The historical setting for the world’s greatest birth appears in one of the most familiar and best-loved passages in the entire Bible. As Luke raises the curtain on the actual story of the birth of Christ in Luke 2:1–7, he reveals a narrative that is refreshingly simple, clear, and uncluttered:
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.
Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into 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 wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
As straightforward and unembellished as Luke’s language is, he is dealing with profound and far-reaching issues related to the coming of Jesus Christ.
All scripturally informed Jews knew certain facts about the Messiah who would one day come to earth. They knew He would come from the royal line of David and reign from the throne in Jerusalem over Israel’s glorious kingdom. And one thing about Messiah that faithful Jews were certain of was set forth by the prophet Micah, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting” (Mic. 5:2).
So it’s clear that Jesus, the Messiah, had to be born in Bethlehem, even though Luke 2:1–7 does not quote or even refer to Micah. But the passage does demonstrate how God providentially arranged Christ’s birth in Bethlehem in explicit fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy.
If events at the dawn of the first century had progressed just ordinarily, Jesus would not have been born in Bethlehem. But God worked in amazing and powerful ways to make the Lord’s birth occur precisely at the right time and place, thus verifying His own prophetic Word. God orchestrated Joseph and Mary’s visit to Bethlehem—and the circumstances related to it—in such a way that His Son was born exactly according to plan.
The World Setting for Christ’s Birth
Caesar Augustus, a prominent emperor during the time Rome occupied Israel, was oblivious to his role in the events leading up to Christ’s birth. Yet God providentially directed the emperor’s actions precisely in accord with His prophetic timetable. The Lord of course knew when Mary and Joseph had to be in Bethlehem, and He planned for their visit to occur under the authority of a pagan emperor who was utterly ignorant of Scripture.
In keeping with his literary style, Luke used the concise, general expression “in those days” to identify the times prior to Jesus’ imminent birth. Implicit in that short phrase is the Jews’ general attitude toward conditions then.
They hated the occupation of their land by the Romans—unclean Gentiles who were outside the covenant. The Jews had no love for Gentiles, and particularly not for the polytheistic Romans. God’s people had disdained that brand of idolatry ever since the Babylonian captivity, and now the Romans brought images of their idols (including a deified Caesar) into Israel on patriotic banners and military armor and shields. Particularly distasteful was to see Caesar’s idolatrous image on all Roman coinage, which the Jews had to use all the time. But the emperor, simply by virtue of his powerful position, exerted his influence in many other ways.
Augustus was born Gaius Octavius (often called Octavian) in 63 b.c. He was the grandnephew of Julius Caesar, who adopted him as a son and officially declared him the heir to the throne of the Roman Empire.
Octavian didn’t immediately ascend to the throne after the assassination of Julius Caesar, but the young man eventually prevailed in a power struggle with Mark Antony and ruled the Empire from 27 b.c. to a.d. 14. During that period, the versatile and able Octavian demonstrated great military, political, and social skills in ending all civil wars and extending Rome’s boundaries to the edges of the known world.
Those leadership skills also brought an incredible peace (the so-called Pax Romana, or “peace of Rome”) to that vast empire. Such previously unheard-of tranquility allowed for construction of a massive road system that facilitated transportation in every direction and solidified Rome’s control. That meant there were no rigid borders between provinces—no border checkpoints, but instead an ease of movement all around the Empire. That reality led to the easy, rapid spread of the gospel and was implicit in Paul’s statement to the Galatians, “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son” (Gal. 4:4). Everything on the world scene was perfectly arranged and timed for the arrival of Jesus Christ.
Octavian (who acquired the title Augustus, “majestic one, highly honored one,” three years before he began his rule) was quite deferential in dealing with his subjects. He granted them limited freedom and autonomy and respected their customs and religions. He even encouraged writers to make literature nobler and passed a measure outlawing adultery; thus, he did have some moral sense.
All in all, Augustus was a fascinating figure who fit amazingly well into God’s redemptive plan. He was an unwitting instrument of divine providence and a world leader who helped prepare the way for the first coming of Christ.
Luke refers to one of the most important of those instruments: “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered” (2:1). A decree was a common governmental action in those days (Acts 17:7), and it was simply an imperial edict, law, or mandate.
