Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
We’ve all heard the Christmas story hundreds of times. But it is never old or tired. Instead it is always one of great joy and wonder. Let us again reflect with gratitude and thanksgiving on these verses.
Luke 2:1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.
Caesar Augustus was the first and greatest of the Caesars. His reign saw the Roman Empire expand to the entire Mediterranean world. It brought with it the famous Pax Romana (Roman Peace) and the flowering of the Roman arts and literature. By standards of the ancient world, Augustus was a benevolent and good ruler and these were decent times.
The censuses were made for both taxation and military conscription purposes. However, the Jews were exempt from Roman military service, so the purpose in Judea was only to gather taxes.
2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
Quirinius seems to have been in charge in Syria (of which Judea was a province) twice, once about 10-7 BC and later after 6 AD, at which time he was officially governor. This is a reference to the earlier period, when he seems to have not had the title officially.
Note that Luke is naming times, places and people. This is eyes-open history, not some fairy story he’s telling. He intends for people to check his real facts about real events.
3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town.
This detail of Scripture apparently was at one time challenged as implausible by critics (in spite of the incomparable reliability of the Scriptures). But it was corroborated in the 20th century by the recovery of papyri in Egypt from this period indicating that things were done this way in Egypt as well under Roman rule.
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,
Nazareth is 80 miles, at least a 3 day journey, away from Bethlehem. Joseph, as a descendant of King David, went to be enrolled to the town of David. Joseph was no rebel. He was a descendant of the king, but went obediently to pay tax to the ruling authority. (Remember the question that Jesus got 30 years later about the morality of paying tax to Caesar.) And in Joseph’s submission to the God-ordained authority, God used the decree of the pagan emperor to bring about His purposes and the fulfillment of the prophecy through Micah that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
In Syria women of age 12 or more were also subject to a poll tax and required to register. It is likely that Mary needed to go to Bethlehem as well. Even if she hadn’t been absolutely required to go with Joseph, her condition is such that he wouldn’t leave her to fend for herself while he was gone.
Mary travels with Joseph, and the indication is that they were living as if married except for sexual relations. Luke says “betrothed” and we recall that the Jewish betrothal of the day was a serious, binding, matter. And Mary is with child by the direct intervention of God.
6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.
How long were they there? Had they just arrived? We’re not told and don’t know. We have our mental images of Mary just making it to town on the back of a donkey before going into labor. Maybe it was that way, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe they had been there for a week visiting relatives, but being the least prestigious ones, there was no room to stay in the crowded homes of the relatives. We don’t know.
What we do know is that at an inconvenient time, in inconvenient circumstances, the baby Jesus was born. The KJV says “the days were accomplished.” The fullness of time had come, not only for her pregnancy to be over, but for the Old Testament promise of Messiah to come to pass.
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.
The picture is humble and most ordinary. There’s no comfortable place for the baby to be born. It’s not even obvious from this verse that they had the advantage of shelter for the birth. Many commentators see here a large circle of stalls with only 3 sides, open to a common courtyard with a central fire provided by the inn keeper for the poorer travelers. All that is absolutely certain is that the circumstances were most humble. The baby is wrapped up like any other poor child of the time and placed in the feeding trough of domestic animals.
Ryle points out that the fact that this took place at an inn guarantees that it is not something that could be dismissed in a few years’ time as a fairy story. This happens out in the open, all eyes open, with ample witnesses.
In 7 short verses, with remarkable economy, Luke has told us the story of the birth. But the birth, without what God has revealed and will reveal about the One who is born, would mean nothing to us. So Luke goes on to show us what the Father had to say about the event.
8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
Tradition tells us that these flocks were the flocks kept for the temple sacrifices. These shepherds who watched the temple sacrifices were the ones chosen by God to be the first outside His family to see the newborn Lamb of God, the Savior of the World. They were the first to see the One who would grow up and be the final and complete sacrifice for our sins.
It is notable and fitting that these were ordinary and humble men, men that in fact, careful Jews looked down on for their rough ways and lack of careful adherence to the ceremonial law. It was to such common people that the announcement came. These were men that were busy doing what they had been given to do. They were at work.
9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.
An angel of the Lord appears. A messenger of God appears to them and the visible presence of God shines around them. These fellows are common folk, but they are not dull. They have sense enough to recognize their vulnerability in the presence of the messenger of God. Literally it is “they feared a great fear.” Think about this one. One second you are camped out on the hills on a dark night, and the next, it’s bright as day and there is a powerful being from God there, having business with you.
10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.
The angel announces “good news of great joy.” The word translated “good news” is related to the one that gives us our word “evangelism.” The point is that indeed the proclamation that the angel brought is good news to a world under the curse of sin. It is news that will be for all the people. To the shepherds’ ears “all” probably means “the Jews.” But in fact, something much more glorious than that was meant. All is all!
11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
A Savior is born. It is Jesus, literally “God saves” who has been born. He is Christ, the anointed one, Messiah. He is the Lord, God Himself in human flesh, the rightful King of the universe.
12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
Apparently a more literal rendering of this verse would be “And this will be ‘the’ sign for you.” There were probably other babies in Bethlehem wrapped this way on this night. But there was only one in a manger. This might seem like a most unremarkable sign, but it marks the one of the 2 or 3 most remarkable and important events of all time. And this humble, quiet signpost is all that the shepherds were given or needed.
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
If Mary and Joseph had been at home, the local musicians and relatives would have gathered and greeted the announcement of the birth of a boy with music of joy and congratulation. Here near Bethlehem, there was instead the sound of angels praising God.
“and on earth peace/shalom/well-being among those with whom He is pleased.” This is not a “hold hands and sing kum-bah-ya” statement about world peace. It’s an announcement that there is eternal well-being and wholeness, peace with God now available.
Ryle said, “Now is come the time when God’s kindness and good will towards guilty man is to be fully made known. His power was seen in creation. His justice was seen in the flood. But His mercy remained to be fully revealed by the appearing and atonement of Jesus Christ.”
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”
16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.
The shepherds didn’t need to be coaxed into the trip into town. They recognized that there was nothing any more significant than the news that they had been given. They didn’t delay, they didn’t worry about who was going to see that the sheep didn’t wander off, or who would keep the wolf away. Instead they left those things in God’s hands, acted on the news, and found things just as God had promised. And in so doing, they were the first after Mary and Joseph to behold God’s Savior.
17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.
18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.
Think about this. This is a wild story that these men have to tell: Messiah, born to poor parents in humble circumstances in Bethlehem, announced first to rough shepherds. But there is no hint that these guys were either reluctant to share the story or that people were inclined to dismiss their testimony. It’s wild and wonderful indeed, but it’s just not the kind of thing one would be inclined to make up and then persist in broadcasting. The story just simply rings true, with a beauty unmatched by any other in all of history.
Indeed, all who heard it were amazed.
19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.
Consider the young woman Mary and all that must have raced around in her mind in these early years. What indeed was in store for her and Joseph and this baby? And there is continually in what we read about Mary this remarkable modesty. In this little phrase Luke convey to us the gentleness of a young woman to whom amazing things have been promised and who, rather than blabbing all over town, quietly ponders them privately.
20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Our proper response to all this is indeed to glorify and praise God. What else could they do? What else should we do?