The Unwitting Role of Civil Government in the Fulfillment of Divine Prophecy
“And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed ¼. And all went to be taxed, everyone into his own city. 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 2:1-5
For all of its faults and excesses, its corruption and depravity, its idolatry and hedonism, its injustice and cruelty, the Roman Empire had been “ordained of God” (Romans 13:1) for the maintenance of law and order, of justice and protection, of quietude and peace among its citizens. “There is no power but of God,” writes the Apostle Paul, “the powers that be” serving as God’s instruments in His Kingdom of Power for the temporal welfare of society. The chief executive of a civil government and his deputies and appointees occupy positions of power “for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of them that do well” (I Peter 2:14); and they have the right, as the “ministers of God,” to expect their citizens to be obedient and law-abiding “subjects.” The duty of subjection applies equally to just and unjust governments, as both Paul and Peter aptly demonstrated when they willingly suffered martyrdom “for righteousness’ sake” (I Peter 3:14) under the Romans. Only when the government commands us to do what God in His Word forbids, or forbids us to do what God in His Word commands, then we not only may, but we must disobey it (Acts 5:29). Some officials are specially authorized to levy taxes (Romans 13:6) to finance the government’s programs for the common good and the general welfare. And, whether we Christians personally agree with the way our own government allocates public funds, and whether the purposes of expenditures comport with righteousness, virtue, and morality or not, we are to be subject to its laws and to pay our taxes, “not only for wrath but also for conscience sake” (Romans 13:5-7).
These principles of God’s Word sometimes come as a “surprise” to those who despise their government and its authority, who imagine that “democratic” principles supercede Scriptural principles, and that therefore the government must be subject to them. But Scripture is abundantly clear about the role of civil governments here in this world, as well as the duty of their citizens to be “subject” to them. We indeed have much to be thankful for as Americans that our government grants to us “civil liberties” that are unknown in many parts of the world (including, above all, the freedom to worship God and to teach and practice in accordance with His Word without governmental interference); for we need only read in history of the peril and persecution suffered by the early Christians under the Roman Empire to appreciate the blessings we enjoy by God’s grace under our imperfect, flawed, often corrupt, and in many respects morally bankrupt government today.
But civil governments sometimes serve more than “the general welfare” of their people. Even a heathen, wicked, abominable regime may be used by God as an instrument to accomplish His purpose and will, especially as He rules over the nations of the world specifically in the interest and for the welfare of His believing children. A striking example of this in the Old Testament was God’s use of Cyrus, king of Persia, to return the Jews from their Babylonian Captivity (606-536 B.C.) to the land of Judah to rebuild the Temple of God, and to resume their full political independence. Instead of being assimilated into the heathen nations of the Babylonians, Medes, and Persians —as the ten tribes of Israel were lost forever in the Assyrian Captivity (ca. 722 B.C.)— the tribes of Judah and Benjamin were preserved by God for the sake of the Messianic lineage (Genesis 49:10); and “the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, king of Persia, that he made a proclamation” (II Chronicles 36:22-23) that the Jews’ captivity should be ended and that they should return to Palestine. While the Lord could certainly have accomplished the deliverance of His people without the cooperation of Cyrus, He specially demonstrated His almighty control over the most powerful kingdom of the world at that time by using Cyrus as His instrument to fulfill His sacred purpose.
Likewise in the New Testament, “when the fulness of the time was come” (Galatians 4:4), God caused Caesar Augustus, the heathen emperor of the “one-world government” of his day, to enact a decree that, unbeknownst to him, worked to the fulfillment of sacred prophecy concerning the birthplace of the promised Savior. Both Mary and Joseph were residents of Nazareth in Galilee; and it is completely reasonable to assume that, barring the “decree from Caesar Augustus,” they would have remained in Nazareth for the birth of the Lord Jesus. After all, Mary was by that time almost full-term in her pregnancy, “being great with child;” and the harrowing ordeal of a long trip of almost 85 miles on foot or on donkey-back for no compelling reason would have been unthinkable. It was not, as some have theorized, that Joseph would have taken Mary “out of town” in any event to shield her reputation from criticism. For Joseph had already been informed by God’s angel concerning the origin of Mary’s son and had taken to himself his wife (Matthew 1:24) with full confidence in her chastity and faithfulness and with the happy anticipation that the child was the long-promised Savior (v. 21).
However, the Lord through the Prophet Micah (5:2) had prophesied that His Messiah, who was “to be ruler in Israel,” would be born in “Bethlehem Ephratah” [literally “Bethlehem the Fruitful”], one of the littlest of all the towns in Judah. It had been King David’s ancestral home (I Samuel 16:1); and the Lord had determined that the “Son of David,” the “righteous Branch” that He would raise unto David (Jeremiah 23:5-6), would be born, appropriately enough, in “the City of David, which is called Bethlehem.” He therefore caused Caesar Augustus to decree an empire-wide census of his subjects, the mechanics of which required that they report to their ancestral city to register their names into a kind of genealogical data-base. “Because he was of the house and lineage of David,” Joseph, who was to be Jesus’ father-of-record before the world (Luke 3:23; John 1:45; 6:42) since no one would believe Him to have been born of a virgin, went to Bethlehem “to be taxed with Mary, his espoused wife,” who also was of the house and lineage of David (Luke 3:23ff.). Thus both Mary and Joseph were officially recorded in the census as being of Davidic lineage; and Jesus Himself, soon to be “born in Bethlehem of Judea” (Matthew 2:1), would be known as the “Son of David,” both because of His temporal descendancy and because of His messianic office.
The baseless arguments of scoffers and skeptics that for years called into question the whole matter of this census have long since been shown to be bogus on the basis of archaeological findings. Nevertheless, the record of Holy Scripture stands sure, even lacking “independent” corroboration by secular evidence. “Facts are facts,” and Holy Spirit of God made no errors in matters of history, geography, and science when He committed His precious oracles to men; for “God is not a man that He should lie” (Numbers 23:19). Caesar Augustus, his policies, and his decisions were without his knowledge controlled by God Himself to accomplish His will, to fulfill the Scriptures of the prophets, and to validate “for the record” the temporal lineage of His only-begotten Son, our Savior. What an astounding evidence of His omnipotence! And what a comfort to us in these latter days of sore distress that Jesus Christ, “true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary,” is the King of all kings and Lord of all lords, who rules over all things in heaven and on earth to His glory and for the welfare of His believing children! (Ephesians 1:19-23). “To Him be glory and dominion forever and ever! Amen.” (I Peter 5:11).
To Thee, then, O Jesus, this day of Thy birth
be glory and honor in heaven and earth,
true Godhead incarnate, omnipotent Word!
Oh, come, let us adore Him, Christ, the Lord!
(L.H. 102, 4)
—D. T. M.