Had I Been In Bethlehem
December 20th, 1981 @ 10:50 AM
HAD I BEEN IN BETHLEHEM
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-20-81 10:50 a.m.
And we welcome the multitudes of you who are sharing this hour with us on radio and television. This is the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message entitled Had I Been in Bethlehem. In the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, the first Gospel—Matthew, chapter 2:
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came magi—
translated “wise men”—
from the East to Jerusalem,
Saying, Where is He that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen His star in the East, and are come to worship Him.
When Herod . . . heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
And when he had gathered the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he asked of them where Christ should be born.
And they answered, In Bethlehem of Judea: for thus it is written by the prophet,
And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah; for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule My people Israel.
Had I been in Bethlehem, I would have been amazed, filled with wonder and astonishment at all that I saw and all that I heard. One of my astonishments would have been at these scribes, these leaders and teachers of the religious life and community in Israel. The whole world was expectant: a child to be born, to be King of the earth, to bring peace and hope to a war-weary humanity.
Virgil, who died about twenty-two or twenty-three years before Christ was born, in his Fourth Eclogue—an eclogue is a pastoral poem—in his Fourth Eclogue, Virgil writes of that universal expectancy. This is the Fourth Eclogue:
Lo, the last age of the seer has come.
Again, the great millennial aeon dawns,
And from high heaven descends the firstborn child of promise.
Smile softly on the babe.
The age of iron in His time shall cease,
And golden generations fill the world.
For thee, fair child,
The lavish earth shall spread the earliest playthings.
The very cradle, blossoming for joy,
Shall, with soft buds,
Caress thy baby face.
The treacherous snake and deadly herb
Shall die, and Syrian spikenard blow on every bank.
Come, dear child,
Claim Thine honors,
For the time draws nigh.
Babe of immortal race,
The wondrous seed of God.
Lo, at thy coming,
How the starry spheres
Are moved to trembling
And the earth below.
Oh, if but life would bring me days enough
And breath not all too scant to sing thy deeds.
I wish I could be here when he comes.
Come, child, and greet thy mother with a smile.
Ten weary months her love has known.
Come, little child.
The Fourth Eclogue of the great Roman poet Virgil, expressing the expectation of the whole civilized world that, at that time, a child should be born who would be king of peace and righteousness and judgment. These scribes were familiar with that. They were men of the books. They were men of the schools. They were doctors of canon law, and the marvelous promises of the Old Testament Scriptures were their daily reading.
Jacob, Israel, had prophesied in Genesis 49: “Judah is a lion’s whelp…The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto Him shall the gathering of the people be” [Genesis 49:9-10]. And they had read in Numbers 24: “I shall see Him, but not now; I shall behold Him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel…” [Numbers 24:17]. And they had read in Deuteronomy : “The Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; and unto Him ye shall hearken” [Deuteronomy 18:15].
And they had read in Psalm 89:
I have exalted one chosen out of the people . . .
And in My name shall his horn be exalted . . .
I will make him My firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth . . .
His seed also will I make to endure for ever, and his throne as the days of heaven.
And they had read these marvelous passages in Isaiah, too numerous for me even to read: “The Son given, the Child born [Isaiah 9:6], whose name is Immanuel, God with us [Matthew 1:23], whose name is Wonderful, and Counselor, and the Mighty God, and the Everlasting Father and the Prince of Peace” [Isaiah 9:6].
They had read in Jeremiah 23:
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, shall execute judgment and justice in the earth . . .
And this is His name whereby He shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.
[Jeremiah 23:5- 6]
And they had read out of Malachi—the last chapter in the Old Covenant: “… Unto you that fear My name shall the Sun of Righteousness arise with healing in His wings…” [Malachi 4:2]. Then I turn to the second chapter of Matthew, and these scribes and doctors of the law and teachers of the people say in answer to Herod [Matthew 2:5]; “We know the answer. We read the Scriptures. We are taught and versed in the wisdom and knowledge of God. It is in Bethlehem that the Christ is to be born, according to Micah 5:2.”
How far away was that? The distance between where I stand and White Rock Lake, a distance of barely five miles. But not one of them bothered to make the journey. Not one of them took the trouble to witness the greatest event in human history, whether in heaven above or in earth below. Not one of them bothered to bow his knee and to praise God for the wondrous gift from heaven. To me, that’s one of the most astonishing things in the earth! And this is a parable of all of the generations and centuries before and since: the men who arrogate to themselves the greatest wisdom and knowledge of the things of God are the men who, for the most part, are the farthest from the devoted love and adoration of the Christian faith. I don’t understand it.
