From Nazareth to Bethlehem

December 20, 2015 / No. 3807

Dear Radio Friends,
The account of Christ’s birth is, in the main, contained in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2. None of the other Gospel accounts record for us that birth. Only Luke. The other accounts record other necessary information of events that surround the conception and birth of our Savior—but none of the others gives the actual account of His birth. There does not seem to be all that much information provided for us by the Gospel writers. Yet, the events of the birth of Christ can be looked at from so many different points of view that the story, though old, always seems new. Luke 2 records for us Joseph’s and Mary’s trip to Bethlehem. We read of the fact that Mary made this journey being largely pregnant with Jesus. We read of the taxes that had been leveled by Caesar Augustus and therefore of the reason Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem. All of these are well-known facts that even our young children can tell us.
But though the story is simple and though the story is an old one, the truths contained in it are ever new. And for that reason what we learn today in Luke 2:4, 5 contains the eternal truth of God’s Word. We read in these two verses, “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.” This passage reveals to us that Christ is born out of the royal seed of David. We are not interested only in the events that surround the birth of Christ proper, therefore, but we are interested also in what they teach us about the royal seed of the covenant. That will be our emphasis today as we consider the birth of Christ.
I. The Journey
In order to understand the journey that Joseph and Mary made we must visualize the division of the land of Canaan at this time. We read in verse 4: “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.” Not only are there two towns revealed to us in this verse, but two regions or provinces that divided the land of Canaan, namely, Judea and Galilee. To understand this division we must picture a map of Canaan (or Palestine as it was called then) in our minds. On the west was the Great Sea or the Mediterranean Sea. On the eastern border of these provinces was the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, with the river Jordan running between the two. Galilee was the northern province, bordered on the east by the Sea of Galilee, on the north by the Syro-Phoenician province that was also under Roman control. On the southern border of Galilee, between it and Judea, lay the region known as Samaria. Samaria divided Galilee from Judea. Judea, then, was in the south of Palestine, and its eastern border was the Dead Sea and in part the Jordan River. The southern border was the wilderness, and, as was mentioned, the northern border was this region known as Samaria.
In order to understand this particular division of provinces we must understand somewhat the history of this region. In the Old Testament, the name Galilee applied only to a small region in the inheritance of Naphtali. The name itself has no significance. It simply means “district.” That is what it was, just a small district in the midst of Naphtali, possibly extending somewhat into the inheritance of Zebulon. Judea, on the other hand, was synonymous with Judah in the Old Testament—the nation of Judah in the south as opposed to the nation of Israel in the north. This area included a large portion of land in the south that included both the inheritance of Judah as well as that of Benjamin and part of Simeon. But all of this had changed drastically since the time of the captivity until the time of Christ’s birth.
If you are at all acquainted with Old Testament history, then you will recall that the northern kingdom of the ten tribes had been taken captive by the Assyrian Empire. This empire removed all of the people of Israel from their inheritance, scattered them throughout the Assyrian Empire, and replaced them with foreign people. These people became known as Samaritans, named after the capital city of the nation of Israel, Samaria. None of them were Jews. But they began to mimic in a very loose way the religion of the Jews. Approximately 150 years later the Chaldean Empire took the kingdom of Judah captive to Babylon. But this empire left behind the poorer of the people to tend to the land of Judah. When the Jews returned from captivity as God had promised some 70 years later it was here in Judah, now Judea, that they settled. Galilee at that time, however, was still inhabited by this foreign people. But during the 400 years between the Old and New Testaments this changed. During the reign of the Macabees the province that later was called Galilee was conquered and resettled by some of the Jews. But this settlement was not so pure. There was a mixture of foreign people and Jews. In fact, only few of the people in Galilee were purely Jew. This is why the inhabitants of Galilee pronounced words in the Greek a little differently than they did in Judea. This is also why the Jews in Judea were always suspicious of the orthodoxy of those Jews who lived in Galilee. The Jewish elite were found in Jerusalem. These felt that those of Galilee, being of mixed race, could not be trusted as far as their knowledge of Scripture was concerned.
