1.  And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.

This census or registration was initiated by Caesar Augustus for the purpose of taxation. That is, he wanted to have a record of all the people in his empire in order to tax them. The word “world” here, the Greek word oikoumene, strictly means the inhabited earth, yet it is clear that Caesar was not the ruler over all the inhabited earth, nor had he the right to demand such a thing of those in places where his rule did not extend. It seems clear that in quite a few of its occurrences in Scripture, this word takes on the meaning specifically of the inhabited places in the Roman Empire. Thayer suggests of the meaning of this word, “in Greek writings often the portion of the earth inhabited by the Greeks, in distinction from the lands of the barbarians” (Thayer’s Lexicon.) So Caesar’s universal statement was limited to all the places over which he bore rule.

2.  This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria.

This was apparently the first time this census took place. Acts 5:37 lists a second such census that took place later. Notice the precise information given here. The Lord wants to make it very clear to us both when this took place, and that this was a historical event that can be traced. If we were living at the time Luke had written this book, the records of this event could still easily have been checked, and the truth of this census, including the exact time when it took place, could have been ascertained.

3.  So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.

Apparently in order to make it easier to register the people, all who were living away from the place of their birth were to return there in order to register. This might seem like an idea that would have caused massive problems to us, but remember that in the world at that time, moving around was very difficult, and therefore quite unusual. It was not uncommon to be born in a city, to live out your life in that city, and to die in that city, and to have never been anywhere else. Thus, the number of those who were living away from their own city would have been relatively small compared to what it would be today.

Notice how God is working through this situation to bring about His will. In Micah 5:2, God had declared where the Messiah was to be born.

2. 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,
Whose goings forth are from of old,
From everlasting.

So the Lord had to be born in Bethlehem. Yet his parents at that time were living in Nazareth, a city far to the north in Galilee. What would cause them to return to Bethlehem, so that their Son could be born there? We learn that what happened to bring this about was this registration.

Now certainly Caesar had no thought of fulfilling Scripture when he ordered this taxation to be done. Yet his decision, affecting the whole of the Roman Empire, all worked to bring about God’s will, and to see to it that the Lord was born exactly where He wanted Him to be born.

The traditional time for this all to have been taking place is, of course, in the winter, around the Christmas season. Yet it is unlikely that this would have been forced upon the people suddenly in the months of the year when the weather was the worst.  Such an occurrence would have been fuel for rebellion.  No doubt this census was announced well in advance, and was set to take place at some convenient time, such as immediately after harvest, and before the next planting.

4.  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,

Luke does not detail for us the conflict between Joseph and Mary over her pregnancy, and the angelic visitor God sent to Joseph to bring an end to it. That story is recorded for us in Matthew. Instead, Luke brings us past then to the point where Joseph is trusting God regarding this child that his virgin wife is carrying. Joseph too, as a citizen of the Roman Empire, must be taxed, and so he has to leave Nazareth in Galilee and head into Judea to his home city of Bethlehem.

Joseph was of the house and lineage of David. Yet that counted for little at the time when Christ was born. The family that God had chosen to bear the rule forever over the nation of Israel had fallen unto hard times, and their representative Joseph was so forgotten that he was relegated to being a poor carpenter. Those who had power in Israel, such as the Pharisees and other religious leaders, enjoyed the privileges of kingship, and had no desire to turn the thoughts of the people back to the line of David that had so long been bereft of the position God had granted to them. Thus, the line of David was forgotten. Yet God had not forgotten them, and He would work out His promises to the letter.

Nazareth is in Galilee in the north, whereas Bethlehem is in Judea in the south. Yet Joseph is said to go “up” from Galilee to Bethlehem. We need to realize that in a day when walking was the primary means of transportation, what was important was elevation, not whether you were traveling north or south. Bethlehem was at a higher elevation than Nazareth.

“Nazareth” is an Aramaic word that means “Branch-Town.” It was here that the Branch from the stem of Jesse mentioned in Isaiah 11:1 would grow and be brought up. “Bethlehem” means “house of bread,” and was where God would provide the bread of life to feed His people Israel.

