Wednesday, December 30, 2020

More Like Jesus in 2021: Humility-Philippians 2:1-1-11


As the New Year begins many people are hoping for better things ahead in 2021 and some are making resolutions to that end. I have never been much for resolutions, and yet, after some reflection on my own life and the life of our church, the Lord has impressed upon me a focus that I want to introduce to you today in a special New Year message that I am praying will point us in the direction God would have us travel in together. The theme and focus is “more like Jesus.” I want my life, the life of my family, and the life of our church to look more like Christ. Throughout the year and in tandem with prayer meetings and during special series at different intervals throughout the year we will be visiting and revisiting this theme as we grow together as a body of believers. This starts today as we are introduced to one of the most foundational, most necessary, and most challenging ways to look more like Jesus—humility. Today we are going to witness THREE PARTS OF PAUL’S CALL TO HUMILITY in Philippians 2:1-11 and apply what we learn in appropriate ways in our lives as needed.


It must have been a joy for Paul to write to the church in Philippi. He had planted this church while in the region and after some years had passed, this church had grown and was thriving in many ways. However, even good churches have their share of concerns. You know what a church needs to hear from Paul because, well, Paul will tell them in these letters the Lord inspired. One of the things Paul is willing to call out (literally by name) in the letter to Philippi involved a dispute between two women (Euodia and Syntyche) in chapter 4:2-3. Given this source of division and tension, Paul highlights one of the many characteristics that the church ought to consider and improve upon so that this example (and others like it) did not disrupt what God was doing in the life of this congregation. It just so happens that this needed area of improvement is also what Christ exemplifies and excels at so well—humility (but alas, I am getting ahead of myself).

So important is the call to humility for this church that Paul introduces it in the following way—“Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship off the Spirit, if any affection and compassion” (2:1). You can tell from reading this opening that what is coming is exceedingly important and to be investigated very carefully.

What proves exceedingly important and especially worthy of investigation as it pertains to humility in the life of the church is answered next in verse 2—“make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose” (2:2). Humility looks like unity and a body that is not united most assuredly has members operating from the opposite posture—pride. Pride, the opposite of humility, is the enemy of unity. Competition instead of cooperation among the members breeds discord and paralysis. This was true in the church of Philippi and it is true in the church today. Notice to what extent Paul goes to highlight how necessary unity is in the life of the church. Unity is said to not only “complete his joy” but words like “same,” “united,” and “one” are repeated again and again in this single verse. If you want to know whether a body of believers is adequately humble, Paul appears to argue that unity is a good gauge.

However, unity is not the only hallmark of humility Paul emphasizes. Next, Paul introduces selflessness as another test for a heathy body of believers—“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves…” (2:3).

I have often quipped that if was ever called to give a graduation speech or present at a baccalaureate ceremony I would slowly walk up to the podium, lean into the microphone and very clear utter a single word—“others”—and quickly step away and return to my seat. After all, “others” ought to be our preoccupation in life, regardless of what God may call us to do. That is, after all, who we are left on this earth for—others. It is the second greatest command given to us by God—loving “others”—and one of the most important ways we obey the first greatest commandment –loving God. An “others”-focus is what we see modeled in the life of Christ and his apostles. Others is what this life is all about…not you…others!

Paul makes this very clear in his call to humility when he utters verse 3 which reads (again) “do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves” (2:3). A humble church is  concerned about the feelings, needs, desires, etc. of others first and gives others precedent over personal agendas, personal campaigns for self-aggrandizement, and personal preferences.

In fact, Paul’s call of the church goes beyond merely treating others as equals. That is not a high enough bar to clear. Notice what he states: “but with humility of mind regard one another as MORE IMPORTANT than yourself” (2:3). Therefore, the old adage “treat others the way you want to be treated” ought to instead read “treat others even better than you would like for them to treat you.” This applies to the way one speaks to others as well as what one does for others. People in the church of Philippi may have been tempted to say “Well, I don’t need to hear that” or “I don’t handle my business that way” in their dealings with one another. Here, Paul responds with “So what? To do more than you may think is necessary in a situation is to be like Christ and that is ultimately what the church ought to be pursuing—Christ-likeness (but alas, again I am getting ahead of myself).

