The Christmas season is a time when a special opportunity is presented for bestowing gifts on those to whom they will bring genuine pleasure; a time of peace and good will; a time when our thoughts are directed toward the miraculous birth of our Lord in the lowly surroundings of a Judean stable.
But in the midst of all these experiences it is possible for us to miss what might rightly be called the tonic of the Christmas carol. As we ponder this message of Christmas, it will be apparent at once that it is not confined to a brief commemorative period of time, but is one that has all-theyear-round relevance. There are at least three experiences in sacred history in which this message appears, and although one of these had no reference to the Christmas story, it serves to underline the wider importance of the theme.
The key is set for us in the chill midnight air of the Judean hills, where the assembled shepherds have just heard the angelic announcement of the birth of a "Saviour, which is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:11). Then we read of their unanimous response, "Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us" (verse 15). It is in quite different circumstances that the same thought is echoed, if not expressed in so many words, when the jealous and suspicious King?- Herod, on learning from the itinerant Wise Men the distressing news of the arrival of a supposed new King of the Jews, "sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child" (Matt. 2:8). This same thought of going to Bethlehem was expressed centuries before by the sorrowing Naomi, who journeyed there with her loyal daughter-in-law Ruth.The message of Christmas that is so important to each individual does not reside in the tinsel-bedecked tree reinforced by the sleigh bells and the dazzling whiteness of the Northern Hemisphere, or the shimmering heat of the azure antipodean skies. It is intensely personal and is linked with the inner meaning contained in the experiences of Ruth, the shepherds, and the Wise Men. For individual spiritual development it is vital to understand that there are important reasons why we should "go even unto Bethlehem," not solely in the last month of the year, but as a continuing experience, refreshing our souls throughout the year.
The story of Ruth opens with a brief glimpse of the tragic loss by Naomi and Ruth of their menfolk. It is with heavy hearts that they make their decision to return to Bethlehem. Verse 6 of the first chapter reveals that a strong motive for return lay in the reversal of the famine conditions that had caused Naomi's original departure. There was now bread in Bethlehem—of course, the very name of the town means "the house of bread." This city was well named, for it stands on a gray limestone ridge more than 2,500 feet above sea level, and it seems like a natural oasis to the weary traveler. Here the repelling Judean desert gives way to orchards, olive groves, and fields yellow with grain. The barren wastes of unproductive desert are replaced by fertile hills and fields of fruitfulness.
There are certain points worth noting in the fact that Ruth left Moab and came to Bethlehem. If we consider the origin of the area as recorded in Genesis 19:36, 37, Moab might well represent sin, in which case the spiritual food there would be in marked contrast to the type of soul-satisfying food obtainable at the house of bread. If we are to find the bread of life in our own lives, there must be a complete severing of all ties with the sinful practices summed up by the term "Moab." One cannot be an inhabitant of Moab and Bethlehem concurrently. Ruth found bread in Bethlehem, and we will also find bread when we return to Bethlehem.
Our returning to Bethlehem is tantamount to receiving the bread of life that Jesus Himself spoke about in John 6:35. Bethlehem could represent Christ, the Bread of Life, who came to this earth and assumed human form so that we mortals might eat of Him and receive eternal life. Let us leave the fleshpots of the world, which at best hold only a few scraps of unpalatable and • unprofitable food, and return to the more complete and satisfying spiritual food so freely available to all at Bethlehem. And just as Ruth's blessed experiences began when she returned to Bethlehem, so will ours.
However, it should .be noted that Ruth had to start gleaning in order to obtain food. As used in Ruth 2:7, 17 the word "gleaned" infers intensive and painstaking activity, a consistent rather than a spasmodic effort. Such effort sets the standard of our symbolic gleaning in the house of bread—our search for spiritual food in the Word of God. Is it diligent and thorough, or is it Irregular and unsystematic, confined to a few brief snatches as time permits? A return to Bethlehem should bring with it a deeper desire to be a more diligent gleaner in God's Word.
A significant element in the story of Ruth is that she found her kinsman at Bethlehem (Ruth 2:20). According to the pattern of contemporary Mosaic custom, the next of kin to the deceased had the opportunity of marrying the widow to preserve the family name and to redeem the inheritance. Just as Ruth found her redeemer in the person of Boaz in Bethlehem, so when we return to Bethlehem we will find the Redeemer, not wrapped in the infant swaddling attire, but clad in the pure white robe of sinlessness, awaiting our decision to accept His proferred garments of salvation. It was to Bethlehem that God sent His Son "to redeem them that were under the law" (Gal. 4:4, 5).