5.  To be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child.

Joseph brings along Mary, or in Greek Miriam, the courageous young woman we read about in the last chapter, to be registered with him. We read that she was his betrothed wife. Yet as I said in commenting on chapter 1, we must not think of this like our engagements today. Once these two were betrothed, they were considered legally bound together, and so what we would call his fiancée was by them considered his wife, though still his betrothed wife since they had not yet come together in sexual union.

Miriam here is with child. The Son of God is soon to be born, and God is working out through this situation the place of His birth.

6.  So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered.

The story that most people are familiar with regarding the birth of Christ is that common, Sunday school version that is taught to children based on dramatic descriptions and tradition, rather than upon the Word of God. Mary and Joseph are always pictured as traveling while she was nine months pregnant, and as arriving at Bethlehem just as she was about to have her baby. Yet notice that this verse does not say that the time for her to be delivered occurred while they were on their way there, or immediately as they arrived. Moreover, several factors beyond what is stated speak against this idea. First of all, it is akin to outright slander against Joseph to suggest that he was so foolish as to drag a nine-month pregnant wife along with him on a long and difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. This would be even more ridiculous if the journey were to take place in December. No, Joseph along with the rest of the Roman Empire must have known of this census well in advance, and so he would have left for Bethlehem long before Mary reached this stage of her pregnancy. So it was while they were there, and had probably been there for some time, that her pregnancy came to its conclusion.

Now remember that Joseph’s family was from Bethlehem, but he had, no doubt, left there due to the scarcity of work for a carpenter in the city at that time. Upon returning to Bethlehem, he would most likely have stayed with his family who still lived there. This would have been arranged well in advance. Bethlehem was a small down, and there would not have been many people returning there for the census. Thus, there was no going from door-to-door trying to find a place to live once he arrived, as is always depicted in the Christmas stories and plays made up by men who never bother to check their nostalgic and traditional ideas against the Scripture.

7.  And she 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.

So Miriam gives birth to her firstborn Son. Remember, this is her firstborn Son, though it is not Joseph’s. This was God’s Son, and His firstborn, the One Who was to take all the privileges that the Father could bestow upon Him.

The Lord was wrapped in swaddling cloths. The Greek word is sparganoo, which is a medical word meaning “to bandage.” Apparently, this was a single piece of cloth which was wrapped around and around the baby, and would keep him snug, warm, and secure. It was the sort of thing that a poor woman would wrap her baby in.

Now we read that He was laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. The reason for this was not because it was so crowded on the night they arrived in Bethlehem, as is usually taught. Remember in the last verse we learned that they were already there when her time for giving birth arrived. Probably the inn mentioned here was owned by one of Joseph’s relatives, who had taken them in. However, we come to the “no room” statement. We cannot think of our modern inns and hotels when we try to figure out what this means. Inns of the day did not have nice little personal rooms for every visitor as we have today.  Rather, the visitors were usually housed in only one room. This large room would contain all visitors at the inn. People would sleep on a small cot, and the cots in this large room would be laid one next to the other…no privacy, and no personal space whatsoever. It would not be a very nice place to stay, and certainly not to live in for a period of time, but would still be better than the street. If there were other rooms, they would probably be reserved for the innkeeper and his family, and would be where the cooking and things of that nature were done.

Now we must consider births in Israel. We know from the law that giving birth made a woman unclean (Leviticus 12.) Thus, she could not be allowed to give birth in the crowded main room of the inn, since that would mean everyone there would risk becoming unclean by coming in contact with her…and we can imagine in that cramped a space that contact with others was quite inevitable! If a girl was to give birth in an inn, it would have to be in a smaller, secondary room, which could be fixed up especially for her child-bearing. In a small inn of those days, however, such a room would not be extra or unused. One of the possible uses for such a room was as a holding place for the animals of those who were staying at the inn. At our hotels we would never expect to find that the owners had failed to provide a parking lot for the patrons of their hotel to park their cars. At that time, of course, animals provided transportation, and so inns would often have a room attached to the inn where visitors could board their animals for the night.

Most people get the idea that the Lord was born in a stable. Others claim that there were no stables such as we know them in that part of the country such as we are used to, and claim that the Lord was probably born in a cave fixed up as a stable. Yet there is no more mention of a cave here than there is of a stable. Moreover, inns would not be set up for livestock. Cows and sheep were not a part of what an inn was all about. What they had to concern themselves with were traveling animals, such as donkeys, mules, camels, and the like. (Remember, horses were not allowed in Israel.) This would have been the purpose for which an inn of the time had a room for animals. This room would have been similar to our parking garages, and had nothing to do with farm animals.

