While They Were There

December 22, 2013 / No. 3703

Dear Radio Friends,

I heard it repeatedly again this holiday season. In fact, it seems it is voiced more than ever, almost as if no one really knows what it is. This is the “spirit of the season,” it is said. This person or that person has discovered the true meaning of the holidays.
But what is this spirit of the season or the meaning of the holidays? When we sit down and give an honest evaluation of what is meant by this in the world it comes down to humanism and materialism. A person gives something to someone, and that is the spirit of the season. Acts of charity, kindness, love for one’s fellow man—that is the true meaning of Christmas. The warm glow that a Christmas tree produces, passing out gifts, the more expensive the better, family and friends—this is the true spirit of the holidays.
Some of this is not in itself wrong, of course. Charity and kindness are Christian virtues we must show. Getting together with family and friends is never wrong. Even the giving of a gift to another is not a wicked act. Yet, for some reason, the Christian church of today seems to think that these have something to do with the birth of Christ. There is this strange and unholy mixture between the sacred and the worldly. But since this is what is always emphasized by the unbelieving world and has now also become the emphasis of the nominal church, the believer, too, in weakness can be taken in by this way of thinking.
In contrast to this, the Christian church simply takes an hour or two on a certain day for worship, and that in order to remember the birth of Jesus Christ. God’s saints come together to rejoice in the salvation that God has made possible for you and me by means of the incarnation of our Savior. They set aside a time to remember that out of a world that has been plunged into the darkness of sin, God in His grace towards us chose to deliver us by means of the sending forth of His only begotten Son into this world. We use this season of the year for that. All the rest has nothing at all to do with the birth of Christ.
There are certain churches that refuse to gather in worship to remember the birth of Christ exactly because of the secularism of this season. And that is okay too. But the event of Christ’s incarnation and birth is special. By means of the birth of our Savior, God became man and dwelt among us. Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of Mary, so that He is very God and very man. It was a Mediator of this sort alone that is able to deliver God’s people from their sin. That incarnation of Christ is a miracle—the wonder of all wonders! And it is this that we commemorate today. We consider Luke 2:6, “And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.”

