1 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. – Luke 2:1-7 ESV
Chapter one ends with the note: “the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel” (Luke 1:80 ESV). In a single sentence, Luke compresses the timeline of John’s life, taking the reader from his birth to the early days of his earthly ministry. In the space of 23 words, Luke has taken John from the womb to the wilderness. The one appointed to herald the arrival of the Messiah is now positioned to perform his God-ordained role. It appears that, at an early age, John left the confines of his family home and relocated to the wilderness of Judah, where he lived an ascetic lifestyle. Matthew records that John lived a simple and somewhat spartan life.
Now John wore clothing made from camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. – Matthew 3:4 NLT
When the angel Gabriel had announced to Zechariah that his wife would give birth to a son, he had added the command that they were to deny him access to “wine or strong drink” (Luke 1:15). He would be Spirit-filled (Luke 1:15) and his entire life would be dedicated to one purpose: To prepare the way for the coming Messiah. Matthew records that, when John was questioned as to his identity, he responded:
“I am the voice of one shouting in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” – John 1:23 NLT
He was quoting directly from Isaiah 40:3, where, centuries earlier, the prophet had recorded his Spirit-inspired prophecy concerning John’s future earthly ministry.
A voice cries out,
“In the wilderness clear a way for the Lord;
build a level road through the rift valley for our God.” – Isaiah 40:3 NLT
The messenger was in place. Now John turns his attention to the birth of the Messiah. To do so, he begins by setting up the historical setting into which the Son of God would be born. As we have seen before, Luke puts a high priority on time and timing. He goes out of his way to convey that the birth of the Messiah took place at a particular time and in a very specific place, according to the perfectly timed will of God.
He begins chapter two with the mention of two important individuals, which helps to place the birth of Jesus within a historical context.
Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the empire for taxes. This was the first registration, taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria. – Luke 2:1-2 NLT
The first man mentioned in this passage is Augustus Caesar, who served as the emperor of Rome from 63 BC to AD 14. His birth name was Gaius Octavius, and he was the nephew of Julius Caesar. His uncle eventually adopted him and appointed him to be his successor. Upon Julius’ death, Gaius Octavius found his path to the throne blocked by others who aspired to the position. But eventually, he consolidated his power and secured his role as the first Roman emperor.
Another interesting and pertinent note regarding Augustus Caesar was his reputation as a divine being. In 42 BC, the Roman Senate had officially declared his uncle, Julius Caesar, to be divine, giving him the title of divus Iulius (“the divine Julius”). When he became the Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar would assume the title of divi filius (“son of the god”). And it is no coincidence that Jesus, the true Son of God, was born during the reign of this man-appointed god.
The other individual Luke mentions is Quirinius, who is said to have been the governor of Syria. There has been much debate about this statement because, at the time Jesus was born, Herod the Great was governor. Some argue that this is evidence of a biblical error. But the easier and more likely explanation is that Luke is referring to two different censuses that were taken. Historically, we know that Quirinius served as governor on two different occasions (3-2 BC and AD 6-7). Herod had served as governor until 4 BC. The first census went out during his governorship, which places the birth of Jesus sometime around late 5 or early 4 BC
The phrase, “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria” can better be translated as “This was the first registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Luke is differentiating between two different censuses. During the governorship of Herod, Augustus Caesar issued his first census, which required that Joseph return to his ancestral town of Bethlehem in order to be registered for taxation purposes. Augustus Caesar would later issue another decree which called for a second census. This took place somewhere around AD 6 and 7. It is mentioned by Luke in the book of Acts (Acts 5:37). The Jewish historian Josephus also mentions this second census and links it to an uprising led by Judas of Galilee. Luke is simply trying to provide “an orderly account” (Luke 1:3) that gives an accurate portrayal of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth.
This decree, issued by the Roman Emperor, required that each Jew “be registered, each to his own town” (Luke 2:3 ESV). As stated earlier, this census was for taxation purposes. Since land was one of the greatest assets any Jew possessed, they were required to return to their hometown in order to assess the value of their inherited property. Since Joseph was of “the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:4), he returned to the small town of Bethlehem, where his ancestor, David, had been born.
Once again, Luke is emphasizing the role that timing played in the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Had not the emperor issued his decree when he did, Joseph would not have made the trip to Bethlehem, especially with a pregnant wife. But he was required by law to travel from Nazareth in Galilee all the way to Bethlehem in Judah. This would have been a 90-mile trek that took as many as four days to make. But it was all part of God’s sovereign plan and so that the prophetic promises found in Scripture might be fulfilled. Centuries earlier, the prophet Micah had recorded that the Messiah would be born in the small and insignificant town of Bethlehem.
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel, whose origins are in the distant past, will come from you on my behalf. – Micah 5:2 NLT
And Luke announces that while Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, the time came for her to give birth. This was all part of God’s impeccable timing. Luke wants the reader to know that every aspect of this story was divinely preordained and happened according to plan. There was no chance involved. Nothing was left to fate. From Caesar’s decree to Joseph’s lineage, it was all part of God’s sovereign will. And Luke ends this section by stating that Mary “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 2:7 ESV).
The Son of God had entered the world, but there was no place for Him. Rather than giving birth to the King of kings in a well-appointed palace assisted by servants and in an atmosphere of splendor, Mary was forced to deliver God incarnate in less-than-regal surroundings. There were no royal dignitaries present. The birth of the heir-apparent was not met with the cheers of adoring citizens. The humble village of Bethlehem was a far cry from the royal palace in Jerusalem. But this was the way God intended for His Son to enter the world. And the apostle Paul described the Messiah’s invasion of earth in stark but highly significant terms.
though he existed in the form of God
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself
by taking on the form of a slave,
by looking like other men,
and by sharing in human nature.
He humbled himself,
by becoming obedient to the point of death
—even death on a cross! – Philippians 2:6-8 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.