Sermon preached on Luke 2:1-7 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 12/25/2016 in Novato, CA.
“A Decree Went Out”
As I prepared for this message today on the birth of Christ, I was surprised to find that I had never preached on these seven verses yet. Though, I can understand why I might not have chosen to preach on these specific verses. You see, when it comes to the Christmas story, there are a lot of extraordinary, supernatural things. You have the virgin conception by the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary. You have angels appearing and giving special revelations to people like Mary and Joseph. You have John the Baptist leaping from within the womb when pregnant Mary walks into the room. You have prophets prophesying over Jesus, like the words of Simeon and Anna. You have some out-of-the-ordinary celestial event where Magi from the east see a special star and know to follow it and find Jesus. And you even have angels in the very next passage appearing in great glory praising God in the highest. I could go on. The Christmas story is full of the miraculous and the supernatural.
And yet here, in this passage, there is none of that. Maybe that’s why I’ve not chosen to preach a Christmas message yet from these seven verses. No, these verses are not about the supernatural or the out-of-the-ordinary. These verses are about the ordinary, at least in one sense. Yes, to bring about the birth of Christ, God used a number of extraordinary things. But here we see that at the same time, there was also God’s ordinary providence at work. Here in his ordinary ways we find God accomplishing the extraordinary thing of Christ’s birth. As an example of what I’m talking about, I point you to the book of Esther in the Bible. That is a book that doesn’t have a single reference to God in it. There is also nothing explicitly supernatural mentioned in the book. And yet the church has rightly received it into the canon of Scripture. That is because the church reads the book of Esther and sees in it a glorious display of how God can use his ordinary providential care to accomplish amazing and wonderful things. In Esther’s story, it’s about how God providentially preserved his people when they were threatened with genocide. And here in our passage we also find no reference to God, nor any explicit reference to the supernatural. Yet we see God’s providential working through it all. Here, the Hope of Israel was finally being realized, even with these ordinary circumstances of life.
And so I want us to see God’s hand of providence in these seven verses and in the birth of Christ. Let’s begin then with the first two verses. Verses 1 and 2 tell us the overall setting for Christ’s birth. We are told that Christ’s birth took place during the time of the Roman Empire, when Emperor Caesar Augustus was in power. He reigned from 27 BC to AC 14. Furthermore, we are told that this happened when someone named Quirinius was governing Syria. From the records that remain, history does clearly know of a census that took place in Judea in 6 AD when Quirinius was governing Syria. That doesn’t fit the rest of the Biblical time table, however, since we know from Matthew’s gospel Jesus was born when King Herod the Great was still alive, but Herod died in 4 BC. Some liberal theologians have proposed the Bible is in error here. And yet the answer probably lies with the word “first” in verse 2. As many translations bring out, the idea of verse 2 is that this was the first census during Quirinius’ reign. That, given with the fact that there is at least some historical reason to believe that Quirinius reigned in Syria earlier as well, would fit that there was some first census under Quirinius probably around 5 BC, and thus the one in 6 AD was the second census under Quirinius. I love how when liberal theologians want to criticize the Bible in terms of historical accuracy that they make some claim against it, but then archeologists keep digging and low and behold history ends up showing that the Bible had it right all along. That’s what seems to be the case here, and from our perspective of faith, surely is the case. I’m sure as archeologists keep digging they will only further confirm what the Bible already had recorded here in these verses.
So, providentially, Jesus was born during the time of the Roman Empire, sometime around 5 BC, when Emperor Caesar Augustus was reigning. To further set the setting, let me say a few words about the emperor. His original name is Octavian. This Emperor was the first official emperor of the Roman Empire. Prior to him, you had his great uncle Julius Caesar reigning in the closing days of the Roman Republic. Julius Caesar in his will adopted Octavian and thus he took the name Caesar at that point. After Julius Caesar’s assassination, Octavian along with Mark Anthony and Marcus Lepidus jointly took control and ousted the assassins. But that allegiance didn’t last, and eventually Octavian came to control the entire Roman Empire. In the process, he was given by the Roman Senate the honorary title of Augustus, and thus became known as Emperor Caesar Augustus. From that point on, in many ways, Augustus ruled the empire very effectively. Historians recognize that his successful rule ushered in the era known as the Pax Romana, or the Roman Peace. This was an extended period of general peace and stability that lasted for over two hundred years. Much praise could be given for Augustus’ leadership. That being said, he was no saint. Like most of the Roman Emperors, they had their share of moral failings and scandals. One example was his multiple divorces and even forcing a man to divorce his wife so he could marry her.
