Christmas in History, Luke 2:1-7

God works providentially. He controls the circumstances to move people where He wants when He wants to achieve what He wants.

Luke was a careful historian (Luke 1:1-4).  


“Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great:  He appeared in a body”- 1 Timothy 2:16


“Therefore when Christ came into the world, he said:  … a body you prepared for me…” -Hebrews 10:5


The Census (1-3)

The first heading we have is “The Census”.  Read verses 1-3. Luke is giving us the historical setting of Jesus’ birth:  Augustus was ruling the Roman Empire and Herod the Great was ruling Judea. Herod died in 4 B.C. so Jesus’ birth took place no later than the early part of 4 B.C. (Mt 2:1; Lk 1:5)


Luke is respected down to today as an excellent historian.  

  • Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy…this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”  -Sir Walter Ramsay, regarded as one of the greatest archeologists who ever lived.  (NEDV, 63)


However, there are some who try to discredit him.  This passage is seen as their silver bullet. Critics charge Luke with making a serious error in this verse, and thus he and the Bible cannot be trusted.  


What is the error?  Well, it has to do with Quirinius.  Luke says this census is “the first census while Quirinius was governor of Syria”.  


The problem is that Quirinius was governor of Syria too late for Jesus’ birth.  It is a historical fact that Quirinius was governer from 6AD to 9AD, and he did issue a census during that time.  However, 6AD is a date that is way too late for the birth of Jesus. If Quirinius started as governor in Syria in 6AD, that is 10 years after Herod died –  and remember Jesus was born while Herod was still alive (Luke 1:5; Mt. 2:1).  


So how could Luke say Jesus was born when this guy Quirinius was governor of Syria?  How could Luke say Jesus was born when Quirinius was governor in 6AD (2:2), and also say in the first chapter that Jesus was born when Herod was ruling 10 years earlier (Lk 1:5)?  Did Luke blunder here? Did he get lazy with his research on this issue (“I myself have carefully researched everything from the beginning…” 1:3)?  


Luke is so good a historian though it seems so unlikely that he goofed so badly here.  

  • E.M. Blaiklock, Professor of Classics at Auckland University says this about Luke, “Luke is a consummate historian, to be ranked in his own right with the great writers of the Greeks.”  (NEDV, 66)
  • Then A.N. Sherwin White declares, “the confirmation of history is overwhelming [in Luke’s writings]…Any attempt to reject its historicity must now appear absurd.  Roman historians have long taken it for granted.” (NEDV, 66)


Keeping in mind the tremendous reputation Luke has for accuracy, and how many times he has been proven right with further archeological discoveries, we need to consider the explanations offered here.  In other words, if Luke has proven to be so accurate in everything else, shouldn’t we, with the limited information we have, give him the benefit of the doubt? That seems not only reasonable, but responsible to me.  Here are perhaps the two most reasonable explanations for this confusion:


One likely possibility is that Quirinius was governor of Syria not just once, but, twice.  He was governor from 6-9AD we know for sure. But, it is possible this was his second term, and that he was a high official over Syria previously when Herod was alive and Jesus was born.

  • Sir Walter Ramsay’s quote on the Inscription in Tibur:
    • “There was found near Tibur (Tivoli) in AD.1764 a fragment of marble with part of an inscription, which is now preserved in the Lateran Museum of Christian Antiquities, as one of the important monuments bearing on the history of Christianity. The inscription records the career and honors of a Roman official who lived in the reign of Augustus, and survived that emperor. He conquered a nation; he was rewarded with two Supplicationes and the Ornamenta Triumphalia, i.e., the gorgeous dress of a triumphing general, with ivory scepter and chariot, etc.; he governed Asia as proconsul; and he twice governed Syria as legatus of the divine Augustus” (
  • Justin Martyr, the great early church father apologist, states 3 times in his writings that our Lord was born under Quirinius and appeals to that register that was made by Quirinius (Alford’s Greek Testament, 456 footnote).  Keep in mind that Justin Martyr was trying to prove the Christian faith to the Romans. Appealing to their census’s, if false, would have been a quick way to discredit the historical basis of your faith.

Even if Quirinius didn’t govern Syria earlier, there is a second reasonable possibility:  Luke is actually mentioning a census that occurred before Quirinius was governor of Syria.  This has to do with the actual Greek language in the verse. The word “first” is the word “prote” and can mean not only first but also “prior”, or “before” (Expositors Bible Commentary, vol. 8, pg 843)  Luke would then be referring to the census that was taken before the reign of Quirinius


Application:  When it seems the Bible is wrong trust that it is right.  Do not be dismayed by the critics. God’s Word stands up to scrutiny every time.  

  • Nelson Glueck says, “It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference” (NEDV, 61)
  • WF Albright, “The excessive skepticism shown towards the Bible…has been progressively discredited.  Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable details, and has brought increased recognition to the value of the Bible as a source of history.” (NEDV, 61)


Application:  The Bible is describing real history.  Not just human history, but, the history of God’s interaction with humans.  We need to take this book seriously and not be so quick to dismiss it as a bunch of fairy tales or myths or legends concocted by superstitious, anti-scientific knuckle-draggers.  Very intelligent, sophisticated and cultured people authored various books of the Bible. But God also used simple, less-educated and less-sophisticated people as well. The enduring power and the timeless attraction of the Bible is not because authors were so clever and creative.  It’s because the book ultimately comes from God.  


