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Now it came to pass in those days that

a decree went out from CAESAR

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to register

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everyone in the inhabited world.

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Now it happened that, during that same time we have been speaking of,

a decree was communicated from THE EMPEROR, THE ONE WHO HAD INCREASED SO AS TO BECOME MAJESTIC AND DIVINE, that everyone in the Roman Empire’s realm must be inscribed in the registry.


1: The name Caesar

At first this was only the name of a person, Julius Caesar. However, he was so powerful that emperors after him took that name for themselves in order to show that they too were powerful. In that way it became a title rather than a name. It is ironic that we don’t know the meaning of the name; it is just a name that became a title. Amid cultures in which all the names had meaning and most of those meanings were known to everyone, the meaning of this name seems to have been lost. Once again God downplayed the importance of the powerful in order to lift up the importance of the weak and lowly.

2: The name Augustus

Here we find another powerful and beautiful irony that only an understanding of biblical names can reveal. “Augustus” meant “increased, majestic, divine,” or “one who has increased so as to become majestic and divine.” However, the major emphasis of the name is the idea of “one who has increased.” Do you recall someone else with a name that means “increases or increasing?” It was Joseph. So we now have a story that includes two people with similar names (although they sound very different because they come from different languages). I’m sure the people of that day who understood the meanings of names saw God’s story-telling prowess in the “match-up” of these two men. It was undeniable that one of them had increased or grown powerful beyond the wildest dreams of most human beings. He was so great he thought of himself as the essence of “majesty” and a member of the circle of the gods. You could not get any higher, or increase any more, than Caesar Augustus had. However, in God’s matchless story-telling ability, He presents another person who is increasing. This fellow doesn’t look like much right now, in fact he is a debt-riddled laborer who is engaged to a young lady who finds herself pregnant in what is assumed by others to be a shameful, disgraceful way. So this man, rather than increasing right away, will first be demoted and will endure shame, ridicule, loss of reputation and therefore loss of opportunities. From a human perspective there is no comparison at all between Joseph and Augustus.

But Joseph’s step-son will prove to be the very Son of God, the Savior of the world, bringing to mankind what no human can bring, even powerful rulers like Caesar Augustus.

This is a comparison of two ways you can choose from if you want to “increase.” You can grow powerful in the ways of this world, stepping on others, ruling ruthlessly, and caring only about yourself, or you can follow God no matter how painful that may be and allow God to make you “increase.” You can choose to increase in ways that will only matter for a short time, or you can choose to increase in the ways that will matter for eternity.

In yet another of God’s beautiful, subtle forms of communication, this comparison is not highlighted or made a big deal of. It is there for us to find, and once we do, it speaks for itself. The conclusion of the matter, which method of increasing is best, is not stated, and does not need to be. The comparison is there and that is enough; the story tells everything we need to know.

One more thing. How many people do you know of who have been given the name Joseph? How many people do you know of that were given the name Augustus? The comparison is now complete.

3: “register"

The Greek word used here comes from two words, the preposition “off, from, away,” and the verb “to write.” The preposition centers around the idea of separation; here they would separate people by writing them down according to categories of some kind. It can properly be described as a census, or a registration, and it was obviously for the purpose of taxation.

4: “inhabited world”

This Greek word comes from the word “house, or dwelling.” That is why it means “that which is inhabited, or habitable.” When tied with the word “all” it means “the entire inhabited world.” Through Roman eyes that meant something similar to what we call “the civilized world.” This means there were some who were not included in that word “all.” Since it came from the word “house,” the person using the word could define the extent and reach of his “house.” The Romans used it to mean, “the entire Roman Empire,” because those outside it did not count in their minds, for they were not part of their “house.”

This is very different from the word “world” (“cosmos”) used in Jn 3:16. God loved the entire world, meaning the entire created cosmos, i.e. all living beings and their environs. God’s “all” includes everyone; the Roman Emperor’s “all” only included those of his “house.”