Alfred Place Baptist Church

2:1-7 The birth in Bethlehem

Luke 2:1-7 “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

The first chapter of the gospel of Luke we meet some ordinary people, a teenager named Mary, a middle aged woman named Elizabeth who is a relative of hers, and Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah. Some extraordinary events occur in the lives of these ordinary people. Then we come to this second chapter of Luke and we are told that in those days, that is, the days when all this was happening to Mary and Zechariah and Elizabeth, Caesar stirred in distant Rome and he “issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world” (v.1).

We live in a world of 6,000 million people, and daily news is about militant Muslims destroying their fellow believers with car bombs, nuclear power spreading in the Middle East, China growing in power and spreading its influence throughout Africa, and stock markets trembling all round the world. There are mammoth political forces, giant industrial complexes, resurgent religions, the hedonistic violent Western world and in this culture we Christians with our 21st century Marys, Lizzies, and Zechs are called to serve God. Luke brings the extremes of the impotent and the mighty in juxtaposition, there is the child born to Elizabeth (mentioned in the last verse of chapter one) and then the mighty Caesar Augustus (named in the opening verse of the next chapter). Neither the lowly nor the mighty function in a vacuum; both live and move and have their being in the living God.

Luke is saying something like this to Theophilus the Greek, to whom he is addressing this gospel, “Do you see how Christians view the times they live in? This is the intersection of the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of men; this is the period when many of the ancient prophecies have been fulfilled. Theophilus, we believe that even the greatest empire the world has ever seen is subservient to the purposes of God. I want to tell you just how incredible a God he is Theophilus, because we see the Lord ending the barrenness of a middle aged woman and also causing mighty Caesar to announce a special kind of census.” What a window is being opened for us into the heart and nature of God himself. What won’t he do to redeem the cosmos? He will have his own Son incarnated; he will have him crucified; he will have him raised from the dead for us and our redemption. Let us consider his sovereign influence:

GOD SOVEREIGNLY ORDAINED THE TIME OF CHRIST’S BIRTH.

Tom Wright introduces us to Caesar Augustus, “Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. He became sole ruler of the Roman world after a bloody civil war in which he overpowered all rival claimants. The last to be destroyed was the famous Mark Antony, who committed suicide not long after his defeat at the battle of Actium in 31 BC. Augustus turned the great Roman republic into an empire, with himself at the head; he proclaimed that he had brought justice and peace to the whole world; and, declaring his dead adoptive father to be divine, styled himself as ‘son of god’. Poets wrote songs about the new era that had begun; historians told the long story of Rome’s rise to greatness, reaching its climax (obviously) with Augustus himself. Augustus, people said, was the ‘saviour’ of the world. He was its king, its ‘lord.’ Increasingly, in the eastern part of his empire, people worshipped him, too, as a god.

“Meanwhile, far away, on that same eastern frontier, a boy was born who would within a generation be hailed as ‘son of God’; whose followers would speak of him as ‘saviour’ and ‘lord’; whose arrival, they believed, had brought true justice and peace to the world. Jesus never stood before a Roman emperor, but at the climax of Luke’s gospel he stood before his repre­sentative, the governor Pontius Pilate. Luke certainly has that scene in mind as he tells his tale: how the emperor in Rome decides to take a census of his whole wide domain, and how this census brings Jesus to be born in the town which was linked to king David himself” (Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone, SPCK, 2001, p.22).

Please notice how Luke is determined throughout this gospel and also in his book of Acts to earth our understanding of the birth of Jesus the Messiah in the concrete facts of history. I have often told you of the teenager who came to see me about joining the church after being away for a week with other teenagers from the church in a camp in north Wales. “Which of the messages brought you to some assurance of faith?” I asked him. He looked back not understanding my question for a moment and then he saw it; “Oh, none of the messages,” he said. “When I was there I just realised that it was true.” The Son of God became incarnate, and it is true. He died as the Lamb of God to bear away our guilt, and it is true. He rose again on the third day, and it is true. Luke is anxious to erect a huge wall between the life of Christ of which he is telling Theophilus, and the mystery religions and the lives of the gods which were familiar to all the citizens of Rome and Athens. This coming of God the Son was different; this was no collection of myths. This is no Mabinogion, Welsh myths of giants, of women made of flowers and drowned communities under the Bay whose bells can be heard ringing at low tide. The coming of Christ is not like that. This is no symbolic fable, this is no parable from which some people with that kind of mind may derive life significance about their own existence. Luke is anchoring the Christian message in concrete historical reality. Luke wants us to understand that Jesus’ coming into this world is a space/time reality. You are sitting at this moment on a wooden pew and there is not much give in it. You feel it inflexible under you. This history of the coming of Jehovah Jesus into the world is more structured and real than those pews.

