As we commence our study in the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel, I want you to picture with me three things. You will have to make use of your imagination, seeing with the eyes inside your mind as you do so.
First, picture a glass that is full, right to the very top. Then picture yourself adding a single drop of water at a time. First, it will form a meniscus—that curved upper surface of a liquid in a tube—but as you add more drops, one will finally cause the water to overflow.
Second, imagine yourself controlling an ant, or another small insect, by means of a manipulated environment. Perhaps you see a small ant crawling across the floor tiles in our house, and by placing obstacles in its way or even gently nudging it, you force it to change direction and go where you want it to go. Young boys perhaps find this type of thing most enjoyable, because it gives an illusion of power.
Third—and perhaps here little girls (or even older girls!) will have a better appreciation—imagine a crying baby. Not a naughty, crying baby, mind you, but simply the healthy cry of a newborn. Perhaps you have witnessed the cry of a newborn infant in the delivery room, or have at least seen it on television. Try to bring such a picture to your mind.
Now, you are probably wondering why I have given you these three mental pictures to consider. Try to see if you can see how they fit as we proceed through our study of these very familiar verses.
Luke 2:1-7 records, in familiar words, the very simple account of the most significant birth in the history of the world. The text impresses reality upon us: the reality of time and space—real time, not mythological time in Narnia or Middle Earth. We are not speaking here of an imaginary concept of a day long, long ago. We are dealing here with a matter of history. Bethlehem and Nazareth are real places. They have geographical and geospacial coordinates.
As we mull over these familiar words, we must be amazed and reassured afresh regarding three things.
God’s sovereign control over time and space
Every person reading this lives in a particular time in history (October 2012 at the time of writing), and in a particular living space (the present writing is taking place in Alberton, South Africa). I want to suggest to you that we do not live where we do and when we do by accident. God is in control of all these factors. God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26).
The simple fact is, God moves people around. There is a family in our church who, at the time if writing, is preparing to relocate to Basel, Switzerland. It may be a step down from Alberton, South Africa, but it is nonetheless a move that is taking place within the sphere of God’s sovereignty. This is not to suggest that every opportunity raised to relocate should automatically and thoughtlessly be taken, but we must at least acknowledge God’s sovereignty over even such matters as these.
But, further, our text wants to take us even deeper and make us realise that there are two concepts of time. We must distinguish—to employ Greek terms—between chronos and kairos time. Chronos describes the type of time that you would keep on your watch. It describes a linear succession of moments, in which one o’clock becomes two o’clock, which becomes three o’clock, etc. Kairos time, on the other hand, describes suitable opportunity time—events or time periods of historic significance. The birth of Jesus was one such time.
Luke was a careful historian, and the events recorded in his Gospel, while retaining a basic chronology (chronos time), focus more on historic, significant events (kairos time) than a simple succession of moments. Nevertheless, the events that he records took place within time and space as we know it.
Caesar Augustus was the emperor of Rome during the events recorded for us. His reign lasted from 27 BC until 14 AD. But sometime within the chronology of his reign, a significant event took place: the most significant birth in the history of the world. There was a specific (kairos) time appointed for Jesus to be born. Paul tells us that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4), and that “at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). These were kairos moments in history.
As a matter of interest, the word translated “fullness” in Galatians 4:4 is the Greek word pleroma, which speaks of something being filled to the brim, and reminds us of the meniscus you imagined during our introduction. Every event in history was pouring water into the glass, and at just the right time, the birth of Jesus caused it to overflow. In Bethlehem, nearly two thousand years ago, the last drop caused the water to pour out.
It would be helpful to understand something of the socio-political circumstances in the Roman Empire during Jesus’ birth. It was a time of great peace and stability. The Pax Romana (“Roman Peace”) was at its zenith. This term describes was long period of relative peace and minimal expansion by military force experienced by the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries.
It was a time of effective communication. Greek was a worldwide language, much like English today, and virtually wherever it was spoken it could be understood. The Romans had made great strides in road infrastructure and so communication was further aided by relative ease in transport.
At the same time, it was a time of darkness. The Roman Empire followed on the heels of other major failed empires: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Greece. Emperor worship was common during the time when Jesus lived.
For Israel, it had been a time of prophetic silence—at least in terms of written revelation. Nevertheless, the Messianic expectations had persisted during this time, and when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the nation was ripe for the arrival of its Messiah.
At the very time that Augustus, in his role as absolute ruler of Roman territory, was feeling most secure and in control (his defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium had given him godlike status), the real King was born! The words of Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:51-52) were being experienced in space and time.
In so many respects, Jesus was born in the fullness of time, and yet it was a time that did not suit the inn-keeper!
While Mary was drawing to the end of her pregnancy, a decree went out calling for a census. It was necessary for everyone to travel back to their ancestral villages in order for the registration to be completed. It was, at grassroots level, a quest for revenue. Nothing has changed, has it? How much of governance today is little more than revenue collection! The same might be said of television. Entertainment is almost a byproduct of TV’s revenue collection!
In the fullness of time, as revenue collection was being carried out, Mary and Joseph travelled back to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. At a particular time in history, a young couple, imminently expecting their first baby, travelled from one place to another.
