The fulness of time was now come, when God would send forth his Son, made of a woman, and made under the law; and it was foretold that he should be born at Bethlehem. Now here we have an account of the time, place, and manner of it.
I. The time when our Lord Jesus was born. Several things may be gathered out of these verses which intimate to us that it was the proper time.
1. He was born at the time when the fourth monarchy was in its height, just when it was become, more than any of the three before it, a universal monarchy. He was born in the days of Augustus Caesar, when the Roman empire extended itself further than ever before or since, including Parthia one way, and Britain another way; so that it was then called Terraram orbis imperium—The empire of the whole earth; and here that empire is called all the world (Luke 2:1), for there was scarcely any part of the civilized world, but what was dependent on it. Now this was the time when the Messiah was to be born, according to Daniel’s prophecy (Dan. 2:44): In the days of these kings, the kings of the fourth monarchy, shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed.
2. He was born when Judea was become a province of the empire, and tributary to it; as appears evidently by this, that when all the Roman empire was taxed, the Jews were taxed among the rest. Jerusalem was taken by Pompey the Roman general, about sixty years before this, who granted the government of the church to Hyrcanus, but not the government of the state; by degrees it was more and more reduced, till now at length it was quite subdued; for Judea was ruled by Cyrenius the Roman governor of Syria (Luke 2:2): the Roman writers call him Sulpitius Quirinus. Now just at this juncture, the Messiah was to be born, for so was dying Jacob’s prophecy, that Shiloh should come when the sceptre was departed from Judah, and the lawgiver from between his feet, Gen. 49:10. This was the first taxing that was made in Judea, the first badge of their servitude; therefore now Shiloh must come, to set up his kingdom.
3. There is another circumstance, as to the time, implied in this general enrolment of all the subjects of the empire, which is, that there was now universal peace in the empire. The temple of Janus was now shut, which it never used to be if any wars were on foot; and now it was fit for the Prince of peace to be born, in whose days swords should be beaten into plough-shares.
II. The place where our Lord Jesus was born is very observable. He was born at Bethlehem; so it was foretold (Mic. 5:2), the scribes so understood it (Matt. 2:5, 6), so did the common people, John 7:42. The name of the place was significant. Bethlehem signifies the house of bread; a proper place for him to be born in who is the Bread of life, the Bread that came down from heaven. But that was not all; Bethlehem was the city of David, where he was born, and therefore there he must be born who was the Son of David. Zion was also called the city of David (2 Sam. 5:7), yet Christ was not born there; for Bethlehem was that city of David where he was born in meanness, to be a shepherd; and this our Saviour, when he humbled himself, chose for the place of his birth; not Zion, where he ruled in power and prosperity, that was to be a type of the church of Christ, that mount Zion. Now when the virgin Mary was with child, and near her time, Providence so ordered it that, by order from the emperor, all the subjects of the Roman empire were to be taxed; that is, they were to give in their names to the proper officers, and they were to be registered and enrolled, according to their families, which is the proper signification of the word here used; their being taxed was but secondary. It is supposed that they made profession of subjection to the Roman empire, either by some set form of words, or at least by payment of some small tribute, a penny suppose, in token of their allegiance, like a man’s atturning tenant. Thus are they vassals upon record, and may thank themselves.
According to this decree, the Jews (who were now nice in distinguishing their tribes and families) provided that in their enrolments particular care should be had to preserve the memory of them. Thus foolishly are they solicitous to save the shadow, when they had lost the substance.
