Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12 “Born in Bethlehem”
December 23, 2018 at Dillingham Presbyterian Church
While in the early history of Presbyterianism holidays were generally not recognized, it is common in many places today, even among conservative Presbyterians that a sermon on Christ’s death be preached at Easter or a sermon on Christ’s birth be preached at Christmas or that some other day—whether religious or national—be recognized in its due place.
When it comes to acknowledging a day as important in some way—or for some remembrance—Paul tells us in Romans 14:5-6
“One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.”
While Paul perhaps is referring primarily to the various days of the week, we can infer that his principle holds true for all days. In fact, the commentator William Hendriksen points out that the days Paul is referring to may either be the seventh day Sabbath of the Jews, or it may be certain days of fasting, or it may be the certain specific days of religious festivals prescribed by Moses.
But whatever the “days” are that Paul is referring to, his principle is clear. “The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord, the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord.”
If you celebrate a particular day, do so in honor of the Lord. [REPEAT: If you celebrate a particular day, do so in honor of the Lord.]
So if you celebrate Easter as the Western Church does—on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox—or if you celebrate Easter as the Eastern Church does—according to the 14th day of Nisan of the Jewish calendar, whenever you celebrate Easter, do so in honor of the Lord.
And if you choose to observe ONLY Sunday as a holy day set especially apart for the Lord, do so in honor of the Lord. And if you choose to celebrate the Lord’s birth on December 25th or in the middle of the summer, do so with thanks unto the Lord. This is a great freedom we have in Christ.
Now, it might be a surprise to some that it is not in fact Christmas that is historically the greatest of Christian holidays. It is Easter. (Children may especially be surprised since it is the custom in our land that they receive grand presents on Christmas, but merely small chocolate eggs on Easter.)
Christmas celebrates Christ’s birth, but Easter celebrates Christ’s resurrection; his rebirth. And in that we are promised eternal life in Christ. It is Christ’s resurrection that perhaps urges celebration more than any other event.
In actuality, we celebrate Easter each and every Lord’s Day because this—the first day of the week—was the day of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And so, each and every Sunday it is right and proper to announce “He is Risen!”
And so, because it is acceptable to recognize certain days as long as such recognition is done in the honor of the Lord, on December 2nd of this year, Rev. Hicks preached an Advent sermon on John the Baptist, the witness to the coming Christ. And today—three weeks later— I am blessed to preach on Christ himself and his birth.
The passage today from the Gospel of Matthew starts by saying “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea” but Matthew had not so far in his Gospel even told us of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, nor does not tell us the immediate reasons why Joseph and Mary are in Bethlehem. For that, we look to Luke’s Gospel which tells us that a census had been decreed by Caesar Augustus and that each person had to be registered in his town. And so Joseph “went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem because he was of the house and lineage of David.” (Luke 2:4)
While the census is the immediate reason for Joseph and Mary’s travels to Bethlehem, there is another—a greater—reason why they are there. And Matthew does tell us about that. He says that as “it is written by the prophet,” a ruler will come from Bethlehem who will shepherd God’s people. Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem then was a fulfillment of prophecy.
The prophet in view is not one of the major prophets—Isaiah or Jeremiah—but is the minor prophet Micah. And it is quite fitting that Micah—this minor prophet, this small-town rural prophet—is the one who announces that this minor town, this tiny village of Bethlehem, is to have the honor of being the place where a great ruler will be born.
Micah’s prophecy from Micah 5:2 reads:
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me, one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.”
Bethlehem means “house of bread” in Hebrew. That is, “Beth” is house and “lehem” is bread. And Micah calls the town “Bethlehem Ephrathah” because there was another Bethlehem in the tribe of Zebulon. So naming it “Bethlehem Ephrathah” he distinguishes this Bethlehem in Judah from the Bethlehem of the tribe of Zebulon in Galilee.
And Micah says that from this Bethlehem will come a ruler in Israel, “whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” This hardly can be a normal ruler, or even someone elevated like David or Solomon. Though all rulers are so ordained to rule by God, it is specifically mentioned here that the coming forth of this ruler from Bethlehem is not a new plan of God’s, but has been His plan from the beginning. This can hardly be a prophecy of merely another temporal king in the line of Jewish kings. This is a prophecy of the coming of one far greater; the coming of the Messiah.
