O little town of Bethlehem

12 January 2009

O Little Town of Bethlehem  Mt 2:1-18 Micah 5:2

O Little Town of Bethlehem is one of the most loved carols that we sing during Christmas.

As we celebrate Christmas, let us consider Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ our Saviour and Lord.  The birthplace of Jesus in the little town of Bethlehem, holds many precious lessons for us. 

I suggest to you that Bethlehem is firstly a place of Hope, secondly it symbolizes Humility of Christ, thirdly it symbolizes the Man of Sorrows, Fourthly, Bethlehem is a place of Satisfaction, and Fifthly, Bethlehem (House of Bread) is a place of Sustenance.  In these days of gloom and doom, we all need to feed on Christ the Bread of Life, we need to turn to Him for satisfaction and not look at our circumstances.      

Firstly, Bethlehem symbolizes hope for the children of Israel who will face persecution, sufferings, captivity, a time of gloom, dark times ahead.  

The birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem was foretold by prophet Micah 700 years before Christ’s birth in a manger in Bethlehem.

Micah, a contemporary of prophet Isaiah, prophesied during a time of widespread apostasy and idolatry in Israel.  People have turned away from the Lord, and so the prophet Micah’s ministry was to warn Israel to repent, and to prophesy of God’s punishment of Israel for their sins of idolatry.  God is going to raise a strong neighbouring nation, Babylon, that will conquer Israel & Judah. They will be brought into captivity and exile; they will lose their jobs, their wealth, their freedom.  It will be a time of tremendous sufferings.  But amidst that doom and gloom, Micah 5 verse 2 provides an assurance of a glorious hope of salvation, of deliverance, of the coming of the promised Saviour – the Messiah, who will be born in Bethlehem, a ruler of Israel, whose goings was of old, even from everlasting.  Amidst the deepest gloom, and the most severe trials in life, God’s people will never be left without hope.   There is hope, mercy, and grace in our Saviour.  And God shall comfort His people in the midst of afflictions and distress, for out of Bethlehem, shall come forth a Saviour.

If you look at Micah 5:2.  Firstly, notice that it says, this ruler’s goings forth hath been of old.  In other words, there had been many human kings and rulers of Israel, but there is only One King whose generation is eternal, from everlasting: He is the Son of God, equal with His Father.  This speaks of the eternity of His Divine image.

How do we know this verse speaks of Christ? Well, whenever a portion of scripture is not clear, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture, it must be searched and known by other places of Scripture that speaks more clearly.   Let me illustrate this: Turn with me to Matthew chapter 2, verses 1 to 6:  “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea, in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.  When Herod the King heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.  And they said unto him, Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.”   We have here in Matthew chapter 2 verses 4 to 6, an interpretation of Micah 5 verse 2.  The wise men came to the palace of King Herod, intending to worship the new-born king of the Jews, because they have seen His star in the east.  King Herod was puzzled because they had been no new baby born in his royal household.  And he felt threatened, so he called all his chief priests and scribes who were experts in the scriptures to find out where the King of the Jews was born.  And they pointed to Micah 5:2 giving Bethlehem as the birth-place of Christ – the Anointed one, the promised Messiah, the Governor who shall rule Israel.

Today in the world, we are in the last days where we see widespread apostasy, and since September 11, terrorism, suicide bombings, Tsunamis, Cyclone Nargis, Szechuan earthquake, the subprime crisis, Wall Street meltdown, and economic recession looming ahead of us, pay cuts and job losses.  Amidst these dark days, the Bethlehem star holds a message of hope and light for us.

If you look at the greatest need in our world today, for that matter, the greatest needs of mankind through all ages, is not world peace, not more wealth, not more food, not more holidays, but the greatest need to day is the need of a Saviour to wash us thoroughly of our sins.  Man has not changed; no number of peace treaties or efforts between nations are going to bring about lasting peace.  Peace can only come when God and men are at peace, because the Prince of Peace has come into the world, and Jesus brings real peace into our hearts, where we who were once enemies of God have made peace with God, and we are now able to make peace with other men.  When our vertical relationship with God is right, we will have a right hortizontal relationship with men.  

