As I was doing some sermon preparation recently, I caught myself reading through some sermons by G. Campbell Morgan (who, I must say, was was an excellent orator). I was struck by his development of the role of Caesar Augustus in the how it came about that Jesus should be born in Bethlehem.
He began by observing the greatness and majesty of the first Roman Emperor, emphasizing the “peace” (here defined as the absence of war) that he ushered in. He spoke of how Augustus rejected the title of dictator because it was not permanent enough. He rejected the title of King because it was not grand enough. He was given the title of Augustus, therefore, as a title of religious reverence — a step toward the claim of divinity that was eventually bestowed upon him after death.
Campbell developed this so that he could look closely at the verse of Luke 2:1 where Caesar Augustus sent out a decree that the whole world should be taxed. At this point, he cited from Micah 5:2-4:
“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.”Therefore He will give them up until the time When she who is in labor has borne a child. Then the remainder of His brethren Will return to the sons of Israel. And He will arise and shepherd His flock In the strength of the LORD, In the majesty of the name of the LORD His God. And they will remain, Because at that time He will be great To the ends of the earth.
Observing that this occurred many centuries before Caesar Augustus was to ascend as emperor, I spent some time thinking through the history from the time of this prophecy to the birth of Christ.
At the time of this prophecy, Rome was barely on the historical radar, having been only recently founded (accepting Varro’s traditional date for Rome’s founding). The dominant power at the time would have been Assyria.
Assyria, says Isaiah, was merely a tool in the hand of God to chasten the rebellious people of God. When the chastening was done, and as a result of its cruelty, bloodthirstiness, and arrogance, God destroyed Assyria. Nahum records the destruction as being utter. So profound was the destruction that a mere three hundred years later, an entire Greek army could travel through the region and have no idea they were in the area of Nineveh.
God had raised up the Babylonians and the Medes to destroy Assyria. The Babylonians took God’s people captive and brought them into exile. God, then raised up the Persians to conquer the Babylonians and let the Jews return and rebuild the temple.
Then God raised up the Greeks to conquer Persia. And God raised up Rome to conquer Greece. Then Caesar Augustus ascended to power as the first Emperor of Rome and at that moment, at that time, declared that the whole world should be taxed.
So, why did Caesar, the most powerful man in the known world, send out the decree? Because “this…has been written by the prophet”. Because “the heart of the King is in the hand of the Lord as rivers of water — he turns it wherever he wills”. Because the fullness of time had come, and for no other reason. It was God’s sovereign design, and not that of men.
“But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman…”