O Little Town of Bethlehem

Christmas has always been a time of wonder and expectation. As a child, the days and weeks leading up to Christmas Day were almost unbearable. My sister and I used to sit in the backseat of our big station wagon (you know, the one with the wood panels and slick vinyl seats) and count the number of houses with lights during our frequent trips to Grandma’s house the next town over. What began as a few scattered houses difficult to spot became a large number of houses difficult to count. As the lights increased so did our expectation that Christmas was drawing nearer. The wonder of the season would give way to intense anticipation, especially once the presents were wrapped and placed under the tree. A decorated Christmas tree is exciting. A tree with presents under it is agonizing!

It wasn’t until my wife and I went through the process of giving birth two, three, five times…soon to be six!(Lord willing) that I began to see Christmas much more like the days and weeks leading up to the birth of the One Whom we celebrate. It is a different kind of wonder. It is a different kind of expectancy and anticipation. The birth of Jesus was a mixture of suffering and joy.

This is exactly how God, through the prophet Micah, foretold the condition of the nation of Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth:

3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. (Micah 5:3)

It was a nation whose glory had faded and whose suffering had become a way of life. They were, as Mary was, pregnant with the coming Messiah and didn’t even realize it. Their eyes, like their glory, had faded. Their hearts, much more than their land, was held in bondage and tyranny.

As we come to the prophecy from Micah in the Christmas story approximately two years have passed. In that time we have seen the angels proclaim the birth of a Savior to Jewish shepherds. Joseph and Mary have travelled the 7 miles to Jerusalem to dedicate Jesus, as the firstborn, to the Lord in the Temple. They then make the trip back to Bethlehem and take up a more comfortable dwelling in a house. We know that they will soon flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath before returning to finally settle down in the region of Galilee in the town of Nazareth.

Sometime between their return to Bethlehem and their flight to Egypt we have this extraordinary event in Matthew 2.

1Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him." 3When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

6 "’And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’"

7Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him." 9After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

HEROD THE GREAT

Herod was an Edomite who was appointed ruler of the Jewish people by Roman authorities. It was under his rule that the Temple of Jesus’ day was built. It was this temple that was destroyed by the Romans in A.D.70. It was the last temple to stand on the mountain of Jerusalem. He was a cunning and ruthless ruler who could at times be politically savvy in gaining the favor of the people and at other times tyrannical and cruel in maintaining power even in the execution of his own family members if necessary.

THE MAGI

Matthew tells us that into his city comes an extraordinary caravan of visitors from the East. These men were likely from Persia or the region of Arabia. They were astronomers, philosophers, and representative of kingly presence. In the Persian Empire their kings were chosen from among the Magi.

They would have been familiar with the nation of Israel. Both David and Solomon were well-respected in this region. It is believed that Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, and Job lived in this area. In any case, it is clear that they were Gentiles of great wealth and learning.

Their brief encounter with Herod tells us a great deal. First, we are told that they are seeking the King of the Jews. (It’s interesting to note that the very title attributed to Jesus at his birth is the very same title attributed to him at his death.) We might be tempted to think that these Magi simply wanted to honor a new, up-and-coming king of a neighboring nation were it not for their next statement.

“For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

We’ll come back to the star in a minute. But notice the intentions of the wise men. They did not view this new king in the same way they viewed Herod. It is not recorded that they presented gifts to Herod or gave him worship. They seem to recognize the unique significance of this King of the Jews. Why would a would-be king of a small oppressed people command such honor and adoration from surrounding nations?

THE JEWISH PEOPLE

3When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him;

We can understand why Herod would be troubled by this news. But why would all Jerusalem be troubled? When Matthew tells us all Jerusalem, he certainly doesn’t mean every last Jew in the city. There were those who still believed, who still trusted God to be faithful to His promises. Simeon and Anna are two examples of this faithful remnant. Both rejoiced over Jesus as his parents presented him at the Temple for dedication. But it seems that a large majority of people had lost hope. Were they afraid that this new king would threaten what little glory they had left? Were they afraid that their suffering would increase at the hands of Herod or Rome or both? They were like a pregnant woman refusing to push for fear of the pain.

THE PROPHECY

4and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

6 "’And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’"

Here Herod puts a plan in action. He calls his own wise men, the chief priests and scribes, to provide more precise details as to the baby’s location. These men would have been very familiar with the prophecy they quote from Micah 5.

Let’s take a look again at the actual prophecy in Micah:

2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.

3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel.

4 And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.

5 And he shall be their peace.  (Micah 5:2-5)

Here we have pregnant Israel giving birth to a Shepherd-King out of the womb of lowly Bethlehem, whose strength and majesty come from Yahweh, whose rule extends to the ends of the earth, and whose kingdom will be one of lasting peace.

In Matthew’s account we have pregnant Mary giving birth to a baby in Bethlehem. He is proclaimed by angels first to shepherds because this baby would be the great Shepherd of His people, then revealed by a star to Magi for this baby would be a King of Nations. He is presented first to the Jews (shepherds) and then to the Gentiles (Magi). All nations will come and bow before Him.

This Shepherd-King is proclaimed to the simple and the wise, the poor and the rich, the lowly and the mighty. From a small womb would grow a great King. From a small town would grow a great Kingdom. But it would be a mixture of sorrow and glory, death and resurrection.

THE STAR AND THE GIFTS

9After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

There’s quite a bit of speculation concerning the star and the gifts. We don’t know exactly what the star was that guided them on their journey. We know that it was a special sign, that it was given by God to draw these Gentiles to the Savior, that it was an amazing, supernatural thing. We also know that stars in Scripture often represent rulers and authorities just like the stars on our nation’s flag represent sovereign states (or at least used to). And we know that the wise men “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” at the reappearing of the star.

As for the gifts, let me just mention a couple things. These gifts- gold, frankincense, and myrrh- were a wonderful provision for Joseph and Mary as they cared for the baby Jesus. They were also a great show of reverence and honor to the baby King. Many have made reference to the significance of each gift. The gold is a representation of Jesus’ royalty. It was also a key component of the Ark of the Covenant and the Temple itself. Frankincense is a representation of the Jesus’ divinity. It was incense that was lifted up before the Lord in the Temple. Myrrh is a representation of Jesus’ humanity, particularly seen in his death. It was commonly used in the burial process.

CONCLUSION

You don’t rejoice over a King unless he is good. You don’t worship a King unless he is great. You don’t offer such gifts to a king unless he is your king.

What we catch a glimpse of here in this story of His birth we will see more fully in the story of His death and resurrection. God would show Himself good by reconciling us to Himself through the sacrifice of His Son. God would show Himself great through the raising of Jesus from the dead, that we might have the confidence that we, too, will be raised to new life. God would show Himself to be Immanuel, God with us, through the great humiliation of Christ at Christmas and would become “God for us” through the great humiliation and exaltation of Christ at Easter. 

Joy to the World! The Lord has come. Let earth receive her King!

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