Eyes of the whole world are upon it one day of the year. Yet it is more than just a nativity focal point: Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus, is where prophecy was fulfilled.
As a city of only 25,000 at the fringe of the great Judean wilderness, it is the focus of international tourism and pilgrimage, which normally peaks in December. Though it once was lost in obscurity, it has become a global household name. All this because of a single event that happened on its soil two thousand years ago. The city in question? Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In this article, we focus on the city that on a single day of the year attracts the world’s attention as we remember the birth of the One who put it on the map. Its second gift to humanity is fulfilled prophecy.
Bethlehem comes from the Hebrew word בֵּית לֶחֶם Beth Lechem, translated ‘House of Bread,’ which in itself makes the city prophetic (explanation forthcoming). In Arabic, Beit lehem بيت لحم means ‘house of meat.’ It was also known by the name ‘Ephrath’ (fruitful) and the ‘city of David.’ Bethlehem became a storehouse for food, natural and spiritual.
A Quick History Lesson
The first mention of Bethlehem in Scripture had to do with the tragic and untimely death of Rachel, the favoured wife of the patriarch Jacob. She was in childbirth with his last son Benjamin. The baby survived but the mother did not. Genesis 35:19: And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. The traditional tomb of Rachel is near the city and attracts pious visitors to this day.
The next significant mention is found in the Book of Ruth. Bethlehem was the home of Naomi and Elimelech and their near kinsman Boaz. It was in his barley fields to the east of the city that he met Ruth the Moabitess, widowed daughter-in-law to Naomi, and it was love at first sight (for Boaz, that is). Yet there was more than romance in the air; it was redemptive love since the Messianic lineage was linked and strengthened by their marriage. Ruth, a Gentile from a despised race, became an honoured ancestor of Messiah, explicitly named in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:5). The stage of this redemption was Bethlehem.
The city’s favourite son was none other than David, the son of Jesse. He was born in Bethlehem. It was here that the prophet Samuel anointed the shepherd boy to be the next king of Israel after Saul, the son of Kish (1 Samuel 16:4-13). While hiding in the Cave of Adullam (where some of the psalms may have been written and the gathering place of David’s mighty men – 1 Samuel 22:1-2), his mighty men broke through enemy lines so they could retrieve for their leader the refreshing water of the well at Bethlehem (2 Samuel 23:13-17).
Bethlehem’s Greatest Honour
David of Bethlehem was given a great honour by the LORD – he became king of His people Israel. Then he was granted a greater honour – he was called a ‘man after God’s own heart’ (Acts 13:22). Perhaps the greatest divine honour of all was that God gave David a binding agreement called ‘The Davidic Covenant,’ found in 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17. This is of the utmost importance to every believer. In short, the Lord promised David that his special son would be the heir to his throne, rule forever, and simultaneously be God’s Son, too. This singular individual is known as The Messiah or Christ, ‘The Anointed One.’ The four gospels were indeed written as an apologetic that Jesus of Nazareth is that singular person.
Yet there was an event that put Bethlehem on the global map. And it was prophesied seven hundred years before it occurred. The prophet Micah declared an astounding prophecy (5:2):
But thou, Bethlehem 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’s prophecy in essence said that the little town of Bethlehem would be honoured as the place from where God’s forever king would come. This verse also implies His deity by saying He had an ancient, indeed everlasting preexistence. That is why John 1 speaks of the pre-existent Christ, as the Word of God, who put on flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). We call this miraculous event ‘the incarnation.’
The holy family of Joseph and Mary were from the house of David but did not live in Bethlehem and, in all probability, neither did their ancestors for generations. They lived in an equally obscure Galilean village called Nazareth, a four-day journey by foot to the north of Bethlehem.
So how was Micah’s prophecy going to be fulfilled? God used the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, who decreed that the whole empire should be registered – presumably for tax purposes – so everyone was compelled to return to their home city (Luke 2:1-5).
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child (vs. 4-5).
No one was exempted from this census, not even the heavily pregnant Mary of Nazareth. Yet God used this heathen decree to fulfil Micah’s prophecy. Messiah, Son of David, kept His prophetic appointment by being born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2 cf. Matthew 2:6).
The wise men from the East inquired of King Herod the Great, based in his luxurious Jerusalem palace, where was He who was ‘born King of the Jews.’ Informed by the priests about Micah’s prophecy, the monarch sent them to Bethlehem, ten kilometres down the road. The irony was that while Herod, the part-Jewish, Roman appointed ‘king of the Jews,’ living in imperial splendour, the nearby prophesied incarnate Word, Son of David, came into the world in the most humble of settings.
Yet the mad monarch was threatened by this Bethlehem-born, prophecy-fulfilling Messiah. Since the wise men did not return to him, as instructed, to tell him where the Christ child was, Herod in a rage ordered the deaths of all the toddlers of Bethlehem. This dreadful event was known as the ‘slaughter of the innocents.’ This, too, tragic and outrageous as it was, fulfilled prophecy (Jeremiah 31:15).
When you think of Bethlehem, of course, it is the birthplace of Christ. It is also the place of fulfilled prophecy. And most importantly, it is the ‘House of Bread,’ for within its boundaries came the One who is ‘the bread of life.’ Eat this bread and you will never hunger. Indeed, you will live forever (John 6:35, 51). Let us remember this ‘bread of life,’ on Christmas Day, and every day.