That which Augustus designed was either to gratify his pride in knowing the numbers of his people, and proclaiming it to the world, or he did it in policy, to strengthen his interest, and make his government appear the more formidable; but Providence had another reach in it. All the world shall be at the trouble of being enrolled, only that Joseph and Mary may. This brought them up from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea, because they were of the stock and lineage of David (Luke 2:4, 5); and perhaps, being poor and low, they thought the royalty of their extraction rather than a burden and expense to them than a matter of pride. Because it is difficult to suppose that every Jew (women as well as men) was obliged to repair to the city of which their ancestors were, and there be enrolled, now, at a time when they kept not to the bounds of their tribes, as formerly, it may be offered as a conjecture that this great exactness was used only with the family of David, concerning which, it is probable, the emperor gave particular orders, it having been the royal family, and still talked of as designed to be so, that he might know its number and strength. Divers ends of Providence were served by this.
1. Hereby the virgin Mary was brought, great with child, to Bethlehem, to be delivered there, according to the prediction; whereas she had designed to lie in at Nazareth. See how man purposes and God disposes; and how Providence orders all things for the fulfilling of the scripture, and makes use of the projects men have for serving their own purposes, quite beyond their intention, to serve his.
2. Hereby it appeared that Jesus Christ was of the seed of David; for what brings his mother to Bethlehem now, but because she was of the stock and lineage of David? This was a material thing to be proved, and required such an authentic proof as this. Justin Martyr and Tertullian, two of the earliest advocates for the Christian religion, appeal to these rolls or records of the Roman empire, for the proof of Christ’s being born of the house of David.
3. Hereby it appeared that he was made under the law; for he became a subject of the Roman empire as soon as he was born, a servant of rulers, Isa. 49:7. Many suppose that, being born during the time of the taxing, he was enrolled as well as his father and mother, that it might appear how he made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant. Instead of having kings tributaries to him, when he came into the world he was himself a tributary.
III. The circumstances of his birth, which were very mean, and under all possible marks of contempt. He was indeed a first-born son; but it was a poor honour to be the first-born of such a poor woman as Mary was, who had no inheritance to which he might be entitled as first-born, but what was in nativity.
1. He was under some abasements in common with other children; he was wrapped in swaddling clothes, as other children are when they are new-born, as if he could be bound, or needed to be kept straight. He that makes darkness a swaddling band for the sea was himself wrapped in swaddling bands, Job 38:9. The everlasting Father became a child of time, and men said to him whose out-goings were of old from everlasting, We know this man, whence he is, John 7:27. The Ancient of days became an infant of a span long.
2. He was under some abasements peculiar to himself.
(1.) He was born at an inn. That son of David that was the glory of his father’s house had no inheritance that he could command, no not in the city of David, no nor a friend that would accommodate his mother in distress with lodgings to be brought to bed in. Christ was born in an inn, to intimate that he came into the world but to sojourn here for awhile, as in an inn, and to teach us to do likewise. An inn receives all comers, and so does Christ. He hangs out the banner of love for his sign, and whoever comes to him, he will in no wise cast out; only, unlike other inns, he welcomes those that come without money and without price. All is on free cost.
(2.) He was born in a stable; so some think the word signifies which we translate a manger, a place for cattle to stand to be fed in. Because there was no room in the inn, and for want of conveniences, nay for want of necessaries, he was laid in a manger, instead of a cradle. The word which we render swaddling clothes some derive from a word that signifies to rend, or tear, and these infer that he was so far from having a good suit of child-bed linen, that his very swaddles were ragged and torn. His being born in a stable and laid in a manger was an instance, [1.] Of the poverty of his parents. Had they been rich, room would have been made for them; but, being poor, they must shift as they could. [2.] Of the corruption and degeneracy of manners in that age; that a woman in reputation for virtue and honour should be used so barbarously. If there had been any common humanity among them, they would not have turned a woman in travail into a stable. [3.] It was an instance of the humiliation of our Lord Jesus. We were become by sin like an out-cast infant, helpless and forlorn; and such a one Christ was. Thus he would answer the type of Moses, the great prophet and lawgiver of the Old Testament, who was in his infancy cast out in an ark of bulrushes, as Christ in a manger. Christ would hereby put a contempt upon all worldly glory, and teach us to slight it. Since his own received him not, let us not think it strange if they receive us not.
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