Advent: The King is Coming
Text: Luke 2:1–21 ESV
“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.
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.
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.
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
[And] 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.”
And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But [and] Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2:1–21 ESV)
Good morning Table Rock! Thank you for coming and celebrating Christmas with us this last Sunday of Advent!
We started our Luke series right as Advent started. Advent is the time of year when we celebrate both the first coming of Jesus Christ and remember the fact that he is coming again. And as Luke unfolds his account, he knows that it strains our understanding. He has been sharing with us the story that a king—The King, God himself—is coming.
Luke starts his account by letting us know that he desires to make a historical and accurate account for his benefactor, Theophilus. He wants Theophilus to
“have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:4 ESV)
Luke writes the account of Zechariah and Elizabeth, given a child at their old age as both a forerunner for Jesus and a sign of God’s power and moving amongst his people. God is using the unexpected and, as we see again with Mary, using the humble. Mary is a country girl, low in status in the world’s eyes, whom God gives a great honor to carry the Son of God—GOD HIMSELF—in her womb.
As Mary and Elizabeth meet, and Mary sings her song, as Zechariah’s mouth is loosed, and he praises God, we see a juxtaposition beginning to emerge. God is at work mightily for his people. The long-awaited savior is coming into the world, and he is GOD. And, he is coming in humility through his work in humble people, God fearing people. A juxtaposition is created when we place two things together with the goal of a contrasting effect. By putting them together you notice the distinctions of each more clearly. There is a reason white and red backgrounds with the opposite lettering grab your attention. STOP. AMBULANCE. WARNING. These are the color equivalent of shouting at you. A jeweler not only has bright lights, but then places that diamond in front of a black velvet background to make the sparkle that much more apparent. God has even paired green frogs with blue and red stripes to remind us not to touch, and azure blue skies with glowing pink and orange clouds to speak of His glory.
So far in our story, the juxtaposition has been seen through words and by the type of people chosen. We don’t expect it to be Mary who is the mother of God. We don’t expect a barren wife of a priest to be the one who carries John the Baptist. Their words are clear to speak of their own lack of worth and quick to praise God as the only one who is good and just and worthy of praise. This morning, in Jesus’s birth narrative, Luke brings this juxtaposition to a climax. If you were not aware and realizing how different the arrival of this King, our God, is, then he wants to make sure you don’t miss it.
Our section this morning is a tale of two kings. Both are mighty. Both are powerful. Yet they express this power in very different ways. One in pomp and circumstance for worldly accolades. The other, through humility, bringing a message of hope and salvation for all people. And you and I have a choice during this advent season—which type of king will we look to for our own hope and salvation?
Gaius Octavius Thurnius. He was Julius Caesar’s nephew and later in life, Julius’s adopted son. In 44BC, when Julius Caesar is brutally killed by Brutus and Casca in a revolt, (“Et tu Brute?”) it was Octavius who ascended to power with Mark Antony & Marcus Lepidus and ruled in a triumvirate much like Julius Caesar earlier in his life. Lucky for Octavius, only two years after Julius Caesar’s death in 42BC he is deified by the Roman senate, becoming Divus Julius—the “divine Julius.” This means that Octavius is now Divi Filius—or the son of the Divine—the Son of God! As you can imagine, this gives Octavius a bit of a leg up over Antony and Lepidus. Years later, in 27BC when Octavius defeats Antony and Lepidus and becomes the sole ruler of Rome as emperor, he is given the title “Augustus,” which, according to scholars was a more religious title. “According to Roman religious beliefs, the title symbolized a stamp of authority over humanity—and in fact nature.”
Caesar Augusts rules for 41 years (from 27BC to 14AD). So as Luke begins this section of his account, he is making sure we see who the “other” king is in the story. Augustus is part of a right turn in Roman history where the divine-like quest of Julius Caesar’s for power was his downfall and part of what precipitated his assassination; this same divine right is handed to Augustus. In the Roman world, he is the son of god. He is Augustus, the illustrious one, perfect among and over all people and the world itself.
