This is the fourth in a series of posts which summarize the main points of the Advent 2012 sermon series “Christmas Questions” I delivered at Bethel. This sermon/post was based on Micah 5:2-5a:
When my son was just a few months old, and we were still living outside of Boston, we took a day trip down to Plymouth to see the sights of the historical town. There you can see the Mayflower II, a full-scale authentic replica of the famous ship, and, of course, Plymouth Rock. There is a stately and impressive marble and wrought-iron platform sectioning off a portion of the shoreline, and you can walk over and look down into this pit and see the rock, with the date “1620” chiseled into it.
Now, I remember being captivated by early American history when I was younger, and these things had achieved a larger-than-life status in my mind. Which is probably why my wife and I looked at each other and said, “That’s it? Really? That’s Plymouth Rock? It’s not even the biggest or best-looking rock on this beach.”
The truth is that it’s more of a symbol than anything. It’s really not about the rock at all—it’s about what happened there. It’s about who arrived there.
Had any of us been able to see the tiny rural town that was Bethlehem when Jesus was born, we probably would have looked at each other and said, “That’s it? Really? That’s the place the Messiah was born? It’s not real impressive.”
So why was that the place where God chose to have his Son enter the world? Why not a capital city like Rome or Jerusalem? Why not a city with great art, music, and high culture? Why not a city with championship sports teams? Why Bethlehem?
Bethlehem revealed the royalty of the Messiah and fulfilled God’s prophecy.
Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem demonstrated, once again, that God fulfills his promises. This prophecy in Micah was written some 700 years before Christ’s birth. Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah and Hosea, and he emphasized the need for justice and peace–but he is also clear about God’s coming judgment against the sins of Israel because God hated the idolatry, injustice, and empty ritual of Israel at that time.
Nevertheless, God promised to send a Shepherd-King who will gather the scattered remnant of Israel, establish them, bring peace, and rule over them with justice and mercy. This particular passage was very well-known by the Jews—they expected the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem. Matthew’s gospel records this: “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea’, they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written…’” They knew the Messiah would be born there, but didn’t know how or when.
Luke 2:1-7 records how it is that Mary and Joseph ended up there. Think about this for a moment. Can you fathom the sheer amount of things that could have gone wrong over the course of 700 years that could have derailed this? Yet nothing did. Mary and Joseph didn’t end up in Bethlehem by chance, nor was it ever in doubt whether or not they would end up there.
The birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem some 700 years after Micah was inspired by the Spirit to write those words shows us yet again that God is sovereign over the course of history, that he is a God who makes and keeps promises, and that history unfolds just as he wants it to.
The setting is important, because Bethlehem is “the city of David”. It wasn’t special because of its size or wealth or culture or restaurant scene, but because of who was born there: David—the anointed king of Israel, famous warrior, poet, sinner, and giant-slayer. Yet for as famous as David was, God’s people were looking for someone greater to come.
All of David’s good qualities point us toward what the Messiah would embody perfectly; all of David’s bad qualities show us that he was not the Messiah. The Jewish expectation of the Messiah often viewed him as the greater, perfect, more righteous, and more powerful version of David. He would be the Shepherd-King descended from David, but greater than David. He would lead Israel, but do so without stumbling into sin. He would conquer all of Israel’s enemies. Bethlehem, the city of royalty, would bring all of these notions and hopes and dreams to mind whenever people went there or heard that people were from there.
In 2 Samuel 7, God promises that one of David’s descendants would sit on the eternal throne. This is what we see fulfilled in Jesus’ birth in this tiny outpost town. He was legally (not genetically) descended from Joseph, and therefore he had a claim to the throne of Israel.
Why Bethlehem? Because it was the city of kings, and the true and eternal King of Kings was supposed to come from there. But just who is this king and what is so special about him?
Jesus is the promised Messiah and a king unlike any other.
He is the King, but not in an ethnic or geographic sense. The Jews of Jesus day were expecting a Messiah to come who would be a leader for them in an ethnic and civic sense. They wanted a political leader and military commander—someone to elevate them to a place of prominence among the nations.
Yet this is not what God had promised. His promise was bigger than that. The Messiah would be born in the royal city of David, but his kingdom would be a spiritual kingdom. This is what the New Testament makes clear when it teaches that the true “Israel” is not a genetic or ethnic or political or geographic form of identification, but a spiritual one (e.g. Galatians 3). All who believe in the promises of God and place their faith in Jesus Christ, the Messiah, belong to Israel.
This is why the Messiah’s kingdom “will reach to the ends of the earth” (4), and it is what lays behind the vision that John has in Revelation 7, when he sees people from “every language, tribe, people, and nation” bowing before the throne and offering praises to the Lamb of God who was slain but is now alive forevermore.
