About that time Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Empire. This was the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone had to travel to his own ancestral hometown to be accounted for. So Joseph went from the Galilean town of Nazareth up to Bethlehem in Judah, David’s town, for the census. As a descendant of David, he had to go there. He went with Mary, his fiancée, who was pregnant. –Luke 2:1-5 (MSG)
Trees, mountains, a few flowers, a slight breeze stirring up the leaves, these are the sights I see as I look out my office window. What don’t I see? Government. It’s out there, somewhere, but from where I sit there isn’t an obvious sign of government as far as my eyes can see.
Which is strange, because in the United States alone, government at all levels influences a great many aspects of our lives and chews through billions of dollars each and every day.
If I think more carefully, though, I realize that the electricity to power my laptop meets standards approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and the laptop itself is designed to comply with regulations enforced by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission set rules for the internet and cellular services I make use of as I research this blog post. And so on, ad nauseum.
Government exerts power over our lives, but often, invisibly.
And so too with God. But I find it interesting that God sometimes uses governments to carry out his purposes.
Rome was taking a census at the very moment Mary was nearing the end of her pregnancy. It was not at all unusual for Rome to count its citizens, but the logistics of ordering people to return to their hometowns to be registered meant that it didn’t happen frequently. 15-year intervals were common, but there is evidence that Caesar Augustus ordered more frequent counts.
The Roman government needed the numbers, especially an accurate count of the males who could be counted on to bear arms in Rome’s defense. They also needed revenue, and the census was the only practical way to gauge the effectiveness of their tax-gathering methods. (Historians are not sure how to reconcile the biblical accounts with other historical census records, which are incomplete. A good discussion of what is known can be found here: https://www.comereason.org/roman-census.asp)
The history is interesting, but I was more taken by the way that God seems to have used the government of Caesar Augustus to fulfill a tiny but important prophecy from the book of Micah:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel, whose origins are in the distant past, will come from you on my behalf. –Micah 5:2 (NLT)
And if we fast-forward to the end of Jesus’ life, it’s the government once again that takes on the horrific but salvific task of nailing Jesus to a cross—fulfilling yet another prophecy in Isaiah 53:5 and elsewhere.
Jump forward yet again to our present day, when so many Christians seem to count government and political movements as powerful allies in the work of God. Yes, there are numerous examples in the Bible of God using rulers and governments to accomplish his purposes: Joseph serving the Pharaoh and rescuing his family from famine; Nehemiah rebuilding Jerusalem with the approval and assistance of King Artaxerxes; Pharaoh releasing the Jews from Egyptian slavery under Moses leadership.
But though God seems to have used those rulers to accomplish his purposes, they were almost always despots whose governments sought power, wealth, and fame, and who burdened their people heavily to gain those things for themselves. They viewed the populace as expendable pieces of machinery whose purpose was principally to advance the aims of the state.
Pre-war Nazi Germany is a good example here. The Nazi government under Hitler was engaged in a frantic rearmament plan to gain superiority over its European neighbors. Prioritization of military production created major shortages of consumer goods. German citizens were told that the path to national greatness meant significant belt-tightening. Shelves were frequently empty because raw materials and labor were routed to the making of guns, tanks, and aircraft.
We know the rest of that story, including Hitler’s hideous plan to wipe Judaism from the earth. The horrors accomplished by Nazi rule united the post-war world around the re-establishment of Israel as an independent nation state and safe-haven for Jews. It’s difficult to imagine the gathering of the Jewish diaspora in the Holy Land except as a consequence of global guilt over the Holocaust. Perhaps the modern establishment of Israel is another example of God bending governments to his will?
We have a democratic system in America, a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” We tend to think good government is a benefit to human society. We disagree wildly about the role of government in the particulars, but most agree that government is and should be an instrument of stability, justice, and peace.
But human nature hasn’t changed. Power, wealth, and fame still drive too many of those who would try to lead us. When government does things we like, we don’t notice the ways it insidiously inserts itself in between us and God. A government driven by the pursuit of greater power will want to become the moral center of its citizens’ universe. The desire for earthly power always ends in a demand for worship.
The Christian citizen must always keep in mind that there is an eternal government that is moving history relentlessly towards the recognition of Jesus Christ as King. The governments we live under day to day can accomplish good in the world, but they are primarily self-serving, despite the lofty claims of our leaders to be fighting a good fight. Meanwhile, the King of kings is silently moving in and through history, with and in spite of government powers, inexorably closer to the day when a new administration will be revealed to all.
And we put our ultimate hope and trust in that eternal, righteous and just King, Jesus Christ.