So far Paul has argued for the church at Philippi that a humble church is a united church and a selfless church. In verse 4 he adds that the humble church is a serving church—“Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (2:4). Oh how this must have spoken to volumes to the church in Philippi where so much was going on and the church was enjoying growth in many directions. Paul’s encouragement here is to avoid compartmentalizing the ministry of the body into tribes/factions/silos that are mutually exclusive. After all, when this happens, different campaigns, efforts, or endeavors begin to compete rather than cooperate and mini man-made kingdoms replace the mission of the kingdom of God. It is important that the members of the body support and pray for all efforts in the church, even/especially those in which one may not have direct involvement. The nature/proximity of our involvement in this or that ought have no bearing on our enthusiasm to see this or that succeed as the church is on mission. When we choose to serve only what interests us or supports our pet project, we rob ourselves of the joy that comes when God may be doing something elsewhere.

Paul’s call for the church of Philippi to be humble requires that unity win out against division, selflessness beat self-centeredness, and service overwhelm mini-kingdom-building. So urgent and important are these encouragements toward humility that Paul frames these many admonitions through present active participles, indicating that these practices are ongoing, progressive, and require consistent and deliberate work on the part of the members of the church. These are things—unity, selflessness, and service—to work at constantly. Such enterprises ought to be on the radar of every Bible-believing, God serving member of any church (be it in Philippi or in this one right here). Thankfully, Paul provides an example for the church to learn from as they are about these pursuits.


When looking for a standard to judge oneself against or an example worthy following, you cannot get any better than Jesus himself. Paul introduces Christ as the humility expert in verse 5 when he says, “have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus” (2:5). While unity, selflessness, and service are good instructions to follow, Paul throws these up against a more general and all-encompassing test case to consider—the life and ministry of Jesus. Ultimately, the call to humility for the church is the call to Christ-likeness. So what did he do? How might the church follow in his footsteps?

Paul presents three expressions of humility in the life of Christ that believers can learn from in verses 6-8 that are of special significance. In fact, together these verses form one of the most powerful and aesthetically-pleasing hymns on the ministry of Jesus ever written. In it the incarnation is highlighted first with—“who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…” (2:6-7a). Consider what Paul says here very carefully. First, Jesus existed “in the form of God.” In other words, his form perfectly expressed the inner reality that he was and is God himself. Hebrews 1:3 puts it this way: “And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power.” Paul says elsewhere of Christ that “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17).

No other resume is higher than Christ’s—this one who preexisted time, created the world, and sustains all things in his power. He is unlike us in that there never was a time in which he was not. No higher status can be granted that he doesn’t already have and no greater glory can be enjoyed that isn’t already his.  And yet, while possessing all of these things and all of the rights and privileges appertaining thereunto this same Jesus—the glorious son of God and second person of the Trinity—“did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped” (2:6). I love that. While Jesus could have insisted to embrace his glorious splendor undisturbed, he willingly chose to forego certain blessings that only he knew how to enjoy to accomplish God’s will. Though equal with the Father, he subordinated himself to the Father’s plan and left the comforts and wonders of heaven for others (a selfless service brought on by his unity with the Father).

To follow Christ and to look like Christ means taking on the same willingness to let go of what we think we need, what we may feel entitled to, or what we believe is owed to us either from God or from others to move forward with God’s plan. Oh how we love to grasp hold of our way, our agenda, our preferences, our public perception, or what we have worked so hard to achieve. Christ-likeness is not about grasping hold of things tightly, but about letting them go and placing the Father’s agenda first. People might say “but I know better!” or “it is comfortable here” or “I’ve always been” or “that isn’t what I had in mind.” I am glad Jesus did not say these things or stay where he was. His incarnation proves his humility and part of that incarnation involved letting go of what was rightfully his for the sake of God’s will. Some of us would look a lot more like Jesus if we would let go of what we believe we are entitled to and quit insisting that we get our way in everything. Jesus did not lean on what was his and demand what always was, he emptied himself. He became human! The only way for Jesus to empty himself would be to take on limits and this he did by wrapping himself in flesh and becoming a man. To do this he left (at least in some ways) his position, rank, and privilege, rendering these “of no effect” (Melick Jr., Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 103). Think of the quantum plunge this required, the levels to which God the Son stoop, the degree he was willing to condescend to accomplish this. We are talking about steps toward humility that make the Mariana Trench (the deepest known point in the earth’s ocean) look like a shallow puddle.

