15th Day of Advent
1In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4And 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, 5to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7And 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.
In 63 B.C. Gaius Octavius, grandnephew of Julius Caesar, was born. He became the emperor’s favorite and when Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C., Gaius learned that he had been named Caesar’s heir in the emperor’s will. At this point he changed his name to Gaius Julius Caesar and claimed the throne. In 27 B.C. the Roman Senate conferred him the honorific Augustus, meaning majestic, sublime, highly revered. Henceforth he would be known as Caesar Augustus. Later he accepted the further title of Pontifex Maximus—high priest, a term that we now associate with the Pope in Rome.
When Augustus issued a directive for an updating of the tax rolls, the Jews of Judea and Galilee had to return to their ancestral home towns. For Joseph, a descendant of King David, this involved a 90 mile trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Luke speaks of Joseph traveling “…up from Galilee. . . . to Judea…” which sounds strange to our ears since the journey was almost due south. But while we speak of going “up north” or “down south,” the Jews of antiquity always spoke of going “up” to Jerusalem and Judea since they were located in the central highlands of the region. You quite literally went “up” from Nazareth, elevation 1,300 feet, to Bethlehem, elevation 2,500 feet.
Only Joseph, as head of the household, was required to physically present himself for the census. So why did he bring his young wife, nine-months pregnant, on the 90 mile journey to Bethlehem? It’s a 90 mile drive from Lynchburg to Christiansburg. Under normal conditions that’s about a two hour drive. But the trip Joseph faced was not on modern roads, nor was it by car. For a healthy man to walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem would typically take at least three hard days—longer if it were the rainy season. But a woman in her last days of pregnancy to hike the equivalent of the distance from Liberty University to Virginia Tech? Even if she rode on a donkey or in a cart, the trip would have been both long and tortuous. Her poor abused body would have felt every bump on the crude footpaths that passed for roads in that land.
Joseph probably brought Mary with him because of the gossip that her pregnancy had generated in Nazareth. One can easily imagine the clucking tongues and the shaking heads in the marketplace and around the village well where the women gathered each morning to draw water. To be the talk of the town is not always a good thing.
When the trip mercifully concluded they discovered that there was no place to stay. The village was full. In verse 7 the translation “inn” is misleading. The word literally means “stopping place” and likely refers to a caravansary, a very primitive structure designed for housing caravans for an overnight stay. Some were of a two-story design with people sleeping on the floor of the second story and with the beasts and baggage on the lower level. Others featured a one-story building for guests with a stable next door for the animals. Where available, caves often served this purpose. Justin Martyr around 150 A.D. wrote that the stable where Jesus was born was just such a cave. And as early as 330 A.D. the cave now beneath Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity was identified as the very cave.
Leon Morris comments:
We should perhaps reflect that it was the combination of a decree by the emperor in distant Rome and the gossiping tongues of Nazareth that brought Mary to Bethlehem at just the time to fulfill the prophecy about the birthplace of the Christ (Mi. 5:2). God works through all kinds of people to effect his purposes.
Questions to Ponder
- If you are a woman, reflect for a few moments on the harsh reality that trip to Bethlehem must have actually been like for Mary. If you are a man, picture yourself in Joseph’s position, trying to care for your young wife during such an ordeal.
- God used gossips and a corrupt leader to achieve his purposes. How does that knowledge affect your confidence as you pray?