“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)
Arguably, one of the most familiar portions of New Testament Scripture, along with John 3:16 and Romans 8:28, would have to be the account of the birth of Jesus Christ from Luke 2. However, I do not want the familiarity of the words to obscure the meaning of the text. We humans can become so fixated upon familiar words and traditions that we fail to plumb the depths of Scripture to discover the gold of truth lurking underneath the surface. Therefore as we approach today’s text, instead of settling for the raking of leaves let us determine to dig for gold.
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1). The phrase “in those days” refers to the immediate preceding context of Luke’s Gospel. It reminds us of what has already occurred in the lives of Zechariah, Elizabeth and Mary. By extension, it also points to Matthew’s account of the angel’s announcement to Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25). All of those events eventually lead to the singular event of Jesus Christ’s birth.
Included in those aforementioned events preparing the way for Christ’s arrival is that “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1). A decree is an order or command instructing people what they must. A decree is not optional under an imperial monarchy like Rome or from an emperor such as Caesar Augustus.
What do we know about this Roman ruler? Caius Octavius was the grand-nephew, adopted son, and primary heir to Julius Caesar. Before and after Julius’s death in 44 B.C., the Roman government was consistently torn apart by power struggles. Octavius ascended to undisputed supremacy in 31 B.C. by defeating his last remaining rival, Antony, in a military battle at Actium. In 29 B.C., the Roman Senate declared Octavius Rome’s first emperor. Two years later they honored him with the title “Augustus” (“exalted one”—a term signifying religious veneration). Rome’s republican government was effectively abolished, and Augustus was given supreme military power. He reigned until his death at age 76 (A.D. 14). Under his rule, the Roman Empire dominated the Mediterranean region, ushering in a period of great prosperity and relative peace called the Pax Romana.
What was the nature of Octavius’ decree? He commanded all the Roman world should be registered, or put on a census list. Why? The primary purpose of a census was for taxation. It was a way to determine how many people would provide revenue to the prevailing government.
Dr. John MacArthur explains that, “This was not merely a one-time census; the decree actually established a cycle of enrollments that were to occur every 14 years. Israel had previously been excluded from the Roman census, because Jews were exempt from serving in the Roman army, and the census was designed primarily to register young men for military service (as well as account for all Roman citizens). This new, universal census was ostensibly to number each nation by family and tribe (hence Joseph, a Judean, had to return to his ancestral home to register—see note on v. 3). Property and income values were not recorded in this registration. But soon the names and population statistics gathered in this census were used for the levying of poll taxes (see Matt. 22:17), and the Jews came to regard the census itself as a distasteful symbol of Roman oppression.”
Luke goes on to say that this registration census “was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:2). Who was Quirinius? He was the imperial governor of Syria. Syria was located northeast of Palestine (Matthew 4:24; Acts 18:18).
“And all went to be registered, each to his own town” (Luke 2:3). What do conquered people do when the imperial government and emperor issues an order. They obey it or face the consequences. One’s own town would not only consist of where an individual was born but also where they owned property. Dr. John Walvoord comments that, “Although Egyptian census records show that people had to return to their homes for a tax census, the home to which they returned was where they owned property, not simply where they were born (censuses registered persons according to property).”
Therefore, God providentially orchestrated these geo-political events in order to ensure ancient Old Testament prophecies would be fulfilled. The providence of God has not changed. He was in control of world events at the time of the birth of Christ. He remains so today. May each of us rest in this timeless, biblical truth.
Soli deo Gloria!