Luke wants you to know exactly when the birth of Jesus Christ happened. It took place when Caesar Augustus called for a census in all the Roman-occupied world. In those days the Caesars arranged censuses for at least two reasons: first, for tax purposes. They wanted to have your name on a list so that they could tax you. Nothing changes! Then, they wanted a list of names and ages for military purposes. They wanted a census of the men in their kingdoms so that they could be call up to fight. Nothing changes! Luke tells Theophilus about one particular census, that it was under Caesar Augustus, and the local representative who administered it was Quirinius the Roman provincial governor of Syria. Luke I say, is rooting this event in history. He is telling his readers the exact timing of Christ’s birth.

However, this period was also significant because it was scarcely a propitious time for the Messiah of Israel to come into the world, maybe it was the worst time. Half a millennium earlier some of the Jews had returned to Jerusalem from their Babylonian exile. They had slowly increased in power but they were always a shadow of what they had been during the great Davidic kingdom. At this time they were a petty client state of Rome and God was rubbing their noses in their subjection to Caesar’s power over them by making them submit to him a register of their names and ages.

Yet behind every power block whether industrial, military, political or religious is the living God. We are told in the opening verse of chapter 21 of the book of Proverbs, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.” A century and a half ago the river Ystwyth, from which Aberystwyth gets its name, flowed out into Cardigan Bay in Tanybwlch, but the town then decided to change the water course. They dug a deep channel for a half mile bringing the river out into the sea at an entrance to the harbour so that the combined flow of the two rivers would clear the silt away from the harbour mouth. Men can direct watercourses where they please. The mighty Yangtze river in China is being tamed – and ruined some people think – as the Nile has also been controlled by a series of dams and hydro-electric schemes. Men can direct water-courses; God directs men, even kings and leaders of political and religious hegemonies in the world to fulfil his bidding. Their hearts are in God’s hand. As Spurgeon said, “The Lord our God has a bit for the wildest war horse, and a hook for the most terrible leviathan. Autocratical Caesars are but puppets moved with invisible strings, mere drudges to the King of kings.” Your heart is in God’s hand. “I will have this people come to Alfred Place Baptist Church today to hear how mighty a God I am, and how my Son came into the world.” Thus you and I are here at God’s bidding.

The birth of Christ was a display of God’s sovereignty, the same God who is sovereign over all our lives, and that truth is very practical and necessary for us to grasp today. It is saying that our times are in God’s hands, even when they don’t look like it, when our children’s behaviour breaks our hearts, and the state of the professing church creates such discouragement. Who in Israel would have said ‘Our time has come! The time to favour Zion is here!’ on the eve of the birth of Jesus the Messiah? Only those who had heard the message from God that Gabriel had brought to Zechariah and Elizabeth had any hope. Nobody else would have thought like that. They were bad days. Men without Christ are men without hope.

Yet God was sovereign over that age, and in his time he sent his Son into the world, and he is sovereign over our age and over our individual lives right up until this moment. Chance and luck don’t reign amidst the affairs of men and angels, and we need to cling to that fact with every bit of faith we can muster. Our times are in God’s hands, and he knows best for his people and we must trust him. He rules and overrules in our lives. He knows just when to send relief. God may not come when you want him, but he’s always on time. It was just at the right time that the Midianite slave-traders rode past Joseph’s hateful brothers; they bought him from them and they took him off to Egypt so that eventually there he could provide for them in the seven years of famine. Our God is sovereign in our lives day after day. As J.C. Ryle says about this passage: “Let us ever rest our souls on the thought that our times are in God’s hands. He knows the best season for sending help to his church and new light to the world. Let us beware of giving way to over-anxiety about the course of events around us, as if we knew better than the King of Kings when relief should come.” That’s why we sang today these words of William Lloyd;

“My times are in Thy hands;

My God, I wish them there.

My life, my friends, my soul I leave

Entirely to Thy care.”

Have you learned to trust in God? Maybe this is one of those years when your legs have been kicked out from under you more than once. Your heart might have been broken in the past weeks. Christian, are you still believing that these actual times of yours – I mean yesterday and today – are also in God’s hands? Men and women, I assure you that they are, because Jesus Christ has got the whole world in his hands. That’s the first thing we see here, isn’t it? God is in control of our times.

