One Mediator between God and Men (1 Timothy 2:1-7)

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on May 13, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

I’m sure we all have people in our lives whose names cause us to go “ugh.” I don’t mean that literally, of course. But when we think about certain people, whether we know them personally or only because they’re famous, we tend to have negative reactions. That seems to be the case when it comes to politicians. Donald Trump could cure cancer tomorrow and some people would still hate him. Barack Obama could have brought about world peace, and others would continue to speak poorly of him. Hilary Clinton lost an election and is no longer in any government office, yet I still see people who claim to be Christians post negative memes about her on Facebook.

If we’re honest, we all have a list of people who we don’t like, people who we think belong in a “basket of deplorables,” people we think we’re better than, people we think are beyond redemption. I don’t think we consciously think this way. But the reality is that we don’t treat people equally, we often forget that everyone is made in God’s image and that no one is beyond being saved by Jesus Christ from sin, death, and condemnation.

Christians, how often have we prayed for politicians we dislike? How often have we prayed that they would come to a true knowledge of God? How often do we pray for our favorite athletes? We may love watching Tom Brady play, but how often do we pray that he would know Jesus? We may hope our doctor can heal us, but we often treat him or her more as an instrument, a thing that exists for us, instead of a soul in need of salvation. The same is true for that neighbor we don’t care for, or that in-law who we might be happy never to see again. Whether we realize it or not, we seem to act as if these people don’t need Jesus. Or, if we realize it, we don’t care to do anything about it.

Throughout history, there have been people who have rather consciously thought that certain types of people could never be right with God. That seems to have been the case almost two thousand years ago in the city of Ephesus, part of modern Turkey and then part of the Roman Empire. In that city, there were people teaching that only some people could be God’s people. It appears they might have thought that only law-abiding Jewish Christians could be God’s people. But since this is not the case, the apostle Paul wrote to his younger associate, Timothy, to tell them that this is not the truth.

Today, we’re continuing our study of Paul’s first letter to Timothy. And in today’s passage, 1 Timothy 2:1–7, we’ll see that Paul tells Timothy a few important truths. One, Christians should pray for all people. Two, God desires all people to be saved. Three, there is only one God and one way to God, Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. And, four, Paul was sent by God to preach the message of Jesus to the Gentiles, which shows that not only Jews could come to know Jesus. All of these points focus on the fact that all people need salvation from the condemnation that comes along with our sin and that Jesus is the only way to be saved. Since condemnation is our biggest problem, and salvation our biggest need, and since there’s only one way to be saved, we should put great emphasis on the gospel in our prayers, our personal lives, and in the life of the church.

Let’s read 1 Timothy 2:1–7, and then I’ll explain those points in more detail.

1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.[1]

At this point in the letter, Paul begins to tell Timothy how people in the church should behave. He says that they should pray. He uses various words for prayer—supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings—that cover the range of prayer requests. The point is that we should pray on behalf of others. We should plead with God on their behalf. If these people aren’t Christians, they probably aren’t praying for themselves to the one, true God. They certainly aren’t praying for their own salvation. We may be the only ones praying for those people, whoever they are.

Though Paul doesn’t mention this idea here, all Christians are royal priests, priests of the king. The apostle Peter tells Christians, in 1 Peter 2:9–10:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Priests intercede on behalf of others to God. They mediate God’s blessings to others. That’s what Paul has in mind here.

Paul stresses that they should pray for all people: Jews and Gentiles, rulers and slaves, men and women, rich and poor. We should pray even for civic rulers, “kings and all who are in high positions.” We should pray that they would rule wisely and righteously. We should pray that they would fulfill the God-ordained purpose for government. Peter, in 1 Peter 2:13–17, says,

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Paul writes about the government in a similar way in Romans 13:1–7. The government has been established by God to punish evil, to provide order. We should pray they do their job.

Keep in mind that the emperor of the Roman Empire at this time was Nero (ruled 54–68). He was, to say the least, a sketchy character. His mother, Agrippina, was from the imperial family of Augustus. It’s rumored that she had an incestuous relationship with her own brother, Caligula, who was emperor (37–41), and whom she plotted to kill. She later married her uncle, Claudius, who was the emperor after Caligula (41–54). It seems that she poisoned Claudius so that her son, Nero, could become the next emperor. Nero had been adopted by Claudius and married Claudius’s daughter, Claudia Octavia, his step-sister. When he had been emperor for five years, he had his mother killed. He cheated on his wife with his mistress, Poppaea, and had his wife banished and then killed. It’s possible that he also killed Poppaea, his second wife, by kicking her in the abdomen when she was pregnant, though we may never know the truth. There were many other sexual misdeeds and murderous intrigues in his life, but he might be best known for blaming a raging fire in Rome, which occurred in 64, on Christians. This is what the historian Suetonius says about Nero’s treatment of Christians:

They were covered with the skins of wild beasts, and torn by dogs; were crucified, and set on fire, that they might serve for lights in the night-time. Nero offered his garden for this spectacle, and exhibited the games of the Circus by this dreadful illumination. Sometimes they were covered with wax and other combustible materials, after which a sharp stake was put under their chin, to make them stand upright, and they were burnt alive, to give light to the spectators.[2]

This was the “king” that Paul wanted Christians to pray for! Paul surely wrote this letter before the year 64, but he was aware of the emperor’s bad character. He must have known how corrupt kings could be. Yet, still, he asks that Christians pray for these people. Jesus told us to pray for our enemies, not just the people we like or agree with (Matt. 5:43–48).

Praying for these people can have many positive results. Though Paul doesn’t mention this here, praying for people who, we don’t naturally like can reduce feelings of hate. Also, God hears our prayers and will act on them to help these people. That’s what John Chrysostom (c. 349–407), a famous preacher around the time of Augustine, said. In one of his sermons, over sixteen hundred years ago, he said this about praying for all people, including kings:

From this, two advantages result. First, hatred towards those who are without is done away; for no one can feel hatred towards those for whom he prays: and they again are made better by the prayers that are offered for them, and by losing their ferocious disposition towards us. For nothing is so apt to draw men under teaching, as to love, and be loved. Think what it was for those who persecuted, scourged, banished, and slaughtered the Christians, to hear that those whom they treated so barbarously offered fervent prayers to God for them.[3]

Imagine how different things would be if we were known more for praying for people who are opposed to us.

Paul says here that the purpose of such prayers is “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” I believe that Paul means that we should pray that these rulers—whether presidents, congressmen, governors, Supreme Court justices—would do their job so that there can be peace and order in our time. And if we have prayed for them, we can rest knowing that we have done what is godly.

We shouldn’t just pray for peace so that we can live easier lives. We should pray that there would be peace and righteousness so that the message of Jesus can be freely communicated. Evil regimes have a way of hindering the progress of the gospel. Yes, nothing can stop the word of God from being spread, but when governments make it illegal to own a Bible or to gather together in a church, it’s a lot harder to disciple new Christians or to tell others about Jesus.

If you read the book of Acts, you can see that there were times when even Paul benefitted from the protection of the Roman Empire (Acts 19:23–41; 21:27–36; 23:12–35). Of course, Paul was also imprisoned by the Romans and would eventually die at their hands. But he knew that when the government functioned according to God’s revealed will, things go well for the gospel.

I think Paul wants us to pray for all people because God wants all people to be saved. That’s the second point we see in this passage. What does this mean?

Does God want each and every person to be saved? If that is the case, God certainly has the ability to save each and ever person. He can direct their hearts to believe in Jesus. Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” If he can direct the king’s heart where he wills, he can direct our hearts.

Well, it’s possible that Paul means God wants each and every person to be saved, and yet he can’t save each and every person for some good reason.

Some people believe that God can’t save all because he must respect each person’s free will. These people will say that real love cannot be forced, that God must allow us to make the choices. So, free will is more important than the salvation of each and every person.

The problem with this view is that it rests on things that aren’t in the Bible. Nowhere in the Bible is there an extended discussion on free will. Are we truly free to make any choice? The Bible does say that “no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). The fact is that because the power of sin has corrupted the world, our hearts are corrupted as well. If we are left to our own free choices, we would never choose God or love him.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that no one can come to him for eternal life unless God the Father has drawn that person. And if God the Father has drawn that person to Jesus, that person will be raised to eternal life on the last day, the day of judgment (John 6:44). That means that only those who will receive eternal life are drawn by God to Jesus. Jesus also says that unless one is first born again by the Holy Spirit, that person can’t even see the kingdom of God, much less enter into it (John 3:1–8). The only way we can choose to believe in Jesus, love him, and obey him, is if God empowers us. And the one who is empowered will do that.

Others who acknowledge the language of God choosing and predestining people believe that God wants to save everyone but can’t because his plan to save only some, the ones he predestined to salvation, brings him greater glory. While this may be hard to digest, I think there is truth to this.

But this ongoing debate probably isn’t what Paul has in mind.

I think we get confused by the language of “all.” We tend to think it has to mean “absolutely all” or “each and every.” But look at the way “all” is used elsewhere.

