Sometimes the biblical writers speak better than they know. They say things and use pieces of imagery that are profound and illuminating on their own terms but become far more profound and illuminating as we learn more about the world.
Take, for instance, a well-known passage from Psalm 8: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them?” (vv. 3–4). Reading it today, we marvel that there are billions of times more stars than David realized and that humanity is immeasurably smaller in the cosmos than he understood. Or consider John’s statement that God is light. We see more layers to it than John ever fathomed: the range of colors in white light, the wave-particle paradox, the invisible reaches of the spectrum, and so forth.
One beautiful example is in the last chapter of Scripture, when John records Jesus saying, “I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star” (Rev. 22:16). The first half of that statement is clear, albeit paradoxical. Jesus, as Isaiah had prophesied, is simultaneously the product of the messianic line (“the Offspring of David”) and the source of it (“the Root”). But the second half contains depths of which John was entirely unaware.
Nobody in the ancient world could fail to notice the morning star. Its brilliance has made it a common reference point in human history, from Sumerian myth to Greek poetry to Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night. As the brightest celestial body in the sky after the sun and moon, the morning star was an obvious symbol for anything or anyone that shone brighter than their companions. That is how the image appears elsewhere in Scripture, whether negatively (when describing the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14:12–15) or positively (when describing Christ in 2 Peter 1:19). John, in Revelation, clearly employs it in this latter sense.
He may have seen something else in the image as well. By the time the New Testament was written, educated Greco-Romans were aware that the morning star and the evening star were identical: The first star to appear and the last to disappear were one and the same. Given how often Jesus is described as bookending history in Revelation 22—Alpha and Omega, First and Last, Beginning and End, Root and Offspring—John may have pondered this connection too. Jesus is not just the brightest star in the firmament, but the star that is present before the others appear and after they have all receded.
What John did not know, however, is that the morning star is fundamentally different from every other star in the night sky. It is made of rock, not gas. It reflects the light of the sun rather than generating its own. Physically speaking, it is more like earth in its properties than the stars. Today, we call it the planet Venus.
At the same time, John had no concept of the morning star’s surprising nearness relative to the rest of the heavenly host. Various models of the cosmos existed in his day, with varying theories of how the sun, moon, planets, and stars fit together. How much John knew about these we can only speculate. But he scarcely could have imagined that the morning star was 175,000 times closer than even the closest of the others.
Like Venus in relation to the stars, Jesus is utterly unlike all the “gods” to whom people compare him. Everything else in the theological night sky is distant, unmoved, and unmoving. The Morning Star, by contrast, is in a class of his own. Not only is he much brighter than his companions. Not only does he open and close the celestial symphony as both overture and finale. He is unlike them in his very essence, similar to us in ways we still struggle to believe, and far, far closer than we realize.
Exegetically, it is usually considered bad form to find meanings in texts that the original author did not intend. But then again, every Scripture has two original authors—one divine and one human—and the speaker in this case is the Morning Star himself, the Creator of the heavens and everything in them: the Lord Jesus. Perhaps there is more here than we know.
Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King’s Church London and the author of God of All Things.
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