GOD PROVIDENTIALLY ARRANGED THE PLACE OF CHRIST’S BIRTH.

There is another thing; we’re not only reminded of God’s sovereignty over the timing of Jesus’ birth, but we’re also reminded of God’s providence in the place of Jesus’ birth. I mean, Joseph was a carpenter in Nazareth. How are Joseph and heavily pregnant Mary going to be uprooted from their home in Nazareth and taken to Bethlehem so that the Christ child can fulfil the prophecy of Micah, a verse which even the Jewish scribes of Herod’s court could quote to the despot? They all knew that Bethlehem was going to be the birthplace of the Messiah. The scribes could make a grand show of rolling open the scrolls, putting their holy hats on their heads and bowing before the Scripture, kissing it before reading it, but they knew, everyone knew, the answer to the Magi’s question, “Micah 5:2 . . . Bethlehem”! But how do you get Jesus there for his prophetic birth? The parents are safe and sound in Nazareth, miles away. Don’t worry; such things have a way of working out, because God is sovereign.

Here’s how it was done. Joseph said to Mary, “Let’s have a little week-end in Bethlehem before the baby is born. We might not have a chance to get away once we have the nipper to consider.” No! This trip to Bethlehem had a far more exalted cause than that. God planted a thought in the mind of Caear Augustus, the most powerful man in the whole world. Maybe it was two o’clock in the morning that it came to him as sleeplessly he carried the cares of the Empire, but whatever way it was God hooked the decision right into his mind. So Caesar decreed, “A census and they will go to their own towns to register,” and every son of Abraham dutifully obeyed. Imagine it, that a descendant of Esau gave a command from Italy and all the Jews jumped! Think of it! This was the fullness of time that God had determined, the time to send the Messiah of Israel into the world and from the very beginning he used the most powerful nation in the world with its network of roads, and the common Greek language, and the Roman peace all to serve his Son’s Kingdom. So God accomplished one part of Jesus’ coming, that he should breathe his first breath in Bethlehem, David’s town. God used the most powerful man in the most powerful nation to assist the keeping of his word. You see what I am saying, that it was God who determined that he would have Caesar call for a census, and also that it would be one in which everyone went to their own towns to register. “Oh no, Caesar! A census, yes, but it’s so inconvenient for everyone to get up and set off for 100 miles or more. Think of the extra security precautions; overtime throughout the Empire. Let there be a census, yes, we have no problem with that, but let everyone register where they are living at that moment.” “Nope!” says Ceasar tersely, “ . . . home towns,” and home towns it was everywhere. So Micah’s prophecy that the son of David would be born in Bethlehem was fulfilled, by a decision of Caesar.

This Roman Emperor wasn’t aware that Joseph and Mary existed. He’d never heard a word from Micah chapter five. There was the local military governor named Quirinius and he was scarcely more familiar with the Scripture, but very smoothly the cogs turned and this carpenter from Nazareth and his young betrothed bride made their way to Bethlehem. It was a long, hard journey for a girl drawing to the end of her first pregnancy, but that’s how God got them there, and in so doing the Lord fulfilled Micah 5:2, “As for you Bethlehem, too little to be among the clans of Judea, from you one will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago and from days of eternity.” So God’s providence is even over the place of Jesus’ birth.

I am making heavy weather of this but my point is important, that we may often see God’s providence in what we groan at as bad timing, and clashes between family concerns and the demands of our job. We see the hand of God in every stage which we attain on our earthly pilgrimage. We get offered a job in a little town in Wales and there we meet our future wife and raise our children. We go for a vacation, or we study in a certain town and we make life-long friendships or we have new business opportunities. We find ourselves sharing a room at university with a Christian who takes us to church, as happened to our missionary Keith Underhill who arrived here in 1964 and was allocated a room with another first year student named Brian Williams who spoke to him of his faith and lived a credible godly life before him. Keith’s whole life was changed by that.

Or think of it at another level, that there was once a group of plotters incensed with hatred and bigotry at the activities of Paul. They were making a vow together to take no meat or drink until they had assassinated the apostle. There on the edge of the circle leaned a young teenage boy minding his own business appearing to be taking no notice. They talked on, ignoring him, but he was Paul’s sister’s son, and after they had finished he ran off and told uncle Paul all he had overheard. Paul urged him to go immediately to the Roman commander with the information – which he did. So Paul’s life was spared through a boy being at an appointed place at an appointed time. Such things do not happen by chance. They happen by the will of God.

