A Small Town, A Great Purpose

Banner Image December Bible Study — Bethlehem

“At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 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. And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped Him snugly in strips of cloth and laid Him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them” (Luke 2:1-7).

Bethlehem. Known by several other names*, though largely unknown as a small town near the northern part of the Dead Sea, five miles south of Jerusalem. It doesn’t appear in many ancient writings outside of the Bible, so little history has been uncovered about this tiny place. It was an insignificant town for the most part. Until…well, you know.


Meaning “house of bread,” Bethlehem actually appears in Scripture many generations before the birth of Jesus. It first appears in Genesis, in fact, as the burial place of Jacob’s wife, Rachel (Genesis 35:16; 48:7). It was the hometown of Israel’s 10th judge, Ibzan (Judges 12:8-10), as well as for Boaz, who redeemed Ruth after she remained with her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi (Ruth 2:1-4).

The little town of Bethlehem became a bit more of a household name when Ruth’s great-grandson, a little shepherd boy, was found there tending to his family’s sheep. After bypassing all of his older brothers, Samuel anointed him king (1 Samuel 16:13-15). That little boy was David, famous killer of a giant, unfortunate adulterer and murderer, but a man after God’s own heart.

From the bloodline of King David, we eventually find Joseph on the family tree. As with many families, kids and grandkids tend to move away and start their own lives apart from their family. Somewhere along the line, the family of Boaz and Ruth was no longer settled in Bethlehem. Joseph was living in Nazareth with the girl he was engaged to, Mary, and stayed by her side through the very confusing time of her divine pregnancy.


It came time for Caesar Augustus, the emperor in Rome, to decree a census of his entire empire. The method of obtaining an accurate count included sending all people to the ancestral hometown of the head of the household. There, each person would be counted, and a total number of all the people in the empire would be reported back to Caesar Augustus.

As Scripture tells us, since Joseph came from the line of David, he returned to his hometown of Bethlehem. He and Mary made the 100-mile journey from Nazareth—undoubtedly a tiring, weeklong walk, especially for a pregnant woman close to giving birth.

So what?

Approximately 700 years before Joseph and Mary were required to travel to Bethlehem for the census, a prophet by the name of Micah shared this news from God:

“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel, whose origins are in the distant past, will come from you on my behalf. The people of Israel will be abandoned to their enemies until the woman in labor gives birth. Then at last his fellow countrymen will return from exile to their own land. And he will stand to lead his flock with the Lord’s strength, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. Then his people will live there undisturbed, for he will be highly honored around the world. And he will be the source of peace” (Micah 5:2-5a).


It is no coincidence that Augustus ordered a census at the exact time that Mary was about to give birth—unless you define coincidence as coinciding with God’s plan all along! The prophetic word was given 700 years earlier to make it clear that this baby, from the line of David, born in Bethlehem, was in fact the One whom God was telling His people about all along. He was the Messiah, the Savior of the world, God’s Son, Jesus.

Imagine if Joseph had said, “Forget the census! I’m not from that tiny unknown town. That was where my ancestors were from. I think I’ll stay here in Nazareth.” Or what if Mary had said, “One hundred miles?! You expect me to travel 100 miles while I’m this pregnant?! I don’t care if you have a donkey for me to ride! I’m staying right here.”

Joseph and Mary were in the right place at the right time to fulfill the prophecy about the Savior of the world because they were obedient. They received an order from leadership and followed that order. Sure, it was uncomfortable. It would have been physically uncomfortable—especially for Mary—to make that journey. It was probably emotionally uncomfortable, too, particularly for Joseph. Here he was, engaged to a woman but not married, which meant that he definitely would not have been intimate with her. And he’s taking her back to his hometown—the place his ancestors and extended family are from, where he will undoubtedly run into just about all of them—with a very pregnant fiancée. What shame!

Nevertheless, they obeyed.


The Salvation Army intends to be in the right place at the right time, including at Christmas, to help those hurting, lost, and without hope. But an organization can’t be in the right place at the right time…only its people can.

It can undoubtedly be uncomfortable to ring a bell outside a store in our own hometown. Or pass out food boxes to people who probably don’t look or smell like us. Or play an “old school” brass instrument out on a street corner.

You may not be called to travel 100 miles on foot or donkey, or make a pilgrimage to the little town of Bethlehem. But we are all called to be in the right place at the right time, in order that others might see the Savior.

Where will you serve this Christmas so that others might see Him?

*Other names for Bethlehem: Ephrath, Beth-lehem Ephratah, Beth-lehem-judah, “the city of David”



1. The Census (Luke 2:1-3)
Every person in the Roman world was counted. Can you think of someone in your life who may be forgotten or neglected? Take time to write them a card today.

2. Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25)
Joseph obediently took Mary as his wife, despite the potential of public disgrace. Is there something difficult God is calling you to do? Ask a trusted friend to pray with you about it.

3. Mary (Luke 1:26-38)
God chose Mary to carry His one and only Son. How can God use you to carry to Him? Write a list of 10 people who you will commit to pray for and carry to Jesus this season.

4. The Inn (Luke 2:7)
No room in the inn may have been unplanned for Mary and Joseph, but God had all these things arranged. Text Jeremiah 29:11 to a friend today. Remind them that God always has a plan and His plan is best!

5.  The Manger (Luke 2:6-7)
Mary wrapped Jesus in cloths and placed Him in a manger. Cuddle under a blanket tonight and read Luke 2. What does His birth in a manger (an animal feeding trough) mean to you?

6. The Angel (Luke 2:13-14)
The heavenly hosts declared, “Glory to God!” Why not be an angel to a child this Christmas by adopting one from the Angel Tree program? See page 24 to learn how Angel Tree started.

7. The Shepherds (Luke 2:15-18)
The angels appeared to lowly shepherds to declare their praises. Have you considered ministering to those less fortunate? How about volunteering at The Salvation Army’s food distribution this Christmas? See page 14 to learn about its history.

8. The King (Matthew 2:1-12)
King Herod was out to get Jesus. Can you think of any enemies you may have? Think of ways that you can bless them this season—it’s amazing how far a dozen cookies could go.

9. The Star (Matthew 2:9-10)
Why not post the passage of the Christmas story on Facebook today as a reminder of the real Star of the story?

10. The Gold (Matthew 2:11)
The gift of gold represents the value of a king. Ever thought of helping collect money this year at a Salvation Army kettle? See page 12 for how it started.

11. The Frankincense (Matthew 2:11)
A precious perfume, frankincense was used to heal and show adoration. Be a gift of healing today by visiting your local nursing home with your corps family.

12. The Myrrh (Matthew 2:11)
This valuable oil is used to embalm and anoint. It preserves and speaks to Jesus’ death on the cross. From now until Christmas, consider giving up any distractions that cause you not to focus on Jesus. Sanctify that time with the “myrrh” of prayer and Scripture study.

— Cari Arias, Curriculum Writer/Editor