Good news

The birth of Jesus came suddenly and unexpectedly, at a time when there was little hope left that God would fulfill his promise to bring a Messiah to his chosen people, the Jews. Luke made a specific reference to a historical event, so that the date of Jesus’ birth would be accurately recorded. He said, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Cesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed (and this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria)” (Luke 2:1-2). The Roman government was at the height of its success in dominating the world and wanted to take advantage of its opportunity to collect taxes from every person that fell under its jurisdiction. God used the decree of a pagan emperor to fulfill an important prophecy recorded in Micah 5:2. It says, “But thou, Beth-lehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”

The location of the Messiah’s birth wouldn’t have been as critical if the Jews had remained in the Promised Land and their population kept in tact. Because the Jews had been scattered throughout the world during their captivity, and their geographical footprint altered by Roman occupation, the only way to know for certain that Jesus was actually a descendent of King David was to have his birth occur during the Roman census. Luke recorded, “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child” (Luke 2:4-5). Joseph’s residence in Nazareth indicated that his relationship to King David was of no benefit to him. Most likely, it was unknown to everyone around him, and perhaps even to Joseph himself, that he was of royal descent until the Roman census occurred.

The shepherds that were keeping watch over their flocks the night that Jesus was born may have been the only group of people that were collectively willing to believe the good news they were told about their Messiah’s birth. The fact that the shepherds were given a sign to assure them that what the angel said was true suggests that even they were skeptical about the message they received (Luke 2:12). After seeing and hearing “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God,” (Luke 2:13) it appears that the shepherds were still unconvinced. At the conclusion of this amazing worship event, Luke 2:15 tells us, “And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.” It wasn’t until the shepherds saw the sign promised them, the babe lying in a manger, that their belief became evident. Luke said, afterwards “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.” (Luke 2:20).

The connection

After 400 years of waiting for their Messiah to arrive, the Jews may have wondered if God had forgotten about his chosen people. The last prophecy the Jews had received through the prophet Malachi was to look for the coming day of the LORD. In order for the Jews to make the connection when it happened, God told them, “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse” (Malachi 4:6). A contingent fulfillment of this prophecy took place when the birth of John the Baptist was announced. His father, Zacharias received a visit from the angel Gabriel who said of his son, “he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb…And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children” (Luke 1:15,17).

John the Baptist was not Elijah returning in the flesh, but he functioned like the Old Testament preacher of repentance (note on Luke 1:17). The connection made between these two men was meant to signal to the Jews that their Messiah was coming. In fact, it was only six months later that the birth of Jesus was announced. This time, the angel Gabriel made a connection between Jesus and the covenant God made with King David (2 Samuel 7:13,16). Gabriel said, “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 32-33).

The back to back birth announcements of John the Baptist and Jesus were probably received with some measure of skepticism because it had been such a long time since there had been any communication from God to his chosen people. The connection Gabriel made to Old Testament prophecy was necessary to link Jesus with the Jews’ long awaited Messiah. Even though it was clearly evident that the time had finally come for God to fulfill his promise, things didn’t change immediately. John the Baptist and Jesus grew up under what you might say were normal conditions for children of that time period. There is no indication that people took any notice of Jesus during his childhood. It wasn’t until some thirty years later that Jesus’ ministry actually began. What is important to note about what was happening at that time was that the miraculous births of these two critical figures seemingly went unnoticed or were disregarded altogether by the Jews.