Bethlehem, the City of the Nativity

“And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least (among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule My people Israel” (Matt. 2:6).

To one who visits the Holy Land, which by the way is not very holy at present, there are many disappointments. What I mean by that is that so many sites are exhibited, your attention drawn to so many places where you feel that, after all, persons who are interested from a financial standpoint are only trying to make you believe that you are actually beholding sites mentioned in the Bible. But the land remains, the Sea of Galilee is there, the River Jordan and the Dead Sea down at the other end, lordly Mount Hermon, the Lebanon range, Mount Tabor, the mountains of Ephraim, and Carmel, the mountains of Megiddo, the wonderful Plain of Jezreel—all these are there and thrill the soul and stir the heart as you find them.

When you come to Bethlehem, five miles southwest of Jerusalem, I am sure any one who has ever visited it will say it is one place that does not in any sense disappoint. In some way or another Bethlehem seems to be just what you expected it to be, that beautiful little city nestling there among the hills. As you drive down from Jerusalem, you are very likely to see, as we did, here and there the shepherds leading their flocks to pasture. You pass Rachel’s tomb and remember the little sad note in the book of Genesis how Rachel died just before getting to Bethlehem, and Jacob buried her and set a pillar over her grave. It may not be the same pillar today, because those interested in studying these things tell us that the present pillar above the grave is probably of a later time, but undoubtedly the tomb is the actual resting-place of the body of Jacob’s wife who was so dear to him. And then you come to Bethlehem itself; as you enter from the west, the first thing that strikes you is the well of Bethlehem by the gate. And you remember David and think of that time when out in the fastnesses of the mountains, after a hard-fought day with the Philistines, when evening came, he threw himself down in the cave of Adullam and said, “Oh, that one would give me drink of the water of the well of Bethlehem, which is by the gate” (2 Sam. 23:15). And those three mighty men, you recall, each looked in the others’ eyes, rose simultaneously, stole off through the shadows and went to Bethlehem, and came back perhaps early in the morning bringing a water-jug or maybe a water-skin filled with the cool refreshing fluid from that well where David so often drank, when as a shepherd-lad he cared for his father’s flock. The well it there still, and you can drink its clear cool water with no wonder that David longed for it.

Then you pass up into the village, and here the first thing that strikes you is the broad open space just in front of the Church of the Nativity. You enter the Church. It is a magnificent old building erected in the fourth century by Constantine the Great. It has been repaired through the centuries since, but still is practically the same building that he ordered constructed over the place where Christ was supposed to be born. As you go down beneath the building itself you come into a cave which was once a stable for cattle. Maybe you and I, taught by the pictures we have been so accustomed to looking upon, have the idea that it was what you would call today a stable, a barnlike affair away from the house, but that was not the case so long ago. As a rule the houses of Bethlehem, many of them still, have these stables attached to them, and the people live above, and in the cave below they keep their live-stock. The manger is just a crib cut in the limestone. And it was in such a place as this that our Lord Jesus was born.

The cave beneath the Church of the Nativity answers to everything that Scripture suggests regarding it, and as far back as the second century it was reported to be the actual birthplace of the Lord Jesus. Saint Jerome, who in the fourth century of our era came from Rome to Bethlehem, dwelt for a number of years in a cave right next to this, which he considered was the actual place of the nativity. It is most interesting to see the cave of St. Jerome, where he lived during those years when he translated the Bible into Latin, the Vulgate, which is today the standard version of the Roman Catholic Church.

I cannot exactly tell you our feelings as we went down into those caves and then as we stood looking at that stone manger where they said the blessed Saviour once lay. It meant little to us if they were mistaken as to the actual site. We knew we were in the city where He was born, and that we were in the very neighborhood where He first came to earth. We knew too that we were in the same kind of a stable as that in which the shepherds found the Baby Jesus lying in the manger when in response to the message of the angels they went to Bethlehem to see the Blessed One who was born to be the Ruler of God’s people, Israel, and the Saviour of sinners.

