In 1865, William Ross Wallace wrote a poem entitled “What Rules the World.” It was an ode to the power of motherhood to influence society. The poem is largely forgotten. But its refrain remains a commonly quoted proverb: “For the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.” No one would argue with Wallace’s sentiments. But there is one great exception. The birth of Jesus is the cradle that rocked the world.
Luke 2 records the birth of Jesus. In Chapter 1, angels predict the miraculous births of Jesus and John the Baptist. But these relatives will not be peers. Their births reveal that Jesus was greater than John. Chapter 1 records the birth of John in two verses. He is not mentioned in chapter 2. It is all about Jesus.
- He begins the chapter as a baby in the manger.
- He ends the chapter as a boy nearing manhood.
The birth of Jesus is the greatest miracle. The birth of Jesus has no redemptive value if he did not die on the cross and rise from the dead. But the incarnation made the crucifixion and resurrection possible. By taking on human flesh, the Son of God was able to die on the cross and rise again. His rescue mission climaxed at Calvary but commenced at Bethlehem.
The Gospels record scarce details about the birth of Jesus. Mark and John skip it. Matthew reports the circumstances surrounding it. Only Luke records the birth itself. Luke’s birth narrative is the source of many Christmas and Nativity traditions. Much art, music, and poetry have been based on it. But Luke has nothing to do with our embellishments. The careful physician reports the birth of Jesus in simple and straightforward terms. Yet there is enough here to explain the meaning of Christmas: The child of Bethlehem is the Savior of the world.
Who is Jesus? The birth of Jesus reveals three truths about the Person of Christ.
The Centerpiece of World History
World history is divided into two eras: B.C. and A.D. B.C. stands for “Before Christ.” A.D. stands for “Anno Domini” – in the year of our Lord. It is used to mark the years after the birth of Christ. Children are now taught to refer to these periods as BCE/CE – Before the Common Era and the Common Era. Academic reasons are given for the change. But the real issue is people’s refusal to acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the centerpiece of world history.
Luke 2 begins with political intrigue. Before Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are mentioned, we are introduced to Caesar Augustus and Quirinius. Luke places the birth of Jesus in the context of world events. Verse 7 records the birth of Jesus itself. It was a lowly and lonely event – attended only by Mary, Joseph, and some animals. But the chapter begins by telling us the birth of Jesus was no mere local happening. It was more than a national event for the Jewish people. The birth of Jesus had worldwide implications.
Verse 1 says, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Caesar Augustus was the first and greatest Roman emperor. His leadership established the Pax Romana – the Roman peace that spread throughout the Mediterranean. That peace came at the cost of taxation. The Roman government performed periodic censuses for tax purposes. Verse 2 reports Caesar Augustus decreed that this registration occurred “when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Verse 3 explains the process: “And all went to be registered, each to his own town.” Every man was to return to their ancestral home to be registered.
These historical details have been much debated. But every archeological discovery only confirms the accuracy of Luke’s account. Yet, the text is not teaching a history lesson. It teaches theological truth. The birth of this child to a peasant carpenter and his teenage bride rocked the world because God was in control. God is in control.
- God controls nations.
- God controls rulers.
- God controls statutes.
- God controls events.
- God controls details.
God was at work behind the scenes to ensure his Son Jesus was born at the right place and time. We would never have heard of him if Jesus had been born seventy years before or after these political occurrences. He would not have been qualified to be our Savior if God had not sovereignly manipulated world events. The God who controlled the story of Jesus controls the story of all who trust in him. Romans 8:28 says, “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 Fulfillment of Biblical Prophecy
- Verses 1-3 tell of world events at the time Jesus was born.
- Verses 4-5 tell how these events affected Joseph and Mary.
The Old Testament promised the coming of the Messiah-King. Israel had waited for centuries for God to fulfill his promise. The time had finally come. The promised one was ready to take the stage of world history. But God only works according to his word. So God swept Joseph and Mary up in the redemptive drama of world politics to identify Jesus as the divinely promised and long-awaited Messiah-King.
Joseph’s Royal Lineage. Verse 4 says, “And 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.” Joseph is the forgotten man of Christ. He was the local handyman in an ancient ghetto called Nazareth. Matthew 1:19 says he was “a just man.” Joseph discovered his fiancée was pregnant. Instead of pressing charges, he planned to divorce her quietly. The angel told Joseph the child Mary carried was conceived of the Holy Spirit. So he took Mary to be his wife.
