In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child” (Luke 2:1-5 NIV).
Caesar Augustus is also known to history as Octavian and he ruled the Roman Empire from approximately 30 BC to 14 AD. A “census” was a type of survey that counted people for tax purposes within ancient Rome. In fact, the New Testament Gospel of Luke refers to this as “the first census” to separate it from another well-known census (which Luke also mentions in Acts 5:37) that occurred in 6 A.D.
On the surface, it would seem that Caesar was responsible for ordering this census, but the Scriptures tell us God was the One who orchestrated these events behind the scenes to fulfill His promises. We know this from a passage found in the Old Testament book of Micah…
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2 NKJ).
Joseph and Mary’s trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem was about 80 miles (129 km) one way. At an average walking speed of 2 mph (3 kph), this was not an easy distance to cover in those days. Although Roman law didn’t require someone like Mary to register for the census, Luke 4:5 tells us that she and Joseph went together anyway. Knowing this, we might be tempted to ask why a young woman in the latter stages of her pregnancy would choose to make this difficult, unnecessary journey?
Some possible answers to that question should quickly come to mind for those who know something of the culture and background to this story. You see, it’s possible that Mary’s controversial pregnancy created such a difficult climate back home for Mary and Joseph that the long trip to Bethlehem together seemed better than leaving her behind. Or perhaps Joseph simply didn’t want to leave Mary by herself to face the possibility of coming to term alone.
In any event, the curtain was now about to rise on the greatest event in human history…
“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6-7 NIV).
One of the most incredible things about the Christmas story is the difference between the enormity of the event and the simplicity of the account. In this day and age where a small nativity scene on the front lawn at Christmas time often gets buried behind Santa Claus and various Christmas decorations, it may be difficult to appreciate the astounding nature of this event.
There weren’t many good places to stay when traveling in those days because the “inns” mentioned in the Bible were not like the hotels or motels we might encounter today. In fact, the word translated “inn” probably refers to a “private home” or “guest room.”
The cloths or “swaddling clothes” were long cloth strips that were used to wrap an infant of that time. In Mary’s day, midwives usually assisted during childbirth but notice that Mary apparently had no one to help her (except perhaps Joseph) for we’re told that she wrapped the baby on her own.
This passage then goes on to say that Mary placed the infant Jesus in a manger. For many, the idea of a manger brings to mind the image of a barn-like structure or some other type of building suitable for the care and shelter of animals. But animals were not usually kept in barns as is common today. In those days, animals were often kept in a hollowed out rock area or caves. A “manger” was actually a feeding trough for such animals. All of this meant that Jesus was probably not born in a barn or a stable as we know it, but in a cave behind someone’s home.
So Joseph and Mary couldn’t find a place to stay and they didn’t have a cradle for the infant Jesus. This means that the greatest human being of all time probably spent His first hours on earth inside a cave while sleeping in a feed box for animals. This is hardly the kind of entrance that one might expect for God in the flesh.