The text this morning is from the Gospel of Luke 2:1-7. These are the Words of God:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 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, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 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. (ESV)
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
9 months have passed since last week’s sermon. Gabriel had announced the conception and incarnation of the Son of God in Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Caesar Augustus was born Gauis Octavius and in 27 B.C. the Roman Senate gave him the title Augustus and he ruled until A.D. 14 when he was succeeded by Tiberius. Augustus means “the majestic, or highly revered.”
And here, Luke is telling us that Augustus issued the very decree that forced Joseph and Mary to leave their hometown of Nazareth to go to Bethlehem. All of the Roman would was to be taxed and registered.
So this was a giant census—but instead of the government mailing you a document with a bunch of boxes to check, you had to go to your home town and register there.
Luke also tells us that this census took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Now, if you aren’t too fond of math or history tune this next section is a little tedious, but it’s important, so hang on.
The birth of Christ cannot be later than 4 B.C. because that’s when Herod the Great died. Herod, of course, feature heavily in Matthew’s account of the birth of Christ. And, we also know that Quirinius was governor of Syria from A.D. 6-7, and there’s some historical evidence that Quirinius had served a previous term before 1 B.C.
So, you say, I thought B.C. meant before Christ. How can Christ be born before Christ? Ok, quick lesson, since you asked:
B.C. does stand for Before Christ. A.D. stands for “anno Domini” which is the Latin for “in the year of our Lord.” And the short answer is that a monk named Dionysius Exiguus who lived during the 5th and 6thcentury calculated the date of Christ’s birth wrong and it has stuck ever since.
Back on track: Joseph and Mary go uo to Bethlehem. This going up isn’t saying they went north like we might say, “I went up to Boone. Instead, Bethlehem was at a higher altitude, so you went up to it.
And the reason they went to Bethlehem is because Joseph is of the lineage of David. Oftentimes Bethlehem is referred to as the city of the David in the Scriptures. A little more geography for you: Nazareth was about 70 miles north of Bethlehem as the crow flies. The trip would have taken them about 3 days.
John MacArthur has a wonderful account of their journey. From Nazareth to Bethlehem Mary and Joseph would have passed through a land filled with Biblical memories.
Shiloh would greet them, where Hannah came to pray for a child before the Lord. And then there was Gilgal, where her son Samuel sat to judge Israel. They may have passed through the Valley of Baca, which the psalmist had sung, and the road perhaps would wind pass Bethel with all its patriarchal memories and Rama, where Jeremiah pictured Rachel weeping for her children. And then they would climb up a little bit to Gibeon, where Solomon worshiped. And finally they would come to the great metropolis of Jerusalem and passing through Jerusalem would go by Mount Moriah by the hill of Zion, across the top of that mountain, that plateau on which Jerusalem sits. About six miles further they would come to the village of Bethlehem — Bethlehem, the town of Ruth and Boaz; Bethlehem, the place where Jacob’s first love, Rachel, died and was buried.
But Bethlehem was most notably the town where David was born, David the greatest king that Israel had ever known, David the great ancestor of royalty out of whose loins eventually would come the Messiah, the great King of all kings who would rule over a kingdom in Israel that would extend across the face of the earth and would last forever.
We don’t know how long Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem before the time came for her to give birth. Had they been there for a few weeks, or had they just arrived? We don’t know.
Nonetheless, while in Bethlehem, in fulfillment of Micah 5. That’s worth hearing, so let me read that to you now:
2 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.
3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel.
4 And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.
5 And he shall be their peace.
This ruler, this one who’s coming forth from of old, who will shepherd his flock, and shall be great to the ends of the earth, how does he come?
He comes as a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. I can remember that first night with Olivia. I had practiced swaddling on everything from stuffed animals to footballs. I wanted to make sure that when this child came, she would feel warm and safe.
Here is Mary, wrapping the Son of God in muslin. Smelling his head. Weeping for joy. Looking at Joseph. And as ironic as the coming of Christ as a baby is, the irony doesn’t stop there.
Luke tells us that she laid him in a manger: a feeding trough for animals. This means the family was lodging in either a stable or a cave. Both had been used to shelter livestock.
Mary and Joseph were all alone. Bethlehem wasn’t a center of metropolitan life—it wasn’t Jerusalem. It wasn’t even Bethel. Bethel means House of God. Bethlehem means House of Bread.
While Luke doesn’t tell us about any mean and unfeeling Innkeepers, everything in his narrative points to the fact that Jesus’ life began with poverty, obscurity, and rejection.
