Bethlehem is a small town outside of Jerusalem - we might call it a suburb today. In biblical times, it was a rural town and the main economy was agriculture, namely livestock, specifically, raising lambs. These weren’t just any lambs, however, these were special, spotless lambs which were sold to Jerusalem for sacrifices. See before Jesus, sin required an animal sacrifice to cleanse the sinner and allow them to go on living in community (beginning with Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden where God had to kill an animal to clothe the now self-aware naked sinners). God was very clear about what He would accept as a sacrifice, the “first fruits” or the best of the harvest or the spotless livestock, He was not interested in man taking his portion and leaving God the leftovers. This actually dates back to the 2nd generation of humanity, Cain & Abel. God accepted Abel’s offering as he brought the “firstlings of his flock” but rejected Cain’s because he brought “leftovers” attempting to keep the best for himself.
As you may know, sacrifices were a very common part of the culture in biblical times and the book of Leviticus is full of descriptions on what to sacrifice to atone for which sins. Written by Moses in the 15th century BC, Leviticus offers instruction for Levitical sacrifices to atone for “misdemeanor” sins and the Day of Atonement ritual (Yom Kippur / Sabbath of Sabbaths) for “felony” sins. Laying their hands on an animal, they would identify with it as their substitute. When done in faith, this was a symbolic transfer of sin AND a legal transfer of their guilt to the animal. This was the ransom payment God accepted for the sin.
You may recall Aaron, the High Priest, performing the Day of Atonement ceremony by laying his hands on the head of a goat, confessing over it all the wickedness, rebellion and sins of the people of Israel. Then, the goat was driven away in the wilderness (or desert depending on your translation) to carry the people’s sins upon itself into a desolate land. Therefore, the “scapegoat” term we so often toss around today, is actually from an extremely significant biblical event around 3,500 years ago.
You see, Jesus was the ultimate “Sacrifice of Atonement” by which God paid for in full the forgiveness which He had extended before the Cross. Hebrews 10 tells us it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins, therefore, those sacrifices were in a matter of speaking, “putting their sins on layaway” until Jesus. Or another thought, like buying clothes on a credit card and wearing them before paying the bill.
So now do you know the answer? Why Bethlehem? If Bethlehem was the town where perfect, spotless sacrificial lambs were raised, doesn’t it stand to reason that the ultimate sacrificial lamb, Jesus, had to be born there?
Now, we know Jesus was raised in Nazareth - about 90 miles from Bethlehem. So why would Joseph and Mary walk for a week at 9 months pregnant to Bethlehem?
“At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire…all returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child.” -Luke 2
So, now we know why they were there…we also know why everyone else was there. If we think about it, Bethlehem would have been full of folks returning home to register for the census. So when we think about Jesus being born in a manger, with no room in the inn, was it really because the innkeeper was judging this unmarried, teenage couple as unworthy for a room? Or was it because the inn truly was already full of travelers…and offering his stable was most likely the only option he had left!
As my friend Brian Wesbury put it:
"The innkeeper was generous to a fault – a hero even. He was over-booked, but he charitably offered his stable, a facility he built with unknowing foresight. The innkeeper was willing and able to offer this facility even as government officials, who ordered and administered the census, slept in their own beds with little care for the well-being of those who had to travel regardless of their difficult life circumstances."
The way I see it, God used an imperfect Roman ruler to decree an over-reaching government-serving census forcing a 9 month pregnant teenage couple to walk for a week to an overcrowded farm town known for raising spotless lambs, where they would deliver the Ultimate Sacrificial Lamb in a horse stable behind a “no vacancy” hotel, therefore the Word became flesh, making His dwelling among us, living the perfect life we cannot live, taking the sin we cannot defeat to the cross on our behalf so we can spend eternity together, with Him.
Merry Christmas, indeed.