Jesus was born amid a world movement of international dimensions. One word from a pagan emperor in Rome, and, throughout his vast domains, people began to move. Caesar Augustus had called for the collection of a new tax (2:1-2).
It was the supreme good fortune of Caius Octavius to be Julius Caesar's favored grandnephew. Octavius took the name ‘Caesar’ by adoption and ‘Augustus’ for good measure. The murder of Julius Caesar gave him the chance that he had sought to step forcibly onto center stage. The suicide of his greatest rival, Mark Anthony, cleared the way to supreme power. So Caesar Augustus he became, a god, no less, with his throne above the stars like Lucifer and his feet planted firmly on planet Earth.
What would he have said, we wonder, had he been told that in a despised provincial town in an obscure corner of his realm had been born One who was God indeed, God overall, blessed for evermore?
The tax to which Luke referred was imposed ‘when Cyrenius was governor of Syria’ (2:2). Cyrenius was a man of humble birth, a soldier of fortune who rose to a position of great power. His Cilician victories won him a Roman triumph. His death was marked by a state funeral.
The tax that Caesar Augustus imposed required that every person go to the city where he was born to be registered. Joseph and Mary, married now, and the Babe who was soon to be born, had to return to Bethlehem, the ancestral home of David, Israel's greatest king. Like it or not, Joseph and Mary set out on their journey, which must have been tiring and uncomfortable for Mary. That she should be left behind in her condition was unthinkable.
The hand of God was in the whole business. The journey put Mary in Bethlehem in time for the birth of her child- just where the prophet Micah had declared some six or seven hundred years earlier that Christ would be born (Mic. 5:2).
The journey took at least three days. The travelers arrived at Jerusalem and continued the five or six more miles south to Bethlehem. When they arrived there, the place was packed. Joseph pushed his way inside the inn to beg and plead for a room for by now the birth of Jesus was imminent. The inn itself had a long history. It was known as Chimham's Inn (2 Sam. 19:38-40; Jer. 41:17) and was built by that loyal servant of David after he became a member of David's inner circle. (Jeremiah had spent a night there when he was being abducted and taken to Egypt many years earlier.)
‘No room!’ That was the innkeeper's last word. ‘We are full. You can see that for yourself. There's not one room vacant.’ Then, in a moment of compunction, he said, ‘But there's the cattle shed. Maybe you could make do there. ‘
‘No room! ‘That was not true. There was the innkeeper's own room, but he never once considered that. No indeed! Let these peasants with the Nazareth accent make do with the shed. The ‘cattle shed’ of such an Eastern inn was often a cave, which seems to have been the case here. ...
The awesome Child was born at last. ...
The offhand manner of the innkeeper is now contrasted with the enthusiasm of the heavenly herald and his accompanying hosts. Their first encounter was with a group of shepherds whom they found in a field where they were watching over some sheep. The shepherds, confronted with the angel of the Lord, were terrified. Perhaps as was customary, they were talking to their sheep in loud crooning voices using the special language peculiar to them on such occasions. The temple sacrifices created a constant demand for sheep. The location might have been near where David had been shepherding his father's flock when he was summoned to be anointed by Samuel as Israel's next king (1 Sam. 16:11- 12).
Suddenly, the field was ablaze with light (2:9). Luke describes the light as ‘the glory of the Lord,’ which suggests that they were bathed in the Shekinah glory, the light of another world, the light that heralded the divine presence (Exod. 24:16; 1 Kings 8:10). The shepherds were filled with fear. The angels were used to that. The herald angel sought to calm their troubled breasts: ‘Fear not,’ he said, ‘’or, behold, I being you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger’ (2:10-12).
A sign indeed! Who would expect the newborn son of a king to be so wrapped and laid to rest?
Salvation! A Savior! A sign! Tidings of great joy indeed! Tidings for all of the people of the world! Just what the world needs! It has had soldiers and sovereigns enough. It needs a Savior! It needs Jesus Christ the Lord.
And a sign! When the wise men came, they were guided by a star. The humble shepherds were directed to a stable. Signs had been given often enough in olden times--seas turned to blood, the sun standing still, the shadow on the sundial halting and moving backward contrary to nature--such signs as had been seen before would be doubly appropriate now. But no! A Babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger!
Who but God would have thought of such a sign?
Then, suddenly, ‘there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men’ (2:13-14).
Thus, God announced an amnesty and made an offer of peace to a lost world.
Peace! What does the world know of peace? The Romans, for all of their much-trumpeted Pax Romana (‘Roman Peace’), constantly had to fight to impose it. It lasted as long as it did because of the thoroughness and ruthlessness with which the Romans waged war. And what about Napoleon's cynical dictum? ‘If you want peace, prepare for war!’
The peace that Christ came to give was, first and foremost, peace with God (Rom. 5:1-2).
Then, abruptly, it was all over. The anthem ceased, the angels vanished, the stars gleamed brightly in the cold night sky.
‘Let us go to Bethlehem!’ the shepherds said. And leaving their flocks to fend for themselves, they made a beeline for Bethlehem. ‘They came with haste,’ Luke says (2:16). And they found that it was true! There was the man, the woman, the Child, the manger, and the swaddling clothes. Amazing! And all of this was in the crude and pungent stable adjacent to a wayside inn.
Then out from the stable and into the streets! No one seems to have bothered to rouse the innkeeper and his guests. They had no room for the Lord of glory in their inn. Why should they be aroused? Let them sleep! Let them find out for themselves what wonders they had missed.
Wherever the shepherds went, they told their tale. People wondered, Luke says. But how many went? Was a steady stream of people heading for the inn? It seems not, although surely some people came. In any case, Mary ‘kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart’ (2:19). She kept all of these things to herself and turned them over and over in her mind, determined to remember each detail. Many years later, she doubtless shared them with the beloved Dr. Luke.
Meanwhile, the shepherds came back to their sheep. They at least were overjoyed. The last we see of them, they were ‘glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen’ (2:20).
They were the first evangelists of the gospel age.
- The previous is excerpted from John Phillip’s commentary on Luke 2:1-20.
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