Bethlehem would prove to be the perfect town.
Ancient Israel had no better spot for this quiet yet promising birth — for a royal heir who would grow up in the boonies but come to die in the capital.
On its own, the little town was not great. It was far more like the rural village of Nazareth than celestial Jerusalem. But Bethlehem was iconic for its potential — the city of David — the place where Israel’s greatest king was born and raised, before ascending to the throne and founding the city of kings.
Unlike the splendor of Jerusalem, and unlike unimpressive Nazareth, Bethlehem had a veiled majesty. So did the day of Jesus’s birth. From all appearances, this newborn was ordinary, even earthy — wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid, of all places, in the spot where barn animals fed. So too his first visitors were plain and unsophisticated: shepherds keeping watch on the night shift.
Yet the majestic host of heaven had come to announce this birth. Something splendid was in the offing — but humbly, slowly, patiently. Big city Jerusalem would wait in the distance for more than three decades.
Bethlehem: From Majesty to None
Christmas marks the eternal divine Son “leaving” the majesty of heaven, so to speak. In truth, he came to earth without leaving heaven. Not ceasing to be God, he took to himself our humanity. He “did not count equality with God” and his divine majesty “a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,” and there, in the city of David, “being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6–7). He “emptied himself” not by losing divinity but by taking our humanity. And not only did he descend, in birth, to the veiled majesty of Bethlehem but even lower in his backwater childhood in Nazareth.
There, as Isaiah had foretold seven centuries before,
he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him. (Isaiah 53:2)
“No majesty” need not mean that he was especially ugly — that too might draw the wrong attention — but that he was pretty normal — “no form or majesty that we should look at him.” He was no Adonis, no sight of masculine beauty to behold. Not so handsome as to stand out and draw attention.
Veiling his divine majesty with humanity, he lived among us, as one of us, for more than three decades in the very “no majesty” of normal humanity that most of us know so well.
Galilee: Majesty Through Man
After decades in obscurity, Jesus “went public” in his thirties as a teacher of the masses, and a discipler of men. Those who followed him did so not because of his looks or wealth or political power, but they were won by his extraordinary words, and accompanying miracles, which he performed to give glory to God. So Luke 9:42–43 reports,
Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astonished at the majesty of God.
How striking, in such circumstances, that he had been so clear with his words, and so humble in his demeanor, that it was God’s majesty, not his own, that astonished the crowds. This is what majesty does: it astounds, it amazes, it overwhelms. It inspires awe and makes human hearts marvel. It portrays a kind of magnificence that is deserving of worship (Acts 19:27). Yet Jesus himself was so plain, so normal, so human. No one spoke like this man (John 7:46), and did what he could do (John 9:32), yet he relentlessly looked and pointed to heaven. When the crowds stood in awe of him, and saw his unnerving normalcy, they found themselves astounded at the majesty of God.
On the Mount: Majesty in Man
Still, the divine majesty the crowds saw through him soon became a divine majesty his disciples would see in him. His inner circle of Peter, James, and John would get the first glimpse, ahead of time, of his unveiled majesty to come.
At his “transfiguration” on the mountain, the Father showed them the coming majesty that was veiled during Jesus’s state of humiliation in the days of his flesh. Later Peter would tell about the sight they beheld. Speaking especially for James and John, he writes,
we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. (2 Peter 1:16–18)
Peter had the privilege of being one of the three who, ahead of time, witnessed his majesty — that is, Jesus’s own divine-human majesty that would be secured and revealed on the other side of the cross. In his resurrected, glorified state, the God-man — divine from all eternity, and now fully human forever as well — would come into his unsurpassed human majesty. The one who from all eternity shared in divine majesty (in heaven) and took on human no-majesty in his state of humiliation (Bethlehem and Nazareth), and pointed to divine majesty (Galilee), would soon shine in Jerusalem with divine majesty, and be the man of divine majesty forever (New Jerusalem).
Jerusalem: Majesty on the Cross
At that transfiguration, what still lay before him was the cross, inglorious and glorious, horrible and wonderful. Here, in Jerusalem, his last and culminating act of humiliation would also, in time, prove to be the first great act of exaltation and cosmic majesty. As he says in John 12:31–32, having arrived in the holy city, in his near approach to the cross,
Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
John then adds that Jesus “said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:33). His lifting up to the cross would be both his last great act of self-humbling and, simultaneously, his first lifting up to glory.
Zion: Majesty on the Throne
Three days later the veil was lifted. His Father raised him to fully human, glorified, new life. Then, for forty days, his divine-human majesty could shine out in fuller strength, before he would be lifted up yet again, now to heaven itself, there to sit, in ultimate honor, “at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3; also 8:1).
His mission finished, purification for sins complete, his majesty comes full circle: from heaven, to earth, to Nazareth and Galilee, finally to Jerusalem, and back to heaven, now to await one final move: the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven to earth, where Jesus will reign with divine-human majesty beyond our imagining. Then will he fulfill, in finality, the great Bethlehem prophecy of Micah 5:
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,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days. . . .
And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.
And he shall be their peace. (Micah 5:2, 4–5)
Human and divine. He is son of David, yet one whose coming forth is from of old. A ruler in Israel, and over all the nations, he shepherds in the very strength of God almighty, and as God almighty, and in the majesty of God’s own name. At long last, the king has come, with God-bestowed splendor and majesty (Psalm 21:5), Messiah who in his majesty rides “out victoriously for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness” (Psalm 45:4).
Bethlehem was perfect for such a birth. Quietly and unexpectedly as he came, Christmas Day too would change everything, in time, and remake both heaven and earth.
Now, by faith, we see him exalted. Soon, by sight, we will behold his full majesty.