By Paul T. Penley
Was Jesus born to save us from this world or bring peace to the earth? Luke’s counter-cultural Christmas story answers this question.
What a Birth Means to a Mom
For many of us the story of our birth doesn’t answer questions about the purpose of our life. Birth stories typically amount to no more than nostalgic moments at family gatherings. One parent (if you’re so blessed to have a relationship with one) smiles wide and recounts an anecdote for the hundredth time to the chagrin of all who must endure it. My mother is guilty of it all the time.
Her favorite tale is my in utero umbilical cord trick. I had tied the cord in a knot while in the womb. When I popped out, the doctors knew I was a few good pulls away from starving myself. “It is a miracle he’s alive today,” my mom always says, normally adding, “God must have created him for an important purpose.” With this statement, my birth story turns into a mandate. It puts serious pressure on me to do things that matter. Every good thing I do now becomes potential material for my mother to link back to my providential preservation at birth. I really need to start producing some of that material.
The Meaning of Ancient Births
Ancient biographies of great figures such as Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus use circumstances at birth to predict greatness. The Greek historian Plutarch recounted two particular signs predicting Alexander the Great’s conquest of the known world. First, the Temple of Artemis burned down in Ephesus when Alexander was born. Second, his dad’s triple victory on the day of his son’s birth tipped off the prophets to his significance.
“On the same day, three pieces of news reached Philip (Alexander’s dad), who had just captured Potidaea: Parmenio’s defeat of the Illyrians in a great battle; the victory of Philip’s racehorse at the Olympic Games; and the birth of Alexander. Pleased as he surely was with these tidings, Philip was even more elated by the prophets, who declared that his son, as he had been born on the day of a triple victory, would be unconquerable” (Plutarch, Life of Alexander 3).
What did all this mean? Magi in Ephesus believed the burning of the Temple to Artemis foreshadowed the coming destruction of the Persians who ruled the area. And they were right. Alexander did exactly that during his unstoppable conquest across the known world building the Greek Empire. The activity around his birth prophesied that conquest. It was no coincidence. That’s why ancient biographies of heroic figures began with a birth story.
If the signs around ancient births deliver symbolic messages, it makes me wonder what missing messages are tucked into the birth narratives of Jesus. What statement is being made by the sequence of events around Jesus’ birth that we overlook today?
The Birth of Two Different Saviors
You might know that only Matthew and Luke wrote birth stories. The earliest Gospel Mark provides no such account, and John’s Gospel focuses on divine origin rather than physical birth. When we analyze the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth, we find two very different stories. We find logistical differences in the genealogies. We find different geographical movements. Matthew starts in Bethlehem and sends the family to Egypt after the birth. Luke starts and ends in Nazareth with a trip to Bethlehem for the birth.It’s important to ask why.
In the big picture, Matthew’s account presents Jesus in terms most meaningful to Jews immersed in Scripture. Luke describes Jesus’ birth for Gentiles immersed in a Greek-speaking Roman world. Their audiences demand two different depictions of Jesus’ birth. For each Gospel to foreshadow greatness at birth, they could not tell the same story to two different audiences.
So how do Matthew and Luke contextualize their birth narratives for different audiences? To summarize, Matthew proclaims Jesus will “save his people from their sins.” Luke’s Jesus will save “all people.” Matthew connects Jesus to the “Immanuel” Isaiah prophesied who is born in Bethlehem where Micah predicted. Essentially Matthew introduces the “ruler of the Jews.” The elements of his birth story derive from messianic expectations of the Jews carefully tied to Scripture. Luke introduces the “Lord of the world” to Gentiles. So he goes in a different direction.
Luke 2 and the Roman Empire
Luke avoids exclusivity and calls Jesus a Savior “for all people.” Jesus will bring “peace on earth.” He is the Lord of all not just king of the Jews. However, Luke is not just presenting a generic “Jesus for everybody.” Luke is doing something more specific than we typically realize. Remember Luke’s audience grew up in a Greco-Roman world around modern-day Turkey. They had specific traditions from the Greek-speaking Roman Empire that Luke was challenging in his presentation of a new Savior.
How do I know? Good question. In Luke’s birth story, he immediately connects it to a Roman census issued by Caesar Augustus. Luke 2:1 reads, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Of all the events and figures he could have mentioned, Luke wants his readers to place Jesus’ birth during the reign of Augustus in the Roman Empire. Being the only mention of Augustus (at least by name) in the entire New Testament, it stands out and begs the question: “Why?” What is it Luke wants us to see? How exactly does the birth of Jesus relate to Augustus’s Roman Empire?
For those 3 of you out there who have been asking this question your whole life, get ready for your thirst to be satisfied in this excerpt from my book Reenacting the Way (of Jesus). For the rest of you, just go with it for a few paragraphs. It’s going to get good.