This particular decree said that officials in all parts of the Empire must conduct a registration, or census. (“All the world” was just another way of identifying the Roman Empire.) Rome required such registrations for two reasons. One was to determine which young men were eligible for military service. The other was to assess taxes, which was the case in Luke 2. We know Luke was referring to taxation because Mary and Joseph were involved. They would not have been included in the first type of census because Jews were exempt from Roman military service. In a taxation census, the people registered their names, occupations, property holdings, and family members to the Roman equivalent of the American IRS.
The Jews despised Roman taxation. If they thought the Romans had no right to occupy Israel, the Jews certainly thought the foreigners had no right to exact taxes from them. Their hatred of the Roman tax system manifested itself most intensely in the attitude Jews had toward countrymen who collected taxes for Rome. It’s no wonder average Jews like Joseph and Mary likely were not very happy with the decree for a census.
The Jews hated such pagan intrusion into their private lives. But God used the census in Luke 2 to implement His eternal purpose to send His Son. Just as centuries earlier He had used Cyrus’s decree to liberate the Jews and return them to reestablish their nation (Ezra 1:1–6; Isa. 44:28–45:4), and just as He had used Nebuchadnezzar for His own purposes (Dan. 3:24–30; 4:28–37), God used Caesar Augustus and his census decree to bring Jesus’ parents to Bethlehem at the right time.
History tells us that, due to various delays and difficulties, Caesar’s census was not carried out in Palestine until two to four years after it was first announced. But finally, Augustus imposed a strict deadline for compliance, and therefore average Jewish citizens like Joseph and Mary had to hasten their obedience to the edict.
The Romans normally registered people in their current place of residence rather than making them return to their homeland or hometown. But in accord with Jewish custom, Mary and Joseph had to go back to Bethlehem “because he [Joseph] was of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:4). From their earliest days as a people, the Jews considered their ancestry important. They divided the Promised Land into tribal areas, and within those areas were towns and villages that belonged to certain families who owned land there. Every fifty years the various lands would revert to the original owners, so genealogies were very important. As we saw in chapter 2 of our study, the Jews kept careful, detailed records of their family histories. That way each man could identify his father’s home area and go back there for official obligations such as Caesar Augustus’ census. Therefore Jesus’ parents were providentially directed to be in Bethlehem at precisely the right time to fulfill Micah 5:2.
The National Setting for Christ’s Birth
Whenever we think of a national setting in relation to the birth of Christ, the nation of Israel immediately comes to mind. The connection is obvious when you consider Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. On that arduous trip, they passed through many places that were significant in Old Testament history.
Shiloh, the town where Hannah asked the Lord for a child (1 Sam. 1:9–11), would have greeted them. Then they would have gone through Gilgal, where Hannah’s son, Samuel, sat to judge Israel. Jesus’ parents also may have passed through the Valley of Baca, of which the psalmist had sung (Ps. 84:6). Their path perhaps wound past Bethel, with all its patriarchal memories, and Ramah, where Jeremiah pictured Rachel weeping for her children (Jer. 31:15). Next, they would have climbed to Gibeon, where Solomon worshiped, and past Mizpah, where Samuel raised his memorial stone called Ebenezer (1 Sam. 7:12). Then they would have gone through the great capital city of Jerusalem, past Mt. Moriah, and across the plateau of Zion on which Jerusalem rests. Finally, in another six miles, Mary and Joseph would have arrived at the town of Bethlehem, the home of Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 4:9–11), the place where Rachel was buried, and, most notable, the town where King David was born.
Luke succinctly summarized that momentous journey this way: “Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem” (2:4). That placed the town of Bethlehem and one specific region of Israel, Judea, right at the center of the Nativity story.
To the casual observer, Luke’s name for Bethlehem may seem inconsistent with Old Testament designations. That’s because in 2 Samuel 5:7 and elsewhere, the hill of Zion in Jerusalem is called the city of David. There is, however, no discrepancy between the Old and New Testament names. Zion was the place where David ruled as king—in essence, the city of David within the city of Jerusalem. Luke was simply using the same expression, of David,” in a different way. Bethlehem is also a city of David; it’s not the city where he reigned, but it is the city where he was born.
In fact, the Old Testament clearly affirmed Bethlehem as a city of David long before the birth of Christ. In 1 Samuel 16:1, the Lord commanded Samuel to choose a new king for Israel from among the sons of Jesse the Bethlehemite, and the prophet chose his youngest son, David (vv. 11–13). First Samuel 17:12; 2 Samuel 23:14–16, and Psalm 78:70–72 all directly or indirectly connect David with Bethlehem because that’s where he was born; that’s where his father’s house was.