I do not suppose that the Lord Jesus and His blessed mother and Joseph, His foster-father, were still dwelling in that cave when the wise men came from the East. We have gotten the idea from pictures that have come down to us from the middle ages that the wise men found the Lord in the stable and brought their gifts there, but Scripture does not tell us that. It says that they entered into “the house” where the young Child lay. In all likelihood they did not reach the place where Jesus was until He was considerably older. We have the record here in this second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. We are told that, “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is He that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen His star in the east, and are come to worship Him” (Matt. 2:1, 2). Undoubtedly they first saw that star at the time of the nativity and they had come a long distance. It was not easy to travel in those days, so they may have been many weeks or months upon the way.

Why should these wise men be interested in Him? Well, they came from the East, and the last prophet from the East that we read of in the Word of God was Balaam. While he himself was an ungodly man, yet God so took control of his mind and speech that he it was who uttered the prophecy that a Star should come forth from Jacob that should smite the corners of Moab. That had undoubtedly been preserved through the centuries among the Magi. And then it was not at all unlikely that the book of the prophet Daniel was also known and studied by these wise men, for the greater part of that book is written originally not in Hebrew but in Aramaic or Chaldean, and the study of the seventy weeks would give any careful student to know just about when the Messiah of Israel must be born.

There was a spirit of expectancy among the nations at this time, and these Magi had evidently been instructed by the Word of God as well as by the Holy Spirit, and were looking for the coming One, and—think of it!—they came to Jerusalem guided by a star! They put the question to Herod, “Where is He that is born King of the Jews?” And Herod was startled—“King of the Jews! Why, I am king of the Jews! What are they talking about? One risen up to overthrow my dynasty! What do they mean?” And he called together the scribes and doctors, the religious leaders, who were familiar with the Holy Scripture and said, “Is there anything that tells us where Christ is to be born?” At once they pointed to the chapter and verse in the prophet Micah: “And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule My people Israel.”

Here were men so familiar with the Bible that when a question like this arose, without a moment’s hesitation they could give chapter and verse in answer to the question, and yet they had never turned to God themselves as repentant sinners and they were not ready for the coming into this scene of His blessed Son. Familiar with prophecy and yet did not know Him of whom the prophets spake! And as Herod receives the instruction from them the one thought that comes into his mind is this, “I can use this knowledge to destroy Him, so that He will never reign as King of the Jews.” And craftily he sends for the wise men again and says, “You go to Bethlehem: find Him and worship Him, and come back and tell me where He is, that I may go and worship Him too.” But he had no thought of adoring Him, he had no intention of recognizing Him, no thought of worshipping at His feet. Rather, he would destroy Him. But the wise men went in accordance with the star that again appeared and found Him in Bethlehem, found the young Child in a house, and they brought their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

What wondrous gifts they were! Surely they had been divinely guided in the selection of them. Gold—that is the beautiful symbol in the Bible for divine righteousness. Frankincense — that tells us of the matchless perfection of the humanity of our blessed Saviour. And the myrrh, the myrrh that they brought and placed at His feet, is that which had to be crushed in order to give out its fragrance, and so speaks of His death. They brought their treasures which tell of His righteousness, of the perfection of His humanity, and of the work of redemption that He should accomplish, and they poured them all out at the feet of the little Babe. Have you brought your heart’s treasures to Him yet? Have you seen in Him the divine, eternal Son of God who became man in absolute perfection that He might die an atoning death on the cross to accomplish your redemption?

And then, being warned of God in a dream, they went back to their own land without returning to Jerusalem. And when Herod saw that he was mocked of the wise men, he sent his soldiers with instructions to destroy every babe in Bethlehem, every child who was two years old and under, in that way hoping to make sure of destroying the blessed Lord Jesus Christ. I do not know whether there is anything in a legend which has come down to us, but the early Christians tell us that Herod (who had murdered several of his own sons and one after another of his most intimate relations, so that Augustus Caesar said, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son,” so cruel and bloodthirsty was this man) had one little grandson to whom he was devoted, the only creature on earth that he really loved. When the soldiers went to Bethlehem to destroy the little children, they did not know that Herod’s grandson had been taken to Bethlehem by his nurse, and that he was among those thus put to death. I do not know whether that is true but the early Christians related it as though it were fact, and it would speak of the awful retribution that God may have meted out to Herod because of his effort to destroy the Lord Jesus Christ. But Herod could not put Him to death. The soldiers could not have killed Him. He could say long afterwards, “No man taketh My life from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (John 10:18). It was impossible that any one should ever put Him to death. At the appointed hour when He was to die for our sins on Calvary’s cross He Himself dismissed His spirit. So God preserved Him, sending Him down to Egypt, calling Him out of Egypt again as He had called Israel so long ago, and He came and dwelt in Nazareth.

