Setting The Stage

Nothing happens by chance

The second chapter of Matthew begins with the story of Jesus birth in Bethlehem, during the time of King Herod. Elsewhere, Luke records that Joseph and a very pregnant Mary were forced to make their way to Joseph’s birthplace to register for a census. It was while they were in Bethlehem—miles away from their home—that Mary went into labor. Isn’t it refreshing to know that this kind of thing happens to other people too? My wife went into labor with our first daughter on New Year’s Day—the greatest day of the year for college football. I was just settling in to watch the Rose Bowl. I’ve got a jumbo bag of chips, a tub of salsa and a cold drink and she says, “Um, Honey, I think my water broke.” Are you kidding me? That’s just how Joseph must have felt. Right here? Right now? Wait! There’s no room at the Inn! But, in Joseph and Mary’s case, all of this appears to have worked together perfectly, to place them in just the right place at just the right time. Consider the big but of this chapter.

The Big But

Matthew recalls a part of the story spoken long ago:

But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.

Matthew sets the stage by telling us that at the time of Jesus’ birth, a group of foreign star-watchers had noted a strange phenomenon in the night skies. They put their astral observations together with the widely known, historical expectation that a King of the Jews was to be born. They decided to undertake a pilgrimage to see this for themselves. As they traveled to find the one born King of the Jews, they approached King Herod looking for more information. The gospel says that Herod was very disturbed at the news that a king was born, “and all Jerusalem with him.” Herod was a man consumed by jealousy and paranoia. Historians record that he executed his wife and his sons because he thought they coveted his throne—a real family man. “It would be better to be one of Herod’s dogs than to be one of his sons,” the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar once said.

Herod called the religious leaders—the chief priests and teachers of the law—and asked them where the anticipated Deliverer would be born. They quoted those ancient words and told the star-gazers to head for Bethlehem.

Those words, originally recorded in Micah chapter 5, were intended to speak judgment against Israel. The text began with a prediction that, because their neglect of God, Israel would be judged and Jerusalem would be attacked by enemies. But—and there’s our word—the prophecy continued. God’s blessing would still come forth; His promises would still unfold—out of Bethlehem.  It’s sort of like saying that the cloud had a silver lining.

The religious leaders that Herod consulted only quoted part of that original passage. There’s more to it. Micah gave more description of the one who was to come: His origins are from of old, from ancient times. The text goes on: He will stand and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord, and in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God. And they will live securely, for then His greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And He will be their peace. This big but demonstrates that God’s plan had been in the works for quite a while. It places the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem and promises deliverance.

Of this place, Bethlehem, a couple more observations can be made. First, Bethlehem was known as ‘the City of David’ because it was the birthplace of King David. As we considered in chapter one, the fact that Jesus was born in the line of King David was essential. For the Jewish audience, connecting the dots through Bethlehem simply strengthens the case. Secondly, the name Bethlehem literally means ‘the city of bread.’ That Jesus was born in ‘the city of bread’ has a certain irony when we consider that He would later declare Himself ‘the bread of life.’ Recorded in John chapter 6, Jesus uses the word but to differentiate between Himself and bread that leaves men to hunger again: But, here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread.”