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Luke 2:1-5 & Galatians 4:4 by Robert Dean
"Joy to the World! The Lord is come!" Listen to this lesson to learn that the Christmas story is always timely and should be celebrated year-round. Find out more accurate accounts of what happened at Christ's birth and how Luke's narrative is based on eyewitnesses and careful research. Discover who Caesar Augustus was and why God chose this as the ideal time for the Savior to be born. See how the shepherds followed the angels' bidding to spread the good news and how the birth of Christ is just as life-changing today as it was then.
Series:Matthew (2013)
Duration:52 mins 9 secs

The Arrival of the Messiah
Luke 2:1-5; Galatians 4:4
Matthew Lesson #005
September 29, 2013

There is a narrative that comes out of Christmas that is not always correct about the birth of our Lord. It goes something like this. Joseph and Mary travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem because there was a decree from Caesar Augustus. And so Joseph puts Mary on a donkey and off they go on about four or five days of travel. According to this traditional historical narrative (based often on a work that was written about 200 AD that had a lot of fanciful, imaginary elements to it) on the night that they arrived in Bethlehem Mary went into labor and gave birth. Think about that for a minute. That would mean that when they left Nazareth she was very close to having that baby. And it doesn't seem quite normal to be taking someone that advanced in pregnancy and put them on a donkey for the next four days, and then arriving in Bethlehem just as she goes into labor that very night. They arrive in Bethlehem the city of David, which is Joseph's family town, and apparently there is nobody to open their doors to let the come in and stay at their home.

There are also other elements, such as their being depicted as travelling through the desert, and that is not exactly true. So many of these elements are written by Gentiles, western Europeans, who had zero knowledge of Jewish customs, the geography of Israel, and of the climate of Israel. We have also heard different attempts to locate the time of Jesus' birth. There are those who for many years have said that He couldn't have been born in Bethlehem in dead winter. It does snow in that area. Bethlehem is just about five miles from Jerusalem. It can be quite cold there and the argument was there wouldn't have been any shepherds out in the fields at that time of year. That is not true either. There is a reason why those shepherds were in the fields of Bethlehem at that particular time. We are not saying that Jesus was born on December 25th or even in the winter; the Scripture doesn't make it clear. But a lot of these things that we have heard over the years just aren't quite true and a lot of things have come to light even in the last 15-20 years as a result of archaeological discoveries. 

We now come to a couple of verses that are really very controversial. Luke 2:1, 2 NASB " Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria."

In a lot of these shows about the life of Jesus, like on the History channel or Discovery channel, we notice that they usually interview a host of extremely liberal theologians. By liberal theologians is meant those who believe in some cases that the New Testament was written 200 years after the events that are depicted and that over the course of 200 years a lot of legends came in and developed, and these were finally collected and through a process of several editors were written down and this becomes the story or the myth of Christianity. They approach the Scriptures as if this is just another human book and that this is just another fraud foisted by religion upon a credulous public. That is their orientation. 

There are the most radical groups such as the people who were called The Jesus Seminar back in the 90s who had five different categories of veracity that they would apply to the Scripture. On one end it didn't happen and was made up one hundred per cent. On the other end it probably did happen. Very few verses in the Gospels fit that category because the assumption was that most of this is the fallible word of human beings. But the Bible claims not to be the fallible word of human beings but to be the very revelation of God, inspired by God through the prophets and apostles, and therefore written in the original without error. We must give that credibility when we approach the Scriptures and never once has there been an archaeological or historical discovery that discounted the Scripture.

There are some things in the Scriptures that we have not yet been able to document or prove through history. But there are some things that we can validate. Luke is a very careful historian and there have been somewhere between eighty and ninety historically verifiable events in the Gospel of Luke. What we mean by historically verifiable is that if we had enough information verify it historically. For example, we have the mention here of a decree that went out from Caesar Augustus. We know that Caesar Augustus was a historical individual and so we can verify that. We know that there were various senate decrees that went out.

