History is the study of the past and particularly how it relates to humans. So typically, if a book that mentions real names and dates and locations and events is about history. And the Bible is an example of this; it mentions names and dates and locations and events.
Just a couple of weeks ago, for example, a royal clay seal was discovered in an archaeological dig in Jerusalem. And seals like this were used to secure strings tied around official documents. They functioned as a kind of signature as well as a symbol of authenticity; these really were documents from the King. Well, on that seal were the words, ‘Belonging to Hezekiah (son of) Ahaz, of Judah.’ And in 2 KINGS 18:2, we read that “in the third year of Hoshea son of Elah, king of Israel, Hezekiah the son of Ahaz, king of Judah, began to reign.” So the bible records history.
But the Bible is more than just history; it is also His-story – the story of the Lord Christ.
You see, I expect that most if not all of us at least believe in the Jesus of history? The historical evidence from the Bible and elsewhere is overwhelmingly conclusive when it comes to establishing that there was a baby born in Bethlehem, called Jesus.
But what we need is more than a belief in the Jesus of history. For this book, from Genesis to Revelation, is the story of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is history with the purpose of proclaiming His-story. It wants us to know about Jesus so that we might know and believe in Him as the Saviour we need.
And we see an example of this here in the passage before us. For there is much here to do with history, but ultimately the chief purpose of this passage is His-story – the birth of the Saviour that we sinners need. And I trust we will all see this today as we consider the historical facts that Luke has recorded and why he records them in this way.
So we will simply consider what we read here in relation to CAESAR, JOSEPH, and MARY in order to see history and His-Story.
So firstly CAESAR in vv1-3.
At this time in world history, CAESAR AUGUSTUS was in his mid-50s and had already ruled for 20 odd years. His Uncle was Julius Caesar that many of you boys and girls will know from the Asterix stories. C.A. was actually born Gaius Octavius. As an adult he was known as Octavian. But when Julius Caesar was murdered, he became Gaius Julius Caesar in honour of his Uncle. And he became part of a triumvirate of leaders in Rome (which means three leaders) until Antony died and the Roman senate named Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus – the Supreme ruler of the Roman Empire. And he was a very capable ruler who did much to expand Rome’s borders and secure peace and prosperity.
And we see this as we read of this DECREE requiring a census of the people. A census like this was required every 14 years but Quirinius and the people in Judea had been slow to fulfil this obligation. So Caesar dispatched soldiers and officials to Judea to get it done.
And congregation, Google, Wikipedia, the Encyclopaedia Britannica (if anyone still remembers what that is and uses it) will all verify these historical details. We know that Caesar and Quirinius and the census are a part of history. Luke is telling us here about a real Caesar, a real governor, and a real census. But if you look up those historical details, you will find pages and pages of other details that Luke does not mention. You see, Luke’s chief purpose is not just to record history but to locate His-story in history. So with the bare minimum of historical fact, we have sufficient detail to know the circumstances that surrounded the birth of the Lord Jesus.
So now we step back from history to consider His-story. Earlier our brother Roel read from MICAH 5. And in that passage we read, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Now, this prophecy was given to the people of Judah, around 700 years B.C., as a warning of impending judgment. And yet, even in the midst of this warning there was this glorious note of hope. For here, the prophet very clearly declares the will of God concerning one who will come to deliver His people. And what he says is that this One will be born in Bethlehem.
350+ general or very specific and detailed prophecies in the OT that all come to pass in the NT in Jesus! You can Google it and get the list.
And Verse 4 of this text gives us one of them as we are told that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. And as we think about this in terms of the God of the Bible and what these remarkable fulfillments of prophecy reveal about His sovereign control of history and His-story, what this means is that
1. God determined the day of Octavius’ birth.
2. God caused Julius Caesar to make Octavian his son and heir.
3. God determined that Gaius Julius Casear would defeat Marc Antony in the naval battle of Actium in 31 BC and become sole ruler of Rome; Caesar Augustus.
4. God made Judea a part of the Roman Empire.
5. God worked in the life of Quirinius and Caesar and the people of Judea to make this census happen precisely when it did.
6. God caused Caesar Augustus to have the Jews to register in their home towns.
7. And He arranged and oversaw all of these historical events just so Joseph and Mary would be in Bethlehem “when the time came for the baby to be born”!
So the first lesson here is that the God of Christmas is a SOVEREIGN God! And it is good to be reminded of this because it is so easy to get caught up in the circumstances of your life and your job and your marriage and your church, etc. But there is a God who is sovereign over all history, including all the details of your life.
Jesus said of Him, “Not one [sparrow] will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs on your head are all numbered.”
Romans 8:28 says, “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him.”
Do you believe this? What is your first inclination when trouble comes – to worry or to pray? To fret or to trust?
