Bethlehem—A Powerful Metaphor for Your Life’s Greatest Need

The place of Jesus' birth puts our priorities in their proper place.

Christmas cards and carols venerate Bethlehem as an idyllic, quiet place with “silent stars” above it and “deep and dreamless sleep” within its walls. A pleasant picture, for sure. But it wasn’t always so.

Bethlehem—A Metaphor for Your Heart

(Photo: Today’s little town of Bethlehem, courtesy of the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands)

Scripture’s introduction to Bethlehem isn’t pretty.

  • Jacob buries his favorite wife, Rachel, on the way to Bethlehem (Genesis 35:19).
  • The book of Judges mentions Bethlehem in conjunction with a corrupt priest who became a mercenary for idolaters (Judges 17:8-9).
  • Another account describes a Bethlehem concubine who, after leaving town, was brutally raped and dismembered (Judges 19:1-30).

Not a great beginning for the little town of Bethlehem.

But then, the scene shifts.

Bethlehem Turns a Corner

The book of Ruth ushers in the noble characters of Ruth and Boaz. Like lights in the dark days of the judges, this couple honors God with their lives—and makes their home in Bethlehem.

Their great-grandson, David, became Israel’s greatest king (Ruth 4:11, 22). Bethlehem became David’s backyard.

  • The Lord promised David that one of his descendants would sit on his throne and rule over an eternal kingdom (2 Samuel 7:16).
  • The prophet Micah further revealed that this son of David, the Messiah, would be born in ignoble Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).
  • It was this prophecy from Micah that drove the mad King Herod to kill the baby boys in Bethlehem after hearing of the birth of Jesus (Matthew 2:1-16).

(All pics courtesy of the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands)

The Church of the Nativity—Israel’s Oldest

Modern Bethlehem enjoys a tourist boom each December as thousands flock to the city in celebration of Christmas. The pilgrims congregate at the Church of the Nativity—the oldest standing church in Israel.

In the second century, when the Emperor Hadrian imposed his polytheistic—and overtly anti-Judeo-Christian—changes to Israel, he desecrated a particular cave in Bethlehem by including it in a grove dedicated to the pagan god Tammuz.

Jerome's statue at Bethlehem's Church of Nativity

(Photo: Jerome’s statue at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, courtesy of the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands)

As early as the second century, this cave was venerated as the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth.

  • After the Emperor Constantine’s mother visited the Holy Land, he built a church over the cave in AD 326. Roughly square in shape, the church covered the grotto with an octagonal apse.
  • The floor featured beautiful mosaics, some of which can still be seen beneath the floor of today’s Church of the Nativity.
  • In the fourth century, Jerome lived in an adjacent cave and translated the Vulgate—the Latin translation of Scripture used by Catholics for centuries.

Destroyed by Samaritans in 529, the church was immediately rebuilt and enlarged by the Emperor Justinian. This structure remains in its essence today.

Bethlehem Church of Nativity interior

(Photo: Bethlehem Church of Nativity interior. Courtesy of the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands)

  • According to tradition, the church escaped destruction by the Persians in AD 614 only because the depictions of the Magi portrayed them in Persian dress.
  • Over the centuries, the church has fallen into disrepair and has enjoyed and endured many restorative efforts. Most recently, the leaky roof has needed fixing.

Bethlehem had a sordid beginning. But it is immortalized forever as the birthplace of Messiah. As with our own lives, God transformed Bethlehem from insignificant to meaningful because Jesus was born there.

Bethlehem in Your Life Today

The Prophet Micah predicted the city where the Messiah would be born seven centuries before it happened. Micah’s words do little to hide Bethlehem’s ignoble status:

As for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity. —Micah 5:2

Everybody wanted the Second Coming of Christ at the first Advent. They wanted the political deliver—not the spiritual deliverer. The present age is no different.

For those of us trapped in the confines of time, we suffer from time’s limited perspective. We may not admit it, but we see our greatest needs from God as physical. Our prayers betray our priorities:

  • Protect us from harm.
  • Provide us money for the mortgage.
  • Help us succeed in our vocations and educations.

