Bethlehem by Vasily Polenov (1882)
We know the day of Christ’s birth was a glorious day, but what could Christmas possibly have to do with sports? Christian theologians generally have little to say about sports because frankly, the Bible tells us virtually nothing about sports in ancient Israel. Even so, I’m about to reveal a hidden connection between sports and the Bible, and even between sports and Christmas!
The Common Thread
The connection can be found in one word: rivalry. Sports is very much about rivalry. This happens to be a very familiar topic in the Bible. Rivalry begins with the rival sons of Adam, and continues with the sons of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and so on through the Bible.
Even Jesus’ own disciples competed with one another. Our Lord didn’t discourage rivalry altogether. Instead, He steered His disciples in the right direction. He told them that whoever wanted to become the greatest should become the least of all (Lk. 9:48).
We all find it easy to turn our noses up at these past rivalries, mainly because they don’t involve us. Perhaps you are a mostly cooperative person rather than a competitive person. If so, that’s fine but let’s face it…
We all want to be the victor sometimes. None of us is content to always come in last. This all goes back to mankind’s ancient struggle to find food; find a mate; and otherwise do whatever was necessary to survive.
Rivalry in Ancient Israel
God knows that just as each of us is drawn to rivalries as individuals, so it is with communities. Think of all the rivalries among our sports teams and their home cities today. Like myself, you probably have some favorite sports teams, starting with ones that are in or near your home town.
Although ancient Israel didn’t have professional sports, the Israelites took pride in their religious heritage. For example, the Judahites looked forward to becoming the home of the prophesied Messiah. Judah was known for having produced great rulers such as David, Jehoshaphat, and Hezekian. Indeed, God had chosen that tribe for this role since the day that the patriarch Jacob had blessed Judah in these words:
How God Honored Bethlehem
You may now be one step ahead of me, knowing that Bethlehem was the birthplace of our Messiah, and therefore can be considered the “greatest town ever.” However, let’s walk through this one thought at a time…
If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you know there’s always some hometown pride, and always some rivalry with the neighboring towns. God may not care much about our sports rivalries, but He clearly took an interest in the conversations that must have taken place in the towns of Judah.
People must have wondered, “From what family will the Messiah descend?,” and “Where will He be born?” The people of Jerusalem may have thought to themselves, “Surely, the Messiah will be born here, in King David’s royal city.”
As you know, three wise men came to visit Jesus, our Messiah, soon after His birth. They first went to Jerusalem and asked where the Messiah was to be born. King Herod was frightened at the thought that someone might rise up to threaten his rule. When Herod passed the question on to the Pharisees, they quoted this prophecy from Micah:
And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
For from you shall come a ruler
Who will shepherd my people Israel’ (Matt. 2:6)
Herod thought he could defy God by thwarting the fulfillment of Bible prophecy. Thus, he had his soldiers kill all the baby boys in and around the town of Bethlehem.
After this slaughter, Bethlehem surely must have seemed like the least of all the towns of Judah. Everyone must have wondered, “How could God have allowed this to happen to us?” and “Where is God’s Messiah in this hour of need?” This was the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy:
Thus says the LORD:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more. (Jer. 31:15)
God permitted this tragedy so that evil could reveal its monstrous face. This includes not only King Herod, but the demonic powers that tempted him. Those murdered infants surely hold places of special honor in Heaven. In addition, we honor that ancient town of Bethlehem upon every remembrance and celebration of Christ’s birth.
Since God used even that horrific event for His glory, you may rest assured that He can also use your past sins and setbacks for His purposes.
The Bible indicates that victory often comes in the midst of a heartbreaking event. This happened not only at Christ’s birth, but also at His crucifixion.
Herod was correct in his supposition that the Messiah had been born in Bethlehem. However, by the time he killed the infants, Joseph and Mary had already taken their Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to safety in Egypt.
How We Can Benefit From Rivalry
As for our present-day sports rivalries, I think we all know the “score,” so to speak. God routinely uses them to show us the power of virtues such as leadership, teamwork, perseverance, faith, and discipline. For these reasons, I think God can and does bless sporting events, as long as we don’t idolize either the sports or any of the athletes involved in them.
The story of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem directs our attention to the noblest motive for engaging in rivalry. The highest honor comes, not from winning any trophy, but from ushering our Savior into the world and welcoming His Holy Spirit among us. Like Joseph and Mary, we can be willing vessels for God to use in honorable ways. We can choose to let Jesus shine in and through us so that the world will know that He is alive and enthroned at the right hand of God.
Jesus’ disciples engaged in rivalry because they sought glory and honor. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to achieve greatness, but each of must first be willing to become the servant of all.