Posts Tagged 'Bethlehem'

Birth of the King


The birth of Jesus Christ is the most significant event in the history of the world. It has been said that “the hinge of history is on the door of the Bethlehem stable.”

It may seem strange that the Son of God, the divine King of Kings, was born the way He was, when He was, and how He was. But the gulf that exists between sinful man and a holy God is so immense, there is no way for man to approach God even if he wanted to. The only way to bring the creature close to his Creator was for the Creator Himself to breach that gulf and come to the creature. This the Lord did in the Person of His Son. Really, God’s plan for the redemption of mankind, which began with the “Christmas story,” was brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed.

The King is born, Matthew 1:18—25

The story begins with a shocking discovery:

These are the facts concerning the birth of Jesus Christ: His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But while she was still a virgin she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:18 TLB)

The KJV says that Mary was “found with child,” although we are never told exactly who “found” her in that condition! Did it become so obvious that her family and her fiance, Joseph, could tell? Or did she fess up to Joseph in private? We don’t know, but what we do know is that Mary knew the truth: her baby was of supernatural origin.

Her delicate condition put her in a precarious position. Mosaic Law cut a pregnant single woman absolutely no slack; she would have been stoned to death. But we tip our hats to Joseph who proved he was stand up guy:

Then Joseph, her fiance, being a man of stern principle, decided to break the engagement but to do it quietly, as he didn’t want to publicly disgrace her. (Matthew 1:19 TLB)

He didn’t want to expose Mary to disgrace or danger, so as far as he was concerned, though he loved this woman dearly, he was willing to “divorce” her on down low. To break an engagement at this time in Judaism amounted to a divorce. Mary, freed from Joseph, would quietly leave town to have her baby and live in exile.

But God had other plans for Joseph:

As he lay awake considering this, he fell into a dream, and saw an angel standing beside him. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “don’t hesitate to take Mary as your wife! For the child within her has been conceived by the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:20 TLB)

In order to prevent a tragic situation from occurring, and in order to fulfill ancient Biblical prophecies, an angel, probably Gabriel, appeared to Joseph as he did to Mary to let Joseph in on the secret. Mary needed to know the truth in order to save her sanity and Joseph needed to know the same truth to save the marriage and to preserve his wife’s reputation in his eyes. She had never been unfaithful to him but had been completely faithful to God. Any husband would love to have a wife as faithful as Mary was!

Let’s pause for a moment. Remember, for some 400 years before the events we are looking at, God had been silent. There were no visions, no prophecies, to miraculous interventions, and certainly no angelic visitations. Though God had never forgotten His people, He was not in close communication with them anymore. But all that changed with the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Consider how many people in the “Christmas story” saw and heard angels! Truly the time for the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy had come:

After I have poured out my rains again, I will pour out my Spirit upon all of you! Your sons and daughters will prophesy; your old men will dream dreams, and your young men see visions. (Joel 2:28 TLB)

Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and others all bear witness to an inescapable fact: the distance between Heaven and Earth was closing fast! The King of Glory was coming and nothing was going to stop Him from coming to us.

Mary’s faith was astounding, but, then, so was Joseph’s. He was in a tight spot to be sure, but he heeded what the angel told him; any fears or misgivings Joseph may have had surrounding Mary and their situation, disappeared. By making Mary his wife, bringing her into his heart and his home, this man, Joseph, would do God’s will, protect his wife and mother of the Lord, be blessed by God in ways we could never comprehend and show himself to be a true descendant of King David.

Martin Luther’s observations on this are invaluable:

It is an honor for the wedded state that our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son, was not born of a simple, unmarried maid but of Mary, who was espoused as a true wife of Joseph, her husband. Our Lord was born of his mother according to the Law in wedlock and honored it with his birth.

Something that Matthew thought was very important was the idea that the events surrounding our Lord’s birth fulfilled Bible prophecy:

This will fulfill God’s message through his prophets… (Matthew 1:22 TLB)

The reason why Matthew points this out is that he wrote his Gospel to fellow Jews—unconverted Jews who needed to understand that what happened during the “first Christmas” fulfilled many things written about in their Scriptures!

The King is sought after, Matthew 2:1—8

Jesus was born in a small town just south of Jerusalem called Bethlehem. That name means “House of Bread,” which is certainly an appropriate name for the birth place of the Bread of Heaven! He was born during the reign of Herod the Great, as he was known in history. During the Babylonian captivity, a race of people known as Idumeans (Edomites), had settled in and taken over the southern part of Judah. By 125 BC, John Hyrcanus, high priest and ruler of the Jewish nation at this time, compelled these Idumeans to be circumcised, thus becoming, at least nominally, Jews. Herod was part of these people, and his religion was at best skin-deep. He was cruel and ruled without conscience.

