O Little Town of Bethlehem

Phillips Brooks was the minister of a church in Philadelphia when he wrote the lyrics of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” He desired to have a special carol for the children to sing in their Christmas program. As he contemplated the nativity, Brooks recalled visiting Bethlehem while on a trip to the Holy Land in 1865. This peaceful scene blended with the biblical account and inspired him to write the lyrics in one evening.

Now the poem needed music, so Brooks gave a copy of the words to his church organist, Lewis Redner. The Christmas program was only days away when Redner awoke from sleep with a tune floating through his mind. He got up and wrote out the notes for the present melody of this carol. [1]

And so, carolers around the world sing:

“O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by;
yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light–
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.

For Christ is born of Mary–
and gathered all above,
while mortals sleep the angels keep
their watch of wond’ring love.
O morning stars, together proclaim the holy birth,
and praises sing to God the King,
and peace to men on earth.”

The birth of Christ in Bethlehem required the marvelous working of the triune God. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit used even the geography of the Incarnation to reveal divine faithfulness.

1. The location of Christ’s birth signals The MINISTRY OF GOD THE FATHER.

This included the providential ordering of events that brought about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The question arises, since Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth, how did Christ come to be born in Bethlehem? Luke informs us that the Roman Emperor was the human agent that required the mother and step-father of Jesus to make this journey:

“And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered … So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered” (Luke 2:1,36).

This reminds us that God is sovereign, working all things according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11). The book of Proverbs helps us perceive that, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, Like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1).

How does this encourage us as people of God? God uses circumstances to conform us to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29). Although our circumstances may be troublesome, they are not our real problem. We do well to believe that, “… all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Of course, this requires confidence in God’s providence. Mary may have wondered why God allowed this census that made her travel for several days, maybe riding a donkey, while nine months pregnant! [2] Yet, this trip fulfilled God the Father’s plan that His Son would be born in Bethlehem.

2. The location of Christ’s birth signals the MINISTRY OF GOD THE SON.

We know that He willingly laid aside the independent use of His divine attributes when He was born. The Son of God clothed Himself in human nature (Phil. 2:5-8; Cf. John 1:1,14).

But what is the significance of Bethlehem? It is noteworthy that Bethlehem was the town of David. It was appropriate for the Messiah to be born there because God had promised King David an eternal dynasty (2 Sam. 7:8-16). This covenant was confirmed by Gabriel’s announcement to the virgin Mary:

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33).

Also, the meaning of “Bethlehem” is significant. This Hebrew name is literally “house of bread.” Remember that Christ testified after feeding the 5000, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). How appropriate that the Son of God–the bread of life–would be born in Bethlehem, the “house of bread”!

3. The location of Christ’s birth signals the MINISTRY OF GOD THE HOLY SPIRIT.

It is clear that the virgin conception was due to the creative miracle of God’s Spirit. Luke recorded, “And the angel answered and said to her [Mary], “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:34). Christ’s conception was timed to coincide with the trip to Bethlehem.

Also, the Micah wrote this prophecy in the eighth century B.C.: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Though you are little among the thousands of Judah, Yet out of you shall come forth to Me The One to be Ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old, From everlasting” (Micah 5:2). How would the prophet have known this fact? The apostle Peter gives us the answer: “knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:20-21). The rabbis referred to the prophecy of Micah when the wise men arrived in Jerusalem looking for the location of the newborn King (Matt. 2:1-6).

Abundant life in Christ is based upon our wholehearted trust in God. We rely on the mysterious providence of the Father, the gracious provision of the Son, and the faithful guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Andrew Murray invited us to take time to ponder the ministries of the triune God in our spiritual life:

“We need time to realize how all our conversation with the Father is conditioned by the active and personal presence and working of the Lord Jesus. It takes time to be fully conscious of what need I have of Him in every approach to God, what confidence I may have in the work that He is doing for me and in me, and what the holy and intimate love is in which I may count upon His presence and all-prevailing intercession … Even so, too, with the divine and almighty power of the Holy Spirit working in the depth of my heart, as the One Who alone is able to reveal the Son within me. Through Him alone I have power to know what and how to pray; above all how to plead the name of Jesus, and to receive the assurance that my prayer has been accepted.” [3]

So let us continue to sing with joy and confidence,

“How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but, in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive Him still
the dear Christ enters in.

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;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”


[1] Kenneth W. Osbeck, Amazing Grace, (Kregel, 1990) p.370.

[2] This mode of transportation is assumed.

[3] Andrew Murray, Daily Secrets of Christian Living, ed. Al Bryant (Bethany Fellowship, 1978), April 28, (emphasis added).

Biblical quotations are from The New King James Version, copyright by Thomas Nelson. This article is copyrighted, 2000, by John Woodward. Permission is granted to reprint this article for noncommercial use if credit is given to the author and GraceNotebook.com.

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