Why was Jesus born in Bethlehem? One answer is because it was prophesied in Micah 5.2 and Scripture had to be fulfilled. This just puts the question one stage further back though. Why did God ordain that his Son would be born in Bethlehem? Every detail of his mission was carefully planned – nothing was random, least of all the place of his birth. So why Bethlehem?
Of all the possible places the Messiah could have been born, Bethlehem was the most appropriate. Even its very name was beautifully fitting, for ‘Bethlehem’ means ‘house of bread’ – the perfect place for the ‘Bread of life’ to be born who would save his people from death. Ephrathah means ‘fruitful’; just reflect on the exponential fruitfulness of the Lord Jesus – the countless millions who worship and follow him.
But it’s not the name that is the most important reason for Bethlehem being the birthplace of the Saviour of the world. There are two key reasons: its utter insignificance and its vital significance.
1. Jesus was born in Bethlehem because of its utter insignificance
Bethlehem in Micah’s day was lowly and obscure. That’s hard for us to imagine because today everyone in the world knows about Bethlehem – billions of people sing songs about it every year. But in Micah’s day it was ‘too little to be among clans of Judah’. It was so unimportant that it required an extra name to identify it: Ephrathah (in district of Ephrathah, as opposed to another Bethlehem in Zebulun). In Joshua 15, 115 towns and cities in Canaan are listed ‘with their villages’ and Bethlehem isn’t among them.
Isn’t this so typical of the Lord’s way of working though? God doesn’t choose according to the world’s system of valuation.
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1Cor 1.27ff).
And he was doing that even in the circumstances of Jesus’ birth: born to a poor family among the animals and laid in a manger. Bethlehem is the ideal sort of birthplace for the one who came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.
The kingdom of God constantly turns worldly expectations on their head. The kings of royal Jerusalem fail, but the Messiah born in lowly Bethlehem will triumph. Hope for our world won’t be found in the great centres of power and influence, but in churches. Not in London or Washington or Beijing, but in faithful little groups of Christians who love the Lord Jesus and are trying to live by his word. Not in fantastically gifted people but in ordinary people like us.
If you’re ever tempted to get discouraged because of the smallness of your resources and gifts and influence – either personally or as a church – the littleness and insignificance of Bethlehem reminds us that these things don’t matter. In fact, they are an advantage, because that’s how God usually chooses to work – not in the spectacular and impressive, but through the ordinary and everyday, lowly and obscure, so that all the glory is his.
2. Jesus was born in Bethlehem because of its vital significance
Of course there were many other even more obscure places than Bethlehem where Jesus might have been born. Was there any other reason for God choosing Bethlehem?
Bethlehem did have one claim to fame, and one only: it was the birthplace of David. That’s why the angel in Luke 2.11 called it ‘The city of David.’ This link with David was vital because Jesus is the true and better David who was to come. When the Messiah came he would bring to fulfillment all God’s covenant promises to David, which in Micah’s day looked like they had been forgotten. As Micah 5.1 describes, the nation of Judah in terrible decline and weakness – a far cry from the golden age of David’s reign 300 years before. They were being invaded and besieged by the Assyrian empire and the future looked bleak.
At the heart of God’s covenant with David was the promise of an everlasting throne: (2 Sam 7.16). It looked like David’s throne was in serious jeopardy. But Micah reassures God’s people that God’s covenant with David will not fail.
Micah sees a day when God will bring a new ruler out of Bethlehem – as if he’s beginning again with a new David – going back to Bethlehem – to bring the Messiah in David’s line who will rule forever. That’s why Gabriel tells Mary ‘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, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ (Lk 1.32f)
Just as David was chosen from obscurity of Bethlehem to be the ruler of Israel, so the Messiah will come from humble origins in Bethlehem to be exalted as the King of kings.
Micah mentions two things this true and better David will accomplish for Israel
(a) Unity (Mic 5.3)
…then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. (Mic 5.3).
On Day of Pentecost there were Jews in Jerusalem from the four points of the compass (listed very deliberately in Acts 2.9-11). They hear the good news about Jesus Christ being preached and they repent and believe. But this kingdom is for Gentiles too, as Paul says in Eph 3.6: the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Just think how many nations are represented by the readers of Gentle Reformation! All one in Christ, before whom we bow as our Lord.
(b) Security (Mic 5.4-5)
And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. 5 And he shall be their peace.
How does Jesus give this peace? Micah says that he himself shall be their peace. Paul explains that for us in Eph 2.14ff: For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility… [to] reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem because he was going to make peace between God and sinners. But more than that, he would bring the peace of God as well. Micah describes it as ‘dwelling secure’. Having the peace of mind and heart that comes from being in a right relationship with God. The peace that comes from knowing that he is working all things for your good. Christians can dwell secure even when they walk through the valley of the shadow of death, because their great Shepherd is walking the path with them, shepherding them in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
O Little Town of Bethlehem… The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight… And praises sing to God the King / And Peace to men on earth.