So Joseph, as a descendant of David, had to go to Bethlehem for the census. And, as we saw from the genealogies, Mary was also a descendant of David. Therefore it was fitting that they both went down to Bethlehem to register—it was for both of Jesus’ parents the house of their ancestors.
But historians and Bible students have wondered whether Mary really had to accompany Joseph to the registration. We don’t know if she had to go along to sign an official document, to declare some properties, or to verify her ancestry. Scripture does not tell us. But we can infer that it must have been very difficult for Mary to explain to her parents that she was pregnant and at the same time insist to them she had not had sexual relations with a man. And others in the community likely would have accused her of lying about her situation.
The resulting shame and embarrassment Mary had to bear would have been troubling. Even after receiving words of encouragement during her visit with Elizabeth, Mary probably would still have endured much scorn and misunderstanding from family and friends in Nazareth.
Therefore, given those difficult conditions, there’s no way Joseph would have made the trip to Bethlehem without taking the nine-months’-pregnant Mary with him. Humanly speaking, the trip allowed him to remove her from a difficult social environment and to ensure his presence with her when the baby was born. But, more important, Joseph had God’s insight into the real significance of events. He knew Mary was pregnant with the Son of God. He knew the baby would be Jesus, the Messiah, who would save His people from their sins (Matt. 1:20–25).
World and national conditions certainly compelled Jesus’ parents to go to Bethlehem. But more crucial than those factors, they had to travel there to fulfill the clear statement of the prophet Micah. Mary and Joseph had to be in Bethlehem so that it indeed would be the birthplace of a special ruler: “yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel” (Mic. 5:2). This was a clear reference to the Messiah. It couldn’t have referred to David, because he was born three hundred years prior to this prophecy. Furthermore, the prophet’s words “whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting” could refer only to deity. Messiah is an eternal being, a ruler to be born in Bethlehem, yet One who has been alive forever. Every believing Jew who looked forward to the coming of the true Messiah knew that Micah’s prophecy pointed unmistakably to Him.
Thus Luke, without actually mentioning Micah 5:2, relates the story of Jesus’ birth to the nation of Israel and its people, the Jews. He knew God had given the Old Testament Scripture to the Jews; and that Scripture, through the words of Micah 5:2, was explicit about the location of Christ’s birth—Bethlehem.
The Personal Setting for Christ’s Birth
The world and national settings attendant to the birth of Christ are both crucial to helping us understand how God providentially brought about that glorious event within the context of human history. But the much-loved charm of the Incarnation story derives from a third setting—the personal one.
Luke continues his simple account with this general phrase, “So it was, that while they were there” (2:6). We know that Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, but it’s not initially clear where in the village they were or exactly how long they had been there. They had probably been there at least three days, perhaps even a week, because the writer then says, “the days were completed for her to be delivered.”
But we don’t have to wonder for long where the young couple was when Jesus was born: “there was no room for them in the inn” (v. 7). These simple words have always excited profound imagination in the minds of readers. Practically speaking, during their stay in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph were among the homeless.
That does not mean they were completely outside in the cold, but simply that they had no comfortable accommodations. Mary and Joseph were not staying in some sort of three-story hotel, or even a low-budget annex to such a facility. The Greek word for “inn” in verse 7 is not the usual term for inn. Instead, Luke used a word that denoted a shelter or place of lodging for guests. It was not an actual inn operated for the feeding and housing of guests. Instead, it was more like the sleeping section of a public shelter or campground.
Typically, such shelters had four sides and two levels, with the top part being like the loft in a barn. One section of the shelter may have had crude doors to close it off if desired. The entire structure would have been quite primitive, the kind of place where travelers could spend one or more nights in the loft area and keep their animals down in the center area, safe from theft. Their goods could be stored in the center as well.
Because of the Roman decree, Bethlehem would have been a crowded town with all the best rooms already taken. Therefore Mary and Joseph wound up staying with the animals in one of the public shelters. For an undetermined number of days, the young couple likely would have huddled on the shelter’s ground floor—among the camels, donkeys, and their feed troughs—because the other part of the shelter (“the inn”) was already filled. During that time they would have used their own robes and maybe an extra blanket to shield themselves from the cold winds. We don’t know the details of how long they stayed in the shelter, whether they registered before the birth of the baby, or whether they were waiting for the birth before they registered. But we do know they made sure they stayed in Bethlehem until after Mary gave birth to Jesus.