God’s sovereign control over people and events
We spoke during our introduction about controlling an ant by manipulating its environment. We see much the same in our text. Caesar, who wanted tax revenue, called for a census, but God was directing it all in order to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. You see, many centuries earlier, the prophet Micah had specifically predicted that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Mary and Joseph, however, did not live in Bethlehem. How would they arrive there in order for prophecy to be fulfilled? They would do so by God controlling the ants. God ensured that revenue was desired and a census ordered in order that Joseph and Mary would return to Bethlehem.
Now, we may ask why God did not use a simpler way to get the young couple to Bethlehem. He had spoken to them earlier by means of the angel Gabriel, and he would do so later again when instructing them to take Jesus into Egypt. Why did he not do the same here? Why not simply tell them to return to Bethlehem? Why orchestrate such an elaborate scheme in order to move them from one place to another?
I would suggest that God has the right to show off His power and control. If we were to show off like that it would be of a moral nature that would not be acceptable, but God is perfectly within His rights to display His sovereign power however He sees fit. For a perfect Being to do so is a praise-inducing thing. In one sense, it was an inefficient way of doing things, except that nothing that is inefficient to us is inefficient to God.
By way of application, let us rest assured that our times are in God’s hand (Psalm 31:15). We must refuse to give way to anxiety and unbelief. God is in control of all things. As Martin Luther once said to his friend Melanchthon, “Cease, Philip, from trying to govern the world! Leave it to God in His wisdom and power!”
The examples of our anxiety are many. White South Africans have come to dread the name Julius Malema, who deliberately and very vocally spews forth his racist political policies. What will come of our country if such a man is elected president? Will South African become another Zimbabwe? But let me suggest that there is little benefit gleaned in entertaining such thoughts. God is in control of the political climate. A man like Julius Malema will only be appointed to the presidency of God wants it to be so, and if He does there is nothing we can do to stop it!
When we read of violent protest action, let us realise that it is not outside of God’s control. As we worry about our wallets if the Gauteng e-tolling system comes into effect, let us remember that God is in control of whether or not that happens. If the charging begins, He has allowed it, and we must submit to it, trusting that He will supply our needs. We have no right to badmouth the government as if they have power to act outside the sphere of God’s sovereignty.
As global fuel costs and food prices rise, let us remember that God is in control. As tension mounts over the election of the American president and the future of the EU, let us be settled that the heart of the king is in the hand of the Lord! None of these things are outside of His control, and we need to be confident of that fact.
God’s sovereign control over human birth
The third mental image that I asked you to paint at the outset of this study was that of a crying, newborn baby. Human birth is a messy and painful affair, and Jesus was born just like any other baby: by painful natural birth in expression of the Genesis 3 curse. Yes, the conception was different, but the birth itself was normal and natural.
Jesus was Mary’s firstborn (v. 7), which implies that she subsequently had other children. This implication is made explicit in Matthew 12:46; 13:55-56. Of course, the miraculous thing about the birth of Jesus was that He was born of a virgin.
Now, there is a scientific and biological theory of spontaneous autogenesis, by which a woman can reportedly fall pregnant without a man. However, even if we grant this theory some validity, the resulting child would always be female. The genetic input of a father is necessary in order for a male child to be conceived. Jesus, however, was born as a boy.
Jesus came forth in the line of David. He was the ultimate successor of the great King David. Solomon in part fulfilled the terms of the Davidic covenant, but it would take one greater than Solomon to fulfil those promises in their entirety. Jesus was the better David, the one whose throne was established forever.
And so we see here the birth of a child—the mysterious gift of life that given to a man and a woman to hold a child in their arms. The birth of a child is a wonderful thing. When a child is conceived and eternal soul is brought into being, and the parents of the child have eternal responsibilities to that soul.
At the birth of Jesus, 1 Timothy 3:16 became a reality. He was the mystery of godliness: Jesus was manifested in the flesh. God became a man! What an amazing thing that was!
Notice also the significance of the circumstances of Christ’s birth. He was born in poverty, humiliation, lowliness, indignity, obscurity, and rejection. Humility must necessarily precede greatness, and it is through Jesus’ poverty that we are made right (2 Corinthians 8:9). Jesus would become great during His life, and particularly at His resurrection and ascension, but there is no hint of greatness in a baby being born in a stable.
Let us not despise the poor: Jesus voluntarily assumed this posture and position in this world! Poverty is no disgrace. Wealth ruins far more souls than poverty! When the love of money, and the ease and luxury it buys, begins to captivate our souls, we must think on Jesus who was born under such conditions.
These seven verses show us the humanity of Jesus; and how unwelcome and rejected He was to many. Through His humiliation, Jesus purchased for us a title to glory. The Son of God became the son of man so that the sons of men could become the children of God! Here, He was wrapped in swaddling cloths—but soon he would be wrapped in a burial shroud!
And so, as you think of a full-to-overflowing glass, and of the ant being controlled, and of the crying baby being born just like every other baby, let me ask you: Is there room in your heart and mind for Jesus Christ? There was no room in the inn for Him, but do you have room for Him?
As you consider the sovereign control of God over time and space, people and events, and human birth, is there room in your thoughts and your affections for the second person of the Godhead, the Lord Jesus Christ? More than 150 years ago, Emily Elliott wrote these words, with which we bring our study to a close:
Thou didst leave Thy throne and Thy kingly crown
When Thou camest to earth for me;
But in Bethlehem’s home there was found no room
For Thy holy nativity;
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus,
There is room in my heart for Thee!