The New Testament begins after 400 years of silence. It would have been a time when the church was asking: Where is God?
It also begins during a historically significant time in Roman history. Rome had been entrenched in centuries of warfare and imperial expansion until Caesar Augustus ushered in 200 years of peace, known as the Pax Romana. The people were asking: Who needs God?
In light of history, we are insignificant and powerless, yet we remain full of self-sufficient pride.
God orchestrates history to fulfill his redemptive purpose through a humble Messiah.
Pray and Read Luke 2:1-7.
Luke seems to have collected the material for these opening chapters through long conversations with Mary. It is revealing what he shares about history’s most significant birth.
A Sovereign Messiah (1-3)
“All the world” (1) refers to Roman occupied territory. This reflects the proud hyperbole of Rome. Octavian became the sole ruler of Rome and transitioned the republic into an empire. The Roman Senate voted to name him “Augustus”, which means “eminent”, “majestic”, even “holy” or “revered”. After the death of Julius Caesar, Augustus referred to his adoptive father as divine, thus labeling himself as “son of god” and an inscription at Halicarnassus refers to him as the “savior of the whole world.” Imperial worship was ramping up and quickly becoming the accepted religion, which, later on, posed grave challenges for the early church.
Verse 2 presents a historical problem. This census most likely took place between 6-4 BC, but Josephus dates Quirinius’ governorship of Syria in 6/7 AD. How do we account for the difference of 10-13 years? A few solutions have been proposed.
- The ESV Footnote suggests “when” could be translated as “before”. However, this does not have good grammatical support.
- Another option is that the census was merely a local one that effected the inhabitants of Israel, but was part of a large-scale and long-lasting attempt to gather statistics for taxation purposes.
- Josephus’ dating could be wrong. I trust an inspired Luke over an uninspired historian (who, incidentally, made other recorded mistakes).
There really is not a simple or obvious explanation for the discrepancy. Maybe some additional archeological evidence will corroborate Luke in the future. However, we should confidently confess that Scripture’s testimony is clear and trustworthy. Whether Josephus is wrong, or extra-biblical history is lacking, we should readily adopt Luke’s account as the infallible record on the matter.
The bigger point is Luke’s contrast of two kingdoms. The kingdom of Rome, with all of its earthly glory is about to be infiltrated by a heavenly kingdom, that enters the region in relative obscurity. God used the pseudo-savior of the world to contribute to the fulfillment of his redemptive purposes. The One True God ordained a Roman census to bring about the birth of the One True Savior of the World, Jesus Christ!
We have a Messiah who is Sovereign. He directs kings and rulers—including those who set themselves up as gods—as if they are pawns on a chessboard. Whereas Augustus and Quirinius thought they were expanding their power, in reality, God was using them to lay the foundations of His kingdom. God orchestrated events in such a way that Mary, a pregnant virgin from Nazareth in Galilee (Lk 1:26-27), would end up in Bethlehem—“the city of David”—at the time when she would deliver her child.
Luke set out to write his gospel to provide his readers “certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Lk 1:4). He provides dates and names and the details of events to give believers evidence that supports their faith and hope. How do these verses serve that goal?
These verses provide us with the certainty that—even when wicked rulers make inconvenient decrees—God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). God turns what men intend for evil and uses it for our good (Gen. 50:20).
In fact, all things serve his glory and our good (Rom. 8:28)—even things that absolutely devastate us. You might receive a concerning medical diagnosis, suffer the loss of family or friends, experience emotional and psychological trauma from past abuses—God is using it all. He doesn’t waste a single trial! All of it contributes to the purpose he has of forming you into the likeness of his Son, from one degree of glory to the next (2 Cor. 3:18).
God’s sovereignty is the ground of his faithfulness to bring into the world…
A Promised Messiah (4-5)
Although Joseph had been raised in Bethlehem, he had migrated to Nazareth. Pottery samples confirm that other families made this same transition around that time. Nazareth was roughly ninety miles away from Bethlehem and would have taken four to seven days traveling by foot.
It is difficult to imagine Mary, in her third trimester, making a three-day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem on foot. That is why many assume she was riding upon a donkey. However, the text does not mention any animal, and as a poor family (Lk 2:24; Lev 12:6-8), they were unlikely candidates for owning one. Maybe they borrowed one.
Many have wondered why Mary was there at all. She didn’t need to register in Bethlehem. This was Joseph’s birthplace. Maybe they wanted to be together, knowing she would deliver soon. Maybe she preferred not to be left by herself around people who despised her for her scandalous pregnancy. It’s also possible that she intentionally went with Joseph because she knew something of what the prophets foretold.
We might ask, “Mary, did you know?” 👀 Of course she knew something. How much? We cannot be certain, but her song revealed an informed perspective with numerous allusions to the Old Testament (Lk 1:32-52). Luke highlights their return to Bethlehem, connecting it to Joseph’s Davidic lineage, alluding to Micah 5:2:
“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 coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.”
The faithfulness of God is a constant theme of Scripture. God gave promises to Abraham, then he reiterated them to the patriarchs. Then every prophet, priest, and king that followed represents another aspect of God’s covenant faithfulness. The promised Messiah was always in view—whether by type or antitype.
