When Bethlehem Became the House of Bread

When Bethlehem
Became The House Of Bread

S. Lewis Johnson, Jr.

Following 30 some years of faithful service at Dallas Theological Seminary, Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. resigned his professorship earlier this year. As an elder at Believers Chapel in Dallas, he continues an effective teaching ministry.

In this study we are shown that apart from the Lord Jesus, Bethlehem is “the house of bread” in name only. Do you have questions about Herod the Great and the Wise Men? If so, this article may serve to fully answer them.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 2:1-12


It might seem quite strange for Matthew, the gospel of the King with its distinctively Jewish coloring, to give us an account of the visit of the wise men from the East. It might appear more appropriate for the Gospel of Luke, for that gospel delights in the note of universality. The gathering of the nations to the Light of Israel, however, is an essential part of true Judaism, and it is very fitting that the gospel that sets forth the glories of the Messianic King should contain it. And that gathering of the nations to Christ is beautifully portrayed in the visit of the magi, or wise men. In fact, it would seem to be the chief purpose of the evangelist in this section to point out the acknowledgement of the young Son of David by representatives of the non-Jewish world. They, as well as Israel in the persons of His immediate family, worship Him as the King of the Jews and the Lord of the nations.

How different from the symbolism of this beautiful account is the reality of our day! Our days are days of religious disorder and spiritual chaos. It is not surprising that Israel does not acknowledge Him. They still abide in the blindness of rebellion (cf. Romans 9:25). And the nations are still raging in defiance of Him who sits in the heavens (cf. Psalm 2:1-3). It is shocking, however, to see the church in spiritual decadence. It is no longer “the little flock,” meeting in the name of Jesus to worship the Father by the Scriptures in the Spirit. Its shepherds are not longer experienced, concerned, and faithful. The great doctrines of sin, redemption, and holiness are rarely proclaimed.

“We are living in a day of hazy standards of right and wrong,” Vance Havner has pointed out. “The old line of demarcation has practically disappeared from modern thinking. A prominent minister said: ‘The delineation of sin has undergone a transformation somewhat similar to that which has taken place in the world of painting. The old clear-cut lines have given way to an impressionistic indefiniteness, the black and white contrasts to low-toned grays. The churches have adopted a hush policy on the doctrine of depravity and a rotarian gospel takes the place of repentance.’

I like his reference to painting. There was time when you could look at a picture and tell what it was. Today black and white have become gray. Someone has said: ‘The religion of China is Confucian; the religion of America is confusion.’ A country schoolteacher, applying for a job, was asked, ‘Do you teach that the earth is round or flat?’ ‘Which way do you want it taught?’ was the reply. ‘I can teach it either way.’ Something like that is the attitude of many a pulpit today.”1

It was in Bethlehem that the Eastern pilgrims from Gentile lands came to worship Him. Bethlehem means the house of bread, and since the village stood in a fertile countryside, it was a fitting name. It was a lovely place with a lengthy history. It was there that Jacob buried Rachel. It was there that Ruth and Boaz met and lived out their beautiful and meaningful romance. It was there that the first news of the temple was proclaimed. And, above all, Bethlehem was the home and city of David the King. And how fitting it is that prophecy should state the David’s Greater Son should be born there! It was only then that Bethlehem truly became the house of bread. It is one of the purposes of Matthew to spell this out in the account of the visit of the wise men.

The Arrival Of The Wise Men (2:1-2)

“There is something extremely striking and stimulating to the imagination in the vagueness of the description of these Eastern pilgrims,” Maclaren says. “Where they came from, how long they had been in travelling, how many they were, what was their rank, whither they went, —all these questions are left unsolved. They glide into the story, present their silent adoration, ‘and as silently steal away.’ The tasteless mediaeval tradition knows all about them: they were three; they were kings. It knows their names; and, if we choose to pay the fee, we can see their hones today in the shrine behind the high altar in Cologne Cathedral. How much more impressive is the indefiniteness of our narrative! How much more the half sometimes is than the whole!”2

The identity of the wise men (2:1). The magi were men with a lengthy and somewhat uncertain ancestry. They had become by this time the teachers and instructors of the Persian kings. They were men who were skilled in philosophy, in medicine, and in natural science. And, on top of this, they were soothsayers and interpreters of dreams. In later times their name came to refer to common fortunetellers, sorcerers, magicians, and other similar charlatans.3 It has been thought that there were three of them who came to Jerusalem, due largely to the mention of the three kinds of gifts, but we do not know their number or their place of origin.

