BIRTH OF THE KING, Part 1

Luke 2:1—40

This is, perhaps, the most well-known birth story in history. Even non-Christians know the “Christmas story” because they are forced to hear it throughout December, in word, song, and at the movies. It is one of those stories people can recite from memory, and it because of our familiarity with it that it deserves a second look. Sometimes we assume we know the details so well that miss some important ones.

In comparison with the very complex narrative in chapter 1, Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth is surprisingly simple and brief. A survey of Luke’s version of the birth narrative reveals three things Luke stressed:

  • the political situation at the time (why Jesus was born in Bethlehem);
  • that Bethlehem was the “town of David” (stressing Jesus’ messianic claim);
  • the humble circumstances of the Savior’s birth.

1. Human arrogance, 2:1—3

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. (Luke 1:5)

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (Luke 2:1)

Understanding the political players in the drama before us will help us better understand the events of Luke 2. At the time of this census, King Herod was  still alive, but died very shortly afterward. The census was ordered, not by the king but by the emperor. For a period of some 23 years, the reigns of emperor and king overlapped.

Emperor Augustus’ real name was Gaius Octavius, and he was the Roman emperor from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD. He was the grandnephew of Julius Caesar, his mother being Julius Caesar’s sister. His granduncle spoiled young Octavian and treated him as a son, so much so that he, the grandnephew, had actually been named Caesar’s son and heir. At that time his name was changed to Gaius Julius Caesar.

Octavian’s sister was married to Marc Antony, the member of The Second Triumvirate, which was made up of Lepidus, Antony, and Octavian. When Antony left his wife, Octavian’s sister, for the bewitching Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, he basically began to ignore the affairs of Rome, preferring instead to romance and dote on Cleopatra, whom he was completely infatuated with. This was the final insult that turned Octavian and all of Rome against Antony and at the battle of Actium, Antony was bitterly defeated by the naval forces of Rome. Both Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, leaving Octavian as the great conqueror of Rome.

Shortly after that, the Roman senate gave Gaius Julius Caesar, a.k.a. Octavian, the title Augustus, meaning “majestic,” and “highly revered.” He was now known as Caesar Augustus.

While Augustus was by no means a believer, he was nothing like the malevolent King Herod. Augustus was a most benevolent emperor, wise administrator, and did much to engender himself to his subjects. He even passed a law making adultery a crime, even though he himself was not above committing it! He was a great builder and he gave the world an extended period of peace not known before. After four decades of benevolent rule, he literally died in the arms of his wife.

While much good can be said about Caesar Augustus, he was, at his core, a pagan. He was worshiped as divine and temples were erected honoring him. Nevertheless, this heathen, godless ruler was used by God for the advancement of God’s kingdom. It was the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, that made it possible for the Christian religion to be spread around the world in a short period of time. And it was his census that set in motion the circumstances prophesied thousands of years ago that led to the birth of the Messiah.

A mere peasant from the plains of Galilee traveled to Bethlehem, supposedly at the decree of a proud Roman emperor. In actuality, though, it was in fulfillment of a Divine decree—God’s eternal plan had to be fulfilled and God, not Caesar Augustus, was in control. The emperor, through an act of human pride, decided to tax the world, but before he could do that, he had to have an accurate count of his subjects. The power of this world was set in motion, and the people had no choice to bend their wills to his, essentially slaves to the state. However, this singularly prideful act only served to accomplish the will and purpose of God, causing the Savior to be born in the exact location, according to the testimony of God and His prophets, said He would be born.

As if to demonstrate to Caesar Augustus the folly of his grand plan, his whole registration-taxation scheme was not instituted until much later, under another government, that of Cyrenius, governor of Syria.

2. Jesus’ birth, 2:4—7

Since Joseph was of the line of David, he had to journey to David’s ancestral home, Bethlehem. Even though Mary was also a descendant of David’s it was not necessary for her to accompany Joseph for this registration. Luke gives no indication when Joseph and Mary left Bethlehem or how close it was to Jesus’ birth. As to why he took Mary with him, several reasons may be advanced:

  • It was a way to remove Mary from any gossip about her pregnancy. While Joseph had already promised to accept the now-pregnant Mary as his wife, they continued in betrothal until after the birth of Jesus. The familiar image of the couple arriving in Bethlehem with Mary on the verge of giving birth may or may not be accurate; Luke does not give us a time frame, although it may be.
  • Mary traveled with Joseph, making the long and difficult trip out of love for him. For Joseph, the 90 mile trek would have been hard enough, but for a pregnant woman, all the more so.
  • The couple desired to be in Bethlehem, their ancestral home, when their child was born.
  • The Holy Spirit led the couple.

Verse 6 seems to indicate to some that the couple was in Bethlehem for, perhaps, a few days before Jesus was actually born. But it also indicates something else, as an alternate translation shows:

While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. (verse 6, NASB)

Completed” also means “fulfilled,” and that puts a whole new slant on what Luke may be saying. Consider what Paul wrote to the Galatians:

But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law. (Galatians 4:4)

In other words, Jesus was born at the exact time God wanted Him to be born, in the exact set of circumstances. Regardless of what Caesar Augustus planned, regardless of what Joseph or Mary may have planned, regardless of what the innkeeper planned, it was God’s plan that was ultimately fulfilled. God did not play to the circumstances; the circumstances played to God’s will.

