First, Luke’s nativity story explains how Jesus could have been born in Bethlehem when he known as a Galilean from Nazareth. His father, Joseph, under some sort of urgency, travels to Bethlehem from his home in Galilee to be registered at the traditional city for the descendants of David. His new wife, Mary, goes with him even though she is “great with child” (KJV).
What is the urgency that causes this man to make a hard journey with his young wife when she was in the advanced stages of pregnancy? Luke does not tell us, but several ideas have been floated. Some think this might be to get Mary away from the social critics of Nazareth who might be counting the time between marriage and child, ready to pounce if it were less than nine months. Others think this show the insensitivity of Joseph, acting at a patriarchal man of his times, a classic knucklehead.
Could it be, though, that the urgency was that Joseph and Mary desperately wanted their son to be born in Bethlehem? Did Joseph, the proud descendant of David who might have been a little down on his luck, want his son’s life to start with the right birthplace? Or, even more audaciously, did Joseph know that the heir to David’s throne was prophesied to be born in Bethlehem, so he decided to take matters into his own hands to fulfill the prophecy? Was this like taking his son to the stone so he could pull the sword?
Which leads us to our second way of understanding Bethlehem in this story. In Matthew’s nativity account, the magi come from the east seeking the newly born Messiah of the Jews. They go straight to the top, to the court of King Herod, to find out where the baby might be. This access is why some consider the magi to be “kings,” for Herod would have been unlikely to receive commoners so readily.
Herod roars to his scholars to find an answer from Scripture, and they pull out their Micah scroll:
But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.
(Matt 2:6, quoting Micah 5:2, 4)
Bethlehem, the “house of bread,” the tiny village a few miles south of Jerusalem, is mentioned by name in the prophecy! To me, this is one of the most remarkable prophecy/fulfillment sequences in the Bible. Maybe Joseph had already found this Scripture long before it was revealed to the magi.
So Bethlehem is a city of choice and a city of destiny for the Christmas story. Joseph chose it for his son’s birthplace just as the Heavenly Father chose it prophetically centuries before as his Son’s birthplace. It marked Jesus as a candidate for David’s eternal throne, the true Messiah. Destiny is realized by those who listen to God and do his will.
The star shines out with a steadfast ray;
The kings to Bethlehem make their way,
Thou child of man, lo, to Bethlehem
The Kings are traveling, travel with them!
This Christmas, may we make our spiritual pilgrimage to Bethlehem, the Royal City, and find our King there. May we too bend out knee in worship to the Heir of David, the Lord of Lords and King of Kings.
Nebraska Christian College