Episode 17 - The Census and the Journey to Bethlehem

November 26, 2013

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Mary and Joseph travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a small historic town in Judea. Though Caesar's hand seemingly is driving them southward for a census, God's hand was in their journey, preparing them and keeping them along what was perhaps a week-long journey. Mary is very pregnant with Jesus at this point. Learn more about their trip and what it must have been like for them in this episode as we look at chapter 2 in the Gospel of Luke.

This video is part of the Opening Up the Gospels series.

Hey everyone, Josh Hawkins here, and this is Episode 17 of Opening Up the Gospels. Last week we spent some time in Matthew chapter 1 looking at Joseph, a descendant of David and a righteous and just man. He had received a dream from God in which an angel appeared to him, encouraging him to take Mary as his wife even though the child she was carrying was not from him. He took her into his home and began to care for her. It seems like about six months pass in the story until we hear anything else from the Gospel writers, and this is where Luke picks up in Luke 2, starting at verse 1: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” (Luke 2:1–6 ESV) Now before we begin looking at this passage, we just have to stop for a second and ponder what was going on in the little village of Nazareth and in the home of Joseph for six months. Just because Joseph took responsibility for Mary and her child didn't mean that it got any easier for the two of them to live there. Maybe the initial shock of the news of a scandalous pregnancy had subsided, but imagine the stigma that both of them now bore together, day by day by day as they had to interact with family, friends, and the rest of the people in that small town. It would not have been easy for them in the honor-shame culture of their day. Did the townspeople still employ Joseph the carpenter's services or did they have reservations in dealing with him because of Mary? And what was going on in Mary's heart as this child of the Holy Spirit grew inside of her, as she felt him kicking and moving? She had never been with a man, yet she was pregnant. Remember, back in episode 13 we saw that Gabriel told Mary that she was "highly favored" by God. A seemingly unbelievable and scandalous pregnancy led to a stigma that she had to bear for the rest of her life. We can't gloss over this too quickly so we can get to the more precious manger scene a little bit later in Luke 2. This is just as precious to God and all of these circumstances are just as much His doing as the miracle of the incarnation itself. Well, Luke tells us that Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census and that everyone should register in his own town. There's a lot of scholarly debate that surrounds this decree from Caesar. There really is no external evidence from historical sources that indicate a census was even being carried out, but if you think about it, it really doesn't make much sense for Luke to fabricate something as big as a census to bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. In other words, if he was really lying and just wanted to make up a reason for Mary and Joseph to be in Bethlehem, why would he use a census? So, we really have no legitimate reason to question Luke's reliability on this. Now it's probable that this census, like other Roman registrations, was being taken either for military or taxation purposes, and women weren't necessarily required to register. And even if by some chance husbands and wives were required to register together in this particular census, that wouldn't have applied to Mary and Joseph because they were not yet legally married. Yet Luke tells us that both Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem together. Why would this be the case? They must have known that Mary was nearing the end of her pregnancy. We can't be sure why Mary went, but whatever the reason, God's hand was in it all. Now when news of the census came to the young couple, I imagine they probably were grateful for a reprieve from the scandal in Nazareth and the stigma that they bore there. Because Joseph was of Davidic descent, the law required him to be registered in Bethlehem, the city of his ancestor David. Bethlehem was 5 miles south of Jerusalem in the southern part of Israel, in the region called Judea. Bethlehem was a town rich with history. It's first mentioned in Genesis with Rachel, and it was where the story of Ruth unfolded, where David was born and anointed King of Israel (2 Samuel 16:1), and where the well of water that David longed to drink from was (2 Samuel 23:15-16). Likely Mary and Joseph would have taken the common route most Jews going from Galilee to Judea would travel on, passing along the border of Samaria and skirting the Jordan river. As we'll see later in John chapter 4, there was a strained relationship between Jews and Samaritans at the time of Jesus, so Mary and Joseph probably would have traveled southward along the border before crossing into Judea through Jericho. We'll see Jesus taking this same route into Judea later in His ministry. Now this would have probably been