Please take time to read Luke 2:1-20 before you read the following post.
In this post we will be considering the first 20 verses which describe the birth of our Lord. This particular narrative is probably the most familiar of all of Luke’s, if not of the entire Bible. Unfortunately, the familiar stories get retold so many times (with many different slight variations) that we are no longer capable of recalling the original. Therefore, let’s let God teach us the lesson He intended from His Word.
This narrative section begins with…
The Birth of Jesus Christ (vv. 1-7).
God providentially used political circumstances to further His purposes…
The Providential Census (vv. 1-5).
Verse 1 describes the decree.
Luke said in verse 1 “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” The timing of the event is identified through the phrase, “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus.” A decree was issued by Octavian, Caesar Augustus. The phrase “those days” refers to the days around John the Baptist’s birth (1:80), which was issued a mere 6 months before the birth of our Lord.
A royal decree was issued by Caesar so “that all the world should be registered.” The people were to be registered for the purpose of taxation. The decree accommodated the Jewish custom of requiring a journey back to the ancestral homeland for registration with one’s lineage.
Further description regarding this decree follows…
Verse 2 helps us to place a date for this narrative.
Luke said, “This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria.” Some commentators prefer a late dating around 6-7 AD because that is when Quirinius was governor of Syria. However, all Luke said was that this was the “first” census which was while Quirinius was “governing,” which does not require official status, but merely some sort of administrative authority as a representative of the emperor. The actual date was somewhere around 4-5 BC when these events took place, including the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ.
As a result of the decree there was a national registration.
Verses 3-5 describe the national registration.
Verse 3 says, “all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.” By placing ourselves in that situation, we can certainly imagine many travellers making their ways to their family homes and the relative chaos.
Accordingly, in verses 4-5 “Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child.” Joseph took Mary and departed from Nazareth. They traveled to the Judean area, to the “city of David, which is called Bethlehem.” The distance they traveled was ninety miles, which suggests that many days were required to travel – but we are not told about the actual travel events. Joseph and Mary simply looked like one of many who were making their way back to their ancestral homelands.
We have already seen in Luke’s gospel a strong connection to two covenants: the one God made with Abraham, and the one God made with David. Through the Davidic covenant God promised to establish one of David’s descendants as ruler over Israel. Thus, this connection with “the city of David,” is a vital link to God’s promise – showing again that Jesus is the messianic descendant whom God promised to David.
While in Bethlehem Joseph was “registered” with Mary, with whom he was “betrothed.” Mary was registered with Joseph (as his wife) though she was only “betrothed” (like engagement). Luke used the term “betrothed” because they had not yet consummated the marriage through sexual union. This shows that those who were betrothed to one another were already considered husband and wife, though they had not had a public ceremony or consummated the marriage through sexual intercourse.
In this section we find that Luke described the historical events which precipitated the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. God providentially used the historical events surrounding the Roman registration to accomplish His purposes. Malachi 5:1-2 predicted that Israel’s Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and God could have simply commanded Joseph and Mary to relocate to Bethlehem, but He used political events to further His purposes. As Darrell Bock said, “the accidental events of history have become acts of destiny. Little actions have great significance, for the ruler was to come out of Bethlehem and only a governmental decree puts the parents in the right place.”
Having been providentially moved to Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to Jesus…
The Birth in Bethlehem (vv. 6-7).
Verse 6 describes the time prior to delivery.
Luke said, “So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered.” Luke suggests that their stay in Bethlehem was longer than we might normally imagine “while they were there, the days were completed. As mentioned earlier, the travel itself would have required numerous days. The census too may have taken some time.
Verse 7 briefly describes Jesus’ birth.
Mary, “brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Since Mary was a virgin, Jesus was her “firstborn.” That does not mean she only had one child, the Gospels clearly show that after the birth of Jesus she had many children. She was not a perpetual virgin – a notion which promotes the ungodly idea that celibacy is more virtuous than marriage. This twisted idea is promoted by the Roman Catholic Church in their sacrament of celibacy. The word “firstborn” simply means that Jesus was her first child.
The reference to “swaddling cloths” shows that Mary showed customary care by wrapping the child to keep the limbs straight. We are not to assume from this narrative that the birth was painless or that the family was penniless.
The child was laid in a “manger” which was probably a feeding trough for animals, which therefore suggests that they were in some sort of structure designed to house animals – we don’t know what kind of structure was used.
This unlikely birth place was due to the fact that there “was no room for them in the inn.” The word “inn” does not refer to a public inn or hotel (different Gk word). Public inns were relatively few – and notoriously bad. Rather, this word refers either to a simple reception room in a private home or to some type of public shelter erected for travellers. Since many people were travelling, the shelters were all used and they were forced to use the lodging place of animals (stable? cave?).
The phrase “no room for them…” has certainly made its way into various hymns and songs. Often people load that phrase with theological significance of sorts. Some use it negatively to suggest that people were calloused and indifferent because they did not realize the important birth taking place – the people were calloused and indifferent, but this phrase does not imply that. Some have promoted the idea that the inn-keeper was so insensitive because he did not try to make room for the expecting mother – but there is no mention of an inn-keeper (though there obviously would have been many). Luke did not provide this description as a rebuke to an unwary nation. However, Luke probably did intend for his readers to see the irony of the situation that the promised King of Israel had been born without notice or fanfare.
The birth of Jesus Christ is full of paradox. God’s Messiah was born in a room normally reserved for animals – from these humble beginnings He will emerge as the Day Spring who enlightens people for salvation. And although He was born in humble surroundings, He had the right heritage – He was born of Davidic parents to rule over Israel according to God’s gracious promise, and yet a “chance” Roman census made it happen. Rome was an unconscious agent in God’s work.
Jesus’ birth resulted in varying responses, which we will consider in the next post.