However, Jesus does not just exemplify humility in his incarnation, but while at this subterranean level of humanity, we see evidence of his modesty in the way he lived—“taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men” (2:7b). Though a king, he was born in a manger. Though God made flesh, the Bible says “there was nothing in his appearance to make us desire him” (Isa 53:2). Though he is of the highest stature, he became a servant. Though God, he lived life as a man. Perhaps this is why he consistently taught that the last shall be first and the first shall be last (Matt. 19:29-30) and that the greatest among you will be a servant (Matt. 23:11).

If the example of Christ’s humility could not grow any more acute, consider how his humility was expressed in his death! Paul continues “being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:8).  As a true “bond-servant” Jesus chose to obey even when it cost him his life, and that further in a most ignoble and humiliating way” (Melick Jr., Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 105). The impact of Jesus’s death by crucifixion would have been powerful for the Philippian audience. After all, no Roman could be subjected to such a death and the Jews took it as a sign that the victim was accursed (Deut. 21:22; Gal. 3:13). It was one of the most painful and humiliating ways to be executed ever conceived by man and Jesus humbled himself to this extent out of obedience to for the glory of the Father.

Christ’s humility in death is an especially important reminder to us today in our world that champions comfort and preaches safety, security, and health as ultimate virtues. Make no mistake brother and sister in Christ, God’s chief concern in your life and my life is not about your comfort, safety, security, or even health; it is that he receives the maximum glory from you regardless of what that entails and despite what that may cost. Such was true of Jesus himself and it ought to be true of those who follow him.


After exploring the call of humility and the example of humility, the apostle Paul explores the result of humility. For Christ, the result of his humiliation was exaltation—“For this reason also, God highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name,…” (2:9). Following Jesus’ condescension, service, and sacrifice for others, he was elevated greatly/exceedingly and bestowed a name higher than any other. This is not to say that Jesus became anything that he was not already. It is to say that what he was (and is) was confirmed in special ways. It is in his humility that his glory is most realized for those who are willing to accept him for who he is and what he accomplished.

In fact, accept him now or not, one day Paul says that “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:10-11). Here lies the ultimate result of Christ-like humility—the glory of God the Father. For Christ, his humility was awarded with exaltation because in exalting Christ, God exalts the One who is the “image of the invisible God” the “exact representation of his glory.” As followers of Christ, when the church models Jesus’ example of humility, she resembles him and returns to the Father the glory that is due his name. The church is operating best and glorifying God most when she and her members are at their most humble. That is when they look most like the one who humbled himself on their behalf.

So What?

This year as a church we will giving special focus to living and speaking more like Jesus. As Paul has indicated in this passage for the church in Philippi, humility goes a long way to that end. We have been called to humility, been given the greatest example of humility, and have the greatest reason to live humbly like our Savior (the glory of God). What does this look like? It looks like unity, selflessness, and service and less like competition, self-aggrandizement, and personal kingdom-building. It looks less getting our way and pursing God’s will. It looks less like grasping hold of what we believe we are entitled to or expect from others and more like letting go and giving God control in all things. It looks less like treating others how we think they should be treated and more like treating them better than we treat ourselves. It looks less like comfort, security, and safety and more like obedience, faith, and sacrifice, regardless of what it costs. This is a message I am convinced the church needs to hear in this moment, especially as we stand at the precipice of a new year and give ourselves to reflecting and thinking ahead. I’m convinced of this so much because of how I’ve wrestled with this message and its implications in my own life. Maybe I’m alone; but I think not.  