God was faithful to fulfill his promise to David by sending his Son. Because God is faithful, we can trust him to bring us all the way home. Faith is trusting that God knows the way, even when we can’t see it. We cannot be certain whether Joseph and Mary understood that this census was fulfilling a prophecy, but we know they trusted God as they went.
But they still had to go—most likely on foot. We struggle to get 10,000 steps in a day. Mary, very near her due date, took roughly 180,000 steps in less than a week! Remember, who Luke was interviewing to learn all of these details. As Mary reflected on this journey, apparently, she didn’t focus on her hardship. She didn’t mention the blisters and soreness. She didn’t focus on her pain at all, it would seem. Maybe she didn’t want anything to deflect our attention away from the unique way in which God was faithfully orchestrating the fulfillment of his promises.
One way or another, God would use this experience. Now, on this side of the cross, with the advantage of hindsight, Mary understood that there was really only one important detail to express to Luke’s readers. We must see the hand of providence guiding everyone and everything according to his glorious plan.
Progress: Sovereign > Promised >…
A Humble Messiah (6-7)
Even the structure of this passage suggests simplicity and humility. While miraculous circumstances precede the child’s birth, and incredible scenes follow the child’s birth, the mundane facts of the birth itself are shared in one magnificently plain sentence (7).
Despite this obvious reality, some early church fathers sought to infuse the verse with miraculous meaning. They made the scene entirely unrealistic. For instance, some took the fact that Mary “wrapped him in swaddling cloths” all by herself to mean that she must not have experienced any pain. They taught that she had no labor or pain from childbirth. I guess it isn’t all that different from the ridiculous assertion that the baby Jesus didn’t fuss or cry because he was a perfect infant. I like what Andrew Peterson says in “Labor of Love”:
It was not a silent night. There was blood on the ground. You could hear a woman cry in the alleyways that night, on the streets of David’s town.
And the stable was not clean. And the cobblestones were cold. And little Mary full of grace with the tears upon her face had no mother’s hand to hold.
Mary experienced labor pains in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable environment.
On the other hand, some have overstated Joseph and Mary’s despair. Maybe you have imagined them standing at the entrance of Bethlehem Inn, tired and exhausted from their long journey. Mary is breathing through heavy contractions every minute or two, and Joseph is frantically searching for a place for her to lay down. The innkeeper comes to the door, sees their condition, and silently points to the “No Vacancy” sign above their heads before rudely slamming the door in their face.
From there, they stumbled upon a stable filled with every kind of farm animal and stench that you can imagine. Joseph spots a vacant cattle stall, Mary delivers the child, and she lays him in a feeding trough that is still wet from the animal’s slobber and snot. Our imaginations often get the better of us. But the biblical text is not nearly as elaborate as Hollywood or some of the Christmas carols suggest.
The reality appears to be somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. The word “inn” (κατάλυμα) refers to a “guest room” in Luke 22:11. Had he intended to refer to a traveler’s lodge, he would have used πανδοχεῖον, as he does in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:34). Considering how small Bethlehem was, it is doubtful a traveler’s lodge would have been needed there. We do not know how long the couple was there for the registration, but it seems unlikely that Mary was going into labor while they were on their journey.
In a city overcrowded due to the census, they were probably staying with family or friends in a two-story structure where it was not uncommon for people to occupy the upstairs floor with animals downstairs. That might be hard for us to imagine, but it was a common practice in antiquity. Since the passage mentions no animals, we might even assume they were moved outside to make room for guests (this was probably not taking place in the Winter). It would not be a stretch to assume they cleaned and prepared the manger to serve as a convenient crib. Furthermore, it is possible that someone attached this home to a cave used for sheltering livestock, which would complement the early tradition.
None of this indicates an entirely sanitary birth, but hopefully, it corrects some false assumptions we have about that night. They did not have a nicely furnished room. They did not receive any royal treatment from their host, but they probably weren’t treated like the scum of the earth either. While the circumstances are fairly mundane, that in itself makes a significant theological point.
The birth of Jesus evokes praise even when it is utterly plain! On the night of his birth, the Son of God slept in a feeding trough. Dirty or relatively clean, this is a remarkable fact. It is only striking that Jesus became the firstborn Son of Mary, if you understand exactly who He was before his birth! In Him, the fullness of deity dwells bodily (Col. 2:9). Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary. This child was truly man and truly God. He was not created, but as the Second Person of the Trinity, all things were created through him and for him (Col. 1:16)! He is the Sovereign King of kings, and Lord of lords.
Hughes, “The wonder of the incarnation! The omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God became a baby!”
The moment his skin felt the cool air, he should have been worshiped and praised by everything that has breath. Instead, his mother “wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger…” His mother should have delivered him in the master room of the King’s palace. Instead, she did not even have a room! And we know his birth was only the beginning of his descent.
Christ humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross, the symbol of God’s curse (Deut. 21:22–23)! The manger has Golgotha for a backdrop. Jesus was born to die. And in his death—he defeated everything that holds us captive.
Ryken, He did not save us from a distance, but came as close to us as he possibly could, sympathizing with us in our sufferings.
The paradox of Christian faith is that the way up is down. Because Christ is humble, we can die to ourselves, and place our hope in him. The humiliation of the Messiah means we have a sympathizing Savior who meets us in our greatest moments of weakness and says, “Come to me!” The fact that a sovereign God can send his promised Son in such humble conditions, heightens our trust and compels our repentance.