In the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary that I attended for six years, there came, in those years before my time, the most brilliant student who ever was taught in that school. His name was Crawford H. Toy. So able and capable was that brilliant man that he was invited to be professor of Hebrew, of Old Testament, in the seminary. In those days, opening his heart to German rational criticism, he began to depart from the faith, began to renounce the infallibility and inspiration of the Word of God [2 Timothy 3:16], began to look upon this sacred Book as just one in many of the sacred chronicles written by men.
He had fallen in love with a missionary named Lottie Moon, a young woman from Virginia, who was appointed by the Foreign Mission Board as a missionary in China. And so deep was the bond of love between them—Lottie Moon, the missionary in China, and Dr. Crawford H. Toy, the brilliant scholastic and academician in the Louisville seminary—that she came home from China to marry Dr. Toy.
As they conversed, upon her arrival and staying and visiting in the United States, to her horror and sorrow, she found the brilliant young man departing from the faith. In unspeakable sorrow, she broke the engagement. She returned to China. She never came back to America. She died over there in the Orient—Lottie Moon.
And as the days passed, James Petigru Boyce, the president of the seminary, and John A. Broadus, the greatest New Testament scholar we’ve ever produced, went with Crawford H. Toy to the Union Railroad depot in Louisville. And Dr. Boyce put his arm around the brilliant young man and raised his right arm to heaven and said, “I’d willingly give this right arm if you were as you were when you first came to our seminary.” He left the seminary, dismissed. He went to be professor of Hebrew at Harvard Divinity School. He went into the Unitarian church, and finally, never went to church at all.
Can you explain that to me? And yet, that is a pattern of what it seems to me is the vast part of the theological world: the men who know the most and who say they have the answers are the men who don’t trouble themselves to make the journey, to bow down before the wonder of God’s incarnate love. I don’t understand it.
One of the greatest theological seminaries in the world, and most famous, is located in New York City. In a vast metroplex of millions of lost, they have not graduated a preacher from that seminary in fifty years. They graduate philosophers and speculators and metaphysicians.
I stand in amazement and wonder at these scribes. God’s Book says, they answered, “He is to be born in Bethlehem, just right over there” [Matthew 2:4-5]. And they never bothered to see the wonder of God’s revelation or to bow in the presence of God’s wonderful gift.
Had I been in Bethlehem, I would have been astonished and amazed at these strangers from the East. They are magi [Matthew 2:1]. Who were they? Were they Parsi priests, Zoroastrian priests? Are they from ancient Persia, from Iran? Strange men, and they’ve come with the marvelous announcement: “There is a Child born, King of the earth, King of God’s chosen people, King and Lord of all creation, for we have seen His star in the East, and we have come to bow down and to worship Him” [Matthew 2:2].
How strange and how wondrous and how amazing is God’s voice! They saw Him and heard Him in the stars of the sky, these strangers. Maybe God speaks to the human heart in ways that I don’t realize, for “the love of God is greater than the measure of man’s mind, and the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind” [from “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” Frederick Faber, 1854]. These strangers, magi, from far, far away: “We too have heard the voice of God and we have seen His star in the sky and we have come to worship Him” [Matthew 2:1-2]. And how beautiful of these men; they opened their treasures and gave unto Him gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh [Matthew 2:11]. A poor family, how blessedly useful.
I saw a cartoon this week. There was a man, so busy, and he had a long, long list—long, long list of people that were to be remembered at Christmastime—long list. And he sat there at a little desk of a kind, and there around him, clear up to the ceiling, the caricature of Christmas—the packages, packages all wrapped and ribboned in tinsel and green and red paper—Oh, he was just buried in it. And underneath, why, the cartoonist had written what that man is saying. He’s there with his long list before him, falling off of the front of his little desk. And there, buried beneath all the packages and the ribbons and the color, all of it, and he is saying, “Now, I wonder if I have forgotten anyone.” And in the background, the cartoonist had drawn a figure of the face of our Lord.
I wonder how many thousands and thousands there are at this Christmas season who make lists of presents that they’re going to give to everybody, friend and family, but never remember Him: “And they opened their treasures and gave unto Him gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh” [Matthew 2:11].