We are told in verse 4 of Luke 2, however, that Joseph and Mary both were pure Jews who lived in the little country village of Nazareth in Galilee. This means that although they were of pure Jewish blood, they were, nevertheless, insignificant peasants who came from a village that never had received any attention in the entire history of the church in the Old Testament. Nazareth was a little town tucked neatly in the hillsides of Galilee. It was not one of the busy sea coast towns of Galilee that were located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Bethlehem was also just a little town. It too did not have any significance among the great and mighty cities of Judah. The only thing for which it was known—and this the inhabitants of the city clung to—was that the highly esteemed king David had been born there. But this fact had done little to increase the fame and popularity of this little town. It remained small and mainly the habitation of shepherds.
So we have a journey mentioned in our text from one insignificant village to another. This was a journey that attracted no attention at all. Two poor people traveling from one poor city to another. In the minds of men it meant nothing. Yet, according to the purpose of God, this was a most significant journey! And both the town of Nazareth and the town of Bethlehem are remembered to this very day by believers everywhere.
The significance of this journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem lies in the people who made this journey. Our text tells us that Joseph went up out of Nazareth with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. Our text does not mean that as of yet Joseph and Mary were only espoused or engaged. Mary was now Joseph’s wife. We learn in Matthew 1:24, 25 that after the angel informed Joseph that the child conceived in Mary was the Son of God, he immediately married her. We read, “Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife.” So Mary, to whom Joseph had been espoused but who was now his wife, traveled with Joseph. Now, as we mentioned, in the eyes of the world, even in the eyes of his fellow countrymen, the Jews Joseph and Mary were nobodies! No one took particular note of this journey they made.
But Luke informs us of something of great significance about Joseph. He was of the house and lineage of David! According to Luke 4, where the genealogy of Jesus through the line of Joseph is traced, we find that Joseph was a descendant of Nathan, who was a son of king David. What is more, we also learn in Scripture that Mary too was of the line of David, both parents were born out of David’s line. Matthew 1 speaks of Jesus’ lineage traced back through Mary to Solomon, who was the son of King David. In all reality then, Jesus was, by virtue of both of His parents, a Son of David—even a royal son of David. I realize there is some dispute over who it was that truly was a descendant of the royal line—Joseph or Mary. I do not wish to enter into that debate. What is significant is that Mary and Joseph together represented the line of David.
Neither may we forget that Mary and Joseph were not alone in this journey. Mary was great with child. And, as we well know, this Child was Jesus Christ—the Savior. In this we find the significance of this journey. Christ was traveling from Nazareth to the town of Bethlehem! Christ was therefore a part of the lineage of both Joseph and Mary, legally Christ was represented by Joseph, and organically Christ was born out of Mary. That made Him personally of the house and lineage of David—legally and organically. As we said, this is of significance and this is what made the journey one to be remembered throughout the ages. We will come back to that in a moment.
These three left their home in Nazareth of Galilee and slowly made their way to Bethlehem in Judea. We say slowly because, number 1, Mary was great with child. Number 2, the only means of travel was by foot, or perhaps this poor peasant owned a donkey. Either way, the travel was slow. Number 3, a good Jew would never travel through Samaria, which lay between Galilee and Judea. The Jews considered the Samaritans to be a heathen people, and therefore the Samaritans were hated by the Jews. A good Jew traveled, therefore, around the outskirts of Samaria along the Jordan River. Probably after three days Joseph and Mary made Bethlehem, and there almost immediately gave birth to their Son. He was not born before leaving Nazareth. He was not born en route to Bethlehem. He was born only after arriving in Bethlehem. And all of this, as we will find, has its significance! Such was the journey.
II. The Reason
Now, there was an important reason for this journey. It is true that, when we look at the events that surrounded Jesus’ birth, we can find any number of human reasons for this journey. The first reason lies in the fact that Caesar Augustus, the emperor of the Roman Empire that included Palestine, sent forth a decree. He was going to tax the world. But in order to make this tax effective and lucrative, Caesar first of all required everyone of the various nations of his realm to register for the tax. It was not much different than it is now in our own United States. We too must be registered, for example, to vote. Caesar sent forth a decree that all the world at that time should register for the tax. And it was at that particular time in the life of Joseph and Mary that they by law had to register. But that was not so simple. Among the Jews anyway, it was felt that the best way to register for this tax was by going back to the town of their lineage. And since all good Jews could trace their lineage back to the time of David when the kingdom of Israel was organized under him, everyone was required to go to the town their ancestors lived in during this time. Obviously, for Mary and Joseph this was Bethlehem and not Nazareth. Bethlehem was the city of David—the place where David had been born and anointed as king. So this was a second reason Joseph and Mary had to make this journey.
