away in a Manger
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 cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:6–7)
Death and taxes. Nothing demonstrates the worldly power of nations more clearly than their ability to take people’s money and send them off to war. And when it comes to taxation and militarization, few nations have ever wielded comparatively more power than the Romans. The Roman army ruled the Mediterranean world, and this enabled Roman officials to collect revenue from all parts of their empire. To this day, we call paying our taxes “rendering unto Caesar” (see Luke 20:25).
The imperial power of Rome was consolidated by Octavian, who was famous for defeating Antony and Cleopatra at Actium, and who was the first Caesar to receive the august title of emperor. Octavian was so powerful that he achieved godlike status in parts of the Roman Empire. Indeed, an inscription at Halicarnassus hails him as the “savior of the whole world.”1
This Octavian is the Caesar we meet at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. He was then at the height of his powers, and Luke describes him doing what the Romans did best: “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. And all went to be registered, each to his own town” (Luke 2:1–3). All it took was a word from the emperor, and people thousands of miles away were set in motion. Every man in every province had to be registered—almost certainly for the purpose of levying taxes. According to Tacitus, Octavian kept the grand totals by hand, and according to Justin, writing in the second century, the census of Quirinius could still be viewed in Rome.2 No taxation without registration—this was a basic principle of Roman government.
onCe, in royaL david’s City
In chapter 2 Luke shows the far reach of Caesar’s power, and also its undoing. As Kent Hughes describes it, Octavian’s “relentless arm stretched out to squeeze its tribute even in a tiny village at the far end of the Mediterranean. Thus it came about that a village carpenter and his expectant teenage bride were forced to travel to his hometown to be registered for taxation.”3
Although Caesar would never know it, he had unleashed a chain of events that would turn the whole world upside down, for among the millions who had to register was a man named Joseph, with his fiancée Mary. This one little family, seemingly swept up in the tide of earthly power, gave birth to a son who would rule the world. Mary’s song was starting to come true: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:51–52). God was taking Caesar’s pawns and moving them to checkmate, so that the real Savior would stand alone as the King of kings.
The Roman registration required every man in Israel to return to his ancestral home: “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” (Luke 2:4–5). Here David receives double mention. Luke has already told us that Mary’s child would be David’s son. The angel said that God would “give to him the throne of his father David” (Luke 1:32). Zechariah said that God would raise up a savior in “the house of his servant David” (Luke 1:69). Now Luke tells us that Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, came from the royal line of David.
The grand purpose of these statements is to establish the child’s credentials. In order to fulfill the promise of salvation, Jesus had to be a direct descendant of King David (cf. Rom. 1:3; 2 Tim. 2:8). Joseph’s lineage also explains why he took his family to Bethlehem. Bethlehem was “the city of David”—the hometown of the ancient king—and thus the place where Joseph was required to register. This was another part of the old promise: the Savior had to be born in Bethlehem. In the words of the prophet Micah, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Mic. 5:2). To qualify as the Savior, Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem.
What is so ironic is that God used Caesar to get him there! Proud Octavian became the unwitting servant of the divine plan. David Gooding writes: “For Augustus the taking of censuses was one of the ways he employed to get control over the various parts of his empire. But—and here is the irony of the thing— in the process, as he thought, of tightening his grip on his huge empire, he so organized things that Jesus, Son of Mary, Son of David, Son of God, destined to sit on the throne of Israel and of the world, was born in the city of David, his royal ancestor.”4 What at first appeared to be a great show of Caesar’s power actually proved the supremacy of God’s sovereignty. Even Caesar’s decree was part of the divine plan. God rules all things for his own glory. This is true not only for the great events of salvation history, but also for the ordinary events of daily life. God is working out his will, and he will see that he gets the glory in the end, even in spite of the things that we do.
Luke tells us where Jesus was born so that we can be sure of his credentials as the Savior. Yet some scholars deny that this part of the Gospel is historically reliable. L. T. Johnson says that Luke “has the facts wrong,”5 and Raymond Brown claims that his “information is dubious on almost every score.”6
One objection is that apart from the Bible, there is no record of a universal registration that spanned the entire Roman world. In response, it should always be remembered that the Bible is a record of historical events, and needs to be respected as such. Furthermore, when Luke speaks of the emperor’s decree, he may be referring to a general policy rather than to a specific census, and it was indeed Caesar’s law to count and tax his subjects. Another objection is that it would have been impractical to require everyone to return to his hometown. Yet we should not underestimate a tyrant’s willingness to inconvenience people. Furthermore, a universal tax census would have been feasible in an age when most people spent their whole lives close to the place where they were born, and it would have been all the more necessary in Israel, where people’s identity was so closely tied to their heredity.
A more serious objection is that Quirinius did not take a census until a.d. 6, which does not fit the chronology of Jesus’ life. Luke was well aware of that census, and in fact mentions it in Acts 5:37. But he was also aware of another census—one taken perhaps a decade earlier. Undoubtedly this is why he specifies that Jesus was born during “the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:2). Some scholars reject this solution because they say that Quirinius did not even become governor until A.D. 6, so there was no time for an earlier census. Yet there is also evidence that he served an earlier term in office.7 In any case, we may be sure that Luke knew more about all this than modern scholars do. There is no reason to deny or even to doubt that he has the facts straight.