The immediate circumstances of Jesus’ birth are given in verse 7, where we read:

She gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

Some observations. First, Jesus was her “firstborn,” not “only” child. While He may have been God’s only Son, as to Jesus’ earthly family, He had many brothers and sisters.

Second, theories and ideas abound as to the manger and the fact that no guest room was available to this young family. Why was there no room in Bethlehem for Joseph and Mary? It has become popular, mostly among the political class, to paint this couple as poorer than poor, unable to afford room and board. They point to 2 Corinthians 8:9—

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

But Paul is not referring to social poverty as much as comparing what the Son of God gave up (the riches of heaven) in order to redeem sinful man (becoming like him in every way, that is, spiritual bankrupt). It is unlikely that Joseph and Mary were dirt poor, though they certainly weren’t rich by any means. Why, then, were rooms so scarce? Almost always the census is given as the reason: Bethlehem was full of people coming to be registered. This is probably incorrect. More likely it is that Bethlehem was overrun with government workers, charged with taking the census. Various high ranking officials and soldiers of the Roman government would have demanded and been given the choicest of available accommodations. It was the government’s fault, not Joseph and Mary’s, that this young family had no place to stay.

So, while mortal human beings slept or carried on their mundane affairs, and while immortals kept watch over the place that was at the same time lowly and sacred, the Son of God was born in Bethlehem, precisely as God had planned and the prophets predicted.

The fact that Jesus was born in humble circumstances was due to man’s thoughtlessness and arrogance. The fact that the Baby was born in a stable, not a palace, that He was placed in a feeding trough and not in a pretty bassinet points to necessity. A lot of people get stuck on the circumstances surrounding this miraculous birth and miss out on the greatest part of this story: Love.

First, we see the love of God for sinful humanity. At just the right time, God sent His only Son to save all who would call upon His name.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (Acts 2:21; Joel 2:28—32)

Second, we see the love of this family. Joseph, not yet married to pregnant Mary, yet treating her as his own wife. He did not have to do that. Mary, not having to accompany Joseph to Bethlehem went with the man she loved. Jesus was wrapped tightly in cloth; Mary and Joseph doing the best they could under the circumstances. Unlike the child of Ezekiel 16, this One was loved.

On the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to make you clean, nor were you rubbed with salt or wrapped in cloths. (Ezekiel 16:4)

The child of Ezekiel 16 symbolized wayward, lost Jerusalem—neglected by God for her sins, until God should come and rescue her. She had no one to care for her, not even clothe her. But Jesus was not neglected! He was loved by both His heavenly Father and His earthly parents. Certainly, as a man Jesus would become the “man of sorrows.” Great sadness and sorrow His portion. Yet again and again, throughout His ministry, Jesus was ever approved of by heaven.

Love is written all over this story. The love of God for His Son and His lost children, and the love of a mother and father for their unique Son.

3. Heaven’s announcement, 2:8—15

A thousand years earlier, David would have been keeping is sheep in this same pasture as these shepherds! To the hard working shepherds that were there now, though, angels appeared, bringing good news: the Messiah had finally come! Why was this good news given to shepherds? To be sure, among the Jews the shepherd’s occupation was the humblest and lowest, and that is probably why God told them first. In keeping with the law of Kingdom, the last would be first. To these social outcasts was given heaven’s great announcement. It was not given to kings or governors. It was given to people God could trust because they had no agenda.

What is most significant about this incident is not that angels appeared to man. That had happened many times throughout Scripture. What we find almost startling is what the shepherds to did: they went to make sure the angels were telling the truth!

Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” (verse 15b)

Upon finding the young family, the angel’s message was confirmed, and the shepherds, no doubt thrilled with the news, told everybody that would listen to them. These lowly shepherds were really the first evangelists of the Christian era.

Those who heard what happened to the shepherds were “amazed.” And no wonder! The Greek word is ethaumasan, and indicates a sense of wonder or astonishment. Now, while the people may have been amazed, that sense of wonder did not translate into dedication. As far as we know, great throngs of people did not show up to look at Jesus at Bethlehem. Like so many even today, the story of Jesus amazed them, it may have piqued their curiosity, but it did not move the people toward Jesus.

4. Mary’s response, 2:19

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

In contrast to what some may call the “overreaction” of the people, is Mary’s “under-reaction.” Literally, the Greek reads: “Mary, on the other hand…” In other words, her reaction to the events surrounding her Son’s birth was the exact opposite to that of the shepherds and those who heard the shepherd’s testimony. Instead of testifying to the miraculous things that happened to her, to Joseph, and to her family, she literally had to “put them all together in her heart.”

The fact is, Mary knew more about her Son than anybody; she knew before He was born that He was no mere mortal. But at the same time, her mind had to grasp all that was happening. No wonder she kept quiet! However, while Mary may not understood the divine plan, the things she did not understand did not cause her to loose or question her faith. She simply stored them up a precious memories that she, no doubt, would think about and pray over for years to come.

While the Bible is largely silent on how Mary’s faith evolved, John 2:5 and Acts 1:14, among others, indicate that Mary came to know Jesus, not just as her Son but as her Savior.

And the shepherds; what of the shepherds?

The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. (verse 20)

This is the last we read of them. They returned to their vocation; back to the routine of which they were so familiar. And yet, they would never be same. They had been privy to the birth that would change everything. In our last glimpse of these faithful shepherds, they are still praising God for what they had seen and heard.  Jesus does that to people, doesn’t He?  Nobody can meet Jesus and stay the same!

(c)  2010 WitzEnd
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