|O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM
Pastor Stephen Muncherian
December 23, 2018
If you are able, would you stand with me as we come before God’s word, and would you read with me this mornings text from Micah 5:2-5a.
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for Me One Who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.
Therefore He shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of His brothers shall return to the people of Israel. And He shall stand and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord His God. And they shall dwell secure, for now He shall be great to the ends of the earth.
And He shall be their peace.
If you’ve been around church for a while, the passage we’ve just read together is probably a familiar one. Yes? At least parts of it.
So, we need to be extra cautious that we do not loose sight of what it is that we’re seeing. Yes? This morning may we be renewed in our seeing God at work and the significance of that work for His glory and by God’s grace for our benefit.
Verse 1 goes with the end of chapter 4. So this morning we are beginning at verse 2 and with Bethlehem. Specifically Bethlehem Ephrathah and the where, when, and why of Bethlehem Ephrathah.
“Bethlehem” - which in Hebrew means… “house of bread.” In Old Testament times the area was known for producing grain. “Ephrathah” which means “fruitful” because the town is known for its vineyards and olive orchards.
And “Bethlehem Ephrathah” - not just Bethlehem - but Micah identifies this Bethlehem as Bethlehem Ephrathah because there’s another Bethlehem up near Nazareth in the Galilee. This Bethlehem Ephrathah is about 5 miles south of Jerusalem. A little less than from here to Atwater.
Micah goes on: But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
“Too little” because of size and expectations. Today, Bethlehem is a city of about 25,000 people. But back then - Judah being a huge and significant tribe numbering in the thousands - Bethlehem - in comparison - was way smaller both in size and how people looked at it.
Micah writes “but you” - meaning it was unlikely that a king - any king - let alone the foremost of all of Israel’s kings - David - would have come from of all places Bethlehem. “But you” meaning it’s even more unlikely that the Messiah would be born there. Who would have expected that? “But” that’s exactly what God is doing there.
Bethlehem Ephrathah was the city of Boaz and Ruth - and later Obed and then Jesse and then David and eventually Joseph who’s betrothed to Mary. Who - because of the decree of the Roman Caesar Augustus - they make this journey from Nazareth to Joseph’s family home to register for the census. Bethlehem Ephrathah where Jesus - descendant of David - is born.
No one knows when Jesus was born. Different branches of the Church celebrate Christmas on different days. One thing is certain - according to the Bible - the description of shepherds out in the fields - Jesus wasn’t born in December.
We celebrate His incarnation on December 25th because in 354 A.D. Bishop Liberius of Rome ordered people to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th as a way to Christianize the pagan Feast of Saturn. Idea being to honor Jesus instead of the Roman god Saturn.
The date - when - isn’t as important as where and why. Jesus was born in Bethlehem Ephrathah - city of David - an historical fact.
In Herod’s day - when the wise men from the east showed up asking about the king of the Jews - and Herod gathers the chief priests and scribes and asks where the Messiah was to be born - to their credit, these theologians - without even consulting their reference material - without looking up the passages - paraphrased Micah 5:2 - this prophecy that had been given 700 years earlier - combined it with a reference to 2 Samuel 5:2 - and they spilled out the answer to Herod’s question.
They knew the answer. It was on the tip of their tongues. Bethlehem Ephrathah is the place where the royal lineage of David begins and runs through the Messiah Who is also born in Bethlehem Ephrathah and Who will also rule on the throne of David.
Jesus being born in Bethlehem Ephrathah of David’s lineage helps us to identify Jesus as the Messiah Who is the fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy - the why of where.
Micah goes on: from you shall come forth for Me One Who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.
Three awesome statements about Jesus.
First, Jesus is the One who is coming forth for God.
Which speaks of His role as the Savior. In 1 John 4:14, the Apostle John declares, “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent His Son to be the Savior of the world.”
Second, Micah says that Jesus will come forth for God to rule over God’s people.
Isaiah writes of Jesus: “Of the increase of His government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom to establish and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 9:7)
Then, third, Jesus comes forth from eternity.
“from ancient days” explains how old “from of old” really is. “Ancient days” literally means “from eternity.” How old is old? Forever old. And so Jesus is. Meaning that Jesus is the eternal God.
