“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. 2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) 3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) 5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. 6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn (Luke 2:1-7).
In the year 44 BC, the political, economic, and social world of the Roman Empire was thrown into chaos. The great Roman statesman and general, Julius Caesar, was murdered. The First Triumvirate consisting of Crassus, Pompey, and Julius Caesar was over. These three strong men had divided the government of the Roman Empire between themselves. Now they were dead. First Crassus, then Pompey, and finally Julius.
The question emerged. Who would rule Rome? Who would take control of the mighty military machine? What man could hold in check all the social forces of unrest, uncertainty, and hunger? Three personalities appeared: Lepidus, Antony, and Octavian. These were the days of the Second Triumvirate.
Civil war ensued as the three men warred against themselves. The years passed. The question of master of Rome came down to a single historic naval battle. In September of the year 31 BC, the Battle of Actium took place. Octavian was the winner. Months later in August 30 BC, Antony committed suicide. He was not alone. Beside him in the same ultimate set of self-destruction was the former mistress of Julius Caesar, now the wife of Antony, the bewitching beauty. Cleopatra.
With the death of Antony, the last great rival to Octavian was gone. Now the grandnephew of Julius Caesar could rule, the undisputed heir. So successful was Octavian in his dominion of the Roman Empire that in the year 27 BC, the Roman senate conferred on the former Octavian, who was now calling himself Gaius Julius Caesar, the title Augustus, meaning majestic, sublime, highly revered. Luke calls him correctly, Caesar Augustus.
Many things could be said about Caesar Augustus, for his life and times are well documented in history. During his climb to power he was ruthless. His hands were stained with the blood of those who had dared to betray his great uncle. The head of Brutus, for example, he had sent to Rome to be cast at the feet of Caesar’s statue.
However, once in total control, Augustus mellowed, and established in great part the Pax Romana (Roman Peace). So it was that Caesar Augustus could issue an order that all the world should be taxed. The phrase “all the world” is of course a harmless hyperbole, using the popular language of the time. The Roman world is in view, the Mediterranean world, “And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.”
At this point it should be noted that the word “taxed” in verses 2,3, and 5 and the word “taxing,” in verse 2, is not the best translation. By substituting the term census (or enrollment or registration) for the term taxing, the sense of this passage is found. In America, every few years, by law, a census is taken to formerly register the citizens of the United States. Caesar Augustus made such a decree for the citizens of Rome, to be accomplished every fourteen years.
This system of periodic enrollment was put into operation for the first time when Quirinius was governor of Syria. As a Roman governor of a Jewish population, Cyrenius had a difficult task to perform, for the Jews were extreme nationalists. They did not want the rule of Rome, even though, under Augustus, the Jews enjoyed a certain amount of freedom.
In Acts 5:37, the record is given of the revolt led by Judas, the Galilean, when Rome first tried to take a census of this same area just two years before the birth of Jesus. There was bloodshed and violence. And yet the will of Rome was finally enforced. And so it was that “Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.”
Those who have been to Palestine know that Galilee lies in the northern part of the land, while Judea lies in the southern part. Joseph therefore traveled south in order to go to Bethlehem.
It was in Bethlehem, that Jesus was to be born. As a little town located six miles south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem had quite a history, even then. Once, the place was called Ephrath. And then the name was changed to The House of Bread, or, Bethlehem.
It was here in Bethlehem that Jacob had buried his beloved Rachel, and had built a monument to her memory (Gen. 48:7; 35:20). It was here, that Ruth had lived after she married Boaz (Ruth 1:22). It was here, that David made his home, and longed for the water of the well of Bethlehem when he was hunted as a fugitive upon the hills from the insane king, Saul (1 Sam. 16:1, 17:12; 20:6; 2 Sam. 23: 14,15).
The prophets of old predicted that the Messiah would come from this place. Micah wrote (5:2), “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose going forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”
Here is a marvelous moment. Beyond the natural decree of Caesar Augustus, is the eternal decree of Almighty God. He who has written all things that shall ever be, works through the normal activities of His creation.
So it was that Joseph, obedient to the law of the land, traveled to Bethlehem “because he was of the house (family) and lineage (or descent) of David”. Joseph would know about his roots, because, for the Jews, genealogy has never been lacking in importance.