And it is this passage from Micah that Matthew quotes. He says that Herod assembled all the chief priests and scribes and inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. And they said “In Bethlehem of Judea.” “For so it is written by the prophet. ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” (Matthew 2: 6)
With such a small village, the fulfillment of the prophecy is made all the more clear. Had the messiah been prophesied to be born in Jerusalem with a population in the hundreds of thousands, there would be a great chance of confusion over who was the messiah. But with Bethlehem, there are very few births; and even fewer born there who are also of the line of David the king.
Of the fulfilled prophecies of Jesus his birth in Bethlehem is one of the most important. Perhaps one might try to contend that Jesus performed some miracles—like turning water into wine, or multiplying fish and loaves—by some sleight of hand. Or one might try to contend that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies because he consciously sought out to do so. But while there are certain things in one’s life that a person has some control over, no one has control over the place of their birth. No one can choose where they are born, or to whom they are born. And so this fulfilled prophecy—written 700 years previously— this prophecy that Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem—is a testament to the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, and not merely self-appointed.
The point then in all this discussion of Bethlehem is that tiny Bethlehem is given a great honor in being promised place of Christ’s birth, and the fulfillment of this prophecy is a solid testimony to the legitimacy of the claim that Jesus is the Messiah. [REPEAT: tiny Bethlehem is given a great honor in being promised place of Christ’s birth, and the fulfillment of this prophecy is a solid testimony to the legitimacy of the claim that Jesus is the Messiah.]
But before we move on, there is perhaps one other thing to mention here. That is, it is seen here that the chief priest and scribes, and Herod himself, had some measure of respect for the Scriptures. Perhaps their understanding was distorted in many places, but when it came to this prophecy they cared what the Scriptures said. In fact, the chief priests and scribes used the phrase “It is written.” That is, it is solid and trustworthy, because it is the word of the Lord.
This is the way Christ himself would later refer to Scripture, saying “It is written.” It is of the Lord.
II: THEY WORSHIPPED HIM
We see also in this passage from Matthew 2 a sort of foreshadowing of the evil of Herod who later in the chapter will order the “slaughter of the innocents” in Bethlehem because he did not want competition as King of Israel. The messiah Jesus, even as a newborn, was a threat to King Herod.
But in our passage the focus has not yet moved on to Herod, but remains on Jesus. And of the remainder of the passage perhaps the most important statement is “they fell down and worshipped him.” [REPEAT: “they fell down and worshipped him.”] That is, the wise men, upon arrival, fell down and worshipped Jesus.
How can anyone say that the Bible does not teach Jesus’ divinity?!
The doctrine of Christ’s divinity is presented in many ways in Scriptures.
Hearkening back to the name of God in the Old Testament, Yahweh—I am who I am, Jesus said seven times:
1. “I AM the bread of life.”
2. “I AM the light of the world.”
3. “I AM the door.”
4. “I AM the good shepherd.”
5. “I AM the resurrection and the life.”
6. “I AM the way, the truth, and the life.”
7. “I AM the true vine.”
Jesus is the great I AM. He is divine.
The doctrine of Christ’s divinity is also seen when Jesus told the Jews, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58) And if there is any doubt in the readers’ mind, there was no doubt in the minds of the people for they responded by picking up stones to stone him because they understood Jesus to be doing nothing less than claiming himself to be God!
In our passage also we seen Christ’s divinity taught. The wise men fell down and worshipped Jesus.
Who were these wise men? Were they Jews from the East who had come from Babylon, living there for generations since the Captivity? Or were they Zoroastrian priests who looked to the stars for guidance? Perhaps some of each?
And how many of them were there? A tradition has developed that there were three wise men, but we only know from the account that the wise men brought three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We don’t know how many wise men themselves there actually were.
Whoever they were—and however many they were—they are said to have fallen down and worshipped Jesus.
In the entire Bible there is no command to worship anyone but God. We do not worship Mary, nor do we worship the saints, but we are to worship God alone. And so by the wise men’s worshipping of Jesus, and the Gospel writer’s approval of them doing so, it is clear that the wise men as well as Matthew, our author, believed Jesus to be divine; to be himself God in the flesh.
The apostle John says “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” [REPEAT: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”] We call this The Incarnation. To incarnate is to take on humanity, to take on flesh. We have this word from the Latin incarno meaning “to make into flesh.” You might see this same root Latin word words like carnivore, the word for meat-eating or flesh-eating animals. That, anyways, helps me think of what is meant by “incarnation”—taking on flesh.
