“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.” Luke 2.1-4
For Joseph and Mary the timing of Caesar Augustus’ census couldn’t have been worse. Awaiting the arrival of your first baby can be a tense, if exciting, time. To have to move seventy miles away in an era before mass communications and some sort of comfortable form of transport isn’t exactly desirable.
Such was this first Christmas for Mary and Joseph. I wonder what they were thinking as they journeyed down the road to Bethlehem? There they were travelling to Bethlehem at the behest of a foreign emperor with Mary carrying in her womb the King of Kings.
We don’t know how conscious they were that in obeying the edict of Augustus Caesar they were fulfilling prophetic words about the Messiah spoken hundreds of years previously:
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. ” Micah 5.2
My hunch is that they were aware of Bethlehem’s significance. John 7.41 indicates Bethlehem was recognised as the expected birthplace of the Messiah. Perhaps before the decree was issued they wondered how they would get there.
However aware or unaware they were of Bethlehem’s place in the Christmas story, they arrived there because, on a human level, a pagan emperor compelled them to be there.
One of the things that the Christmas story reminds us of is God’s providence in human history. He uses all sorts of people to bring about His will.
Oddly enough, Caesar Augustus himself was considered a messianic figure by the Romans. He had effectively saved the Roman republic from meltdown and the Roman poet Virgil had written about him in a way that some early Christian apologists thought seemed like a prophecy pointing to Jesus.
How ironic – or fitting! – that the most powerful man in the world of that time should pave the way for the King of Kings to be born where the ancient prophets had said He would be born!
Sometimes God uses the most unlikely people to make a way for His purposes and His people. He still works in that way today. He is still the God who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will (Ephesians 1.11).