With all the circumstances perfectly arranged, the most important of all births in human history finally occurred. But Luke reports the birth of our Lord and Savior with amazingly few details and merely says, “she brought forth her firstborn Son” (2:7). Because the Gospel text gives us no descriptive details, I think it’s safe to engage in a little sanctified imagination concerning what happened that night.
Imagine Joseph being anxious with curiosity, wondering what his Son, who would be the God-Man, might actually be like. He no doubt held Mary’s hand throughout her labor, perhaps soothing her forehead with a cool cloth. Like any good husband, Joseph surely would have spoken many words of sweet comfort to his young wife while she endured labor pains. After all, the couple was in a dark, drab place that offered no birthing amenities such as the help of doctors and nurses or even the presence of her mother. Any normal young mother in those days would want her mother present, but Mary had the assistance and reassurance of only a teenaged husband.
We can also imagine that after a certain period of labor, Mary would have pushed one final time to bring forth her child. In the fullness of time God sent forth His Son, born of a woman. At that very moment, the God of eternity stepped into earthbound time and space. As the apostle John wrote later, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The omnipotent, omnipresent Lord of the universe appeared as a baby, crying the cry of life, probably weighing less than ten pounds and measuring fewer than twenty-four inches in length. The little life would have rested immediately in the arms of young Joseph, who, along with Mary, probably did not comprehend right away the magnitude of what was going on—even though an angel had earlier informed both of them about this extraordinary birth.
Luke, however, is careful to tell us something of the significance of the baby Jesus when he identifies Him as Mary’s “firstborn Son.” Jesus was not the only son Mary ever had—He was not her monogenes, “only begotten,” as He was the Father’s. But He was the prototokon, “firstborn.” That’s important because it’s consistent with Mary’s virginity, and it means Jesus had the primary right to the family inheritance. It was a privilege the Old Testament called the all-important right of primogenitor. Neither Joseph nor Mary, as working-class people, had wealthy estates. But as two descendants of King David, they passed on to Jesus the right to rule from David’s throne, the throne of Christ’s people, Israel.
Luke 2:7 contains other details that are simple and familiar, yet nonetheless fascinating. For instance, have you ever wondered why it says Mary “wrapped Him in swaddling cloths”? Swaddling is an Old English word that describes wrapping with cloth. The ancient custom was to wrap the arms, legs, and body of the baby with long strips of cloth to provide warmth and security. Parents in those days also believed that wrapping the child helped his or her bones to grow straight.
Luke’s point in mentioning the wrapping cloths, however, is that Mary treated Jesus the way any mother would treat a normal newborn. Physically, He looked like any other child, and his parents treated Him as such. God did not provide Him with royal robes or other fancy clothing, but simply directed Mary and Joseph to welcome Him as they would any other beloved child.
Then there’s the familiar phrase “and laid Him in a manger.” A more literal translation of the Greek word for “manger” is “feeding trough.” From that we can further deduce that Joseph and Mary were staying in the section of the shelter that accommodated travelers’ animals. In the ancient Near East, a traveling salesman had a beast of burden to carry his merchandise. Similarly, a traveling family used a pack animal to carry the women and children. As we described earlier, Jesus’ parents were huddled in a section of the shelter next to the animals, and they conveniently made His first bed a feeding trough.
When Christ entered the world, He came to a place that had some of the smelliest, filthiest, and most uncomfortable conditions. But that is part of the wonder of divine grace, isn’t it? When the Son of God came down from heaven, He came all the way down. He did not hang on to His equality with God; rather, He set it aside for a time and completely humbled Himself (Phil. 2:5–8).
Jesus did not merely humble Himself and agree to be born in a smelly stable, but He humbled Himself as a substitute for wretched sinners and bore the stench of their guilt in His own body on the Cross. He came down to the common people to bring them His glorious salvation. The picture of the infant Son of God tolerating a stable’s dirt and foul odors is a fitting metaphor for the later scene of the Savior bearing the stench of sin as He died at Calvary. What an amazing picture!
And, to a certain extent, the site of Christ’s birth was also a lonely picture, because of the obscurity of it all. But that situation didn’t last long. As we’ll see in the next chapter, a group of angels appeared to some nearby shepherds and in glorious fashion announced to them the Son of God’s first advent.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). God in the manger: the miraculous birth of Christ (pp. 55–65). Nashville, TN: W Pub. Group.