WHEN GOD BECAME MAN
For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6).
The Lamb of God. For over four thousand years, the people of God had been coming to Him with sacrifices. The key element of the sacrifice was a lamb. This lamb was killed as an illustration of the substitute that God would someday send to pay for the sins of the world.
Thus, it is fitting that our story of the birth of the Messiah — the Lamb of God — should take us to a stable.
THE TAKING OF THE CENSUS
Now it came about in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth.
This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
And all were proceeding to register for the census, everyone to his own city. (Luke 2:1-3).
Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus does not begin with "once upon a time." It is neither a myth nor a legend nor a fairy tale.
Instead, Luke begins his account by placing it solidly in the context of history. This is something that really happened in space and time. It is rooted in historical fact.
1. The Founder of the Census.
A decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth (2:1).
Caesar Augustus is a reference to Gaius Octavius Augustus. This man was the nephew of Julius Caesar. He was the emperor of the Roman Empire.
Augustus was famed as an administrative genius. His long reign was considered to be the golden age of Rome. Building projects abounded throughout the Empire. It was said that Augustus had "found Rome brick and left her marble."
This was known as the time of Pax Romana — the peace of Rome. It would be during this time that the Prince of Peace would be born.
Under the rule of Augustus, the Roman Empire was reorganized and a regular system of taxation was instituted.
You see, the Romans believed that someone else ought to pay for all of the Roman legions and the Roman roads and the Roman palaces which now covered the ancient world. Rather than place this burden of taxation upon her citizens, it was decided that those who had been conquered by Rome should pay for the privilege through taxation.
And so, Augustus instituted a census which would dictate the amount of money each province would be required to turn in. The plan of Augustus called for a census to be taken every fourteen years. This system of census-taking was to continue from 6 B.C. until 230 A.D.
2. The Time of the Census.
This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria (2:2).
Not content with the placing of the birth of Jesus merely in the days of Augustus, Luke goes on to point out that this was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. This is mentioned to distinguish this census from other censuses which followed.
Quirinius seems to have been governor of Syria twice and both times he was in charge of taking the census for his area.
What is the significance of this census? Why is it entered into the pages of our Bible? I think that there are at least three reasons:
3. The Result of the Census.
And all were proceeding to register for the census, everyone to his own city (2:3).
As a result of the decree of Augustus in far off Rome, two Jewish people who live in the village of Nazareth will be forced to pack their belongings and travel seventy miles south to Bethlehem.
It seems that the Roman law dealing with the census dictated that anyone owning property in another city must present his tax statement in that city.
The Jewish law of Jubilee further stated that all property reverted back to the possession of the original owners on the 50th year of Jubilee. This meant that Joseph and Mary, while perhaps not presently in possession of land in Bethlehem, still retained legal ownership of the land of their ancestors in that town. They were both descendants of David and could trace their ancestry hack to that monarch.
Thus, we see God moving the Emperor of Rome so that two people are forced to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem so that, a baby will be born there. God’s providence works to the end that a prophecy which had been given 500 years before might now be fulfilled.
But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity. (Micah 5:2).
Luke makes no mention of Micah’s prophecy. It is not that Luke was unaware of the prophecy, but rather that he is writing to a Gentile official who would not be familiar with the Old Testament. Luke tells of the move to Bethlehem to show how God moved this family to a place where there would be shepherds waiting to hear the message of the Messiah.
The Jews in the days of Augustus understood Micah’s prophecy to be a promise of the coming Messiah. When Herod asks his court scribes where Messiah is to be born, they will refer to this same prophecy as they point to Bethlehem (Matthew 2:4-6).
The prophet had long since spoken. His promise was that the Messiah, the One who was "from the days of eternity," would come from the small town of Bethlehem.
And so, at the appointed time, God moves the Emperor of Rome to institute a census which will affect the entire civilized world. The result is that a young Jewish girl will be in Bethlehem when she gives birth to her firstborn son.
Let us never loose sight of this truth. God is in control. Romans 13 tells us that it is God who has appointed and established each ruler who comes to power. He is in control of the principalities and powers and the governing authorities of this world. And He is in control of those "chance happenings" that come about in our 1ives.
This ought to be a great source of comfort. Suppose that your father was the king of the mightiest nation of this whole planet. Would you be worried over small issues like a job or your rent or your car? Of course not! Our Father is the King of Kings! He is above all authority and power. Therefore, we can relax and trust Him in every situation. He was in control on that first Christmas so long ago. And He is still in control today.
MARY AND JOSEPH COME TO BETHLEHEM
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David,4 in order to register, along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. (Luke 2:4-5).
Luke’s account passes over the reaction of Joseph to the news of Mary’s pregnancy and his revelation of its true source. The reason for this is that the birth of Jesus in Luke’s account is given from Mary’s perspective, while Matthew relates the same events from Joseph’s point of view.
Genealogy traces through Joseph back to Abraham
Genealogy traces another line (Mary’s?) back to Adam
Notice the differences between the two accounts. Luke tells of the miraculous events which surrounded the pregnancy of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth. He relates Mary s visit to Elizabeth. He relates the details of the birth of Jesus. And finally, he points out Mary s reaction to the events surrounding the birth of her Son (Luke 2:19)
On the other hand, Matthew tells the story of the birth of Jesus from Joseph’s point of view. We are told of Joseph’s dilemma when he first received the news that his betrothed was with child. We read of his dream from God that the Child was from the Holy Spirit. And we read of the warnings given to him of Herod’s assassination attempt on the Child and their subsequent flight to Egypt.