Into this political atmosphere, Jesus was born and the Magi journeyed:

At about that time some astrologers from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in far-off eastern lands and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1b—2 TLB)

The Living Bible calls these magoi, “magi,” “astrologers.” “Magi” originally referred to priests in Persia and Babylon. As used by Matthew, though, these “wise men” were just that, and they were honorable. In ways we may never understand, these men connected the appearance of new star in the eastern sky with the birth of a new king in Israel. But did these men have in mind an earthly king or the King of Heaven? The word “worship” has reference to bowing down before an earthly ruler and/or before God, so we may never know what was really in the minds of these wonderful visitors from an eastern kingdom.

But we know what was in Herod’s mind:

King Herod was deeply disturbed by their question, and all Jerusalem was filled with rumors. (Matthew 2:3 TLB)

Jerusalem was “filled with rumors,” not because anybody in it saw that strange star, but they heard about what the magi had said. As the rumor mill churned on, Herod became more and more worried. Could it be true? Had a king really been born somewhere in his realm? Would this new king cause his people to turn against him? Like the magi, Herod decided he needed to seek out this king, but for a very different reason:

Then Herod sent a private message to the astrologers, asking them to come to see him; at this meeting he found out from them the exact time when they first saw the star. Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him too!” (Matthew 2:7, 8 TLB)

Of course, Herod had no interest in finding the king to worship him! He wanted to kill him—to eliminate the competition.

Time to pause again and think about something. Think about this:

Where is the newborn King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in far-off eastern lands and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2 TLB)

After this interview the astrologers started out again. And look! The star appeared to them again, standing over Bethlehem. (Matthew 2:9 TLB)

We wonder: did these magi lose sight of the star when (or possibly because) they strayed off the road to consult with Herod and the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem? We also wonder if these wise men, instead of seeking human guidance, had just continued on into Bethlehem, would the “slaughter of the innocents” have taken place? Herod may never have known about the birth of Jesus if only these wise men had just kept their eyes on the star. Another good question to ask ourselves is this one: Do we get ourselves (or others) in trouble when we seek out human advice and guidance from the wrong people when should be paying attention to God’s guidance? Let’s keep our eyes on Him and His star!

The King is worshiped, Matthew 2:9—12

The fact that this star “appeared again” shows it was of supernatural origin; this was no ordinary star! It had the ability to appear, disappear, then reappear! These men traveled a great distance for a long time to find this King:

Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary His mother, and falling to their knees, they worshiped Him. (Matthew 2:11 HCSB)

Most scholars and many translations agree that by now Jesus was a child, not a baby. This young family wasn’t in a manger any longer; Joseph had apparently found and rented a house for them to live in. He was a carpenter, so he could ply his trade anywhere. Scholars think the magi reached them a year after the birth took place! They “worshiped” this young King and gave him gifts of immense value: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These gifts have some significance. Gold, of course, was precious and costly back then as it is today. It was an entirely appropriate gift to give a king. Frankincense was an appropriate gift for a priest because it was used in temple services. And myrrh was something you gave someone who was dying; appropriate for the One who was destined to die for the sins of others. As William Barclay noted:

These three gifts foretold that [Jesus] was to be the true King, the perfect High Priest, and in the end the supreme Savior of men.

Perhaps this is where the tradition of giving others gifts at Christmastime came from. On this, Chuck Swindoll noted:

Some gifts you can give this Christmas are beyond monetary value: Mend a quarrel, dismiss suspicion, tell someone you love them. Give something away—anonymously. Forgive someone who has treated you wrong. Turn away wrath with a soft answer. Visit someone in a nursing home. Apologize if you were wrong. Be especially kind to someone with whom you work. Give as God gave to you in Christ, without obligation, or reservation, or hypocrisy.

These wise men were obedient to God whether they knew it or not and God honored their obedience. He, by means of a dream, warned them not to return to Herod. They may have thought Herod was sincere as they were in his desire to find and worship this young king. But, again, in obedience, they returned home by another route.

These magi; these foreigners, are a picture of the firstfruits of the Gentiles who would come to Christ for salvation. How interesting it is that Matthew begins his Gospel with this visit to Jesus by some Gentile wise men and he closes it with the Great Commission for believers to evangelize the whole world.

The birth of Jesus and all the events and people surrounding it make for an interesting study and show a Divine purpose. Like pieces of an immense puzzle, they give us a glimpse at the intricacies of God’s great redemptive plan.


Searching For the King, Matthew 2:1—16

The birth of Jesus Christ was surrounded by multiple miracles.  From the virgin birth to the star that hung over Bethlehem, no one can deny that supernatural events took place the night of our Lord’s birth.

