At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant. And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped Him snugly in strips of cloth and laid Him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them. That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep.Luke 2:1–8
Luke has set the time frame and then he has taken some time to explain why Mary and Joseph find themselves in Bethlehem. They went there to register for the census. Luke most important purpose is to set the scene as to why the couple were there – fulfilling the prophecy concerning Bethlehem. Luke has gathered all the facts and knows too the Old Testament prophecies that related to this story. He doesn’t highlight them as much as Matthew does who is coming from a Jewish / Hebrew perspective but he makes the links clear nonetheless.
Luke also takes pains to emphasize the nature of their accommodation in Bethlehem. Why Mary finds herself giving birth to the baby in a stable and laying him in a manger. And their plight as to the lowly state of their lodgings while there. One of Luke’s themes throughout the Gospel is the poor and Jesus concern for them. So Luke shows from the outset that this Coming Saviour of the World humbled himself and was born in a lowly state. The uniqueness of Christ, Saviour and Messiah is found in the combination majesty and humility. This reminds me of the song The Servant King by Graham Kendrick. Here are the words, ponder them.
- From heaven You came, helpless babe
- Entered our world, Your glory veiled
- Not to be served but to serve
- And give Your life that we might live
- This is our God, the Servant King
- He calls us now to follow Him
- To bring our lives as a daily offering
- Of worship to the Servant King
- There in the garden of tears
- My heavy load He chose to bear
- His heart with sorrow was torn
- Yet not my will, but Yours he said
- Come see His hands and his feet
- The scars that speak of sacrifice
- Hands that flung stars into space
- To cruel nails surrendered
- So let us learn now to serve
- And in our lives enthrone Him
- Each other’s needs to prefer
- For it is Christ we’re serving
Luke could have written this song, but he didn’t. Luke holds the humanity and deity of Christ close together. Don’t you just love the picture Graham Kendrick has captured with his words, “hands that flung stars into space to cruel nails surrendered.” Wow that’s it exactly. That is exactly what we are dealing with when we talk of “THIS BABY”. How like God to shock the Jewish leaders and hopeful who are waiting for a Messiah to reign and rule over them. They waited for One who would come in pomp and ceremony, majesty and splendor. But He snuck in the back door and began as a lowly baby born without all the trappings of wealth and regality. Keep this theme in mind throughout Luke.
Two questions arise with this section. Did they go to Bethlehem for the census or because of tax? The NLT version says they went to register for the census. The KJV version says they went to be taxed. Which is it? Tax or census? The other question centres around “took with him Mary, his fiancee who was obviously pregnant”. We will look at the tax / census issue today and the pregnant fiancee tomorrow.
The verb in the case of registering or enrolling [απογραφεσθαι – apographesthai] is a middle passive which means “to have oneself enrolled”, “to appear and be registered or officially listed”. It is clear that is what they were going there to do. You either did that because that place of enrolment is the place of your family; I.e. Where you were from, much like the reason for electoral enrolment today. Or it was because that is where you had land. Having land and it being the place of your birth or residence most often went hand in hand. There is much debate over which of these is prominent in Joseph’s case. However, it is unlikely that that Joseph and Mary went there at that time to be taxed. Yes tax was part of the registering in the census. It is more likely they enrolled and paid tax at a later time. Joseph also had connection to Nazareth, but it is possible that he also had land in Bethlehem.
There is one other note to add before I leave you today related to the timing of Quirinius. I have given you some of the debate over the dates surrounding his governorship already in preceding Gems. Here in this passage is an interesting statement by Luke. It is translated here “when he was governor of Syria. But it could be translated “before he was governor of Syria”. The word ‘first’ (protos) has been linked to the census. I.e. The first taken during his reign as governor. But some say it could equate with “former” in which case it would be a genitive of comparison and be better translated “before he was governor of Syria” which would clear up some issues related to dates.
Either way on the issue of timing or on the matter of tax or census there are reasonable explanations to satisfy the challenges to the accuracy of what Luke wrote.
Tomorrow: Joseph and Mary – married or still engaged?
Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.St Augustine
Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.Rick Warren
Humility is nothing else but a right judgment of ourselves.William Law
Humility and knowledge in poor clothes excel pride and ignorance in costly attire.William Penn