The Historical Reality of the Birth of Jesus
Well the Christmas season is upon us once again, in case you hadn't noticed it. For many Christmas is simply a time for giving and receiving presents and for eating and drinking too much. As for the Christmas story… well it's just that isn't it, a story? And we all know, don't we, that stories while possibly being nice and interesting are not meant to be taken too seriously. In short you can take or leave a story.
And so many folk will not bother themselves with the facts of the Christmas story and how wrong they will be!
The Bible never presents the record of that first Christmas to us as though it was just another story. The events of Christmas form part of God's wonderful plan of salvation a plan that had been devised before our world ever came into being. Then, as the history of our world moved along, God progressively revealed more and more of his plans and purposes. As time passed on all the necessary preparations were made until, finally, the time was right for Jesus, the Son of God, to be born into the world.
Jesus birth was a reality: it was and is a fact of history. Luke has taken pains to anchor his account firmly within the flow of human history. Let's take a closer look this morning at some of the things Luke draws to our attention as he recounts Jesus' birth.
A Little Roman History
Luke's account then is an account of the real birth of a real, if extraordinary man. This birth took place in a particular place and at a particular moment in time.
At that time the most powerful man in the world was the Roman Emperor. Julius Caesar had been assassinated in 44BC and in his will he had named his great nephew, a certain Gaius Octavius, as his successor. Octavius became the founder of the Roman Empire and reigned as its first Emperor under the name of Caesar Augustus. It was during his reign that the period of relative peace known as the pax romana came into being. This man, was about to be used as an instrument in God's hands to ensure that the long-
It wasn't that Caesar Augustus planned it that way. He was busy taking his decisions freely to promote what he saw as the well-
I wonder whether your view of God is anything like the mighty vision of God that is presented to us in the Bible. The Bible has a great view of God who is supremely active and who rules over everything. The God of the Bible is no toothless, granddad figure wringing his hands helplessly as he looks on waiting in frustration to be permitted to do something in his world. No, he is God and here is uses the free and responsible decisions of Caesar Augustus to fulfil his own plans and purposes.
Caesar Augustus had planned a registration or a census that was to be carried out throughout the Empire (here referred to as "all the world"). Caesar Augustus didn't plan the census to forward God's plans he wanted to know how many men could be forced into military service and he wanted to know how many people could be made to pay their taxes. This was the first of a series of what was to become a regular pattern of censuses which would be conducted every 14 years or so.
Now such a census could prove to be very unpopular generally and in Israel there was a particular abhorrence to the whole idea of carrying out a census. In their history King David had once carried out a census and it turned out to be a disaster. David in his pride had wanted to know over just how many people he reigned and his pride met with severe divine disapproval. This disapproval took the form of a pestilence that cost the lives of 70.000 men. The God of the Bible is by no means toothless; it is a fearful thing to cross him, a fearful thing to fall into his hands.
Yet order a census was just what Caesar Augustus did and it wasn't wise to try to resist what the Emperor commanded! No this was in the days before the internet – no easy filling in of online forms. You couldn't fill forms in and send them by the post either. The way in which this registration was carried out was that everyone had to return to their town or origin (perhaps their ancestral home, perhaps it was the place where some property or land was held) in any case it meant that lots of people had to get up and go – there would be lots of to-
Now there was a time in the 19 th century when critics liked to call the truthfulness of the Bible into question. When they didn't find any evidence outside of the Bible to back-
Well those critics of the 19 th century look so foolish now as further discoveries have thrown up the very external evidence of which they denied the very existence. Far from being regarded as a useless historian not interested in the truth of his statements Luke has been shown again and again to be a completely reliable source. His accuracy in small details is no exact that there really is no reason for not trusting him in all that he records. No reason that is except prejudice!
Now I believe the Bible because it is the Word of God and not because of some external evidence that backs it up. I expect the external evidence when it emerges to be in line with the Bible because as the Word of God it is the truth and that is exactly what I find. You too must believe what God says in his Word because God does not tell lies but the truth which we need to hear and heed.
But let me pause to ask you some questions:
What is your opinion of the Bible and its contents?