When Caesar Augustus made his decree, Joseph went up from Nazareth of Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea. Bethlehem was called “the city of David,” where he was born and raised. Joseph was of the house and lineage of David. So, he returned to his ancestral home to be registered in his own town. It was more than the act of a law-abiding citizen. It was the providential orchestration of God.
Micah 5:2 says, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth from me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” Seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Micah predicted where the Messiah would be born. God watched over his word to ensure Jesus was born where he said he would be.
Mary’s Virgin Conception. Verse 5 says Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem “to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.” This verse gives two critical facts about Mary.
Betrothed to Joseph. Betrothal was what we call engagement. But it was a covenant as binding as marriage. To break a betrothal required a formal divorce. So, there was a real sense in which Mary and Joseph were married, not just engaged. They possibly lived together. But Matthew 1:25 says Joseph “knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.” Jesus was Joseph’s son legally, not biologically. Joseph did not touch Mary sexually until after Jesus was born. This is why verse 6 calls Mary his “betrothed.”
- With Joseph as his legal father, Jesus inherited the throne of David.
- Without Joseph as his biological father, Jesus did not inherit the sin of Adam.
Pregnant with Jesus. Verse 6 says Mary was “with child.” The KJV says she was “great with child.”Gabriel told Mary she would have a son. She asked, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Luke 1:35answers: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God.”
The virgin Mary was conceived by the Holy Spirit and gave birth to the Son of God in fulfillment of messianic prophecy. Isaiah 7:14 says, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Nothing about Christmas is more important than the virgin birth. If it didn’t have the way scripture says, Christianity cannot offer real truth, power, or hope. Adrian Rogers said it well: “I wouldn’t give half a hallelujah for your chance of heaven if you don’t believe in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.”
The Mystery of Divine Incarnation
John Neville Figgis wrote, “’God is great,’ the cry of the Moslems, is a truth which needed no supernatural being to teach me. That God is little, that is the truth which Jesus taught man.” That is the miracle, mystery, and message of the incarnation. Verses 6-7 state two facts about this incarnation of Christ.
Mary’s Son was the Messiah. Verse 6 says, “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” Jesus was born at the right place at the right time.
The Right Place. Luke says it happened “while they were there.” Joseph and Mary travel about ninety miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The trip would have taken three days. It was probably longer than that due to Mary’s condition. We do not know how long Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem. But while they were there, she gave birth to Jesus.
Mary was not required to be registered. Yet, because of her pregnancy and the rumors swirling around it, she made the trip with Joseph. God used international politics and local gossip to get Mary and Joseph where he wanted them to be. God knows how to get you where he wants you to be!
The Right Time. While in Bethlehem, “the time came for her to give birth.” The child she carried was the Son of the Most High. Yet the process is described in ordinary terms. Her due date had come. It was time for her to give birth. God made sure she gave birth to Jesus at the right place and at the right time. Galatians 4:4-5 says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”
- Jesus was born in the fullness of time.
- Jesus died and rose in the fullness of time.
- Jesus is coming again in the fullness of time.
God’s Son became a man. Verse 7 records the birth of Jesus: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” Jesus is called “her firstborn son.” Contrary to Roman Catholic teaching, Mary was not a perpetual virgin. Joseph and Mary had children together. But Jesus was her firstborn son. Colossians 1:15 says, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Colossians 1:18 says, “And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.”
Mary “wrapped him in swaddling cloths.” This was normal pediatrics. The newborn swaddled to keep their arms and legs straight. The swaddling cloths were medical bandages used to shroud the dead. The baby Jesus was dressed in grave clothes. He was born to die! Then, “she laid him in a manger.” The “manger” was a feeding trough that may have been in a barn, cave, or outside. Luke 2:12 says, “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
The verse ends by saying, “There was no place for them in the inn.” Luke does not mention any unwelcoming “innkeeper.” He tells us there was no place for Joseph and Mary to stay in the crowded city. The incarnation of Christ was the humiliation of Christ. Why did he do it? John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
A children’s ministry performed a Christmas play. When they got to Mary and Joseph, finding no room in the inn, the boy playing Joseph got carried away and begged the innkeeper to take in his pregnant wife. It was so moving that the boy playing the innkeeper said, “Au, shucks. I’m not supposed to do this, but come in anyway.” Jesus pleads with you today. Let him in!