A s Christmas approaches, our thoughts begin to turn to Bethlehem, the “little town” where the almighty and eternal God chose to be born.
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)
The Lord in His wisdom and foreknowledge gave us this prophecy, which was fulfilled because Mary, who lived four days’ journey away in Nazareth, had to travel with Joseph to Bethlehem, the town of his ancestors, as required by a Roman census (Luke 2:1-6).
The Hebrew meaning of the word “Bethlehem” is usually given as “House of Bread”. So it was in the earthly House of Bread that the Living Bread came down from heaven (John 6:51).
Bethlehem was also called Ephrathah, which means “Fruitful”. Jesus described Himself as the true vine and we, His followers, as its fruit-bearing branches. As anyone who has grown a vine knows, regular pruning is necessary to get a good harvest. Jesus tells us that our heavenly Father, the gardener, prunes every fruitful branch “so that it will be even more fruitful” (John 15:1-4).
Bethlehem is mentioned many other times in the Bible, as well as in connection with the birth of Jesus our Saviour. The book of Ruth begins by telling us there was a famine in the land around Bethlehem – no bread in the House of Bread. This caused Naomi and her family to flee to Moab as economic refugees (Ruth 1:1-2). Humanly speaking, it was because of this famine that a brave, loving and loyal Moabite woman, Ruth, became an ancestor of the Lord Jesus.
When all the women in the family had been widowed, Naomi “heard in the country of Moab how that the Lord had visited his people in giving them bread” (Ruth 1:6, KJV), so she decided to return to Bethlehem. This is when Ruth, her daughter-in-law, clung to Naomi declaring, “Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Naomi’s original home, Bethlehem, became Ruth’s home.
Before long Ruth was married to Boaz, a respected citizen of Bethlehem. From them are descended not only King David but also the King of kings (Ruth 4:13-22; Matthew 1:5,16).
Many of us are now beginning to make preparations to celebrate the birthday of that infant King. Traditional delicacies to eat at Christmas often include special types of bread. In Germany there is stollen, filled with dried fruit and marzipan. In Italy it is fluffy panettone. In Greece the Christmas loaf, flavoured with special spices, is decorated with a cross, either the Greek letter Χ (chi) as the initial for Christ or to remind us of His atoning death.
For the bread of life, our Lord Jesus Christ, gave Himself to take away our sins. We feast on Him as we celebrate the Lord’s supper. If the baby in the manger had not grown up to die on the cross and rise again, Christmas would have no meaning. He tells us:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live for ever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. (John 6:51)
Jesus spoke also of the manna from heaven with which God had fed His people in the desert (Exodus 16; John 6:30-33,48-58). He is our living manna on whom we feed, who alone can satisfy us and meet our every need. There is a lovely song which runs:
Hidden manna from above,
Sent to us with Father’s love.
I am hungry. Father, feed me
From the mouth of your dove.
This Christmas, as we come to Bethlehem, let us feed on the Living Bread who alone can satisfy.