I want to add this, that because God is sovereignly and providentially in control of the place of Jesus’ birth, it didn’t mean that Joseph and Mary never had to face a single hardship or struggle or trial. It made perfect sense for Joseph to want to be with his wife when their first baby is born, but to take a woman who was getting to the end of her pregnancy on that long journey was another trial for Mary, probably she had to ride on the back of a mule on long dusty roads. I wonder how had things been in Nazareth, since three months’ pregnant Mary had returned from Elizabeth in the Judean hills, and she and her betrothed Joseph had soon married? Was there no one whom Joseph could have left Mary with, to take care of her while he went off to Nazareth to register? There appears to be no one to whom Joseph could have entrusted his pregnant bride, to treat her kindly in his absence, and be with her if the baby arrived before he returned. That was a significant comment on the suspicious, judgmental, village-well world of little Nazareth on the hill surrounded by thorn bushes in which community Jesus grew up.

So the true believer need never fret at hard circumstances, for all the circumstances of our lives are in the Lord’s hands, the timing of events, the place of events are all determined by him. All our times and places are in his hands and we can trust him. This is a great question, how can people live with an undistracted mind in the midst of this changing world? It is obviously a problem; there’ve never been so many prescriptions issued for depression in the history of our nation and no sign of any let-up in the demand. The foundations are being shaken. Can anyone find peace in this world? Yes, when you are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, when you increasingly trust in his providence. Things, you learn, don’t happen by chance; all the circumstances of life are in the hands of a good, kind and wise heavenly Father who has in mind not only his glory but your best interests. But if you are attempting to form your belief about how the world is and what life is about from your own hunches and circumstances, you’re bound to fail. You must come to your circumstances and hunches with this truth already learned, that “God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise and powerful preserving and governing of all his creatures and all their action.” Without that conviction you’ll never know anything like peace or confidence in this world.

So that truth of God’s sovereign control wasn’t important for the holy family alone, it is important for us. As we see God’s providence in bringing Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem we are reminded that all the circumstances of our lives are in God’s hands. We must trust this same Lord just as much today as Mary and Joseph had to at the birth of their son Jesus. The true believer need not worry about circumstances, because God designs all of them.

GOD GRACIOUSLY MET ALL THE NEEDS OF CHRIST’S BIRTH.

We are told that Mary “wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (v.7). They arrived in Bethlehem along with many others returning there to register for the census. The scanty accommodation of the little town was soon exhausted, but Mary’s contractions were increasing in rapidity and strength. A private place for the birth of the baby had to be found, and eventually they came across a space – a cave perhaps, or a crude barn, or a downstairs room where the animals were kept. Spurgeon describes it like this, “The stall of the ass was the only place where the child could be born. By hanging a curtain at its front, and perhaps tethering the animal on the outer side to block the passage, the needed seclusion could be obtained, and here, in the stable, was the King of glory born, and in the manger was he laid.”

So there, where donkeys give birth to their foals, Jesus was born, and the first bed in which God’s holy child slept on earth was an animal feeding trough. What did Mary need in Bethlehem? Not very much; three basic requirements, a private place where she could give birth; cloths in which to wrap the baby, and a place off the floor to lay him down to sleep where rats couldn’t attack him while they both slept in exhaustion. Three necessities and these three were all provided by God. The God of providence who is in charge of our times and places is also a God who is committed to provide all the needs of them that fear him.

It is frequently pointed out that it is our needs that he will supply and not all we desire. He won’t hear the prayer, “O Lord won’t you give me a Mercedes Benz?” God won’t answer prayers for prosperity or luxury. The Bible makes no promise of optional extras, but God commits himself to every essential requirement. It’s very easy in our affluent age to argue that luxuries are our needs. But God himself is the best authority to judge our needs – by his own wise criteria. Joseph and Mary needed everything to serve the little Lord Jesus. We need everything to hallow his name; all we need to do his good and perfect will; all we need to love our enemies; all we need to be conformed to the image of his Son; all we need to persevere in following Christ to the end. For all those things we shall lack no good thing. Many desires shall fail; many hopes will be dashed; sometimes our worst fears will be realised or even surpassed – “Oh dear, I’m to give birth in a cave?” Yes, but Mary will lack, as God is the judge, no good thing. The child will be healthy and there will be no harm to Mary in the birth; God will supply her needs.

