Born in Bethlehem

Micah 5:2

December 12, 2015 | Brian Bill

Isn’t it great singing Christmas music?  I know most of the words to many carols but struggle to get them to sound right when they come out of my mouth.  Many kids, on the other hand, don’t know all the words but they don’t hesitate to sing them with gusto.  

Here is how some of our carols come out of kids:

  • Deck the halls with Buddy Holly
  • We three kings of porridge and tar
  • He’s making a list, chicken and rice
  • Olive, the other reindeer
  • Oh, what fun it is to ride with one horse, soap and hay
  • Sleep in heavenly peas
  • You’ll go down in Listerine
  • And my favorite, Chipmunks roasting in a forest fire!

Some of you are laughing, but now it’s your turn.  Let’s see how well you do on this Christmas Carol Quiz. 

  • Give Attention to the Melodious Celestial Beings – “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!”
  • Embellish the Entryways – “Deck the Halls”
  • Nocturnal Noiselessness – “Silent Night”
  • Jubilation to the Entire Terrestrial Orb – “Joy to the World”
  • Alas, Diminutive Settlement in Israel – “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem”

This weekend we’re focusing on that little town of Bethlehem.  Last week we went all the way back to Genesis 3:15 to show that Jesus is the seed of Eve who was bruised on the heel by the serpent.  Even though Jesus was battered by the onslaughts of Satan, He destroyed death and the devil on the Cross so that you and I can be delivered from our sins.

Micah’s Messiah

The prophet Micah recorded an astonishing predictive prophecy 700 years before the birth of Jesus.  Turn in your Bibles to the book that bears his name.  You’ll find it near the end of the Old Testament.  It’s located between Jonah and Nahum.  Or find the book of Matthew and go left 7 books.  If none of that helps, do what I did and look in the Table of Contents!  

Micah’s name means, “Who is like Yahweh?”  Judah and Israel had risen to heights of material affluence but had fallen to the depths of moral decadence.  Well-trained terrorists were threatening to take them down.  Sounds very similar to America today, doesn’t it?  Someone has said, “The religion of China is Confucian.  The religion of America is Confusion.” 

Micah warned the people about the evil influence of pagan religions and he spoke against social injustices.  All of his sermons were given in the context of the impending threat from the nation of Assyria, who would eventually destroy Israel in 721 B.C.  Micah wanted the people to know that their sins would cause the nation to implode inwardly and be attacked outwardly.  

Let’s work our way through the opening verses of Micah 5.  Things are starting to fall apart in Israel, the northern kingdom.  Take a look at verse 1: “Now muster your troops, O daughter of troops; siege is laid against us; with a rod they strike the judge of Israel on the cheek.” 

The context of this prophecy takes place shortly after the mighty Assyrian army scattered the 10 northern tribes into exile.  The message also applies to the southern kingdom, which was destroyed by the Babylonians 135 years later.  In both situations, the kings were humiliated when they were hit in the face.  In Isaiah 10:5, the Assyrian army is referred to as a rod.  When a king is struck on the “cheek with a rod,” it represents the worst insult possible.  

They are told to “muster your troops,” which is a summons to get ready to defend themselves because the ‘mother of all battles’ is about to begin.  Jerusalem is referred to as the “daughter of troops.”  Like today, Jerusalem has often known conflict and war.  

They were able to push the Assyrians away from Jerusalem but after Assyria imploded Babylon came on the scene and destroyed Jerusalem ending the reign of the last recorded king from David’s line.  Persia eventually usurped Babylon as the world power.  The Greeks then conquered the Persians, who were later destroyed by the Romans, who were in power when Christ was born.  With things looking extremely bleak, the promise remained of a coming shepherd king who was to be born in Bethlehem. 

Micah ministered during the reigns of four kings in Israel and three kings in Judah.  One of those kings was Hezekiah.  Interestingly, he was in the news last week when a clay imprint, dating from the 8th Century B.C. was discovered bearing these words: “Belonging to Hezekiah (son of) Ahaz King of Judah.”  I love watching the archaeological world go crazy when another biblical fact is confirmed.  One secular publication ran this headline, “Archaeologist Says the Bible’s King Hezekiah is Real.”  Duh.  We shouldn’t be surprised, right?  With apologies to Star War fans, Christianity is rooted in real history, not in some mythical far-away galaxy.

It was to this humble prophet that God sent a prophecy of the birthplace of a Ruler whose kingdom would never disappear.  Look now at verse 2: “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.”   

I see three truths in this passage: A predetermined place, a promised plan, and a profound person

A Predetermined Place

Verse 2 begins with the words, “But you…”  In the Hebrew, there is an accent mark over this phrase, which serves as a grammatical pause.  This is followed by the expression, “O Bethlehem…!”  Micah is making the contrast between the dire situation in Jerusalem and the coming victory in Bethlehem.  

