25 December 2023: An inconvenient journey

Bethel Baptist Church
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25 December 2023


“Love came down at Christmas time” – may you have a very blessed Christmas!



Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Luke 2:1-7

“What a PAIN! Not only is Mary unexpectedly pregnant – an embarrassment for a couple not even married yet, but now that Roman Empire which has unjustly taken dominance of our land as well as many others is requiring us to go from our home in Nazareth to my ancestral home of Bethlehem to register for their stupid census! It’s alright for you 21st century people – you’re saying that’s only 90 miles – Google Maps shows it’s a couple of hours’ journey by car, or 3.5 hours by public transport. But in year zero, we have to go on foot. All your Christmas pictures show Mary riding on a donkey – but does your Bible mention a donkey?”

Excuse my drama. Did Joseph and Mary ever grumble or ask if they could be excused from the census on compassionate grounds? There is no indication that they did. They had to go, in order for the Saviour to be born in Bethlehem, just as the Chief Priests and Scribes knew that the Messiah was to be born there (Matt 2:1-6).

A bit about the census

We had our last census in March 2021. I’m sure I filled it in, but I struggle to remember the detail.

After years of civil war and internal strife, Augustus, as self-proclaimed restorer of the Republic, reestablished the Republican instrument of the census, both as an aid to military recruitment and as a basis for taxation. The census also impressed upon its subject peoples the level of organization and efficiency of Roman dominion.

A quote from the book “The Herodian Kingdom and the Augustan Provincial Census System” by Sabine R. Huebner, Cambridge University Press:  08 July 2019

In my opening drama, Joseph was grieved but not rebellious. However, according to records and Wikipedia,

The census triggered a revolt of Jewish extremists (called Zealots) under the leadership of Judas of Galilee.


Wikipedia points out that the short record we have in Luke’s Gospel is discrepant when compared with other historical records: the dates of Caesar Augustus, the dates of Quirinius as governor of Syria, and the requirement that people return to their ancestral home towns appear not to correlate. I believe that the scriptures are the reliable and inspired work of the Holy Spirit. I am not going to attempt to explain apparent discrepancies here.

Our obligation to the rulers and authorities

God appoints the rulers and authorities for our own good. The New Testament scripture urges us to be obedient to the authorities (Romans 13:1-4; Titus 3:1-2; 1 Peter 2:13-17). Joseph was obedient, although the census certainly came at an inconvenient time. What is your attitude when you feel that the governing authorities are being unreasonable, or that they do not appreciate your special circumstances which make your compliance difficult? Do you try to excuse yourself from your legal obligations on this basis? There is no scriptural justification for such excuses – if you do not obey the law of the land, then you are not obeying God’s law (clearly there are exceptions , which we will cover a little later).

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword (or fines, or imprisonment) for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.

Romans 13:1-4

Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men.

Titus 3:1-2

Titus was Paul’s representative in Crete, commissioned with overseeing the churches on the island, appointing leaders in each place (Tit 1:5) and encouraging the church members to exhibit godly behaviour (Tit 2). I believe these church members, male and female, young and old, bondslave and free, are the “them” of Tit 3:1-2. So Paul, through Titus, is instructing the church members to be good citizens, obedient to the governing authorities. This was clearly a number of decades after the census that led Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, but they showed just this kind of obedience, even to an emperor who was far from being an example of godliness.

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.

1 Peter 2:13-17

Peter was writing to Christians who had been scattered across the Roman world (1 Pet 1:1). He is a bit more explicit: “subject yourself to every human institution” and he gives several examples of such institutions: kings, governors, those in authority. It seems clear that we should not decide for ourselves which authorities are legitimate – if they have power over you, be subject to them. With Peter writing to “scattered Christians”, we can guess that most of his original readers were not in the places where they were born and had lived for much of their lives, perhaps some were in places that they had never chosen to go to. Yet the instruction is, wherever you happen to find yourself, be subject to the rulers and authorities that you find in that place.

A legitimate exception

This is the general rule: that we should be subject to all authorities, be they good or bad. We see the exception to that rule in Acts 5:17-32. When the early church in Jerusalem flourished and became notable and popular because of the miracles that were taking place, the religious authorities were jealous and put the apostles in prison. An angel of the Lord set the apostles free, and sent them back to the temple to preach the gospel. Would you do that, in defiance of the religious authorities? The apostles did, and they were duly re-arrested.

 … The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”

But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.”