When God is mentioned what comes to your mind?
Now where do your ideas come from? What are they based upon? Are they based upon anything solid at all?
The problem for most of us is not that we are such great thinkers that we can't accept the Bible, no, our problem is that we refuse to think seriously enough and in our stupid ignorance we reject the truth that God has made so plain!
Returning to Luke's account we find that with the imperial decree issued Joseph has to make his way down from Nazareth up in the north of the country of Israel down south to the ancestral home in Bethlehem because Joseph belonged to the extended family of King David. The trip would have involved a journey of some 90 miles and on it he was accompanied by Mary to whom he was legally pledged to be married (that is what betrothed means.
Mary was expecting a child – it wasn't Joseph's son, this was a child who had been engendered by the direct intervention of God the Holy Spirit, the child to be born was like no other this was the Son of God. It wouldn't have been a comfortable or an easy trip for a woman in her condition to undergo but she went nevertheless. Joseph probably didn't want to leave her behind at such a time – he was a just and considerate man and the uniqueness of Mary's situation exposed her to unjust ridicule and shame. But perhaps Mary, who knew just how unique and how special the child was that she was carrying also knew the prophecies that spoke of the birth of the Messiah as taking place in Bethlehem – that very place to which her betrothed husband now had to travel courtesy of the Emperor's edict. Maybe Mary even saw in the command of the Emperor a divinely ordained providence.
Again we should pause and ask ourselves the question as to whether our vision of God is great enough to admit the possibility of something like this happening. The apostle Paul certainly did because he would later sum up a general truth in the following words:
Rom.8:28 "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose."
The census would mean lots of people on the move criss-
We can't be sure how long Joseph and Mary were actually in Bethlehem before the time came for Mary to give birth. The traditional way or describing Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem is somewhat sentimental and we're not obliged to think of them going desperately from house to house trying to find a place while Mary's contractions intensified – the Bible's account is very discrete and avoids tugging on our emotional heart strings. If you struggle with the Christmas story it may well be that your problem is not with the Bible's version of events at all but with the glitz that traditions lays on the top of a very simple straightforward account.
All Luke tells us is that Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem when Mary's time to give birth came. The conception of Mary's baby is presented as having been miraculous but thereafter everything went as normal. Nine months after conception Mary's time came and she gave birth and then she cared for her baby just as other mother's of her day did. They didn't have babygros back then so what they did was to wrap the baby's body and limbs with strips of cloth known as swaddling cloths.
Having done this Mary's baby, like other babies, would need to sleep. Joseph and Mary didn't have a cot, a crib, a moses-
Wasn't this simple? Wasn't this humble?
Yet this was how the Son of God came into the world!
The apostle Paul would later reflect on just what the Lord Jesus had done in coming into the world; he spoke about it in terms of leaving the riches of heaven and exchanging them for the poverty of earth and he went further to explain the reason he did so:
2Cor.8:9 " For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich."
And nor are we to think for a moment that this was a mistake, some unforeseen mishap – this was all part and parcel of that wonderful divine plan of salvation.
Back in the OT we read of the absolute power and authority that reside in the LORD's hands:
Prov.21:1 "The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will."
This power and this authority was readily demonstrated as the LORD directed Caesar Augustus to call for a census, a census that would lead to Joseph and Mary heading off to Bethlehem, just the place where the prophet Micah in the 8th-
This is the story of Christmas – it is not a sentimental tale of reindeer and snowmen it is a record of hard fact of how God set about dealing with the problem sinners had got themselves into as they rebelled against a great and awesome God. It is the record of how this great God far from sitting by idling wringing a set of pathetic impotent hands waiting and desperately hoping that men would invite him in actually broke into our world, into the kind of lives that we ourselves live in order to save us. It is the unfolding of a gracious plan to give us lives worth living, lives at peace with himself and lives with a glorious future. How glad we should be to be able to think and think deeply about the real actions of such a great God! How glad we should be that the Christmas is far, far different from the sentimental nonsense that our materialistic society would try to turn it into.
The message of Christmas is a great message and it is a great message because it is true!
Praise God for his wonderful loving kindness.