You see, after ten years in full time ministry and some reflection during time away this past week, I can honestly say that this past year has stretched me more than any before it on so many various levels. Amid the trials and triumphs, frustrations and blessings, something has been made very clear to me after spending a lot of time with myself…I am relatively sick and tired of me. Because I know what is in me. I know what I am. I do not need more of me, my way, or my agenda, or my attitude, or my preferences, or what I believe I’m entitled to. I need more of Jesus. I need more of Jesus every day. Because as Paul says in Colossians 1:27, there is nothing about me that is exceptional, brilliant, prepared, or qualified. It is Christ in me that is the hope of glory.

Aren’t you tired of you? If you are not tired of you, maybe you have not thought hard enough about who you are. Maybe you don’t know yourself as good as you think you do. Maybe you have not thought about how much you struggle with that old ugly pride that like an unending whack-a-mole character rears its head again and again and again. Maybe you don’t know how debilitating the ancient foe of pride is to your pursuit of being more like Christ in the context of his church. If you want to be more like Jesus in 2021 and every year thereafter, let it start with less of you and more of him. Let it start with humility.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Journey to Bethlehem Pt. 3 Luke 2:8-20

 Over the last several weeks we have been making trips to Bethlehem. First, we traveled with Ruth and Naomi to a place of restoration and blessing following a season of tragedy and discouragement. Last week we traveled with Mary and Joseph to a place of fulfilled promises following inconveniences and peculiarities. Today we are going to take one more Journey to Bethlehem, this time alongside several shepherds the same night Jesus was born. Their story is revealed to us in Luke 2:8-20 and as we witness two meetings that take pace in this passage we will learn that journeying to Christ is only the beginning of what God has in store for those who embrace him in faith.


When we last left the Christmas story we saw the greatest miracle ever—the birth of Jesus Christ. God had come to earth as a baby and news of this magnitude needed to be shared. Enter the next set of characters to emerge onto the scene—“In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night…” (2:8). While it might seem a bit peculiar to announce this important news first to shepherds in a field (especially when one understands their humble place in society), consider the prominent role shepherds play in the Scriptures. King David, after all, was a shepherd and God is described as a shepherd (see Psalm 23:1). Later Jesus himself would be called the Good Shepherd (see Jn. 10:11). These references seem to indicate that God seems pleased with associating with and elevating the lowly for his incredible purposes. This would be Jesus’ M.O. throughout his ministry as he would extend good news to those who were humble enough to understand that they needed it. What a treat, undeserved and unmerited, it would be for these shepherds to be entrusted with this great news of Christ’s birth!

While watching their sheep in the cool of the night “an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened” (2:9). Just imagine these men, nodding off to the soft braying of the sheep and the sound of nearby crickets, suddenly being awakened by the bright light and presence of this heavenly figure. This angel was probably that same Gabriel who appeared in 1:11, 19, 26 to foretell the births of John the Baptist and Jesus. The initial reaction to the emergence of this angel is terror (and understandably so). It is not every day you are visiting by a figure from heaven with the glory of the Lord. In fact, remember, heaven had been relatively silent for over 400 years! The shepherds were anything but prepared for what they saw and, what they were about to hear. That said, this is just the latest in a series of divine interruptions used the lives of people to bring them to Bethlehem—to a place of great blessing. Remember, Ruth and Naomi’s life was interrupted by death and famine; Mary’s life was interrupted by a miraculous pregnancy; Joseph’s life by a decree from Caesar; and now these shepherds with the appearance of an angel. God uses these interruptions to interrupt the world of sin and death with the solution of a Savior.

After the initial shock of this divine disruption, “the angel said to them (these shepherds), ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all people’…” (2:10). The nature of the message the angel gives is especially important. First, it is good news. This is the definition of the gospel—(euaggelion). In fact, it is the best news of all—God has sent his Son to save the world. Second, this should bring about great joy. In a world of heartache, brokenness, darkness, and death, nothing can change the fact that God has provided a remedy for and ultimate salvation from these things. This ought to provide sustaining joy to all who know and understand it. Third, this gospel and joy is “for all the people.” It is for everyone who will accept and embrace it! Rich and poor, Jew and gentile, slave and free, shepherds and kings (Gal. 3:28; 1 Tim. 2:3-6). I imagine the look of terror on these shepherds faces was beginning to change, their mouths curving into a smile.