I. Who Was There
If taken by itself, this short verse out of Luke 2 leaves open all kinds of questions. I mean, “while they were there,” does not say all that much. Who was there? Where is there? Why there? What happened? All questions to which we would not know the answer if it were not for the fact that this verse does not stand alone. The context in which it is found fills in the details for us. And so well do we know the story of Christ’s birth that we perhaps do not even have to look at Luke 2 to find the answers.
The first question we ask in connection with this verse is: “Who was there?” The answer is on the tip of our tongues: Joseph and Mary were there. We read of this in verses 4 and 5, “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, 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.” Joseph and his espoused wife Mary traveled together to Bethlehem. But there are a couple of important facts that we ought to know about both Joseph and Mary. Both of them were of the house and lineage of David. Some contend that Mary alone was of the royal line of David, that is the line of the kings. She was born out of the line of Solomon, Rehoboam, and so on down the line. With this it is also said that Mary was the very last person in that royal line, that there was no one else alive who would be able to carry on the kingly generations of David. In other words, the line of David had come down to this: one, lone, virgin girl in whom, if she did not bring forth a son, the royal line would disappear completely. Jesus had to be born right now, it is said, or salvation would never be possible!
How much of this is true cannot be known. Much of this does not have a firm foundation in Scripture. And even if one believes, as I do, that Mary was of the royal line of David, to say much more than that is to go beyond what we are told in the Bible.
However, we ought not to forget Joseph in all of this either. He too was of the line of David. Whether it was by means of Solomon or by means of David’s son Nathan really makes no difference. We say this because the line of David was viewed and counted in light of the men of his line. It did not matter if Mary was of the royal line of David or not. Once she was married to Joseph, she was to be accounted in him.
We say this because of the testimony given us in verse 4 of this chapter. Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem not because Mary was of the house and lineage of David, but because Joseph was. In Luke 2:4 we find that Joseph had to go to Bethlehem to be taxed because he was of the house and lineage of David. Mary merely went along with him. You see, Joseph and Mary were married at this point. I know verse 5 speaks yet of her as being Joseph’s espoused, or engaged, wife. But we read in Matthew 1 that when Joseph found out that Mary was expecting a child, he was ready to put her away for sin. At that time an angel appeared to him and told him that Mary’s conception was miraculous and that he should marry her. We read in Matthew 1:24, 25, “Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son.” There is no reason to believe that Joseph did not marry Mary until after Christ was born. The only reason it is mentioned in verse 5 of Luke 2 that Mary was his espoused wife is to emphasize that Joseph had now married that young virgin to whom he had been engaged. So, Mary and Joseph were both of the line of David and together, as husband and wife, they traveled to Bethlehem.
Now, that is another question our text leaves open. “While they were there,” we read. But the question is where? Again, we know the answer to that question: Joseph and Mary had traveled to Bethlehem. Why they traveled there we will consider in a moment, but the fact is that the two of them had journeyed to go to the town of Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph, though both of the line of David, did not live in Bethlehem or even in Jerusalem, which was about five or six miles north of Bethlehem. They lived in a country village named Nazareth in Galilee, a region that was many miles to the north of Bethlehem. You see, the land of Palestine, after the nation of Israel had returned from captivity, was divided. Those who returned from captivity returned to Jerusalem and the area around it, in what was once the inheritance of Judah. That region of Palestine became known as Judea. This is where most of the spiritual elite lived, since it was where the temple was. Bethlehem therefore was a part of this region too.
Just to the north of Judea lay the land of the Samaritans, or Samaria. Here dwelt a people of heathen origin. These people had come to settle in Palestine when the ten tribes of the nation of Israel were taken captive. It was settled by people of various origins in order that the land might be tilled there. These people had opposed the Jews who returned to Jerusalem. They had attempted to thwart the building of the walls of Jerusalem and the building of the temple. The Jews therefore despised the Samaritans. But, to the north yet of Samaria, but still in Palestine, was a third region known as Galilee. This region was made up for the most part of Jews, but the Jews that had settled in this region were poorer and less educated. Besides, it was said, that the Jews in this area were not pure in their bloodline. They had a mixed origin. Not all of them, quite obviously, but many of them were either themselves married to one who was not a Jew, or were descended from those of mixed origin. It was for this reason that the Jews in Judea looked down on the Galilean Jews with some contempt. They said, “There is no good thing that can come out of Galilee.” When they looked at Christ, they did so with disdain because He was born of poor parents from Nazareth a, small, insignificant village in Galilee.
So, Nazareth was in Galilee, the north region, and Bethlehem was in Judea, the south region. And it was while Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem that the events of this chapter occurred. We know Bethlehem well enough from the fact that this was the city of David. It was the birthplace of king David. When Samuel went to anoint this son of Jesse, he traveled to the town of Bethlehem, where David was a shepherd. This was the city of David’s lineage, therefore, and because it was, it was also the city of both Joseph’s and Mary’s lineage. Though these two now lived in Nazareth, though they lived in the despised region of Galilee, the town of their ancestors was Bethlehem.
Joseph and Mary had now made the long trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We say that it was long because the Jews refused to travel through Samaria. And though, as the crow flies, Nazareth was relatively close to Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph made their way eastward in order to travel the route of the Jordan River and then turned westward through Jericho and followed along the main road that led to Jerusalem and then south once more to Bethlehem. They had now arrived at this town, and they looked for a place to reside for a little while.

