“Now it came to pass.” The record of the events surrounding the birth of Christ occurs in Matthew and Luke, and the two Gospels interweave when it comes to the chronology of the events. To read about the birth of Christ in chronological order, it is: Luke 1:5-80; Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 2:1-38; Matt. 2:1-22. Then Matt. 2:23 and Luke 2:39-40 are both summary statements about Jesus growing up in Nazareth.
“decree.” The Greek is dogma (#1378 δόγμα), and here it means an imperial declaration which had the force of a law and carrying civil penalties for disobedience. For more on dogma, see commentary on Acts 16:4.
That Caesar’s decree was issued is a fact of history, but in this section of Luke it reminds us of the worldly and civil powers of this age that have been, and with the birth of Christ will be in a new and more sharply focused way, in conflict with the ways of God.
“Caesar Augustus.” The introduction of Caesar Augustus here is more than a historical note to set the basic time period and explain why Joseph went to Bethlehem when he did. Luke 2:1-14 has a lot of information and vocabulary that directly contrasts Augustus to Jesus Christ. The noted New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says, “…the point Luke is making is clear. The birth of this little boy [Jesus] is the beginning of a confrontation between the kingdom of God—in all its apparent weakness, insignificance and vulnerability—and the kingdoms of the world.”a
Octavius, better known as Caesar Augustus (September 23, 63 BC-August 19, 14 AD ), reigned from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD. When Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, his adopted son Octavius was named as heir. It took many years and battles for Octavius to be recognized as sole emperor, although he himself rejected the normal titles given to rulers and called himself Princep Civitatis (roughly, “First Citizen of the State”). His reign ended the Roman Republic and was the first stage of the Roman Empire. In 27 BC the Roman Senate gave Octavius the title “Augustus,” from the Latin word augere (“to increase”) and the title is roughly equivalent to “Great,” “Majestic,” “Illustrious,” “Venerable.”
Augustus was a very effective leader. He greatly enlarged the empire; set up client states on the borders of Rome to protect the empire from external invasion; reformed taxation; built a network of roads that connected the empire and better allowed for trade, travel, and the swift movement of the army; established the official bodyguard army known as the Praetorian Guard, created official police and firefighters for the city of Rome, and built and/or refurbished many buildings in Rome, including temples, baths, theaters, and much more. Knowingly or unknowingly, we still recognize Caesar Augustus every year, because in 8 BC the month of August was named after him.
It is in the general context of what Caesar Augustus accomplished that we see in Mark 1:1 and Luke 2:1-14 the conflict between the world and the Word; between the “son of god” (Augustus) and the Son of God (Jesus Christ); and between the worship of “the gods” (the Emperor Cult) and the worship of “God” (the Father of Jesus Christ).
For one thing, Augustus declared that his adopted father, Julius Caesar, had been deified at death and thus was a god, and so Augustus became known as a “son of god.” Also, the reign of Augustus began what historians refer to as the Pax Romana (“Peace of Rome”) a period of over 200 years in which there were no large-scale wars within the borders of the Roman empire (although there were constant border wars as the Romans enlarged the empire). Thus, Augustus was hailed as one that brought an end to war and thus issued in peace on earth. Furthermore, due to what Augustus had accomplished, he was referred to as “savior” by the people, and he was also called by the common Roman title, “lord.” Also, the birth of Augustus was said to be the beginning of the “good news” to the people of the world because of what he accomplished. The Priene Calendar Inscription says, “the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings [euaggelion; “good news”] for the world that came by reason of him” (translation from Wikipedia. The text of the Priene Calendar Inscription can be found in many sources).
But Luke 2:1-14 shows us that it was angels who brought the true euaggelion, “Good News” to earth (Luke 2:10), and it was not about the birth of Augustus, it was about the birth of Jesus Christ who was the only begotten Son of God (Luke 2:11; Mark 1:1). Furthermore, Jesus, not Augustus, is the real “Savior” and “Lord” (Luke 2:11), and it is only Jesus Christ who can and will bring genuine peace on earth (Luke 2:14).
The contrast that is set forth between Caesar Augustus and Jesus Christ in Mark and Luke is not nearly as clear to us today as it was at the time of Christ. In Augustus’ day, people were actively proclaiming him “lord” and “savior,” building temples to him and saying he brought peace to earth. We do not experience that today, but it was part of daily life in the time of Christ, and thus the wording of Mark and Luke forced people back then to make a choice—and still today, 2,000 years later, Mark and Luke still call out to people to make a choice. Who is the “Lord”? Who is the “Savior”? Who brings peace and prosperity to earth? And who has the power to give everlasting life? Is it the world? The world wields civil power and it offers peace and prosperity and fun and excitement. It promises much but like its god, the Devil (2 Cor. 4:4), it delivers little or nothing and its end is annihilation.
Jesus Christ is the true Lord and Savior. He lived a humble life of service and self-sacrifice, and he offers that to his followers (Matt. 16:24-25). But he also offers inner peace, a purpose-filled life, and joy. Most of all, he offers everlasting life in a wonderful new body, with wonderful people and he and God all together in a wonderful place. That is the real “Good News.”
“all the inhabited world.” In the time of the first century, the Roman Empire was the entire known “world.”