“Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth.” ~ Luke 2:1
After Julius Caesar’s reign in the middle of the first century B.C., what began as a name became a title for future emperors. The “Caesar” reigning at the time of Christ’s birth was Julius Caesar’s great-nephew Gaius Octavius, who came to be known as Caesar Augustus. He reigned from 31 B.C. to A.D. 14.
Caesar Augustus focused on establishing peace after a long series of wars. Instead of worrying about foreign foes, he wanted to consolidate his power within the empire. In Caesar’s brief appearance in the Christmas story, we learn that he was in the middle of a massive project. The Gospel of Luke tells us, “Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth” (Luke 2:1). The census was more than just a friendly headcount. It ensured Caesar would get the tax revenues he believed he was owed. Luke is not exaggerating. Virtually the whole world answered to Caesar.
Caesar Augustus, like most emperors who followed him, had an inflated view of himself. Coins circulated with his likeness, calling him “son of god.” A common phrase repeated throughout the empire was “Caesar is lord.” An inscription was found in Asia Minor that identified Augustus as, among other things, “savior of the entire human race.” Imperial shrines were set up in each city, requiring offerings to the emperor’s likeness. This was the Roman civil theology floating in the atmosphere when Jesus was born.
So we can just imagine if Caesar had heard the news about Christ’s birth, he likely would have yawned, taken another sip of his coffee, and went on with his day. There was nothing particularly remarkable, in Roman eyes, about the birth of someone in a little out-of-the-way place like Bethlehem. Caesar was focused on his own glory. He was strengthening his own reign.
Caesar was at the center of world events, or at least that’s how it seemed. Caesar’s reign must have seemed so all-encompassing, so all-consuming to those who lived through it. The Christmas story gives us the proper view of things. Reading the world through a biblical lens, we see that Caesar was in fact just a footnote to Christ’s reign. Caesar’s only contribution to the Christmas story is one he did not intend. His census sent Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, inadvertently fulfilling what God had promised centuries before (Micah 5:2).
Isn’t this God’s way? Somehow, in and through our free choices, God’s plan always prevails. It is the truth Joseph came to see,“you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). It applies to kings and kingdoms. Isaiah saw how God would use Cyrus years before his birth and reign, “It is I who says of Cyrus, ‘He is My shepherd! And he will perform all My desire’” (Isaiah 44:28). Solomon, himself a king, recognized this truth as well, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Proverbs 21:1).
Christ’s birth is a joyous occasion worthy of celebration, as the Son of God took on flesh to dwell among us and save us. As the psalmist says, speaking ahead of time about the Messiah, “How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!” But Christ’s birth is likewise a warning to the powerful, “Now therefore, O kings, show discernment; Take warning, O judges of the earth… Do homage to the Son” (Psalm 2:10, 12). One day every knee will bow to the true Son of God, the true Lord of all, and the true Savior of the human race—King Jesus.
Questions for Thought
- Who would most people identify as the most powerful people in the world today? Thinking with a biblical worldview, would we answer the same way?
- Why do we often find it hard to trust that God is ultimately in control of world events?
Take a moment to read today’s major news headlines. Write down a few that might cause you to fear or become anxious. Then, pray and express your trust in God’s providence over all that happens in our world. Look at our world in faith, knowing that God is in control!
Associate to the Executive Pastor
Andrew became a member at First Baptist Dallas in 2012 and has been on staff full-time since 2020. He serves as teacher of the Credo Sunday School class. Andrew has received a Master of Theology in historical theology from Dallas Theological Seminary and Master of Public Service Administration from the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University. He is currently working toward a PhD in political philosophy in the Institute of Philosophic Studies program at the University of Dallas. Andrew and his wife Ana have four children.