We previously studied the birth of the Messiah; paying attention to His lineage and the fact that the Son of Mary and Joseph uniquely fulfilled all the prerequisites to be not only the Jewish Messiah, but the Savior of the world.   According to God’s own promise, Jesus is the rightful heir to King David’s throne—

When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.  (2 Samuel 7:12—13)

Chapter 1 of Matthew’s Gospel made this abundantly clear;  Jesus Christ is the offspring whose throne would last forever; Jesus Christ was born King.  It is fitting that a King be paid homage, and this is what see in chapter 2.

Now we turn our attention to some of the events that occurred subsequent to His birth; some of which were dangerous, others moving, but all miraculous in their own way.

1.  Minor details, major characters, 2:1

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem.

The very first verse of chapter 2 is a storehouse of information missing in chapter 1.  Two very important facts emerge that were not mentioned in the story of Jesus’ birth.

  • He was born in Bethlehem.  There were actually two towns named Bethlehem, so Matthew adds “in Judea” so his readers wouldn’t confuse Christ’s birthplace with the one located just west of Nazareth.  But there was another very important for reason for specifying the exact place of Christ’s birth, and it had to do with an ancient prophecy in Micah 5:2, which is quoted in verses 5 and 6.  Once again, Matthew wants to leave his readers with no doubt that this baby was the One Israel had been waiting for.

Bethlehem in Judea was also King David’s hometown, and was located some 5 miles south of Jerusalem.  It is fitting that the “Bread of Life” should have been born in Bethlehem, a name which means “House of Bread.”

  • He was born during the time of King Herod.  History indicates that Jesus was born slightly before the death of this King Herod, and that King Herod died shortly after a lunar eclipse, sometime around April of the year 4 BC.  So it is entirely possible that Jesus was born in late 5 BC.

But who was this man, Herod?  He was known as ‘Herod the Great,’ and was an Idumean, or an Edomite.  He was the son of Antipater, founder of the Herodian Dynasty.  The Idumeans had been forcibly converted to Judaism by the Sadducee-influenced Hasmonean leader John Hyrcanus. Forcible conversion was not recognized by Pharisaic tradition, so even though Antipater and Herod the Great may have considered themselves part of the Jewish faith, they were not considered Jewish by the observant and nationalist Jews of Judea, and they were resented for their Edomite ancestry, their Hellenized culture, and their collusion with the Roman invaders.  Herod, then, might have been considered a “secular” Jew by the very religious Jews of his day.

That being said, Herod’s “religion” was barely skin-deep, as he was a cruel man, virtually without conscience.   Indirectly he learned about the mission of these wise men—

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.  He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”  (verses 7, 8)

News of the birth of the Messiah really shook King Herod up!  Verse 3 indicates that he was “disturbed” when he heard the news.  That Greek verb is powerful, and means Herod was “shaken up,”  “stirred up,” and “greatly agitated.”  And why wouldn’t he be like that?  Here was a man, a nominal Jew at best, somewhat versed in the Jewish Scriptures, but living a completely secular life.  He was scared to death that the arrival of the King of the Jews would threaten his position and his lifestyle.  Of course he was not interested in worshiping Jesus, he was interested in keeping the status quo in life at all costs, even it that cost was life of many children.  How are will a sinner go to avoid Jesus?

  • He was sought by wise men from the east.  Some time after His birth, “wise men” arrived in Jerusalem, looking for this king.  That designation is a rendering of the Greek term magoi, or Magi, from which we get our term “magician.”  Originally, though, the term denoted the priestly caste among the Persians and the Babylonians.  While in the book of Acts the word is used to describe Simon the Sorcerer, here Matthew uses it in an honorable way to introduce men of high standing from “the East.”  Exactly where they came from is not known, but the general sense is that they came from an eastern country quite a distance away.

2.   Men of unlikely faith, verse 2

[The wise men] asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

Just how many of these “wise men” there were is not stated by Matthew; tradition tells us there were three because they presented three gifts to the Jesus.   While there could very well have been only three, there may have been many more, because we are told that “all Jerusalem” was troubled by their sudden appearance in town.  Could three men cause a whole city to become disturbed?  Perhaps, or perhaps Jerusalem was disturbed by the fact that these Gentiles were in town looking for the Jewish Messiah, something heretofore only the Jews were doing!  To their Jewish minds, Gentiles would hardly be looking for the “King of Jews!”

To the minds of these eastern wise men, though, an important person like a king would logically be found in a big city, like Jerusalem, for example, and so that is where they expected to find him.  Imagine what it must have been like the day these men strolled into town, repeatedly asking the question to anybody who would listen to them:  “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?”  Notice the faith these men had:  they knew a king had been born; there was no doubt the king of the Jews was on the earth.  To them, the birth was a fact and the title was true.  No wonder the citizens of Jerusalem were upset; they had been looking for the Messiah for untold millennia; how could they have possibly missed His appearing?  How did these Gentiles know about it?

