Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©2014
The Call to Bethlehem
The traditional story of the birth of Jesus Christ is not always told the way it really happened. The biblical facts are often modified to fit with the cultures of readers in the centuries long after the events. Medieval mysticism and fanciful stories have become part of the way we often visualize the scenes relating to the most important birth in human history.
Once those images are in our minds, it becomes hard to keep them from influencing the way we read the words in the Gospel accounts. We tend to see what we expect, rather than what is actually there. A careful study of the biblical account helps us bring our mental picture of Christ’s birth into better conformity with what God tells us in his word.
In these studies we will mainly be using the old King James Version since that is the one most commonly used in telling the Christmas story. The original languages of the Bible will be referenced where the translation needs to be clarified.
Called to Bethlehem
Amazingly, the story of Christ’s birth begins with the edict of a pagan emperor.
Luke 2:1-3, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.”
Long before the family of Jesus moved to Nazareth, God promised that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
Micah 5:2, “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”
To fulfill his plan God used that decree of a heathen Emperor. The old King James Version said, “all the world should be taxed.”
The word here which is translated as “to be taxed” is “apo-graphesthai” (απο-γραφεσθαι). The root word “apo-grapho” (απο-γραφω) literally means “to write from”, or “to copy something, make a list”. A person’s original writing is referred to as the “autograph’. Copies of it are called “apographs”. The reference here in Luke 2 describes a census or registration which was set up to determine the tax requirements of each region of the Roman Empire. The ESV more accurately translates it “that all the world should be registered.”
Caesar Augustus set up a regular census when Quirinius was governing in Syria (Cyrenius in the KJV). He governed the land of the Jews under the primary Syrian leadership of Varus. Augustus had no idea that his plan was part of something much bigger than updating the Roman tax rolls.
In the region where the Jews lived, registration was carried out in home-towns where the family records were kept. That is what brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, the town of their ancestor King David. This is where the Promised Messiah was predicted to be born.
Proverbs 21:1 tells us that God even controls the plans in the hearts of pagan Emperors. It tells us that, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.”
The City of Bethlehem
God used the decree of the pagan emperor to move the chosen family to the place planned and predicted.
Luke 2:4-5 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
Bethlehem was a village for 2,000 years before the time of Jesus. It was a small town of hard working people. It has rich fields which were good for growing grain, raising sheep, and producing grapes, figs, and olives.
The name, Bethlehem is “baet-lekhem” (בת לחם), which means, “house of bread”. It was where Israel’s King David was raised and worked as a shepherd. It was sometimes called Bethlehem-Judah or Bethlehem Ephrathah (Ephraim = “fruitful” Psalm 132:6 – “Ephratah” – אפרתה). The additional names were to distinguish it from another Bethlehem in the territory of Zebulun. In God’s providence this is the place that brought forth Jesus who is called the bread of life (John 6:34).
This Bethlehem was about five miles south of Jerusalem, a little over an hour’s walk. The daily offerings in the Jerusalem temple required the sacrifice of sheep every day of the year. The shepherds of Bethlehem were kept very busy raising sheep to supply the priests with the sacrifices. That was the job of David and his family before God called him away to prepare him to be Israel’s King.
Jerusalem was a busy place every day with the markets, the work at the Temple, the meetings of the Sanhedrin, and debates by the scholars and well known Rabbis. Bethlehem became a suburban town where some priestly families lived away from busy Jerusalem.
To comply with the decree of Rome, and in God’s providence, Joseph and Mary came there when their baby was due.
The traditional Christmas story imagines two lone travelers coming to a town where they didn’t know anyone. But, the reason they were going to Bethlehem was to be registered in the city of their family’s origin. It was the city from which all their relatives had come. They would all have to visit during the enrollment.
More likely, Mary and Joseph along with the heads of relative’s families converged on Bethlehem. They would likely have traveled in a caravan with their fathers, grandfathers, brothers, uncles, and any other family members that chose to go with them. By Roman law they all had to go there at that time.
It is clear from Luke 2:42-52 that this family did at times travel in large caravans. That was the time when Jesus as a twelve-year-old stayed behind when the family left Jerusalem to return to Nazareth. They had gone about a day’s journey before Mary and Joseph realized that their son was not among others in the group traveling with them.