In just a moment, in verse 6, we’ll see that Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all.” That means he paid the penalty for sin, he paid the price for our redemption. Yet it can’t mean that Jesus redeemed each and every single person. If that were true, no one would be condemned. No one would go to hell. But the Bible clearly states that there will be some—many, really—who reject Jesus and stand condemned. We don’t revel in that truth. It’s something that should bother us. But it remains the truth.

In 1 Timothy 4:10, Paul says that God “is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” If God is the Savior of each and every single person, then all would be saved from condemnation. But I think Paul doesn’t mean that. Again, in Titus 2:11, Paul writes, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” I don’t think Paul means “each and every person is saved.” So, what does Paul mean?

I think Paul means that Jesus is the Savior of all types of people, Jews and Gentiles, rulers and slaves, rich and poor, men and women, people of all nations and languages. Sometimes this is expressed as “all without distinction.” Jesus is the world’s only Savior. There is no other. If Paul meant “all without exception,” then you would have to believe in universalism, the idea that every single person will be saved, that no one will remain in hell. We might wish this to be true, but it’s not.

The truth is that God will save whom he wants to save (Rom. 9:15, 18, 19–24). But we don’t know who those people are. We should strive to bring all people to the knowledge of the truth, even if we know that not all people will believe.

That brings us to third point in this passage. Look again at verses 5 and 6: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”

There is only one God. Paul is probably making an allusion to the great Jewish confession of faith, the Shema, which is found in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” There is only one God—not a god of the Jews and another god of the Romans and yet another god for Americans. And there is only one way to God, and that is Jesus. He is the only mediator. Here, Paul stresses that Jesus is a man. But Jesus is also God. In Titus 2:13, Paul says that “our blessed hope” is “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Jesus is the God-man, the only one who can stand in the gap between God and human beings. Because Jesus has two natures, a divine one and a human one, he can unite both parties.

And that indicates what our problem is. We are separated from God. The reason that is so is because the first human beings rebelled against God. They didn’t trust him. They turned away from God, and the world has been a mess ever since. We are born with hearts that don’t love God the way we should. As a result, we do ungodly things. Our hearts and our actions separate us from God. And the only way back to God is through Jesus.

Paul says that Jesus gave himself as a ransom. The language of “ransom” refers to a price that is paid to bring us freedom. We are in bondage to our sin, enslaved by our desires, and bound in the chains of condemnation. We cannot free ourselves from this position. But Jesus offered his own life to pay the penalty for our sins. God is a righteous judge. He must punish sin and sinners. But God is also merciful and gracious. So, he gave his only Son, and his only Son laid down his life for his people. That’s why Jesus says of himself, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Notice that he said he gave his life as a ransom for “many”—not all.

As a man, Jesus could die for other men. (To be clear, Jesus was a human being who died for other human beings, not just males.) As God, his sacrifice can pay for a vast number of sins and sinners, throughout space and time. The fact that it took the death of the Son of God to pay for our sins shows how problematic sin is, and how our salvation comes at a great cost.

And since there is only one God, there is only one way to receive the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes,

28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith (Rom. 3:29–30).

We are not saved through our own efforts, obedience, or goodness. We can only be right in God’s eyes by trusting in his Son. The same is true for Jews and Gentiles, for Romans and Americans, for emperors and presidents and illegal aliens, for straight and gay, men and women, adults and children. The only way to be made right in God’s eyes is to receive the perfect status of the only sinless man who ever lived, and to trust that this man’s death wiped away our sins.

Since Jesus is the only way to God, we should strive to bring people to a true knowledge of Jesus. That knowledge is more than knowing facts about Jesus. That knowledge is a relationship of trust, love, and obedience. Real faith leads to knowing facts, but it also leads to trusting a person, the God-man Jesus Christ.

Paul could say all of this because God appointed him to be a preacher of the gospel. He was sent to the Gentiles to tell them about Jesus. That’s the fourth point he makes in these verses.

Paul knew he couldn’t reach everyone, but he did what he could so that many souls could be saved. In another letter, 1 Corinthians, he writes this:

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings (1 Cor. 9:19–23).

Paul didn’t sin to reach sinners, but otherwise he set aside his personal preferences in order to reach others. He didn’t let his own culture be an obstacle to reaching others. Though he was Jewish, he wasn’t afraid to break with the old traditions of Judaism in order to reach Gentiles. He didn’t break God’s moral law to do this, but he broke with the way “things were always done” in order to carry out his mission.

I want to close this message by thinking about what all of this means for us. This passage focuses on salvation, and we should, too. That is particularly true of how we think about the church.

