silently below.
A Star Is Born
Many stars are HUGE, dwarfing not only planet earth but our own sun:
"Many [stars] are unfathomably large. Consider the fact that our own sun is more than one million times larger than the earth by volume. Yet some of the vast nebulae astronomers have observed are more than one million times larger and brighter than our sun. Each star in the heavens is different from all others. Like fingerprints and snowflakes, they reveal the vast diversity reflected in God's creative wisdom." 3
Take VY Canis Majoris, a red supergiant star, located some 5,000 light years away from earth. It is 500,000 times brighter than our sun, and thirty to forty times larger. That's big, but big is not the same as important when it comes to God's economy. No star can hold a candle to the importance of the most well-known star in history: the Christmas Star, or Bethlehem Star that guided the Magi to the birthplace of Jesus.
Speculation has been rampant for more than 2,000 years as to what the Star of Bethlehem was — even though Matthew 2:2 says it was a "star." Others want to call it a nova, a conjunction of planets, a comet, or something else. Why not take the word of the three scientists who saw it — the astronomers from the East called "Magi" in the Bible who followed it, and described it as a "star." These were no doubt brilliant students of the heavens who had plenty of time to observe the star as they followed it for weeks across the Persian or Arabian deserts. (We don't know their exact origin except that they were "from the East" — east of Jerusalem.)
We know that stars have a lifespan — even our own sun will eventually burn itself out one day. Stars are birthed and stars die. Why, then, is it so hard to believe that God caused a particularly bright star to exist for the sole purpose of announcing to the world that the King of the Jews had been born? We know that the Magi saw the appearance of the star, and that it was new. That's what prompted their trip to Jerusalem. And we have to assume the star disappeared after serving its purpose since history contains no record of its permanent place in the heavens.
But if language means anything, we have to take the Bible at its word: A star, heretofore unknown, appeared for a specific purpose: to enable the Magi to worship and present gifts to the newborn King of the Jews.
A Little (Heavenly) Light on the Subject
The Star of Bethlehem's purpose was to light the path of the Magi. It is a beautiful illustration of Psalm 119:105: "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path."
Think for a moment: If our little blue planet Earth seems small and insignificant compared to the vastness of the universe, how much smaller might each of us feel as individuals on that planet? Yet God caused one of His innumerable stars to appear to guide three individuals to His Son. He shed light on their concerns; He met their need. And He will do the same for us.
Our need is not like the Magi's need: to find our way from a Persian metropolis to a tiny village in Israel. But our needs can seem just as daunting; the answers we need can seem just as far away. Yet God says that His Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. It is sometimes inconceivable to us that God, given the vastness of the universe He created and watches over, would be conscious of our life and our needs. But He is — right down to the very hairs on our head (Matthew 10:30)!
Perhaps there is a part of your path that needs fresh light from God and from His Word today. We're heading into the most stressful time of the year for any American — the Christmas season. That alone, along with other bumps and bends in the path of your life, qualifies you as someone on whom God wants to shed a little (or a lot of) light.
God wants to help His children in — relationships, family matters, finances, overcoming stubborn sins or addictions, providing hope and purpose, forgiveness, and more. The message never changes: There is no part of the path of your life on which God is not willing to shed the light of His grace, mercy, and love. My greater concern is to challenge you to believe that truth, to believe that He knows your needs even "before you ask Him" (Matthew 6:8), and is ready to do "exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power [of Christ] that works in us" (Ephesians 3:20).
Whether you need Him to give you something (hope, forgiveness, love) or take something away (fear, guilt, resentment), God has light for your path. I hope you will allow that gift of light to be your present from Him this Christmas.
When you look up at the night sky this Christmas season, you won't see the Star of Bethlehem. But let the stars you see remind you that God has heavenly light to shed on whatever problem is in your path — now and always.
1 Lisa Stillwell, compiler, The Heavens Proclaim His Glory: A Spectacular View of Creation Through the Lens of the Hubble Telescope (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010).
2 http://www.cnn.com/2003/TECH/space/07/22/stars.survey/ (accessed 9/18/10).
3 John MacArthur, The Battle for the Beginning (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 117.