The Messiah’s Birth
On November 19, 1997, something extraordinary happened. Bobbi McCaughey of Carlisle, Iowa, gave birth to seven healthy babies. With the news of the successful septuple deliveries, the world seemed to pause and reflect in wonder and amazement. Paula Mahone, the attending physician, expressed what was on everyone’s heart. “This is a very unique situation,” she said. “I would consider this a miracle.”
Two thousand years ago, an even more extraordinary, unique, and miraculous birth occurred. It did not get the headlines the McCaughey septuplets received. In fact, relatively few people even knew it happened. Yet the effects of that event not only divided our time into two parts—B.C. and A.D.—but they forever established a living testimony of the love and faithfulness of God. On that night, the Messiah was born. The birth of Jesus of Nazareth was not premature, nor was it late. It was right on time according to God’s prophetic schedule. It was not an accident or a twist of fate. It was all planned, predicted, and promised hundreds of years in advance. The birth of the Messiah was truly a blessed arrival.
A Blessed Person
The identity and pedigree of the Messiah were not left to chance. God did not want any confusion over the issue. From the very beginning, He progressively revealed who was to be His Anointed One.
After Adam and Eve sinned, God cursed the serpent. Within that curse was the promise of one who would come and bruise the serpent’s head. This promised one would be of the seed of the woman and would be a male (Gen. 3:15). This is later reiterated in the promise given through the Prophet Isaiah. “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” (Isa. 9:6). In other words, the Messiah was not going to be an angel, an animal, or some unusual creature. Nor would the Messiah be a woman. God promised to raise up a human being, a man, who would one day deliver a deathblow to “that old serpent, called the Devil” (Rev. 12:9).
The miraculous circumstances surrounding the Messiah’s birth would give implications of His divine nature. Once again through Isaiah, God made a promise. The house of David would not be given a sign of its own choosing, but one designated by God: “the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel [lit., God with us]” (Isa. 7:14).
Although much debate has centered around whether or not the Hebrew word almah should be translated virgin or young woman, the Jewish translators of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) chose to use the Greek word parthenos to clearly indicate what they understood the Hebrew word to mean, namely virgin. Additionally, parthenos was the word used by Matthew in his gospel when quoting this Isaiah passage (Mt. 1:23). Consequently, the miraculous sign that God Himself would provide would be a virgin conceiving and bearing a son.
Further, the son, as indicated by His name, would be of divine nature. In Jewish tradition it was taught that in the early days of human history, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, people could direct the future of their children by the names they gave them (Genesis Rabbah 37.7). It was also common practice to name a child after some thought or concept that was indicative of the child’s nature. How significant it is, then, that when providing the sign of a special, virgin-born Son, God Himself gave Him a name that indicated not only what He was to do, but what He was to be. This special boy would be God, and He would be with us.
Narrowing down the Messiah’s family line even further, God planned for Him to come from a specific nation—Israel (Gen. 22:18; cp. Gal. 3:16); a specific tribe within Israel—Judah (Gen. 49:10); and a specific family within Judah—King David’s (Jer. 23:5). These, therefore, were the natal and genealogical requirements for anyone claiming to be the Messiah.
A Blessed Time
The ancient rabbis pronounced a curse on anyone who attempted to calculate the time of Messiah’s arrival (Sanhedrin 97b). They were concerned that people would lose faith when He did not appear. Despite this, the timing of the Messiah’s first advent is described in Daniel 9:24–27.
There, the angel Gabriel informed the Prophet Daniel, “Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city.” These 70 weeks are weeks of seven years each, not days—a total of 490 years. The point of reference to begin the countdown is “the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem.” The only recorded decree in Scripture that fits this prophecy historically is the one given by King Artaxerxes in Nehemiah chapter 2. This decree to rebuild the gates and wall of Jerusalem was pronounced in the 20th year of King Artaxerxes—445 B.C.
According to the angel Gabriel in Daniel 9:25, from this date, a total of 69 weeks, or 483 years, would end at a time when “the Messiah, the Prince” would be present. Through detailed calculations (using prophetic years of 360 days), biblical scholars have determined that the 69 weeks ended around 32 A.D. (see Sir Robert Anderson, The Coming Prince; Alva J. McClain, Daniel’s Prophecy of the 70 Weeks; Renald E. Showers, The Most High God).
Although the exact date has been debated, it cannot be questioned that, according to this passage, the Messiah had to arrive and be “cut off” prior to the destruction of “the city and the sanctuary.” Since Daniel received his prophecy some time after the first destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 586 B.C., this second destruction must refer to the one accomplished by the Roman army in 70 A.D. Thus, the Messiah had to arrive 483 years after 445 B.C. and before 70 A.D.
