Virtually the entire world knows the Christmas story. In one form or another, it has been told a million times. Having been so often featured in church services, novels, histories, motion pictures, television, radio and theatrical performances, it is the most iconic of all narratives. From A Charlie Brown Christmas to Carnegie Hall, theaters large and small, myriads of church services, books and the visual arts, the second chapter of Luke is known throughout the world.
Even those who don’t believe in Jesus know the story. Read its words once again, and take special note of its historical, geographical, political and prophetic aspects. But in the process, don’t fail to enjoy its majestic prose:
“1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. 2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) 3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. 4 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:) 5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. 6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. 8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. 15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. 16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. 18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. (Lk. 2:1-18).
What we have here is the story of all time. It involves a young Jewish couple who, at a time of socio-economic unrest are following the mandates of a census being taken by the leaders of the Roman Empire. It is perhaps the original tale of two cities: Nazareth and Bethlehem. The former, a village in northern Israel, reminds us of the seclusion and close family relationship Jesus experienced as he grew to manhood. The latter, a site at the focus of numerous prophetic events, is connected with the “lineage of David.”
The shepherds near Bethlehem are quite special. They are tending the lambs destined for Temple sacrifice. As we shall see, the location of these shepherds is quite near the place where Christ was born. It also marks the site of an ancient prophecy – the amazing prophecy of Christmas.
Why had Joseph and Mary come all this way from their hometown when she was in the late stages of pregnancy? Because their registration was decreed by the bureaucrats of the Roman Empire. Their genealogies were both out of the line of Judah. Joseph’s ancestry – the royal genealogy of Jesus in Matthew – came through King David, himself. Bethlehem, the city of David, was the place where Roman magistrates had located themselves to receive those who were of the tribe of Judah.
It was David who established the Kingdom that will eventually be given to the risen Christ, the Lion of the tribe of Judah:
“4 David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. 5 In Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months: and in Jerusalem he reigned thirty and three years over all Israel and Judah” (II Sam. 5:4,5).
Mary’s genealogy – the legal genealogy of Jesus in Luke – presented His official right to rule over the House of David. The mandate of Caesar Augustus was a declaration that the entire Empire be forced to register at designated locations, which had less to do with taxation than identification. Concerning the word “taxed” in verse 1 of Luke’s account, above, W. E. Vine (in An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words) explains that it is translated from the Greek word apographo, meaning “to write out, enroll, inscribe, as in register.” He writes:
“Confirmation that this census (not taxation) was taken in the dominions of the Roman Empire is given by the historians Tacitus and Suetonius. Augustus himself drew up a sort of Roman Doomsday Book, a Rationarium, afterwards epitomized into a Brevarium, to include the allied kingdoms, appointing twenty commissioners to draw up the lists.” (pp. 32, 33).
In other words, this census was Caesar’s way of insuring that no pretender to any local throne would pop up, claim a following among the Jews (who were in rebellion against Rome), and be raised to claim regal authority against Rome. In the eyes of the Romans, such an act would deserve immediate execution.
In The Star that Astonished the World, Ernest L. Martin acknowledges a reference made by Josephus, the famous first-century Jewish historian: “The oath of loyalty mentioned by Josephus is what brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem …, then it makes sense why Mary had to accompany Joseph. In a regular census Mary would not have needed to go with Joseph, nor would Joseph have needed to travel so far. Some have suspected that [since] both Joseph and Mary were descendants of David, and were legitimate claimants to the throne of Israel (had such a throne existed). It could easily be seen why Mary, as well as Joseph, was expected to sign the oath of loyalty to Augustus. All “royal claimants” would have especially been singled out to give the oath of allegiance.” (pp. 186, 187).
Martin rightly points out that in Jewish reckoning, even Mary, a descendant of David, had the right of primogeniture and kingship for her offspring. Luke’s account (in verse 4,) says this very thing. The young couple came to the City of David, Bethlehem, to register as members of the royal tribe of Judah.
Certainly, taxation was on the Roman agenda, but control of the Empire was its chief concern.
Foreordained: A Watchtower and a Flock
Now, let us depart for a moment from Luke’s famous narrative of Christ’s birth. We go back in time to the most famous prophecy of His coming birth. It comes to us through Micah, who wrote at least seven hundred years before Christ was born.
“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” (Mic. 5:2).
Ephratah, an ancient city originally located on the outskirts of Bethlehem, was associated with the death of Rachel and the amazing prophecy that accompanied her burial. To this day, her tomb is still known and honored in this region. A bit later, we’ll look at this important, ancient incident.
First, we must connect the verse above with some verses that precede it, beginning in Micah chapter Four, verse One. Speaking in the same context, the prophet Micah lays out the distant future in a prophecy of the coming Kingdom. He refers to that time period as “the last days.” Then, he goes on to say the following:
“6 In that day, saith the LORD, will I assemble her that halteth, and I will gather her that is driven out, and her that I have afflicted; 7 And I will make her that halted a remnant, and her that was cast far off a strong nation: and the LORD shall reign over them in mount Zion from henceforth, even for ever. 8 And thou, O tower of the flock, the strong hold of the daughter of Zion, unto thee shall it come, even the first dominion; the kingdom shall come to the daughter of Jerusalem. (Mic. 4:6-8).
