I never cease to be amazed at how many surprises remain in familiar passages of Scripture, if we stare long enough. I hope I have come to the point of entirely distrusting any presumption that I have exhausted any portion of God’s Word. This has particularly been the recurring lesson from the Gospel of Luke, as I have been teaching it to the college-group in our congregation. Though familiar territory, the announcements and births of both John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus (Luke 1-2) are filled with many sanctifying surprises.
For example, when we reflect on Jesus’ birth in Luke 2:1-21, we garner much comfort in how God sovereignly rules over all human government to accomplish His purposes in Christ. Perhaps this a tad relevant to our present day?
Why Was Jesus Born in Bethlehem?
Of course, Micah prophesied the birth of our Lord Jesus over 6 centuries before it was fulfilled (Micah 5:2). The Son of David, whose throne God would establish forever (2 Sam 7:13; cf. Luke 1:32-33), was to be born in David’s hometown (cf. 1 Sam 16:1-4). If He actually is the Messiah of David’s line, then Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem and fulfill God’s very old promises. But that’s not the only reason Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
Owing to how God fulfilled Micah 5:2, there’s another correct explanation for Jesus’ birth. Jesus was born in Bethlehem because a godless pagan, Caesar Augustus, mandated an empire-wide registration for the purpose of taxation. And to quell Jewish animosity at yet one more reminder that they still awaited God’s Kingdom (e.g., Luke 2:25, 38), Quirinius took a page out of familiar Jewish playbook and administered the census in everyone’s ancestral home (cf. 2 Sam 24). For Joseph of Nazareth, this meant taking the very pregnant Mary with him to Bethlehem. In other words, our God brought the promise of Jesus’ birth to pass through the bureaucratic machinations of a godless empire.
So, Luke 2:1-5 does not just describe the historicity of Jesus’ birth, it establishes that God is the Lord of history in Jesus’ birth. Leon Morris, the late New Testament scholar extraordinaire, explains:
It was not, of course, necessary for Luke to mention the point [of the census] (none of the other Evangelists does). But it seems to be part of his plan to set his story in the secular context (cf. Luke 3:1 ). He sees God as Lord of history, and the actions of the emperor in faraway Rome do but set forward the divine plane and purpose (Luke, p. 90).
The details of this text remind us that “God works through all kinds of people to effect his purposes” (Morris, p. 93) God is sovereignly orchestrating the fulfillment of everything He’s promised and that includes pagan governments.
How Does Augustus’ Census Correct and Comfort?
Therefore, the relevance of Luke’s narration goes far beyond corroborating his account within the wider context of the first century. As only he can, J.C. Ryle drives it home:
The overruling providence of God appears in this simple fact. He orders all things in heaven and earth. He turns the hearts of kings wherever He will. He overruled the time when Augustus decreed the taxing. He directed the enforcement of the decree in such a way, that Mary must needs be at Bethlehem when “the time came for the baby to be born.” Little did the haughty Roman emperor, and his officer Cyrenius [Quirinius], think that they were only instruments in the hand of the God of Israel, and were only carrying out the eternal purposes of the King of kings. Little did they think that they were helping to lay the foundation of a kingdom, before which the empires of this world would all go down one day, and Roman idolatry pass away. The words of Isaiah, upon a like occasion, should be remembered, ‘He means not so, neither does his heart think so.’ (Isaiah 10:7).
The heart of a believer should take comfort in the recollection of God’s providential government of the world. A true Christian should never be greatly moved or disturbed by the conduct of the rulers of the earth. He should see with the eye of faith a hand overruling all that they do to the praise and glory of God. He should regard every king and potentate – an Augustus, a Cyrenius, a Darius, a Cyrus, a Sennacherib – as a creature who, with all his power, can do nothing but what God allows, and nothing which is not carrying out God’s will. And when the rulers of this world ‘set themselves against the Lord,’ he should take comfort in the words of Solomon, ‘There is one higher than they.’ (Eccles. 5:8 .) (Expository Thoughts on Luke, Vol.1, pp. 39-40).
Christian, even the bureaucratic mandates of godless, pagan rulers must be working to bring His Kingdom in Jesus Christ. I don’t know about you, but I find that very helpful. I have been very disappointed – at times, downright angry – at the decisions and general direction of our government, as well as those of others’ around the world. But by just slowing to reconsider the familiar recounting of our Lord’s birth, the Spirit ambushed my cynicism and quelled my anxieties with a reminder of God’s absolute and meticulous sovereignty. There is a hand overruling every decision to bring about the fulfillment of every promise in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is not to say that every governmental decree honors the Lord nor that they will not often hurt His people – I doubt that traveling the 70 or so miles from Nazareth was the picture of convenience for Joseph and Mary! Yet, we persevere knowing that our God governs every lesser government on earth, so that they “can do nothing but what God allows, and nothing which is not carrying out God’s will.”
During this advent season, I’m slightly favoring this explanation for why Jesus was born in Bethlehem. We know that He had to be born there because Micah 5:2 promised it. But He was also born in Bethlehem because a pagan emperor made a decree to increase tax revenue and pay for more pagan things. I hope you as encouraged by that as I am. For if a decreed census was ordained to bring about Jesus’ birth, don’t you kind of wonder how things like fiscal cliffs, healthcare mandates, and Arab Springs will be made to bring about the fulfillment of Christ’s Kingdom that will have no end?