John begins his gospel account in by telling us that Jesus was not only with God at the beginning of creation but that Jesus is the God the creator of creation. John writes [John 1:2,3] that “He [Jesus] was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:1-3)
Sometimes when we sing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” With the familiarity of the words - with our familiarity with what Micah writes - we can sometimes go numb to how God ordained miraculous those events were.
Caesar Augustus and his census that got Mary on that donkey and moved her and Joseph from Nazareth to that little town of Bethlehem Ephrathah - the birthplace of Jesus. Where Jesus - God - chooses to enter into the flesh and blood of our humanity.
Hang on to that: God choosing to wrap Himself up in human flesh - being born a human child - truly God and truly man. All ordained by God before the creation of time and the universe. All of that according to God’s purposes and plan for our salvation.
Then verses 3 and 4 remind us that there is also darkness, distress, and disaster that is a part of Bethlehem Ephrathah’s history.
Micah lived in a little town called Moresheth which was about 30 miles southwest of Jerusalem. He’s just an ordinary guy trying to follow God through life that God choose to use as a prophet.
Micah lived in the mid 700’s to early 600’s B.C. which was at the same time the prophets Hosea and Isaiah were around. He lived during the reigns of kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.
Which meant that during Micah’s day - and pretty much all of Israel’s history - God’s people were worshipping other gods. Except for really brief interludes - God’s people had set up idols and were practicing a religion that was pagan and perverted and had nothing to do with the One true living God of Israel.
Which meant that in Micah’s day there’s corruption in the government. The religious leadership for the most part was pagan. The economy was at best uncertain. There was a constant threat of war and invasion from the Assyrians and the Babylonians - present day Iraq.
The more things change, the more they… stay the same.
“Therefore” because a ruler will eventually come to deliver Israel - the Messiah of verse 2 - and all that God is going to do through the Messiah to save and deliver and restore His people - therefore God is going to “give them up” because of their sin.
God is going to withdraw His blessing - His goodness - His protection and provision - “until the time.” God will leave His people alone to experience the consequences of their choice to continue in the darkness of their sin against Him. A withdrawal that - in Micah’s day - leads to exile and down the line of history leads to generations of ongoing subjugation to the rule of ungodly Gentiles - ongoing distress and disaster.
In the midst of the times Micah is living in God gives Micah a vision not only of the coming Messiah - verse 2 - but the big picture of how God - down the line of future history - how God is going to deal with the sin of His people.
Which is what the whole book of Micah is about. Which is a study for another time.
But condensing that big picture prophecy down to what’s helpful for us this morning God gave Micah a vision of down the line future history - God’s coming judgment on the sin of his people.
Micah saw the future coming invasion of the Northern Kingdom - Israel - by the Assyrians. Which did come in 722 B.C. And God gave Micah a vision of the future coming Babylonian invasion of the Southern Kingdom - Judah - which came in 586 B.C.
Within about 100 years of God giving Micah this prophecy God had “given them up.” God’s people had been conquered and led into exile.
And we know - because we’re looking back into history - that even though God brought a remnant of His people back out of exile - we know that that ongoing distress and disaster has been ongoing for God’s people and continues to this day. Even in Bethlehem Ephrathah.
Herod - the megalomaniac king - murdering baby boys is just part of all that darkness and distress and disaster.
The Greeks and then the Romans and then the Arab Muslims ruled over Bethlehem. The Crusaders captured Bethlehem in the 1000’s then lost it to the Muslims. The Ottoman Turks took control of it in the 1500’s.
During World War I - in 1917 - the British took Bethlehem from the Ottomans. In 1948 it became a part of Jordan. Then in 1967 it was occupied by Israel.
In 1995 Bethlehem was turned over to the Palestinian National Authority so that if you were to go to Bethlehem today that involves passing through a check point going from what is Israel controlled territory to Palestinian controlled territory.
The Church of the Nativity - which is the religious complex that’s been built over where tradition says Jesus was born. The entrance to that complex - to the Church of the Nativity - is through this door called the “Door of Humility” which is only 4’ high by 2’ wide. Purpose being that someone has to bow down to go through it. An act of humility - worship - reverence - bowing as we come into such a sacred and holy place.
I don’t know who these people are. It’s not my place to judge them. When I took this picture - I think they were trying to worship. Notice the lady in the lower left of the picture who seems to be screaming in anger.
They seem to represent what’s inside the church which is crowded and loud and anything but worshipful and reverent.
