As we look ahead to this special time of year, the humble origins of this celebration often are obscured like the hidden celestial grandeur of a star-light night overshadowed by the haze of urban city lights. The historical record of Jesus’ birth, as portrayed in Luke’s second chapter of his gospel account of this spectacular event, pulls back the curtain on the stark events which punctuated the timing of Jesus’ arrival.
As a lawyer, I have often marveled at the legal setting surrounding the Savior’s birth.
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. And all went to be taxed, everyone into his own city.
Perhaps the closest distant cousin to a “decree” that we in America have experienced in recent years was the issuance by our President of a national COVID-19 vaccine requirement. This so-called “mandate” aroused the angst of many across the nation, and led to the filing of dozens of lawsuits challenging the President’s authority to impose such a broadscale requirement for keeping one’s job.
But in 2 A.D., there was no court challenge available to a “decree” from Augustus Caesar. There were no religious exemptions. There were no medical accommodations due to pregnancy. There were no constitutional arguments. When Caesar said go register for the census – you went. The penalty for noncompliance was not losing your job; it was death.
Caesar Augustus’ mandate declaring that the entire Empire must register at designated locations was centered less on taxation and more on identification. Concerning the word “taxed” in verse 1 of Luke’s account, W.E. Vine in An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, explains that it is translated from the Greek word apographo, meaning “to write out, enroll, inscribe, and in register.”
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the lineage of David). To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
God used the decree of Caesar to bring Joseph and his young, pregnant wife to Bethlehem, so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled that the Messiah would be born
in this obscure, whistlestop town on the road to Jerusalem. This demonstrates the providence of God, who used the arrogance of Augustus (the name means “Revered One”) to rebuild the throne of David. It is an interesting study to see how providence paved the way for his ascension to power at the time of Christ’s birth.
In the half century before the birth of our Savior, there had been political turmoil within the Roman republic. The Senate had become divided and paralyzed and Pompey and Julius Caesar waged a civil war. After Pompey was assassinated in Egypt, Julius Caesar was the unquestioned emperor until he too was murdered by members of the Senate in 44 B.C. He was succeeded by his 19-year old adopted son Octavius Caesar who rose to political and military glory under the acclaimed title “Caesar Augustus” while tyrannically consolidating his power. Within the Roman Empire he was exalted as a god.
To make matters worse, Augustus Caesar and Herod, the governor of Judea, were close friends and had been companions since their youth. When rumors began to circulate that a messiah would soon be born in Judea, Herod had the full support of Rome to impose his cruel sanctions – including mass genocide of male born Jews. Legally, Herod had unlimited power at his disposal to eliminate any potential pretenders to the throne in order to ensure his longevity.
God is a master of irony. In the midst of such abject tyranny there would be born the personification of freedom. A light that shone into the darkness would become the only path to liberation from sin and death. This is indeed cause for celebration, but more than that, adoration. “O come, let us adore Him. Christ the Lord.
Larry L. Crain, Crain Law Center, www.crainlaw.legal