The Greek word translated decrees here is dogma, from which we get our words dogma and dogmatics. The word dogma in Greek means a decree. It can mean a doctrine, a teaching, but the Latin words were plasidum and decredum, and they refer to formal actions and decisions that were made by the Roman senate. That is what this reflects. We know that that can be documented historically and we also know that there were several of these types of decrees that were initiated under Augustus when he became Caesar. As they were organizing the empire he was a brilliant administrator and during this time there were at least three documented world-wide decrees or census takings that were similar to this. But what we can't document is this particular one. Does that mean it is invalid? Did Luke make it up? No, because of all the 80-90 historical events in Luke that could be verified all but one or two are verified. It is not that the others have been invalidated it is just that we don't have the information to properly validate them.

But when there is a careful historian like Luke who claims to be a researcher and to have identified eyewitnesses from the time period, and has from what we can document 98% accuracy rate and the other 2% lack enough information then we can give him the benefit of the doubt because he has demonstrated that he is an accurate recorder of history and investigator of history.

We need to find out something about this census and Luke locates this as "while Quirinius was governor of Syria." Luke is careful to pinpoint when these things happened. The question should be: If that locates this census at a particular time during the governorship of Quirinius why would Luke say that if it could not be verified? We also need to identify the location of Jesus' birth. Was He born in a barn? Or was He born in a house? Then, what did the angel say (v. 14)? Who were the Magi?

Caesar Augustus. His birth name was Octavius. He was born in 63 BC and he died in AD 14. He was Julius Caesar's great nephew and his adopted heir. When Julius Caesar died he was about 14 years of age and was to take his inheritance but Mark Anthony had taken control of the army. There was a lot of intrigue and duplicity. Once Octavian defeated Mark Anthony, the senate did not give him his triumph, and so he allied himself with Mark Anthony against the senate. There were further wars that took place and then there were those who were fighting for the old Roman Republic—Brutus and Cassius—and eventually Octavian and Mark Anthony defeated them at the Battle of Philippi.

Galatians 4:4 But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman …" So we see that God is orchestrating human history from behind the scenes. We understand from the Old Testament that for approximately 4000 years God has worked to bring human history to a point where revelation has prepared people, specifically the Jewish people, to be able to understand and identify who the Messiah would be and to prepare the world for a particular time when the Messiah would come, and there would be peace throughout a large segment of the world that would enable the spread of the gospel.

In Luke 2:2 there is the problem of identifying Quirinius. We know for sure that Quirinius was the governor in Syria from about AD 4. That is some time after the birth of Christ. We know something about this time period and there have been five basic problems that have been identified. When we watch some of these shows on television we see that they immediately come out with this material and say see, this census didn't exist, Quirinius wasn't the governor then, none of this information Luke got was right, he's just a confused bumbling historian and we can't trust any of it. And this is from people who are supposedly Christian theologians and leaders, and so it bamboozles the viewing public because they think they have some kind of validity.

Their starting point is that this isn't true, so it is hard for them to find anything that is true. As Christians we start from the viewpoint that it is true but that doesn't mean we put blinders on and don't investigate the historical realities. But if you don't expect something to be true you usually can't find anything to make it true. If you think that it is probably true you usually discover that there is evidence in its favor.

The five problems that have been identified since at least the middle of the nineteenth century.

1.  Nothing is known of a general empire-wide census in the time of Augustus.

2.  They claim that no Roman census would require Joseph to go to Bethlehem.

3.  They claim that there would be no census in the area of Palestine at the time of Herod the Great because it was semi-autonomous.

4.  They claim that Josephus, the Jewish historian from later in the first century, writes of a census in AD 6. AD 6 is approximately 9 or 10 years after the birth of Jesus and 8 or 9 years after the death of Herod, and so obviously anybody who was trying to write history would understand that the census taken at that time, when Quirinius was governor, would not be the census that Luke identifies. So Luke would be speaking of a different census. And Luke knew because about the time of the AD 6 census there was a Jewish revolt in Galilee against the census, and nothing like that happened at the time of the birth of Christ. Luke actually refers to this revolt that took place in Galilee and was therefore aware of that.

5.  They claim that Quirinius could not have been the governor of the census at the time of Jesus' birth since the governors' records of this period are well known and Quirinius is not mentioned.

