In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (Luke 2:1-7 ESV).
In these seven short verses Luke recounts the event of God becoming flesh. An event that has not been outdone by any other event in the history of man. And Luke lays it out so simply for us.
Let’s begin with verse one. First, “in those days” is a reference to 1:1-80. This is to say, “during this time.” So around the time that John the Baptist was born (v. 57), and Mary is visited by Gabriel (vv. 26-38) to learn that she will carry her Savior (1:47), “a decree went from Caesar Augustus” (2:1). Who is this Caesar Augustus?
This is Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, and arguably the most successful Roman Emperor in the history of the empire. You may also know him as Octavian. His birth name was Gaius Octavius and he was the grand nephew of Julius Caesar. Through the last will and living testament of Julius Caesar, Octavian is made emperor, and at the age of 18 years old he becomes the sole emperor of the entire Roman Empire. This is 31 B.C.
Octavian is most notably known for “a time of peace and extensive architectural achievements”. He said of himself that, “he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble”. During his reign he built highways fit for travel and commerce. These roads connected cities within the Roman Empire together and led to the city of Rome so that goods could travel in and out of the city creating a vast network of trade. He also reformed the Roman system of taxation.
As he expanded the empire and continued with building projects and massive reform across the Roman world, it became necessary to have a more organized system to assess the amount of tax countries needed to pay towards the Roman Treasury. This is the reason for the “decree” mentioned in verse one of our text. Caesar Augustus, Octavian, needed an “official counting and registration of citizens [as well as] a property evaluation for tax purposes”.
In verse two Luke gives us more detail which helps us to narrow down the time in which this census took place. For the sake of time I will not delve too deeply here, but will say that Luke’s mention of Quirinius being the governor of Syria helps us to place the time of Christ’s birth at around 7-6 B.C.
We now come to verse three which states, “And all went to be registered, each to his own town.” We have established why this registration was taking place, when this registration took place, and have even had the opportunity to scratch the surface of who Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus was. With all of this learned, why does Luke tell us that each went to his own town to be registered?
This statement serves a twofold purpose. First, it speaks to how Augustus ruled his Empire. “The genuineness of the statement that everyone had to go into his own city to be enrolled has also been strikingly confirmed. It was a characteristic feature of August’s action towards a subject people that he gave every consideration to their national customs”. This registration of the entire Roman world did not require everyone to return to their town of ancestry. This travel was something that the Jews felt was necessary, which Caesar allowed, and is why we find Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem in verse four (more on this next week).
The second and most important purpose verse three serves is to show us that Caesar was “an instrument in the all-guiding hand of God”. In Micah 5:2 we find a prophesy stating that out of Bethlehem will come one who will be ruler over Israel. This is a prophesy fulfilled and facilitated by the actions of Caesar Augustus calling for a registration for the purpose of taxes. These actions are ultimately controlled by God and allowed by God for his will. This is a point that cannot be missed.
Behind all of the Roman expansion and the success of Octavian in establishing a time of peace in the Empire, God was moving and working. God, knowing all things, knew that the time was now to place his Son in the midst of his creation. The world was never more ripe to receive the Gospel and spread it to the ends of the earth and through the ages. It all started with this registration, and with Joseph and Mary traveling to the town of Bethlehem to do as they were told by Rome and to obey the direction and leading of God.
This Christmas season, I want to implore you to take time away from family and shopping to think about the sovereign hand of God working in the midst of his creation to accomplish his will. Especially think of this in the context of Luke 2:1-7 and understand how actively involved God was in moving Caesar to call for a census that would literally drive Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.
Next week we will get into the significance of Bethlehem and why it is so crucial that Jesus was born there. Be sure to subscribe below so you don’t miss it. Also, add a comment below letting me know that you stopped by and read this. I hope that this first post of our Christmas series was beneficial to you and most of all that it has helped you to understand more fully the Significance of Christmas.