And it is this king who makes a “decree” we are told. He wants all his people—much of the known world—to be registered. And for at least Joseph, this means he had to leave Nazareth and go to the city of David, Bethlehem, to complete this registration.
We must admit, this is one of the favorite passages of skeptics who wish to find fault with the Bible and its account of Jesus. They list three main problems with this passage:
There is no record of this census occurring. The main census recorded around this time is later.
How could there have been movement of all people to their ancestral lands without a record, let alone the logistics of this movement.
Matthew records that Herod was governor, yet Luke says it is Quirinius.
Obviously, much of these arguments are made because it is Luke himself who claims to be recording historical and accurate information (Luke 1:1; 3–4) as we already mentioned. So, what do we say to these charges?
First, Luke is a consummate historian. Colin Hemer’s massive study, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellinistic History details at least 85 facts in the last 16 chapters of Acts that have been confirmed through modern historical and archaeological research.
Second, we shouldn’t be surprised that we don’t have many records of a registration. As many historians note, registrations were incredibly common. This one might have been a “lustrum,” a religious event which would have coincided well with Caesar Augustus’s 25 years of reigning and the 750th anniversary of the Roman republic. Augustus himself mentions that he took this type of registration. This was a religious event where the ruler would register his people for a census and then end the process with a sacrifice to the gods.
Similarly, Luke is aware of another registration. He describes this one as the “first” registration and he mentions the other registration in Acts 5:37 including the revolt of some of the Jews that was associated with this registration. This is also recorded by Josephus, a Roman/Jewish historian of the time.
Obviously, mass migration of hundreds of thousands of people seems odd. Yet, we are talking about the emperor here. The son of god. The Illustrious one. We have similar expectations from records found in Egypt regarding some of their census and registrations under Roman rule. Yet the movement to a hometown may have been specific to the Jews. And the area of Judea was especially problematic during this period. That helps us understand the governor question.
Herod, like many governors, ruled a semi-autonomous part of the Roman empire that paid taxes and dues back to Rome. For several years before, this Herod (no, not the Herod of Jesus’s death—it was one family, they were all named Herod, it was incredibly confusing) and Caesar Augustus had been having a falling out. Augustus wasn’t certain he was getting all the taxes he should from Herod. It is Quirinius who eventually becomes governor over this province, and he is most certainly ruling over much of this land during this time, so it isn’t far fetched to call him a ruler as Luke does.
This also might explain Joseph’s need to go back to Bethlehem. We don’t know if Joseph had a family inheritance there or was going back as a special requirement for all Jews. Jewish custom of tying family property rights back to their ancestors was somewhat unique, and undoubtedly most of the Roman empire didn’t need to go anywhere far away to find their “home town.” Either way, we see that Joseph and Mary had to go back.
And let me share with you the clincher in this discussion for me. Luke is writing to what we presume is a Roman official, Theophilis. This gospel circulates in a Roman culture that hates Christianity and outlaws it. And we have no record of anyone questioning this part of his account. Neither from Christians nor Romans. The early church reads this gospel, sees it as divinely inspired, and includes it in the canon of our Scriptures. The Roman world, who would love to discredit Christianity, never goes to this passage, probably one of the easiest for anyone of that day to dispute. Why would Luke choose to fabricate something so basic and easy to identify?
Black, Sin-laden Backdrop
We so often skip over this first part of the birth narrative in Luke. We miss the worldly soap opera of thirst for power and recognition in the other kings of the day. Murders, divorces and marriages, manipulation. Herod is so threatened by the possibility of the baby that would be king that Matthew records of the slaughter of all the children under two (Matthew 2:16–18) in his realm. Augustus has come to solidify his power by killing his rivals and bribing much of the senate.
So, this section of Luke’s account starts with a “son of god”, “the Illustrious one,” in power. He makes a decree. All his people should take notice of his power through this process. They are to go—and acknowledge his rule over them through this process.
