The Census

October 29, 2018

by Barry Fike

     The man behind the census was Octavian [Augustus]. It was said of him that he found Rome a city of brick and turned it into a city of marble. He built temples, basilicas, libraries, theatres, roads and lowered taxes. The world was so much at peace that he cut his army in half and opened up travel routes so that not only could merchants travel the world but also those who would later carry the gospel unto all the world.             
     Octavian tried to make the people good as well as happy. People became more conscious of morals and religion, art and philosophy, law and order. He sought to revive such ancient ideals as courage, character, and family life. He gained his power by forcing the hand of Cleopatra, who ruled the riches of Egypt and who loved Mark Antony, Augustus’ rival. Once he had military leverage over her, he demanded that she kill Antony. She refused, but Antony, supposing his lover to be dead, mortally wounded himself. When he learned the report to be false, he made his way to her and died in her arms.
     Augustus, waiting outside with his army, allowed Cleopatra to bury her lover. She stood before Augustus--to her the terms he offered; finding them unacceptable, she returned to her quarter, clad herself in her royal robes, and then put an asp to her breast and died.
     Having said all of this, his character was hardly exemplary and, as far as religious, he was no more than a skeptic. Isn’t it interesting how God will use such an “ungodly” man for his lofty purposes? It wouldn’t be the first time in the biblical record that such happened. Does anyone remember Cyrus the king of Persia? (Isaiah 45:1-6).
     This was the first of many such censuses that would, from 20 A.D. to 270 A.D., be taken every 14 years. The primary function of the census was two-fold: Assessing taxation and discovering those liable for compulsory military service. Since the Jews were exempt from military service, it was primarily for taxation purposes.
     Every man went to his own city (Lk.2:3). According to the Jewish mode of registration, the people would have been enrolled according to tribes. But ten tribes had not returned from Babylonian exile, so this could take place to a limited extent. Only Judah and Benjamin remained of the original twelve and were the only ones to return from Babylonian captivity. Thus, it would be easy for each to be registered in “his own city”. For Joseph and Mary, whose descent from David is well known, in accordance with Jewish law, went to Bethlehem. Why? Ruth, the Moabite, wife of Boaz, great-grandmother of David, settled in Bethlehem. David was called “the son of that Ephrathite of Bethlehem—Judah, whose name was Jesse” (1 Sam. 17:12). Samuel anointed Saul’s successor at Bethlehem (1 Sam. 16:4). David fed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem (1 Sam. 17:15). After David, Bethlehem sank into insignificance—it’s future fame is pointed at by Micah 5:2.

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, 
though you are small among the clans[a] 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.” 

     Under these circumstances the betrothed Mary (Lk. 2:5) would accompany Joseph to Bethlehem. While it may seem cruel to have a pregnant woman moved 80 miles on donkey back, it was necessary that she be put into the city foretold by the prophet Micah. What is interesting is that it was not necessary for Mary to accompany Joseph to Bethlehem; however, knowing the messianic prophecies, Bethlehem was a hallowed place in their minds.
     In Lk. 2:7 it says that there was no room in the Inn. Outside the town was a place for lodgment for strangers. It was open and generally built in a square. The large court in the middle was intended for the animals and carriages. The travelers brought their own food. The rooms were not furnished and for payment the person overlooking it would provide anything that might be needful. However, since the town was crowded, there was no room open so it was in the common courtyard that Jesus was born among animals.
     The child was wrapped in a square cloth then a long strip wound around and around him. This would hardly be the royal robe that a King would have. As the story continues to unfold about him, Jesus did not come to meet our expectations or desires—he came to meet our needs. Jesus came as he did to make clear that no one and no place, however humble, was beneath his dignity, and every age and stage of life he would hallow, and save and sanctify. And the Word, took on flesh and dwelt for a while in our midst, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the only begotten Son of God. It was a strange glory, a glory in humility, a glory without royal robes, a glory without a proper bed.
     But the town was only a launching place for the activities of that night that ushered in the most unlikely of people to be led to the child: shepherds! Next week we’ll look at this motley crew and see how they were some of the most important people to have seen this sight that evening.