After the Israelites conquered the land of Canaan, it was important to know one’s tribe in order to determine a family’s place of residence. By divine law, the occupation of the land was according to tribes, and families, and the fathers houses (Num. 26:52-56 33:54). If a person settled in a territory, not assigned, he might be called a deserter (Judges 12:4). Under certain situations, the transfer of property required accurate knowledge of a person’s roots (Ruth 3:9, 12,13; 4:1-10). After David was king, the royal succession to the throne was linked to the Davidic line (1 King 11:36: 15:4). After the return from Babylon, a person who came to be a priest had to prove descent from the tribe of Levi, or be excluded from office (Ezra 2:62).
It is no accident that both Matthew and Luke list the genealogy of Christ through Joseph and through Mary. There are rich spiritual lessons to be learned.
As Joseph went to be registered in Bethlehem, so did Mary his espoused or betrothed wife. The reason for the presence of Mary, very much pregnant on this ninety mile arduous journey, is simple. The census was to be by households. Certainly Joseph would not have left Mary behind in Nazareth under her special circumstances of conception.
And it may also very well be that both Joseph and Mary, being devout people, were anxious that the Messiah of promise be born in Bethlehem. Before the birth of Queen Victoria, her father made it a point to get her mother back on English soil, so that the next possible heir to the British crown should be born in Britain.
Whether there was a consciousness of the prophetic need to be in Bethlehem, or simply responding to the natural will of the Emperor, God worked all things together for good. “And so it was, that while they were there, in Bethlehem, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.”
Reflecting on this blessed event, the apostle Paul would later write, that the birth of Christ occurred, “in the fullness of time.” (Galatians 4:4)
God does all things well, and He does things at the right time. And at the best moment in all of human history, Mary, “brought forth her firstborn son.”
The reference to the firstborn son is extremely significant. First, it speaks of the virgin birth. The Biblical narrative is very precise, in teaching that Jesus was conceived by God the Holy Spirit, who in a sovereign, and supernatural way, overshadowed Mary. Here is a great mystery, but nothing is too hard for God.
The necessity of the virgin birth is mandated by the fact that Jesus must be born free, outside the slave market of sin. The eternal Son of God did take to Himself a genuine, and complete human nature, and was born as a man, yet without the imputed sin of Adam, which is found in all others.
Second, the reference to the firstborn son, addresses the issue that after Mary gave birth to Jesus, she continued to bear children. There is a teaching which denies that Jesus had brothers and sisters born to Mary, by Joseph, but the Scriptures are plain. The very names of the brothers of Jesus are mentioned in Matthew 13:55. There was James, and Joseph, and Simon, and Judas. Four brothers were in the household with Jesus. And, according to Matthew 13:56, there were at least two sisters as well (Matt. 12:46, 47; Mark 3:31, 32; Luke 819, 20; then John 2:12, 7:3, 5, 10; Acts 1:14).
Mary, the mother of the humanity of Christ, had a tremendous capacity for love, and her first love was her firstborn Son. With strips of cloth, the baby was tightly wrapped around and around, and was laid in a manger. A manger is a feeding trough for animals. Here is the greatest act of humiliation, as the Lord of glory lies as a little baby, in a stable, in a manger. And we ask, why, the answer comes back in part, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich.”
The poet Johann Heermann wrote,
“For me, dear Jesus, was thine incarnation,
Thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation;
Thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion, for my salvation.”
On the day Jesus was born, life went on as usual. People bought and sold. People moved from place to place. People crowded into public inns so that there was no room for others. The greatest event in all of human history was taking place. The Son of the Living God was present, but few knew.
That danger is still present today. God is missing in many lives. There are hearts that have never welcomed Jesus. Jesus is not welcomed because people hate Him, but simply because the heart is so overcrowded with thoughts of riches, honor, prestige, pleasure, and business affairs. There is no room for Jesus.
When the appointed hour of worship comes, often there is no room for Jesus. When the songs of praise are sung to His holy name, the majestic cords of music falls upon dead, wooden pews. Empty places, reserved for the people who have crowded lives, and no room for Jesus. Room for much, but no room for Jesus.
For those who find time for Jesus, like the good shepherds, for those who are recipients to the heavenly angelic vision, and the Word of God, those elect souls will return from worship, “Glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.”
Do you have room for Jesus? Will you make room for Jesus? Will you come and worship the Lord, and then go and tell the world the Savior has come?