The Gospel of Augustus
In 9 BCE the Proconsul of Asia, Paulus Fabius Maximus, advised the koinon of Asia (i.e., the governing assembly of the Roman province of Asia) to change their calendars from the local lunar calendar to the solar calendar used in Rome. I know. It’s such a big event you are wondering how you hadn’t heard about it before.
The Proconsul specifically recommended the first of the year be placed on September 23, the birthday of Caesar Augustus. His reasoning was simple. Since the birth of Augustus ushered in a new age of peace and prosperity, his birthday should be the first day of every year.
The governing assembly loved the idea. They all knew it would please the emperor and possibly attract more imperial tax dollars. So they put together a good PR campaign to milk it for all it was worth. They posted a declaration of their decision in every major city. Read this translation carefully and listen for the same language you’ve read in Luke’s birth story of Jesus.
Providence has filled Augustus with divine power for the benefit of humanity, and in her beneficence has granted us and those who will come after us [a Saviour] who has made war to cease and who shall put everything [in peaceful order] . . . And Caesar, [when he was manifest], transcended the expectations of [all who had anticipated the good news], not only by surpassing the benefits conferred by his predecessors but by leaving no expectation of surpassing him to those who would come after him, with the result that the birthday of our god signaled the beginning of good news for the world because of him. (Lines 34-41 quoted from Graham Stanton, Jesus and Gospel [Cambridge: Cambridge
Univ Pr, 2004], 32).
For the Christian reader this inscription sounds full of heretical language. It seems to apply titles and roles to Augustus that are religious in nature and only appropriate for Jesus. Yet, the language is fully political. In the time of Augustus, a Savior full of divine power whose birth signaled good news for the world was nothing other than the emperor who brought political and social stability. The birth of Caesar Augustus created the Pax Romana, or Roman peace. He saved the civilized world from disarray. So his birthday is a gospel to proclaim.
The Gospel of Jesus and Augustus
How does the “good news” of Jesus’ birth relate to the “good news” of Augustus’s birth? In the gospel of Augustus above and the gospel of Jesus in Luke, both are “Saviors.” Both bring “peace to the whole world.” Both are sent by divine providence.
In a Roman world, the arrival of a Savior would not mean a few individuals can now be snatched away to heaven from the perils of this planet or the afterlife. Luke and his audience wouldn’t see Jesus as a personal savior who intends to bring peace to one’s soul. It is much bigger than that. It is a direct challenge to Caesar. Jesus arrives to rule the world and restore order.
Why does hearing the precise meaning of Luke’s birth narrative matter? Because many of us associate “savior” with someone who just takes care of our sins or personal needs or fears of the future. “My savior solves my problems.” While those issues may be addressed in the Bible elsewhere, Luke’s vision for saving goes way beyond a personal spiritual experience. It has ramifications for the entire world and all of its social structures. Jesus’ birthday in Luke anticipates justice in society not personal justification in heaven. It concerns the same realm over which Caesar exerted his control.
Luke’s intricate connection between Jesus and Caesar doesn’t stop there. The entire scale of his birth narrative mocks an ancient practice of flagrant Caesar self-promotion.
Singing Caesar’s Praises
The angels in Jesus’ birth story don’t get much attention. We typically pay attention to what was said not who said it. However, that wasn’t the case for Luke and his Greco-Roman audience. When an army of angels takes center stage to sing about Jesus the Savior, Luke knows his audience will make another connection. The singing angels weren’t the only chorus in town that sung about the good news of saviors and lords.
In many eastern Roman provinces, the Caesar was honored at athletic competitions and worshipped at imperial temples. At the time of Jesus’ birth, temples to the god Augustus and the goddess Roma stood in key cities where Luke and Paul did ministry together (e.g., Pergamon of Asia, Ankyra of Galatia, and Nikomedia of Bithynia). People worshipped the emperor like a god at these temples.
At the city of Pergamon (one of the seven churches of Revelation located in the Roman province of Asia where Luke travelled), organizers named their athletic competition the Kaisareia in honor of the Caesar. The Caesars loved the flattery. And the organizers knew it. Besides running and wrestling in honor of Caesar, the competitions expanded to kiss Caesar’s ass through poetry and song. Performers composed verse like Horace’s Odes (see Ode 1.12) to thank God for sending Caesar Augustus to save the world.
Heavenly Angels One Up Caesar’s Choir
So what do these Caesar-loving songs have to do with the singing angels in Luke 2:1-20? I’m glad you asked. Early in Augustus’s reign he visited one of Pergamon’s celebrations in his honor and heard a chorus of men sing his praises. He was quite taken by their melodic compliments. The gesture of the Asian chorus so pleased the emperor that he ordered the singers to become a permanent fixture in Asia’s honorary contests.
To make it feasible Augustus established a special levy to financially support the existence of a forty-person male chorus. The chorus quickly became an elite social club with hereditary rites. They gathered at one event after another to sing the praises of the Caesars. They guaranteed top-quality sycophancy for stroking every emperor’s ego.
