A few days left to Christmas. Doesn’t it seem that someone has monkeyed with time? We finish one year and, bang, it is here again. Since last Christmas, I have been contemplating this verse. I think it is my favorite Christmas verse. Here it is:
John 11:54, NKJV “Therefore Jesus no longer walked openly among the Jews, but went from there into the country near the wilderness, to a city called Ephraim, and there remained with His disciples.”
A fascinating verse because it is the only place in the New Testament that Ephraim is mentioned. God tells us Jesus went there, but God does not tell us why. I see you scratching your head. How does this relate to Christmas? That is the enigma. When we uncover it, I think it will astound us. At least it did astound me.
Firstly, you have to understand who Ephraim was. Ephraim was Joseph’s second son born to his Egyptian wife. The first son was named Manasseh. Remember the story? Joseph is so hated by his brothers that they sell him into slavery, and he lands in Egypt. Eventually, Joseph ends up in a position of authority as Pharaoh’s right-hand man. Pharaoh gives him an Egyptian wife who bears him two sons. Finally, Joseph’s father and brothers end up fleeing to Egypt in order to escape a famine in the land. Here Joseph is reunited with his father Jacob. Jacob, when he is dying, ends up blessing his grandson Ephraim as if he is the first-born.
When the Israelites eventually return to the promised land, each of Jacob’s sons inherits land but not Joseph. His inheritance is divided between Ephraim and Manasseh. The land of Israel ends up divided into territories much like we have provinces or states. So, instead of provinces like Alberta or Saskatchewan, Israel has territories called Ephraim, Manasseh, Judah, Benjamin etc. Twelve of them.
Now let’s return to the verse.
When I read John 11:54 over a year ago, I was intrigued. Why? Because after 62 years on this earth, I am now convinced that God often infuses passages with meaning. Meaning which is not readily discernable on the first and often subsequent readings. God is not attempting to be a descriptive writer like we were taught in school. He does not tell us simply where Jesus went without a purpose. I love these perceived enigmas, and the Bible is full of them. This led me to look up the meaning of Ephraim, and I found out that Ephraim and Ephrathah have the same meaning.
Now we start to see the connection to Christmas.
750 years before Christ was born, Micah prophesied that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem Ephrathah.
Mic 5:2, NKJV “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Though you are little among the thousands of Judah, Yet out of you shall come forth to Me The One to be Ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old, From everlasting.”
Today, we simply know this little town as Bethlehem. We sing “O little Town of Bethlehem.” The Ephrathah drops off, largely I believe, because of a verse in Matthew 2. Here Herod is contemplating killing all the Hebrew children under 2. So, he asks the Priest and scribes where Jesus is to be born, and they paraphrase Micah 5:2 by blatantly leaving out the word Ephrathah. If God infuses scripture with meaning, the fact that the Priests and scribes omit Ephrathah is in itself meaningful.
However, if Ephrathah and Ephraim have the same meaning, it creates more problems than it solves. For Jesus cannot be from the territory of Ephraim. Bethlehem Ephrathah is a village located within the territory of Judah, and the prophecy is very specific. Jesus must be born in the land of Judah. So Ephrathah and Ephraim, in my mind, cannot be connected.
Then why is Ephrathah included in the prophecy?
That is a baffling question that only makes us delve deeper. When we delve deeper, we make some amazing connections. Did you know that Mary wasn’t the first woman the Bible records giving birth at Bethlehem Ephrathah? It was actually Joseph’s mother Rachel. She died giving birth to Joseph’s brother Benjamin at Bethlehem. From Gen 35 we learn that Ephrathah predates Ephraim. We also learn that, on her death bed, Rachel named her second son Ben-oni, which literally means “son of my sorrow.” However, Jacob renames Ben-oni, Benjamin. Benjamin literally means “son of the right hand.”
Further in Genesis, we start to learn how Ephraim and Ephrathah may be related when Joseph names his second son.
It seems that Joseph more than likely named his son Ephraim after Bethlehem Ephrathah where his mother died. The death of Joseph’s mother had to be devastating news for him. He is likely a young teenager when he loses her. For, in Genesis 37, we learn Joseph is sold into slavery at the age of seventeen. Not only is he rejected by his brothers, but he has lost his mother. In Genesis 41, we learn the clear meaning of Ephraim and, consequently, Ephrathah:
Gen 41:52, NKJV “And the name of the second he called Ephraim: ‘For God has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction.'”
According to the Strong’s concordance, both Ephraim and Ephrathah mean “double Ashes” and “double fruitfulness.” This meaning is obvious from Genesis 41:52. God took the ashes of Joseph’s life and made it something fruitful. It is interesting that God then uses the meaning of ashes and fruitfulness throughout scripture. Particularly in Isaiah 61.
Isa 61:3, NKJV “To console those who mourn in Zion, To give them beauty for ashes, The oil of joy for mourning, The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; That they may be called trees of righteousness, The planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.”
If you are a regular Bible reader, you probably recognize all this foreshadowing. It is called Typology. While we may not be familiar with the term, we know the concept. Jesus is foreshadowed in people. The story of Abraham and Isaac comes to mind. Jesus is also foreshadowed in things. Jesus confirmed this when he said, “As Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up” (John 3:14). Jesus is, thirdly, foreshadowed in events. Jesus also confirmed this when he said, “As Jonah was 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of a fish, so must the Son of Man be 3 days and 3 nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt 12:40). Finally, Jesus is foreshadowed in places. God blatantly prophesies the birth of his son in Bethlehem but conceals his typology hidden in Ephrathah. That he leaves for us to discover.
There is an inherent danger here. You can probably see the problem. Our imaginations can run wild with typologies. So, Old Testament typologies must always be confirmed by New Testament scripture.
So, what is the fruit God refers to in Isaiah 61?
It is obviously righteousness, and we learn from Eph 5:9, in the New Testament, that righteousness is a fruit. From Hebrews 9 we learn that Jesus’ sacrifice is better than the ashes of bulls and goats.
What about Rachel and Benjamin?
Rachel is actually mentioned in Matthew’s narrative concerning the birth of Jesus:
Matt 2:18, KJV “In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.”
So, where is Rama?
According to the Strong’s concordance, it is a town located on the territorial border between the tribes of Ephraim and Benjamin. According to Matthew, when Herod discovered he had been deceived by the Magi, he killed all the children two years and younger in an area much bigger than just Bethlehem.
When we knit all these typologies together, a much deeper foreshadowing becomes apparent in the prophecy of Ephrathah. Maybe something like this….
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Though you are little among the thousands of Judah, Yet out of you shall come forth to Me The One to be Ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old, From everlasting.” Like Ben-oni, he would be known as a Man of sorrows acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53). When his life had been made an offering for sin, he would give us beauty for ashes, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness so that we might be righteous in his sight. As Benjamin’s name means the son of the right hand so Jesus goes forth to God and now sits at the right hand of the father.
What about John 11:54?
It is from the city of Ephraim that Jesus would make a straight march to his crucifixion. In Micah 5:2 God foreshadows the entire story of redemption. It starts in Bethlehem, and from Ephrathah we learn it ends at a cross.
Does God literally weave all this meaning into one verse?
I am convinced he does. Not just here in the story of Bethlehem but in other stories too. Over and over again. So that we can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that his son is the way, the truth and the life. HIs way may be narrow but he wants us to know it is sure. One astounding God who uses an astounding book to give us one astounding Christmas! Could you wish for any better present?