As Luke tells the true story of the nativity, he shows the contrast between the worldly power of Caesar and the apparent weakness of the baby Jesus. But there is another contrast we ought to notice—the one between the welcome Jesus deserved and the one he was actually given. Although he was the son of David and the true king of Israel, Jesus hardly received a royal welcome.
To understand what an indignity this was, we simply need to remember who Jesus was (and is!). Luke describes him as Mary’s firstborn son (Luke 2:7), but he was more than that! By the power of the Holy Spirit, the child in the virgin’s womb was the very Son of God. He was “the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15), with a unique status as God the one and only Son. He was the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. He was the Creator of the universe, the Maker of heaven and earth. He was the King of kings and Lord of lords, the Supreme Ruler of all that lives. He was the Second Person of the Trinity, the only begotten Son, the radiance of the Father’s glory. By his divine nature, he shared in the full perfection of God’s triune being. This baby—born in Bethlehem—was the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful, and all-glorious Son of God.
What kind of welcome did he deserve? Jesus deserved to have every person from every nation come and worship him. He deserved to have every creature in the entire universe—from the fiercest lion to the tiniest insect—come to his cradle and give him praise. He deserved to have the creation itself offer him worship, with the rocks crying glory and the galaxies dancing for joy. He is God the Son, and anything less than absolute acknowledgment of his royal person is an insult to his divine dignity.
But what kind of welcome did he receive? What accommodation was he given? Luke tells us, “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 cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6–7). Here is another irony of the incarnation: when the Son of God came to earth—the Maker of the universe in all its vast immensity—he couldn’t even get a room!
Most people have some notion where Jesus was born, but some of our ideas are incorrect. The Bible says that there was no room for him at the inn, but what does this mean? Some scholars think that the biblical term (katalyma) refers to a private dwelling, possibly one owned by Joseph’s relatives. More likely it refers to a guesthouse where groups of travelers slept in a common room.8 Such lodgings were fairly primitive in those days, so the Bethlehem inn was hardly a Motel 6, let alone a five-star hotel. In all likelihood it was squalid and dirty, especially by contemporary standards.
On this particular night, the inn was so crowded that there was no room left for Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. Without blaming the innkeeper or anyone else who was there that night, the fact is that there were no vacancies. So Mary and Joseph took the next best accommodation they could find, which was out with the animals. Perhaps they were stabled in another room, or another building, or even outside in the yard. One early Christian tradition, dating back at least to the second century, maintains that Jesus was born in a cave. According to Justin Martyr: “Since Joseph had nowhere to lodge in that village, he lodged in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there, Mary brought forth the Messiah and laid him in a manger.”9 This is not unlikely. In those days people often stabled their animals in caves like the ones in and around Bethlehem. But in any case, Mary and Joseph were sleeping with animals. We know this because the Bible mentions the manger, which was a feeding trough for livestock, probably not made of wood, but hollowed out of the ground.
This is where the Son of God was born. It was uncomfortable enough to sleep there, but imagine trying to give birth in such a place, and for the first time. This is part of what it meant for Mary to follow through on her promise: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). It meant traveling nearly a hundred miles, either on foot or by donkey, during the later stages of pregnancy. It meant the anxiety of having labor pains in a strange city. It meant suffering her child’s messy entrance into the world. It meant wiping him clean, tearing clothes to bundle him, and then praying that he would live. Kent Hughes vividly imagines the “sweat and pain and blood and cries as Mary reached up to the heavens for help. The earth was cold and hard. The smell of birth mixed with the stench of manure and acrid straw made a contemptible bouquet. Trembling carpenter’s hands, clumsy with fear, grasped God’s Son slippery with blood—the baby’s limbs waving helplessly as if falling through space—his face grimacing as he gasped in the cold and his cry pierced the night.”10
When people sing of the Savior’s birth, they call it a “silent night.” But as Andrew Peterson has written in his song “Labor of Love,”
It was not a silent night
There was blood on the ground
You could hear a woman cry
In the alleyways that night
On the streets of David’s town
And the stable was not clean
And the cobblestones were cold
And little Mary full of grace
With the tears upon her face
Had no mother’s hand to hold
In short, everything we know about the birth of Jesus points to obscurity, indignity, pain, and rejection. One of the great mysteries of our universe is that when God the Son became a man he spent his first night in a barn.
1. Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, rev. ed., Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 415.
2. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to St. Luke: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 82–83.
3. R. Kent Hughes, Luke: That You May Know the Truth, 2 vols., Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1998), 1:82.
4. David Gooding, According to Luke: A New Exposition of the Third Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerd- mans, 1987), 52.
5. L. T. Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MD: Liturgical, 1991), 49.
6. Brown, Birth, 413.
7. Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), 100.