Our hosts and tour guide grew up in Bethlehem. Some could trace their family history back for multiple generations. As a result….
- We spent 3 nights of our entire trip in Bethlehem.
- We had our most thorough tour of the Church of the Nativity.
- And I bought most of my souvenirs from there as well. 🙂
Much like most of the holy sites, Helen, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine built a church over the site of what was known by the locals as the place where Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
The locals told a variation of the story that we all found fascinating. Some was familiar and some was completely new.
Here’s the story from Luke 2:
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world…. 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Saviorhas been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.
22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord….
Here’s an explanation of the story:
The trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem would take about 9 to 10 days walking or on a donkey.
Jesus was actually born in September because the Scriptures mention a season of the year. The “shepherds living in the field” means it was after the harvest.
The early believers celebrated the birth of Jesus on December 25th because that was a Roman holiday in honor of the “god of all gods” Jupiter. As a persecuted minority, they wanted to celebrate Jesus’ birth on a day off they actually already had plus Jesus was the “King of Kings.”
Our story is that Mary and Joseph were not welcome, but actually the rest of the extended family had probably already arrived. As a result, there was no room in the “upper room” (translated often as “inn”) which is where people stayed when wealthy enough to have more than just one room. In hot and arid Bethlehem, people lived in caves they often shared with animals.
Joseph’s family gave Mary the deepest part of the cave near the animals for privacy not out of rudeness.
“The one wrapped in swaddling clothes”would be a sign to the shepherds who knew this meant like a lamb wrapped up for transport to Jerusalem to be sacrificed.
The walk from Bethlehem to Jerusalem is about 6 miles. The family went to Jerusalem to go to the Temple for holidays and for Jesus’ circumcision. The story of Jesus at the age of 12 also takes place at the The Temple.
The gifts from Magi were gifts for a king, a priest, and a prophet. The Magi arrived when Jesus was a child.
The family left Bethlehem to Egypt because of a dream warning Joseph of pending danger. After Egypt, they moved to Nazareth.
The Scriptures do not tell us about Jesus from the age of 12 to 30 other than he was a carpenter in Nazareth (Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55).
History of the Site
One of the reasons archeologists consider the site of the Grotto a likely location for the birth of Jesus is because Roman Emperor Hadrian built a worship site to the Greek god Adonis as a way to desecrate the holy Christian site.
Justin Martyr and Origen both reference this site as the location of the birth of Jesus.
The Church of Nativity was first built in AD 327 by Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine. It was then destroyed in AD 500s during the Samaritan revolt and then rebuilt by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.
The Emperor in 5th century banned crosses on the floor so that no one would step on a cross. The crosses on the floors were covered over until 1930s.
The Church of Nativity was not destroyed in AD 614 because the attacking Persians saw a mosaic of magi who were Persians and/or because Jesus is seen as a prophet in Islam so holy site.
The Crusaders added wooden ceilings and mosaics along the wall. Some of those mosaics remain but some was stolen because they were made of gold.
The Iconostasis was added in the 1700s by the Greek Orthodox Church. It was a gift from king of Romania. The Czar of Russia gave the candelabra.
The ceramic balls at the top of the Orthodox lamps hanging down from the ceiling were designed to keep mice from drinking the oil in the lamps.
Jerome studied in Bethlehem for 40 years and lived in caves including the Grotto. He wrote the Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Bible. Jerome was buried on the site in 410, but his bones were taken to Rome by Crusaders.
The church has sections used and maintained by the Catholic Church, Greek Orthodox Church, and Armenian Orthodox Church. They clean at the same time each day as a way to mark their territory. All three of these churches have different dates for celebrating Christmas Eve.
God as a Baby
God becoming one of us – one of the greatest miracles of all time. He “made himself nothing” or also translated “emptied himself” – like pouring the essence of God into the body of a baby.
Consider Philippians 2:5-8
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
The Field of the Shepherds
One of the possible locations for the angelic announcement of Jesus was in a place now called Beit Sahour. After the harvest, the shepherds would stay in caves with their flocks. These caves were not where they normally lived but their “home away from home.”
A woman from Beit Sahour jokingly said the proof that the site in her town is the actual one is that God knew the angels should make their announcement to her town because the people there are known to have big mouths. 🙂
In those days, the shepherds would sleep near the entrance to protect their flock. Jesus references this practice when he says in John 10:9-10 when he says:
I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
Often the shepherds from an extended family would share a cave. The sheep would be all mixed up in the cave, but when a shepherd left and called for his flock, the sheep would recognize their shepherd’s voice and follow him out of the cave. Those in the other flocks would stay back. Jesus references this idea when he says in John 10:3-5…
The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”
One of the more fascinating realizations on this trip was discovering something I realized or considered about a missing part of the story of Jesus.
Besides working as a carpenter, what was Jesus doing from the age of 12 to 30 when he began his public ministry?
Jesus studied, knew, and quoted the Scripture.
It makes perfect sense. He quoted from Deuteronomy to overcome the temptations in the wilderness before his public ministry. He quoted the Scriptures often in his teachings to the disciples and to the crowds and when healing others.
He came as the fulfillment of the Scriptures.
A phrase we heard from our hosts included this one: “Knowing the Bible is knowing Jesus.”
Erwin McManus puts it this way: The Scriptures are a portal into God’s presence!
Consider what the Bible says about itself:
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” – Hebrews 4:12
The Bible is never to be used as a weapon to bludgeon people. Instead, the Bible is more like a scalpel that does work on us to heal us from what ails us.
Don’t just read the Scriptures, let the Scriptures read you.
What if what keeps us from experiencing all the Bible has to offer has more to do with our view of the Bible than the Bible itself?
Applying this to our life:
- Have you ever considered the Messianic prophecies fulfilled by Jesus?
- For those with faith, are you aware of the evidence that supports what you believe?
- Are you open-minded or close-minded when it comes to discovering God’s heart for humanity through the Scriptures?
- If open-minded, how can you make spending time in the Scriptures a practice?
- Have you ever memorized passages of the Scriptures? If so, what helps you memorize?
- Winning Bible trivia contests doesn’t change our lives. Applying the Scriptures brings transformation. What has God been showing you to apply from His Word recently?