The building itself is divided into three sections - three altars - used by 5 different church authorities - Greek, Armenian, Roman, Coptic, and Syrian. There are fights between the priests over who’s disturbing who’s worship and prayers and who’s suppose to clean what. Palestinian police have had to be called in to restore peace and order.
In 1847 the cross marking Jesus’ birth place was stolen and allegedly led to the Crimean War.
“How still we see thee lie…” is ominous. The quiet before the storm. At best the eye of the storm. That we’re still in today.
Micah writes: Therefore He shall give them up, until the time - “the time” meaning that there is a time. There is an end point to God’s withdrawal - to the darkness and distress and disaster of what has been the history of Bethlehem and of God’s people. A ruler will come who will put an end to all of that.
Walking through some of the symbolism of what that means:
“She who is in labor” symbolizes Jerusalem and possibly the whole nation - laboring - crying out - desperate for hope - for the end. The birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem will put an end to the labor of the nation.
“His brothers shall return” meaning the exiles will return from Assyria and Babylon - from captivity.
An image used in Scripture that often speaks of a future regathering of the nation from it’s dispersion from all over the world. At some point the nation will be restored in a national solidarity that will be like the days of King David. Under the coming king, Israel will again be Israel as God’s people.
Verse 4 - And He shall stand and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord His God.
If that sounds to you like a shepherd caring for his sheep - you’ve got the imagery. Psalm 23. Jesus being the Good Shepherd.
Israel will be lovingly cared for by the messianic King who’s going to carry on His duties in the strength of God. In a sense God is going to reign over His people but in the person of this messianic King.
And if that sounds to you like Jesus - God incarnate - reigning over His people - shepherding His people. You got the imagery.
And they shall dwell secure” God’s people will forever dwell secure in the security established by the Messiah - the Shepherd Who rules.
for now He shall be great to the ends of the earth.
Meaning that the Messiah King - ruling in the strength and might of God establishes God’s people in security on the land. And the blessings of that - the grace and benefits of that security will extend beyond Israel to “the ends of the earth.”
When Israel benefits, everyone… benefits.
Which is a huge - significant - change - from the ongoing darkness and distress and disaster of Israel’s history. Of human history.
Which brings us to the first part of verse 5. Which belongs with this part of the prophecy and not what comes later. The text of Scripture is inspired not the verse numbers and chapter divisions.
Verse 5 is the bottom line - emphasis - of this section of Micah’s prophecy. Bethlehem and what is real peace.
And He shall be their peace.
The way that this reads in Hebrew there are actually two ideas here. First that the Messiah - Jesus - is peace. That He Himself - Who He is - within Him is real peace. And second that the Messiah - Jesus - by what He does - He brings real peace to His people.
“Peace” in Hebrew is the word… “shalom.”
By definition “shalom” is harmony and wholeness and completeness and prosperity and tranquility and being well. “Shalom” comes from a word that has the idea of safety and security.
If we were to greet someone in Israel today and say “shalom” to them - we’d be saying to them, “May you be full of well-being” or “May health and prosperity be upon you.”
Which is a Messianic expectation.
If you’ve been with us on Sunday mornings as we’ve been studying Mark’s Gospel account - we’ve noted several times that the crowd that was following Jesus - the paparazzi - was following Jesus because they expected Him - being in the lineage of David and being born in Bethlehem and fitting a number of other Messianic prophecies - and by the things He taught and did - they expected Jesus to go to Jerusalem and kick the Romans back to Rome - and to set up His Messianic kingdom - shepherding God’s people - restoring Israel to prominence among the nations - and they all were going to live together in “shalom.”
Same is true with the Jews today. There is a sense of expectation - of coming “Shalom” - peace that will begin in Israel and flow outward to the nations. A messianic blessing that - a messianic age - that sadly - sees the coming Messiah as more of an idea or philosophy - and not a real person.
If we live good enough and peaceful enough and follow what God teaches us in Torah - then we will effect those around us - and be agents of bringing God’s peace into the world.
In both expectations - then and now - there’s a lack of understanding as to Who Jesus is - being Himself peace - and a lack of understanding as to what it means that Jesus brings peace. What real peace is and how God accomplishes that peace for His people.
And so it is with the world we live in. Most people want peace. Human history is littered with endless attempts at achieving peace. Man’s endless search for peace. Just like in Micah’s day people today crying out for peace.