Next, the angel reveals that this gospel and joy with implications for the world is found in a very special newborn baby—“for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (2:11). This birth announcement indicates that this baby has a royal pedigree (city of David) and would be the long-awaited “Savior” of his people. In the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms and Isaiah, God is frequently identified as the “Savior” of his people. Jesus would prove to be the Savior because through him God would redeem his people (Strauss, ZIBBC, 343). The title the angel gives Jesus—“Christ the Lord”—calls to mind his special anointing as the salvation-bringing king of the Jews in keeping with the messianic expectation found in promises of the Old Testament. A King, Savior, and Messiah had been born to bring good news and joy for all who would accept it.

This message could be verified in a confirming sign—“This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (2:12). Perhaps we can now understand part of the reason behind the peculiar nursery Jesus was inhabiting. After all, how many babies would be found lying in a feeding trough? Certainly, this anomaly would help indicate that something very special had taken place, that is, if the shepherds were willing to check things out for themselves.

If this wasn’t already enough of a spectacle, “suddenly there appeared with eh angel a multitude of the heavenly host,…” (2:13a). Such hosts or “armies” of heaven reveal God’s sovereign power and authority—sovereignty that we have already traced in every detail both great and small in this unfolding story. The same God who orchestrated the geo-political climate, lives of Mary and Joseph, timing of the pregnancy, and issuing of the decree so that the birth of Christ would take place at the exact right place at the exact right time in the exact right way was now showing his control over who would receive the news and how it would be spread.

This heavenly host turns into a mighty chorus of singers “praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (2:13b-14). Here, the events and circumstances of Jesus’ birth are properly directed to the glory of God. Everything that has occurred in this endeavor of bringing God’s Son into the world glorified the Lord in a most special way. Not only that, but it would result in “peace among men with whom he is pleased.” Those who will embrace God’s gift will know the peace of God that overwhelms the anxiety and brokenness brought on by sin.

Talk about an exciting meeting! A welcome interruption of the greatest news about the greatest gift come to the world to provide the greatest relief from mankind’s greatest problem. This news is just as good today, and it is our prayer that if it has not already interrupted your life, it would this Christmas.


The shepherds respond to this divine interruption with immediate action. Luke reveals that ”when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, ‘Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us’…” (2:15). The way this response is described here suggests that the shepherd left at once in a hurry to confirm what the angel has disclosed to them.

“So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as he lay in the manger” (2:16). The shepherds probably checked the animal stables until they found the one with the baby; Bethlehem was not a large town by modern standards and this search probably did not take too long for them (Keener, IVPBBC, 185). Their journey to Bethlehem ended when they happened upon exactly what the angel predicted they would see—the God-child laying in a manger with Mary and Joseph on either side.

What a special camaraderie this small group shared on this most consequential night. All these parties had journeyed to Bethlehem because each of their stories was interrupted and redirected according to God’s grand narrative. Mary and Joseph were brought to Bethlehem at the behest of Caesar’s edict, the shepherds were called to the stable at the call of the angel, and Jesus was sent through Mary to save the world. Each in their own way, following the journey to Bethlehem, was brought to this point of blessing in keeping with God’s plan and mighty purposes.

The text goes on to say that “when (the shepherds) had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child…” (2:17). This implies that the first reaction to the experience they just had with Jesus was to go and tell others what they had witnessed. This is the first example of a pattern that will surface again and again throughout Jesus’ ministry and thereafter. Many who are healed by Jesus later in his ministry go and tell those around them what occurred. The Samaritan woman at the well, immediately upon her interaction with Jesus, shares who he is with her town. The disciples, following the resurrection and sending of the Holy Spirit, go and tell Jesus’ story and establish the church. Saul, after confronting Jesus on the road to Damascus, changes his name to Paul and spends the rest of his life going and telling others the gospel message throughout the Roman Empire. The Ethiopian Eunuch, after learning about Jesus from Philip, was saved only to then go and tell his people back home. The Philippian jailer, after hearing about Jesus, goes and tells his family. We could go on and tell you story after story that repeats the same theme. This pattern, which began with the shepherds seems to be the first and most appropriate response to interfacing with Jesus—whether the person or his message. Those who understand who Jesus is and what he came to bring ought not be able to help themselves and, like these shepherds, busy themselves with sharing the greatest news of all.