When Luke’s audience heard about a massive angelic chorus singing the praises of God and his appointed Savior, the closest experience would be imperial singers. They had heard the songs sung by the choir praising Providence for Caesar’s peaceful rule over the world.
But the comparison would quickly become a contrast. Jesus’ birth elicited the presence of countless angels from heaven. Caesar Augustus had to pay a group of men to show up and sing his praises. One of those choruses is clearly superior. One of those births must be more important. Luke’s contrast would have made a statement to any Hellenistic audience who had grown up in the Pax Romana established by Caesar Augustus. There is a new emperor in town. He is a much bigger deal. And his name is Jesus.
Jesus Delivers What Politicians Propagandize
Jesus’ birth should be heard as a polemic against political pretenders promising to deliver what only he can. As Luke makes clear, Jesus is savior and not some Caesar. His birth is the real good news. He is the one who will bring peace and joy to the whole world—even beyond Rome’s Empire. That is why endless angels from heaven sung about Jesus’ greatness whereas Caesar had to settle for some dudes he paid. Rome is only a parody of the reality found in Jesus.
To honor Luke’s counter-cultural Christmas story, don’t just watch the 50th anniversary special of Charlie Brown’s Christmas. Instead, embrace Jesus’ delivery of what the Roman Empire promised. He is the restorer of order and peace. Our lives should be ordered around him like the Asians rearranged their calendar around Augustus’s birthday to acknowledge how he authored a new world. Jesus has the way to bring peace and justice to every society.
Not surprisingly, Jesus’ method for remaking the world doesn’t look like Rome. Jesus does not bring about revolution through conquest and fear of reprisal. He doesn’t silence dissidents with the sword or subjugate nations involuntarily. Jesus delivers in a whole new way. Jesus’ kingdom policy involves compassion, justice, suffering to serve others, and empowering the oppressed and ostracized. Enemies are loved rather than slaughtered and arrogance is replaced by humility. These are the hallmark moments of Luke’s Gospel.
Social transformation results from personal transformation demonstrated publicly. Jesus’ kingdom is no spiritual escape from the complexities of life in this world and its societal structures. It is designed to reorder it all. It intends to address the same problems for which politicians develop policies and programs. Luke’s counter-cultural Christmas story calls us to re-commit to the way of Jesus rather than methods of unjust power brokers. Jesus can create peace in situations where human factions only foster violence.
Jesus Can Resolve Tribal Conflict
What does it look like for Jesus’ plan for peace to confront Rome’s lust for power? Return for a moment to the tribal genocide of Rwanda back in 1994. According to one eyewitness report, a group of roughly 13,500 Christians gathered in a small village 13 miles from Kigali to find refuge from the fighting. Although millions sought safety away from city centers, this particular gathering set itself apart because of their unique constituency. There were both Hutu and Tutsi people together.
These tribes were supposed to hate each other. If these Christians had adopted the cultural values of the militants, they would have been fighting one another instead of hiding together. This type of mixed gathering was unacceptable to the militias.
Their safe haven was eventually exposed to rebel militia who rounded them up at gunpoint. The rebels demanded the Hutus and Tutsis separate so that only the inferior tribal people would be killed. In response, the leadership of this Christian gathering proclaimed, “We will not separate. For we are all one in Christ.” The apostle Paul would have been proud. He had used that same line to stop senseless conflict between Jews and Gentiles.
The recognition of each person’s equality before Christ provided an alternate path to peace that day. The tribal conflict was swallowed up for a moment in the superordinate identity of one true humanity. Unfortunately, that moment did not last long.
The potential power for peace was quickly silenced by the sounds of machine guns spraying bullets and spilling the blood of all those gathered in the name of Jesus. Although Jesus’ kingdom policy had resolved the division and conflict between thousands of Hutus and Tutsis, a few men with Romanesque military tactics believed more strongly that violence would relieve their fears and accomplish their cause. The ensuing murderous scene is too horrifying to imagine.
On the one hand, the massacre stands out as a sign that Caesars are still promising peace and joy by means of bloodshed and dominance. On the other hand, the shared death of Hutus and Tutsis is a symbol of promise for a world that needs to be saved from more projects of dehumanization and destruction. Jesus can save the world. He can bring peace “on earth” if we embody his ways. That is the “good news of great joy” to proclaim to all that have succumbed to the illusory promises of establishing peace through death, joy through terror, and salvation through domination
Jesus’ global plan for peace and joy is rarely the gospel we announce. Too often we settle for a tiny, personalized announcement of inner peace. Or we give up on seeing large-scale peace for all people today and relinquish our hopes to an afterlife or idyllic world to come. I hope these failures on our part only reflect a misunderstanding of Jesus and not our fear to follow him.