As child I heard someone say that the greatest event in history was the coming of Jesus Christ into this world. This I doubted. Other events seems more significant to me: World War 2, the moon landing, the invention of ice cream, but I now see the great force of that claim about Jesus.
Many important happenings in history have altered the circumstances of human life, but really, there are only two great events in human history that made any change to the human condition.
The first was when Adam disobeyed God in the beginning of time; his disobedience shattered the right standing we had with God and condemned us all to sin and death. We had begun as God’s friends, but we declared war on our Creator; we became his fixed enemies. And, having no peace with God, we have no real peace at all.
The second great event – the greatest event — was the life of Jesus. Only his life, and death and rising again reversed the cycle of sin and death. In the coming of Jesus into this world, God declared peace and gave peace to sinful human beings.
Luke places the birth of Jesus in time and space – a real event in real history. This is of great importance, because there are some people who express their dislike of God by pretending that there was no Jesus Christ – that he was never born, and the things recorded in the Bible never happened. This is a statement of faith that is contrary to fact.
Other religious people claim that the reality of the events in the Bible is not important. These people say that the stories of the Bible have spiritual meaning whether they really happened or not – the Bible, they say, gives cheering stories that provide fine examples for us to follow. This is simply nonsense. Just think about the things recorded in the Bible and you will see that the good we humans cannot do, and the evil we do all too readily – the Bible is a book, of all books, that shows we need rescuing.
Clearly Luke presents the coming of a real Saviour. A real Saviour is what we need. Luke sets the “when” of the Saviour’s coming in time and space – in real history.
Caesar Augustus ruled the Roman Empire for about 45 years, from 31 BC to AD 14. He was the first Emperor, and Augustus set about changing the circumstances of life. One thing he did was to bring administrative order to his new Empire. This involved registering subject people for taxation. This is what Luke is telling us in verse 1. It was during this period that Christ came into the world.
Luke gives further information. It was the census related in some way to Quirinius, a Roman Governor who had much to do with the province of Syria. Some Bible scholars and historians have claimed that this verse shows that Luke got his facts wrong, because NO ancient source (besides Luke) says that Quirinius was governor of Syria at the time of Jesus’ birth – but this is too narrow a view of the historical situation.
You see John the Baptist and Jesus were both born, according the gospels of Matthew and Luke, before King Herod the Great died. That king died sometime in the period 4 BC to 1 BC (his death is dated between a lunar Eclipse and the Passover of a particular year). Quirinius is known to have been governor of Syria in 6 AD when a taxing was carried out in Judea to violent local reaction, but – here’s the good bit – there is no record (outside the Bible, perhaps) as to who was the governor of Syria between 4 BC and 1 BC.
Now, it is possible that Quirinius
- was the missing governor 4 BC-1 BC and at that time oversaw the first census, with the second census happening in AD 6 during his governorship, or
- had some leading role in the 4 BC census, even if he was not governor, or
- managed a census after the one mentioned by Luke, i.e., a registration occurred at the time of Jesus’ birth before the census that happened under Quirinius (the Greek word ‘first’ can mean ‘former’ or ‘prior to’ — there are all sorts of real possibilities.)
We just don’t know enough to know which of these things, or something else, happened in line with Luke’s statements. The point of all this is to encourage us all to have a right view of the Bible. History does not confirm the Bible, but the Bible confirms history. If there is a real or apparent contradiction between the Bible and other sources of historical information, we must hold to what the Bible says. It has shown doubting historians to be wrong over and over again.
A wrong attitude was taken by at least one modern historian, who suggested that Luke was more likely to be wrong about the census of Quirinius than Josephus (a Jewish/Roman historian, who wrote a short time after Luke). In short, this historian believed that the Bible must always give way to non-Biblical sources.
A much better attitude was shown by John Calvin (the 16th century reformer). When he read Luke, he stated flatly that Josephus was wrong. Calvin might have been mistaken in his assessment of the historical situation, but he was dead right in holding to what he saw Luke saying rather than to what he thought Josephus was saying.
It was this census or registration (around 4BC—1BC) that got Joseph and Mary on their way from Nazareth in the north to Bethlehem in the south. Luke doesn’t mention it, but the OT foretold that the Saviour of the world would be born in Bethlehem. How did God bring that prophesy about? God moved a Roman emperor who had no interest in the gospel message to count people. Joseph and Mary had to see a public servant in Bethlehem. So mundane, so marvellous! God used this act intended to spread political control and oppression to more people than ever as a step toward bringing freedom from sin to so many more people. The 150 km map distance that Joseph and Mary had to travel (longer because of the ups and downs of mountain roads) was a drag too, especially as Mary was pregnant. But these inconveniences placed them just where they needed to be. Our God is in control even when we think things are going badly.
So don’t despair. Jesus came into an inconvenient world to rescue us. We might be placed in inconvenient circumstances to meet other people who need to hear of Jesus Christ.
Christ is born in Bethlehem, in the City of David, but in a stable, and he is placed in an animal’s feed-box. Why a stable? Why a feed box? There was over crowding due to lots of people travelling back to their home town to be registered. An Inn of the type mentioned here was probably an open room with lots of mats on the floor – not very private. A stable might have given more privacy for the birth. But there were to be visitors that night – people who knew how and where to find stables and feed-boxes quickly – people who would bring a message of encouragement to Mary and Joseph.
Continued in part 2