All fine prayers and all legitimate—just shortsighted.

Jesus came first in humility—born in ignoble Bethlehem and died an ignoble death in Jerusalem—because our greatest need before God is spiritual, not physical. We needed a Savior before we needed a King (see Hebrews 9:28).

Christmas reminds us that our greatest need before God is a heart that loves Him and follows Him.

If Jesus were born one thousand times in Bethlehem and not in me, then I would still be lost. —Corrie ten Boom

Tell me what you think: What helps you keep the spiritual aspect of Christmas a priority? To leave a comment, just click here.

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  • Pingback: A Little Town—Bethlehem | Wayne Stiles()


    Brilliant! You make more profound points, and make them *clearer*, than most preachers do. And (as always) the photos you select are exceptional! Todah rabah.

    • Well, thank you. Thanks so much for your note! I appreciate it very much.

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  • enjoyed your message today, thanks! God bless and Merry Christmas!

    • Thank you, Mark. Merry Christmas to you as well. Thanks.

    • Thank you, Mark. Merry Christmas to you.

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  • Doug

    Very informative and inspirational… Thank you sir for this message…

    • You’re very welcome, Doug. God bless — and have a merry Christmas.

  • Wanting to ensure that my kids know Christmas is more about Jesus than presents, Santa, or lights—this is what helps me these little years keep the spiritual focus as I creatively pass on the truth of Christmas to my kids.

    • What a great perspective, Seana. Your children are blessed.

  • Alisicia A. Mayo Curry

    To me, CHRIST is the most symbolic expression of Christmas.

    Observed most commonly on December 25, the exciting creed of Christmas is celebrating love and sharing in the spiritual blessing through the gift of giving, as the three wise men brought gifts to baby Jesus. Reiterating the musical ballot “Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year”, resonates with my personal beliefs.

    As we provide presents this Holiday season, we should be especially attentive to the many unfortunate souls out there that are not our close family and friends, but spiritual brothers and sisters in Christ, that are in need of spiritual cheer. This Christmas, it can be a rewarding venture to do something special for a stranger that is in need of a little light. Volunteering at a local shelter serving a Christmas meal or giving a gift to an unknown soul, is an act of kindness that is destined to be well received.

    We all come from different walks of life, so we cannot readily expect all God’s creatures to conform to our Christian interpretations. However, as Christians, we can offer kindness and celebrate this festive time of year by embracing and emulating spiritual love as our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

    Merry Christmas to ALL and continue to flourish in love, peace and spiritual unity.

    • Al

      Mr. Stiles,
      I presume if you disagree with something that is written, you simply don’t reply or response to the comment. We all have different beliefs and hold strongly to our own interpretations of Christmas. If there’s something in the posting that is contrary to the word of GOD and is NOT based on biblical principle, I feel that it is your spiritual duty, as an author and blogger of God’s word, to offer insight on the correct biblical interpretation to YOUR audience and therefore extend biblical truths that are not contradictory to the Holy Scripture.

      • I appreciate your passion, Al. It’s actually pretty rare I don’t respond. (I believe I did respond to your other comment?) There’s nothing you’ve written I disagree with. Yes, of course, if there is a need to comment and an opportunity to point to the Word of God, I’ll do it. However, as the Proverbs 24:5-6 points out, sometimes it’s good to answer someone, and sometimes it’s better to move along. That’s not always an easy balance to maintain.

        My apologies for the tardy response. I’ve had quite a bit happening in my life lately—HUGE changes that have been all-consuming. God bless you as you volunteer this Christmas.

        • Al

          Thank you Mr. Stiles, your message is always greatly appreciated. Happy New Year and may our Heavenly Father see you through your life changes.

          • Thank you so much, Al. May the Lord bless you as well.

  • Michelle thick

    Good message thank you.

  • Clara Gamache

    I was very ill recently and could have died! That has helped to focus more on the spiritual side of Christmas. It really more Blessed to give tham to receive.

    • That’s very true, Clara. Sometimes we have to lose something to appreciate it! How grateful of God to give it back. God bless.

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