The first part (vv. 1-7) locates the birth of Jesus. It happened when Augustus was Caesar, emperor of the Roman world (27B.C.-14 A.D) (1) It happened in Bethlehem, the city of David, where Joseph and Mary had gone to be enrolled for a census. It happened in a place where there was a manger. Then and there Jesus was born and wrapped in swaddling clothes. ” Luke reminds his readers of the belief that Bethlehem was the place where a ruler like David, would be born.
1And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.
2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
This is the most popular Christmas reading, traditionally heard on Christmas Eve at the setting of the birth of Jesus. Carols today are sung at a twilight service held on the Shepherds’ Fields at the eastern part of Bethlehem.
As Paul Gordon-Chandler writes in Songs in Waiting, “One of the reasons that this scene is so powerful is that Luke used various creative mediums when writing his gospel. An outstanding storyteller who knew how to use words to “paint the scenes” of Jesus’ life in vivid detail, Luke describes the angelic surprise appearance to the shepherds of Bethlehem so beautifully that it has become the most familiar scene in all the florid history of religious art, with its visual nature etched in our memories. And in the same portrait Luke gives us the most popular of the songs sung in honor of the Christ Child’s birth, the GLORIA, the song of the angels to the shepherds.”
1. The world Jesus was born into.
“And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. “
Luke introduces the story on a majestic note of world significance. He asks us to view the birth of Christ from the throne of Caesar Augustus, the nephew of Julius Caesar. It gives the story a solemn setting and hints at cosmic significance.
Luke links a world ruler with Jesus birth. The spiritual ruler will affect the secular ruler of the known world.
“It came to pass in those days” We must always remind ourselves that the Bible records actual history and real events. This is not “once upon a time.” This is not fanciful stories of Zeus and Apollo on Mount Olympus. This is real.
“A decree went out from Caesar Augustus”: The story of Jesus’ birth began during the reign of one of the most remarkable men of ancient history.
He was born with the name Octavian, named after his father. His grandmother was the sister of Julius Caesar, and being a talented young man, Octavian came to the attention of his great uncle. Julius Caesar came to adopt Octavian as his son, and he was made his official heir in 45 B.C. With a year Caesar was murdered, and Octavian joined with two others – Mark Antony and Lepidus in splitting the domination of Rome three ways.
Octavian and Antony soon pushed Lepidus out of the picture. Even though his sister married Antony, for thirteen years Octavian and Antony existed together as rivals, until 31 B.C. For a year, the huge armies of Octavian and Antony assembled and positioned themselves. Antony, with the help of Cleopatra, brought 500 warships, 100,000 foot soldiers, and 12,000 cavalry. Octavian answered with 400 warships, 80,000 infantry and 12,000 horsemen. But Octavian had the better strategy and the more mobile ships, and he defeated the combined forces of Antony and Queen Cleopatra of Egypt at the battle of Actium. Now Octavius was the sole ruler of the Roman world.
For decades, the world Augustus lived in and Jesus would be born into, the world of the Mediterranean basin, was wracked by wars, destruction, brutality, and immorality.
Will Durant makes this statement in Caesar and Christ: The Story of Civilization: “The lusty peninsula was worn out with twenty years of civil war. Its farms had been neglected, its towns had been sacked or besieged, much of its wealth had been stolen or destroyed. Administration and protection had broken down; robbers made every street unsafe at night; highwaymen roamed the roads, kidnapped travelers, and sold them into slavery. Trade diminished, investment stood still, interest rates soared, property values fell. Morals, which had been loosened by riches and luxury, had not been improved by destitution and chaos, for few conditions are more demoralizing than poverty that comes after wealth. Rome was full of men who had lost their economic footing and then their moral stability: soldiers who had tasted adventure and had learned to kill; citizens who had seen their savings consumed in the taxes and inflation of war and waited vacuously for some returning tide to life them back to affluence; women dizzy with freedom, multiplying divorces, abortions, and adulteries.”
Caesar Augustus changed that in a dramatic way. He brought three things that turned the tide miraculously. First, he was the peace emperor. He brought peace because he had defeated all his rivals. He erected a peace altar and promoted the cause of a world without war. Second, he brought political and administrative skill, perhaps even brilliance. Third, he brought a truckload of money from Egypt to pay all the soldiers and pump up the Roman economy.
He was called savior of the world. He imposed peace by force in contrast to Jesus who heralded peace based on love and forgiveness. The origin of the most profound peace was shifting from Rome to Bethlehem.
