>The following essay appeared in the July 28 issue of The Outlook and can be viewed at Reformed Fellowship’s website, but I wanted to post it as a blog entry since it is so timely for this advent season.
When I rise on clear mornings, the dark pre-dawn sky is pierced by the beauty of a bright star throbbing like a living diamond. Joyful hope fills my soul and my spirit sings as the star reminds me of Christ, the bright and morning star.
This is an appellation that Christ gave Himself in His penultimate words to believers: “I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you about these things in the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star” (Rev. 22:16, NKJV).
Christ’s self-ascribed title as “the Bright and Morning Star” creates a rich mental tapestry of intricately interwoven threads: Christ’s presence at the dawn of creation, Christ’s incarnation in fulfillment of biblical prophecy, the Magi’s adoration as the first fruits of the nations’ worship, and Christ’s return at the culmination of His Kingdom.
The morning star that seems to pulse in silent rhythm reminds me of the morning stars that sang together in sheer joy at the creation of the world.
God asks Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” and adds, “When the morning stars sang together” (Job 28: 4, 7). Realizing the limits of his finitude, Job is appropriately shamed and silent. He wasn’t present at creation.
Christ, however, was.
John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word as with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:1-5).
The morning star shining in the darkness before dawn reminds me of the light that came into this dark world. That light is the Word through which all things were made at creation, when the morning stars sang for joy.
Seeing the morning star also reminds me of a delightful moment in Old Testament history, Balaam’s involuntary prophecy.
In the book of Numbers, we read that the Amorites came against Israel under the leadership of their king, Sihon. The Amorites were not weak; they had recently overcome the Moabites and taken a great deal of their land. But God gave the Israelites the victory as well as the Amorites’ land.
And the Israelite victory over Sihon and the Amorites was not a fluke. When Og, the king of Bashan, brought his people against the Israelites, God proceeded to grant Israel another rousing victory and even more land.
Enter Balak, the king of the Moabites. Balak is shaking in his boots. The Bible says that “Moab was exceedingly afraid of the people because they were many, and Moab was sick with dread because of the children of Israel” (Num. 22:3).
Moab was “exceedingly afraid” and “sick with dread.” No wonder! How could Moab hope to overcome the conqueror of their conquerors?
Realizing that military might is powerless against the Israelites, Balak decides to bring the metaphysical heavy guns to the front. He sends for the prophet Balaam.
Despite warnings from the Lord via a dream and a donkey, Balaam travels with the Moabite emissaries and meets Balak. And, in spite of Balak’s best efforts to set the stage for a spectacular curse pronouncement against Israel, Balaam is capable only of uttering a series of increasingly affirming blessings.
One of the most beautiful of all the Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming Messiah is found in Balaam’s fourth prophecy, when Balaam involuntarily prophesies of the coming King of Kings:
“I see Him, but not now;
I behold Him, but not near;
A Star shall come out of Jacob;
A Scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Num. 24:17a).
As in Revelation 22:16, the star is linked to Israel with clear implications regarding the royal line of David.
A cursory reading of Numbers might make it seem as if Balak was the driving force behind efforts to bring down Israel or that Balaam was a helpless pawn in God’s plan, but other passages give a glimpse into Balaam’s motivation and character.
In 2 Peter 2, Peter describes the depravity of false teachers, saying, “They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; but he was rebuked for his iniquity: a dumb donkey speaking with a man’s voice restrained the madness of the prophet” (vv. 15-16).
And in the apocalyptic letter to the compromising church at Pergamos, Christ says, “But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality” (Rev. 2:14).
Balaam was depraved and greedy. He loved the “wages of unrighteousness.” He was a false teacher who contributed to Israel’s sins by instructing Balak on the most effective methods for placing “a stumbling block” in the path of the people of Israel.
Remarkably, these two New Testament references to Balaam appear in close connection with the two other New Testament references to the morning star.