Even the genealogies within the two separate accounts are different, Matthew relating the legal genealogy through Joseph and Luke giving the physical genealogy through Mary.
Our passage begins with Mary and Joseph leaving their home in Galilee amid traveling south. It was a long tiresome journey for one traveling on foot, and it must have been especially so for the young virgin who was with child.
I can imagine them on the last day of their trip as they pass through the bustling city of Jerusalem gazing in reverent awe at the towering Temple of God and then southward toward Bethlehem. Their route takes them through lush fields and grassy meadows dotted with grazing sheep. Finally, as the sun begins to set into the western hills, their goal comes into view.
Bethlehem. The small town perched atop a ridge six miles to the south of the city of Jerusalem. Although politically insignificant, it possessed a rich history.
Bethlehem. The name is Hebrew for "House of Bread." In this town would be born the One who is the Bread of Life.
As Mary and Joseph approach the village, walking through rich and fertile fields of grain for which the ancient town has been named, they feel a sense of relief. Their long journey is over. They have arrived at their destination. Now they can rest.
But as they enter the village, they are confronted with disheartening news. There is no room in the inn. The village is filled to capacity. Not only because of the people who have come to register for the census, but also because of the officials in charge of the census-taking, there are no more vacancies in the inn.
Christmas hasn’t changed in 2000 years. The roads are packed with people. The village is in a turmoil. Everyone is rushing about. And, in the midst of this, a baby is about to be born.
Finding no room in the local inn, Joseph finally locates a secluded spot for his laboring betrothed. Justin Martyr tells us that it was a stable within a cave on the outskirts of the village that the virgin brought forth her child. it is a mere stable. And so, only the animals of the field were present. as the lamb of God was born.
THE BIRTH OF THE CHILD
And it came about that while they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth.
And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:6-7).
No more humble surrounding can be imagined. Instead of a palace, the King of Kings was born in a stable in an out of the way village. Instead of royal robes of silk and velvet, he was wrapped in plain cloths. Instead of an ornate bed, the infant was laid in a manger, a feeding trough for animals.
No greater example of humility can be found than when God left the glory of His position to become a man. This was the greatest gift. He came to offer Himself for us. He came to pay the ransom price for our sins.
Just as the Old Testament priest would take an innocent lamb and slaughter it on the alter for the sins of the nation of Israel, so Jesus came to offer Himself for the sins of the world.
The prophet Isaiah had foreseen His coming and had described Him as the lamb of Israel.
He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth. (Isaiah 53:7).
For thousands of years God’s people had been coming to Him on the basis of a sacrificed lamb. Such a lamb was taken and killed as an illustration of the substitute that God would someday send to pay for the sins of the world.
This is the Christmas Story. It is only seven verses in length. But in these few short verses there are several lessons that we learn.
1. The Lesson of God’s Continuing Work in the World.
These seven verses are very "secular" in their appearance. There is no mention of God or the Spirit. Instead we read of the mandate of a pagan emperor that sets things in motion and that has the effect of two common people leaving their home in one small, isolated, backwoods town and traveling to another small, isolated, backwoods town. From all outward appearances, it is Rome rather than the Lord who is in control of these events. It is only when we look at these events through the eyes of faith that we realize that God is at work behind the scenes in bringing His will to pass.
Here is the principle. When you pick up tomorrow’s newspaper and see what is taking place in the world, what you see will be determined by what kind of eyes you use to read. If you read through secular eyes, then all you will see will be secular events. But if you learn to see through the eyes of faith, then you will see that God is at work in the world bringing forth His kingdom.
2. The Principle of Suffering.
The census brought about hardships on many people. Joseph and Mary were not the only ones who had to travel long distances. This was an inconvenient hardship. I am certain that many people prayed and asked, "Why, Lord?"
Here is the principle. It is that God’s purposes in our suffering are not always apparent. There is often no visible reason as to why God would let a hardship happen. But we can take comfort in the fact that He promises to work all things for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purposes (Romans 8:28). And we can learn from Mary and Joseph that those secular detours that are sent into our life are often sent for our ultimate salvation.
3. The Principle of Proportion.
The entire birth of Christ is related to us in a mere seven verses. Matthew contains a few verses at the end of chapter one. Mark and John make no mention of His birth. At the same time, all four gospel accounts relate several chapters to the events of Christ’s death. It is evident from this that the gospel writers believed that the most significant aspect of Jesus was His death, burial and resurrection.
Our secular culture tends to make more of the birth of Christ. Why is this? It is because everyone loves a baby. A baby doesn’t threaten. A baby doesn’t convict you of your sins. A baby does not bring with him the stumbling block of the cross.
The baby in the manger is sweet and cuddley. He seems to be "controllable." The baby in the manger is a kind of "God in the box." He is a God whom we are comfortable to approach, to think about, and even to worship.
You need to know that the baby Jesus did not stay that way. He did not remain a baby. He was born to die and His death demands a response on your part. You cannot leave Him in the manger. You must see Him at the right hand of the Majesty on High. You must bow the knee before Him and confess that He is Lord.