The Scene of Christmas
We ended the last section as the Magi were leaving Bethlehem, avoiding Jerusalem and heading home without seeing King Herod again. Their route was providential to Jesus’ family. It allowed Joseph and Mary to take Jesus, quietly, in the middle of the night, out of the country and out of reach of the murderous clutches of King Herod. But now, we go back to Bethlehem to consider the question: Why was such a small town picked for the birth of Jesus?
We also want to examine the two-fold promise given to the nation Israel and the world at large through the prophet Isaiah. In chapter 9 we read:
2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. […] 6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.
As you read these verses, you will find a picture of the transition we are making. The prophet wrote, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” Wouldn’t you agree that those who arrived in Bethlehem at that time experienced that light? Certainly for the Magi from a far country and for the hillside shepherds, each one saw a great light. A few verses later in verse 6 we read, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.” A “child is born; a son is given”—what does that mean? These are some of the thoughts we want to spend time with in this section.
From what we have read in Isaiah 9 (above) we have a description of a great leader: the government on his shoulders, the “Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” upholding his kingdom with justice and righteousness forever! That is no small-time ruler. Yet, having a choice of where to be born, this king arrives not in the city of kings and priests–Jerusalem, but in the town of Bethlehem known more for its goats and sheep than anything else. Except for long-standing relationships.
You will remember what the chief priests and teachers of the law replied to King Herod regarding where the “new king” was to be born: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2) How small was this town? From the 12 tribes of Israel, one—Judah—is selected and out of Judah, a meager town—small in size and political and religious weight. It was five miles south of the real center, Jerusalem.
The attractiveness of Bethlehem, however, came out of relationships over the centuries. Here, Jacob buried the true love of his life, Rachel. Speaking to his 12 sons, Jacob recalled, 7 As I was returning from Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of Canaan while we were still on the way, a little distance from Ephrath. So I buried her there beside the road to Ephrath” (that is, Bethlehem) Genesis 48:7.
Hundreds of years later, another woman–this time a foreigner, would connect the family to Bethlehem. The widow Ruth from Moab, moved to this same small community and becomes the great-grandmother to Israel’s most famous king, David. Ruth 1: 22 So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning. You can read the rest of this bittersweet story in the book of Ruth.
It was David the king, moreover, who forever cemented Bethlehem into the history of Israel and made it important for the Messiah to be born there. That is where David was born and grew up, where he tended his father’s sheep, where he was anointed to be king of Israel by Samuel, and to which as an adult he would often return (See I Samuel 16 and 17).
So when Micah prophesied and when the chief priests reported to King Herod that the “new king” would come from Bethlehem, they had every good reason. Micah wrote, “out of you (Bethlehem) will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Thus, it was necessary for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. And at just the right time, Joseph and Mary were compelled by the Emperor’s decree to leave the region of Galilee to travel to David’s hometown.
Later on, of course, Jesus’ parents moved from Egypt (where they had fled to avoid Herod’s fury) to Nazareth where Jesus grew into manhood. So in people’s memory, Bethlehem fell out of sight. This ended up creating controversy among some of Jesus’ followers. As reported in John’s gospel (John 7): 40 On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.” 41 Others said, “He is the Messiah.” Still others asked, “How can the Messiah come from Galilee? 42 Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?” 43 Thus the people were divided because of Jesus.
Yes, their lack of knowledge created an unnecessary barrier to their belief. Yet, the idea of relationship remains one of the primary principles of the New Testament. It’s a theme we will expand on as we go along.
Next: The Verdict