(An excerpt from The Mystery of Bethlehem by Herman Hoeksema, chapter 5)
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. Luke 2:1-7
How wondrous are the ways of God!
Thus, indeed, one exclaims ever again, as often as he may read the utterly simple, yet amazing marvelous story of the coming of Immanuel!
Wonderful it is that narrative from its very beginning.
Or is it not amazing that the story that tells of the incarnation of the Son of God, of the birth of Christ, the Anointed of God, should be introduced by the name of Caesar Augustus, the head of the mighty world power? A decree went forth from Caesar Augustus!
It testifies, indeed, that the glory had departed from Israel. How otherwise could a decree of the mighty Caesar have any bearing upon the realization of so distinctly an Israelitish hope as the birth of their Messiah? Yet, so it was. After captivity in Babylon, there had, indeed, been a brief period of hope and joy. The temple was rebuilt. Jerusalem had been raised from its ruins. The law had been restored. But never had Israel been restored to its former glory and freedom. A mere handful of people had returned to the land of their fathers. Though the temple had been rebuilt, the Holy of Holies remained empty: the art of the covenant was lost forever! Israel had been the plaything of cruel nations that plowed upon its back and left long and deep furrows. A hated tyrant, descendant and worthy representative of the Reprobate, occupied the throne in Jerusalem; and even so, the scepter in his hand was controlled by a mightier hand than his: that of the glorious Caesar of Rome! And a decree went forth from Caesar Augustus….
The outward form of the kingdom of God had been swallowed up by the mighty world power!
Even so, the fullness of time had come!
True, it did not appear so to those that had expectations of an earthly Messiah and world glory. But God’s purpose was different. The earthly form of the kingdom was a mere shadow. It might disappear. And it must needs depart, that the essence of that Kingdom might become manifest. God’s King will, indeed, also cause the kingdoms of the world power to crumble into the dust, but He would not appear in a halo of glory, with world crowns on His head, royal purple about His shoulders, and glittering sword in His hand, but as the lowly Servant of Jehovah, the Man after Go’s heart, Who will establish His kingdom in righteousness!
Hence, not in Jerusalem, but in Bethlehem, are His proper connections.
There He must be born!
And the world power must cooperate to this end: a decree went forth from Caesar Augustus!
Wonderful ways of God!
And Joseph also went up!
For “all went to be taxed, every one to his own city.”
Critics have denied the fact that such a general taxing ever took place at the time when the Savior was born. They argue that secular historians know nothing of such a taxation; that, even if it had taken place, Herod’s dominion would not have been subject to the direct decree of Caesar; and that, even if it had taken place and affected Judaea, all could have registered in the city of their habitation.
For the gospel narrative itself informs us that this taxing was actually first made “when Cyrenius was governor of Syria,” and this was ten years after the death of Herrod the Great. At that time Judaea became a Roman province. The truth, then, appears to be that the decree itself went forth at this time, that Herod hastened to please the emperor, so that all were registered, and that the actual taxation did not take place till years afterward.
And so: Joseph also went up.
He, indeed, would have to proceed to Bethlehem, for in Israel the census would be taken according to tribes, house, families. And since also Joseph was of the house and lineage of David, to Bethlehem the decree of Caesar would occasion him to go.
Hardly, however, does it account for the fact that he went “with Mary his espoused wife,” for neither according to Roman nor to Jewish law was it required that she should accompany him. It appears probable, however, that for evident reasons, that they intended to move from Nazareth, that city of ill repute, and to take up their abode in Bethlehem permanently.
And thus it came about that Joseph went up “into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem…with Mary, his espoused wife, being great with child.”
We can imagine that, perhaps, it was toward evening of the third or fourth day after they had left Nazareth, that they approached the city of David. The country surrounding Bethlehem, the terraced gardens, the vine-clad hills, and the rich fields, even at this late season—for it was winter in Palestine—presented a beautiful view, as it was bathed in the golden glory of the setting sun; but perhaps, the two weary travelers paid scant attention to the beauty of the landscape. Then, too, the country through which they passed, as well as the ancient city of their fathers which they approached, might have reminded them of the past and Israel’s ancient glory; but even these reminiscences may hardly have registered in their consciousness. Other matters occupied their minds and hearts, things of the present and of the immediate future, and that, too, in connection with events of the recent past. Their state of mind would be one of exception and wonder….
Did not Mary have many things to “keep, and to ponder them in her heart”?
Could it be possible that at this moment, as they were approaching the end of their journey, and, at the same time, the fulfillment of a most marvelous expectation, she was not revolving in her mind the mysterious message of the angel that had visited her humble dwelling in Nazareth, and had pronounced her the favored one of the Lord, the most blessed among women. Had he not informed her that she would conceive in her womb One that would be called the Son of the Most High, Who would sit on the throne of His father David forever? And did she, at this moment, not ponder her own timid question concerning this mysterious matter, and the much more mysterious answer of the angel, that the Holy Ghost would come upon her, and the power of the Most High would overshadow her? And was not this Wonder of wonders about to be realized?
Had he not been minded to leave his betrothed secretly, not knowing anything of the Wonder that had been revealed to Mary?
And had not he, too, received a revelation, which he had believed though he understood it not, warning him not to carry out his intentions, seeing that Mary was pregnant of the Holy Ghost, and that the Son she was about to bring forth would be Immanuel, and must be called Jesus, because He would save His people from their sins?
These things had begun to come to pass!
And now, as they were near the end of their journey, they had but a little eye for the beauty of the landscape, for their hearts were filled with the thoughts of those things that were on the eve of their realization.
A strange wonder occupied their minds.
What would the immediate future bring? How would it all be?
Many questions crowded their hearts!
And so they went on, these two, till they entered Bethlehem.
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