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Why Advent IV: Why Bethlehem?

When God sent His Son into the world, He had a choice about where Jesus would end up being from, and He chose Bethlehem. Why Bethlehem? A brief historical tour will help us find the answer, looking at the role of Bethlehem in the Old Testament, her prophesied future in Micah 5, and then the fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy in Matthew 2.

The first time we hear of Bethlehem is in conjunction with the sneaky shepherd Jacob’s wife Rachel. While Jacob was passing through the land of promise, his wife Rachel died, and was buried near Ephrath, also known as Bethlehem. In Joshua, when the promise to Jacob is being fulfilled and the land allotted to the tribes, there is no reference to Judah’s Bethlehem, because the town in Judah’s territory was actually too small to make the list of cities named in Joshua 15. But in the next book, Judges, we get more of the story: a man named Ibzan became Israel’s judge from the town of Bethlehem, showing us that not just shepherds, but also judges come from there. In chapters 17 and 19, things get very dark as a Levitical priest from Bethlehem becomes ensnared in idolatry, and another Levite marries a concubine from Bethlehem who proves unfaithful, and ends up being delivered in pieces throughout Israel. What we need to see is that there is a strong priestly connection to Bethlehem, but one that cries out for a better priesthood.

Things get much better in the book of Ruth, Jesus’ many-times-great grandmother. A foreign woman who marries an Israelite finds a kinsman-redeemer while harvesting grain for bread. At the beginning of Ruth, we see famine and death, but at the end of Ruth, we find redemption and bread. Important for our story, redemption comes out of Bethlehem.

But of course the key part of Bethlehem’s history is that Bethlehem is where a shepherd named Jesse lived, meaning that Bethlehem is the birthplace of Israel’s great shepherd-king. Samuel comes to Bethlehem to anoint David as king. Bethlehem is where kings get anointed.

In bits and pieces, then, Scripture has been laying out for us a picture of Bethlehem as a place of shepherds and judges, priests and redeemers, the place where shepherd kings come from. This is why it is in that sense no surprise when Micah prophesies in chapter 5 that although Bethlehem is too small to make the list of Judah’s cities, a ruler would come from her. This mighty ruler will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of God, and he will protect the flock, and they will dwell secure, for this shepherd will be great to the ends of the earth, a universal savior. This is why God chose Bethlehem – the little town had a history of producing shepherds, and God’s plan was to save His people through a Good Shepherd.

And so in Matthew chapter 2, we read about Bethlehem’s promise being fulfilled. When the new king is born, wise men, prophets from the east show up to worship and anoint him, they are sent to Bethlehem, because of Micah’s words, and because kings are anointed in Bethlehem. This is followed by the tragic story of the slaughter of the innocents, when Herod has all the young boys in Bethlehem murdered, and, bringing our story full circle, Rachel, who was buried there, weeps for them.

But God has promised that those who sow in tears will reap in joy, and the son of Bethlehem does indeed grow up to become Israel’s shepherd, the king of kings and lord of lords. Bethlehem has done its job – she has produced the ultimate shepherd-king, the perfect judge, a better priest than the wicked Levites, a kinsman-redeemer who redeems the whole world with His blood, the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep.

Posted on Thursday, January 02, 2014 by CJ Bowen