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The Birth of Jesus

December 18, 2022

Book: Luke

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Scripture: Luke 2:1-7

Jesus was born at the perfect time and place.

Well, I love stories about babies that are born in odd times and in odd places. For example, a few years ago, this woman gave birth to her son in the back of a taxi on her way to the hospital. And so here she’s posing with some of the police officers that helped give birth to her child. Comedian Seth Meyers’ wife famously gave birth in the lobby of their building, prompting him to name his comedy special Lobby Baby. I also learned while watching a cartoon about the Mayflower, which by the way, is how you learn history when you have grade school children, I was watching a cartoon on the Mayflower, and it turns out there was one child born on the ocean in the Mayflower. That child’s name, Oceanus Hopkins, of course. Now we’re going to do something this morning that we will rarely do. We’re going to spend our entire time in the prologue of a biblical story. The entire time this morning, just in the prologue. Lots of Bible narratives have short bits of story at the beginning that tell you the time and the place of the following story. The following action that you’re going to read. Usually what you do when you read Scripture is you read over these things very quickly so you can get to the story, right? So you just: oh yeah yeah, okay it happened there, and then, okay great now let me just get to the story. You don’t actually notice these prologues very much. In fact, I’ll prove it to you. I’m going to say five words, and you tell me what story I’m about to read. “And in the same region”. Right? You’re all over the shepherd’s, right? Some of you hit their mental buzzers. “Shepherd’s keeping watch over their flocks by night.” I know this one. I got it. Well, let me ask you, what region. Uh? In the same read. What region are we talking? Bethlehem, I think it’s Bethlehem. I’m pretty sure it’s Bethlehem. But what region? This is what I’m saying. We don’t really focus in on what comes right before the action. The setup that we read so fast is something that we just simply don’t remember. And for this story, the birth of Jesus Christ, it’s one of the most finely detailed prologues that we have in Scripture. And the reason it’s so finely detailed is that it’s giving us the historical context, the perfect time, and the perfect place for the Savior of the world to be born.

The birth of Jesus Christ into the world is the revelation of God who took on flesh. It’s the moment when the Holiness of God came into our unholy, undeserving world. It’s the intersection of the eternal with the finite. It’s the point of fulfillment of the promise that God would come to be with us. That’s what Emmanuel, the name, means God with us. We should know when and where that took place. This intersection of heaven and earth took place in a particular period of time on a specific day in our history. It is not, as some will argue, a truth of the heart. Something that is a religious assertion, that need not be tied to a historical event to be significant. Friends, the only significance this story holds is inextricably tied to its historicity. If it didn’t happen, it is of no significance whatsoever. But if it did happen as rock solid history, something that happened in our time and space, as solid as the turkey you ate four weeks ago on Thanksgiving, Right? If it actually took place, then it is of the most important significance in our history, whether you acknowledge it or not. And so, before we get to the angels and the shepherds, I want to just take a moment this morning to consider the time and space of the nativity as we have it recorded for us. I want your confidence in the joy of Christmas to be rooted in the historical event, because Luke wants us to root our understanding of Christ in history. He goes to great lengths here at the beginning of his description of the day that Jesus was born, to make sure that we know what was happening in the world and what was happening in this little family. Jesus was born at the perfect time and in the perfect place. So, if you have your Bibles, you can open to Luke. Chapter 2. Luke 2 is where will be. First, we’re going to look at the time of Jesus’s birth. Then we’re going to look at the place of Jesus’s birth. And then we’re going to round it out by looking at how this time and place perfectly sets up Jesus as our Savior and our King.

Let’s start with the time of his birth. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Now to grasp the significance of the timing of Jesus’s birth, you need to understand what’s happening in the world politically. And I need to introduce you to three different historical people. So, let’s start with the political climate. At this time, Israel is an occupied nation. The Jewish people still live, and work and they worship in the promised land. Their lives sort of go on as normal. In these three regions you have Judea in the south, you have Galilee in the north, and in the middle, you have Samaria. So, it seems rather normal, but politically, at this point, they’re not an independent nation. They are occupied by the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire is relatively new at this point in time. It really began in 27 B.C. with Caesar Augustus, who I will talk about here in a moment. Here’s a map to show you how far the Roman Empire had expanded at that time. And as you can see, all of the promised land is, the complete land of Israel is encompassed by the Roman Empire. Now, the way they maintain this large empire was genius. The Romans were genius at how they set this all up. They ruled this whole thing with peace. Sounds good, right? They ruled it with peace. They would fight their battles. They would go and they would conquer places. But once they conquered a nation, they let that nation do whatever it wanted to do within reason. As long as the Jewish people paid their taxes, and they didn’t cause any problems, they could worship however they like. They could go about their lives as long as the money kept flowing into Rome, and they just kept that up, they could just do life how they wanted to do it. Sounds like a pretty good compromise, right? It sounds like it should be okay. Unless, of course, you are a people who see this land as God’s divine gift to you. And you see God Himself, and God alone, as the Sovereign that you should bow your knee to, that should rule over you. So, peace is great, but if it comes at the cost of bowing your knee to anyone other than the Lord himself, then there’s going to be a problem. And that’s how the Jews saw this occupation. And we’ll see actually, as we work through the Book of Luke, how different people handled the occupation of the Romans. That’s a brief description of the political climate that’s going on.