This is the black, sin-laden backdrop against which the diamond of our Savior’s birth sparkles brilliantly!
And what we find is that The King is also working. Through these worldly kings he is bringing about the fulfillment of prophecy:
“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 coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2 ESV)
It is Augustus’ decree that gets Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem to fulfill Micah 5.
As we look at our passage this morning we see that our great King is also coming in power. He sends a decree. It is for all people. And they are invited, “come!” Look at this incredibly different story from Augustus’s with me!
The King Has Come
“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 ESV)
The picture is obvious here. While Augustus, Herod, and Quirinius are sleeping in grand homes in lavish comfort, here the King of the Universe lies in a humble feeding trough. The Savior, our King, has come in power in a humble estate! And as all kings do, a decree goes out—the King is here, and He is worthy of praise!
“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:8–14 ESV)
Undoubtedly there was a town-crier who appeared in every town to make known the decree of Caesar Augustus to be registered. And he obviously came with authority. Why else would Joseph have dared to pack up his extremely pregnant bride in order to make the 90 mile trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem, only to arrive just in time to give birth to Jesus? Herod, Quirinius, and every other regional ruler would have enforced this decree to ensure their good standing with Augustus and the empire.
But they wouldn’t have held a candle to the angel of the Lord sent to declare his coming to the shepherds. Again, God comes to those of humble means—shepherds, some of the lowest of the low class—and announces his coming. An angel, just like with Zechariah and Mary, appears here in grandeur and immediately sparks fear in the hearts of all those who see him. But they are told to fear not! What has happened is “good news of great joy.” And unlike Augustus, this message is for all people, not just Romans, and not even just for people of that day, but for all those ever created in the image of God!
God the great king is doing two things here in this declaration. He is declaring that the savior is born this day, both for his glory and for our joy!
The angels can’t help themselves. When this news is declared to the shepherds, the heavens tear open and the heavenly host of angels are seen proclaiming:
“Glory to God in the highest” (Luke 2:14 ESV)
God is revealing his glory in the way only he would choose to do so—in a manager, in the backwaters of Israel, as the King coming to his people.
And he is definitely for his people. As the angels say:
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:14 ESV)
“and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14 ESV)
This King’s coming and his glory is seen in the fact that he is coming for his people. He is for them! He is not here to simply command them to serve him but to lovingly come and draw them into right relationship with him. As it says in Galatians 4:4:
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” (Galatians 4:4–7 ESV)
His coming changes everything for us. You and me. For all people who believe in Jesus. Our God loved us enough to permanently enjoin himself to humanity—to become the God-Man. He does this that we might be able to inherit his righteousness. That he might be able to take on our sins and the wrath and punishment we deserve. That he might raise in power to reign forevermore and bring us into full adoption as sons and daughters of God—heirs through Jesus Christ!
Oh, what a sweet difference this is! We are brought into the life of our God and King by His work, not our own. We don’t have to fight to this position but only trust in His work. All His plans are for our good, for grace and mercy to us, if we will put our faith in the one king who has done all things for us in Jesus Christ!
Which King Will You Serve?
We face a decision this morning that is highlighted by our passage. Which king will you serve? On the one hand, we have all that the world has to offer. Accolades. Wealth. Prestige. Position. Comfort. These desires, when pursued for themselves, are weak sons of a foreign god. A king that wants to rule over you, not for you. You can slave away for your entire life serving these kings, these so called “sons of god,” and only find your life hollow and without meaning. These kings draw from you, like a Roman emperor bent on drawing as much tax from your existence as possible.
But when you turn to The King, Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, you find a God who is for you. Not as though you are worth praising or worshipping because you are so great—you aren’t. Yet, in mercy and grace this King, Jesus, has come and died for you. He has taken your sins upon himself, and he has adopted you through your faith into the family of God!
When Israel had settled in the land God had promised them, and Joshua was old, he called Israel together and warned them, he said:
“Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:14–15 ESV)