Knowing that she could not give birth in the common room of the inn, Mary and Joseph and their relatives who owned the inn had to make other plans. Having this room for animals handy, they no doubt hit upon this as the most reasonable place for her to go through the birth process. As the time approached for her delivery, they would have made the stable ready, clearing out and cleaning up a portion of it and preparing it for the big day. Any travelers would have to keep their animals outside at this important time. No doubt by the time the delivery actually came they had cleaned the place up and made it quite a cozy and comfortable place for giving birth. This was all a well-laid-out, pre-arranged plan, not some heartless, last-minute dishonor imposed upon them by a cruel innkeeper, as is so often pictured in our Christmas fables.

Certainly this was no king’s palace in which Christ was born, but it was the best a woman of Mary’s standing could expect at that time. So she gave birth there, and laid her baby in the manger. This would probably have been made by crossing two boards in an “x” shape, then taking two such “x”s and laying boards between them to make a simple feeding trough. There was nothing decorative or cozy about such a thing. It was just utilitarian.

8.  Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.

From the time of David, who fed his sheep there, all the way up to the present time, the area around Bethlehem has always been a place where shepherds have watched over their sheep. We see at this time that these shepherds have their sheep out in the fields. Yet they would not have been out there in the middle of the winter, but long since would have brought their sheep into the folds by that time. No, this was probably early fall, perhaps late September. The Catholic calendar has a holiday called “Michaelmas” on September 29th. If there is any ancient truth behind this holiday, it is probably the visit of the angels on the night of Christ’s birth, pinpointing this, not December 25, as the day on which these events occurred.

The fields were always dangerous for sheep, with everything from wild animals to marauding raiders who would be eager to steal and harm the sheep. Thus, the good shepherds would build a temporary pen for their sheep to sleep in at night. The pen would be built without a door, and the shepherd himself would sleep in the doorway, using his own body to protect and shield the sheep. This is what these shepherds were probably doing. They were not sitting picturesquely around a campfire, staring into the flames keeping watch while their sheep slept in the open fields around them, as is usually pictured.

9.  And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid.

Suddenly, this messenger of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them. It is often hard to say what exactly the glory of the Lord entails, but in this case it clearly manifested itself as a great, shining light, that lit the night as bright as or brighter than day. Imagine how such a sight must have dazzled these shepherds! No wonder they were greatly afraid. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Moreover, they had never heard of floodlights, and so such a thing would have seemed even stranger and more terrifying to them than it would to us.

The angel is not named, but since it is “an” angel of the Lord, rather than “the” angel of the Lord, we can clearly see that it is not “the” angel that we often see in the Old Testament, Whom I believe was actually Christ Himself. It is hard to say what angel this was, but it certainly could have been Michael, or Gabriel, the one who had appeared to Miriam and Zechariah.

This visit to humble shepherds is characteristic of the humbleness of Christ’s first coming. He was not announced before kings and princes, but before the lowliest of men. Yet it seems that to God, a humble carpenter’s wife and a few lowly shepherds were more worthy of favor than all those our present world would choose instead to honor with such news. We recall the words of God to the prophet Samuel, that man looketh on the outward appearance, but God looketh on the heart. It seems that God saw something worthy of honor in the hearts of these simple men.

10.  Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.

God’s messenger now speaks to them, and assures them that they have no need to be afraid. He is not a messenger of death or doom, but rather brings them good tidings. The word here for “bring you good tidings” in Greek is evangelizomai, and is the verb form of the word for “gospel.” He was bringing them a gospel, a true and right message, that would result in great joy. As Isaiah 52:7 says,

“How beautiful upon the mountains
Are the feet of him who brings good news,
Who proclaims peace,
Who brings glad tidings of good things,
Who proclaims salvation,
Who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’”

The angel says that this joy will be to all people. Yet in Greek this reads “all the people,” and so it is especially targeted at the people of Israel, whom God had chosen. Yet ultimately all people everywhere are blessed indeed through the birth of which this angel brought glad tidings to these men.

