A Decree Went Out From Caesar

As we come to a robust celebration of Christmas, we want to maintain the biblical antithesis. This cannot be done on the basis of genial Unitarian platitudes, egg nog, gentle snow fall, or anything else like these things.

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed . . .” (Luke 2:1-7).

So who was this Caesar Augustus? Why does Luke bring him into the story? Much more is involved that a simple time indicator. Octavius as a young man was the adopted son of Julius, and the heir apparent. By the birth of Jesus he had assumed the throne, and was the emperor. In 40 B.C. a blasphemous coin was struck in Gaul which showed the two-headed god Janus, with Julius on one side and Octavius on the other. The inscription said, “The divine Caesar-and the Son of God.” There was an Egyptian inscription which said that Octavius was a marvelous star, “shining with the brilliance of the great heavenly Saviour. Then, in 17 B.C. when a strange star appeared in the heavens, and Augustus commanded a twelve day Advent celebration, a ceremonial embrace of Virgil’s statement: “The turning point of the ages has come!” During the reign of Augustus, the cult of explicit emperor worship took firm root, especially in Asia Minor. This region was to become the center of persecution of Christians-and for this precise reason. Even his taken name indicates the problem. The ruling title Augustus was taken by him, which means “worthy of reverence and worship.” He was, in short, homo imperisosus. Caesar Augustus was simply the last in a long line of ancient men who believed in humanistic empire. But God was sending another kind of emperor, and another kind of empire entirely.

This is what gives force to Luke’s juxtaposition. Given what Luke understood about Caesar Augustus, and the identity of the Christ, this story from his gospel has to be seen as a rivalry of kings. The fact that Christ was born in Bethlehem-thus fulfilling the prophecy of God-as the result of a command from Caesar (to tax!) has to be seen as a supreme irony. If the rulers of that age had known what they were doing, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8). And of course, the problem was evident even earlier. Had they known what they were doing, Augustus would not have lifted his finger to tax the world. But he only did this because God lifted His finger-to save the world.

God sent Christ to bind the strong man. “When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace: But when a stronger than he shall come upon him, and overcome him, he taketh from him all his armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils. He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth” (Luke 11:21-23). Luke knows what he doing here. Matthew records that Herod knew of the threat. But Augustus knew nothing of it, and Christ came to conquer the world-his throne is David’s and His kingdom will never end (Luke 1:32-33) This is the accusation against Him later (Luke 23:2). Luke also records the defiance of Peter and John-“Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). They are quoting from a coin which ascribed this same saving authority to Augustus. The early Christians preached another kind of saving king, contrary to counterfeit salvation offered by Caesar (Acts 17:7). And we should note in passing that it is no offense against the magistrate to acknowledge that Christ rules over him (Acts 25:8).

Christmas therefore reminds us of the fundamental antithesis. And in response, we have three basic options-we can affirm the antithesis (by faith alone), or we can blur or deny the antithesis, or we can misplace the antithesis. When it comes to the celebration of festivals like Christmas, our role is not to blend in with an unbelieving crowd. What does the holiday mean? It means the kingdom of God, not man.

Where do we start? What are we to do? Begin at the beginning-do not run before you walk. Remember God’s Son, God’s word, God’s day. Remember the contrast of kings-remember the rival saviors. But we have a Savior, which is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11). And here is true potency-the power we have is in the name of our king. There is no other name which brings salvation.

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