However all of these have been answered numerous times and in numerous ways by scholars who have investigated these answers. First of all, Luke's census is not the one in AD 6 because it is tied to the time of Herod's death. We know that Herod died no later than April of 4 BC.

Some may be confused because they think Jesus was born in zero. Doesn't BC stand for before Christ and AD after Christ? How could Jesus have been born BC? It is because when dates were established in the Gregorian calendar they misidentified certain key dates and so it is off a little bit.

Herod died not later than April in 4 BC, which means that Jesus was born somewhere between 6 BC and 4 BC. This is a good ten years before the census mentioned by Josephus and Luke would be fully aware of that.

Second, regarding the claim that nothing is known of a general empire-wide census the fact is Augustus is known to have instituted at least three empire-wide censuses during this period. In addition there were other periodic regional censuses that were taken. There is evidence of this in the areas of Syria, Gaul, and Spain. And it is clear that as part of the organization and administration of the empire that Rome was active in registering the citizens, especially for tax purposes. So it is not unlikely that Augustus would have issued an edict for a census to be taken in the area of Israel and Judea at the time of Christ.

Third, the issue related to Joseph going to Bethlehem is not a problem because we do have evidence that when Rome instituted these censuses they would do so under the prevailing traditions of local people. It was a tradition in Judea and Israel that people would return to their ancestral land for registration. It is very likely that Joseph would have had some land possessions that were his by virtue of inheritance, which is why he also would have returned to Bethlehem.

There is also an objection about Mary's presence because she was so advanced in pregnancy. It is thought that the ancients were not quite as sensitive to a woman's condition as we are today, but aside from that the text does not give us any indication that she was that advanced in her pregnancy when she arrived in Bethlehem. The tradition is that she arrived in town and immediately went into labor and the child was born that night. But when we look at Luke 2:6 all we are told is that it was while they were there, i.e. the time they were in Bethlehem. That could have been several months after they initially arrived. Luke 2:6 NASB "While [during the time] they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth." There is nothing in the text that that happened right away.

Also, there are various reasons for Mary being brought along. By this time Joseph and Mary are married. He could have brought her along for any number of reasons. He knew he would be gone for a while and didn't want to leave her in Nazareth alone, and didn't want her to go through the birth of the child while he was not present. There could have been a variety of reasons that caused him to want to take her with him to Bethlehem.

Regarding the objection about Herod's rule which would have prevented a Roman census. Even though it was a semi-independent kingdom it was not completely independent. He was under Rome.

The identification of Quirinius. While some have argued that he may have been governor twice, the word "governor" could mean administrator. There is just a lack of information; there is not contradictory information. It is very likely that Quirinius was a bureaucrat from Rome, that he had various positions in Syria and what became known as Turkey. It is very likely that he might have been put in charge of the administration of this census and as his responsibility and he became governor he became identified with that particular census. The word governor itself is not restricted to meaning governor, it could just mean administrator. There are a number of ways in which this could be understood without doing damage to either the history or the text. 

Luke 2:3 NASB "And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. [4] Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David…" Notice the emphasis on David here. When the angels appear to the shepherds (v.11) they say, "for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." There is the repetition here reminding us that Jesus is a descendant of king David, and therefore the one who fulfills the Davidic covenant. Joseph goes up to Bethlehem because he was of the house and lineage of David—again, emphasizing Joseph's physical descent of royalty. [5] "in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. [6] While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth."

Luke 2:7 NASB "And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." The cloths were strips of cloth which had a variety of uses. When we read the word manger, coming from a western European background, we immediately think of a barn. Often what has been taught about the birth of our Lord is that He arrived and there was no room at the inn, so they had to go find a barn somewhere where they could be down with the cattle and sheep. Another view is that it was more like a roadside park where caravans that travelled through the area would stop. There were various covered areas where different groups could stay and if you arrived late there were caves along the hillside where the animals were put in the caves for shelter where you could camp out. But that is not quite what we have discovered in the case.

