In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. (Luke 2:1-5)
These verses relate to us the familiar story of the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus. Caesar Augustus, the first emperor of Rome (and the person for whom the month of August is named), ordered that a census be taken throughout the empire for the purpose of collecting taxes more efficiently. He was Lord so at his word everyone proceeded to register. A nondescript carpenter named Joseph and his very pregnant wife, Mary, traveled in humble obedience from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It’s a journey of about ninety miles and would have required a few days to get there. It couldn’t have been an easy trip for the two, but Augustus had decreed it and so they go.
That’s the story from above the waterline. Below it, something quite different was going on. The Lord of the universe was using the ruler of Rome to fulfill His plan and purposes. Joseph and Mary weren’t traveling to Bethlehem to register for the census; they were going there to give birth to Jesus as the prophet foretold (Micah 5:2). Augustus wasn’t carrying out his plans—he was carrying out God’s plans! The mightiest kingdom on earth was being used by God to do His bidding and prepare the way for the One who was the true Lord and King.
Yet admittedly, it didn’t look that way at the time. It appeared to all of the world that what was going on with Joseph and Mary had everything to do with Caesar and Rome and absolutely nothing to do with anything else. However, twenty centuries later all Augustus has is a month named after him while all time dates from Jesus. I’d say that’s about right.
I think we need stories like this to help us keep things in perspective by reminding us that most of what we see is above the waterline. And in that regard, appearances can be deceiving because they don’t tell the entire story. When all is said and done, the complete narrative is that God is working His purposes—even though at the time they are usually unknown and unrealized by us.
This ought to encourage us to continue to move forward by faith. Much of God’s work is a mystery, but we are assured by episodes like this one that He is at work and it is glorious. As we make our way through August, may we remember how God was at work then and be confident that He is still working today.