Acts 5:27-32

So the exception to the rule, when it is legitimate to disobey the authorities, is when we are obeying clear instruction from the Lord. Like the Apostles, we must not be surprised when such disobedience gets us into trouble. If you want to pray silently outside an abortion clinic, then yes you run the risk of being arrested. If you speak out against gay marriage or against LGBTQ principles then you are very likely to be arrested, or I suspect that I would be subject to disciplinary procedures if I did it at work.

Is it right to disobey bad politicians?

Tom Wright says:

Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. He became sole ruler of the Roman world after a violent civil war in which he overpowered all rival claimants. The last to be destroyed was the famous Mark Antony, who committed suicide not long after his defeat at the battle of Actium in 31 BC. Augustus turned the great Roman republic into an empire, with himself at the head; he proclaimed that he had brought justice and peace to the whole world; and, declaring his dead adoptive father to be divine, styled himself as ‘son of god’. Poets wrote songs about the new era that had begun; historians told the long story of Rome’s rise to greatness, reaching its climax (obviously) with Augustus himself. Augustus, people said, was the ‘saviour’ of the world. He was its king, its ‘lord’. Increasingly, in the eastern part of his empire, people worshipped him, too, as a god.

Wright, T. (2004). Luke for Everyone (pp. 22–23). Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

If any political leader forfeits the right to obedience from God’s people, it sounds like Caesar Augustus should be among them. But for Joseph there was no question about it, he obeyed the ruling authority and went to Bethlehem.

12 Laws of Christmas

Hey, it’s Christmas. I found twelve laws of Christmas on the website of HCR, a chain of solicitor businesses across the UK, and this feature was written by a real estate solicitor based in Cheltenham. Some of the laws sound a bit woolly. I assume that most of these laws are still technically in force today (they are written in the present tense), but I have not done any research beyond what I found on the solicitor’s website.

Take a look, and consider which laws you have broken – I suspect all of us have broken at least one of these. HCR web site

I think the solicitor was trying very hard to identify twelve laws for the twelve days of Christmas – that number 12 about eating mince pies sounds like it was very specific and just happened to apply to Christmas 1644. Seriously, there are many laws in the UK, and many apply to Christmas Day as they do to any other day.

A personal experience

A few years ago now, I remember being woken on the night of Christmas Eve by the sound of shouting and arguing in the street outside, obviously under the influence of drink. We were living in a semi-detached house, and to my dismay, the group that were shouting and arguing made their way to the house immediately next door. It was indeed my neighbour of the time, who was a single mother, and I later learned her father. Things quietened down a bit once they entered the house, but periodically I was disturbed by more angry shouting – until I got out of bed and phoned the police, explaining that I was afraid that there likely to be domestic violence in the house next door to us. The person who took the call thanked me. I do not know whether the police went to investigate, but some time later I found a note through our front door – from our neighbour, apologising for the disturbance, and explaining that she had been out with who she called her abusive father, and things had gotten a bit out of hand.

What did we learn from that experience? Surely that we should show respect to our neighbours and all with whom we associate. This means conducting ourselves in a respectful manner. I am taking a bit of licence here – there is a verse which says that we must be above reproach, self-controlled, sober-minded respectable. Does that description apply to you, all of the time? Now I said I was taking a bit of licence. The verse is 1 Timothy 3:2, which applies specifically to Elders, or Overseers. Would you agree with me that all Christians should be aiming for such high standards?

Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

1 Tim 3:1-7

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

Matthew 7:12

I have been covering much about the law and that Christians should be law-abiding citizens. Jesus is calling us to a higher standard than that. We are to love our neighbours, which can be largely put into practice by treating them as we would like to be treated ourselves. Sometimes at Christmas we hear about parents who spend lavishly on their children, but do not give their children what they really want, which is time and attention. To show love certainly includes treating people with respect, but often to show love also means giving people our time and attention.


It is Christmas – how should we conduct ourselves at Christmas? We should be law-abiding citizens, even when we consider the government or authorities to be bad and ungodly – the only exception permitted in scripture is when the authority is in direct conflict with God’s law. We should be more than law-abiding citizens – we should be respectable, and show all people respect. This is part of loving our neighbour, and showing people love is the best Christmas present that you can give. It is a challenge for me in particular – I’m too busy, I don’t have time to stop and have a chat. May God help me to make wise use of a bit of time off over Christmas.

Let’s pray

Thank you God for Christmas! Please help us to make it a good Christmas for other people around us.