In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Luke’s nativity of Christ is grounded in history:
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”
Caesar Augustus reigned from 27 BC to August 19, AD 14.
With great political astuteness and military skill, he quelled the civil wars that had raged for years, establishing Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome, in fact, the golden age of ancient Rome which lasted for over 200 years.
Augustus brought to the world an unprecedented period of outward calm and order, which not only provided the stage for the nativity of our Lord but also, afterward, facilitated the spread of Christianity.
A census had been commanded by Augustus, no doubt to the view of levying taxes. This included the Jews and took place under the governorship of Quirinius, with each inhabitant returning to their native town to be registered.
While there are gaps in our knowledge today and, hence, uncertainty among scholars (especially critical scholars) as to Quirinius’ governorship and this particular census (although his governorship between AD 6 to 9 is clear, and also his military leadership in Syria in the last decade BC, there are other uncertainties) one thing is clear: Luke has referenced both Augustus and Quirinius as two public figures, universally recognised by his first-century audience, to situate the birth of Jesus, as to time and place, in their world. If he did not have a reasonable expectation of their recognition by his audience why else would have he mentioned them?
All of these events played out under God’s sovereign control, fulfilling Micah’s prophecy of some 700 years before:
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.
Micah 5:2 (also Matthew 2:6)
And so, Joseph, as a descendant of David, who 1,000 years before ruled Israel as their great poet-king, came down from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the registration.
What, then, do we learn from this?
First, Christianity, unlike the Greco-Roman mystery cults, resting on the quick-sand of mythological story and secrecy, was by contrast, historical and openly known. It proclaims the acts of God in history. And these acts are both public and verifiable. God in his providence ensured that the birth of our Lord was demonstrably factual by situating it within real historical events.
This provided the intellectual context for the pioneering of modern science, of observable and verifiable factuality. It is not merely an accident of history that modern science developed in Christian Europe and not in China or Arabia. This was despite the latter’s scientific knowledge. It was the Christian worldview – specifically the doctrine of creation – that provided the foundation for belief in the uniformity of physical law.
But with the West’s present rejection of Christianity, it has lost the foundation for objective science. Hence, the contemporary flight from reality. For example, the flight from biological birth-assigned sexual identity – the facts of science – to arbitrary self-perceived gender identity, producing an untold number of genders. And consequently, the irrational now trumps the rational, in the modern West.
Second, we learn that the world of time-space history – our world and what happens in it – matters to God. So much so, at the creation, he declared it to be not only good (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) but also very good, significantly though, only after the creation of man as the consummate act of God’s creative genius, which puts pay to every environmentalist notion that man is a blight on nature’s landscape (Gen 1:31). Rather, he has been placed over the creation as God’s vice-regent to steward it (Gen 1-2; Ps 8). Man and the cosmos – the world of matter – as the product of God’s creative brilliance is therefore inherently good.
Any notion that the world of matter is inferior to the world of the spirit is not Christian.
It is, in fact, a pagan belief the Greek philosophers borrowed from the east. It entered the church in the form of Neo-Platonism and produced the idea that spirituality is a retreat from the world, of the sacred on a higher plane than the secular, thus, the sacred/secular divide.
This has resulted in untold false spiritualties and eschatologies, both Catholic and Protestant, that “rescue” us from the world and our Christian responsibility for it. It includes the notion that a call to the Christian ministry to serve the church is a “sacred” calling while all else is a “secular” calling. The fact of the matter, though, is that they are all “callings”. It is God who calls us to a specific vocation, regardless of its location, whether it be in the church or in the larger community. All of life and every legitimate pursuit is declared by God to be “sacred”. He is the Creator and is, therefore, sovereign over every sphere of life. Every calling is, consequently, integral to the Creation Mandate (Gen 1:26-28; Mtt 28:18-20)—to man’s calling to subdue all things under God.
Third, and most significantly, the circumstances of Christ’s nativity teach that God’s purpose advances progressively throughout history. This can only occur if God is first of all sovereign, that he is the One
declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’
Therefore the great pageant of history is nothing but the Sovereign, Creator-God, writ large. It is the display of his majestic power and purpose. It is he who through his creative decree calls cosmos out of chaos (Gen 1), and is actively bringing all things, in heaven and in earth, into one head, that is, in Christ (Eph 1:9-10).
The nativity of Christ, therefore, not only reaches back to Micah’s prophecy, 700 years before, and David’s lineage, 1,000 years, and further to Abraham, another 1,000 years, but back to the proto-Gospel of the garden—the prophecy over the woman that her seed would crush the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15). Indeed, history was predestined in the eternal counsels of the Triune God (Eph 1:4-5, 11).
And integral to this is your own salvation; you were chosen before the foundation of the world. This means that your life and its circumstances, your moment in history, is a part of God’s great pageant, fulfilling his purpose in the earth to crush the serpent’s head.
It means that every generation, regardless of momentary apostasies and declensions, is an advance of the Kingdom of God in the world.
God’s purpose is multi-generational, with his covenant mercies extending to a thousand generations (Dt 7:9). It is significant that even after 1,000 years Joseph could still trace his lineage back to David. One of my cousins in England served as a head of the College of Arms in London and also as the Queen’s “Windsor Herald”, overseeing the royal family’s heraldry. He recently traced, albeit a very circuitous route, our own family’s history 1,000 years back to William the Conqueror, my 26th great grandfather! We are part of something far larger than we can imagine. It is God’s long march through the generations, bringing to nought the momentary Marxist march through the institutions.
With our culture of instant gratification and short-term thinking, we have lost sight of the enormity of God’s plan in history. That plan not only reaches back into countless millennia but also casts forward to many more. We have bought escapist “end time” lies that get us out of this mess and off the hook from building a Christian future. I’m often struck by our pioneers and city-fathers who built great botanical gardens and public parks, planting oaks, great pines and firs that they would never see grow to maturity. Rather, they built and planned for the generations that were to come.
To this, as biblical Christians, we ought to be committed.
Likewise, our purpose ought to be Christian civilisation, our policy the word of God, our focus church and culture—building resources not only for now but also for generations to come.
Christ’s is the victory!
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”