“… And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him.”
Travel was not safe for a young couple alone. The roads were primitive and travel over long distances required planning for food and sleep along the way. It was a distance of about 100 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, depending on what route was taken.
We often imagine them as visitors in a city where they seemed like strangers. It was more like a family re-union than two lone travelers in a cold uninterested town. (We will see more about that later.)
An Unexpected Messiah
Our minds are designed to fill in missing information. There is a blind spot in every human eye. There are no photo-receptor cells in the optical disk where the optic nerve joins the retina at the back of the eye. Put two dots on a paper 4 inches apart. With the paper very close, stare at the right side dot with your right eye closed. If you move the paper away slowly the left-most dot disappears.
Your brain fills in the area over the blind spot with general information from the area around it. You never notice the missing information in what you see. In modern computer terminology it’s a software solution for a hardware limitation.
There are blind spots in our understanding of God and his plans too. We have not been told everything yet. We tend to fill in the things not revealed with guesses. We should never speculate beyond what God tells us in his word.
Jesus was not what the people of his day expected the Messiah to be. He came in a form no one would have anticipated. He came to do something many in his day did not think needed to be done. And he did it in a way totally unexpected, even by those who anticipated his coming.
The Jews then had the promises of the Old Testament Scriptures. But people had distorted God’s promises with unfounded innovations. What God had not revealed they filled in with their own theories.
The coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, was promised as far back as Eden, Eve, then Adam who represented us all, fell into sin by eating a fruit forbidden by God. What happened next was just as unexpected as when they realized that Satan had lied. They expected God’s harsh judgment. It came, but it was united with mercy and a great promise. Their alienation was not going to end God’s relationship with his humans.
By grace (God’s undeserved favor and love) a promise was made. In Genesis 3:15 God said to Satan, that serpent that tempted Eve, “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”
This was the first hint of God’s amazing plan: One would be born to a woman who would finally overcome and destroy Satan and sin. He would crush the serpent’s head while suffering only a bruised heel.
Adam and Eve’s sin was not a surprise to God. It was part of his plan to reveal more of himself than Adam and Eve knew. God was not only the great Creator. He was the great Redeemer too.
Adam and Eve gladly received the promise of redemption. God opened their eyes to the coming of this Messiah, and gave them faith to trust in it. They were banished from the garden, but they found new life in the hope of a Savior. Their fellowship with God was restored, but now they understood the horrors of sin, and the wonders of mercy and grace.
The Jews in the time of Jesus read in the Bible that the Messiah would be a king greater than David. So they expected a passionate revolutionary who would dethrone the Emperor of Rome. They imagined him setting up an impressive earthly palace with an invincible army to defend it. It would be a Jewish Empire to replace the Roman one that had oppressed them. They read in Micah 5:2 that he would be born in Bethlehem, the city of the King David. Since Bethlehem was a suburb of Jerusalem, it was home to many priests and political leaders. They assumed this meant that the Christ would be born to a powerful Jewish leader and live in a rich palatial home. These ideas became the accepted belief of the synagogues.
Today people still expect a different Jesus.
They take sayings out of context to support their own assumptions. They redefine who Jesus was, what he did, and how we come to benefit from him today. By adding things to God’s word they keep the real soul-liberating message hidden.
To the first century Jews the truth would seem unbelievable. Instead of just favoring Israel, the Messiah would sprinkle many nations, Jews and Gentiles, with his atoning blood.
Isaiah 52:15, “So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider.”
Even the great kings would be dumbfounded, speechless, at the unexpected work of a suffering Messiah.
Isaiah 53:1-3, “Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed? For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
More literally it should be translated, “Who would have believed the thing reported to us?” Instead of sitting on a royal throne in a plush palace, he would come as a humble redeemer.
So why is this important? It is not just to get the history right. It is to better understand the plan of God to redeem some from the fallen human race. It is the setting in which God displayed how justice would be satisfied, while revealing his amazing grace.
Note: Bible quotations are from the King James Version unless otherwise noted.