Here we see a most remarkable thing about God:  He actually revealed Himself to the Gentiles even before the Great Commission was given!  Here is a God who practices what He preaches!  He is doing what He would later ask of His followers!  While we don’t know exactly how He did this, or even how much these wise knew, we do know precisely how these men were led to Christ:  through the star.  Many scholarly papers have been written about this much-debated star; was it a real star hanging over Bethlehem?  Was this star symbolic of something else?  Did God create a brand new star that lasted long enough to direct the wise men to Jesus then simply snuff it out?  We can debate this subject ad nauseum, but what should be noted is that God in His mercy and kindness spoke to these wise men in a way that could easily understand.

We may never know if the appearance of this star was a supernatural or natural phenomenon; we may never know how the wise men were able to connect the star with the birth of Jesus, but we do know that the light of that star is what got these men to Jesus.  Matthew, for reasons of his own, leaves out a lot details we think are important, yet includes the single detail he thought was of ultimate importance:  the reason these wise men came to Jesus in the first place:  it was to worship Him!   It was not an easy journey; it took months for the wise men to find Jesus, but they were determined to find and worship this baby who was the King of the Jews.

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  (verse 11)

This is essentially the message of Christmas.  Christmas has nothing to do with families and friends visiting together—this should done be all year long!  Christmas has nothing to do giving and receiving presents—we should be generous to others all the time!  Christmas has nothing to do all the traditions we hold so dear—not that there is anything wrong with traditions.  And Christmas has nothing to do with a baby born in a manger.  The real message of Christmas, the thing that Matthew wanted his readers to understand is simply this:  all people, Jew and Gentile alike, should respond to Jesus the way the wise men did:  in humble worship.  If even Gentiles recognized who Jesus was, should not the Jews, who possessed the promises of God?  For Gentiles, who were not part of the covenant, what an encouragement this must have been:  God reveled Himself to them!  What mercy and grace!  And what should man’s response to be?

3.  Responding to the King

The Jews, even the most faithful, loyal, and reverent ones, completely missed the birth of their Messiah.  How could this be?  Did God not give His people scores of prophecies foretelling the arrival of their Messiah?  Had they not been looking, waiting, and longing for their King to come and set them free?  How is it, then, with generations of anticipation that the King’s birth went unnoticed by the very people He came to save?

There is a valuable lesson here, for those with eyes to see.  Many devout people miss out on answered prayers and other blessings because they are blinded by their beliefs; beliefs grounded, not in the objective Word of God, but on traditions and on things taught them by their church or parents.  How sad to cherish your beliefs at the expense of genuine faith in God!  Yet many believers are more comfortable with their traditions than with the presence of the Son of God.  To these people, life is a half-life because they miss out all that God has for them.

To Herod, his faith was a faith of convenience.  People like Herod use their faith to open doors of opportunity.  People like Herod have knowledge of the truth, but deny its power.  They have no problem with people worshiping God, they have no problem encouraging it, or even taking part in it, as long as they get something in return.  For Herod, identifying with the Jews guaranteed peace in Judea and a long, successful, prosperous reign as their leader.

But to Herod and people like him, Jesus poses a real threat because no man can serve to masters and Jesus demands all that we are.  He demands complete loyalty and submission to His will.  He demands complete holiness and commitment.   For some people, that is just too much to ask of them, and people like that will go to any lengths to avoid Him.

Finally, there were the wise men.  These men were not wise because they sought Jesus.  It was not their wisdom that motivated them to follow the star and seek Jesus; it was their simple faith in the Word of God.  Consider verse 12—

And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

It was not their wisdom that alerted them to Herod’s schemes; it was a supernatural dream from the Lord.  If the Lord spoke to them about returning home, He surely spoke them about leaving home in the first place!

These men, wise yet simple, stand as an example for all time of the kind of people God desires, and the kind of response that is appropriate in the presence of the King.

The question that remains is this:  what kind of person are you?  Are you like the religious Jews of Matthew’s day, which were blinded by their arrogant faith?  Are you like Herod; self-centered, using faith as another way to get what you want in life?  Or are you like the wise men?  Are you a person who responds to the Word of God in obedience and faith, come what may?   This Christmas season, let’s examine our hearts and find out what kind of people we are.  And in the year to come, let’s try to have the same simple, yet devout attitude as the wise men from the east had.  May our knowledge grow, but may our faith and reverence grow as well.

(c)  2009 WitzEnd

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