somewhere around 90 miles of traveling. It's not like they got in the family van and made their way there in comfort with air conditioning and classical music. Threats of the Samaritans or other bandits and even wild animals along the way would have made the journey even more grueling and traumatic. It would have taken at least three days for this trip for a healthy male but we can't forget Mary is very pregnant at this point. Undoubtedly this would have been very strenuous for her. This must have taken longer than three days for them. I seriously wonder if Mary was thinking or even said to Joseph: "Favored by God, right Joseph? This doesn't seem like favor to me..." There are so many questions to ask about the journey... Though the Bible never says anything about a donkey, did they travel with an animal and did Mary ride on it, or did she walk? A donkey certainly doesn't ride like a limousine. Where did they stay each night? Did they camp out? Did they enter small villages along the way and stay there? Though we can't be sure, there could have been a caravan of other people from Galilee heading south with them, perhaps some even going to Bethlehem like they were. But day after day, Caesar's hand was seemingly forcing them along the weary road, and God's eyes were upon them as Mary carried the most important baby in human history in her fragile womb. Again, these are the circumstances that God chose to bring His Son into the world. We can't forget what this tells us about the heart of God. So maybe after a week of traveling slowly and rationing their provisions, they see Bethlehem on the horizon and begin to climb the rocky ascent that led to the gate of the town. Their feet in pain, their hearts terrified with anxiety, their bodies deeply fatigued, and their minds filled with unanswered questions, Mary is nearing her time for the delivery of the child in her. Alfred Edersheim gives such a beautiful sketch of what their journey may have been like. Meditating on this is just so powerful. Mary and Joseph came into Bethlehem on a real day in history. This quote just brings the scene to life for me: “A sense of rest and peace must, almost unconsciously, have crept over the travelers when at last they reached the rich fields that surrounded the ancient 'House of Bread,' and, passing through the valley which, like an amphitheatre, sweeps up to the twain heights along which Bethlehem stretches (2,704 feet above the sea), ascended through the terraced vineyards and gardens. Winter though it was, the green and silvery foliage of the olive might, even at that season, mingle with the pale pink of the almond - nature's 'early waker' - and with the darker coloring of the opening peach-buds. The chaste beauty and sweet quiet of the place would recall memories of Boaz, of Jesse, and of David.”[1] Think of it - the little town of Bethlehem is teeming with residents and pilgrims from all across the land that had come to register in the census. There's noise and bustle everywhere, and Mary and Joseph are just an unknown young couple among the crowd. From the way the rest of the narrative goes, it seems like they didn't have any family or acquaintances that lived there that they could lodge with. Mary was only a short time away from giving birth to the future king of Israel and God made flesh, and nobody has any idea whatsoever. There was no announcement to the town, no special treatment given to the couple, and no fanfare whatsoever. What was going on inside Mary and Joseph's heart? They both were told that the one Mary was bearing would be the Messiah, the king of Israel, and they both must have known that he was going to be born in Bethlehem according to Micah 5:2: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2 ESV) And there they are, after angelic visitations, with the words of the prophets, searching for accommodations, full of anticipation, flooded with memories of the angels that visited both of them... Cautiously certain, yet frightened, they come to the inn of the town... "There's no room", I imagine the innkeeper saying. "There's just too many people in town, I'm so sorry". And this is where we will pick up next week. Here's a few points for meditation this week... There's just so much to think about. 1) Think about the day that word of a census came to Nazareth. Was this finally their "out" from the scandal and reproach in their little hometown of Nazareth? What did the townspeople think as they were leaving? 2) Ponder the week-long trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem. What memories do Mary and Joseph have of that week? 3) How was Mary feeling and what was she thinking every time Jesus kicked inside of her womb? She had never been with a man, and her time to give birth was drawing so close. Who would this child be? If you like these videos, would you share them with your friends on social media or email them the link to the Gospels section of my website, www.joshuahawkins.com/gospels. There you'll find all the videos of the series and more. Well, next week we'll peer into the mystery of all mysteries... the birth of Jesus. I hope you tune in then. God bless. [1] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, p 129

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