Now, I need to introduce you to three historical figures, two of whom are in our passage this morning. One who isn’t. The first is in our passage. It’s Caesar Augustus, and he was the first emperor of Rome, and he began his reign in 27 B.C. And you might be thinking, well Kyle, I know a little bit about history, and I know Julius Caesar was before him. And that’s true, Julius Caesar was before him. But that was back when Rome was only a republic, and it was not yet an empire that was ruled by one person at the center. That actually started with Julius’s relative Octavius Gaius, who was given the name Caesar Augustus by the Roman Empire, or the Roman Senate, when he came into power in 27 B.C. And the reason that’s important is so we can understand why a Roman Emperor’s demand for taxes has a Jewish guy and his pregnant wife making a trek to Bethlehem. The whole Roman Empire, or the way they would have said it, the whole world is getting counted for tax purposes. This is a tax thing. You’ve got to count the people that you conquer so that you know how much they’re supposed to give you. And that’s all they really cared about was to make sure that they were getting what they were owed. The second guy that you need to know isn’t in our passage. And this is a guy named Herod the Great. Herod was a Jewish man, who has worked his way up the political ladder with Rome at this point. And he got named by the Romans, the King of the Jews. But to get his kingdom they said, you have to fight for it. So, you can have it, it’s yours, but you have to fight for it. Why? Because there’s already a king down there. There’s already somebody in place, his name is Antigone. And you can have the kingdom, but you have to go and throw Antigone out and take it for yourself. And so that’s what he did. He went down there. He fought him for three years. He beats him. And then Herod the great names himself, King. If we were in the gospel of Matthew this morning, we would talk a whole lot more about Herod the Great because he’s a major part of the birth narrative there, but he’s not even mentioned here. The reason I’m mentioning him here is because he reigned from 37 B.C. all the way to his death in 4 B.C. And we need to compare that to the third guy I need to tell you about. His name is Quirinius. Quirinius is mentioned in our passage. He is the Roman appointed governor of Syria. As you can see there at the end of verse 2, Quirinius becomes the governor of Syria in A.D. 4. And in that year, he instituted a famous, well documented, and very unpopular census. Now, if you’re tracking with me at this point, you might feel like we might have a problem here. If you feel like there’s a problem, you’re right. Here’s a little chart. Here’s a little chart. Caesar Augustus reigned from 27 B.C. to A.D. 14. Herod the Great, who was reigning during Jesus’s birth, died in 4 B.C. Quirinius became governor of Syria and started his famous census in A.D. 6.

So, when exactly was Jesus born? Hmm. I bring this up for a few reasons. First of all, Luke wants us to place our understanding of Jesus in history. So, we need to know the history. But I’m bringing this historical question along with it because it’s considered one of the most difficult historical questions in the Bible. And people who want to undermine the historical reliability of Scripture like to drop this historical quagmire on unsuspecting and unprepared Christians. And one of the things that I want for our church to be is a group of people who are prepared to give an account for the hope that we have in Jesus. There are a whole bunch of people in our increasingly post-Christian culture, who are raised in churches that abandon biblical fidelity, and then they were taught how to undermine the Bible, instead of how to study it. And I don’t want to be dismissive of these folks. I really want us to be able to engage and talk with all people. I want us to welcome questions and challenges like this and help guide people who would bring something like this up. I want our church to be able to gently and lovingly engage questions like this with a sound understanding of the scriptures. And at the same time, I don’t want your faith in the inerrancy of Scripture to be shaken by a historical point that can be explained.