2. Bethlehem is not only a symbol of hope, but Secondly, Bethlehem symbolises Humility.  You see that in Micah 5:2, Bethlehem was described as “though thou be little among the thousands of Judah”.  Bethlehem was, and still is today, a very small town, not one of the top 10 cities (today is a Palestinian city in the central West Bank, approximately 10 kilometers (6 mi) south of Jerusalem, with a population of about 30,000 – compare this to our towns in Singapore – Bishan 70,000 people, largest towns have 300,000, our smallest, perhaps Punggol is like 20,000).   First, we note that Humility characterises Christ’s humble and lowly ministry.  Christ said he came to minister, and not to be ministered unto.   Not only was He born in a small city, but when his parents Joseph and Mary came to Bethlehem, there was no room in the inn, and Jesus was born in a manger that houses animals, and laid in a feeding trough for animals.  Not even a house to lay his head, that’s how our Savior came into this world.  His father Joseph was a carpenter, and yet he did not even have a baby crib to sleep in.  He came to be a servant.  On Palm Sunday, He rode on a donkey into Jerusalem, he could have chosen a stallion or a white horse.  No, he rode on a lowly ass, proving that He came to minister as a servant.  And that he showed humility by washing his disciples’ feet. 


Phil 2:6-8 tells us that because Christ was God, he did not regard equality with God something to be sought after or grasped, but he humbled Himself to be born as a man.  It is a wonder and amazement that God should condescend to become man in order to save us from our sins. When the angels look on the face of baby Jesus, they must have wondered with great amazement, how is it possible that God should love us so much, that He was willing to come in human form, to live among sinful men. I am always filled with wonder as I think how much our Holy Lord must have been vexed by the sins of this evil world, to be constantly provoked by the Pharisees and Sadducees who are always waiting to trap Him.   If just Lot could be vexed by the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, how much more would our sinless Christ have been vexed by the sinful world!  


The application for us here is that God calls us to be like Christ, to be meek and humble like Christ, not to clamour after ambition, wealth or status in Church or society.  Just like Christ, we ought to remember that the greatness of our life lies not in our wealth or status in society, but as believers, our greatness lies in our new-birth as the adopted sons of the most High God. 


Humility applies to everyone in the Christian family.  As there are many families gathered here, it is appropriate we speak a word about humility in the family: While the husband is the head of the family, humility requires that he is to love his wife sacrificially as Christ loved the Church and gave His life for the Church that He loves.  Likewise, the husband is to love the wife sacrificially.  That means no lording over the wife, no ordering the wife around as a servant, but in humility the husband and wife serves each other in the Lord.  What about children?  Children can learn from the example of Christ in his childhood and youth – although Christ was God, He obeyed His parents and he grew in stature and wisdom.  That’s why the Bible says, children obey your parents in all things. And that includes limits placed on computer games, internet usage, and so on.  Humility requires that we say sorry to one another, if we have wronged one another. We are all sinners, and even parents should apologise to their children if they have wronged them or misjudged them unfairly, or been too harsh or punished in anger. 

Thirdly, Bethlehem was also a place of Sorrow

If you turn to Gen 48:7 where Bethlehem was first mentioned in Scripture.  Bethlehem was the place where Rachel had a difficult labour, and she died in child-birth.  Before she died, she called the son Ben-Oni –which means ‘son of my sorrow’.  That name was later changed to Ben-Jamin (son of my right hand) (Gen 35:16-19).  And Rachel was buried in Bethlehem.  Son of my sorrow – foreshadows and points to Christ – He was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.   

Look also at the passage we read at the start in Matthew 2:16-18 – King Herod after he realized he was mocked by the wise men, flew into a rage, and threatened by the new King that was born, he decided to commit mass massacre of all the children in Bethlehem under two years old.  There was great sadness, weeping, and mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and she would not be comforted.  It was the scene of heart-wrenching sorrow of the mothers and fathers, when their babies were snatched away from their arms by this cruel tyrant Herod who felt his position threatened by Jesus the King.  But we know nothing can thwart the will and purposes of our Sovereign God.  In verse 13, we see that God had warned Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt, as Herod was seeking to destroy the child.  It is against this backdrop of tremendous sorrow that the man of sorrows came into this world.  A world of woe and sufferings, a world of weeping, sadness, misery and sin.  The birth of Christ points to His death on the Cross.    It is not a coincidence that when Jesus was born in the manger, he did not have baby clothes, he was wrapped in loose cloth –swaddling bands.  That is a picture of his burial, when he was buried he was wrapped in linen cloths.  The swadding bands at birth, points to his burial linen cloths at death. He was born to die.   