“Ephrathah” is the ancient name of a district of Bethlehem and was used to distinguish it from other towns of the same name.  I’m from Watertown, Wisconsin, which is a different place than Watertown, New York and the Watertown that is located as part of East Moline.  The main difference between the three is that my hometown is in the Promised Land!

Jesus spent time with those the world considered small and insignificant. 

“Who are too little to be among the clans of Judah.”  Each tribe was divided into its thousands (clans) but if a community was too small to get a thousand people together they were enfolded into other tribes.  Bethlehem was so lowly that it was not even counted among the possessions of Judah.  In fact, in the division under Joshua, it was omitted altogether (Joshua 15:1-63).  It was a village that was despised because it was small.  Jesus spent time with those the world considered small and insignificant.  I’m reminded of what Gideon said in Judges 6:15 after God told him how He wanted to use him: “Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.”  

There are at least five parallels between this little town and the baby who was born in Bethlehem.

1. Rachel gave birth to Benjamin in Bethlehem (Genesis 35:18).

Before she died, she called her son “Benoni,” which means “the son of sorrow.”  But his father, Jacob, called him “Benjamin,” which means “the son of the right hand.”  Remember that at Christmas, the Son came into our sorrow.  I shared this truth with a grieving mother this week through my role as chaplain for the Quad Cities Missing Person Network.  Her 15-year-old daughter went missing on Wednesday.  In my prayer I mentioned that at Christmas Jesus came to us in our mess.  I’m reminded of the line from “O Little Town of Bethlehem:” “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.”  Jesus Christ was truly the man of “sorrows” as stated in Isaiah 53 and the Son of the Father’s right hand.

2. Boaz redeemed Ruth from her poverty in Bethlehem (Ruth 2:4).

Ruth, a foreign refugee found redemption from her pain and her past in Bethlehem.  Jesus, our redeemer, came to earth at Bethlehem to redeem us from the ravages of sin.

3. King David was born in Bethlehem and also anointed king there (1 Samuel 16:1-13, 17:58).

Our King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who counted David in his genealogy, was born in Bethlehem’s barn.  

4. Bethlehem means “house of bread” and Ephrathah means “fruitfulness.”

Jesus is the Bread of Life and said in John 6:35: “Whoever comes to me shall not hunger.”  The slopes surrounding Bethlehem were filled with figs, almonds, grapes and olives.   Jesus came so that we might bear spiritual fruit.

5. The Messiah had to come through the tribe of Judah. 

Bethlehem is in Judah and the genealogy of Jesus is traced through Judah.  Genesis 49:10 states that the ruler would come out of Judah: “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.” 

A Promised Plan

Next we see a Promised Plan: “…from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.”   Bethlehem was too small to be included among the movers and shakers of Judah, and yet out of her was to come forth one who will be Ruler.  The closest parallel I can think of for a famous person being from a tiny town is President Ronald Reagan, who was born in an apartment above a bakery in Tampico, Illinois, a village of approximately 700 people, located about 50 miles from here.

The phrase, “for me,” includes the idea “of me” which indicates that the coming ruler would come from God himself.  It’s similar to what Abraham said in Genesis 22:8: “God himself will provide the lamb.”  The lamb would come from God, just like the Ruler will come from Him.  That’s really the mystery of the incarnation; that God the Father would send God the Son to become a man who was sacrificed as payment for our sins.

The herald angel picked up on this promised plan when he declared in Luke 1:32: “…He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David.”

A Profound Person

Micah the prophet concludes his majestic prediction of the birthplace by focusing on a third element: A Profound Person.  We see this in the last part of verse 2: “whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.”  This phrase literally means, “From the days of eternity.”   

He was born humbly but He is Holy and everlasting. 

The word translated “from of old” is used elsewhere to describe the eternality of God.  In fact, this expression in Hebrew is used only to describe God.  Here’s just one example from Habakkuk 1:12: “Are you not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One?”  There is no doubt that the coming Ruler to be born in Bethlehem will be human, yet He is fully divine.  He was born humbly but He is Holy and everlasting.  He was out of Bethlehem but He did not have his beginnings there.

Micah was expecting a profound person, a supernatural Savior who would be physically born in Bethlehem, but who in actuality, has existed for all eternity as the second person of the Trinity.  He has always been.  Jesus Himself made this clear in John 8:58 when He stated very clearly: “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I am!”  We’ll dive deeper into this next weekend as we study Isaiah 9:6

Before we “fast forward” 700 years to the miraculous events in Bethlehem, we’re given more details about this birth announcement in Micah 5:3: “Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she is in labor has given birth…”  This birth is linked with a return of God’s remnant: “…then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel.”

Amazingly, we see six descriptions of what this baby born in Bethlehem will do in verses 4-5.  