So, in this first point, I’ve set the stage for Jesus’ birth by talking about some of the history that is recorded here. When we hear in verse 1 about the decree of Caesar Augustus we remember this history and the overall Pax Romana that he ushered in to civilization. And so here in our first point I want us to recognize this important peace of providence. God had Jesus born during this time, during this time of great civil peace. This era of Pax Romana was a great environment for the coming of Pax Christi and its heralding! In other words, providentially speaking, what a wonderful time for Jesus to be born and then the gospel to go forward to the world. When so much of the known world was in peace and security, and there were great Roman roads all over, this was a great time to bring Christ and the gospel to the world. Practically speaking, we can see how God’s providence brought Jesus into the world at a great time. As a similar example, we can see how providentially the Protestant Reformation happened at the right time when the printing press was invented and Europe was in the period of Renaissance. Those providential circumstances were a great environment for the spread of the Protestant Reformation. Well, all the more here, as the gospel is going to be going out to the nations, God brought Jesus at that time, to a world setup in a way that would ease the spreading of the gospel to the nations. Yet that Pax Romana didn’t last. But the Pax Christi, the peace of Christ, would. The very next passage shows the angels announcing that peace that came with Jesus’ birth. And we are still proclaiming that peace long after the Roman Empire has ceased to exist.
Okay, let’s move on now to verses 3-5. Here we see that because of Caesar’s decree for all to be registered, everyone was to return to their ancestral home town. From there, they would be registered. The idea is that they are registering for the purposes of taxation. Verse 3 says that everyone was doing this. And so, verse 4 then specifically draws our attention to Mary and Joseph. They too heed the decree of Caesar and leave their current hometown of Nazareth in Galilee and make the somewhat long journey of 90 miles to Bethlehem. I’m sure that was not a journey you’d want to make if you were final days of a pregnancy. But they make the trip like everyone else was doing, because that it what Caesar required.
As we are thinking about ordinary providential circumstances, we might note that there is no special pomp and circumstance associated with their trip to Bethlehem. Yes, we know that the long-awaited Messiah will be born there. But of course there is no recognition of that at this point. This is simply a trip that Mary and Joseph must make to comply with this imperial edict so that they can ultimately be taxed by the Roman government. This is all rather mundane in the grand scheme of things.
And yet, it is here where I draw your attention to how in these providential circumstances, God is working out his plan. For remember, God’s promise through the prophet Micah. Micah 5:2, said, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” And so, the Old Testament had prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Remember, King David was from Bethlehem, and so it was fitting for God to plan to have the Messiah from David’s lineage to be born there too. Luke helps us connect the dots in verse 4 too, by telling us that Joseph was of the house and lineage of David. Because Joseph was of the house and lineage of David that’s why according to Caesar he had to go to Bethlehem to register. But according to God’s decree, that’s why he had to go to Bethlehem, so that Jesus could be born there according to the prophecy. Yet, had not this Roman decree to register happened, presumably the baby would have been born in Nazareth. We have no reason to think that Mary and Joseph were planning a trip otherwise to go to Bethlehem to have the baby. Surely, they hadn’t planned such a trip because when they do get to Bethlehem they don’t even have satisfactory accommodations.
I hope you understand my point here. This is another example of God using his providence to accomplish his plan. God didn’t have a miracle happen in order for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. No, God ordained that a pagan emperor would decree a tax that required Mary and Joseph to go to Bethlehem at just the right time. God worked it out so that even though they lived so far from Bethlehem, providentially everything fell into place so that the prophecy was fulfilled. God did this not through a supernatural miracle but by his powerful and careful ordering of ordinary human history. Ultimately, Caesar’s decree brought about God’s decree.
Let’s now move to the final verses, to verses 6-7. Here we finally come to the record of Jesus’ actual birth. Again, notice how we see the ordinary things happening here. Verse 6 says that she gave birth then and there because the “days were completed for her to be delivered.” In other words, in a rather ordinary, normal way, the time of her pregnancy ran its course, and she went into labor. She delivered her firstborn son and they named him Jesus. Again, we see the ordinary nature of things in verse 7. After he was born they wrapped him in swaddling cloths. Why did they wrap him in swaddling cloths? Because that’s what you do for newborn babies! We still swaddle them today! In other words, just because Jesus was God come in the flesh, didn’t take away from the fact that at this point, humanly speaking, he was a needy, dependent, infant like any other baby that had just been born. All very ordinary.
