Roughly six miles south of Jerusalem is Bethlehem, today a city of nearly 200,000, that is run by the Palestinian Authority. It’s about 40% Christian and 60% Muslim.
If you were to enter from the North, coming from Jerusalem, you would pass by Rachel’s Tomb and come to Manger Street, which snakes through Bethlehem. Eventually you would come to Manger’s Square. There you would find both the Mosque of Omar and the Church of the Nativity, the traditional site of the birthplace of Jesus.
Bethlehem is a tourist town. This year they are expecting about 300,000 visitors during Christmas. If you were to visit, you would find yourself in the middle of bedlam. You would have to deal with military checkpoints, other tourists, and the gaudy commercialism (the entrance to the area where the shepherds are said to have seen the angels has a big orange sign that says, “Gloria In Excelsis Deo”).
What a difference between Bethlehem now and the Bethlehem of long ago! Today’s Bethlehem is a vivid reminder of the chaos and confusion of our world. The Bethlehem of long ago was a Bethlehem of hope.
Let’s take a few moments and examine the little town of Bethlehem was it was found in the Bible. We start with the first mention of Bethlehem in the Bible, Genesis 35—
I. BETHLEHEM IS HOPE IN SPITE OF DEATH
A. Rachel’s Death
Almost four thousand years ago, Jacob, with his wives Rachel and Leah and many children, were making their way back home to his father Isaac.
Rachel was pregnant with her second child and as they neared the town of Bethlehem, the time came for her to give birth. Her labor was very difficult and, as it turned out, giving birth took the very life from her.
18 And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing, (for she died) that she called his name Ben-oni: but his father called him Benjamin. 19 And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Beth-lehem. 20 And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day. (Genesis 35:18–20)
Death is always a sad affair for family members, but can you imagine Jacob’s sorrow to lose his beloved Rachel just as he gained Benjamin, the only son born to him in the Promised Land? The time near Bethlehem would have been a dark time for Jacob and his family.
B. The Death Of Children
Twenty centuries later would also see dark times around Bethlehem. Jesus was born there, and placed in a manger. A happy occasion, to be sure. But it was followed by tragedy.
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Beth-lehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, 18 In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not. (Matthew 2:16–18)
A sad thing about death is that it often happens to those who die before their time. Children who are two and under are well before their time to die. The birth of Jesus was not an isolated event—his birth was the indirect cause of the death of dozens of toddlers and babies in and around Bethlehem.
C. The Hope God Offers
Why does God allow such evil? We turn back to Jeremiah, whom Matthew was quoting here, for, not so much an answer, but a comfort in the midst of suffering. When Jeremiah wrote this, the Babylonians had conquered the Jewish people. They were being taken into exile in Babylon.
In the case of Jerusalem, the Babylonians were dragging the captives five miles North to Ramah, which was being used as a staging area where they were chained together and marched to Babylon. Imagine the children separated from the mothers—babies ripped away and never seen again. Jeremiah offers a word of hope from the Lord:
15 Thus saith the LORD; A voice was heard in Ramah, Lamentation, and bitter weeping; [Rachel—representing the mothers of Israel] weeping for her children Refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not. 16 Thus saith the LORD; Refrain thy voice from weeping, And thine eyes from tears: For thy work shall be rewarded, saith the LORD; And they shall come again from the land of the enemy. 17 And there is hope in thine end, saith the LORD, That thy children shall come again to their own border. (Jeremiah 31:15–17)
In our suffering, we will mourn, but we mustn’t let it overtake us and destroy us. Just as the Lord promised a hope for the Israelite mothers in Ramah, so we also have a hope from the Lord—the hope of Christ born among us in Bethlehem.
Because Christ lives, we have a hope in spite of death:
54 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. 55 O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (1 Corinthians 15:54–55)
II. BETHLEHEM IS HOPE FROM DAVID’S LINE
A. Ruth, David’s Great-Grandmother
The next significant mention of Bethlehem comes in the book of Ruth. Bethlehem is the town where Naomi and her husband originated, and, after he and her sons died, the town where Naomi returned with her daughter-in-law, Ruth.
It was in Bethlehem that Ruth met and married Boaz. At the end of this story of heartache and joy, we find Boaz and Ruth being prayed for by the elders.
11 And all the people that were in the gate, and the elders, said, We are witnesses. The LORD make the woman that is come into thine house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel: and do thou worthily in Ephratah, and be famous in Beth-lehem: (Ruth 4:11)
The Lord answered their prayer and made Ruth famous—her story was recorded in the Bible—but why is she famous? The rest of this chapter explains: Ruth gave birth to Obed, and Obed had a son named Jesse, and Jesse had a son named David. This simple shepherd would one day become the king of all Israel and Bethlehem would gain the title, “City of David.”
B. God’s Promise To David
David is what makes Bethlehem important for us as Christians—if he had been born somewhere else, Christ would have been born somewhere else. Why? The answer begins with understanding that God promised that David would have an everlasting throne:
16 And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever. 17 According to all these words, and according to all this vision, so did Nathan speak unto David. (2 Samuel 7:16–17)
That is a mighty big promise and one, that if you look at it from a human perspective, that God didn’t keep. David’s throne wasn’t everlasting. At the time of Christ’s birth, 1000 years after David lived, Israel had been divided and conquered and exiled and ruled by other nations countless times.
The ruler when Jesus was born, King Herod the Great, was not of the line of David. And what about modern times? Israel disappeared off the map for nearly two thousand years, and the current Israeli government is not from the line of David.