So, how does Luke 2 teach us and shape us as Christians?
The gospel is rooted in history. The birth of Christ, the life of Christ, the death of Christ, and especially, the resurrection of Christ are all tied to historical record. We don’t simply believe in the spiritual significance of these events. We believe in the historic nature of these events.
As J. Gresham Machen said nearly 100 years ago:
“Christ died”–that is history; “Christ died for our sins”–that is doctrine. Without these two elements, joined in an absolutely indissoluble union, there is no Christianity.”
Christianity emptied of doctrinal content isn’t Christianity. And Christianity emptied of historical events isn’t Christianity.
And in these verses Luke is showing us the importance of history. Did you notice all of the historic and geographical markers he gives us?
- Caesar Augustus
- This is the first registration, to distinguish it from others.
- This is the one when Quirinius was governor in Syria.
- Joseph went up from Galilee:
- From the town of Nazareth
Luke is saying, here’s when it happened. These were the political leaders. Here was the geography. Why does he give you all of that?
It’s so you can check his work. He’s giving you all this information because history matters.
If you go back to the very beginning of Luke’s gospel you read these words:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
This is Luke’s historical method. He’s setting out his goals. He’s giving you the name of his benefactor, Theophilus.
Now listen: if you are a buddhist, it does not matter if Gautama Buddha ever lived or not—what matters is his teaching. Follow it.
If you are a Muslim, essentially it does not matter if Muhammed every lived or not. You have the Koran, submit and obey.
But if you are a Christian, everything depends on the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ.
And that’s because we don’t become a Christian the way you become a Buddhist or a Muslim. You don’t become a Christian by simply practicing Christianity—you become a Christian by believing in Christ.
- By believing that God sent his Son.
- Believing that Jesus lived a sinless life that you should have lived.
- Believing that he died in the place of sinners and bore God’s wrath.
- Believing that he rose from the dead.
- And believing that apart from his life and work, there is nothing you can do that will earn God’s favor.
This is why the Heidelberg Catechism begins:
Q. How are you righteous before God?
A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments, of never having kept any of them, and of still being inclined toward all evil, nevertheless, without any merit of my own, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me.
All I need to do is accept this gift with a believing heart.
Friend, have you believed in Christ? Have you put your trust in him? In his life? In his death and resurrection?
History matters. Luke wants us to know that the spiritual teachings of Christianity, separated from the historicity of the events of the Bible are worthless.
As a side note, all history matters, not just Christian history. World history matters. American history matters. Mongolian history matters. Family history matters.
Ultimately, history is the human endeavor to tell the truth about the past and interpret it correctly. That’s no easy task, but as those who belief in a historically-rooted faith, we of all people understand the power of getting history right, and the sinfulness of manipulating history to suit our own ends.
Not only does this text teach us that history matters. We also see the humanity of Jesus.
THE HUMANITY OF JESUS
6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son
The church has always affirmed the Jesus Christ is the Son of God who took on flesh. And in the history of the early church there are three doctrinal confessions that feature heavily:
First there’s the Apostles’ Creed. It’s a short summary of the faith and it affirms that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God who was born of the virgin Mary.
In the ensuing centuries, as the church began sorting out exactly how it is that Jesus can be God and man they realized quickly that we want to get this doctrine right and that there are many ways to get it wrong. Therefore, precision is required summarize exactly what the Bible teaches, and this shouldn’t be rushed.
In the 4th century the Council of Nicaea met because a teacher named Arius was arguing that Jesus Christ was a created being and therefore not co-equal with God. They formulated the Nicaean Creed which we have recited here a number of times in our own church.
Then nearly a century later another council met in Chalcedon—which is in modern day Turkey in A.D. 451. The challenge this time was not whether Jesus was co-equal with God—the question now was the relationship between Jesus divine nature and his human nature.
I won’t read the entire Chalcedonian Creed, but here’s it is in a nutshell.
Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood;
In this statement the church declared that on the one hand Jesus was not God in a human wrapper. And, on the other hand, Jesus wasn’t a normal human being who happened to have some super powers.
Jesus wasn’t some weird hybrid between God and man. It wasn’t a 50/50 split. He is complete in Godhead. Complete in manhood. Everything that can be said about the nature of God can be said about the person of Jesus. Everything that can be said about the nature of man, can be said about the person of Jesus. The one person, Jesus, had two natures: divine and human.
And this is important for two reasons. Well, more than two, but I only have so much time.
