Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth.
In our study of the gospel of Luke we have come to Luke 2. I admit the timing of this passage seems odd. I mean, how do you study the Christmas story in the spring? Don’t you need to have holiday lights and decorations to get in the Christmas mood? Yet perhaps the best time to look at Christ’s birth is not during the holiday season, when the story gets lost with everything else; perhaps the best time to examine what this story really is about is now. So this week we will look at Luke 2 as we journey back to Bethlehem to see the most important birth in human history.
Luke’s account of Jesus’s birth is like a play in three different acts. Act 1 begins not in Bethlehem, but hundreds of miles away in Rome. “Now in those days 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” (Luke 2:1-2).
Why does Luke give us this historical background? He was writing this gospel to show that the story of Christianity is rooted not in fantasy or fable but in historical fact. And the setting is something everyone was well aware of when Luke wrote this letter. Sixty years earlier Caesar Augustus had issued a decree that a census should be taken for the purpose of taxation.
Caesar Augustus is a well-known figure in secular history. Caesar Augustus was his title, meaning “venerable emperor.” His real name was Octavian. Octavian was the grandnephew of Julius Caesar, and he became emperor after Julius Caesar was assassinated. Octavian ruled Rome from 27 BC until AD 14. He is probably best known for establishing the Pax Romana, the Roman peace, throughout the known world. But as often happens, this successful ruler began to believe his own press clippings, so he gave himself another title: Pontifex Maximus, meaning “highest priest.” And he commanded that the entire kingdom worship him.
At this time in history the government in Rome was spending more money than it was taking in. Sound familiar? But instead of cutting expenses, Caesar Augustus decided to raise taxes. In order to tax everyone, he had to know who the people were. So he decided to have them registered.
The Roman government was very methodical in how they conducted this census. The head of each household would go back to the place of his birth, where the family records were kept, to register for the census. And this is where we see Joseph and Mary. Joseph was the head of the household, so he was commanded to go to his birthplace. Joseph lived in Nazareth, but he was commanded to travel to his birthplace of Bethlehem. And as we will see, a miraculous event would take place when they arrived.
Today’s devotion is excerpted from “Back to Bethlehem” by Dr. Robert Jeffress, 2016.
Scripture quotations are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.