So Jesus Christ, the 2nd Person of the Trinity took on the nature of man and dwelt among men.
But while man, he was (and is) also God. And thus he was worshipped by the wise men.
And the wise men were not the last to be recorded as worshipping Jesus.
Without even going beyond the Gospel of Matthew from which our passage comes, we find other examples of worshipping Jesus:
In Mathew 8 “a leper came and worshipped him (Jesus)”
In Matthew 9 – a ruler whose daughter had died “came and worshipped him (Jesus)”
In Matthew 14 after Jesus had walked on water and the wind had ceased, “those in the boat worshipped him (Jesus)”
In Matthew 15 a Canaanite women with a demon-possessed daughter came “and worshipped him (Jesus)”
And finally, in Matthew 28, after Jesus had been resurrected from the dead, the disciples came “and worshipped him (Jesus).”
From the beginning to the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is being worshipped. And this makes it abundantly clear that Jesus is divine, for only God deserves our worship.
III. CHRISTMAS NO-SHOWS
So the wise men from the East came and worshipped Jesus. But have you ever considered who the “Christmas no-shows” were? Who didn’t show up? The priests and scribes knew the prophecy, but there is no record of them traveling along with the wise men to Bethlehem. And Bethlehem is only 6 miles from Jerusalem. And Herod didn’t go either.
I imagine their whole rabble (Herod, the priests and scribes) saying together “BAH, humbug.”
The most important birth in the history of the world, and they could not find time for it. The greatest event that had ever occurred and they could not be bothered to attend. “BAH, humbug.”
Let us not be no-shows when it comes to worshipping the Lord. Let us recognize that worshipping the Lord, giving Him glory is our chief end, not something we make time for only after all else is done. But let us worship God in everything we do and in all moments of our lives. Let us not be no-shows when it comes to worshiping the Lord.
For we have great reason to worship the Lord Jesus Christ. Because not only was he born into this world, but he came to accomplish a purpose – the salvation of our sins through his death on the cross. Taking upon himself our sin. Taking upon himself our guilt. And giving us forgiveness, reconciliation with God, and ultimately eternal life. That is the greatest of reasons for us to praise the Lord.
And so I want to look at two applications from this passage.
APPLICATION 1: As Bethlehem was so tiny but so important, so too are all things important in God’s plans. So too are you and I. [REPEAT: As Bethlehem was so tiny but so important, so too are all things important in God’s plans. So too are you and I.]
Some—typically atheists—look out on the vast universe and say “I am but a meaningless speck.” Despair follows.
But we should look out on the universe and say of all things, of all things, man is the greatest. Stars are beautiful, but they are just hydrogen and helium. A human being is far more complex. And in addition we have souls, and we are made in the image of God.
We, despite being small in the universe, are of great importance in God’s plan.
Man is the crowning achievement of God’s creation.
He made the heavens and the earth, the fish, the animals, and all things. And then he made man. Men and women, all human beings together are the pinnacle of God’s creation.
DO NOT believe the lie that you are insignificant.
You, like tiny Bethlehem, have a great place in God’s plan. For God works all things together for good for those who love Him.
We can see from our passage, however, not only that we are significant—that we have meaning—but we can see also that we have purpose. Our purpose—our chief end, as the catechism calls it—is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. As the wise men worshipped Jesus, and as the disciples (and all the rest) worshipped Jesus, so too are we to worship the Lord Jesus Christ. This shall be our second application.Worship the King, Jesus.
APPLICATION 2: Worship the King, Jesus.
This is, in fact, our primary reason for being in church. This is a worship service. Though we benefit in many ways from church — having social contacts, learning about God, enjoying the music, etc. — our primary purpose here is (and must always be) to worship the Lord.
We know the reason for the season – at Christmastime we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Let us also keep focused on the purpose for this and all seasons; worshipping, glorifying God. In all that you do in this season — whether with family, or friends, or by yourself (and I’ve been there) — whatever you do, do it in honor of the Lord.
So, this Christmas—this Sunday—let us Worship Jesus Christ. Let us worship the King, all glorious above, and let us gratefully sing his power and his love. For it is the love of Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem, truly God and truly man, that brings hope to the downcast and downtrodden and by which we shall one day be raised to eternal life. Let us worship the newborn king. It is in his name we pray, Amen.
Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12 “Born in Bethlehem”