We hear about Bethlehem so frequently because of the Christmas story that most of us (I think) assume it was a pretty important town in Israel. But it wasn’t, at least not like we’d consider New York City important in America. In fact, “Bethlehem” is only mentioned 51 times in the entire Bible! 15 of those mentions have to do with David’s coming-and-goings, since that was his home-town. 8 of those mentions are in the Gospels telling of Jesus’ birth. Bethlehem is also mentioned 7 in Ruth, since it’s the hometown of Naomi and Boaz. Those three stories account for more than half the mentioned of Bethlehem; the rest are all very much in passing (ex: “Then Ibzan died, and was buried in Bethlehem” Judges 12:10. Most of the other mentions are similar to this.). Really, the only thing that ever happened of significance in Bethelehem prior to Jesus’ birth was when Samuel anointed David as King of Israel (1 Samuel 16).
Whenever I hear “O Little Town of Bethlehem” I’m reminded about the meaning of “Bethlehem.” Literally, Bethlehem means “House of Bread.”
In John 6:48-52, Jesus says “I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
There are a few tie-ins here,
- Bethlehem – When Jesus says “I am the bread of life” I just think how God pays enough attention to details, so much that He ordained the town where David grew up (and where the Messiah was to be born) to be named Bethlehem… “House of Bread” gave birth to the “Bread of life” – pretty cool!
- Manna – Jesus points to the manna God provided of Israel in the desert… and then he basically says, “Remember the manna? I AM THE MANNA!” God provided for Israel’s physical needs through the manna; God provided for the world’s spiritual and eternal needs through “the living bread that came down from heaven.”
- Lord’s Prayer – We all know the line “Give us this day our daily bread…” Well, Jesus says, “That’s me! I am your daily bread.”
- Communion / Lord’s Supper – “This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Later on in John 6 is the controversial “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood” passage. It seems pretty clear to me that Jesus is speaking metaphorically of himself as the “Heavenly Manna,” so we should apply to that communion also.
Jesus Christ is the bread of life who brings those who receive him eternal hope, peace, love, and joy. What have you done with Jesus?
P.S. I’ve mentioned “Bethlehem” 10 times in this short article (which is WAY shorter than the Bible). Just thought that might give a little perspective on how infrequently Bethlehem is mentioned.