Here, at the mid-point of our Advent series, Light in the Darkness, Phil sets the central moment of all history in context as the Light arrives.
The Light Arrives
(Luke 2:1–7) Phil Clarke
A decree from Caesar Augustus
On the surface, human history appears to be made by the great, by the movers and shakers, those whose wealth, connections, charisma and force of will lets them carve out a lasting name for themselves. Such a one was Octavian, great nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar. In 42BC when his late, illustrious mentor was pronounced officially divine, Octavian assumed the title Divi Filius (Son of God). A decade later, after decisive victories in the Battles of Actium and Alexandria, he finally ended the long and wearying Roman civil wars. Thus, he ushered in the famous Pax Romana, or Roman Peace.
By 27BC his absolute control of the Roman state was confirmed when the Senate awarded him the title Augustus, and recognized him as effective supreme leader. He styled himself Imperator Caesar (Commander or Emperor Caesar) and so the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire. As the cherry on the cake, in 8BC Augustus renamed the eighth month after himself. And it is with such an imperial decree of this self-styled ‘Son of God’ and bringer of peace that Luke chooses to begin his story of Jesus’ birth.
That all the world should be registered
Scholars have spilt much ink trying to identify the ‘first’ registration mentioned by Luke (v2). Sceptics accuse him of being a poor historian, confusing an earlier event with Quirinius’ infamous tax census of 6AD, after Herod’s death. But this is unlikely, as Luke mentions this controversial census, which provoked a rebellion, separately in Acts 5:37 and it only covered Judaea, not ‘all the world’. The year 2BC marked the Silver Jubilee of Caesar Augustus.
There is some indication of an empire-wide oath of allegiance to Augustus in the years leading up to this celebration, so that when he was then declared Pater Patriae (Father of the Nation), it would reflect his documented global acclaim. Non-Roman subjects were included, and would have been summoned to their homes to register at the local place of worship. Roman law covered women as well as men, and entailed stiff penalties for absentees. This may explain why Joseph would choose to take his heavily-pregnant young wife on the 90-mile journey to his hometown – he had little choice.
A Child is born
An order given by a ‘divine’ emperor, whose reign is touted as bringing peace to all mankind, to demonstrate his own power and glory, triggers a chain of events that lead to the birth of a boy in Bethlehem, the City of David, with a name meaning ‘Yahweh’s salvation’. And so the God of Israel kept His promise to Mary through Gabriel, whose words combined Nathan’s prophecy of a Son of David who would reign forever, with Isaiah’s oracle of a miraculous child, the ‘Prince of Peace’, and even ‘Mighty God’. After centuries of waiting, the Light had arrived.
So who really makes history? Luke the historian’s answer is very different from the world’s. Augustus may have triumphantly pinned his name on the month of August, but Jesus Christ, who was born, lived, and died in genuine humility, would split history itself in two.
In uncertain times, do we sometimes forget to trust the real Lord of History?
Do we let political anxiety, or despair over the ways of the powers that be, distract us from recognizing the sovereign power of a God who always keeps His promises – no matter how long it takes?
Song: The Light Came Down – Josh Garrels
XplosionTV Bitesize: a video for children and the young at heart
A craft activity is available for the whole blog series. Please download the star instructions