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Christmas Eve Bethlehem service traces history of chosen city

BETHLEHEM, Israel (BP)–It was not by accident that Jesus Christ, the “Bread of Life,” was born in Bethlehem, a town whose name means “bread of life,” Eugene Merrill, a renowned Old Testament scholar, told a group from Jerusalem Baptist Church that had gathered across from Manger Square in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.

“This is not coincidence. This is part of the outworking of the eternal purpose of God, that He should become incarnate in this place, in this place which is so significant throughout biblical history,” Merrill, distinguished professor of Old Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, said during his sermon. “I’m going to take us on a little tour of the history of Bethlehem in the Bible.”

Merrill, who also began serving as distinguished professor of Old Testament interpretation this fall at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was the featured speaker for Jerusalem Baptist Church’s annual Christmas Eve service, held near the site where historians believe Jesus was born.

About 100 church members and their friends traveled on two buses from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where they dined at the Casa Nova Orient Palace Hotel across from Manger Square on Christmas Eve. Their plan had been to hold a worship service on the grass in the square, but heavy rainfall caused them to remain at the hotel, according to Bruce Mills, a deacon at the church.

During the worship service, Merrill relayed four points about the Bethlehem story, noting that the “nondescript little village,” mentioned in Micah 5:2 but hardly anywhere else in the Old Testament, would become the birthplace of a king that would precede the King of kings.

“There’s nothing in the town of Bethlehem biblically to commend it to our attention,” he said. “Oh, it’s mentioned in line with the inheritance of the tribe of Judah. It’s just mentioned in passing with several dozen other names as one place among many. And the town never achieved any kind of notoriety or significance until King David was born in this very place. Then of course from then on the town of Bethlehem became significant politically and certainly theologically.”

Merrill said the Bethlehem story begins and ends with a birth narrative. He said the first time Bethlehem was mentioned in the Bible was in Genesis when Rachel died and Jacob set up a marker on her grave.

“It was somewhere a few miles from where we sit this evening that the setting of this narrative took place; that Rachel died in giving birth,” he said.

The story culminated when Mary gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, and “whereas Rachel died brokenhearted, Mary was giving birth to a child with indescribable joy and yet wonder and mystery,” he said.

Second, the Bethlehem story magnifies grace and redemption, Merrill said, lamenting the fact that in the United States and elsewhere in the world, people today are caught up in the festivities of Christmas and “the secularism seems to be robbing Christmas of its significance.”

“Yes, it’s true, Jesus could not have gone to the cross, He would not have been resurrected from the tomb had He not been born,” he said. “That follows very logically, doesn’t it? So we cannot minimize the significance of Christmas. It’s the incarnation, God in the flesh.”

Merrill pointed to the story of redemption recorded in the Book of Ruth, where Ruth — who lived in Bethlehem — was redeemed from poverty by Boaz and from their marriage descended King David.

“So we have these two women. We have Ruth, who gives birth to a son because of her own redemption. And Mary gives birth to a son who will be her own redeemer,” Merrill said. “Isn’t it something that only God can do, that the child that she should bear would be the means of her own salvation, and not just her but the salvation of all who will believe? That’s the second act of the Bethlehem story.”

Bethlehem also declares the provision for human need, Merrill said, referring again to Ruth and how she fled Bethlehem because, ironically, there was a famine in the town known as “the bread of life.” He noted that Boaz instructed his servants to leave behind some grain so that Ruth could come along and pick it up.

“Boaz goes beyond the law. Did you notice that? There’s more than law there,” he noted. “He doesn’t just offer up a normal, legal principle and leave some of the scattering. He says, ‘Leave it deliberately.’ ‘Leave the grain behind,’ he says to his workers, ‘so that she can come along and pick up not just what the law requires but what grace permits.’ So she’s the beneficiary of the wonderful grace of Boaz and in a sense, of course, of the wonderful grace of God.

“… Jesus Christ Himself then doesn’t leave just the scatterings. He doesn’t keep just the law. But He goes beyond,” Merrill said. “And in a matchless act of grace, He gave not just the kind of bread that is made from wheat and barley, but Jesus Christ gave of Himself, and in a mysterious sense His very body is bread, and we take of that bread every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.”

The story of Bethlehem centers on a king and his dominion, Merrill concluded, referring to how God chose King David not because of his outward appearance or abilities but because of his heart. He set David apart, and from David descended Jesus, the Savior of the world. Both were promised ones, and both were given royal authority. Yet Jesus far surpassed those before Him, Merrill said.

“What we celebrate tonight is just the beginning of the text of the message that we find in Revelation 19,” he said. “He came as a helpless baby. And to me that’s one of the great mysteries of the incarnation, that the almighty, everlasting God should become so helpless, that He was absolutely dependant on this teenage girl and her boyfriend. Can you imagine God putting Himself in such jeopardy? That tells me one thing. It tells me that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever should believe in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

After hearing Merrill’s message, members of Jerusalem Baptist Church distributed evangelistic tracts and DVDs to the thousands of people who had gathered in Manger Square.

“There are many people that come and they don’t know exactly why they are in Manger Square in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve,” Mills told Baptist Press. “And they don’t have anyone to tell them. It’s a great witnessing opportunity to explain, and usually the best way to do it is to open up by saying, ‘Oh, where are you from?’ and then saying, ‘What do you think about Bethlehem? Do you think God became Incarnate?’ It lends itself to asking, ‘Who is Jesus Christ? Was He born in a manger? Was He God? Did He die for our sins?’

“So the people that come already are sympathetic to some degree because why would they be in Manger Square on Christmas Eve?” Mills said.

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  • Erin Curry Roach