The testimony of the shepherds appears to prove effective as “all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds…” (2:18). At least for the present, this “wonder” that was instilled in those who heard their message was enough to set in motion the next phase of God’s plan. There was something wonderful about what was shared by these shepherds and the happenings of that first Christmas night and such wonder drew the gaze of those who heard their report toward the heavens. “Could this be true?” “Has God broken through?” “Is salvation really come to earth?” The answer to these questions is a resounding YES! Jesus has been born and with him, the redemption for all who believe.

Do you know this? If you know this are you keen to go and tell those around the greatest news of all? Do people stand in wonder at your testimony of who God is and what he has done? What better gift can we possible give this Christmas than to go and tell this story and what it means to those who have not heard it or have not yet been willing to embrace it?

So What?

Over the last several weeks we have journeyed to Bethlehem no less than three times: with Naomi and Ruth, with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, and with the shepherds. We have made the case that God has been actively engaged in all of the details to bring all of these parties to this special place at very specific times and in very specific ways so that he might bring all to a point of unprecedented blessing. This same sovereign God is in control of this moment and your viewing of this message (whether live in-person, online, or in recorded form). It is not by accident that you are listening to this or watching this at this juncture in your life. The only question you must answer is why? What is God trying to get through to you or leading you to do in response to what you have heard? Perhaps God is leading you, much like the shepherds to the person of Jesus Christ so that you might surrender to him and embrace the gift that he was sent to bring—salvation. Perhaps God is leading you, much like Mary and Joseph, to be obedient, even in the little things, trusting that God is in control over even the small details and working them out for his good in your life. Or perhaps, as in Ruth and Naomi’s case, God is revealing to you that despite the heartache and struggle, he is not through with you and is, even in this season, leading you according to his perfect will. Do not miss out on what God has for you this Christmas. Take the journey he is leading you to take and wait expectantly for all the wonderful things he will do!

Monday, December 7, 2020

Journey to Bethlehem Pt. 2 -Luke 2:1-7

 Typically during this season, many people are thinking about different trips they will be taking to celebrate Christmas—visits to family, going to grandma’s house, taking a long-anticipated vacation, etc. However, given everything going on in our world today, many traditions and/or plans have changed. Christmas will look very different for many people this year and this can prove annoying, frustrating, an inconvenient in many ways. Regardless of what may happen to your plans this year, today, I thought we would take a trip of our own back to the first Christmas. As part of this trip, like last week, we are going to go on another journey to Bethlehem. This journey is recorded for us in Luke 2 and given the four observations we will make in verses 1-7, we are going to learn that God’s sovereignty extends to even those annoying, frustrating, and inconvenient disruptions to our plans. In fact, even these can be used of God to bring us to a place of blessing.


The account that Luke provides in chapter 2 connects worldwide significance to the relatively trivial events in Judea (Strauss, ZIBBC, 339)—“Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” (7:1a). What began in a small town with a couple of special birth announcements for Elizabeth and Mary is now set alongside the backdrop of the entire Roman Empire. The author suggests that something major is going to take place. What will happen in Judea is going to affect the entire world. At this time, Causer Augustus (“exalted one”) was in power and was responsible for inaugurating the Pax Romana (an unprecedented period of peace and stability throughout the entire Mediterranean region). “The freedom and relative safety of travel afforded by this peace would prove a major factor for the rapid expansion of the gospel message” later in Jesus’ story (Strauss, ZIBBC, 341). These details reveal God’s sovereign control over history. It is in this context on the world’s stage that a decree goes out at the very time when the greatest gift God would ever offer could be introduced to the world. When we consider the journeys God has for his people, we must remember that the Lord is both aware of, involved in, and willing to use even the small details of life to execute his great purposes.