Bethlehem remains today a city that bears constant witness to the incarnation of our blessed Lord, and the singular thing about it is that in the midst of a country that has been Mohammedan for over 1200 years, Bethlehem is nominally a Christian city. There are very few Mohammedans living in it. For a long time there were none at all, because the Mohammedans of this city revolted years ago against the Turks and the Sultan banished them to other parts, forbidding them to return to Bethlehem. The Christianity of the present inhabitants, I grant, is not of a very high order. There are three groups: Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Armenians, and one section is set apart for each in the Church of the Nativity. In the old days there had to be Mohammedan soldiers there to keep these three groups of professed Christians from fighting over their right to the sacred places. And yet, after all, they are nominally Christian, and among the people of Bethlehem there are numbers of genuine believers.

They are different from the other natives of Palestine. Instead of seeing everywhere the black-haired, dark-eyed Arab people, you see a folk, many of them blue-eyed and light-haired and fair-complexioned, showing that they come down from Crusader stock. The Crusaders settled there, took them wives of the women of the land, and these Bethlehemites are practically all their descendants. The women have their own peculiar costumes which have come down from Crusader times. The ladies, you may note, have a very high-peaked cap and a long veil flowing from it. These are almost identical with the costumes that were worn by the ladies of Europe in many places in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

And then it is here at Bethlehem that you understand clearly what Jesus meant when He taught that parable about the woman having ten pieces of silver. Underneath this cap they have a fez and the cap fits down over it, and right across the front of it they have ten pieces of silver linked together. When a woman is married, her husband gives her this chain of silver coins to wear on her forehead. If a woman should lose one of those pieces, the implication is, and her neighbors would think, that she has been unfaithful to her husband, and her husband would very likely think it was ground for divorce. So you can imagine if a woman lost one how frantically she would look for it. She calls for a light, she searches the house, peering into each corner trying to find the lost piece before her husband comes home. When she has found it, she calls her women friends together, and says, “Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost” (Luke 15:9).

You remember how the Lord Jesus used that as a picture of His own joy and the joy of heaven in the salvation of sinners, for He says, “Likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons which need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Of course there are no just persons who do not need salvation, but there were those who thought they were just and imagined they did not need a Saviour, and Jesus told this little story to let us know that the heart of God and the saints in heaven are filled with gladness when any poor sinner comes to God and is numbered among His redeemed.

So many lessons crowd in upon heart and mind when one walks the streets of Bethlehem. To go to Palestine for eleven days as we did is, in one sense, just an irritation. You wish you could be there for at least thirty days, and yet we do thank God for the time we had there and for what we saw. We have come back with a clearer understanding, I hope, of some of these precious things that we have believed through all the years and which now have been so marvellously confirmed.

Our Lord Jesus Christ became a Man, stooped to be born of a virgin in the village of Bethlehem, in order that He might give His life a ransom for all, that guilty sinners may be saved. One would think that coming in full accord with prophecy the whole world would have been waiting for Him, particularly His own people, but, alas, when He was born, we read, “There was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7), and so Joseph and Mary had to turn aside into this cave. That was just a picture of the attitude of the whole world. We are told, “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:11-13).

Have you found room for Him, or is it true today that there is no room in your heart for Him?

“Room for pleasure, room for business,
But for Christ the crucified,
Not a place that He can enter,
In the heart for which He died?”

Oh, won’t you fling wide the door of your heart and say, “Lord Jesus, come in; make room in my heart, Lord Jesus; there is room in my heart for Thee!”