Before Peter describes destructive doctrines and the doom of false teachers in 2 Peter 2, he concludes the preceding chapter with a beautiful description of the trustworthiness of God’s Word. In 2 Peter 1:19, he writes:
“And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
And just a few verses after Christ’s criticism of those who hold to the false doctrine of Balaam in Revelation 2, Christ provides this vivid promise to the faithful:
“And he who overcomes, and keeps My works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations—
‘He shall rule them with a rod of iron;
They shall be dashed to pieces like the potter’s vessels’—
I also have received from My Father; and I will give him the morning star, He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:26-29).
These two New Testament references to the morning star are full of hope for a victorious future in which believers will experience the fullness of blessing in Christ and share in His rule over the nations.
Commenting on Revelation 2:28 on p. 73 of More Than Conquerors, William Hendriksen writes, “As the morning star rules the heavens, so believers will rule with Christ; they will share in His royal splendour and domination. The star is always the symbol of royalty, being linked with the scepter (Nu. 24:17; cf. Mt. 2:2).”
In his commentary on Revelation 2:28 in The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (New International Greek Testament Commentary), G. K. Beale notes how similar patterns in it and 2 Peter 1:17-19 pair the Numbers allusion with the messianic Psalm 2. Like Hendriksen, Beale associates the morning star with the messianic reign and the scepter. He writes, “The application…to believers indicates that they will participate in this reign if they overcome” (pp. 268-269).
The intertwining of these threads is amazing. The wonderful promises recorded in 2 Peter and Revelation 2, which fill believers with hope for the final victory, are found in close proximity to references regarding Balaam. God used that depraved prophet to utter an involuntary prophecy about the coming Messiah, a prophecy that links royal reign and sovereignty with a star.
The singular star shining in the east reminds me of the eastern star that signaled Christ’s incarnation. That star very literally fulfilled Balaam’s prophecy and brought the first adoration from the nations to Christ’s feet.
The wise men associated the star with royalty. When they arrived in Jerusalem, they asked, “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).
The wise men were products of their age. In the ancient world, certain stars were considered symbols of sovereignty. Some people groups began to worship stars as gods and some ancient kings claimed divinity. Astrology was born in Babylon (Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, p. 41).
The star I see in the east is actually the planet Venus. It shines most brightly before sunrise or after sunset, earning it the titles of “morning star” or “evening star.”
Beale writes that Venus as the morning star “was a symbol of sovereignty in the ancient world and especially in Rome.” He explains that Roman emperors claimed descent from the goddess Venus, Roman generals constructed temples dedicated to the star, and Roman soldiers carried standards bearing the star of Venus (p. 269).
When Christ was born in the fullness of God’s time, a new star appeared above the horizon of the Roman world. This star outshone Roman gods and Roman glories. Emperors would die and the Empire would fall, but this star represented the infinitely superior and everlasting kingdom of the King of Kings.
The final manifestation of that kingdom is described in Revelation 21:23-24:
“The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light. And the nations of those who are saved shall walk in its light, and the kings of the earth bring their glory and honor into it.”
The wise men kneeling in adoration of the infant Jesus were the first fruits of the nations that will one day worship Christ and bring their glory into His kingdom.
Isaiah prophesied that the “Gentiles shall come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isa. 60:3). This prophecy weaves the adoration of kings and nations with Christ’s light and 2 Peter 1’s imagery of the rising morning star.
All of these threads—Christ’s contribution to creation, the fulfillment of Balaam’s prophecy in Christ’s incarnation, and the Magi’s adoration as the first fruits of the nations’ worship—are intrinsically interwoven with Christ’s return and the victorious culmination of His Kingdom. The book of Revelation focuses on Christ’s victorious return and the complete implementation of His Kingdom. And that focus is at the forefront of my mind when I see the morning star.
Which brings me back to Christ’s words in Revelation 22:16: “I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star.”
Coming at the end of John’s apocalypse, the imagery of Christ as the Morning Star cannot be separated from the image of Christ as the returning King on the last day. The vivid imagery of Revelation will come to pass in a reality that will fill unbelievers’ hearts with fear, but feel believers’ hearts with joy. Christians may rest in God’s promises and look forward to Christ’s return with joyful anticipation.
