Some seven hundred years BC, the prophet Micah prophesied that the Messiah would be born in a specific place, namely ‘Bethlehem Ephrathah’ (Micah 5:2). In God’s sovereign timing, the prophecy was fulfilled to the letter ‘when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea’ (Matthew 2:1).
Bethlehem is first mentioned in the Bible way back in Genesis 35, during the time of the patriarch Jacob. There it is the location of the death of Rachel, Jacob’s wife, and the birth of Benjamin, Jacob’s son. Sadly, Rachel died as she gave birth to Benjamin.
Genesis 35 also contains the first reference to a gravestone in the Bible, for ‘Jacob set up a pillar upon [Rachel’s] grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb which is there to this day’ (Genesis 35:19). This can still be seen today on the outskirts of Bethlehem.
Whenever the ‘little town of Bethlehem’ is mentioned, Christians immediately think of the birth of Christ; Bethlehem and Christ’s nativity are inextricable. With biblical hindsight, however, we also see that Rachel’s giving birth to Benjamin in Bethlehem draws our attention to Christ and his work of redemption.
Scripture records that ‘Rachel travailed, and she had hard labour’ (Genesis 35:16). Her birth pains proved to be fatal and, ‘as her soul was departing (for she died), she called his name Benoni’ (Genesis 35:18). The name ‘Benoni’ means ‘son of my sorrow’.
Here we glimpse the Christ to come, for it was written of Jesus that, ‘He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’ (Isaiah 53:5). It was also prophesied of him, ‘Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger’ (Lamentations 1:12).
Son of sorrow
The sorrows of Christ reached their culmination when he died on the cross and was momentarily separated from the fellowship with his Father that he had always enjoyed; when he bore the sins of God’s people and God’s righteous anger on them.
His suffering and sorrow cannot be described, yet the Christian is eternally grateful for them. His sorrow is the source of our eternal joy. He endured the wrath of God on our sins, to save us from the wrath of God we deserve for our sins. ‘Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God’ (Romans 5:9). Jesus therefore is our true ‘Benoni’, ‘Son of my sorrow’.
Jacob, however, overruled his dying wife’s wishes, for ‘his father called his name Benjamin’ (Genesis 35:18). The name ‘Benjamin’ means ‘Son of the right hand’. Scripture states, when Christ ‘had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God’ (Hebrews 10:12).
The ‘right hand of God’ refers to the place of supreme honour and power. God the Father’s endorsement of his Son’s atoning death was seen in raising him from the dead and enthroning him at his right hand in heaven.
The Saviour who was born in Bethlehem and died at Calvary is seated at God’s right hand; Jesus is the true Benjamin as well as the true Benoni.
‘Bethlehem’ refers to a town, ‘Ephrathah’ the district in which Bethlehem is situated. The name ‘Bethlehem’ means ‘house of bread’, the name ‘Ephrathah’ ‘fruitful’.
Bethlehem’s soil was evidently fertile, as the grain fields portrayed in the book of Ruth reveal. Here again though, with New Testament hindsight, we see Jesus.
He said of himself, ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst’ (John 6:35), and proclaimed, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for, apart from me, you can do nothing’ (John 15:5).
And remarkably, ‘Bethlehem Ephrathah’ also draws our attention to the Lord’s Supper, since the name speaks of bread and fruit. Bread is the product of crushed grain, wine of crushed grapes, and it is by these simple, perishable emblems of bread and wine that Christ would have his disciples in all eras remember him and his atoning death.
Non-Christians may find it strange, but the stress of the Christian faith is not so much on the birth of Christ at Bethlehem, but his death at Calvary. For it was on the cross that eternal salvation was actually procured. It was there his sinless body was broken and precious blood shed for the sinner’s redemption.
Bishop J. C. Ryle put it eloquently: ‘The Lord Jesus Christ knew full well … that his own satisfaction for sin as our substitute … was the very root of soul-saving and soul-satisfying Christianity. Without this, he knew his incarnation, miracles, teaching, example and ascension could do no good to man; without this he knew that there could be no justification, no reconciliation, no hope, no peace between God and man. Knowing this, he took care that his death should never be forgotten. He carefully appointed an ordinance, in which … his sacrifice on the cross should be kept in perpetual remembrance’ (Knots untied).
Meaning of Christmas
Bethlehem predates Christ’s birth in Scripture. And when we dig deeper, it leads us to ponder the death of Christ, as well as his birth. This is surely fitting, as in the Bible all roads lead to Calvary; for redemption was accomplished not by Christ’s birth, but by his death.
Jesus was born to die. It has been well said that unless the cross overshadows the cradle, we will miss the true meaning of Christmas.
Timothy Cross has written many Christian books and articles and has an honorary doctorate from Christian Bible College, Rocky Mount, NC (www.TimothyJCross.org)