Had I been in Bethlehem, I would have been amazed and astonished at the worship, the adoration of the humblest of God’s creatures, people, the whole spectrum of life around the Christ child. I would have been amazed. I would have been astonished at it!
There came to the city a couple. He is much older. He says his name is Joseph, and he’s married to a girl much younger than himself. And she is heavy, great with child [Luke 2:4-5]. On a donkey she rides, and he, by her side, up to the inn. And the innkeeper hears the request for a place to stay for the night. And the innkeeper says, “Every room and every space is filled. The Roman government has brought to the city all who belong to the lineage and tribe and genealogy of David, and long has every place I have been rented out. And there’s no way I can dismiss a guest to make room for you. I wish I could.”
And Mrs. Innkeeper, his wife, being a woman and especially sensitive, noticing the young woman so great with child, says to her husband, “But, husband, we cannot turn away a couple like that.”
And he replies, “But, wife, there’s no way that we could provide room. Every inch is rented out, and I can’t dismiss someone.”
And she happens to think, “Husband, in the cattle stall, we could make a place that they might be sheltered from the cold and chill of the night. Let’s make a place in the cattle stall, in the sheep stall, for them.”
And in his acquiescence, the couple are led to a cattle stall, to a sheep stall. And in the middle of the night—and Joseph says to the awakened innkeeper, “My young wife is in travail. She’s in labor. Could Mrs. Innkeeper help?”
And Mrs. Innkeeper arises and she sees the young girl in labor and she rushes to the house and heats some water. And coming back to the cattle stall, it is she that cuts the umbilical cord, and it is she who bathes that little Child.
Think of the privilege, the holy gift from heaven! She welcomes the Baby into the world, and she bathes God’s holy Son. Think of it: the glory of the Lord, not in kings’ palaces, but in stables and mangers [Luke 2:7] and among the lowliest and humblest in the world! It’s a rebuke to our selfish greatness.
In the twelfth century—that’d be in the 1100s—there was a Christian who pictured the animals in the stable bringing their gifts to the Christ child:
I, said the donkey, all shaggy and brown,
I carried His mother uphill and down.
I carried His mother to Bethlehem town.
I, said the donkey, all shaggy and brown.
I, said the cow, all white and red,
I gave Him my manger for a bed.
I gave Him my hay to pillow His head.
I, said the cow, all white and red.
I, said the sheep with curly horn,
I gave Him my wool for a blanket warm.
He wore my coat on Christian morn.
I, said the sheep with curly horn.
So every beast by some good spell
In the stable rude was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Emmanuel,
Of the gift he gave Emmanuel.
[“The Friendly Beasts,” traditional]
Had I been in Bethlehem, I would have been astonished. I would have been amazed, at the humility, the lowliness, the humbleness, of the scene that I watched. And as though that were not enough, while standing there, there come rude, crude, untaught shepherds from the field [Luke 2:8]. They were the lowest in the stratum of Roman society. They were considered so uncouth and so uneducated that no Roman court would accept their testimony at law. But they came, those shepherds, and they told a wondrous story of an angel and of a host from heaven. And they had come to bow down and to worship the newborn Child [Luke 2:9-20].
What an amazing thing does God do! And how different from what we do. We would have had Him be born in a palace, crowned as the Prince of Wales. We would have had Him great, as He walked among the mighty and the generals and the prime ministers and the presidents of the earth—all of His life, He is just like that.
Jesus, meek and lowly [Matthew 11:29], preaching the gospel to the poor [Matthew 11:5], announcing the good tidings that God hath prepared some better thing for us [Hebrews 11:40]. And after the days of her purification according to the law, the firstborn belonged to God [Exodus 13:2] and had to be redeemed, usually with a lamb [Exodus 13:13]. But when Joseph and Mary went up to the temple to present their firstborn, the Lord Jesus, to God—to dedicate Him to God, the law had made a provision for the poor who couldn’t afford a lamb, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons [Leviticus 12:2, 8]—and they offered two birds in redemption of the Son of God [Luke 2:22-24].
Can you imagine that: to buy back, to redeem the Son of glory, they sacrificed, they paid, they offered two turtledoves. That’s God. That’s the Lord [Luke 2:22-24].
And at that moment came up old Simeon, to whom the Holy Spirit had said he would not die till he had seen the Prince of glory. And he offered to God his paean of praise [Luke 2:25-32]. And old aged Anna, 106 years old, of the tribe of Asher; glorified God. She had seen the mercy of the Lord [Luke 2:36-38]. What a beautiful thing God has done in Bethlehem!