They knew no more. To all intents and purposes these two lowly people knew no more. They knew of no other reason for them to travel to Bethlehem. In other words, they did not know that this was the place that Christ had to be born. They did not say to themselves, “Well, the Messiah has to be born in Bethlehem because he is a royal descendant of David.” They did not reason, “We had better hurry off to Bethlehem because the Old Testament Scriptures say that this is where our son has to be born.” It was these earthly reasons alone that brought them on their journey. Everything was done innocently enough by this man and his wife.
Yet behind all of this, God had His own divine reason that Christ should be born in Bethlehem. That this is true is revealed in prophecy itself. The journey was made to Bethlehem in direct fulfillment of the prophecy of Micah 5:2, “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.” Notice the description of Christ here. He is to be the Ruler of Israel! This touches exactly on the truth that Christ is born out of the royal line of David. Christ was to be the royal seed. He was born not only out of the line of David but also out of the line of Judah. To Judah the promise had been given, in Genesis 49:10: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.” Christ was to be this lawgiver! Christ would wield the scepter of a king! Christ is the Shiloh who was to come! Christ, therefore, must needs be born in Bethlehem because this was a sign of His royalty!
It was a sign of His kingship. How so? Bethlehem was the birthplace of the great king! What great king? David! He was the great king that brought Israel to its peak of power and glory. But was David the greatest of all the kings that was to rule over Israel? God’s people knew better. Even the wicked, unbelieving Jews knew better. Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the greatest of all the kings of Israel. It was to be the birthplace of Shiloh, the Messiah! Though no one was watching Bethlehem anymore, though no one was even watching the line of David anymore, the knowledge was still there that this was to be the birthplace of the Messiah. This journey to Bethlehem speaks to us of Christ’s kingship over His church, a kingship that had been prophesied already when Jacob spoke his blessing on his son Judah.
You see what we rejoice in as believers? Christ is born our King! He is born to rule over His church. This is not merely a poor little boy born in a barn, whose bed was a feeding trough for animals. This is our King that we see born here! He was born in order to conquer our mighty enemies. He was born to set us free from the slavery that has held us! He was born in order to die, that through His death He might overcome the devil and our sin. By dying, Christ set us at liberty to serve God in heart and soul. And through that work He has been exalted in the highest heaven, there to rule over this world as the King of Israel—His church! We rejoice in this King!
But there is something more too! We rejoice in the fact that this Christ is born in the very heart of the covenant! He was born right out of the midst of the church—at the very heart and center of all of history. He is of the flesh of His mother, having a central human nature. He is one of us. He is chosen of God to be the King of God’s church and to represent before God His elect people. Born at the heart of the covenant line, Christ has come to redeem all those who belong to the covenant. Christ is the very reason God’s people are able to share in fellowship with God! Without Christ there would be no covenant and its blessings. By this journey to Bethlehem God has effected the very salvation of His people!
III. The Joy
The account of Christ’s birth gives God’s people great joy. This was the purpose of God from eternity in bringing our Savior to the town of Bethlehem. He who was to be our King had to be born there. We find our joy in the baby born in Bethlehem. Who can say that they do not joy in this? This blessed truth needs to be deciphered from the superficial hype and vain tradition of this season. When it is, it does not take much to find the true joy that belongs to every believer! In the city of David is born our Savior, which is Christ the Lord—the Lawgiver of Israel, Shiloh. Here is the Seed of Abraham in whom all of true Israel is seen. We together with Him are God’s sons. And God loves us in Him and God protects us in Him. God is jealous of us! We belong to Him. What greater joy can there be?
We have fellowship with the ever blessed God of heaven and earth. The church of Christ throughout the world rejoices in that! The rift is healed. The covenant and its promises are secure. We are God’s people and He is our God! Who will ever separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord? Unto us a child is born. Unto us a Son is given. See him? He is there in that manger of Bethlehem. Jesus Christ, our King! Let us bow down before Him and worship Him!