Monday, 6 December 2010

Another, (Less Well Known) Reason Why Jesus Was Born in Bethelehem

A friend of mine, Pete Lovegrove, emailed me a copy of an article he wrote for his parish magazine.

Whilst it remains for most in the domain of speculation, having seen all I have seen reading the Bible cover to cover this year, it would not surprise me at all if Jesus was born around the time of the Feast of Tabernacles. Nor would it surprise me if the reason the shepherds were chosen to see him first was because God wanted these experts in lambing to inspect the integrity of this the true, newly born Passover Lamb.

With Pete's permission, I have posted his article below...

While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night

Many of you reading this will no doubt be familiar with this traditional carol sung at Christmas time. It is a carol based on the account of Jesus’ birth given in chapter 2 of Luke’s gospel. The location of these events was the town of Bethlehem. In biblical times Bethlehem, which means ‘House of Bread’, was a farming community. The town itself marked a border between fields of wheat and the wilderness where shepherds would seek out pasture for their sheep. On the night that the angel appeared to the shepherds we read that they were in the fields. This seems to suggest that these events took place in late summer when the wheat harvest was complete since this was the only time the sheep would be allowed to graze in the farmer’s fields. It proves a mutually beneficial relationship: sheep, normally confined to desert grazing, get the crop leftovers but also leave behind fertilizer for the upcoming growing season following the autumn feasts.

However, trying to determine the exact time of year of Jesus’ birth is at best mere speculation. What is particularly fascinating though is why Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem. Most of us are aware that Jesus was a direct descendent of Israel’s most famous King, David, and that on account of a census Joseph and Mary had to return to their ancestral home in Bethlehem. Every year, during Christmas services, we are reminded that this was foretold by the prophet Micah some 700 years before. ‘But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, ...... from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel....’ (Micah 5:2). Few however, ever notice the prophecy given a little earlier in chapter 4:8 ‘And you, O tower of the flock, hill of the daughter of Zion, to you it shall come, the former dominion shall come, kingship for the daughter of Jerusalem’.

The ‘tower of the flock’, in Hebrew ‘Migdal Edar’, was a particular place in Bethlehem where the Temple flocks, lambs specially bred to be sacrificed at the feast of Passover, were watched over. According to the Jewish biblical historian Edersheim ‘this watch tower from ancient times was used by the shepherds for protection from their enemies and wild beasts. It was the place ewes were brought to give birth to the lambs. In this sheltered building/cave the priests would bring in the ewes which were about to lamb for protection. These special lambs came from a unique flock which were designated for sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem. The shepherds who kept them were men who were specifically trained for this royal task. They were educated in what an animal, that was to be sacrificed, had to be and it was their job to make sure that none of the animals were hurt, damaged, or blemished. These lambs were apparently wrapped in ‘swaddling cloths’ to protect them from injury’.

The parallels of the birth of these Passover Lambs with the gospel accounts of the birth of Christ are astonishing. However, the parallels with his death are even more so. Space does not permit a full discussion, indeed a whole book would need to be devoted to it, but I would like to point out just a few. Reading the Old Testament accounts of
Passover the following can be noted;
  • The sacrificial lamb was to be a one year old male. (A strong healthy mature animal in the prime of life.)
  • Four days before the Passover it was separated from the flock and closely examined for even the tiniest speck of disease or wound.
  • Moses told the people that God would appoint the place where Passover would be celebrated and this became the city of Jerusalem.
  • The sacrifice would involve the shedding of the lamb’s blood, roasting and all this without breaking any of its bones.
 Four days before Passover Jesus, at that time a man in his early thirties and in the prime of his life, made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, thus setting him apart from ordinary men. For the next four days he was the subject of the closest scrutiny; he was interrogated by the lawyer as to which was the greatest commandment, by the Herodians on the issue of paying tribute money to Rome, by the religious liberals (Sadducees) on the resurrection and he had several heated exchanges with the Pharisees and Priests. A common theme with these encounters was that they were all trying to find fault with him. Yet the conclusion of those who heard him was ‘never a man spake like this man’. So immaculate was He that the religious authorities had to arrest him at night. His trial was totally illegal: no two witnesses could concur on any evidence given against him and even the Roman Governor Pilate declared that he could find no fault with him. Truly He was a Lamb without blemish. Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, the very place and time that the Passover Lambs were being sacrificed. And crucifixion was the only method of execution in which all the elements of the Passover sacrifice can be demonstrated: the shedding of blood, the intense slow torture (represented by roasting) and the fact that Jesus died and was buried without a bone being broken.

The clear association of Jesus with the Passover was clearly recognised by his followers. Thirty times in the New Testament he is given the title ‘Lamb of God’. Paul referred to Him as Christ our Passover, Peter declared him to be a Lamb without blemish and His own cousin proclaimed him as the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’.

So why was Jesus so closely associated with the sacrifice of lambs at Passover? The answer is that the Passover was a foreshadowing of the sacrifice that Jesus would make for the forgiving of the sins of mankind. Following the exit of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, God promised that he would one day send a redeemer who would pay the price for sin. The sacrifice of animals was to remind mankind of the seriousness of sin and that atonement needed to be made for sin. God cannot act unjustly. He cannot forgive sin and remain just unless the penalty is paid for. The shedding of the innocent blood of an unblemished animal was to show mankind that a perfect innocent life would have to be sacrificed for our sins. The blood of animals could not do this for us, only God himself is worthy to make such a sacrifice. Jesus, who was fully man and fully God, was born to make that sacrifice for us so that we can enter into a relationship with God. However, he achieved more than moral neutrality with God for us; his perfect life of obedience is credited to us as the righteousness that God demands from us.

All this is given to us as a gift from God. So when you are opening your gifts on Christmas morning will you have the only gift really worth having, the gift that is beyond price, the gift of salvation that Jesus paid for through his unblemished life and sacrificial death on the cross. We all need to realise that one day we will stand before God. We have a choice; whose lifelong record of obedience will we be relying upon? The bible says the just shall live by faith. True faith is being willing to rely on His perfect record of obedience for our eternal security.

May God Bless you this Christmas.


Sarah said...

Very intersesting information! At virginiabeachchurch we believe and follow the teachings of the Bible.

Richard Walker said...

Thanks for dropping by, Sarah! :-)