The word translated "inn" is the word kataluma. This is not the word technically meaning an inn or a hotel. It referred to the guest room of a house. It was usually the upper room in a house and that is the word we find in Luke 22:11 when Jesus sent the disciples to a house in order to get access to the upper room or the guest room where He would celebrate the Passover with His disciples. What this passage is saying is there was no room at the guest room. There were others who were already there and so rather than staying in the guest room they had to stay at a place where there was a manger.

Luke 10:34 is in the context of the story of the good Samaritan, which is the story of a traveler who was beaten up and robbed and no one stops at the side of the road to help him except a Samaritan who was not viewed with special care by the Jews. The Samaritan takes this traveler to an "inn", which is the Greek word pandocheion. This is the technical word for a hotel and is not the word that is used in Luke chapter two.

What has been discovered is that the homes were built in such a way that they would have a place within the home where their prized animals could be brought inside in inclement weather. It would be below the level of the first floor of the house. Maybe the house was built up against the side of a hill where there was a cave and they would make use of that. Then they would have a couple of stone mangers carved into the ground where these animals could feed. Then there would be the living room and up above there was the guest room, the kataluma. If the guests were there already then the guests who arrived late stayed down in this area.

It is also likely that by giving birth Mary would have been rendered ceremonially or ritually unclean. It is also likely that she would have preferred to have privacy by staying in that particular area and it would have kept her from brining ritual uncleanness upon the entire house.

This also helps us to understand the passage in Matthew. When the Magi come it says they come to the house. This indicates that they were not there on the first night. If this is true, and we believe it is, then Jesus is born in a house. He is just born in the area where the animals would be kept inside of the house, and the manger was the perfect place to place the baby. 

Luke 2:8 NASB "In the same region there were {some} shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night." Many have thought they couldn't be out there in the winter, but this is a special flock. It was the flock near the Tower of the Flock, a special flock that provided the daily sacrifices for the temple which wasn't that far away. And these were not normal shepherds. Shepherds were at the bottom rung of the social strata of the ancient world and were considered to be continuously unclean because they could never get away from their sheep to go to be ritually cleansed at the temple. These particular shepherds had to be ritually clean because they were taking care of the flock that produced the daily sacrifices. So they weren't the normal run-of-the-mill shepherds. These were Levitical priests who took care of the Levitical flock for the temple. They are the ones who received the announcement from an angel.

Luke 2:9 NASB "And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. [10] But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; [11] for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."

Luke 2:13 NASB "And suddenly there appeared 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 men with whom He is pleased.'" The NKJV and the KJ versions have: Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!" That reflects what is known as the Byzantine or Majority Text. We think this is the superior reading. The NASB reflects the reading in the Westcott-Hort text, which comes from some older MSS.

Why would they change it? Because they didn't understand the context and they didn't understand Jewish background. The announcement "peace, goodwill toward men!" is what the Messiah was to bring on earth. We have to locate this within the context of the Messianic announcement that the kingdom of God was at hand. If the King and the kingdom were to come into existence then there would be peace. This would be the fulfillment of the prophecies in Isaiah where sword would be beaten into pruning shears, spears into pruning hooks, and man would make war no more. The announcement of verse 14 fits the messianic kingdom claim. The other way to understand why it is changed is that the concept of the announcement of the kingdom got lost in the early church and they would have thought there was only peace to those who accept the Messiah. They didn't want there to be any misunderstanding so they said just let's change a word or two or grammatical ending and it will make more sense.

Luke 2:15 NASB " When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds {began} saying to one another, 'Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.' [16] So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. [17] When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child."

This is our action plan. Why is Christmas important? Because it gives us the message. It gives us what we are to go and tell people, and that is what they did. They started telling everybody that the Messiah has been born in Bethlehem.

Luke 2:18 NASB "And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. [19] But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. [20] The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them."

We get too familiar with the Christmas story. We lose the sense of awe that it should produce, we lose the sense of how remarkable it is that God became a man and entered into human history. And we lose the excitement and enthusiasm that we have a savior: that there is forgiveness for sins, and that it is a free gift. And this is good news for everyone; everyone needs to know it. We need to go back and look at the shepherds, and that needs to be the kind of attitude that we have. The savior has come! How exciting! We have freedom now, real freedom because we have a savior.