In this case, the decree was “that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria,…” (7:1b-2). Censuses were routine in the Roman empire and were used (as they are today) for a host of purposes (taxation, registration, information, etc.). Many understandably balk at government intrusion into their personal lives and tend to resist what appear to be frivolous requirements and/or hoops that we are made to jump through; however, consider that even these kinds of ordinances and annoyances were used in God’s plan all those years ago to bring this journey to Bethlehem about! Yes, God is not just sovereign over the time and details of a journey; he is also involved in the trivialities we are made to endure that seem, on their face, to be meaningless or unnecessary.


In compliance with the decree “everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city,…” (7:3). It is possible that the Romans here, as on other occasions, allowed their client states (or local jurisdictions) to conduct affairs according to local customs. In the case of this census, Judea may have decided to count the people according to ancestral tribal divisions. Everyone in Judea was made to return to his/her tribal roots to be registered. Talk about an inconvenience! Taking time out of life to travel to your family’s hometown just to be counted seems to have at least provided potential for some frustration. And yet, the people complied, including a man named Joseph.

Let us consider Joseph for a minute (as the spotlight is often appropriately directed to others involved in the Christmas story like Jesus and Mary). Joseph was, by all accounts, a good man, respected in his small town both as a blue-collar professional and in the synagogue. As far as we can tell, Joseph was the kind of man you would wish the very best for. However, though Joseph appears to do everything by the book, several unexpected things had interrupted his rather ordinary life in Nazareth. His beloved Mary, whom he was engaged to and had honored and respected and kept pure, turns up pregnant. Fearing the worst (that she had proven unfaithful), Joseph considers his options and nearly divorces Mary quietly. Imagine Joseph’s surprise when he is visited by an angel in a dream and learns that this baby Mary is carrying is the son of God and that her pregnancy is a result of the Holy Spirit’s power in her life. After submitting to this grand plan and electing to play a small role in God’s unfolding story, Joseph now learns that he must take a very pregnant Mary with him to be counted in the census. This episode in Joseph’s life was anything but convenient, easy, normal, or expected. That said, Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem is exactly what God desired in his life at this very moment in history.

So there went Joseph in compliance with the decree—“[he] went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea to the city of David which is called Bethlehem,…” (7:4b). Bethlehem proves to be the destination of Joseph’s journey. “The House of Bread,” located about five miles south of Jerusalem, was closely associated with King David, being his birthplace and original home. It was in Bethlehem where, even before David, seed was restored to Naomi’s family through a kinsman Redeemer—Boaz. His marriage with Ruth continued the family line that would lead to David. Here, as in Ruth, Bethlehem would prove to be a small town with a big role in God’s plan. This is what the prophet Micah suggests in Micah 5:2.

Micah 5:2-“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.”

Joseph is journeying to this storied but humble location “because he was of the house and family of David” (7:4c). Because Joseph traces his ancestry to King David, he was to be counted in David’s hometown. However, do not miss the significance of this association. Joseph was, in many ways, a part of the royal family of the most beloved and powerful king in Israel’s history—a king who, by the way, was promised a forever kingdom with an even better king who would sit on a forever throne.

2 Samuel 7:16-“Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever.”

Psalm 89:3-4-“I have made a covenant with My chosen; I have sworn to David My servant, I will establish your seed forever and build up your throne to all generations”

Even Jesus’ adoptive father, his ancestry, and the destination of their journey is being orchestrated by God for important reasons. Every detail is being meticulously managed by the Lord for his glorious purposes. What looks like an inconvenient trip by a man living well beneath his family heritage, is so much more. However, Joseph is not traveling alone.


Joseph traveled “in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him,” (7:5a). Though we have already mentioned a little about Joseph’s relationship with Mary, let us take a closer look at this young girl and appreciate some of what she has been through. Typically Jewish girls during this period of history were engaged between twelve and fourteen years old. This engagement was a far more formal commitment than it is today. In fact, it took a formal divorce to break one off. The girl in this arrangement would even be called the fiancĂ©’s wife prior to the wedding and infidelity would be treated as adultery. Against this backdrop, we ought to understand Mary as a young girl (probably around fourteen) who was following the customs of her day in compliance with all the social and biblical norms. However, her life, much like Joseph’s, was interrupted. She too was visited by an angel and was told that she would conceive and bear a son, though she never knew a man. Even more shocking was that this son would be the Son of God, the Savior of the World! What would people say? What would Joseph do? After wrestling with all these questions and more, she commits herself to the Lord’s plan and concludes “may it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Unconventional, shocking, and peculiar though Mary’s story may be, it was an important part of God’s story and plan to bring his Son into the World.