A Blessed Place
Micah 5:2 (5:1 in the Jewish Bible) is a promise most agreed upon by both Christian and ancient Jewish scholars as being messianic. “But thou, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel, whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”
According to this promise, the little town of Bethlehem Ephrathah is the location from which the Messiah was to come. Numerous ancient Jewish sources agree with this interpretation (Targum Jonathan on Micah 5:1; Lamentations Rabbah 1.16, para. 51). Even in the days of King Herod the Great, Jewish sages understood Micah 5:2 to be a reference to the birthplace of the Messiah (Mt. 2:4–6).
It is significant that the Prophet Micah clearly identified which Bethlehem was in view, for there were two Bethlehems. One was in the territory given to the tribe of Zebulun in the north (Josh. 19:15), while the other was in the territory given to the tribe of Judah. Ephrathah was the original name of this latter Bethlehem. It was located five miles south of Jerusalem and was the place where David was born and anointed king.
Corresponding to the messianic location of Bethlehem is a place called the “tower of the flock.” In biblical days, shepherds would often watch over their flocks from a specially built tower from which they could keep an eye out for bandits or wild animals. This “tower of the flock” is referred to in Micah 4:8: “And thou, O tower of the flock, the stronghold of the daughter of Zion, unto thee shall it come, even the first dominion; the kingdom shall come to the daughter of Jerusalem.” An ancient Jewish interpretation of this verse considered it to be messianic and translated the phrase “tower of the flock” as “Messiah of Israel” (Targum Jonathan).
The only other Scripture reference to the “tower of the flock” is in Genesis 35:21: “And Israel journeyed, and spread his tent beyond the tower of Edar [lit., flock].” This occurred right after Rachel died on the way to Ephrath, or Bethlehem (Gen. 35:19). This tower of the flock was therefore near Bethlehem. As a result of the tower’s location and the interpretation of Micah 4:8, another Jewish Targum translates Genesis 35:21 this way: “Jacob journeyed on and pitched his tent beyond the Tower of the Flock, the place from which the King Messiah will reveal himself at the end of days” (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan).
The blessed place, then, from which the Messiah would originate or be born was Bethlehem Ephrathah.
A Blessed Birth
By the time the Messiah arrived, the Word of God had sufficiently outlined how He could be recognized simply in terms of His birth, not to mention prophecies concerning His entire life. That outline points to Jesus of Nazareth.
First, Jesus had the right physical heritage. He was born of a woman, Mary, thus fulfilling the requirements of being a human being, a male, and the offspring of a virgin (Lk. 1:34–35). Regarding His deity, many Scripture passages attest to His miraculous works and personal confession (e.g., Jn. 10:30–33). He was also Jewish; Matthew 1 and Luke 3 both attest that Jesus of Nazareth was “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Mt. 1:1).
Second, Jesus was born at the right time. Obviously He lived after 445 B.C. and before 70 A.D. During His ministry, He preached that “The time is fulfilled” (Mk. 1:15). As referred to earlier, Bible scholars have calculated that the 483 years were brought to a close around the year 32 A.D. More specifically, it is believed that they ended on the very day that Jesus was being hailed the Messiah as He rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. On that occasion, Jesus suddenly stopped and wept over Jerusalem. He cried, “If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! But now they are hidden from thine eyes…because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation” (Lk. 19:42, 44). The time of the Messiah’s arrival had been proclaimed by the Prophet Daniel. But the Jewish leaders of that day, representing the nation as a whole, did not recognize it. Also in fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy, Jesus was “cut off,” meaning He suffered a premature death, and that through crucifixion. Even this was not by chance. Jesus’ death had a purpose. He “gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time” (1 Tim. 2:6).
Third, Jesus of Nazareth was born in the right place—Bethlehem. He was not born in the Bethlehem that was near Nazareth, even though Joseph lived in Nazareth. Instead, He was born in the other Bethlehem, Bethlehem Ephrathah. God, in His providence, had the Roman Emperor Augustus decree that the whole empire be taxed. This required all citizens to return to the towns of their ancestry. Joseph was therefore obligated to make the long, difficult trip, with his pregnant wife Mary, to Bethlehem. While there, Jesus the Messiah was born, just as God had planned and promised (Lk. 2:4, 7).
Another interesting aspect of Jesus’ birth is that “there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Lk. 2:8). It was to these shepherds that a host of angels proclaimed the Messiah’s birth in nearby Bethlehem. Could it be that these shepherds were near the “tower of the flock,” the place from which the Messiah was to be revealed?
Evidence declares that Jesus of Nazareth was the blessed person, born at the blessed time, in the blessed place. Like a baby’s footprint taken in a hospital maternity ward, the historical, identifying marks surrounding His birth prove that His truly was a blessed arrival.
It was said when the McCaughey septuplets were born, “The birth is just the beginning of the story, not the end.”
And so it is with Jesus.