Caesar Augustus was an instrument in the hands of our sovereign God to accomplish a part of His-Story! But let’s see this also in relation to Joseph from vv4-6.
We read that Joseph and Mary leave their home town of Nazareth and head to Bethlehem to be registered in the census. Now, it was possible for a husband to register himself and his wife in the census. There was no absolute need for Mary to travel to Bethlehem with Joseph, a journey of some 110 km! But human and divine circumstances lead to her travelling to Bethlehem with Joseph.
• Humanly speaking, it was close to delivery time. And the time of her delivery would have raised people’s eyebrows, given that she would give birth to a full-term baby around 6 months after marrying. So being in Bethlehem has the advantage of them being a bit more anonymous than would be the case back home in Nazareth.
• But from God’s perspective, as we have already noted, His Spirit through Micah has prophesied that Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. And so, Joseph and Mary come to Bethlehem as the time for birth arrives.
And so, again congregation, we see the HISTORICAL REALITY of this scene. Joseph and Mary, real people, both of the line of David, are in Bethlehem for the census.
But again, ultimately, as we have said, this is His-Story. It is God who has drawn Joseph to this place and who has led him to bring Mary with him, through His leading of Caesar to call this census, now.
And v6 says, “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born.” And while the mothers among us might read this and remember the moment that the labour began for them, these words are about far more than the ordinary physiological processes.
GALATIANS 4:4-5 says, “But WHEN THE TIME HAD FULLY COME, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.”
The historical details Luke has described clue us in to a whole host of political and legal and language and scientific and societal and religious circumstances that made this moment in history the precise moment of the Saviour’s birth.
And we just don’t have time to go through the significance of these circumstances, but they make for a fascinating study; the language spoken at that time, Roman rule, crucifixion as a common method of execution, Jewish religious practice, ease of travel, writing materials, these things and many others are why Jesus was born when He was born
Now the time has fully come for Jesus to burst into history in order to be the Saviour that we sinners need. So again, congregation, this is history and His-story!
So Joseph was also an instrument in the hands of our sovereign God to accomplish a part of His-Story – the story of Jesus. But we see this also, lastly, in relation to MARY, as we see from v7.
Mary gives birth to Jesus. She wraps Him in swaddling clothes and lays Him a manger. And despite the fact that the well-known Christmas Carol, Away in a Manger, would have us believe that He did not cry, we can be sure, because the Bible is very specific that Jesus shares our humanity in every respect except for sin, that He cried just as all babies cry.
Just a few months ago, Mary had been told that she was to give birth to “the Son of the Most High,” and that He would “have the house of His father, David” and “rule over the house of Jacob forever.” So we can imagine Mary wondering how that promise and prophecy matches up with the very humble conditions of His birth!
But this is where history and His-Story collide once again. For our brother Aaron has shown us in our considerations of the rest of Luke 1, this is entirely in keeping with how God has unfolded His salvation plan through the history that the Bible records. Again and again, His way is the unexpected way that is nothing in the eyes of men. But in the context of salvation, nothing in the eyes of men always adds up to something in the eyes of God! So the humble historical circumstances of Jesus’ birth, if we are familiar with the Bible, should make for FLASHING NEON SIGNS – God is at work in the story of salvation – we are reading more of His-Story!
Well, way back in GENESIS 4:1, Eve gave birth to her firstborn son. And knowing that God had promised salvation through one of her offspring, Eve said, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.”
Eve had heard God promise her and Adam that salvation would come through a son of hers. So her words expressed hope that maybe this son was the one God had promised. But he was not.
For while God as a sovereign God always helps new life come into existence, this is so in a unique and special way with the Lord Jesus. For He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary. Jesus is uniquely qualified to be the Saviour of mankind.
So yes, the circumstances of His birth are lowly and humble in many respects.
• But He is born in the city of David, the royal city; Bethlehem.
• And His birth will soon be announced by angels, no less, as we see in the next section.
• And he will receive the adoration of wise men from the East who come to worship the one born King of the Jews.
What we read here is history and His-Story.
The Caesar Augustus of history did not know that he was a part of His-story.
Quirinius did not know that he was a part of His-story.
And even Joseph and Mary would have found it very hard to see how all of this could be a part of His-story.
But you may know it.
God does not want the His-story to be a mystery. He has given you this book where it is told very plainly.
The Son of God came down to earth to be born in a manger in Bethlehem in order to go to the cross and die.
You and I have broken the law of God which makes us guilty sinners. We deserve His wrath.
But Jesus came to endure this wrath on our behalf and make it possible for us enjoy peace with God.
And you can have peace with God if you confess your sins to Him and believe that He died for you.
And that, my friends, is His-story. Is His-story your story? Do you have peace with God? Is the Lord Jesus your Saviour? Amen.