Isaiah 53 tells us that He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief; He was despised and rejected of men.  Surely he had borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem Him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted.  But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.  All we like sheep have gone astray, but the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.  The wonder of Christmas is that Christ was born to die.  It thrills me to bits to think that Christ came specially to live a sinless life, and to die and pay the penalty of our sins, on the cross of Calvary.  As we think of Christmas, we think of Him at the Cross bearing all our sins.

3. Bethlehem was not just a place of sorrow, but it was also a place of satisfaction.  Bethlehem was known for its well of pure water that quenches the thirst.  In 2 Sam 23:15-16 – When David was battling the Philistines, he hid in the caves of Adullam, and sent his men to fetch water from ?, Bethlehem:  ‘And David longed, and said, Oh that one would give me drink of the water of the well of Bethlehem, which is by the gate!  The next moment, three mighty men broke through the host of Philistines, and drew water out of the well of Bethlehem, and took it and brought it to David, and what did David do with it? He did something really strange and I got angry when I first read it: he would not drink it, but poured the water out on the ground.  To men in the world, he wasted it on the ground.  Verse 16 tells us when the water was brought to him, nevertheless David would not drink it, but David poured it out unto the Lord.  We may say that is outrageously sinful and wasteful; 3 mighty men risked their lives to get the water, which David says he wants to drink.  After they’ve got the water, David would not drink it, but poured it on the ground  – the reason: it was an act of worship – to satisfy God – God before self.  It was a drink offering unto the Lord.  David was satisfied in God, even though He was in great danger in a war hiding in the caves, yet He was not coveting the drink for himself, but he wanted to give an offering unto God. 

You know that water is also a type of Christ – remember in gospel Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well – Jesus would give her living water, after which she would never thirst.  The living water quenches our thirst and fully satisfies us.

In our families, we must constantly look to Christ for satisfaction.  Let us not look to our jobs, our career our ambition, a higher salary, a bigger car, a bigger house, our bank account, our share prices, or even our children or grandchildren, or good looks, our clothes, our computer games, our TV for satisfaction.  In good times or bad times, let all our satisfaction be in Christ – because He is the living water who quenches all our thirst.   If we are satisfied in Christ, we will know how to be contented under all circumstances.      

Lastly, Bethlehem is also the place of Sustenance.  Bethlehem, in the Hebrew language, is Beyth(house of)/Beyth–lechem (bread) in Hebrew, literally means ‘House of Bread’.   Bread that gives us sustenance which points to Christ who is the Bread of Life.

Ruth 1:19 – tells us that there was a sore famine in Moab, and Naomi and Ruth were hungry as there was nothing left for them to eat – so they went to Bethlehem (the house of bread) because they heard that there was food and bread there where they gleaned in the barley harvest of Boaz, their relative.   They found food and eventually a home, a kinsman redeemer in Boaz their relative.

Bethlehem symbolizes the Bread of eternal. Jesus said I am the bread of life, whoever eats the bread has life.  Remember our Lord Jesus Christ who was the living bread- whose body broken for us, and blood shed for remission of our sins.  Have you tasted the bread of Life,  and see that the Lord is good.  The question for each of us tonight is : Have you eaten of the bread of life?


Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ our Saviour,  symbolizes Hope in this dark world of doom and gloom.  There is salvation in this sin-cursed world.

Bethlehem is also the humble place which shows us the humility of Christ, and how we also ought to be humble. 

Bethlehem was the place of sorrows, because the man of Sorrows who loved us was  born to die for our sins;

Bethlehem was the place we find complete satisfaction in good and bad times, because Christ our Living water quenches our thirst completely.

Bethlehem the House of Bread is the place of sustenance, it foreshadows the Bread of Life.  Anyone who eats of the living bread will have eternal life.  

I pray that this Christmas, despite the gloomy economic outlook, the smaller year end bonuses, the possible job losses in the new year; we do not know what the new year will bring, yet we know there is hope in a Saviour Jesus Christ from Bethlehem, and in Christ we can find our full satisfaction and sustenance.   Just as there is hope for Israel even in the midst of Babylonian captivity, there is hope for us who are in Christ. 

For those who have not yet come to Jesus, may you eat of His bread and drink of His living waters and you will find complete satisfaction in Him.

May the Lord bless us and cheer us this Christmas season.


15 Dec 2008


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