Luke 2:1-7 – Born in the middle of a Census.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
We do not know exactly how soon after the birth of John the Baptist the birth of Jesus was. They are at least six months apart (Luke 1:36), and given the opening phrase of this passage, it is unlikely that they were much further apart than that. Soon after JtB’s birth, there was a decree issued by Caesar Augustus that a census should be taken of the Roman world. The Greek text actually does not say the census was explicitly of the Roman world as the New International Version has it. Rather, it literally says the census was to be of “all the inhabited world.” However, this is the same language Luke uses for events occurring throughout the Roman empire in Acts 11:28 so the NIV probably has the correct assumption in it's translation. It is because of this census, Jesus is born in Bethlehem as predicted by Micah 5:2. Verse three indicates that “everyone went to his own town to register.” From what we know of Roman censuses, there would likely not be such a requirement handed down by Rome. However, when such large censuses were administered, regions were allowed to coordinate the census according to their own traditions. That said, it makes sense that the Israelites would return to the cities of their ancestors as the Israelite censuses were organized according to the twelve tribes (Numbers 1).
Joseph and Mary went up from Nazareth, their hometown, to Bethlehem, the city of David (I Samuel 17:12). Bethlehem is in Judea which as we discussed in the last post is 80-100 miles away from Nazareth, three to five days journey. The journey would be a familiar one to Joseph and Mary since they would likely take the same route to Jerusalem to attend festivals, but to make the journey while “expecting a child,” would be challenging to say the least. From my experience such a journey would require a lot of water… ask my wife. We also mentioned before that for Jesus to come under the lineage of Joseph, Joseph would need to accept the child and Mary. It would have been perfectly acceptable for Joseph to divorce Mary quietly (Matthew 1:19), but as we see in Matthew’s gospel, an angel appeared to Joseph and told him, “do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21). It is evident from the events unfolding before us that Joseph has indeed accepted both Mary & the Son she will bear. He has made a clear decision to take Mary to be counted with him in the town of his ancestry.
Could you imagine having to go to your hometown when a census was called for, and then stay there until you were counted? Just think about it logistically for a moment. What if the same thing happened in America today? The population of a city like Boston would be cut in half with college students leaving for home. The state of Florida would pack up and move north… well, I guess that isn’t to abnormal as long as the census occurs from May to October. Could you imagine what traffic would be like? Then you would have to wait for the census to be completed. Now don’t get me wrong, I love spending time with my family so that wouldn’t be a problem. However, I would be putting everything I am doing on hold for months. Here is a link that might give you an idea of how people would be moving around the country.
After Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem, the time came “for the baby to be born.” Verse seven continues simply, “she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” As firstborn of Joseph and Mary he will be the rightful heir of the regal lineage of David (Luke 1:32). Though many a Christmas play has portrayed the innkeeper as cold-hearted for not giving Joseph and Mary a room, Luke makes no comment that would suggest any interaction with such an individual. Bock points out that the word for inn in this passage likely “refers to the public shelters where many people might gather for the night under one roof.” Luke’s portrayal is that Joseph and Mary have to take up residence in a stable during their time in Bethlehem because of a lack of space in the only available shelter. It may be that there was space for two people in the public shelter, and in fact, they may have been staying there up until the time of the birth. Though it is certainly a humble setting, it probably made sense given the circumstances. As a result, Jesus is born in a manger.
Luke 2:8-21 – Light in the Darkness
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.
Soon after Jesus is born we have our third angelic encounter of the infancy narrative. This time it is not Gabriel that appears, but “an angel of the Lord.” The image is impressive to imagine. At the angel’s coming, the “glory of the Lord shone around them” while they are “keeping watch over their flocks at night.” Out of such darkness a bright light appears. It is reminiscent of Zechariah’s prophecy about Jesus in our last passage, “the rising sun will come… to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:78-79). The shepherds are understandably disturbed by this event, but as with Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah and to Mary, the angel calms their fears. During our group we reflected on how intimidating these angels must have looked. Their appearance struck fear in those who saw them. The angel that appears to the shepherds says to them, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” This is in keeping with the Messianic Expectation that is building as Luke tells the story. The news which is about to be told to the shepherds is for “the people,” Israel. The implications are global, but the message for now is national. The good news the angel brings is that “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” The Messiah has come. He has come to save and to rule, and his rule will be forever (Luke 1:33). Finally, the angel gives the shepherds a sign; they will find the Messiah “wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Had they not been struck with fear, they may have laughed at the sign they are given... the Messiah in a stable, really? As soon as the message is given to the shepherds a “great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel.” Heaven could not contain it’s praise to God for the plan set in motion by Jesus’ birth. The chorus of angels declares to the audience of shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
The shepherds seem to be an unlikely group to receive such a profound message. They are representative of a nation who had been betrayed by the religious elite. Throughout the gospels, Jesus rails against the religious who have tied “up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4). I love that when the angel shares the message with them it is personalized. Listen to it again, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you.” While the message is clearly for “all the people,” it includes the lowly shepherds.
These shepherds respond faithfully in a few ways. First, they check the sign they were given… they go to Bethlehem immediately and verify what the angel told them. Sure enough as we see in verse 20 it was “just as they had been told.” Second, they share the good news they had received. Just as heaven was overflowing with praise, the shepherds cannot contain their excitement and tell everyone they encounter about how the child in the manger in Bethlehem is Christ the Lord! Finally, the shepherds return to their lives “glorifying and praising God.” These characteristics ought to be ours as Christians. We ought to constantly seek understanding, we ought to share the Good News that has been shared with us and we ought to glorify God in all that we do.
When the shepherds bring the good news they had heard from the angels, there seems to be a mixed response. The first time I read it, I didn’t really pick up on it, but take another look with me. “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” There seems to be a contrast between the way the crowd responds and the way Mary responds. One of the guys in our group put it this way, “it’s as if the crowd is a conduit for the news while Mary is a vessel for it.” I like that explanation. The crowd is excited for a moment at the novelty of what has happened. It is an exciting event that passes through their lives. We even see a contrast between the crowd and the shepherds. As we noted, the shepherds are praising God and sharing the news; the crowd is amazed by what the shepherds say, but no response beyond that is recorded. However, Mary takes all of this to heart. While we read these first couple chapters of Luke in a short amount of time, we often miss the fact that it has been months since Gabriel appeared to Mary. As Kristy pointed out in our group, much has happened for Mary in the past nine months. She was given these great expectations about what the child is to be, but since her marriage had yet to be consummated, she has likely had to endure ridicule from family and friends. She is told that the child inside her is to “reign over the house of Jacob forever,” yet she is giving birth in a stable and laying Jesus in a manger. There could certainly be some doubt creeping in given the circumstances. But the shepherds come as a reminder from God that she is not crazy… this innocent child laying in what amounts to a trough is going to be given the throne of David… a kingdom that will never end (Luke 1:32-33).
As always we would love to have you join us as we continue to study through the book of Luke. For more information about when and where we meet, email me.