Black and white cityscape photo of Bethlehem town.

O Little Town of Bethlehem

By Tim Harmon

Tim Harmon is finishing his MA in Biblical-Theological Studies and will begin work on the ThM at Western Seminary in the Spring. Tim also serves as the Graduate Assistant to Dr. Jan Verbruggen at Western Seminary.


Bethlehem. There’s really no more significant city at Christmastime. After all, it’s where Jesus was born.

A Small Town

Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth informs us that the Magi, working off an astrological cue, travelled to Jerusalem, just north of Bethlehem, and asked Herod where the “king of the Jews” was (Matt. 2:2).

When Herod, who fancied himself “king of the Jews,” maliciously inquired where “the Christ was to be born,” the Magi replied, “In Bethlehem of Judea” (Matt. 2:4-5).

Black and white cityscape photo of Bethlehem town.

As support for their answer, they referenced Micah 5:2-4, incorporating language from 2 Samuel 5:2:

‘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’ (Matt. 2:6)

What’s so fascinating about their reply, is that at first glance, the second line seems to get the sense of Micah 5:2 all wrong:

 ‘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…’

On the lips of the Magi, the language seems to indicate that Bethlehem is “by no means” insignificant – but in Micah, the idea is that Bethlehem is indeed insignificant.

Scholars have debated this issue, but the best solution is probably the one put forth by D. A. Carson, who concurs that there is a “formal contradiction” between Matthew and Micah, yet concludes that the sense of both passages is the same, namely that the most significant figure of all – the Messiah – would come from the most insignificant of places – the small town of Bethlehem. [1]

A Big Idea

The big idea that both Micah and Matthew work to promote is this:

God chooses what is insignificant in man’s eyes to accomplish His own great purposes.

This principle is woven throughout the pages of Scripture.

  • Think of God’s selection of the Israelites to be His people, about which Moses wrote,

‘The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples’ (Deut. 7:7).

  • Remember King David (also born in Bethlehem). He was once so seemingly insignificant that his father Jesse didn’t even think to present him when Samuel was looking for Israel’s future king (1 Sam. 16).
  • This principle is well summarized in 1 Cor. 1:28-29:

‘God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.’

That last phrase is the key towards understanding why God chooses what is small: He does it so that “no one may boast before him” – so that no one may say “I did it – look at me!” but must concede, “God has done it – look to Him!”

What’s so extraordinary is that God would ground the most profound expression of this principle in His own action. God the Son, the one by and for whom all things were made, humbled himself, taking on human flesh, being born as a small baby, in not just a small town, but in a feeding trough for animals.

And so was the trajectory of Jesus’ life on earth. He lived as a servant rather than a sovereign. Instead of being bowed down to, he bowed down, washing the filthy feet of his followers. His death, a brutal crucifixion flanked by common criminals, was but a culmination of the course that his life had traced since birth.

However, in God’s economy, this humiliation was no failure, but an achievement of incalculable significance. At the cross, Jesus paid the price for sin that only God could pay – an infinite price that no finite creature could afford. And that payment was accepted, confirmed by Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

The cross, finally, leaves no room for boasting. Of their salvation, no human can say, “I did it – look at me!” Instead, at the cross, we see both what we deserve: infinite judgment; and, if a child of God, what we have gained: an unmerited gift of infinite mercy.

That is the true significance of Bethlehem – that on its own, it is insignificant. And so it is with our own lives. For most of us, life often adds up to one feat after another in an ongoing quest for significance – whether through accumulating possessions, degrees, or accolades. The message of Bethlehem is the message of the cross: stop trying to make much of self, and start making much of God. In the end, our significance is not measured by our own achievements, but in being chosen by God.


[1]  D.A. Carson. Matthew and Mark (the Expositor’s Bible Commentary). Revised Edition. ed. Tremper Longman III, and David E. Garland. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010. 114-15.


One thought on “O Little Town of Bethlehem

  1. I have always thought it was amazing that no one but the Magi bothered to make the six-mile walk to Bethlehem to check it out.

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