“And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1).
There is divine irony throughout history. When men in high places appear to rule supreme, God shows that He is the One who is really in control and acts for the sake of His kingdom and the glory of His own name. Christmas—the coming of Christ into the world as a human—is a prime example. But it has happened time and again in history.
Consider, for example, the time when the people rejected God’s command to spread throughout the earth by building the Tower of Babel. Rather than honouring God’s name, they wanted to make a name for themselves. Therefore God confused their language and separated the peoples so that their grand vision of a great tower to keep them together was abandoned and they spread out over the world. Moreover, by separating the peoples He also paved the way for the later separation of Abraham and his descendants as His special people. And He did this in order to fulfil His promise that, through the coming Messiah, all the nations of the earth would be blessed, and He would be glorified throughout the earth. In building the Tower of Babel the people had ignored God’s command and sought their own glory. A simple act of God to confuse their language ironically forced their great plans to make way for His great plan of salvation and the greater glory of Him from whom and through whom and to whom are all things.
Consider also how Satan sought to prevent Christ’s coming by seeking to wipe out the people of Israel in Egypt. Earlier, God had prepared a haven for Joseph and Israel in Egypt. But when the people of Israel multiplied and became a possible threat to the Egyptians, they were made slaves and oppressed. But ironically, the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied. So Egypt sought to eradicate them by killing the new-born sons. From Egypt’s point-of-view it seemed like the perfect ‘final solution’: Israel would steadily be exterminated. Again, we see divine irony as God used Pharaoh’s command to kill the baby boys as a means to bring Moses, through Pharaoh’s daughter, into Pharaoh’s court. Thus Pharaoh was ultimately instrumental in preparing Moses to become Israel’s leader through whom God would save His people, plunder the land of Egypt, destroy Pharaoh and his entire army and bring Israel into the promised land.
One could go on to list the many redemptive-historical events God used to save His people and ensure that Satan’s attacks to prevent the birth of the Messiah would fail. But as it is Christmas let us focus on God’s supreme power and governance in Christ’s coming to earth.
By human standards, Christ came into the world at the wrong time. After all, Christ came to rule the world. Yet the world ruler at the time was Caesar Augustus, and his world dominion was firmly established. He was universally acclaimed as having brought about a golden age: a world empire that was generally a united empire of peace and prosperity. So, by human standards, Augustus was firmly enthroned. Yet when he acted, he unwittingly and ironically fulfilled Biblical prophecy. For in order to maintain world peace and dominion, he needed a well-equipped army and that cost much money. Money comes from taxes and in order to tax people the government needed to register who is in the realm. That knowledge comes through a census and that census led Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem where the Christ is born—ironically in accordance with divine prophecy.
Being under Roman rule was particularly painful for Israel, God’s chosen people. Having long ago left the paths of the LORD, they were now simply part of a world empire that denied Israel’s unique position as God’s people. And what made it even worse was that Emperor Augustus was presented as a god-in-human-form. Israel had to submit to a Roman emperor who thought he was an incarnate god and who expected therefore to be worshipped by everyone in the realm. The birth of Augustus was presented as ‘gospel’ (good news), his writings ‘holy scriptures’, and he was called ‘saviour’.
Having someone with such pretentions on the throne in Rome it would seem, from human perspective, to be the worst time for Christ to come into the world. How could a newcomer who claimed to be the real Saviour, whose gospel was the true gospel, and whose Scriptures were the true Word of God, get any traction amongst the people when all the indications were that the real power lay with that other ‘saviour’ Emperor Augustus? Satan appeared to have the real Saviour check-mated from scratch.
But notice how it’s written in the Bible. We don’t read that Christ’s birth happened at the time of Augustus’s decree but vice versa: a decree went out at the time of Christ was about to be born. God, not Satan or world leaders, determine the course of world history. He determined when the decree should go out — to suit His purpose. When His people seemed to be in a hopeless situation, when all the power and veneration seemed to reside with a world dictator, God glorified Himself by breaking Satan’s might. When a new world dictator wielded his power and the nations lived in fear of him and that small bunch of Jews threatened to be swallowed up by that Roman world empire, the same God who used Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus and other powerful leaders for His own glory and kingdom, used also Augustus to fulfil His prophecies and purpose.
That’s the message the Holy Spirit now conveys through the first verses of Luke. Israel’s separate position as the people of God’s special favour seemed to have disappeared. Instead of the heathens approaching the city of David in order to worship Yahweh, the God of Zion, Joseph and Mary of the house of David were commanded to go to Rome, the throne of a heathen world dictator who presented himself as god. Yet it is right at the time when all appeared lost that God, as He has done so often before in ‘hopeless’ situations, used Augustus as His instrument to fulfil His promise. This promise: Christ the Redeemer would be born who, as our Mediator, would reconcile His people, His church, to the Father. At the very moment that Emperor Augustus, the antichrist of that time, had the world enrolled into Satan’s realm, God the LORD was in the process of ensuring that Christ, the great Son of David, would enrol those grafted into the spiritual Israel into His kingdom.
There is tremendous comfort in this text. As New Testament church we are awaiting Christ’s second coming: His reappearing in glory in order to perfect His kingdom and to triumph over all His enemies. We live in that expectation amidst a world in which the antichristian power is increasingly moving towards world dominion. How comforting and encouraging then is the Christmas gospel with its proclamation of God’s wonderful acts in bringing the Firstborn into the world. He chooses what would appear to be the worst time, but which then shows itself to be the perfect time of His truth and His glory. It must speak to us that the antichristian world power, with all its oppressive demands and directives, is made subservient to God’s plan for His kingdom and His glory and our salvation.
God rules supreme. He governs all of world history – even when the whole world cries: ‘There’s no room for Jesus in my life!’ His absolute control is shown in this gospel passage and throughout church history. For Christ’s kingdom continues to come through all the turbulence of the nations, despite the power play of a Putin and Trump and Xi Jinping. And He will, in His good time, appear on the clouds of heaven. He will do that even when all His enemies, Satan with Gog and Magog, believe that their kingdom of darkness will rule supreme. For the nations may deny God and proudly make their resolutions, but the ever-wise council of the LORD will always rule supreme for the sake of His glory and His kingdom. It is this almighty covenant LORD to whom we have been reconciled through Christ our Redeemer, and it is to His eternal kingdom that we, His redeemed children, are so wonderfully privileged to belong.
Some of this is loosely based on the first part of a sermon by Rev J Groen, Niet door kracht – door Mijn Geest [Not by power – by My Spirit], Oosterbaan, Goes, 1972, pp. 7-16.