There were those who answered immediately the call to come to Bethlehem. There were the shepherds, lowly men who, because their occupation involved so much time on the rugged hills in the dangerous and at times lonely tending of sheep with the consequent loss of some of the customary graces, were considered by some to be social outcasts. Despite this, these shepherds were devout men, for "through the silent hours they talked together of the promised Saviour, and prayed for the coming of the King to David's throne."—The Desire of Ages, p. 47. The message which was given to them (Luke 2:11) was the message of "a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord." This is no less than the gospel message. Their reaction, as recorded in verses 15 and 16, reveals no shadow of doubt, no philosophical surmisings, no attempted logical explanations. Here is immediate action—the action of faith. And unable to hide the light of revelation, "they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child" (Luke 2:17). The contrast with the attitude of the religious leaders of the time is most vivid, for when "the report of the angels' visit to the shepherds had been brought to Jerusalem, . . . the rabbis had treated it as unworthy of their notice."—Ibid., p. 62. It takes faith to go to Bethlehem, and these rabbis did not have it.
The emphasis, however, lies on what we do after we have been to Bethlehem and received the gospel news. Our great need today is to return to Bethlehem to catch a fresh glimpse of the Saviour, to receive spiritual strength, to revitalize our belief in God and His Son in a world rent with the doubts of atheism, and so-called higher criticism. Bethlehem represents the source of much-needed power and strength. In this sense Bethlehem is a forward step in the plan of salvation, for it focuses attention on Calvary and the great saving work of our Lord. The message to the shepherds, "Fear not," is still today the message of Bethlehem, the most effective tranquilizer for the tensions of this modern age.
The Wise Men, skilled in the science of philosophy and religion, were "upright men who studied the indications of Providence in nature, and who were honored for their integrity and wisdom."—Ibid., p. 59. These learned men had been watching the heavens, for that was part of their profession, looking for the fulfillment of the writings that indicated the coming of a divine teacher. When the star arose, their minds doubtless went back to Balaam's prophecy of Numbers 24:17 and were perhaps reinforced by the words of Daniel 9:25, 26 and Micah 5:2. These men went to Bethlehem because they had been watching, had recognized the signs, and were now seeking the King. Nor did they come empty-handed, but according to Oriental custom placed their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh at the feet of the One for whom they had patiently searched.
Even these gifts might be regarded as prophetic expressions of the various roles of this lowly Babe. Since they were looking for "he that is born King of the Jews" (Matt. 2:2), it was only natural that they should adhere to the contemporary practice of the gift of gold for a king. Their gift of frankincense, in a very unique way, focused attention on another important aspect of the Babe's future work. This most fragrant substance was an important ingredient in the tabernacle incense and as such has close connections with the priestly office. How symbolic then was this gift of the functions of the "high priest of good things to come" (Heb. 9:11), of the "great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God" (Heb. 4:14). Finally, their gift of myrrh pointed forward rather remarkably to the supreme sacrifice of Christ on Calvary for all mankind. Used as an ingredient of embalming agents then in vogue, myrrh might quite fittingly symbolize Christ's purpose in coming to this earth to "be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:14, 15).
"Let us now go even unto Bethlehem" —not once a year as the seasonal emphasis dictates, but let us go every day. There are impelling reasons why a daily visit to Bethlehem is essential—to glean and feed on the Living Bread; to come in haste with faith and a believing heart; to present the gifts of our lives to the Saviour—for Bethlehem represents God's gift to us. On returning to Bethlehem, what shall we find there? Like Ruth we shall find our Kinsman, our Redeemer, Christ the Lord: like the Wise Men we shall discover the King of kings; like the shepherds our attention will be directed to the Saviour, the Sourse of our redemption. Bethlehem is where Christ was born, and Bethlehem revisited is where Christ is born anew in the heart of every believing Christian.
But let us not come to Bethlehem empty-handed, without something for the Christ who gave His all for us. Although no material possessions can repay the great sacrifice on our behalf, we may, as in the Old Testament experience, come and present the gold of a lovable and virtuous character, together with a ready and willing spirit to work for the Lord. As in the case of the shepherds, the Saviour longs for us to bring a willingness to believe, a deeper and more earnest faith, and a more ready acceptance of the great plan of redemption. Unlike the Wise Men, we are unable to bring offerings of expensive gifts, but the Lord does not require expressions of a material nature. Augustus Toplady has succinctly summed up the human position in his well-loved "Rock of Ages" when he wrote:
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling.
What the Saviour does want is the gold of a life in full submission to Him as the coming King. He is longing for the frankincense of acceptance and faith in the efficacy of His shed blood as He now performs His high-priestly ministry in heaven. Finally, our Saviour earnestly desires the myrrh of a life dead to the allurements of this world, so that He might, through the agency of His Holy Spirit, refashion it and produce a fit inhabitant for a recreated world.
"Let us now go even unto Bethlehem."