II. Why They Were There
But why travel to Bethlehem? Did Joseph and Mary have relatives there? Probably not. There was no place for them to stay when they arrived in this town. Then why travel to Bethlehem—especially since we learn from our text that Mary was largely pregnant and about to be delivered of her Son. The answer is found in the first few verses of Luke 2. Evidently the great emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus, had sent out a decree throughout all of his empire. He needed revenue to run his empire. The decree therefore went out throughout all the empire that everyone needed to register for this taxation. In Palestine everyone was ordered on a certain day or within a particular period of time to travel to the city of their lineage. They then would have to write their names down in a register in order that Caesar could carry out his taxation in an orderly way. Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem because Joseph was of the lineage of David.
Mary traveled with him probably because she was too close to being delivered of a child to be left alone. Why not leave her with relatives in Nazareth? Let us not forget who it was that Mary was carrying! She was going to be the mother of the Messiah! But she was found with child before Joseph and Mary had married. Few in Nazareth would have believed that their Son was legitimate. There was no way that Joseph was going to leave Mary behind. Besides, in those days people did not know as exactly as we know now when their child was going to be born. Mary and Joseph knew their son was soon to be born, but exactly when was outside of their scope of understanding.
So, here are Joseph and Mary alone in this small city of David called Bethlehem. They had made the journey. The next day, or maybe even that very day, Joseph would register for the tax. Then they would return home again. But there was a problem. They could not find a place to stay. There was nothing available because Bethlehem was but a small village—certainly not able to accommodate all the people that were there at the moment. The number of visitors to Bethlehem, all there to register for the tax, had swelled, and the city could no longer handle them all. There was a small inn in the town, but this already was full. The only place of shelter they could find was a cattle stall—probably a small shed or cave that housed someone’s animals. And it was here in this cattle stall that Mary gave birth to Jesus. Having just entered into Bethlehem, Mary must have gone into labor. Joseph must have helped his wife deliver their baby. They did what was proper and necessary to bring Jesus into this world. They wrapped Him in linen clothing and then laid Him to rest in a feeding trough. That, then, is why Joseph and Mary had come to Bethlehem.
Well, that was the earthly reason they came. We must look beyond all of this and see what was really happening here. We must understand the divine reason for all of this. All this was taking place in order to fulfill the divine will of God as regards our salvation. In eternity God planned everything that would take place in time. In His divine counsel God foreknew and planned in every detail, the creation, the fall, the entire history of the Old Testament. In that same counsel, God had determined from eternity exactly when and how He would send His Son into this world to secure salvation from sin for His people. What was happening here in Bethlehem was not taking place by chance. We read in our text that while they were there, “the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.” Now, obviously, what is meant here by these words is that she was due to give birth at this time. The nine months, or the certain number of weeks, as they figure it today, were accomplished that she should at this moment have her baby. But in the science of it all, we tend to forget that a woman has a baby exactly at that moment that God wills her to have it. According to the laws of nature, it is approximately nine months, but we well know that it can go longer, and certainly, if God so chooses, it will come earlier. God is in control. It was at this exact moment therefore that God had willed from eternity that His Son would be born into this world. And it was at this exact moment in time that God in His providence caused Mary to go into labor and bring forth Jesus Christ, our Savior. Christ had to be born in Bethlehem! This was a sign that He indeed is heir to the throne of David. This is why it was prophesied in Micah 5:2, “But thou, Bethlehem 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.” God had purposed the birth of His Son in Bethlehem from all eternity, and now in time God saw to it that His Son was born at this time and in this place.
But there is more to the question, why were they there. Not only did all this happen according to God’s decree and His providence. It happened according to God’s grace! Already at the beginning of time, after man fell into sin, God promised a Savior. Throughout the old dispensation God promised that Messiah. He promised this because it was only by means of this Savior that His people would be delivered from their sin. If Christ would not be born into this world, then there would be no salvation—plain and simple. That is why nothing was left up to chance by God. Christ would be born, and Christ would die on the cross, and Christ would save God’s people from their sin. And all of this would happen because God is gracious toward His people. God in His eternal love for His elect people would not leave them to perish in their sin. He willed our salvation in Christ. Christ was sent into this world because our God, dear believer, is a God of grace toward you and me. Christ was born at this exact moment in history in order that we might be delivered from sin.
And that now is an accomplished fact. We are saved! Salvation was made possible by the birth of the divine Son of God into our human flesh! He is able to replace us before God’s bar of justice being himself a man, and He is able to bear our punishment being almighty God. All that was made possible in the birth of Christ.
That is the reason we rejoice in this day. That is the reason we commemorate the birth of Christ. Rejoice today—Christ the Savior is born.
That then is what happened in Bethlehem. Mary was delivered of her Son, our Savior. No wonder the angels sang on that day! We have received good tidings of great joy! Our salvation has been secured. It is ours! It is finished. All accomplished. How gracious God is toward you and me, His people!