Bethlehem is a sacred city to both Jews and Christians. It is sacred to the Jews because its greatest King, David, was born there.
It is sacred to Christians because Jesus, the Messiah, was born there, as was predicted some 700 years before:
But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be numbered among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.
– Micah 5:2, NASB
Ironically, the real legacy of Bethlehem became one of hope mingled with mystery, intrigue and terror.
The conditions of Jesus’ birth were set up by some of the great figures of history. Julius Caesar appointed a man named Antipater of Idumea as regent of Judah for his aid to Rome during a civil war. This was reconfirmed and enlarged later by Marc Antony. As a result, Antipater’s son Herod became king over most of Israel from 31 B.C. to A.D. 4.
What is rarely observed is that Herod was not a Jew. He was a descendant of Esau (Idumeans were from Esau) and Ishmael through his mother who was a daughter of an Arab sheik. Herod studied Judaism, but he was never accepted as a Jew.
So the political atmosphere of that time and place was set up by the great power of the day, Rome. Herod’s rule over the Jews was enforced by Rome – not popular and precarious. He clung to power by attempts to win the Jews favor – and when that failed – the application of ruthless terror.
You can imagine Herod’s attitude when members of the ancient caste of master astrologers from Babylon known as Magi showed up asking where to find the one who has been born king of the Jews. To further add to the mystery, they said they saw his long-anticipated star in the sky and came to worship him.
How did these gentiles know to look for a certain star as a sign of the Messiah’s birth? Why did they want to worship him? The answer is clear from the book of the prophet Daniel. He was a member of the same royal class of astrologers. He won many of them over to faith in the God of Israel and the hope of the coming Messiah. God apparently gave them the special sign of a certain star to signal when the Messiah had come.
The mystery thickens as we see that their news of the Messiah’s birth “troubled all of Jerusalem” (Matthew 2:3). Here are gentiles who took a difficult and dangerous journey to worship “the King-Messiah of the Jews.” Yet the Jews are “troubled” and Herod wants to destroy Him as a threat to his throne. Do your see the intrigue and contradiction?
The Jews, of all people, should have run with Magi to find and worship this king their prophets for centuries predicted would come. Yet they were only “troubled” by the news.
The Jewish religious scholars certainly knew the prophecy of where the Messiah would be born. When Herod asked them, they instantly quoted Micah 5:2 and said Bethlehem.
Herod asked the Magi exactly when the star appeared in order to determine how old the Messiah would be. He told the Magi to find Him and inform him where He was so that he could also worship him.
The Magi found Jesus and his family and worshipped Him. They presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. God was supplying the means for Jesus’ family to flee to Egypt. For He sent an angel to warn them to flee from Herod’s wrath.
After this, an angel of the Lord warned the Magi not to return to Herod. Enraged, Herod ordered the murder of all male babies 2-years-old and younger.
Note it well that it was a descendant of Ishmael and Esau that sought to murder the founder of Christianity.
This legacy continues today. When the Palestinian Authority took over Bethlehem, 97 percent of the population were Christian Palestinians. Today, only a few remain. The Muslims, who are descended from Ishmael and Esau, have driven them out. Arafat has even tried to rewrite history by claiming Jesus was a Palestinian and a Muslim.
But the most glorious mystery of Bethlehem is that it is the place where God stepped out of eternity and became a man. He did this so He could live a sinless life and thus qualify to die for the sins of all men. The Son of God said to God the Father at the time of His birth, “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for Me … I have come to do Your will, O God” (Hebrews 10:5).
In this body, Jesus willingly died in our place in order to purchase a complete pardon for our sins. He paid our penalty.
Christmas is a time of gifts. If you haven’t received the greatest gift of Jesus the Messiah’s pardon for your sins, do it now. You will instantly be forgiven and receive eternal life. Jesus will come to live in your heart and give you new life, inner peace and new hope. He will bring you into an eternal relationship in God’s forever family.
Thank God for His unspeakable gift. Merry Christmas!