There are two scenarios that would explain Luke’s reference to Quirinius here. In my opinion, one is possible, but not as strong. And the other is much stronger, in my opinion. The first is that there was an earlier governorship of Quirinius. People who think this would argue that in AD 6 he actually started his second term, and that’s what Luke is doing here, distinguishing his first census from the more famous one in AD 6. Church, that’s possible. It’s possible that’s the case. People I really respect think this, and they think this is the most likely scenario. But here’s the thing. There is no evidence that Quirinius ever ruled any time before what we have. There’s no evidence of that ever happening. It’s an argument from silence. And I don’t think it’s a very strong argument from silence. Although there are people, who I deem to be of the highest caliber of scholar, who do think that’s the best way to explain what you see there. The argument that I think is the strongest one comes from the translation of verse 2, and it keys on that word first. Do you see the word there, the word “first” there? I believe the best translation of that word is not first, but before. So, the sentence then would read. This was the census that happened before Quirinius was the governor of Syria. In fact, if you have an ESV Bible, you can look at the note. It allows you to take you down to the bottom and it’ll tell you that could be the reading there. That word in Greek can legitimately be understood both ways, first or before. But why would Luke put a note here about this census coming before Quirinius was the governor of Syria? Why would he make that? It seems like an odd note, doesn’t it? But actually, that’s what I think makes this understanding the best one. This is why I think it’s so strong. There was a very famous census under Quirinius. Very, very famous, and it was extremely unpopular. In fact, it was so unpopular, it came to be known as the census. That’s how they refer to it. It’s just the census. Later on in Acts 5, Luke records the Jewish leaders all talking to each other, and they talk about this guy named Judas the Galilean, who rose up, quote, “in the days of the census”. Which census? The census, right? So, I believe Luke is helping us distinguish an earlier, less controversial census taken by Caesar Augustus, from the one that would be on everyone’s mind. It would be as if, like ten years had passed, right? Ten years from now, I wanted to tell you a story about something that happened during the pandemic. But I meant the swine flu pandemic of 2009, ok? So, if I say pandemic, are you all right there with me in 2009? Right? You’re oh yeah, I remember that swine flu. That was really, really awful. No, of course not. Forever and always, the word pandemic will only mean one thing to everybody in this room forever. Right? And for the rest of the world, you say pandemic. We all know what we’re talking about there. Well in the 1st century, Palestine was run under the Roman Empire, and any census would have to be distinguished from the one that caused all the problems under Quirinius, because that was the census. And Luke has shown us from the beginning of this book that his goal is to teach us. He wants to help explain to us where and when this thing took place. He wants to give us distinctions that will help us understand the context of these events so that we can hold our faith with certainty. So, where should we place Jesus’s birth? Probably somewhere between 7 B.C and 4 B.C., and I hold that view very loosely, very loosely. It’s certainly something we can discuss. And if you’ve been told that there’s some huge historical error here in the Bible, you can be assured that there’s no reason to think so.

Now, let’s look at where Jesus was born. “And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 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, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.” That’s a lot of details, don’t you think? There’s a lot of details. But Luke could have just written, he was born in Bethlehem. Full stop. But he doesn’t. He gives us all these details because all of these details matter. The fact that Jesus is from Nazareth, but is born in Bethlehem, is a point of confusion for Jesus’s critics. But it’s a point of fulfillment for those who read their Bibles very closely. Because here in these two places, we have the contrast between Jesus’s royal identity and his humble obscurity. Jesus’s connection to both places is actually a metaphor for who He is. It’s not just the two places. Those are important, but it gives us a metaphor for Jesus himself. Joseph and Mary first go up from the region of Galilee, where they live, specifically the town of Nazareth. Nazareth is in the north. Now, when we all go up, we all go up north, right? That’s just how it is, Michigan or Minnesota. If you’re going up, you’re heading up north. But you have to understand, in the biblical world, in that time, no matter where you started from, if you’re going to Jerusalem, you’re going up to Jerusalem. And then you’re coming back down from Jerusalem. So, in this case, they’re actually traveling south, but they’re going up to Jerusalem. And they are leaving from Nazareth. Now in our minds, that doesn’t mean a whole lot to us because we know the story. And so, when we hear Nazareth, we think that’s where Jesus is from. And so, it sounds like a good thing to us. But understand, this is not a nice town. This is not an important town. And if you’re a person of any reputation, you certainly wouldn’t want the phrase, of Nazareth, to follow after your name. According to Matthew, we know that eventually Joseph, Mary and Jesus returned from their flight to Egypt to live in Nazareth. And he notes there that Jesus is being called a Nazarene, is actually in line with all the prophets who said that the Messiah, when he comes, is going to be despised. That’s why he’s called a Nazarene. Jesus Christ isn’t going to have superstar status. He doesn’t come with great fanfare. He doesn’t come looking wonderful. He comes to be a carpenter from a backwater town. But contrast that, contrast that with where they’re going. Mary and Joseph are going up to Judea, which is the most important region of Israel, to the city of David, to Bethlehem. And they’re going there because this census is being held in accordance with traditional Jewish practices. And when the Jewish folks would hold a census, you would have to go to your ancestral home to be registered for the census. Romans would not care about that. They wouldn’t care about that all. But remember, they’d want peace. It’s all they want. So, if they need a census, they can run that census however they want. They can do it in the Jewish way, but just get it done. So, Joseph is in the line of David, so that means he needs to register with his legally betrothed wife in Bethlehem. You might remember from our reading earlier, that this is the same place that Samuel went to anoint David as king. This is the little town where David grew up. According to the prophet Micah, this little town that produced David, would also bring forth the person who’s in the line of David, who is to be the promised ruler over God’s people.

