A record 2 million Christians visited Bethlehem in 2013. Why do the ancient prophecies say this “little town” is so important?

Christmas tree in Bethlehem. (photo credit: Dana Friedlander, courtesy Ministry of Tourism)

Christmas tree in Bethlehem. (photo credit: Dana Friedlander, courtesy Ministry of Tourism)

An estimated 75,000 Christian pilgrims are now in Israel to celebrate Christmas and many will visit Bethlehem, especially tonight on Christmas Eve. By the time the Christmas season is over, “about two million people will have visited Bethlehem in 2013,” which Israeli tourism officials note is “almost double the 2012 figure of 1.18 million” people.

The “little town of Bethlehem” is beloved, read about and sung about by Christians the world over. But why do the ancient prophecies say it is so important?

The reason is simple: the Hebrew prophet Micah told the Jewish people the Messiah would one day come from “Bethlehem Ephratah.”

In fact, Micah made it clear that the Messiah would not come from the ancient town of Bethlehem that was in northern Israel, near the Sea of Galilee. Rather, the Anointed One had to come from the Bethlehem in Judea, just down the road from Jerusalem.

“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. Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor bears a son, and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.” (Micah 5:2-4)

Why did this matter? Because the Scriptures indicate that the Messiah is to come from the line of King David, and be a “Son of David.” David’s family, of course, was from Bethlehem of Judea. Thus, the Messiah had to be born in David’s hometown in order to eventually emerge as the King of kings and the Lord of lords.

The Gospel account of Matthew indicates that Jesus fulfilled this prophecy.

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written:  “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”‘ Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.’ After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” (Matthew 2:1-12)

This is why Bethlehem has become such an important destination for Christians eager to visit the Holy Land. Over the years interest has continued to grow, now reaching record numbers of visitors. I first visited when I was in college, during the Christmas season of 1987. I’ve been back several times, and developed friendships with some of the Palestinian Christians that live and serve there today.

Bethlehem — with a current population of about 25,000 — is no longer governed by the State of Israel, but rather by the Palestinian Authority (PA).  However, Israel keeps statistics of how many tourists pass through “Rachel’s Crossing” between Israel and the PA into Bethlehem. As of the end of October, some 1.85 million tourists had already crossed into the town of Jesus’ birth.

Last month I met at the Knesset with Uzi Landau, the Israeli Tourism Minister. Among other things, we discussed the importance of continuing more Christians around the world to visit the Holy Land, walk where Jesus walked, and see the Bible come to life in living color. Landau noted that it is a very important priority for the Israeli government to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic Christians and make them feel welcome.

“The Tourism Ministry under my leadership will continue to invest significantly in the preservation and renovation of Christian holy sites,” Landau recently noted in statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Since its establishment, the State of Israel has attached great importance to values of freedom of religion and worship and works tirelessly to facilitate religious practice for people of all religions in freedom and mutual respect. We will do all we can to ensure that every Christian can visit the holy sites. We  invite the faithful to visit the Holy Land and experience a powerful religious and spiritual pilgrimage in Jerusalem, the Galilee and beyond.”

“As part of the ongoing activities to promote pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the Tourism Minister Dr. Uzi Landau and the representatives of the Tourism Ministry in Israel and around the world meet regularly with Church leaders and communities,” the statement added. “Representatives in the Tourism Ministry are anticipating continued collaboration with the Church for the visit of Pope Francis, who is expected to visit the Holy Land in the first half of 2014.”

Please join me in praying for a peaceful, safe, silent night in Bethlehem tonight, and for very night in the year ahead. And please join me in praying that Christians would be a great and gentle blessing to all the people of Bethlehem — and all of the Holy Land — this coming year.

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