Among the many towns and cities of earth, some were blessed by visits from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. James Irwin, an American astronaut, had the amazing opportunity that few humans have had of walking on the moon but, being a believer in the Lord Jesus, he is quoted as saying, ‘God walking on the earth is more important than man walking on the moon’. It does us good to remember that Emmanuel came near to us.
The first place that the Lord visited was Bethlehem and it is here that the nativity narrative takes place. Bethlehem, the city of David, Luke 2. 4, is referred to over fifty times in the scriptures and is of huge significance. The use of the term ‘a city’ might give the impression that it had a large population and a well-developed infrastructure, but this was probably not the case. The Bethlehem of the scriptures was a place that was agricultural in character and small in population. In Micah’s famous prophecy it is referred to as being ‘little among the thousands of Judah’, Mic. 5. 2. This ‘little town of Bethlehem’, as the famous Christmas carol puts it, was used mightily in God’s purposes. This would remind us that it is not human strength that God uses, but rather weakness. He often chooses to use insignificant things, so that His might can be seen.
Many significant events are associated with Bethlehem. Rachel died and was buried there, Gen. 35. 19. Ibzan, a lesser-known judge, was from there, Judg. 12. 8. It was also the place where Elimelech lived with his wife Naomi. It was a privilege for them to live there. Bethlehem should have been a place of blessing, for ‘Bethlehem’ literally means, ‘house of bread’. Yet, as Elimelech enters the divine narrative, God’s people are far from Him. The previous book, Judges, concludes with the sad observation, ‘there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes’! The book of Ruth commences with the statement that there was famine in the land. This famine was not only physical, but spiritual as well. God was once again chastening His people for their own good.
Elimelech failed to look to the promise of God that in Bethlehem, the house of bread, they would all be fed. Rather, he followed his own wisdom and devised his own solution. He took his family on a disastrous move to Moab. Yet in all this we trace God’s hand moving, despite the actions of man. We see the faith of a widow and her influence on her daughter-in-law and a second move of restoration back to Bethlehem. The graciousness of God can be seen even further. Ruth the Moabitess was redeemed by Boaz and came into the blessing of God’s chosen nation. We see this Gentile lady, through faith in her mother-inlaw’s God, being blessed in another way. The book closes with a reference to a great-grandson, David - the man after God’s own heart. The genealogy at the start of Matthew’s Gospel includes Ruth within the family tree of the Lord Jesus Himself. What a wonderful picture of God’s love to the whole world that Gentile Ruth is mentioned in this line of our Lord and Saviour. The story might have begun in Ruth chapter 1 verse 1 with disobedience, but repentance on the part of Naomi and faith on the part of Ruth led to blessing at Bethlehem. For them, Bethlehem was enjoyed as ‘the house of bread’. Centuries later, it became the birthplace of our Lord who described Himself as ‘the bread of life’, John 6. 35. He is the only source of spiritual life.
Joseph had a very significant role to play in the narrative of the incarnation. He was chosen to be the earthly guardian of our Lord. His roots were also in Bethlehem, this place of blessing, and yet at some point Joseph’s family had moved away to Nazareth.
As God moved the heart of Caesar Augustus to determine the population of his empire, the plan of God is being enacted. Joseph, along with Mary, journeys to the city of David, Bethlehem, where our Lord was prophesied to be born. Over 500 years previously, Micah, by the Spirit of God, prophesied the place, Bethlehem Ephratah. Now, God’s providential hand is guiding the circumstances that once again the scriptures might be fulfilled.
In Luke chapter 2 verse 7, we are told of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. All that this world had to offer to the Son of God was a manger, ‘because there was no room … in the inn’. The word for inn is kataluma, which is translated more often as guest chamber, Mark. 14. 14. The circumstances probably were that the family guest chamber was already taken and all that was left was the lower level of the family home where the animals were kept, so not even His earthly family gave Him His rightful place. Once the Lord Jesus had started His public ministry, things worsened. In Mark chapter 3 verse 21, we read, ‘his friends … said, He is beside himself’. Many translate that as His family. Even they did not understand who He was. They despised His teaching and rejected Him. Mark chapter 3 closes with a challenge to our attitude to the teaching of our Lord. He states, ‘whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother’.
The slopes on the hillsides around Bethlehem still show the evidence of the activities of grazing flocks. There are low stone walls, stone sheep dips and some crumbling watch towers. The great attractions to shepherds in using the fields of Bethlehem were the natural grottos that exist there. We are told in Luke chapter 2 verse 8 that ‘shepherds’ were ‘living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night’ NKJV. They were not going back to a cosy farmhouse to sleep. They were out among the elements. Although a good fire would protect them from the cold nights, they were still susceptible to a storm. Here, the caves gave them safety, and shelter, both for themselves and their sheep. It is a beautiful feature of the story of the Incarnation that shepherds were greeted by angels with ‘good tidings of great joy’, Luke 2. 10. Confronted by the glory of the Lord, the angel of the Lord and the heavenly host, the shepherds quite understandably were greatly afraid. I imagine that a pause of silence which may have lasted a while followed the angels’ departure. I am sure they struggled to comprehend what they had just experienced. What a statement of faith was in their conclusion, ‘Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see’, Luke 2. 15. Their journey of faith from the Judean hills into Bethlehem was rewarded with sight, as they hurried and saw, ‘the babe lying in a manger’, v. 16.
They were among the first to see the Saviour of the world. They were shepherds who went ‘with haste’ to see the Great Shepherd. For our eternal safety and care to be established, this tiny infant, who was truly God, had to come to demonstrate the ultimate shepherd qualities. Shepherds could face dangers. David in the fields around Bethlehem had to defend his flock against the attacks of a lion and a bear, 1 Sam. 17. 34. The Lord Jesus went even further. He could say, ‘I am the good shepherd’, John 10. 11. He demonstrated the ultimate care of the shepherd. He did not just risk His life for the welfare of His sheep, He gave it!
The shepherds could not keep quiet about what they had seen and heard, and it had its impact on Bethlehem’s community. We have experienced the joy of sins forgiven. Do we contain this joy, or do we also impact the communities where we live?
By the time we reach Matthew chapter 2, some time has passed. According to Matthew, our Lord is not in swaddling bands, but now is a ‘young child’, 2. 8, and Mary and Joseph have acquired a house in which to live. Magi from the east arrive, mistakenly in Jerusalem, searching for the ‘King of the Jews’, v. 2. They have seen His star and desire to worship. They need to be informed of Micah’s prophecy and are redirected to Bethlehem. Our appreciation in worship is not from ourselves, but about being close to God. It comes out of our appreciation of who and what God is. They brought gifts to the house in Bethlehem, where the young child was, and worshipped with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. All were of great significance, telling us of His kingship, His deity, His worthiness of our worship, and the death that He would die.
The wise men, being warned by God in a dream, did not return to Herod, and Herod, realizing that he had been deceived, became enraged and sought to destroy his young rival. He brutally slaughtered those males under two years. Remarkably, this also was prophesied, on this occasion by Jeremiah in chapter 31 verse 15. Although here is a huge tragedy for the mothers of Bethlehem, God’s Son, Jesus Christ, is protected from the slaughter and ushered to Egypt. Nothing would keep God from His purposes. ‘The Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world’, 1 John 4. 14. In fact, Herod with all his earthly power, his rage, and determination was powerless to remove Jesus Christ, for He could say, ‘I lay down my life … No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself’, John 10. 17, 18.
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