(A) The Practical Reality: A Roman Census (v.1-3)
Luke 2 begins with the words "In those days" which serves as a time marker. It also connects this chapter with events in the previous one. What have we learnt of before? In Luke 1, we read about the circumstances around the birth of John the Baptist, and the foretelling of the birth of Jesus.
In those days, Caesar Augustus, the Emperor of Rome required a census to be taken (v.1b-3). Before we proceed, realise that Luke painstakingly recorded these facts for us to show that events in the bible did not take place independently of the world, but was very much grounded in historical events. This was a real historical figure! The Bible is truly not just a storybook, but is, and records truths.
A census was important in that time for government record purposes, and eventually for taxation. Why did he do so? Clearly for his own ambition and wealth and greed, to expand his own empire and kingdom. What does this have to do with God? We learn here that God uses history and the plans of sinful human beings to accomplish His own plans. God can use all kinds of historical actions to weave His plans, even actions that seem tyrannical and political and worldly and historical. These are all are a part of God’s plan. It is the Roman census that moves the holy family back to the place of prophetic significance. We've seen this previously in the life of Joseph, and ultimately in Jesus' death on the cross! This is a God that can use a worldly, evil action to bring about His plans.
(B) The Divine Reality: God Fulfilling His Word (v.4-6)
As a result of the census, Joseph went from Nazareth, in Galilee (Luke 1:26) to Bethlehem, in Judea. Bethlehem is also called the city of David (that’s where he is from), and he goes there to be registered because of his lineage in the house of David (we read previously in Luke 1:27 that Joseph is of the house of David).
Joseph did not travel alone, but went with Mary, his betrothed who was with child. As we learnt last week, we know that this was a special pregnancy, for Mary conceived despite being a virgin. This is biologically impossible, and clearly a divine work. This God is a God not bound by nature and is outside of the laws of nature. At this point, we are quick to read this pass over it, but if you read it in context, this is actually the fulfillment of God’s word! Do not skim through and forget the details! Look at Luke 1:31, and now she really does have a child! Our God is one who is true to His word. Even in two chapters, we see a God who promises (the seemingly impossible) and fulfils what He said. Let us not read it in an unaffected manner as we would a story!
So, was Bethlehem special? Mary gives birth to her child in Bethlehem, and this fulfils God’s word in the Old Testament, which was given through his prophet Micah in Micah 5:2. In fact, Mary had to travel a great distance to get there, and, it was not possible without the census that Caesar Augustus called for. It was highly unlikely for it to happen without this census! God works in great ways!
Micah 5:2 also speaks of Bethlehem as a little town, possibly too insignificant to be counted as great. At this point in the Bible, contrast the power and reign of the Roman Empire and the forgotten, faded Davidic Kingdom. Contrast the size of Bethlehem, and the great ruler that comes forth from her. As we look at this contrast – we’re looking at the stark difference between the kingdom of the world (Rome) and the kingdom of God (Davidic Kingdom). Kings are usually born in palaces, in great places, usually with great fanfare. But this King is born in an insignificant city, to poor parents. God chose to build His kingdom out of Bethlehem. This is how He always works, choosing the little things of this world to accomplish His great plans.
What does this mean for us today? Do you realise that God is working to build His kingdom even when the world is flexing its muscle. Perhaps in our world today God’s kingdom looks so small so frail against the world and her corporations, governments and institutions. Yet Luke 2 reminds us that despite what we see or perceive, God is always working. This is the meaning of the Little Town of Bethlehem – the quiet and unsuspecting entry of the Savior of the world into a backwater town. The divine reality is that God is fulfilling His great plans, even when it doesn't seem like it!
(C) The Gospel Reality: Fullness of God in a Manger (v.7)
In verse 7, the birth of Jesus Christ is described in a very brief manner. We are told that this was Mary and Joseph's firstborn son who wrapped in cloth (just like any other baby), and he was laid in a manger. For many of us, we've read this so many times over, Christmas after Christmas. We picture the nativity scene and associate it with Christmas festivities. Yet, in just one verse, Luke is telling us about a delivery in humble circumstances; there was no fancy palace (remember Micah calls him a ruler, while Luke 1:32-33 describes him as son of God most high). This wasn't just one more baby, one more person in the Roman Empire that Caesar Augustus could tax. This was the Son of God who chose to come down in such humble circumstances. This was the one promised all of the Old Testament, the one hinted to in Genesis 3, the fulfilment of all of God's promises over the years, the one that all His people had been waiting for for centuries. In that manger, in the tiniest human form lay the majestic and great God, who existed outside of time, but chose to take this form. There, in that first Christmas, the infinite was contained in a finite form, "fullness of God in helpless babe".
What else do we realise? This God was rejected even at His birth, for there was no space in the inn and hence Mary and Joseph had to stay in the stable. This great God was not born in the comforts of a palace, but even at his birth, was rejected and born in humble dwellings. Just the same, do we have no room for Him? He had no place in an inn, he came into this world and there was no place for him. Have you kept for him a place today? Or is your heart like the inn, filled up with too many other things? If you have no time, what are you doing?
These verses in Luke continue to show us the surprising circumstances around Jesus' birth. The Savior of the world, came not with great fanfare in a comfortable palace with the world awaiting His entry. Rather, He was born as a vulnerable and tiny baby, to poor parents, in a small, unassuming and nearly forgotten town, and laid his head in a manger the first night on this earth. This is a God who uses the weak things of the world to shame those who think they are wise. This Christmas, let not our hearts grow cold towards the amazing birth of Jesus Christ!
Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her king
Let every heart prepare Him room
And Heaven and nature sing