O, Little Town of Bethlehem
by Timothy Cross
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 streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
Those of us who have been nurtured in the Christian Faith since childhood have often expressed a desire to spend Christmas in Bethlehem. Celebrating our Saviour’s incarnation actually ‘on location’ must be an unforgettable experience, we muse. The sober reality, though, might be far less romantic, the current Arab Israeli conflict being what it is . . .
Bethlehem is highly significant for Christians, for the town is actually one of the golden links in the golden chain of our salvation - a chain which has divine election at one end and our eternal glorification at the other. In our mind’s eye, let us now make the journey to that town seven miles southwest of Jerusalem. Let us go to the ‘little town of Bethlehem’ and consider its significance in light of the Bible and think of its antiquity, geography, prophecy, and glory.
1. Its antiquity
Bethlehem was well known even before the birth of the Lord Jesus put it on to the map. David, Israel’s greatest earthly king, was also born in Bethlehem. Although far from sinless, the Lord Jesus Christ was actually foreshadowed by David in many ways, for He is ‘great David’s Greater Son’ - the anointed One/Messiah. As Messiah, Christ combines the threefold offices of prophet, priest, and king in His One blessed Person. Whilst David was a great king, the Bible designates Christ as ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’ (Revelation 19:16). The Shorter Catechism states: ‘Christ executeth the office of a king in subduing us to Himself, in ruling and defending us and in restraining and conquering all His and our enemies.’
Interestingly, the first mention of Bethlehem in the Bible is way back in the book of Genesis, chapter 35. There it is associated with the death of Rachel whilst she gave birth to Benjamin - ‘Rachel’s Pillar’, commemorating this mixture of sorrow and joy is still there today. Benjamin’s name was originally Ben-oni, meaning ‘son of my sorrow’. Jacob, however changed it to Ben-jamin, meaning ‘son of my right hand.’ It is surely no mere coincidence that the One Who was born in Bethlehem many centuries after Rachel’s travail is also shown to be both ‘a Man of sorrows’ (Isaiah 53:3) and ‘at the right hand of God’ (Hebrews 10:12).
2. Its geography
The short book of Ruth, in the Bible, is set in the grain fields surrounding Bethlehem, during the time of the wheat and barley harvests. Bethlehem was in the district of ‘Ephratha’. The name Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’ and ‘Ephratha’ means ‘fruitful’. So the place was evidently very fertile.
With New Testament hindsight, we can see how fitting it was for the Lord Jesus to be born in the ‘house of bread,’ for He said of Himself ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall not hunger and he who believes in Me shall never thirst’ (John 6:35). The true and living bread of heaven - that bread which alone satisfies the hunger of the human soul - was born in the ‘house of bread’, Bethlehem.
3. Its prophecy
Many centuries before the first Christmas, the prophet Micah prophesied ‘But you, O Bethlehem Ephratha, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for Me One Who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days’ (Micah 5:2). The prophecy obviously became deeply ingrained: ‘Has not the Scripture said that the Christ is descended from David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?’ (John 7:42).
We all know how this prophecy was literally fulfilled ‘when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king’ (Matthew 2:1). Humanly speaking though, the odds were against Jesus’ being born in Bethlehem, for His earthly parents were based in Nazareth, a long way to the north. Nothing though could thwart omnipotence. When Almighty God speaks, He will always keep His promise and fulfil His Word, and so His providential ordering of a census saw Mary making the journey to Bethlehem, and whilst there she gave birth to the Lord Jesus, so fulfilling Micah’s ancient prophecy. The Bible contains many such fulfilled prophecies. The fulfilment of prophecy is one of the many evidences that the Bible is nothing less than the Word of God written - the Word of the One ‘declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done’ (Isaiah 46:10).
Bethlehem then is significant for its antiquity, geography and prophecy. Finally though, what of…
4. Its glory
Bethlehem is a glorious place. Its glory, though, is not an intrinsic one but a derived one. Its glory is derived from the unsurpassed glory of the One Who was actually born there in the fullness of time. The original Christmas message was this: ‘To you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour, Who is Christ the Lord’ (Luke 2:11). This takes us far beyond any notion of a religious ‘pilgrimage to a sacred place,’ for here we are not dealing with ‘religion’ but with God Himself - ‘Christ the Lord.’ At Bethlehem, none less than the eternal God was contracted to a span. In Bethlehem the infinite became an infant and breathed His first breath. In Bethlehem God became Man. In Bethlehem the eternal God was born so that we might be born again. Ponder the wonder of the One born at Bethlehem then - not the sentimental ‘Baby Jesus’ of popular Christmas ‘folk religion’, but the full-orbed Christ of the Bible, incomparable in His Person and incomparable in His saving Work.
1 Timothy 1:15 tells us the reason for Christ’s birth at Bethlehem most succinctly when it states: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.’ This takes us from the cradle of Christ to the cross of Christ, thirty three years later. Paradoxically, Christ was born to die. He was born at Bethlehem so that He could die at Calvary. He lived a sinless life, and then He died a sacrificial, saving death in the place of sinners, so that by believing in Him we may receive the gift of eternal life, and enjoy fellowship with God, having had our sins forgiven, both now and for ever.
Bethlehem. What a place - a place integral in the eternal plan of God to take out of this fallen world a people for Himself, for the eternal glory of His name. The Christ of Bethlehem will for ever surpass the town of Bethlehem, for in Christ alone we may know the true and lasting blessing of God Himself.
O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today
We hear the holy angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Immanuel.
Last Update: 2013-08-12 16:41