11.  “For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

The messenger’s news was that a Savior had been born to them that very day in the city of David. This One was Christ the Lord. If we were to use the Hebrew form of these words, we would say that this Savior was Messiah Yahweh, or Messiah Jehovah. He had come to save His people at last.

The utter magnitude of this statement is lost upon those of us who have heard it repeated a thousand times. The world had waited four thousand years for these words, and these men had waited all their lives with only the faintest of hopes of ever hearing them. Now to hear that their deepest hopes and longings for salvation were soon to be realized–what life-changing words these must have been to these shepherds!

12.  “And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

As these men were all Israelites, it was appropriate for the Lord to give them a sign, for such was ever the privilege of Israelites. The sign they receive is that they will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. Notice that the angel does not specifically say that this was the babe who was the One Who had been born as Savior, although that certainly is implied in what he said.

What a strange place to find One Whom the angel had just declared to be so great! Not lying in honor or in state, but rather wrapped in the clothes of a poor infant, and lying in a trough to feed animals. Certainly if men of this world had planned the birth of its Savior, they would not have planned it like this. Yet God’s ways are not our ways, and He needs no great honors that we can hang upon Him to make His Own birth glorious. He is the glory in all of it, and His presence decorated this humble room far more than any rich decoration men could have hung upon it.

13.  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

Suddenly the messenger is joined by a multitude of his heavenly fellows. He is not to be the only one allowed to praise God on this night. Now, all these heavenly powers appear and speak as one. What an honor it was for these shepherds to have been present to hear this heavenly chant! Notice that it says they were saying this, not singing it. The idea that this was some heavenly choir, and that they sang these words to some glorious, heavenly music is again an idea plastered over this passage by the traditional ideas of men.

14.  “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

Their words ascribe glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth and toward men good. Indeed, all this was to His great glorification, and lifting up on high among all beings in heaven and in earth. Our peace and our good are all dependent upon what this special Child was to accomplish for us through the events that would follow this birth.

15.  So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.”

The Bible’s matter-of-fact way of stating this still gives us a glimpse of the barely-contained excitement that these shepherds must have been feeling. No wonder they couldn’t stay still…and who could blame them? If God had announced something like this to you in such a manner, could you have kept from going to see it yourself?

Of course, we cannot accompany the shepherds as they journeyed, nor see with them the thing that the Lord had made known to them. Yet we have a record of their journey and what and Whom they found in the Word of God. With this truth before us, we can know what they found as assuredly as if we had been there ourselves. Through our faith, we can see what they saw, and experience what they experienced. We too can journey to Bethlehem, and find there Christ the Lord. This is the privilege we have through the Scriptures God has given to us.

16.  And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.

When they arrived, they found things just as the angel had told them. Think what Mary and Joseph must have felt when these men of the fields came rushing excitedly to their door asking to see their Child! Perhaps only now did they start to grasp the magnitude of what God was accomplishing through them.

17.  Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child.

The shepherds, having seen the Lord in the manger, did not keep this quiet. They made all this widely known. We too, having found in the Lord Jesus Christ a Savior, should not keep this great finding quiet. Let us noise abroad Whom we have found, and all we have found in Him, as it is told us in the Scriptures.

18.  And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

Stories such as this must have raised high hopes that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.  How many stories returned with the family to Nazareth, and then how much of those stories lasted through the flight to Egypt and then their return to Nazareth one cannot say. Yet hopes must have dwindled, even in Mary and Joseph’s minds, as the Lord Jesus approached the age of thirty and still showed no ambitions to be anything but a carpenter. At any rate, we know that when our Lord returned to Nazareth during His ministry, no one there seemed to have any faith at all that He was the Messiah. In fact, they refused to hear His teaching because He had grown up among them. The rest of Israel seems to have been much more accepting of Him, particularly after He was lauded by John. Yet how much of this was caused by stories of the miraculous events surrounding His birth is hard to say. From Biblical accounts, the excitement of the people seems to have been much more connected to the miracles He was doing for them at the time, not the ones that had occurred surrounding His birth. After thirty years, it could be that these wondrous things were all but forgotten.

