In Dr. Seuss’s story “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” the Grinch steals all of the Whos’ Christmas gifts. He anticipates how distressed Whoville will be when they discover their Christmas gone. But as he listens for crying sounds, he is most surprised to hear merry singing instead. The Grinch soon discovers that maybe Christmas “means a little bit more” than gifts!
Even longtime followers of Christ may not think about how some seemingly small details in the familiar story of His birth mean more than they ever realized.
The words of Luke 2:8-12 are familiar to most:
“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’”
The word sign in the New Testament normally involves a miracle with a messianic message. Let’s examine some of the significant details in the birth of Jesus.
The Village—A Significant Place
Bethlehem, David’s hometown, was also the place he first reigned as king. Micah 5:2 specifies Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah, the greater Son of David: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.” While this portion is quoted by Matthew in the New Testament, the text of Micah continues, “whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” The one born in Bethlehem was none other than the eternal Son of God. Jesus didn’t begin in Bethlehem—He always was. The one who existed for all time became flesh and was born in Bethlehem.
The Shepherds and the Stable—A Significant Prophecy
Not only is Bethlehem significant, but so are the shepherds and the stable. The New Testament does not mention the exact location of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. It says that He was laid in a manger there. What kind of manger is being referenced, and what specific animal was fed or housed there? Two Old Testament texts refer to a place called “the tower of the flock” (Migdal Eder in Hebrew). In these passages we see prophetic glimpses of the birth, death and ultimate reign of the Messiah.
The tower of the flock is first mentioned in Genesis after Jacob buried Rachel: “Israel [Jacob] journeyed on and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder” (Genesis 35:21). The traditional location of Rachel’s tomb is on the outskirts of present-day Bethlehem, but it was probably within the area that was called Bethlehem in Biblical days.
The tower of the flock (Migdal Eder) is also found in Micah 4:7-8, the context of which is a clear messianic prophecy of the coming earthly kingdom when Jesus Christ will reign over Jerusalem forever: “And the lame I will make the remnant, and those who were cast off, a strong nation; and the Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion from this time forth and forevermore. And you, O tower of the flock, hill of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come, the former dominion shall come, kingship for the daughter of Jerusalem.”
In this passage, given as Israel goes into exile, God assures them that He will still fulfill His kingdom promises in the latter days. The promised coming of the kingdom was guaranteed by the coming of the King.
Ironically, Bethlehem and Jerusalem are connected—both of them were called the city of David. David was born in Bethlehem and ultimately reigned in Jerusalem. Jesus was born in Bethlehem and will one day reign from Jerusalem. As for the Migdal Eder of Bethlehem, Alfred Edersheim further explains the importance of tower of the flock and the significance of the shepherds:
“That the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem was a settled conviction. Equally so was the belief that He was to be revealed from Migdal Eder, ‘the tower of the flock.’ This Migdal Eder was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks which pastured on the barren sheep-ground beyond Bethlehem, but lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem. A passage in the Mishnah [Shekalim 7:4] leads to the conclusion that the flocks, which pastured there, were destined for Temple sacrifices, and, accordingly, that the shepherds, who watched over them, were not ordinary shepherds. … Thus, Jewish tradition in some dim manner apprehended the first revelation of the Messiah from that Migdal Eder, where shepherds watched the Temple flocks all the year round. Of the deep symbolic significance of such a coincidence, it is needless to speak.”
The angels said, “This will be a sign unto you,” and those they addressed were the shepherds who helped birth, raise and ultimately prepare sheep for sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem. Such is the deep symbolic significance. Evidently the shepherds did not need directions to the birthplace because they already knew the spot. When the angelic announcement came, they knew where to go, as Luke 2 indicates, for the sign of a manger could well have meant the manger at Migdal Eder—the tower of the flock!
The Baby Born—A Significant Person
Biblical typology is the foreshadowing through a person, event or institution in the Old Testament that portrays some reality fulfilled in the ministry of Christ. Jesus was born in the region where tens of thousands of lambs—whose sacrifices prefigured Him—had been birthed and prepared for their death at the Temple altar. God promised it, pictured it and performed it at Migdal Eder.
The opening introduction of Jesus by John the Baptist (in John 1:29) states, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Peter spoke of redemption through Christ in 1 Peter 1:18-19, “knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” Paul also wrote, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7).
While He was the lamb who was sacrificed, Jesus was also the priest who offered Himself as the sacrifice. Hebrews 7:26-27 states, “For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.”
Christ timed His death—not by chance but by choice—at the time of the Passover celebration. Our Lord Jesus, born in Bethlehem—where all sacrificial lambs were born—died in Jerusalem—where all sacrificial lambs were killed. And He will return to reign from that same region. How magnificent to know our sovereign God orchestrated the events of Jewish and Roman history and tradition. God caused Mary and Joseph to be in Bethlehem so Jesus would be born as predicted and within the environmental and special limits where the sacrificial lambs would be prepared. Jesus is our Passover Lamb.
How did the shepherds respond? “And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:17-20, italics for emphasis). It was a night of witness, wonder, worship—a merry sound throughout the region. May this Christmas be all of that for us and mean even more as we recognize the signs of significance.
“And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people’” (Luke 2:10). ©2019 Mark L. Bailey
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
Mark L. Bailey is president of Dallas Theological Seminary.
Above: The skyline of modern-day Bethlehem.