Luke 2:1-5 And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. 3 So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. 4 Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child.
Caesar Augustus wanted to know how many people were in the Roman Empire, and especially if that number was growing. He was particularly interested in making sure every citizen was listed on the tax rolls. It was probably to make sure that nobody got missed that all were required to go back to their hometowns.
This was a totally unreasonable decree by any modern standard – that people would have to go back to their city of birth, traveling long distances, just to be registered for taxation. Some have questioned whether it really makes sense that Augustus would impose such an onerous requirement on the people. I don’t think that was an issue then in the way it would be today. Seated in his comfortable palace at Rome, with no public opinion polls to trouble his sleep, Augustus didn’t know and didn’t care how much turmoil his decree would cause in people’s lives. We have a Roman census document dated 104 AD in Egypt in which it was specifically ordered that people return to their original homes for the census.
For Joseph and Mary this was not a trivial matter. First of all, Mary was very pregnant — in her final month of pregnancy. The distance between Nazareth and Bethlehem is 80 miles. So, this was to be an 80-mile journey each way, on foot (for Mary, probably on donkey). That meant about four days on the road to get to Bethlehem, and another four coming back. It was not an easy trip.
In addition, Joseph was apparently the sole proprietor of his carpentry business. For him, no work meant no pay. So, the trip was very costly, not only in terms of expenses for more than a week on the road, but also in time missed from earning a living.
And all of this was totally unfair! Augustus Caesar, probably without thinking twice about it, put all this trouble and time and expense on Joseph and Mary just for the sake of making sure they were counted and taxed. It wasn’t fair!
So, how did Joseph and Mary handle this unjust and unfair burden that was laid on them through no fault of their own? Did they get upset? Did they scream and cry and rebel?
Luke 2:3-5 So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. 4 Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child.
Joseph and Mary were obedient to the government’s decree, unreasonable and onerous as it was. Apparently without complaint, they complied, even though it was a great hardship because of Mary’s condition, not to mention the expense. If we today were subjected to such a requirement, the outcry would be enormous.
Yet, this was all part of God’s plan for the coming of Jesus. The Messiah was prophesied to be born in Bethlehem, not Nazareth, and Caesar’s decree served to get Joseph and Mary to the right place at exactly the right time. They couldn’t know that the great trouble and expense to which they were being put was not just an imposition from an uncaring and oppressive government, but part of God’s plan.
Romans 13:1-2 Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.
God has governments and rulers in His hand! By being obedient to the governing authorities, as God commands, Joseph and Mary were fulfilling the place ordained for them in God’s plan to bring forth His Son. If Joseph and Mary had been rebellious toward the totally uncaring decree of Augustus, as many Christians would feel perfectly justified in being today, they would have been unknowingly rebelling against God’s plan for them.
Romans 8:28 And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.
God made even a decree of registration for taxation bring good according to His purpose. When He requires us to be obedient to governing authorities, God knows exactly what He is doing!
We must simply trust God that when we are obedient to His requirements, even when we can see no reason for the burden laid upon us, God has promised to work it out for His purposes and our good.