The third passenger on this journey to Bethlehem is the child in Mary’s womb—“and was with child” (7:5b). This was the same “seed of the woman” sent to crush the head of the serpent (the devil/Satan) as prophesied in Genesis 3:15. This was the same child who would prove that God was with his people (Isaiah 7:14). This baby would be the Savior of the world, the Christ child, Jesus, God made flesh.

With everyone accounted for, these three—a humble man of God, an even more humble young girl, and the God child in her womb—make their way to Bethlehem in compliance with the decree late into Mary’s pregnancy.  


God has already proven sovereign over the people, ancestry, political leadership, frivolous decrees, and general context in this story. In verse 6 we also learn that he is sovereign over the timing and execution of specific events—“While they were there [in Bethlehem] the days were completed for her to give birth.” At this exact place and at this exact time, the introduction of God in human form would take place and the fulfillment of many prophecies would be fulfilled.

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son;…” (7:7a). The tense of the verb here suggests the end/culmination of a long process/journey. Here the pregnancy (at least in this final stage) runs parallel to the journey to Bethlehem. Both these journeys were now complete—this family had finally made it to their destination and Jesus had finally been born. He is divine by means of miraculous conception of the Holy Spirit, He is king as hinted at by the location of Bethlehem and his earthly parent’s familial connection to David, and He is here! The greatest ever miracle has occurred—God was now incarnate to bring about salvation for his people.

Though such a figure is certainly worthy of incredible fanfare and the most special accommodations, Jesus, like his parents, proves utterly humble and unassuming from the beginning—“and she wrapped Him in clothes, and laid Him in a manger” (7:7b). These traditional “swaddling clothes” were strips of cloth intended to keep limbs straight—a sign of motherly care and affection (Strauss, ZIBBC, 340)—and the manger was a feeding trough for animals. This was hardly the nursery you might expect for the God-child, but God, you see, is even sovereign over these details. These humble accommodations illustrate that this Jesus who can be laid in such places can also take up residence in a heart like yours and mine.  

This theme of glory in humility continues as our passage comes to a close and we learn that Joseph, Mary, and the newborn are making the most of their peculiar accommodations “because there was no room for them in the inn” (7:7c). Crowded conditions amid this census forced Joseph and Mary from normal lodging to a place reserved for animals. This could have been a lower-level room or stall for animals attached to a private residence, a cave used to shelter animals, or even a feeding place under the open sky. “whatever the precise location, the commonality and humility of the scene prepares the reader for the paradoxical story of the Messiah, who attains glory through suffering” (Strauss, ZIBBC, 342).

So What?

Last week we learned that God can use even tragedies in our life’s journey to bring us to a place of great blessing. In Luke 2 we learn that God’s sovereignty does not just extend to the epic or over-the-top episodes we may be made to endure, but it also supervenes over the mundane, trivial, and small details of our lives. Even little inconveniences/annoyances/interruptions can be used to direct us where God wants us to go. This was the story of the first Christmas. It was a governmental decree for a census that led Joseph, Mary, and her unborn child to the exact right place at the exact right time to bring God’s son into the world—utter glory wrapped in utter humility. Had it not been for Joseph’s willingness to remain with Mary, Mary’s willingness to say yes to God, and their collective obedience to the God-appointed leaders of their day, the first Christmas would have looked very different.

As we reflect on what this may mean for our lives, consider the hoops that you and I might be made to jump through, the small but inconvenient changes that disrupt our day or alter our plans. While we might be tempted to rail against these as curses, perhaps we ought to consider that even these are not outside the scope of God’s sovereignty. In fact, he might just be directing you to the exact right place at the exact right time for a specific purpose. Perhaps even these things are being used to bring you to a place of blessing or paving the way for an opportunity to be a blessing to others.