The Significane of Christmas – The Town of Bethlehem


This article will consume about six minutes and thirty seconds of your day.

Journey to Bethlehem

Journey to Bethlehem

Last week we concluded our Christmas post with a better understanding of exactly what prompted Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem. If you have not done so already, please read The Significance of the Time so that you are on the same page as the rest of us.

Luke 2:4,5

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.

Let’s dig right in. We meet Joseph for the second time in the book of Luke. Luke informed Theophilus (the recipient of the book, 1:3) in 1:27 that Joseph was of the lineage of David, and is seen doing so again in our current verse. Why is this so important?

In Psalm 89:3,4 the Psalmist (David) recounts what we call the Davidic Covenant (established in 2 Sam. 7) by saying, “‘I [the Lord] will establish your offspring forever, and build your throne for all generations.'” This promise meant that only an heir of David could be considered a rightful heir to the throne.

We also see in Micah 5:2 (which we will come back to later in this article) that the one who is to come from Bethlehem is also to “be ruler in Israel.” And even further we see in Zechariah, “behold, your king [Jerusalem] is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey (Luke 19:35)…his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (9:9, 10). So, we see that the Old Testament (which the original audience of the New Testament would have been aware of) is speaking to a ruler, a king, coming out of Bethlehem. Luke’s mention here in verse four of Joseph being of the house of David is crucial for us to grasp because in it we see the fulfillment of a covenant made to King David, a covenant of a lasting throne through his lineage. The child to be born is rightful heir to the throne both legally, through his earthly father (see genealogy in Matt. 1), and physically, through his mother (see genealogy in Luke 3). The birth that is to follow in verse seven is the culmination of this covenant.

So, in verse four we have already seen why it is so important that Joseph and Mary return to Bethlehem. This return to their ancestral home allows us to see that the Son to be born is of the lineage of King David and is thus a rightful heir to the throne.

With that covered, let’s return to the first part of verse four. We learn that Joseph and Mary are traveling “up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth…to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.” First, understand that “up” does not mean the direction north. Whenever you read of someone traveling to the area around Jerusalem (Bethlehem was approximately six miles south of the city) you will read that they went “up.” This is a description of the elevation. Jerusalem and the surrounding area sits on hill and is thus a trek “up.”

These details given to us by Luke allow us to do something that I enjoy doing when I read the Bible: put ourselves in the shoes (or sandals) of the people we read about. The details “Galilee…Nazareth…Judea…Bethlehem” give us points so interest, areas to study, maps to examine. So look at a map!

Notice where Nazareth is, and then look where Bethlehem is. With the term “up” in your mind, and the fact of Mary being pregnant (v. 5), imagine this trip. Traveling ninety miles on foot. This is a small rabbit trail, but I want to urge you to read your Bible like this, doing as much as you can to fully grasp what the text is saying.

They are traveling to a place called Bethlehem, which is also called the city of David, or the town of David. This simply means that Bethlehem was the birthplace of David, and most likely the place where he grew up as a boy (1 Sam 16:1; 17:12). Simple as it is, it further proves the legality of Jesus’ right to the throne.

Another important note about the location of Bethlehem is that it fulfills the prophecy spoken in Micah 5:2 (which is our memory verse for the week): “But 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 origin is from old, from ancient of days.” The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, as a result of the census ordered by Octavian (the Roman Emperor at the time), and the obedient travel of Joseph and Mary, is what fulfilled this prophecy.

We finally come to verse five. Did you ever wonder why Mary would have traveled such a great distance while being so near to giving birth? Well, if you have, I have several suggestions, none of which can be proved or disproved by Scripture. The first is that Joseph wanted her to go so that she would avoid ridicule in Nazareth. Although they were married prior to leaving for Bethlehem (Matt. 1:24), if she carried our Lord for nine full months this would place the conception before their marriage. This fact alone would cause Mary shame at the hands of her family and friends (who would believe their story?) (Geldenhuys, pg. 100).

A second suggestion is that both Mary and Joseph were aware of the prophecy given in Micah (Ibid.). With knowledge of who the child was they may have seen the dots being connected by the census and their need to register in Bethlehem. Maybe with this knowledge Mary decided that despite being pregnant she would travel to Bethlehem in order to play a further role in the fulfillment of this prophecy.

A third and final (for us) suggestion is that Joseph and Mary may have viewed their trip to Bethlehem as a permanent move. “The Greek word tekton applied to Joseph in the New Testament designated one who lived by working with his hands – a carpenter, a stone mason, and even a farmer in some papyri. Bethlehem was the historical headquarters for the stonemason’s guild and therefore a more natural residence than Nazareth for a builder” (Summers, pg. 100).

Whatever the reason was for Mary to decide to accompany Joseph to Bethlehem to register for the census, she did, and as we will learn in verses six and seven (next week) she gives birth to her firstborn while in the small town. This birth fulfills the covenant to King David as well as the prophecy in Micah 5:2.

This will conclude our brief study of Luke 2:4,5. I realize that this article is a lot of facts and maybe things that you don’t really have time to learn more about, and may even be a bit disorganized (for which I apologize). But, I want you to see this story, that I am sure you are very familiar with, in a new light. A viewpoint of recognizing all of the details that Luke covers and that are at play in the hand’s of God. Recognize the sovereignty of God in all of this. Look at the facts and see how they all connect, prove each other, and fulfill Old Testament prophecy.

With that being said: Have a Merry Christmas this Sunday and may you begin to view this day, and season, in a new light as a result of your careful examination and study of scripture.

(view the bibliography entries for sources mentioned in this article here).

The Significance of Christmas – The Time in History


(This post only requires 6 minutes of your day.)

Gaius Julius Caesar AugustsTo begin our study I want to take you to the book of Luke. Luke, as you may or may not know, was not an apostle, but was a close friend of the Apostle Paul and traveled with him on some of his missionary journeys. He was also a physician and somewhat of a historian, as can be seen in The Gospel According to Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles (his historical account of the first century church). I believe you will find Luke to be a gifted writer, one who, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was able to convey complicated historical accounts in simple language that requires little study to fully grasp. 

An example of this is found in chapter two of his gospel, and specifically verses 1-7:

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.[1]

Octavian is most notably known for “a time of peace and extensive architectural achievements”.[2] He said of himself that, “he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble”[3]. 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.[4] 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”[5].

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.[6]

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”.[7] 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”[8]. 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.

Focus.

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.
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