The Road Trip (4-5)

Now Joseph takes his bride-to-be and they head south from Nazareth to the town of Bethlehem.  Let’s notice several things.

First, the reason they went to Bethlehem is because they were supposed to register in their hometown.  Now they lived in Nazareth, but, since Joseph was a descendant of David, he needed to go to the town of David, which is Bethlehem.


Secondly, we see God’s hand at work providentially to fulfill the sayings of the prophets.  God said through the prophet, that the Savior would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).  


Now Mary is pregnant with the Savior, but she is 70 miles due north of the city where the Savior is due.  God doesn’t rapture her to Bethlehem. God doesn’t send an angel, even though He has previously (news of pregnancy, leave for Egypt, return from Egypt).  Instead, God works providentially. He controls the circumstances to move people where He wants when He wants to achieve what He wants. Mary needs to be in Bethlehem to give birth to Jesus there to fulfill the Micah prophecy.  The decree for a census gets the job done and gets them on the road.


Thirdly, we see that suffering, discomfort, stress and trial that accompanies serving God.  Now Mary had the most privileged and honored role in this whole story. She of all women in all history carried the Son of God in her own womb.  God knew that. The whole host of angels in heaven knew that. Joseph knew that. Elizabeth and Zechariah knew that. But did you ever think of who else knew it?  No one. Her parents, siblings, friends, neighbors, relatives as far as they were concerned she was immoral and got pregnant. Who would believe the story “I’m still a virgin!  God did this to me! My son is the Messiah.”? You just had to go on forced to let everyone think what they thought and you had to be satisfied that God knew the truth.  


But she wasn’t in it alone because Joseph was sharing in that with her.  By staying with her everyone would have interpreted that as he is the father.  So he acted improperly with Mary as far as everyone else understood. They shared in this suffering of being misunderstood and misjudged.  What a bond would have formed between them. What a righteous 


But there is the great discomfort of traveling while pregnant.  We can only hope this travel occurred in her 2nd trimester (after the sickness of the first and before the misery of the 3rd!) There were no heated donkey saddles with push button controls.  This was physically demanding travel. It was dangerous travel too as robbers were always a threat on the lonely roads through mountains wilderness.  


Something that stood out to me this week in the passage was this:  it says that Mary was “pledged to be married to him”. How come after finding out the news of her pregnancy and the angelic visitations he still waited to marry her?  Then I remembered that the angel told Joseph that he was not to have any union with his wife until after Jesus was born. Now if you know anything about ancient Jewish weddings, they were big deals.  One of the steps of the wedding was the consummation of the marriage in the “Bridal Chamber” – a romantic and private room made up by the groom. There they would have their very first physical encounter with each other.  Since that was a fundamental part of a wedding, and Joseph was not to do that part until after Jesus was born, it seems this may have been at least one reason why he had not married her yet when they arrive in Bethlehem.  


The Birth (6-7)

Then the time comes.  The water breaks. The braxton hicks contractions become full-blown labor contractions.  It’s getting more painful. More intense. More urgent. Mary is in labor. 


Marvel at such humble circumstances for the King of Glory to enter the world.  Poor, undistinguished Mary and Joseph. No place but with the animals at this most delicate and momentous moment.  Not a crib of gold with the finest bedding but the manger, the food trough for the animals. The God of Eternity who dwells in unapproachable glory so high above all creation was born in the most contrary circumstances to his heavenly state.  So many references to this moment follow in the NT:


  • “Yet for your sakes Christ became poor….” (2 Cor. 9:8)
  • Who being in very nature God did not consider equality with God someething to be grasped but made Himself nothing…being made in human likeness” -Php 2:6, 7
  • “In the fullness of time God brought forth His Son, born of a woman under the law” – Galatians 4:4  
  • “Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great:  He appeared in a body”- 1 Timothy 2:16. 
  • “Therefore when Christ came into the world, he said:  … a body you prepared for me…” -Hebrews 10:5
  • “The Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us….” Jn 1:14



  1. Believe the Bible.  It deserves your trust.  
  2. Be optimistic about God’s faithfulness.
  3. God is at work in ways we can’t yet see or understand.
  4. With Honor comes sacrifice.  We carry Christ inside of us now as Christians and that is a great honor.  With that honor will come great sacrifice in this life.
  5. Come humbly to God.  he came humbly to us, let us come humbly to Him.

You’ve heard of a cat getting stuck in a tree, but, have you heard of the dog?  Recently a German Shepherd in California got loose and chased a cat up a tree.  In the blink of any eye the 75 pound dog found herself more than 15 feet in the air unable to get down.  Firefighters came and climbed up to the dog to rescue her.

We’ve gotten stuck too.  Chasing our sin we’ve ended up in a place with no way out.  We’re stuck under God’s judgment and on our own we can’t escape.  But, Someone came for us.  Unlike the dog He didn’t come up to where we are though – He came down from where He was.  He came down into our filth, our vileness, our darkness.  Our Rescuer arrived that morning in a manger.  He came for you.  Come to Him.

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