Augustus was the first Emperor. For hundreds and hundreds of years, Rome prided itself on being a republic – a nation governed by laws, not by any man. The idea that no man was above the law, and the Roman Senate and the army and various political leaders lived together in a sometimes difficult arrangement. Now, Octavius would change all that. In 27 B.C. he arranged for the Roman Senate to give him the title Emperor, which means “exalted” and “sacred.” Now Rome wasn’t a republic, governed by laws; it was an empire governed by an emperor. The first Emperor of Rome was this same Caesar Augustus.
Building on the foundations laid by his uncle, Julius Caesar, he brought peace and under the guise of the chief citizen of a restored republic ruled the realm which for several generations Rome had been building. The internal peace and order which Augustus achieved endured, with occasional interruptions, for about two centuries. Never before had all the shores of the Mediterranean been under one rule and never had they enjoyed such prosperity. The pax Romana made for the spread of ideas and religions over the area where it prevailed.” (Latourette)
Durant on the title Augustus: “Hitherto the word had been applied only to holy objects and places, and to certain creative or augmenting divinities; applied to Octavian it clothed him with a halo of sanctity, and the protection of religion and the gods.”
But as great a man as Caesar Augustus was, he demanded absolute power over the Roman Empire.
This says something important about the world Jesus was born into. It was a world hungry for a savior, and a world that was living in the reign of a political savior – Caesar Augustus – but that wasn’t enough.
“Augustus and his successors had not solved the basic problems of the Mediterranean world. They had obscured them. For what appeared to be a failure in government they had substituted more government, and government was not the answer.” (Latourette, History of Christianity)
This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. The census idea was necessary to get Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The “registration” and census described wasn’t for simple record-keeping or statistics. It was to efficiently and effectively tax everyone in the Roman Empire.
From Raymond Brown The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. “We have no evidence of one census under Augustus that covered the whole Empire, nor of a census requirement that people be registered in their ancestral cities. While these difficulties can be explained away, we cannot resolve satisfactorily the major objections, namely, the one and only census conducted while Quirinius was legate in Syria affected only Judea, not Galilee, and took place in A.D. 6-7, a good ten years after.”
There are two key dates around Jesus’ birth. In 4 B.C., the Jews protested against the giving of Judea to Archelaus. This is the traditional date of Jesus birth. Then there was the end of the reign of Archelaus in A.D. 6, when Jews revolted against the census imposed by Quirinius, part of Luke’s setting for Jesus’ birth. Consequently he has given a composite scene as a setting for Jesus’ birth.
Luke’s census may be intended as that foretold in the Psalm 87:6, “In the census of the peoples, this one will be born there.”
Luke calls this one “the first enrollment” to distinguish it from the well-known enrollment in A.D. 6 that he later mentions in Acts 5:37.
Why did Luke mention this census ?The descriptions of the passion in the Gospels written after 70 are marked by sensitivities about this political situation, for there is a tendency to stress that Jesus was innocent of political ambition and was not a promoter of revolt. In particular Luke (23:4,14,22) has Pilate solemnly affirms three times that Jesus was innocent of the charges against him which involved a refusal to pay Roman taxes (23:2).
If so, Luke may also be affirming that, while past censuses brought disaster to Judea (pestilence, rebellion), paradoxically this census brought a peaceful Savior who would be a revelation to the Gentiles and a glory to Israel (2:32).
Justin Martyr, writing in the middle of the second century, said that in his own day, more than a hundred years after the time of Jesus, you could look up the registers of the same census Luke mentions.
3. (4-7) Joseph and Mary come to Bethlehem;
The setting was necessitated in part by Luke’s assumption that Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth before Jesus was born, an assumption challenged in the Gospel of Matthew that they lived in Bethlehem. One may argue which, if either, evangelist was accurate on this point; but the discussions in Appendixes would suggest that, if one accepts the historicity of both birth at Bethlehem and previous residence at Nazareth, one should find a reason other than the census to reconcile the two facts.
“Joseph also went up from Galilee”: The trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem is about 80 miles. This was not a short distance in those days. It was a significant undertaking, costing time and money.
“With Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child”: We often think that Mary was close to delivery when they made this journey, but this may not have been the case at all. Joseph may have been anxious to get her out of Nazareth to avoid the pressure of scandal since they were unwed. Luke tells us that it was while they were in Bethlehem, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered.