So, what happens at this specific time and in this specific place? “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” It’s a very complex back story. This is the confluence of details that are not easily brought together. So many things that are happening here, and you really can’t pull all this together easily. How do you get a person who is of the royal line of David, who is born in a specific promised location, according to the prophets, to align directly with King David? How do you get that person, while at the same time maintaining a heritage and an identity that is obscure and ridiculed, so that this person is of no reputation, and will identify with the meek and the lowly of the earth? How do you get all of that? Well, let me tell you, here’s how you do it. You simply choose a carpenter from a dumpy town like Nazareth with his betrothed wife. Now make sure they’re legally married but have not yet consummated their marriage so that the child is legally of the line of David yet is not under the curse of Adam because he has no biological human father. Select this uniquely appropriate couple at a time when Rome is going to make everyone register for a census, which under Jewish custom will require that couple to go to Bethlehem so that the result, is the birth of a king that fulfills every prophecy. But under the circumstances, you would never associate with the birth of a king. And there you have it, the Incarnation. Simple. Right? And for good measure, they couldn’t even find a room in the inn. You think all that lined up, there’d be some place, right? Couldn’t even get a place. And so, they put the salvation of the world in a box that is meant for animals. While they were there, the time came. Place and time. If you’re like me, you’ll never read that the same way again. The details of all time and space and circumstances and locations and the royal decrees of pagan rulers, all of these are in the hands of a Sovereign God. All of it. They are all tools of the Lord’s will. I have actually spoken with a skeptic and heard this skeptic once say that the details of Jesus’s birth, life, death and resurrection are so in line with the rest of Scripture, that the only way to explain it, is that the gospel writers made up the details to correspond with the teachings. Hmm. That’s quite an admission. Because on the one hand, the gospel writers tell us that they were very careful to compile the facts from eyewitnesses. But on the other hand, if you were going to make up a story about God coming to Earth, you certainly wouldn’t make God’s hometown Nazareth, and you wouldn’t make his cradle a manger in the city of David. Mary has her firstborn son. She wraps him in swaddling clothes. She lays him in a manger because there’s no room for him in the inn. People have embellished this story over time with harsh innkeepers turning away this family or by arguing that this was an indication that Jesus and his family were desperately poor. The fact is, there is no innkeeper in the story. And we don’t know why space wasn’t available. Probably because everybody’s in town for the census, and so there was just lots of people. Interestingly, those embellishments add intrigue and drama to a story that is meant to be neither intriguing or dramatic. It would not have been strange at all for a family of that day to lodge, if they needed to, in a barn or in a cave or something like that. No one is to blame. And this family is not in trouble.

What this simple, unembellished prologue is teaching us, is that when God entered the world, he did so as a King that no one could have expected, unless you were faithfully looking for the promised Messiah, unless you were reading God’s Word and expecting God’s promises to be true. God’s simple, humble, yet perfectly timed and flawlessly placed intersection of heaven and earth through the birth of Christ, is a wondrous encouragement to us. And I hope it is a wondrous encouragement to you this week. God holds all of the events of time and space in His hands for the work of His will. All of it, it’s all tools in His hands. You know, especially when you consider the events of the past few years, I think it is really encouraging to hear the events and circumstances surrounding us all are geared toward God’s divine plan that we can trust in. Jesus’s birth in the city of David shows us that Jesus is our promised King. We don’t have to look for some other leader. We don’t have to find some other guidance with some other way to be saved. His hometown of Nazareth shows us he didn’t come to save the rich and the powerful who had no need of him. He didn’t come to seek the acclaim and the status that we all sinfully spend our lives trying to achieve. He’s the King of those who are humble. He’s the Savior of those who are in need. Let’s thank him for it. Would you pray with me?

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