Here, we have a prophecy that describes a mysterious location, and a strange edifice – a watchtower – that is presented as the key to understanding the birth of the Messiah. Micah wrote these words in the 8th century, B.C., long before Israel’s captivity in Babylon, which he also describes in the following verses: “9 Now why dost thou cry out aloud? is there no king in thee? is thy counsellor perished? for pangs have taken thee as a woman in travail. 10 Be in pain, and labour to bring forth, O daughter of Zion, like a woman in travail: for now shalt thou go forth out of the city, and thou shalt dwell in the field, and thou shalt go even to Babylon; there shalt thou be delivered; there the LORD shall redeem thee from the hand of thine enemies. 11 Now also many nations are gathered against thee, that say, Let her be defiled, and let our eye look upon Zion. 12 But they know not the thoughts of the LORD, neither understand they his counsel: for he shall gather them as the sheaves into the floor. 13 Arise and thresh, O daughter of Zion: for I will make thine horn iron, and I will make thy hoofs brass: and thou shalt beat in pieces many people: and I will consecrate their gain unto the LORD, and their substance unto the Lord of the whole earth. (Mic. 4:9-13).
Notice that Micah’s prophecy goes on beyond the Babylonian captivity, into the far future, describing Israel as being regathered and fully established as a people invincible against all the people who are gathered against her.
Thus, we discover that the strange watchtower over the flock is the centerpiece of an ancient drama – the downfall and rising again of the Kingdom of Israel. From the days of Jacob – father of the twelve tribes – to the present, God’s will has traced out an immense plan. It is centered upon Jesus, the most important person in all history.
The Momentous Death of Rachel
In Genesis 35, God instructed Jacob to rise up and take his entire family to Bethel. Arriving there, he purified himself and erected an altar to God. After this, God appeared to him and pronounced that his name would be changed from Jacob to Israel:
“10 And God said unto him, Thy name is Jacob: thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name: and he called his name Israel. 11 And God said unto him, I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins; 12 And the land which I gave Abraham and Isaac, to thee I will give it, and to thy seed after thee will I give the land” (Gen. 35:10-12).
Shortly after this, they travelled southward to the place that has been known ever since as Bethlehem, the Hebrew word that translates as “House of Bread.” This was the place where Christ was to be born about eighteen centuries later:
16 And they journeyed from Bethel; and there was but a little way to come to Ephrath: and Rachel travailed, and she had hard labour. 17 And it came to pass, when she was in hard labour, that the midwife said unto her, Fear not; thou shalt have this son also. 18 And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing, (for she died) that she called his name Benoni: but his father called him Benjamin. 19 And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. 20 And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day. 21 And Israel journeyed, and spread his tent beyond the tower of Edar. (Gen. 35:16-21).
Amazingly, the location mentioned here was marked out for the future fulfillment of prophecy. In Hebrew, the term “tower of Edar” is migdal eder. Its literal meaning of this title is “tower of the flock.” It is the place where Christ was born, as described by Luke’s Christmas story.
In his classic text, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim wrote, “That the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem was a settled conviction. Equally so was the belief that He was to be revealed from Migdal Eder, ‘the tower of the flock,’ This Migdal Eder was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks which pastured on the barren sheep ground beyond Bethlehem, but lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem. A passage in the Mishnah leads to the conclusion that the flocks which pastured there, were destined for Temple-sacrifices, and, accordingly, that the shepherds who watched over them were not ordinary shepherds. The latter were under the ban of Rabbinism, on account of their necessary isolation from the religious ordinances, and their manner of life, which rendered strict legal observance unlikely, if not absolutely impossible …”
Edersheim is quick to point out that the mysterious prophecy of the watchtower, though known by Jewish teachers, was not understood by them:
“Thus Jewish tradition in some dim manner apprehended the first revelation of the Messiah from that Migdal Eder, where shepherds watched the Temple-flocks all the year round. Of the deep symbolic significance of such a coincidence, it is needless to speak.” (pp. 186, 187)
As lambs destined for Temple sacrifice were born in these special flocks, they were inspected to make sure that they were perfect, not having any defect, so that they were suitable for sacrifice by the priests at the Temple. The Apostle Peter refers to Christ in precisely this way:
“18 Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; 19 But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot: 20 Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you” (I Pet. 1:18-20).
Some sources have declared that the “swaddling clothes” mentioned in Luke 2:7 were the pieces of woven material that the Temple shepherds used to wipe off the newborn lambs prior to their inspection. And thus we have the Christmas prophecy of a very special flock, and a very special watchtower. With the Lord, nothing happens by accident.
Later, as Jesus began His public ministry, he came to John the Baptist who rightly discerned His historical role and destiny: “And looking upon Jesus as he walked, he saith, Behold the Lamb of God!” (Jn. 1:36).
How amazing that in John’s Gospel, He also referred to Himself as the “bread of life” (Jn. 6:48). At a precise moment in the timeline of human history, in the City of David, the Lamb of God came to the House of Bread at the Tower of the Flock!