According to the Roman law, Mary didn’t have to go with Joseph for the tax census; but it made sense for her to go with Joseph, especially because she was in the latter stages of a controversial pregnancy-surely the subject of much gossip in Nazareth.
“It is possible that he used the emperor’s order as a means of removing Mary from possible gossip and emotional stress in her own village. He had already accepted her as his wife (Mathew 1:24) , but apparently continued in betrothal (Luke 2:5 ), pledged to be married, till after the birth.” (Liefeld)
“And she brought forth her firstborn Son”. Simple event and less buildup than John’s birth By reading firstborn son, we could make the logical conclusion: Mary had other children as well, despite the Roman Catholic dogma of the perpetual virginity of Mary.
“The narrative runs as if Mary did these things herself, whence the patristic inference of a painless birth.” (Bruce)
Swaddling cloths are snugly wrapped strips of cloth. To swaddle a baby is a sign of parental care (Wisdom of Solomon 7:4), and the lack of swaddling is seen as neglect in the allegorical description of Jerusalem in Ezekiel 16:4.
The swaddling, far from being a sign of poverty, may be a sign that Israel’s Messiah is not an outcast among his people but is properly received and cared for
Where was Jesus Born?
1. Stable. There was no place for them inside in the Inn due to crowding. OR The problem was not of insufficient space but not a suitable place for the baby.
The public inn was one large room where lodgers slept on cots raised above the floor by a small platform. The animals slept on the floor. Because of the large crowd already arrived for the census no room was available. The synagogue was filled too.
2. Cave. Christian tradition suggests a cave. In 150 A.D., Justin Martyr said that the place Jesus was born was a cave in Bethlehem. Later on, in 330, Constantine the Great made a church over the cave, which many believe is still the most probable place where Jesus was born.
Many Palestinian village homes are built into caves. Thus cave idea which came from Justin Martyr
3. Born in home found by Joseph. Popular tradition affirms that the child was born the night the family arrived. But in 2:4 we are told that Mary and Joseph “went up” to Bethlehem. The verse assumes their arrival. Then in verse six we are told, “And while they were there, the days were fulfilled for her to be delivered.” Thus the text affirms a time lapse between the arrival in Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus. Mary “fulfilled her days” in Bethlehem. We can easily assume a few weeks have passed, perhaps even a month or more. Thus the birth took place in shelter found by Joseph during those weeks.
As Middle Eastern peasants the shepherds surely would have noticed the accommodations offered the Holy Family. If they had been inadequate, as good villagers they would have immediately helped the family make other arrangements.
Based on the times, Joseph certainly would have been able to find housing. If Joseph did have some member of the extended family resident in the village, he was honor-bound to seek them out. Furthermore, if he did not have family or friends in the village, as a member of the famous house of David, for the “sake of David,” he would still be welcomed into almost any village home.
The manger appears in all three subdivisions of Luke 2: 1-20 (vss. 7,12,16) and Luke himself refers to it as a sign (12).
Mangers are naturally found in animal stables. However, in the one-room peasant homes of Palestine and Lebanon, the manger is built into the floor of the house.
The standard one-room village home consists of a living area for the family mangers built into the floor for feeding the animals (mostly at night), and a small area approximately four feet lower than the living area into which the family cow or donkey is brought at night. The family animals were kept in the one-room house at night, but taken out early each morning.
A manger might also be a movable trough placed on the ground, or a cavity in a low rock shelf.
However, the picture of wrapping the baby and laying him down better suits a cradle-like manger.
Symbolism – The Shepherds go and, finding the baby in the manger, and begin to praise God.
This relates to Isaiah 1:3 “The ox knows its owner; and the donkey knows the manger of its lord; but Israel has not known me; my people has not understood me.”
In other words, God’s people have begun to know the manger of their Lord.
Luke wants to proclaim that this Isaiah dictum has at last been repealed!
The good news of the birth of their LORD has been proclaimed to the shepherds. They have found the baby Jesus in the manger and have begun to praise God.
It was intended to evoke the memory of David as a shepherd in Bethlehem. Bethlehem, not Jerusalem, called the “city of David.”
Jesus is born like any other baby, except Jesus is born on the road and laid in a feeding trough. No magi at this manger scene. Jesus is born among the lowly and the poor.
And Luke gives no hint that Jesus is anything special: there is no angel over the stable because the angels are over in the field with the shepherds. In fact, Mary and Joseph only hear of angelic activity because the shepherds tell them.