3 So they all went to register, each to his own town.
If we take all three of this chapter’s verses so far together, we see a movement throughout the Roman Empire from the perspective Caesar himself. Verse 1 shows the giving of the order. Verse 2 shows the order being carried out throughout the empire, specifically as it moves through Syria into Palestine. Now in verse 3, we see the result of the order and the way it was carried out in Israel.
In most places, the Roman census was not handled in this way. People simply registered wherever they lived; they did not return to their ancestral homes. King Herod, however, ordered that the Jews would follow their own system and not the easier Roman way. So all over Galilee and Judea, people had to pick up and travel. For some, there was little or no disturbance. For others, there was a considerable distance to go. One can imagine that most farmers waited until harvest was at an end, or took turns while a neighbor or family member could watch their livestock in exchange for the same service later on. For a carpenter, the timing probably didn’t matter much, except that Mary was expecting a baby; this may have hurried them or it could have delayed them, depending on Joseph’s frame of mind and his finances.
What we see in this verse is a general, national obedience to the Fourth Commandment. Caesar’s order was inconvenient, but he had the authority to do this. The method in which Herod had it carried out was more inconvenient still, but he, too, had the authority to do it this way. We live in a nation and in a culture that questions everything, whether we ought to or not. We are free to ask questions—but we are not free to break God’s commandments, just as we are free to use God’s name, but not to misuse it. To misuse it is to sin. We are free to exercise our rights under our nation’s constitution, but not to the point where we sin against the Fourth Commandment. Remember the words, and read Luther’s simple explanation:
Honor your father and mother, that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God that we do not dishonor or anger our parents and others in authority, but honor, serve, and obey them, and give them love and respect.
Romans 13:1-6 is a familiar passage that commands us to obey the government, but it is not the only one. Peter said, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority; whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13-14). It’s noteworthy to our understanding of Luke 2 that Peter mentions both the emperor and governors.
Citizens do not have all of the information that an emperor or a president has. We know that men and women in authority in the government can make mistakes and are subject to temptations, and we know from experience that they can sin. Peter and Paul knew that, too, when they wrote to Christians about submitting to emperors—some of whom hated Christians. One of those emperors even ordered the executions of both Peter and Paul. But God works through his representatives, in the family, in the church, and in the government. We are subject to their administration, and even though we might also be subject to their sins, it isn’t our place to go outside the laws of God or man to remove them. If your faith is tested because of those in authority over you, then pray for strength to pass the test. Pray for an opportunity to safely correct any wrongs, but submit to those in authority as you submit to Christ (Ephesians 5:24).
Herod’s selfish or unthinking method of implementing Caesar’s orders unintentionally sent Joseph of Nazareth down into Judea, to Bethlehem, and fulfilled a prophecy that would not otherwise have been fulfilled. The Lord works in mysterious ways, through sinners like Herod, and even through sinners like you and me.
Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.