Luke connects the story of Christ’s birth to the decree of Caesar Augustus.
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (Luke 2:1)
Luke mentions Caesar’s decree for several reasons. He wants us to know that Mary and Joseph did not travel to Bethlehem on a whim. Nor did they aim to fulfill the prophecies concerning the birth of the Messiah. Instead, they went to Bethlehem at Caesar’s bidding.
Luke’s reference to Caesar provides historical context. Historians tell us that Herod the Great somehow offended the Roman emperor Octavian, who ordered the taxing as a reprisal against Herod. Intending to number the people and later tax them, Octavian required all the people to return to their hometowns.
Because Joseph was of the house and lineage of David, he found himself traveling the entire length of the country with his very pregnant wife, from his hometown of Nazareth in the north to Bethlehem in the south. A family would not normally undertake such a journey on the final days of pregnancy. Joseph and Mary weren’t choreographing a prophetic fulfillment. But I don’t believe Luke mentions this primarily for history’s sake. I think Luke means to remind us of God’s sovereign hand in this entire story.
Octavian was probably the greatest of the Caesars. He brought the Roman Empire to its zenith and was the most powerful man on the earth at the time of Christ’s birth. And he knew it.
We know him as Caesar Augustus, a name he took for himself when he defeated Marc Antony and became the emperor of Rome. His birth name was Gaius Octavius. His uncle Julius Caesar adopted him as son and heir. After the brutal murder of Julius (now immortalized in Shakespeare’s play of the same name), Octavian inherited Caesar’s name and estate.
Other men have at various times been the most powerful man on the face of the earth. But Augustus thought of himself as more than just that. “Augustus” means “worthy of reverence and worship.” While Julius Caesar was still alive, a coin was struck in Gaul which showed the two-headed god Janus, with Julius on one side and Octavius on the other. The coin had this inscription: “The divine Caesar and the Son of God.” An inscription found in Macedonia addressed, “To the Emperor Caesar, God, Son of God, Augustus.” An Egyptian inscription called Octavius a marvelous star “shining with the brilliance of the great heavenly Savior.” Then, in 17 BC, a strange star appeared in the sky, and Octavius commanded a 12-day Advent celebration, “a ceremonial embrace of Virgil’s prophecy: “The turning point of the ages has come!”[i]
Romans worshipped many gods, but none more faithfully than their emperor. And during the reign of Caesar Augustus, emperor worship reached its zenith.
So, by introducing the birth of Christ this way, Luke juxtaposes two kings – Augustus and Jesus. Caesar Augustus sent out a decree, which moved Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in time for Christ to be born. Luke wants you to know this because he wants you to know that a greater than Caesar has arrived.
By providing this historical detail, Luke reminds us that God controls the most powerful of men. But he also shows us the irony of Caesar’s reign. His edict brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born as the prophets foretold. And the Roman Empire saw the followers of Jesus as such a threat that they became obsessed with tracking down Christians to kill them.
Why would Luke bring Caesar into the picture? Why should we care that his decree sent Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem so that Scripture might be fulfilled? Is it not to remind us that our Lord was also the Lord of Caesar Augustus? Caesar was a tool. Jesus Christ is His Lord.
And this! This is the triumph of the skies!
[i] (Wilson, God Rest Ye Merry: Why Christmas Is the Foundation for Everything 2012), p. 127