Why should they set out for the West looking for a king? The answer is not hard to find. Testimonies are available from several sources to the fact that in the world at that time there was a strange state of expectancy, a sense of anticipation of a coming king from Judea. Suetonius could say, “There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judaea to rule the world” (Life of Vespasian, 4:5).

The interrogation of the wise men (2:2). The question of the magi is beautifully pointed, but the response is revealing and tragic. They traverse the streets of the city of the Great King, but seem to find none to answer their query. And, further, it seems that no one wanted to know the answer. Incidentally, the expression “in the east” (v. 2) is better rendered in its rising. The reference apparently is to some remarkable astrological phenomenon which occurred in their homeland and which convinced them that the time was ripe to travel westward to find the expected ruler.

The Alarm Of Herod And Jerusalem (2:3-8)

The reaction of Herod (2:3-4). The Herod here is Herod the Great, called by Robertson, “The Great Pervert.”4 Born in 73 B.C., Herod was half Jew and half Idumean. Edomite blood was in his veins. He was related to Esau, and the connection is significant. An insanely suspicious man, although a very gifted ruler, he was now in his last days. Someone has called him, “a murderous old man,” and the words are no exaggeration. His wife Mariamne and her mother Alexandra he had murdered. His eldest son, Antipater, and two other sons were assassinated by him. Caesar Augustus, playing upon the Greek words for pig (hus) and son (Huios), said bitterly that it was safer to be Herod’s sow than his son.

It is easy to see, then, that the announcement of the arrival of another king was sure to provoke the interest and the hostility of this implacable foe of truth. The significant thing is that the Jewish leaders do nothing about investigating the truth that may be contained in the news from the magi. Herod’s concern is understandable. As Bruce says, “The foreigner and usurper feared a rival, and the tyrant feared the rival would be welcomed.”5 The people’s terror was caused by Herod’s. When he was in a rage, anything could happen and often did. But pagans, sad to say, are more interested in the Messiah than His own people (cf. John 1:11-12)!

The religious experts are now called in, and a theological question is put to them. “Where is the Messiah to be born?,” is the query.

The response of the chief priests and scribes (2:5-6). The authorities do not hesitate. Bethlehem of Judaea is the place. The answer is not put in their mouth by Matthew. It is their answer, although Matthew then freely cites from Micah’s great prophecy to establish the truthfulness of the reply. The text must be awfully clear in its meaning, for there is a remarkable unanimity in the context. The star (v. 9), the Jews (vv. 5-6), and the evangelist (vv. 1,6) all affirm that Bethlehem is the right answer. And Scripture sets its seal of approval upon our Lord’s birth as the fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy in that from the time of David to the time of the birth of Christ no other birth in Bethlehem of Judaea is recorded in it.

The definiteness of the prophecy of Micah is most telling and relevant. There were two Bethlehems in the Old Testament record (cf. Joshua 19:15), one in Judaea and the other in Zebulon. But contrary to the vague and indefinite and ambiguous prophecies of the Delphic Oracle and modern counterparts, such as Jeane Dixon and Maurice Woodruff, the inspired prophecies of the Word are specific.

To Be Continued

(Editor’s Note: Some of our readers have questioned a statement by Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. which appeared in his study, “The Herald of the King,” in the March-April issue of Focus. Dr. Johnson has kindly replied as follows:

The sentence that has been questioned is the one that contains these words, “the words originally were a part of the consoling message given to the exiles in Babylon who were to return to their own land under the guidance and protection of their God in the future.” This sentence was spoken in the section of the article in which I was discussing the quotation from the Isaiah passage in Matthew 3. The word “originally” is written from the standpoint of the New Testament, not from the standpoint of the Old Testament. When I say that the words were originally part of the consoling message I mean of course that in Isaiah they are a part of the consoling message given to the exiles in Babylon. In the New Testament they are placed in a different context. I hope this clarifies the problem which some have had with reference to the statement. I do believe that Isaiah the prophet wrote all of the sixty-six chapters of the book of Isaiah.)

1 Vance Havner, Jesus Only (Westwood, 1969), p. 24.

2 Maclaren, I, 19-20.

3 Cf. Barclay, pp. 16-17.

4 Archibald Thomas Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (New York, 1930), I, 15.

5 Alexander Balmain Bruce, “The Synoptic Gospels,” The Expositor’s Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, 1961), I, 71.