The Birth of Jesus
Advent reading for December 25: Luke 2:1-20; Matthew 2:1-12; Micah 5:2
Luke and Matthew give us the beloved stories of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ and the circumstances surrounding it. Luke’s narrative follows the birth of John the Baptist and Zechariah’s prophecy concerning John’s ministry as the Lord’s forerunner (Luke 1:57-80). Luke then focuses on the immediate circumstances of Christ’s birth, the circumcision of the babe (brephos) eight days later, and the prophecies of Simeon and Anna.
Matthew picks up the narrative sometime later when Jesus is no longer called a babe (brephos), but a child (paidion). Matthew begins with the words “Now after Jesus was born…”(Matthew 2:1). He tells of the wise men (“magi”) who came from the east to Jerusalem in search of the one “who has been born king of the Jews” (2:2). He writes of Herod’s rage and the slaughter of all male children in Bethlehem who were two years old and under. He tells how Joseph, following the instructions received from an angel in a dream, escaped to Egypt with Mary and the child. Let’s consider first the birth in Bethlehem.
THE BIRTH IN BETHLEHEM
We might wonder why Mary was in Bethlehem, some 90 miles (145 km) from her hometown of Nazareth, when she gave birth to baby Jesus. This unusual circumstance resulted from a decree by the Roman emperor “Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered” for taxes (Luke 2:1). Luke explains,
Luke 2:3–5 (ESV) — And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
Here we learn from a natural and political perspective, why Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem with the important reminder that Joseph “was of the house and lineage of David.” As we have seen, Jesus, adopted by Joseph, was the legitimate heir to the throne of David. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were in Bethlehem because the emperor had issued the decree.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BETHLEHEM
Bethlehem would not have been considered important at the time of Jesus’ birth. Although it was the birthplace of David (1 Samuel 17:12), it was only a village when Jesus was born. 1
When the wise men from the east asked Herod, King of Judaea, where they could find the child who was “born king of the Jews,” Herod began his own search. “Assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born” (Matthew 2:4). His purpose was not to worship the child as he claimed, but to destroy him.
King Herod inquired of the chief priests and scribes where the Christ was to be born. They knew that 500 years before, God had revealed through the prophet Micah the place of Christ’s birth:
Micah 5:2 (ESV) — But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.
Bethlehem was “too little.” “O little town of Bethlehem” had seemed so insignificant. Except God had chosen Bethlehem as the place where his Son would be born. The scribes and chief priests gave their answer to Herod:
Matthew 2:5–6 (ESV) — They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “ ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
Out of Bethlehem would come a ruler in Israel. Micah had said that his “coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” This future ruler would enter into time from eternity: “whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” King Herod proved to be impotent against God’s decree.
When a country sends an ambassador to another country, all the pertinent information identifying the ambassador is sent to the host country well in advance of his arrival so that he will be recognized as the legitimate representative.
Through the centuries, going back four thousand years, God had spoken in various ways to the fathers through the prophets (Hebrews 1:1). He revealed specific details about the One who would represent and speak for the Father so that we could identify him as the only one having the proper credentials. The Messiah, the Christ, would be of the seed of the woman, a descendant of Abraham, the “star” of Jacob, of the tribe of Judah, a descendant of David, born of the virgin in the village of Bethlehem. He would be the Son of David, the Son of Man, and the Son of God. He would be Immanuel, “God with us.” He would be the righteous Branch, the Suffering Servant, and the resurrected Lord of Glory.
This One born in little Bethlehem will be the ruler who will shepherd God’s people. Let us follow the example of the wise men from the east. Let us worship and adore him (Matthew 2:2, 11).
1 James M. Houston, “Bethlehem,” in Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 290.