The Empire vs. the Kingdom

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
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At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire.

Luke 2:1

If you're ever in Rome, you might visit the Piazza del Popolo (the People's Square). This large square is famous for, among other things, its twin churches that form part of the square's border. In the center of the piazza is an obelisk that stands over 100 feet high (shaped like the Washington Monument, though not as tall). Fashioned in Egypt to honor one of the pharaohs, the Emperor Augustus brought it to Rome in 10 B.C. in order to set it up in his honor. The fact that Augustus held sway even over Egypt demonstrated his vast power over the Mediterranean world. Moreover, beneath the Egyptian obelisk, Augustus had an inscription carved in stone that acknowledged him as "Emperor Augustus Caesar, son of the divine Caesar." So, if Augustus was himself the son of a god, what did that make him?

The birth of Jesus was impacted by the might of Augustus Caesar. Luke 2 explains that the emperor "decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire" (2:1). This census would have helped Rome tax its subject peoples. Because Jesus' human father was a descendant of King David, he was required to go to Bethlehem, the town of David, to register with the Romans. Taking along his very pregnant fiancée, Mary, Joseph journeyed about 80 miles or so from Nazareth, where he and Mary lived, to Bethlehem. The rest, as they say, is history.

As we read the familiar story of the birth of Jesus, we can take for granted the presence of Augustus and his census. But these elements do more than simply get Jesus to his birthplace. They also set the stage, underscoring the power and presence of Rome. The Roman Empire required Mary and Joseph to be in Bethlehem. It took a considerable amount of their earnings in taxes. It dominated their lives and limited their freedom. Thus, the parents of Jesus yearned, like their fellow Jews, for an anointed one, a messiah who would save them from Roman dominion and reestablish God's own reign on earth.

Jesus was born as an apparently insignificant subject of the Roman Empire. Nobody in Imperial authority, least of all Augustus, would have had the slightest interest in or concern about some baby born in Bethlehem. After all, Augustus was not only the most powerful man in the world, but also a son of a god who vanquished even the once great nation of Egypt. Little did Augustus know that the one true God was doing something astounding, as God's own kingdom invaded the Roman Empire through the birth of a baby in Bethlehem.

If you ever visit the Piazza del Popolo and gaze upon the obelisk that honors the power of Augustus, you'll notice something curious. Reigning on the top of the obelisk is a symbol that once signified the cruel tyranny of Rome. There, on the great stone column that once honored an Egyptian pharaoh and a Roman emperor, is a cross.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: What difference does it make that Jesus was born into our world as a person under the authority of Rome? How does the presence of Augustus in the story of Jesus' birth impact the way we read it? Why does it matter that God entered our world in the way he did?

PRAYER: Gracious God, how I thank and praise you for coming as our Savior. Even though I am not in need of deliverance from Roman tyranny, I do need to be set free from the tyranny of sin and self, from the power of discouragement and death. And this you have accomplished through Jesus. All praise be to you!

I am impressed today, Lord Jesus, that you were born, not as a earthly prince with the hope of worldly authority, but as one under the power of Rome. Even the location of your birth reminds us that you have tasted what it feels like to be buffeted about as a victim of human whim. You understand, Lord, what it's like to live in this world.

Yet in time, and in your ironic and astounding way, you defeated the greatest powers of earth—the powers of sin and death—in order to offer unprecedented freedom. On the cross it looked as if Rome had won. But, through the cross, God won . . . goodness won . . . humility won . . . love won. Hallelujah! Amen.

P.S. from Mark:
If you'd like to see some pictures of the Piazza del Popolo and its obelisk, check out this page from my website.