We sometimes think of God as if he is reluctant to provide for his children. The way we talk about our needs – the baby’s needs include the latest in baby gadgets and fashionable baby clothes and push-chairs. There would be all the needs financially that a baby brings, and so the mother plans to work until she is almost forty before starting her family because of the health needs, the financial needs, the sickness needs, the employment needs – to prove herself at her place of work. Some give the impression that all they have is one need after another. Needs, needs, needs! That is not the way of parenthood. It has never been that way. This is the way it is – God supplying all our needs. The Christian life is not prison fare, it is glorious provision. I wish the whole church could tell the world today how great it is to be in a state of grace, how marvellously God blesses us. What great periods of our lives we have known, what happy times we’ve had before we had children, then again when the children were young and now that they have flown the nest we are still blessed. We never lived for our children. We lived for our God and there have often been times when God has poured his love over our hearts and it flowed down to the hem of our garments. His love is quite extravagant, and we’ve had strong hope and clear vision and firm assurance. He can fill our hearts with the love of God. He will supply our needs gloriously from his fulness that fills simply everything.

“First, there are the role needs – as father, mother, businessman, scholar, housewife, teacher, pastor. Whatever it is that we are doing we have responsibilities attached to that role, we have pressure points, we have needs in that particular sphere, and we have to live in those roles to the glory of God. Then we all have temporal needs in one way or another, circumstances that we want to change, economic pressures, job prospects, unemployment, the question of marriage and other relationships, even finding accommodation, and many other everyday needs. They are needs which involve us in such problems of one kind or another. There are also our physical needs, lack of good health, especially as we grow older, the pains and aches which come upon us, being house-bound, loneliness which is so often permanent, the fear of death, the nearness of death, all these needs seem to be daily with us. Lastly, there are what I call spiritual needs – overcoming sin, growing into the likeness of the Lord Jesus Christ, resisting temptation, having the courage to be Christians where we are, where God has put us, without complaining and grumbling, enduring afflictions, facing death in the Lord Jesus Christ with the glory of heaven before us, and having the peace that passes all understanding. All these things are needs, and Paul’s message to such people is, ‘My God shall supply all your needs’” (John Gwyn-Thomas, Rejoice Evermore, Banner of Truth, 1989 p.132).

So if the Lord calls us to a particular branch of special Christian service then he will meet all the financial and material needs incidental to that. He will certainly do it conveniently: he may do it extravagantly, as a reputation increases and Christians want to support an evidently wise stewardship. So it was with George Muller’s orphanages in Bristol. Hundreds of babies and children were cared for there, not just one baby in a stable in Bethlehem. Muller’s accounts were published annually, income and expenditure was clearly stated. There developed a trust between the churches and the work being done, and so rich supplies were made to that ministry of mercy. God will certainly give abundantly because he knows that we cannot serve him without daily bread. But the Lord of providence doesn’t give us what we’ll need in twenty years’ time. That is often our problem: “Yes, we will stop worrying if you guarantee retirement, or guarantee middle age, or guarantee twenty years’ time.” No way! It is ‘in due season’ that he gives us what we need.

Are your needs being met? Some of you don’t want my Saviour so what do you have? There is this constant itch that your changing tastes be always met, but not your needs. All you’ve got is ‘stuff’. A friend of mine read this bumper sticker on the car in front of him: “Get out of my way, I cannot stop, I won’t be happy, Until I shop.” I think it must be an ironic comment. Maybe a husband had stuck it on his wife’s car, and she, good sport, had let it stay there for a day or two, but it is a pertinent observation on our age. And after you have shopped and brought home the stuff, and worn it once or twice, and put it in the drawer aren’t you off again and again? “Get out of my way, I cannot stop, I won’t be happy until I shop.” And what happens when shopping days are over, and you can’t leave your home? You shop until you drop into the grave. And what then? No shopping in eternity.

There is something so superb, so utterly breathtaking about this God. He plans the place where we work for him; he times every event perfectly, and he constantly supplies our needs. O the depth of the riches of his wisdom and knowledge. We are almost falling off the edge of the precipice as we contemplate him. He is an absolutely superb God, one in whom we can glory. What a joy to think or speak or write about him. This is the God who had already spoken to Mary, and then in Bethlehem Mary learned in the labour of birth-pangs and the delivery of the child that her God was not only one who is not silent but speaks but he is a generous protecting God of grace. No wonder we are told that Mary treasured up everything that she had heard and seen and pondered them in her heart. Who would want to overlook any good thing God has done for us?

19th August 2007 GEOFF THOMAS