19.  But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.

Mary kept these things in her heart. This indicates in Greek that she pondered and kept weighing and considering them. Yet how her faith must have dwindled in the years ahead, until, in Mark 3:20-21, we see her coming with her other sons to take the Lord Jesus away as a madman!  No doubt the realities of raising a baby had taken away the feeling of majesty that had originally surrounded the birth of the Son of God.  As C. S. Lewis suggested in his Screwtape Letters, we humans have a strange and illogical tendency to accept the mundane as proof that the supernatural does not exist.

20.  Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.

Messiahs and angels aside, these men still had work to do, and they went back to it. Often we have to do the same thing. Having received great truth from God, and even while we are rejoicing in it, we find that the necessary things of life and the responsibilities that are placed upon us force us to return to things that we have to do rather than dwell on the truth we have so recently discovered. This must be, yet let us not let the mundane cool our love for and devotion to our Lord! Our efforts may have to be spent on the things of this world, but let our hearts ever be focused on things above.

21.  And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called JESUS, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.

This was all according to the law of Moses, and was part of the Divine religion that God had given to Israel. Here we have proof of the answer to the question, “Was Jesus Christ a Christian?” From this passage, we can answer that He most certainly was not. The Lord Jesus Christ was a Jew, and kept the law of Moses from His birth. The Lord was “made under the law,” as Galatians 4:4 declares.

The circumcision was usually done by the father, although the whole community would often get together to celebrate, as well as to see that it was done, of course. The circumcision could be done anywhere, and so Miriam and Joseph probably did it right there in Bethlehem where they were. It was the purification afterwards, however, that had to be done in Jerusalem. That was what the dispersed Jews living outside the land could not do, and was one of the reasons they could not fulfill the law.

They named him Jesus, as He had been called by the angel before birth. Four men in the Bible were named before birth, the other three being Ishmael, Isaac, and John. The name “Jesus” is the Greek Iesous and the Hebrew Joshua or Jehoshua.  Literally it means “Jehovah-Savior.” It was a common name at that time, and those who were named this name gave testimony to the fact that Yahweh is the Savior. When the Lord was named this, however, it was for a different reason. He did not just give testimony to the fact that Jehovah is the Savior. Rather, He WAS Jehovah the Savior.

Bullinger suggests in the Companion Bible that the Lord may have been born on the first day of the feast of tabernacles. If so, this eighth day, the day of His circumcision, would have been the last, great day of the feast, as in John 7:37.

22.  Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord

Again, this is part of the law, prescribed by Leviticus 12.

1. Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2. “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘If a woman has conceived, and borne a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her customary impurity she shall be unclean. 3. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. 4. She shall then continue in the blood of her purification thirty-three days. She shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary until the days of her purification are fulfilled.
5. ‘But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her customary impurity, and she shall continue in the blood of her purification sixty-six days.

Since the Lord was a male child, the purification would have been forty days after his birth, and thirty-three days after his circumcision.
 
23.  (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the LORD”),

This was because of the Passover, when all the firstborn of Israel were saved alive when the angel passed over their houses when He saw the blood of the lamb on their doorposts. From then on, the Lord declared, all the firstborn were His. Later, however, the Levites were substituted for the firstborn, according to Numbers 3:12.

“Now behold, I Myself have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the children of Israel. Therefore the Levites shall be Mine,”

Since there were more firstborn than Levites, however, this purification right was performed on every firstborn male.

24.  And to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Let us continue our examination of Leviticus 12, as begun above.

6. ‘When the days of her purification are fulfilled, whether for a son or a daughter, she shall bring to the priest a lamb of the first year as a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove as a sin offering, to the door of the tabernacle of meeting. 7. Then he shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement for her. And she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who has borne a male or a female.
8. ‘And if she is not able to bring a lamb, then she may bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons—one as a burnt offering and the other as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’”

The sacrifice they gave was the one outlined in Leviticus 12:8 as the sacrifice for those who were too poor to afford a lamb. This tells us yet again about the financial state of Miriam and Joseph. Yet still this was all done entirely according to the law, make no mistake. From His birth the Lord Jesus was brought up blamelessly in the Jewish religion. Moreover, what He later rejected was not that God-given religion, but rather the ungodly additions of the religious leaders. The Lord was not a “Christian,” but in every way He was brought up as a law-keeping Jew.

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