There are six places in the Gospels whose names begin with “Beth.” They are: Bethlehem, Bethabara, Bethsaida, Bethesda, Bethphage, and Bethany. The prefix “Beth” means “The House of,” and these places seem to touchingly chart the Life and Ministry of the Lord Jesus, coming into our world as He did at Bethlehem and finally leaving it from Bethany on the Mount of Olives. Between Bethlehem and Bethany lies that lovely pathway of the perfect Man. It is always a joy to those who love Him to trace that pathway, contemplating the beauties of a life which brought so much pleasure to God. Bethlehem means “The House of Bread” and to that House of Bread He came, He Who was the Bread of God (John 6:33).
Bethlehem marked the beginning on earth of a life which, as John tells us, was the manifestation of a life which had been eternally with the Father (1John 1:2). Our fellowship is now with the Father as we also feast on the Bread of God.
What emotions are stirred in the hearts of believers at every mention of Bethlehem. I stood one day with an aged saint in the center of Bethlehem. At the realization of where he was, the dear man gripped my arm and as tears welled in his eyes and trickled down his cheeks all he could say was, “Is this Bethlehem? Is this Bethlehem?” What memories flood the hearts of those who love the Savior! A crowded inn; a manger; swaddling clothes; a quiet maid from Nazareth with her newborn Son; a few shepherds; a multitude of angels from the heavens announcing the birth. Perhaps the sentiments of the carol are indeed true,
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark street shineth
The everlasting Light,
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
But there is more! There are 89 chapters in the gospels but among them, Luke chapter 2 is unique, recounting details concerning the incarnation which cannot be found elsewhere. The chapter is built around several personages, the great and the good. There is a Cæsar in Rome, a carpenter in Nazareth, shepherds in the Bethlehem fields, angels in the sky above, and two aged saints in the temple in Jerusalem. How wide-ranging is the scope of this chapter: Rome, Nazareth, Bethlehem, the heavenlies, Jerusalem, but everything is designed to focus our attention on the true greatness, the Baby in the manger, the Lord from Heaven.
We think of the sovereignty of the Cæsar, the poverty of the carpenter, the ministry of the shepherds, the glory of the angels, and the piety of the saints. But the real sovereignty, the deeper poverty, the true shepherd character, the excelling glory, and the surpassing piety all belong to the holy Infant in the swaddling clothes.
The emperor in Rome is Cæsar Augustus, Cæsar the August. It was a title usurped by man as being divine and in his empire Cæsar was accorded divine honors. In his own little world he was indeed sovereign and in that sovereignty he had issued a decree that a census should be taken of the inhabitants of his kingdom. To facilitate this, every man was required to register in the city of his fathers and this necessitated that Joseph, being of the house and family of David, must travel to Bethlehem with Mary his betrothed wife. Cæsar the August, however, was unaware that there was a greater sovereignty than his. The heart of the emperor was as a thing pliable in the hand of God and it was God Who really planned that Joseph should travel to Bethlehem.
The approaching Birth would be in fact the advent of the long-promised Messiah and the prophecy was that Messiah should be born in Bethlehem Ephratah, Bethlehem in the Land of Judah (Micah 5:2). There was of course, a Bethlehem much nearer to Nazareth, Bethlehem HaGalilit, Bethlehem of Galilee, just a few miles from Joseph’s home town. How convenient that would have been, but Bethlehem of Judea it must be, in accord with the prophecy, and that was some five or six miles south of Jerusalem, meaning a journey from Nazareth of perhaps 70 miles through difficult and often dangerous country. It was Cæsar’s sovereignty that moved the carpenter but it was God’s sovereignty that moved the Cæsar.
So the couple travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem and Luke records, almost in a matter of fact manner, “And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger.” Many others had likewise travelled to Bethlehem and the town was crowded, as was the inn. Someone said, “No room” and when Mary gave birth to her firstborn she wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger. Messiah had come! There was no royal welcome. No pageantry. And yet, the Baby in the manger bed was “God manifest in flesh” (1Tim 3:16). Well do believers now sing,
Who is He in yonder stall
At whose feet the shepherds fall?
’Tis the Lord, O wondrous story;
’Tis the Lord, the King of Glory;
At His feet we humbly fall
Crown Him, crown Him, Lord of all.
This, however, is not at all the first mention of Bethlehem in our Bible. The earliest references are found in Genesis 35:19; 48:7. The matriarch Rachel died just outside Bethlehem while giving birth to a son. She named him Benoni, meaning “Son of my sorrow,” but his father Jacob renamed him Benjamin, meaning “Son of my right hand.” How prophetic it was of our Blessed Lord. Israel has only known Him as a Man of sorrows but from His sorrow He has been exalted to the right hand of God.
There are other rather sad mentions of Bethlehem in the days of the Judges which are not in keeping with the present meditation, but it may be remembered that Bethlehem was then the hometown of Boaz and Ruth and birthplace of David, illustrious predecessors of the Christ.
Much more must be said, but that is for another chapter.
– To be continued