During my church’s celebration of the third Sunday of Advent, I was again struck by the absurdity of it all. The eternal God of the universe chose not only to veil himself in flesh, but also to do so in particularly humble circumstances. Geopolitical forces may have caused Joseph to take his betrothed to Bethlehem, but Jesus’s parents were not movers and shakers in society—they were mere commoners whose meager station was evidenced by their use of a feed trough as a cradle.
Yet in Why Cities Matter, pastors Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard use the location of the Nativity to argue for the importance of center-city ministries. They reason that the power and influence of cities makes them the most strategic location for gospel ministry:
“When God’s people’s commitment to the urban mandate fizzled out, he personally took up responsibility for the mission, took on human flesh, and was born into the city (Luke 2:11).”
Was the incarnation strategically placed in the center city? Let’s look at the three places mentioned in the Nativity story—Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem—to discover the urban context God chose to locate His invasion of human history.
“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth …” (Luke 2:4).
Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth, a small city of 500 or so in Galilee. It was less than 4 miles from the much larger city of Sepphoris. During Jesus’ life, Herod Antipas ruled from Sepphoris and engaged in extensive beautification of the city. Some scholars even suggest he may have employed some Nazarene carpenters who could have commuted by foot in less than an hour each way.
Not only was Nazareth of insignificant size, it apparently had a poor reputation as well, evidenced by the apostle Nathanael’s exclamation, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
“… to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem …” (Luke 2:4).
Bethlehem was not exactly a thriving metropolis, either. Scholars estimate its population was mere hundreds at the time of Jesus’ birth. But its reputation was much better than Nazareth’s because it was the hometown of King David and the forecasted birthplace of the coming Messiah: “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 …” (Micah 5:2).
Still, Bethlehem was a “little town” and located only 5 miles from Jerusalem. Obviously, first-century Judea didn’t feature car-dependent bedroom communities, but we could call Bethlehem a suburb of Jerusalem.
And let’s not forget those shepherds living in the “same region.” Some of the earliest English translations occasionally referred to the lands around cities as suburbs (e.g., Tyndale’s translation of Numbers 35:2-3).
“ … in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem …” (Matthew 2:1).
Unlike Nazareth and Bethlehem, Jerusalem was a big city. It was densely populated and a center of power in the region. Unsurprisingly, it was there that the wise men came to seek the one born King of the Jews.
But they didn’t find what they were looking for in that great city. Instead, Jesus was born in a suburb to parents from a different, less trendy suburb and angelically announced to hicks in the suburb’s suburbs.