So what happened to God’s promise?
C. How God Kept His Promise
Sometimes folks wonder why the Bible is full of so and so begat such and so and such and so begat that other guy. The reason for many of those genealogies to show the line of Jesus. We just saw that at the end of Ruth and Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy showing the line of Jesus.
1 THE book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 2 Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob… and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse; 6 And Jesse begat David the king;…15…Matthan begat Jacob; 16 And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ (Matthew 1)
Luke also records a genealogy for Jesus, one that is considerably different from Matthew’s. Some suggest that Luke recorded Mary’s family line and Matthew was recording Joseph’s. Others say that Luke was recording the physical line of descent and Matthew recorded the legal line of descent.
In any case, they both show that Jesus was in the line of David, and since Jesus is the King of Kings and will one day rule over the earthly Millennial Kingdom, then God’s promise to David was not broken—his throne will be established forever. The angel said as much to Mary:
32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: 33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. (Luke 1:32–33)
Our hope is based on God’s faithfulness to keep his promises. Sometimes we don’t see how he is working, and so we’re tempted to doubt and lose hope. But may Bethlehem remind you that God might take a thousand years before he shows us how he is keeping his promise!
III. BETHLEHEM IS HOPE BY TRUSTING GOD’S PLAN
A. A Prophecy Of A Place
Bethlehem is mentioned many more times in books like 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Chronicles, and a few other Old Testament books. But then we come to this important verse in Micah—
2 But thou, Beth-lehem Ephratah, Though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, Yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; Whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting. (Micah 5:2)
This verse was written down around 700 BC, roughly seven hundred years before Christ was born. This is a birthday card for someone who wasn’t born yet!
When the wise men came calling at King Herod’s door asking for the one who was born King of the Jews, Herod turned to the priests and scribes and asked them where this King would be born. They quoted Micah 5:2 in response (see Matthew 2:1-6).
It seems that many people knew that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem. So when Jesus, the son of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth, a town seventy miles to the North of Bethlehem, claimed to be the Christ, people had difficulty believing him. They evidently didn’t know about that night thirty years previous in Bethlehem.
41 Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? 42 Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Beth-lehem, where David was? (John 7:41–42)
B. God’s Winding Road To Fulfill Prophecy
How did Jesus fulfill this prophecy in Micah 5:2? That is one of the most striking elements of the story of Christmas. We find it recorded in Luke, chapter 2—
1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. 2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) 3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Beth-lehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) 5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child (Luke 2:1-5).
The two people God would choose to bring his Son into the world lived in the wrong town. But our God is a sovereign God and knows how to orchestrate events to work out his plan—he is the Lord of history and Luke, with this detail about the taxation, lets us know that truth.
The taxation required people to be counted, and counted in the city of their ancestry. This was a rare, but not unheard of procedure, we have record of it happening in Egypt in 104 AD (Leon Morris, Luke: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 3, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 100).
The journey would have been difficult for Mary to make, but she did and Luke says:
6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:6–7)
Why didn’t God just choose parents who already lived in Bethlehem? Why all this trouble of getting them from Nazareth to Bethlehem? That seems to be such an odd thing for God to do. We aren’t told why, but we can certainly see reasons why God may have planned events this way.
Because they travelled to Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph brought baby Jesus into this world alone, in very humble surroundings. Did you notice that Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes? Think about that. A mother, just given birth to her first child, wrapped her own baby in swaddling clothes. That means that her mother or Aunt Betty wasn’t there to help. They were alone.
Of course, the manger is the clearest indication of the humble surroundings. Animals ate out of mangers—hollowed out stone troughs—so it made a humble bed for a man who would humbly give his life for the people of this world. Jesus began his earthly life surrounded by the stone walls of a manger; he concluded it surrounded by the stone walls of a tomb.
Frankly, the fact that Jesus died seemed to his disciples an odd thing for God to do, but we now know it was the very way that God intended to give us hope in the face of death. Only by Jesus suffering death and then defeating death on the third day can we ever be confident that we will survive death.
In the year 1247, a group of monks founded a small hospital in London that was called St. Mary’s of Bethlehem. Initially they took in sick paupers and street beggars who could not afford care anywhere else. At some point, the monks began to care for the mentally ill—which included epileptics, people with dementia, learning disabilities, as well as the most serious cases.
By 1400, the majority of patients at St. Mary’s of Bethlehem were mental patients—which, in those days, were often hopeless cases. All that could be done was keep them safe from themselves and others safe from them.
Through the years, the hospital—England’s first psychiatric hospital—gained a reputation for noise and chaos. From time to time there was also abuse of the patients.
Over the years, the name was shortened to “Bethlem” and then mispronounced as “Bedlam.” Bedlam became the generic name, for many years, for psychiatric hospitals. It also came to be used, as it still is today, to refer to “a place, scene, or state of uproar and confusion” (Webster’s and http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/discover/people-and-places/disability-history/1050-1485/from-bethlehem-to-bedlam/).
As I reflected on this bit of history, how a hospital named Bethlehem became known as Bedlam, I marveled at how our world moves in the same direction.
Bethlehem is where the Prince of Peace was born on a still, quiet night; Bedlam is the uproar and confusion that we find ourselves living in from day to day. Bethlehem was the place of the birth of true hope for the world. Bedlam is the incurable hopelessness that often infects our hearts and souls.
We need to go to Bethlehem, the Bethlehem of long ago. We need to find the peace and hope that was born there in Jesus Christ.