  • He will stand – “And He shall stand…”
  • He will shepherd – “And shepherd his flock…”
  • He will serve in God’s strength – “In the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God…”
  • He will provide security – “And they shall dwell secure…”
  • He will be sovereign – “He shall be great to the ends of the earth…”
  • He will bring serenity – “And he shall be their peace…”

A Census Fulfills Prophecy

We come now to another little village that wasn’t very well known or respected [put up map].  It’s the town of Nazareth.  A woman is pregnant and her fiancé is trying to figure out how it happened.  An angel is sent to help him understand in Matthew 1:20-21: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Nazareth is located about 80 miles north of Bethlehem.  In order for Micah’s prophetic words to be fulfilled, Mary had to somehow get from this northern village to the little town of Bethlehem, located about 5 miles south of Jerusalem.  

Turn over to the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2  to see what God did to accomplish His plans: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.”  Verse 3 tells us that everyone went to his own hometown to register.  Verses 4-5 fill in the details: “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.”

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Matthew 2 tells us that a group of astrologers from the east came to Jerusalem because they wanted to find the one who was born king of the Jews.  They had followed a star but now they needed more specific directions.  They knew when he was born but they didn’t know exactly where.  Interestingly, these astrologers came from the land that was once called Assyria, the very place that had invaded Israel centuries earlier!  Instead of coming as soldiers, these men come as seekers of truth.  

Herod, who was the king in Judea, was threatened by the news that another king had been born so he called together all the chief priests and the teachers of the law and had just one specific question for them: “Where is the Christ supposed to be born?”  

I want you to notice how quickly they answered his question in verses 5-6.  They didn’t have to talk about it, or even consult their official documents.  They knew the answer because the prophet Micah had already given it 7 centuries earlier.  The predetermined place, the promised plan and the profound person are given: “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.’” 

Neither King Herod nor the religious professionals doubted for a moment that Micah 5:2 was a reference to the birthplace of the king.  They knew it in their heads but they didn’t know Him in their hearts.  It’s quite possible to be so close to the truth and still be far away from its impact.  They held the truth but they didn’t allow the truth to hold them!

Bringing it Together

This is remarkable to me.  An almost forgotten man named Micah was moved by the Holy Spirit to record a predictive prophecy about Assyria attacking the northern kingdom and almost destroying Jerusalem.  About 100 years later, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and snuffed out King Zedekiah, the last king in the line of David.  Micah states that the Messiah had to be birthed in a predetermined place called Bethlehem.  700 years go by until one day God explodes into human history with his promised plan by sending a profound person, from the line of King David to be carried in the womb of a virgin named Mary.  

God then moves in the heart of a pagan Roman emperor, who lived 1500 miles from Israel, to declare that a census had to be taken of the entire world.  Oh, and not just any census.  People had to travel back to their family’s hometown in order to be counted.  It just so happened that Joseph was from the family of David and that meant he had to go to Bethlehem.  

I love how precisely God orchestrated everything that first Christmas.  Mary was close to her delivery date and so Joseph decided to bring her along on the 80-mile journey to the city of Bread.  Technically, he could have gone by himself.  When they finally arrive, Mary is ready to give birth and Jesus is born in the place that Micah foretold.  What would have happened if their journey had been 4 weeks earlier or 2 weeks later?  In his sovereignty, God made sure that they were in the right place at just the right time.

In the Right Place

Friend, it’s no accident that you’re here right now.  God has put you in this place at this time so that you could hear the message of Micah and believe in the Savior born in Bethlehem.

It’s quite possible that some of you know all the right answers just like the religious experts, but you’re not in the right place spiritually.  They knew what the Bible said, but they were unwilling to make a short journey to see the Ruler who is also Shepherd.  Wise men, and wise women, still seek Him.  Are you ready to take the next step on your spiritual journey?

I heard a news story this week that the Pope opened a “holy” door at St. Peter’s Basilica and is encouraging people to make a pilgrimage to Rome to go through this door to have their sins forgiven.  This made me sad because the door to heaven has been open since Jesus died on the cross.  No one needs to make a pilgrimage to a special place to receive indulgences.  This is the right place and this is the right time to go through the door of salvation.

I’m reminded of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which is built over the reputed spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus.  When my wife and I visited, I’ll never forget walking across a large plaza and then coming to a really tiny door.  The door is so small that you have to duck down low to get inside. The entrance was deliberately made low because several centuries ago tough guys liked to ride their horses right into the sanctuary.  The caretakers of the church felt that was inappropriate so they lowered the entrance to force proud people to dismount before entering the church.

Listen.  If you want to go to heaven, you’ve got to get off your high horse.  Until you do, you’ll never be saved.  

Check out these words from, “O Little Town of Bethlehem:” “No ear may hear his coming but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in. Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today…O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?