Christmastime holds a sacred spot in the heart of every believer. As we unpack our nativity sets, practice our Christmas plays, sing our favorite carols, and reread the beloved scriptures—we’re transported back in time to a very different culture and setting where the Word first became flesh. The miraculous event that forever changed humanity’s future happened in an unlikely place, but not by accident. Where was Jesus born? Let’s look in the Bible to see God’s miraculous plan of redemption unfold through Scripture and time.
Where Was Jesus Born and Why?
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-12; Luke 2:4-20). But how did Mary and Joseph find themselves so far from their hometown of Nazareth at a time so close to Mary’s delivery? The explanation begins with Caesar Augustus, the Emperor of Rome, who ruled from 27 BC-14 AD. Historians have branded Caesar Augustus as the greatest Roman Emperor of all time. His most notable act, the one that left his mark on history, was his census plan. This census would prove successful in Augustus’s overall plan to collect taxes and transform Rome from a brick and mortar city to a marble empire.
The biblical account of nativity tells us that Jesus was born during the time the Israelites were called to participate in Caesar Augustus’ census. Joseph and Mary had to travel from the town of Nazareth to Bethlehem so that they could fulfill their duty (Luke 2). Why would the couple have to travel more than 80 miles to be counted? In deference to Jewish customs, Roman law required people who lived in Judea and the surrounding area to return to their ancestral homeland for census registration. Since Joseph belonged to the house and line of David, Bethlehem was his designated census hub.
“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. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” (Luke 2:4-5)
7 Things to Know about Bethlehem
1. Bethlehem means house of bread—Bethlehem is located in the hill country right outside of Jerusalem. A mild climate and plentiful rainfall, ensure that the town’s fields, orchards, and vineyards thrive into consistently bountiful harvests. The fertile land is probably why the area was first called Bethlehem or Beit Lehem, which means, “house of bread.” In His divine sovereignty, God would later appoint this town as the birthplace of His Son who would declare, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)
2. Bethlehem was considered a tiny, insignificant town—Instead of choosing the holy city of Jerusalem as the birthplace of the King of Kings, God selected a town so small that it wasn’t even listed in the registry of towns in Joshua 15 or Nehemiah 11. Not only was this unusual act the fulfillment of messianic prophecy (Micah 5:2, Matthew 2:6), but the Savior’s humble birthplace demonstrates God’s greatness. As John Piper explains, “God chose something small, quiet, out of the way, and did something there that changes the course of history and eternity.”
3. Scripture foretold the Messiah’s Birth in Bethlehem—700 years before Jesus was born, the prophet Micah prophesied that Bethlehem would be the Messiah’s birthplace. “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2) God used the Roman Empire’s greedy taxation practices to draw Mary and Joseph to the appointed place of Christ’s birth at the appointed time.
4. Rachel gave birth to Benjamin and Jacob buried her near Bethlehem— During Jacob’s long journey back to his homeland, his beloved wife Rachel dies while giving birth to their second son, Benjamin. Instead of burying Rachel there, Jacob chose to lay his wife to rest right outside Bethlehem (Genesis 48:7). Rachel is mentioned in the nativity story when Matthew quotes the prophet Jeremiah. “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted.” (Matthew 2:18)
Rachel wept for her children because they were in exile and in desperate need of a deliverer. Benjamin was the last son born in the twelve tribes of Israel. The next Son given to Israel would be the Messiah—the One who would deliver Rachel’s children and the whole world from our sin-bought exile into death. Today, Rachel’s tomb still stands near the entrance to Bethlehem and is considered a holy site to the Jewish people.
5. Naomi and Ruth returned to Bethlehem—After the death of her husband and sons, Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem, the home of her ancestors. Naomi’s Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth, insisted on accompanying her saying, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. (Ruth 1:16) When the two arrive in Bethlehem, Naomi sends Ruth to work in the field of a wealthy relative named Boaz. He becomes their kinsman redeemer, marries Ruth, and they have a son named Obed, who was the grandfather of King David. (Ruth 4:13-17) and the forefather of Jesus.
Jesus became the kinsman redeemer for all who believe in Him. He purchased us as His bride with His own blood, delivered us from the curse of sin and death, and gave us His name, which is above every other name.
6. Bethlehem is known as the City of David. Scripture tells us that the prophet Samuel went to Bethlehem in search of a new king, just as the magi would years later. At God’s direction Samuel found and anointed a young shepherd boy named David. (1 Samuel 16:4–13) The city of Bethlehem would eventually bear the title of the new king. The prophets foretold that another King would rule and reign forever from David’s line. After 400 years of silence, God held true to His promise and sent the King of Kings to be born in the same town as His servant David. “He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing it and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever” (Isaiah. 9:7)
7. Bethlehem was the place where lambs were raised for temple sacrifice—Because the fields surrounding Bethlehem were a short distance from the Temple, they were designated as holy pastures for raising sacrificial lambs. At Migdal Eder, the Tower of the Flock, generations of shepherds tended their lambs. According to Exodus 29:38-46, two lambs had to be sacrificed every day. Before David was king, he raised sheep in the same Bethlehem pastures that were likely home to the shepherds from Luke 2. In fact, the reason Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem was that they were required to pay taxes in their ancestral hometown and Joseph was a descendent of King David. Is it any wonder that God chose Bethlehem as the birthplace of our Savior? He is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
Why Is Bethlehem Still Relevant?
Bethlehem is the home to over 27,000 residents today. Those who live in Bethlehem are considered citizens of Palestine. Two million tourists provide 65% of the town’s wealth. Christians from all over the world travel to Bethlehem to see and experience the birthplace of Christ. The Church of the Nativity, built around AD 327, still stands in the heart of Bethlehem and is visited by thousands of believers every year. According to extra-biblical sources, the cave under the church is the actual spot where Christ was born. Whether or not that’s true, believers will always treasure Bethlehem, because of the city’s rich biblical heritage and because we can see Jesus there.
Scripture tells us that one day Jesus will come again. But He won’t appear in the little town of Bethlehem, under humble circumstances. Nor will He emerge as a tiny baby who represents a little lamb. On that long-awaited day, our King of Kings will come on a cloud of glory with all the fanfare He so richly deserves (Revelation 19:11-21).
Now is the time to accept the salvation Jesus freely offers. If you’d like more information about how to do that check out this article, and truly celebrate the ultimate Christmas Gift—who arrived 2000 years ago, in the little town of Bethlehem.
“O holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us, we pray; Cast out our sin and enter in, Be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels. The great glad tidings tell: Oh, come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel!” O’ Little Town of Bethlehem, 1868
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/kevron2001
Annette Marie Griffin is an award-winning author and speaker who has managed and directed children’s and youth programs for more than 20 years. Her debut children’s book, What Is A Family? released through Familius Publishing in 2020. Annette has also written curriculum for character growth and development of elementary-age children and has developed parent training seminars to benefit the community. Her passion is to help wanderers find home. She and her husband have five children—three who have already flown the coop and two adopted teens still roosting at home—plus two adorable grands who add immeasurable joy and laughter to the whole flock.