Luke the historian, in the second chapter of his Gospel, gives us what may now be the most famous half page of narrative that has ever been written in human history. Of the various participants in the story of the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ, none are more central than Joseph and Mary.
But we have no quote from them, no observations. We only learn from Luke that Mary “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). No doubt she needed quiet and privacy in order to come to her own convictions about the angel’s announcement; her betrothal to Joseph; the emperor’s census; the long, torturous journey to Bethlehem; the birth; the manger; the arrival of the shepherds. She needed to assimilate the amazing identity of her own little baby: “A Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
She and Joseph may have wondered, “Who is this baby boy who needs bathing, feeding, watching around the clock? Is He truly ‘the Son of the Most High, whose kingdom will have no end’?” (Cf. Luke 1:32-33).
Could it all have been a dream, a flight of fancy? Could this have been a case of mistaken identity? Did all the signs converge and agree? The couple certainly would have been weighing these questions as they considered three components in their situation: prophecy, history and symbolism.
When readers of the Bible finish the last chapter of the Old Testament, the first chapter of Matthew confronts them. We may be inclined to think that here in the Gospels, we’re among the very same people that we left behind in the Old Testament prophecy of Malachi, facing the same state of affairs. Not one bit! Four long centuries had gone by between Malachi and Matthew. Enormous changes had taken place in Israel. Even the language of the people was different; they were speaking Aramaic rather than Hebrew.
In Malachi’s time, the nation of Israel had come back from its terrible time of exile in Babylon and was re-emerging as a sacred state, led by its high priests. But in the 400 years following, conqueror after conqueror had marched over the land. By the time of Christ’s birth, the country was completely subdued under the all-powerful Roman Empire. Roman soldiers paraded in the streets of Jerusalem. Roman tax-gatherers confronted people at the gate of every city. The Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish body of government, was now no more than a flimsy puppet of government. Worse yet, no prophetic voice had spoken out in Israel for 400 years.
The experience of the Old Testament exile seemed to iron out Israel’s idolatrous tendency forever. In the New Testament, the Temple services happened with clockwork regularity, and the religious feasts were supplemented by the life of the synagogue, with its rabbi and its reverence for the written Word of God.
Yet with all those externals, Judaism’s inner spirit had been entirely extinguished. The connection with heaven itself seemed to have been broken as evidenced by the silencing of prophecy and the emergence of the scribes and Pharisees with their stuffy rules and tedious platitudes. It’s against that background that we must understand the significance of the angelic announcements in Luke’s first chapter. The first was to the aged temple priest, Zechariah, saying that he was to be father to John the Baptist, a prophet who would herald the ministry of Israel’s Messiah. Second was the announcement to Mary that she would be mother to the long-awaited Christ.
Both messages feature elements from the Old Testament prophecies in Malachi 3 and 4 and Isaiah 7:14. Mary and Joseph, as Jewish people, would have been familiar with these prophecies. They likely would have weighed and thought about them in the darkness of that Bethlehem stable, as the shepherds made their visit and told of the angelic acclamation that they’d heard: “I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).
There also was the prophecy about Bethlehem, the City of David. “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel” (Micah 5:2). Here they were in Bethlehem, the prophesied place of the Messiah’s birth, 80 miles from their home in Nazareth. Were they there by sheer force of historical circumstance?
Luke’s account gives facts about the Roman census, the emperor who decreed it and the governor who carried it out in Syria, the province of which Judea was a part. These details make it clear that Joseph and Mary did not contrive the long journey to Bethlehem to bolster the prophetic claim that the ruler of Israel would come from Bethlehem. The journey came about entirely because Caesar Augustus had a passion for organization.
Augustus, in his 57-year rule, brought about the transition of Rome from a republic to an empire. With Augustus, everything had to be organized, annotated and registered. Every several years, a census would take place throughout the empire, largely for taxation purposes. The obsession for organization required that people register at the place of their birth. It seems cumbersome today, and we can imagine Joseph, who came from the family of David, groaning at the thought of making the journey to Bethlehem. Their home in Nazareth was likely being made snug for this new arrival. Joseph, as a craftsman, would have seen to it that everything was in place. Then suddenly Augustus, in his craze for another census, threw into disarray all plans for a peaceful birth in Nazareth.
There are moments when we feel that we’re the victims of immense, advancing institutions all around our world, that history is out of control and we can do nothing to affect it. We’re nothing but pawns in a game of historical chess. Do you feel like that as you come to the end of this year?
Well, Augustus actually was a pawn–not in a game, but in a divine and benevolent plan, bigger than history itself. It was out of the hands of Mary and Joseph. Augustus himself was to fulfill the prophecy, so that the Christ of the human race could be born at the appointed place. In the economy of God, the Roman Empire was raised up in order to usher in the rule of Christ worldwide.
The symbol of the manger has become universal. Look at Luke 2:12. “And this will be the sign to you,” says the angel to the shepherds. “You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” It wasn’t the swaddling cloths that would provide a sign of identity. Most of the Jewish babies would have been treated in that way. But to be told that the child would be found in an animal’s feeding trough was unusual enough to start the shepherds on their quest. You can hear them going into Bethlehem and saying, “We’re looking for a baby, and it’s lying in a feeding trough.”
The fact that there was no room in Bethlehem was a portent of the lifestyle that lay ahead for the Savior of the human race. Luke 9:58 records Christ’s words “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” That phrase, “to lay his head,” is used of Jesus only once again. At His death on the cross, Christ lays down His head and gives up His Spirit (John 19:30). He had no place to rest, except on the cross when His work was done.
We need times to ponder, to think about what God is doing–not only in our history and our world, but also in our own lives. Meditate on His Word. Ask, “What are God’s plans as I enter the new year? What is my little candle flame of light accomplishing as it shines in the world for these few years? What is my life for?” In such moments of reflection, illumination comes; and with illumination come decisions, resolve and direction about how God’s plan for salvation will be worked out through us.