The Victorious Christ in Bethlehem

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to enroll themselves, every one to his own city. And Joseph also went up . . . . Luke 2:1–4


How familiar these words sound to most of us during the Christmas season. “And there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus . . .” Many of us have heard these words dozens of times. But what do they mean? What did they mean when Luke wrote them and what do they mean to us today? And what difference does it make who was governor of Syria, Quirinius (also called Cyrenius) or somebody else? What does Caesar have to do with it all? The Holy Spirit as the primary author could also have inspired Luke simply to say that Joseph took Mary to Bethlehem to be enrolled for the census, and that it was at that time that Mary gave birth to the Christ-child.

In the Bible everything has a purpose, whether we see and understand it or not.

First of all we see that Luke, the writer, is very conscious of world history and the world situation of that day. He knows the spirit of the times. As with Paul later, he is aware of the world politics of that day and knows what really is going on in Rome. All events of the world are therefore placed in the framework of the history of God’s work and the church. Luke proceeds from the principle that world history basically is church history. And the birth of Jesus Christ had something to do with this, very much in fact.

Augustus Caesar, who as .a nephew was adopted by Julius Caesar, began ruling over the mighty Roman world at approximately 27 A.D. His realm was perhaps one of the most consolidated of all world empires. At this time he decided that a world census had to be taken. Why? Likely there were various reasons for this decision. One surely was that all citizens would be taxed. But with the returns he would also have more information about his kingdom. With these statistics he could establish better defense programs, determine the potential strength of his kingdom as well as its weaknesses. Surely there were more reasons. But the Bible speaks of only one of the purposes, namely the taking of the census, perhaps  with a view to a future taxation.

But what does this have to do with the birth of Jesus Christ? Why would we who live almost 2,000 years later be interested in this apparently insignificant piece of history of Rome?

With God there is purpose in all of this. We must see this first of all in the light of Revelation 13 where John speaks of the beast, the Antichrist, with seven heads and ten horns. Rome was one of these heads and therefore one of those Antichrists, people and kings of that day worshipped him as their god. Hasn‘t the world always done this with its great leaders? One has but to think of times past, of Hitler of Germany, Stalin of Russia, Hirohito of Japan, and Mao of China. In their days they were literally hailed as the gods of their countries. In the same way Augustus was called the savior of the Romans. In the midst of all kinds of needs he was the man of the hour, literally being called God of God, the divine one, the very son of God. The Romans spoke of the gospel of the emperor and also tried to set their calendar dates according to his life and reign.

This enrollment was therefore a decree of the god of Rome. It had a religious purpose and connotation. And so we see the contrast, savior vs. Savior, the god of the world of that day vs. the Son of God.

Notice also how this thought is emphasized with what we read regarding Cyrenius. Luke mentions this man’s name to correlate sacred history with secular history. But surely he has more in mind than that. Everything in the Bible also has theological significance. Nothing is mere secular history, really. This enrollment was first made during Cyreniusday. Augustus had ruled for some twenty-five years already, so this couldn‘t have been the first taxation. But this was the first time the whole world was so enrolled, and therefore also likely the first time that Syria was included in this census and taxation of the (anti-christian) world power of Rome. Now Palestine was a part of Syria. So Israel is made one with the world, swallowed up as it were by the anti-Christian world power of Home. Israel is under the rule of the anti-Christian power of Caesar. Israel is no longer a separate people of God in the world.

But why mention the name of Cyrenius? According to history he was a man of great political stature, rulin~ with an iron hand. Syria had often been a trouble spot in the empire. The god of this world will therefore relinquish nothing, but with power and force, lhrough Cyrcnius subdue also the land of Israel. All told it means that the power of the Antichrist of that day is forced upon the small and helpless people of God in Israel.

Where is the hope of Israel?

What about all the promises given to the saints in centuries past?

Where is that stone cut out of the mountain that fills the earth?

What could the common people do? What could an individual Christian possibly begin to do in such circumstances and over against such power? Notice what we read: “And Joseph also went up.” This is beautiful! He is of the house of David, of the royal seed. He is an heir of David, the great David with his mighty kingdom and the glorious promises of God. Joseph likely knew all this. He, too, likely asked with other dedicated Christians of that day, where is the promise of His coming? Surely Joseph know at this time what God had revealed to Mary about the child she would bring into the world. He would be the promised One. the king of Israel. Does it look like it?

“And Joseph also went up,” we read. Again, how beautiful! He offers no resistance.

O yes, there were people also in that day who formed guerrilla and opposition movements. Luke speaks in one place about a certain Judas of Galilee who led an insurrection movement. Possibly Simon the Zealot, one of Jesusdisciples, had formerly been a member of this group of rebels. There were also the Pharisees who in their own way, though wrongly, opposed much of Rome. They bated the Romans and showed it wherever possible.

Not so with Joseph. He went to Bethlehem, with faith that trusts and obeys.

And isn‘t this the great principle of the life of Christ, trusting in and obeying His heavenly Father? Isnt all of His life doing the will of His Father in heaven? This is the way of atonement and the Spirit of Pentecost. This is the life of the Christian church.

Why was their great father David a man after God‘s heart? Because he was a man who loved the Lord, with faith and obedience. Joseph is a true descendant of him. But Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of it all. He was obedient in faith unto death. Through this way He became the Lord of life and Gods appointed ruler of the world.

What does a Scripture passage like this say to us today in the Christmas season?

This first of all, that through faith and obedience Christ today is the Lord of His people and also the ruler of the entire universe. True Christmas celebration surely means that we thank God for this obedience of the faith of His Son, by which He became our Savior. But also that we now as believers in Him and as children of the King walk in the way of faith and obedience.

The Antichrist is still here. In fact, in many ways he is much, much stronger than in the days of Joseph. The mighty anti-Christian powers of secularism, materialism, revolution and many others are engulfing the world. And how dark it must look to Christians behind the different curtains as we call them, the iron and bamboo curtains? From a purely human viewpoint the future of the church is always dark. And last but not least there is at the end of the way for every Christian death and the grave.

But what is the true spirit of Christmas as taught us here? It is the way of faith and obedience, simple trust in His promises, His power and faithful love as given in the Word. This is the faith that overcomes the world, and enables us to live victoriously.

Don‘t look first of all or only at people, nor at the powers of men of the world, but at Jesus Christ who today is Lord of Lords, sitting at the Father‘s right hand. Trusting in Him and obeying Him according to His Word is the way of the church throughout the ages. And it is the way of peace, comfort and hope, also in Christmas season.

John Blankespoor is pastor of the Pine Creek Christian Reformed Church of Holland, Michigan.