First, Jesus’ humanity is essential to our salvation. Human beings had fallen into sin and deserved death. Therefore, the payment for sin had to be made by a proper representative of humanity. The sheep in the OT never removed the sins of the people.
So, first, the gospel of our salvation hinges on the full humanity of Christ. Second, the humanity of Christ means that he can actually relate to us and we can relate to him as we walk with him through this life.
Stott: “In a world filled with suffering and pain, I could not fathom worshiping a God who was immune to it.”
The story of Christmas is the story of the Son of God somehow giving up his immunity: to suffering, to weariness, to hunger, and sorrow.
Jesus Christ is like us. Hebrews 2:14 says:
14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things
17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect
That night in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph counted 10 fingers and 10 toes. They looked into his eyes to see if they noticed any color. They felt the soft hair on his head and took a deep breath of that smell that only newborns have.
The Son of God took unto himself a human nature. He had a body like ours. And, why? What advantage do we gain by Christ’s humanity? What benefit do we earn that we could not other wise have?
The author of Hebrews continues:
so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
The God-man Jesus Christ stands as our intermediary. He’s our mediator. He bridges the gap between God and us. And he’s a priest who can sympathize with us.
You can go to him and say, “Jesus I’m tired. I’m exhausted. This day has worn me out,” and he will understand.
You can pray to him and say, “Lord God, I’ve been betrayed by someone who acted like my friend.” He has been there too.
When your closest friend breathes their last and leaves this earth and you are greatly troubled over the loss, he can comfort you. Why? Because he has stood outside of Lazarus tomb and done the same.
And even though he never once sinned, you can come and confess all your sins to him—why? Because he made propitiation for the sins of his people. Literally: he absorbed God’s just wrath against sin so that God could look upon you with favor and love.
GO TO HIM. Finally… a contrast between two kings.
A CONTRAST OF TWO KINGS
Notice the contrast between the top of the text and the bottom of the text. At the top is Caesar Augustus- ruler of the Roman Empire. His adoptive father is the Roman leader, Julius Caesar. When Julius Caesar was assassinated and Augustus was found to be his sole heir, he didn’t just inherit Caesar’s wealth—he inherited his name, and his influence. As a young man, Augustus had been ruthless in order to become Emperor of Rome, but as an older man he had established what we call the Pax Romana – the Peace of Rome. During Augustus’ reign you could travel all over the Empire in relative safety. Beyond all of this, Augustus claimed at various times that he was both a deity to be worshipped and the high priest of the empire. If you were a member of a Roman colony, you could worship any god you desired, as long as you would put a little incense on the altar to the Caesars and said, “Caesar is Lord.”
And at the bottom is this child born to Mary. His adoptive father isn’t an emperor, he’s a carpenter, a tradesman named Joseph. Instead of being born into the greatest inheritance in the world, Jesus is born into a feeding trough. Instead of being welcomed into the world, there’s no room for him.
You could not draw a stronger contrast between these two.
On the one hand Jesus is far more benevolent than Augustus:
Augustus killed his enemies to secure his power. Jesus Christ submitted his power as God and was killed by his enemies in order to secure them.
Yet on the other hand, Jesus Christ is far more exacting than Augustus.
You were allowed to worship any deity you liked as long as you also declared the lordship of Caesar. But Jesus Christ will not permit this. You are to worship him as Lord over all.
This same baby in Luke 2 would grow into a man who in Luke 14 would say these words:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
In the early church, Christians had to make a living just like you and me, and many of them were craftsmen who made idols and sold them to the pagans. They didn’t worship the idols. They didn’t bow to the idols, they only made them. And, after all, someone is going to do it and , after all, we need to live. To which the church father, Tertullian said, “Must you live?”
As Vance Havner once said, “A Christian only has one must in their life, and it’s not that we must live. A Christian has only to be faithful to Jesus Christ come what may.”
What does this mean for our church?
It means that when the world looks at us they should be confused. Yes. Confused. Why?
Because, on the one hand you and I are to look at the humility and sacrifice of Jesus for us as his enemies and do the same for our enemies. We are to be the most humble, self-forgetful, sacrificial people in our community. The world ought to look at the church and be thankful for how many mouths we feed, how many children we adopt, how many schools and hospitals we build, how many food closets we operate. They should see that we are the most hospitable neighbors.
And yet they’ll be confused because in the midst of all that joyous generosity and sacrifice they will see unflinching inflexible surrender to Jesus Christ alone as Lord. We’ll preach and proclaim that there is no salvation in any name under heaven except Christ.