And yet as providence would have it, this ordinary birth was met with an ordinary sort of problem. Surely because of the fact that everyone was heading back to their ancestral towns, there was no room in the inn. And so the glorious Christ child was born into this world and placed in a manger for a bed. A manger! A feeding trough for animals! What kind of place is that for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords! The Roman empire prided itself on its advanced civilization, and yet despite all their civilized advancements, you still have a poor women giving birth in a stable and having to lay her baby in a manger. You would hope or think that somehow someone would learn of this and give up their room for Mary and Joseph. But providentially that didn’t happen. Again, this is a rather extraordinary situation within ordinary natural things. There was nothing supernatural or miraculous about this, thought it was not the norm for a baby to be born like this.
But do you see how in providence God was again working out his plan? For it is so fitting that Jesus was to be born in a manger. Though Jesus should have been recognized as a king, he had the most humble of births. Just compare and contrast the situation here between Baby King Jesus and Emperor Augustus. Because of a single decree by Emperor Augustus, everyone had to drop what they were doing and head out to their ancestral towns to register so that they can then give the emperor lots of money. But King Jesus with his parents, couldn’t even get someone to give up their room for a night. Jesus had to sleep in a trough. Think about it. If for some reason Emperor Augustus arrived late that night in Bethlehem, and all the inns were completely full already, do you think the emperor would have slept in a stable? No, someone else would have been, but not the emperor. Jesus, by divine right deserved the red carpet to be rolled out for him. Jesus deserved the royal treatment. We’d get a glimpse of that when the Magi later come. But the fact is that God in his providence did not have that for Jesus when he was first born.
And how fitting that was. Because that is what Jesus’ coming to this earth was all about. It was an act of great humility by the eternal and glorious Son of God. In coming to this world he was identifying with us humans. He was also taking on our struggles and our sorrows. To be born like this, in such a humble circumstance, is so fitting. It is fitting because it represents the kind of life he would have. He would live in humble circumstances, all the way to cross. There at the cross he would experience even greater humility in bearing God’s wrath for our sins. Jesus came to this world not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
Stepping back, we’ve seen the providence of God working through all of this. On the one hand, the passage looks like the result of the leader of the known world, Caesar Augustus. He seemed to have so much power that his decree resulted in all this. But from the eyes of faith, we see the providential hand of God behind it all. God’s eternal decree is what ultimately was behind all that we read today. It was God’s plan to have Jesus born at the start of this Pax Romana. It was God’s plan to have Jesus born in Bethlehem and not Nazareth. It was God’s plan to have Jesus born in the humble way that he was, and placed in a manger. All of this, God accomplished through his normal workings of providence. God didn’t need a single miracle to make any of that happen. And yet all it was an important part of God’s larger plan to bring salvation to his people through the work of Jesus. It was also part of God’s larger plan whereby he is bringing a kingdom that is far more glorious than the Roman empire ever was.
As much as we get excited when we think of the supernatural things associated with Jesus’ birth, let us also get excited for the providential things associated with his birth. Let us remember that God’s decrees and his eternal plans will be accomplished, regardless of how he chooses to accomplish them. Sometimes in the past he used miracles. More often he uses the ordinary, natural happenings in this world. But no one can stop his providential preserving and governing of all his creatures and all their actions. This Christmas as we rejoice in God sending forth Jesus, may we remember that King Jesus now sits on high, ruling from the right of hand of God. God in Christ continues to be at work with his plan. And he does this powerfully even through providence.
As we sit today at a time of governmental transition for our nation, I hope we can especially remembers this in the church. We’ve all been seeing Christians respond differently to the change in government. Some Christians have great optimism because of the changes. Some have great fear. There are many other sorts of responses and emotions as well that Christians have been having. But today’s passage reminds us that though human leaders will make their decrees, it is ultimately God’s will that will stand forever. Proverbs 19:21 There are many plans in a man’s heart, nevertheless the LORD’s counsel — that will stand.
May this truth comfort you that despite what happens good or bad for our country over the next few years, God’s plan is being worked out. His promises will still never fail. That means Jesus is still coming again. That means that Jesus will always be with us until then. That means that still the gates of hades will not prevail over Christ’s church. That means that we continue to do the work he has called us to be doing in advancement of his kingdom. So then, we can trust that whatever events come through ordinary providence, God is still on the throne. And God, as he always does, is working providentially through the history of man, to bring about his greater purposes. Take comfort then, if you belong to Christ, knowing that the victory and the kingdom and the power and the glory belongs to the Lord. Amen.
Copyright © 2016 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.