Tuesday, December 24, 2013

O Faithful Town of Bethlehem

I was just watching a newscast (it's Christmas Eve) and they were mentioning Jesus' birthplace, Bethlehem. They also showed a map of modern Israel with an arrow and dot showing the approximate location of Bethlehem. There was only one problem. They had the wrong location. They had Bethlehem in about the place where Nazareth is. Nazareth is in Galilee; Bethlehem is in Judea, south of Jerusalem a few miles. Mary and Joseph had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem late in Mary's pregnancy.

But did you ever wonder why God wanted Jesus to be born in Bethlehem? Now it does not seem to be a historical accident. It is not by chance that Caesar Augustus ordered everyone back to the place of their families' origins. There is only one other time in Roman history when such a demand was made regarding a census. Besides, this was not even the regular census which occurred every 14 years. It was a special one. A special census was rarely done.

We might be tempted to simply say that Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem to fulfill Micah's prophecy that the messiah would be born there. But things do not happen just to fulfill prophecy; the event prophesied has significance. Until recent months, I had not thought too much about it. I just sort of figured that Jesus was the son of David and God wanted Him to be born where David was born.

I think that there is more to it than that. This is something that God seems to have gone to some lengths to have happen. Is there something special about Bethlehem that motivated this whole thing? I believe so.

I recently taught the book of Ruth in a bible study. You know the story of Ruth: Ruth the Moabitess was daughter-in-law to Naomi, an Israelite woman who lost her husband and two sons-in-law and had nobody to support her. Ruth, being widowed as well but younger than Naomi, could marry again, have children, etc., but chose to stay with Naomi and to make Naomi's God her own. Ruth and Naomi go back to the town where Naomi was from - Bethlehem.

Ruth ends up marrying a man from Bethlehem, Boaz, and saving herself and her mother-in-law from dire poverty. It is a beautiful story of love and faithfulness. I have digressed a bit, but we naturally focus on Ruth and Naomi and Boaz while not seeing something very important about Bethlehem.

Bethlehem seems to have been a place of faithfulness to the Lord. Remember that this all happens during the time of the Judges, before Israel had any king. This period was marked by a repeated falling into idolatry. Bethlehem was an exception to this. Bethlehem remained faithful to God. Notice how Boaz and the other Bethlehemites speak to one another. "And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem. And he said to the reapers, “The Lord be with you!” And they answered, “The Lord bless you.” (Ruth 2:4) They spoke to one another like believers today talk to each other.

Another thing we need to see is that they practiced the Law of Moses, though not in some kind of pharisaic manner. They used the Law to bring blessing to those Israelites who had fallen on hard times or were poor. The Law stated that the Israelites were not to reap the edges of the fields but leave them to the poor and needy for their sustenance. This Boaz did and it seems to have been the practice in Bethlehem. Ruth gathered after the reapers and gains the special notice of Boaz.

More importantly, the Law also provided a way for those who had fallen on hard times to reclaim their inheritance and posterity. Naomi's husband had land around Bethlehem, but Naomi was not capable of farming it. So her husband was going to lose his heritage and land since his sons were dead. Boaz marries Ruth and becomes what the Bible calls the kinsman-redeemer (depending on your translation). A close kinsman could marry the widow (in this case, the daughter-in-law of the widow), take the land on behalf of the original owner's family and raise up sons who could reclaim the land and continue the family's line. (This is what the Law was really about, not about keeping all kinds of arcane rules for the purpose of ritual purity.)

Of course, we know that Ruth and Boaz have a great-grandson, David, who becomes the king of Israel and from whom Christ will come. But notice that David grows up in this place of faithfulness to God. I do not think that is an accident. God has always intended that succeeding generations be faithful to Him. God can do great things through faithful families. God chose Abraham for this very reason. "Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him. For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him." (Genesis 18:18-19)

I really believe that God wanted His Son associated with a place of faithfulness to Himself. He wanted Jesus to be born in a place that for generation after generation had followed the Lord. In fact, it seems that the mother and supposed father that God had for His Son were also these kind of faithful Israelites. At the time of Jesus' birth, there were many who thought they were God's favorites. The Pharisees, in particular, thought that by firm adherence to their traditions they would be righteous. Jesus told them that their hearts were far from God. Yet Joseph and Mary obeyed the Lord when He directed them by His angels. They seem to be what the OT calls the "faithful remnant".

God loves faithfulness. He rewards faithfulness. He promotes those who are faithful rather than those who are talented or have perfect doctrine or are scrupulous about religious rituals or who never miss the mark (sin). We know, for example, that David sinned, but he was quick to repent and get right with God. I don't know about you, but I can relate to those in the Bible that have sinned rather than those like Daniel who never seem to miss it. Daniel, of course, was faithful. But other saints of old were faithful despite the fact that they sinned sometimes. It is nice to know that one does not have to be perfect to be counted faithful.

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