Jesus’ rule and reign are eternal, because he himself is eternal. His “origins are from of old, from ancient times”, which can be literally translated from the Hebrew as “from days of eternity.” Micah is expressing Jesus’ existence in poetic form (the whole book is written in beautiful but complicated Hebrew poetry), but it is the same idea we find in the beginning of John’s gospel (“In the beginning was the Word…”)
There was never a time when Jesus Christ did not exist, though there were long ages before he took on flesh. So while t is right to speak of Jesus’ birth at Christmas, we can’t get sloppy or lazy with our thinking and assume that means that he was not the eternal Son of God before that.
Jesus Christ can rule eternally because he himself is eternal. We set terms and limits for those in power. You can only be in charge for 2 or 4 or 6 years, and then you have to be re-elected. This isn’t how Christ’s rule works.
What he does—and what he will always do—is “stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God…” He is the king unlike any other, which is why he is called the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He has no precedent and no peer.
Why Bethlehem? Because it was the royal city from which the Messiah, the Shepherd-King, was to come. This promised eternal ruler is Jesus Christ, and he will shepherd his flock in the way that only a perfect and righteous king could. But we’ve got to make sure we understand what it means to call him the King.
What are the ramifications of Jesus’ royalty?
What do kings do? They protect, provide, and govern.
As king, Jesus protects his people: “…they will live securely…and he will be their peace…” We are not removed from the trials and struggles and sorrows of this sin-filled world, but we are assured that Jesus Christ leads us through it, that we have a peace with God even in the midst of pain, and that there is an eternal rest promised to those who belong to him. Only a perfect and powerful King could deliver this.
As king, Jesus provides for his people. He taught that our heavenly Father knows what we truly need, that we are of more worth than anything else in creation to him, and that he will meet our needs (perhaps not always our wants, but our real and true needs).
As king, Jesus governs and rules. After his resurrection, just before he ascended into heaven, Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…”, and before his death he said, “If you love me, you will do what I command.”
This is where we start to squirm a bit and come up with excuses. We like to have an inspirational, friendly, docile Jesus who is just there to listen to us when we complain and smile and shake his head when we get ourselves into trouble. We want a Messiah who is strong and majestic, but who does what we want him to do. We don’t want an authoritative, regal, and unflinching Jesus who actually tells us what is right and wrong.
Baby Jesus, meek and mild, lying in the manger? Great. Love it. He’s so cute, after all.
Heavenly Lord Jesus, whose eyes flash like lightning, whose tongue is like a sharp sword, coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead? No thanks. Too harsh. Hard to market.
Makes me uncomfortable because it means I’d have to change some things in my life.
Yet obedience to Jesus Christ is an essential part of being his follower. This is a deep topic, and we can’t get into all of it right now, but a few points must be made:
- We do not obey Jesus out of fear, but out of love. “If you love me…” Because of how he has first loved us, he frees us to love him in return, and part of that love is obedience.
- We do not brush off his commands except to our own peril. They are not outdated or optional. He reveals God to us, and reveals God’s will to us.
- We do not coerce others to obey Jesus’ commands through military or political force, nor through intimidation or condemnation. We do it through teaching and preaching, with gentleness and respect, and through the witness of our own lives.
Jesus is the King, the promised Messiah born in the royal city of David, though his kingdom is a spiritual kingdom…for now.
It may seem sometimes as if he is not in control, as if this is all a bunch of fantasy because of how warped and brutal the world is. If Jesus is king, then why aren’t things better than they are?
This is where we need to distinguish between his reign of grace and his reign of power.
His reign of grace is ongoing now. He is ruling and reigning now through the Gospel. He is building his kingdom through the teaching and preaching and worship and service and ministry of his people. He ministers through the power of the Spirit and reveals himself through the Word. He allows the Gospel to spread so that many may hear the good news that he has conquered sin and death through his death and resurrection.
His reign of power is coming. When he returns, he will come in glory to judge the living and the dead, to bring about the consummation of all history, to usher in the new heavens and the new earth, and to have his enemies placed under his feet, as Scripture says. This phase of his rule is coming; it is the Second Advent to which we look with expectation and hope.
I wasn’t there for that first Advent (and neither were you), but I will be there for Jesus’ second Advent (and so will you). We may still be alive when that happens, or we may have joined the countless number who have gone before us. Either way, we will know when it happens. Scripture says we will either be raised or transformed, but we will be alive and aware. We will join every knee in heaven and on earth and under the earth by bowing before the returning King, and we will join every voice in confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God that Father. We may do that as his joyful subjects or we may do that as is rebellious foes—but we will do it.
Why Bethlehem? Because the King of Kings was born in the city of kings. And the King will return.