Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth.
The word Christmas brings up all kind of unpleasant images: trying to navigate your way to the crowded malls, preparing to travel out of town to see relatives, or worse, preparing your home for a visit from out-of-town relatives. No wonder we feel fatigued by the time December 25 finally rolls around. What gets lost in all of the bustle and hustle of Christmas is the real meaning for the season—and that is the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This week we are going to revisit that tiny town of Bethlehem. Now, the story of Christ’s birth doesn’t begin in the manger in Bethlehem, nor does it begin in a temple in Jerusalem. Instead, the story begins in a palace—the emperor’s palace halfway around the world in the seat of power, the city of Rome. Look at Luke 2: “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. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city” (vv. 1–3).
The Bible says the birth of Christ occurred when Caesar Augustus was the emperor. In Roman history, Caesar Augustus was an important figure. His real name was Octavian. Caesar Augustus is a title. Augustus means “venerable one,” and Caesar was his position. Octavian was the grandnephew of Julius Caesar. When Julius Caesar was assassinated, he left in his will the throne to his grandnephew, Octavian.
Now, during Caesar Augustus’s reign, the Roman government ran into a problem that is very common today—a huge and growing deficit. That is, the government was spending more than it was taking in. And so, like Washington, DC today, the Romans came up with an answer to that deficit. It never occurred to them to decrease spending, so what they did instead was tax the people more to increase revenue. Like any good politician, Caesar Augustus said, “We are going to institute a new tax.” Now, what’s different then from today is that back then they didn’t have powerful computers at the IRS to track you down and make you pay a tax. Instead, the only way they could know whom to tax was to take a census of the people. And the Romans were very methodical about how they conducted the census. Everyone would travel to the town of his birth and register for that census so that later on he could be taxed.
So we find in Luke 2:4 that “Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David.” At this time Joseph and Mary were living in Nazareth, but that was not the town of Joseph’s birth. He had been born in the south, in the town called Bethlehem several miles outside of Jerusalem. So the Bible says he traveled about eighty-five miles to Bethlehem. That is how the Christmas story brings us to a manger in Bethlehem.
Today’s devotion is excerpted from “Bethlehem Revisited” by Dr. Robert Jeffress, 2004.
Scripture 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.