This morning - even as a follower of Jesus - maybe you’re struggling with peace. Most of us - when we’re looking at our lives and the circumstances of our lives - its’ really hard to see where there is any part of our lives where there is peace. Maybe it’s good that we slow down and that we take the time this morning to think through the familiar prophecy of Micah.
God defines peace by Himself. The source of peace is God - who is peace. And real peace is only found in Him and by Him and through Him and because of Him. What God means by: “and He shall be their peace.”
Then and now - Jesus still is the means of our peace and still offers that peace to His people. Even to us.
So how can we know and experience God’s peace even in the midst of our own Bethlehem Ephrathah?
Would you read with me Romans 5:1: Therefore since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Therefore” - meaning verse 1 is a summing up and application of everything that Paul has been writing about since chapter 1. Paul has written that each of us has fallen far short of the high standard of God’s righteousness.
We’re sinners because of the choice made by Adam for all of us and by the choices each of us has made individually to sin which have proven that Adam made the right choice as our representative.
As sinners were are separated from God - destined for eternity apart from God - destined for the wrath of God - eternal horrendous punishment - without any hope or possibility of doing anything about it. Darkness - distress - disaster forever.
But God by His grace - not because we deserve it or could ever hope to earn it by our efforts - God for reasons known only to God - when we take God at His word - by faith trusting that God really is gracious - that God has done everything we need done for us to make us right with God and to save us from His deserved wrath - meaning Jesus’ work on the cross on our behalf - when by faith we throw ourselves on God’s grace and mercy - God right then and there God declares us - counts us as justified - just as if we’d never sinned - we are forgiven - made righteous - justified by faith by God - because God is gracious.
The death of our Lord Jesus Christ satisfied our debt of sin - set aside the wrath of God - brought us into a restored relationship with God. Our standing - our relationship with God. Peace with God.
Therefore since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let’s be clear. Paul’s point is not about our being toast before a wrathful God. Paul’s point is what God has done about it. “Therefore” - because we’re justified by faith through our Lord Jesus Christ what does it mean for us to have peace with God?
Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27).
“My peace I give to you” The peace that Jesus - Who is peace - gives to us - Jesus’ peace - the quality of peace that Paul is writing about - that Micah is prophesying about - peace with God is way different that the world’s brand of peace.
When Scripture talks about “the world” - Scripture is talking about man’s self-help plan. People working hard at being good and trying to live peaceful. Man’s philosophy and politics and reasoning and spirituality and wisdom and knowledge and all of our treaties and laws and culture.
Man’s peace is subjective. It’s based on our circumstances. Finding a parking space at Wallmart. Personally we may feel a settledness within. But unless that settledness is based on what comes from God and not us - even that settledness is going to leave us. The circumstances of our lives are constantly changing.
But God is changeless. God never changes. He is the one constant in life. Peace with God is an objective reality. It transcends our circumstances because it’s found only in the God Who is changeless.
Peace with God describes our no longer being subject to God’s wrath because of our sin. Peace means that our relationship with God is right - righteous - restored. An eternal truth - not conditioned by the circumstances of our lives - but based on the promise of God who does not change.
That’s the truth behind the bumper sticker: No Jesus. No Peace. Know Jesus. Know Peace.
Real peace is given only by God Who saves us and promises to remain with us - and lead us - and sustain us and to supply everything we need to follow Him - as we go through the darkness and distress and disaster of our own Bethlehem Ephrathahs.
It seems like every year about this time we all go into survival mode. Trying to balance out everything that’s going on in our lives by adding even more stuff going on in our lives. And every year we complain about that and we try to get through it all just one more time.
Maybe longingly idealizing Christmases from way back when that were less hectic. Maybe we make resolutions that next year will be different. But knowing it probably will be just as hectic if not worse.
Probably nothing that we’re looking at this morning is going to change that craziness. Sorry.
But if there is any encouragement for us in all of that, it’s this: That Jesus is our peace. The fulfillment of the expectation - the prophecy of Micah - - what Paul writes about - what God is doing in history and what God offers in Jesus. What it means to know Him.
Someplace in all of whatever we’re going through in life - and not just at Christmas - but in the ongoing craziness of our lives - we need to choose to be reminded of the reality of Who Jesus is and what He’s done for us. To purposefully choose to not go numb to that reality. But to marinate in it and to trust and thank God for it.
Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.