The threads twining around the morning star are again apparent in this verse from the conclusion of Revelation. Here is Christ, the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last. Here is Christ, who fulfilled prophecy as the long-awaited Messiah and the true King of Israel. Here is Christ, whose brightness will rise and shine before the nations, who will bow in submission before His sovereignty. Here is Christ, who will lead his followers to conquer every foe and reign with Him in glory.
Beale notes that Christ’s title in Revelation 22:16 combines the star prophecy of Numbers 24:17 with the root prophecy of Isaiah 11:1, 10 “concerning the messianic king’s triumph over his enemies at the end of time” (p. 1146). Beale also sees an allusion to the opening verses of Isaiah 60, part of which I quoted earlier in connection with the worship of nations:
For your light has come!
And the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.
For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth,
And deep darkness the people;
But the Lord will arise over you.
And His glory will be seen upon you.
The Gentiles shall come to your light,
And kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isa. 60:1-3).
Christ as the fulfillment of messianic prophecies and as the Davidic King affirms what is sometimes called the “already and not yet” aspects of Christ’s reign, or what theologians call the “inaugurated and future” fulfillments. Christ’s kingdom “already” came with His first advent, when He accomplished all that was necessary for our salvation; but His Kingdom has “not yet” come into the fullness that will be implemented at His second advent.
In his commentary on these two aspects, Beale notes further intertwining of the morning star passages:
“That both inaugurated and future fulfillments are intended here is apparent from the use of the dawn of a new day or age as a metaphorical association of ‘the bright morning star.’ Christ has begun a new redemptive day, which he will culminate at his final return. This is also pointed to by 2 Pet. 1:17-19, where ‘the morning star’ is synonymous with the dawning day, both possibly metaphors for the inauguration of the OT ‘prophetic word’ in Christ’s first coming” (p. 1147).
Seeing the morning star reminds me that Christ has already come and accomplished everything needful for my salvation. And it reminds me that—although His kingdom is not yet complete—He soon will come again in glory to usher in the fullness of that kingdom.
Then hopeful joy fills my heart and—with the hymn—my spirit sings, “How Bright Appears the Morning Star!”
Philip Nicholai, a Lutheran pastor in Germany during the Protestant Reformation, wrote the words and music to that beloved hymn. Nicholai was driven out of his first charge by mercenary troops of the Spanish Counter-Reformation. He fled to the Catholic city of Cologne, where he ministered to Lutheran house churches that met in secret. He became Court Preacher for the Count of Waldeck in 1588, and he became a pastor in Unna, Westphalia, in 1596. While he served in Westphalia, the bubonic plague was sweeping across Europe. Hundreds of his parishioners died. Seeing 30 graves dug in a single day inspired him to pen the words to his famous hymn. The song first appeared in his book, Joyous Mirror of Eternal Life, published in 1599 (www.cyberhymnal.org). An English translation appears in the section of hymns regarding Christ’s birth found in the blue 1959 Psalter Hymnal (#336).
When I read the words of the hymn, I feel an affinity with Philip Nicolai. Although my suffering cannot compare with the losses that triggered his words of praise, perhaps I share some of his thoughts and feelings when viewing the morning star.
The hymn focuses on Christ’s incarnation, with a line in the first stanza alluding to Isaiah 11:1 and indirectly to Balaam’s prophecy: “O Righteous Branch, O Jesse’s Rod!” A line in the second stanza calls to mind Christ’s role in creation and His sovereignty over it: “The whole creation’s Head and Lord.” And two lines of the third stanza bring to mind Christ’s victorious return and the worship of the nations: “Ride on, ride on, great Conqueror; Till all know Thy salvation.”
When I look to the east and see the morning star, these different threads of biblical truth regarding Christ weave through my mind. Although my finite mind can see only the tangled back of the tapestry, I know these threads form a beautiful and unified whole that fills me with hope.
Just as surely as I know dawn is near when I see the morning star, I know that the dawn of Christ’s return is near. The morning star’s light pierces the darkness of our inter-advental existence and rekindles the hope of His return and the ultimate dawn.