But always, there is that shadow. There’s that black drop, King Herod, like a sinister ogre. He’s an Idumean. By coercion, his father had made those Edomites down there Jews. He’s a bloody tyrant. He had murdered his wife. He had murdered three of his sons. He had killed most of his family. He says to these magi, “You come back and tell me when you have found Him, that I may come and worship Him also” [Matthew 2:7-8]. But, in his heart, he planned murder.
And when the wise men were guided by the Spirit of God in another way [Matthew 2:9-12];
When he saw that he was mocked, he arose and slew all of the babes in Bethlehem from two years of age and under:
That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying,
In Ramah—down there in Ramah—was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel—who is buried down there—weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
Isn’t that tragic, and isn’t that sad, and isn’t that typically characteristic of our world and of our generations? With all of the wonder and glory of this season, there’s that black drop. There’s that dark shadow.
The twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse:
I saw a wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon at her feet, and twelve stars in her crown;
And she being heavy with child, pained and travailed to be delivered . . .
And there stood a great red dragon . . . ready to devour her Son . . . And the Son was caught up to heaven. And the woman fled into the wilderness—persecuted by that red dragon.
I think, “How true of the generations of the world.” Here in this beautiful, wonderful season of the year, in places like Poland, the red dragon, with his fiery mouth opened wide to devour the very hope of the people of God. And it is everywhere. It has always been. But out of the sorrows and out of the tragedies of life, God has a victory in that Prince, in that Son.
God did not use a silvery box
Of paper, green and red.
God laid His Christmas gift to man
Within a manger bed.
No silken cord was used to bind
This gift sent from above.
‘Twas wrapped in swaddling clothes, in rags,
And bound in cords of love.
There was no evergreen to which His
Precious gift was tied.
Upon a bare tree on a hill,
His gift was hung and died.
‘Twas taken down from off the tree
And laid beneath the sod,
But death itself could not destroy
The precious gift of God.
With mighty hand, He lifted it
From out the stony grave,
Forevermore, to every man,
A living gift He gave.
Someday the earth shall hear a shout,
The great gift shall appear.
And the earth, from end to end,
Shall know the truth of Christmas cheer.
It’s a harbinger and a promise: the red flowers that bloom, the beautiful decorations in our homes and in this sanctuary, and the carols and the songs that we sing and the words of greeting that we offer to each other. It’s a harbinger, it’s a promise, of that glorious, final day when that Son shall appear.
Every wrong in the earth will He make right. Righteousness shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea [Isaiah 11:9], and there’ll be no more sorrow nor death. There’ll be no weeping nor crying. There will be no pain, no age, no death, for these things shall have all passed away [Revelation 21:4] and every decorated tree and every colorful package and every greeting from our hearts, and every flower that blooms and everything that belongs to Christmas but reminds of that ultimate and final promise and victory in Him [1 Corinthians 15:57].
God bless you and us all! May we stand together?
Our Lord, had we been in Bethlehem, we would have bowed at that manger and adored the Son of glory [Luke 2:15-16]. What a holy privilege it would have been to be numbered among God’s humblest creatures, paying tribute to the King of glory. Our Lord, we weren’t born then, and we can’t go back to that day, but we can love Thee and adore Thee today, in our generation, where our life and lot are cast. And, our Lord, to name Thy name and to love Thee, to honor Thee with the gift of our treasure and the belief and love and adoration of our hearts, is the highest privilege we could ever know in life.
And while our people wait in prayer before God, a family you, a couple you, a one somebody you, “Pastor, today we have decided for God, and here we stand.” Make that decision now in your heart, and in a moment when we sing our hymn of appeal, if you’re in the balcony, down a stairway, if you’re in the press of people on this lower floor, down one of these aisles, “Pastor, this is God’s day for us, and we’re answering with our life” [Romans 10:9-13]. Do it now. Make the decision now. And in a moment, when we sing our appeal, make that first step. Come. It’ll be the sweetest decision you’ll ever make in your life and the most meaningful. Do it now. Do it now.
And nobody leave. If you move, move toward the front. And in just a moment, I’ll give you opportunity to go, but right now, let’s pray. Let’s stay. Let’s believe God for a harvest. And our Savior, thank You for these who come this Lord’s Day before Christmas Day, in Thy saving name, amen.
While we sing, while we wait, welcome, as you come. Welcome!