When we don’t focus on salvation and the gospel first, we forget that our greatest problem is our sin. We forget that our real need is salvation. And we forget that this is the need of every human being. A church that isn’t focused on the gospel forgets that each and every human being is a sinner in need of a rescue. Instead, we become inward focused, dwelling only on creating a nice church environment in which everyone is “happy” and “comfortable.” We focus on our personal preferences. It’s all talk of “I like this” type of music and “I don’t like that” song or sermon or whatever.

A church that has pushed the gospel to the sidelines might seem very nice and peaceful. It may seem very loving, because no one is stepping on the other person’s toes. But if the gospel isn’t front and center, that peace is superficial. That’s because the only true peace is brought about by Jesus. True peace—reconciliation between God and people, and even between one human being and another—comes only through Jesus. And if we’re not concerned about the souls of the lost, focusing our prayers and our deeds toward their salvation, we’re not loving them at all. We might even say it’s a form of hate.

Imagine this: if you had a person in your life who desperately needed a cure for a disease, and you knew where that person could get that cure and refused to tell that person where to get it, you wouldn’t call that love. You would call it hate. Christians are beggars who know where to get the bread. We should tell others where to get it. We should pray that they would take that gift.

Perhaps we need to realign the way we think of other people. Perhaps we have unconsciously thought of others as being beyond God’s reach. We may have thought, “Oh, that person will never become a Christian.” When we do that, we deny God’s power to save even the worst of sinners. When we do that, we act superior to non-Christians. We may start to think we are Christians because we are better, purer, wiser, or whatever. And when we do that, we fail to see that lost people are God’s image bearers who need a rescue just as much as we did.

If you’re not a Christian, I want to apologize if you’ve run into Christians who act as if they’re better than you. I want to apologize if you’ve never heard the message of Jesus before. And I want you to know that you have a problem. Your life isn’t centering around God. That means it’s centered around something else. Whatever that is—you, your job, your possessions, entertainment, politics, a relationship—that’s your functional god, the object of your worship. But you were made to worship the one, true God. All of us don’t worship him the way we should. We fail to love and honor our Creator, the one who upholds the universe and everything in it at every moment, the source of life and love and goodness and beauty. God is patient with you. He is putting up with your rebellion. But he won’t do that forever. God wants to restore his creation. He can only do that by removing sin from the world. And he will one day. But he will remove all sinners, too, unless their sins have been paid for by Jesus’ sacrifice. And the only way to have your sins paid for by Jesus is to trust him. You need to believe in Jesus, to be united to him by faith. That is the only way to have a relationship with God, to have eternal life. It’s the only way to have true peace. I urge you to follow Jesus. And I want to help you in any way that I can.

But turning back to the church, I must say this: When we as a church don’t focus on salvation, we lose our way. We get caught up in, and hung up on, our little traditions. We think church is about having our way. We fight about silly things. I think that’s why Paul says, in verse 8, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.” The men in Ephesus were fighting because they had lost their way. Again, if we take our focus off of the gospel, we focus on ourselves, our comfort, our personal preferences.

Now, this doesn’t mean that everything in the church should be geared only towards evangelism. The church isn’t just about salvation. We need to teach new believers, equip all believers for ministry, and worship together. We need to encourage and challenge each other, and even discipline people who have gone astray. But if we don’t lead with the gospel, we will drift away from our mission.

And if we don’t focus on the gospel, our worship will suffer. When we are think often of our salvation, we should remain in a state of gratitude. We have been saved by God, through no merit or effort of our own. The fact that God would save anyone at the cost of the death of his Son should lead us to praise God all the more. God’s grace should lead to our thanksgiving.

If Jesus is the only mediator to God, and if he gave his life as a ransom for all kinds of people, and if God wants all kinds of people to be saved, shouldn’t we do what Paul did and what he asked Timothy to do? Shouldn’t we prioritize evangelism? Shouldn’t we forget our personal preferences and become all things to all people? Shouldn’t we pray for lost souls?

May the Lord help us to get back on track and stay there. “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”


  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Nero 57, in Suetonius: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars; An English Translation, Augmented with the Biographies of Contemporary Statesmen, Orators, Poets, and Other Associates, ed. Alexander Thomson (Medford, MA: Gebbie & Co., 1889).
  3. John Chrysostom, “Homily VI,” “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the First Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to Timothy,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. James Tweed and Philip Schaff, vol. 13, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), 426.



Born This Day in the City of David

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on the morning of December 24, 2017.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advance (or see below).

What does Christmas mean to you? What is it all about?

Perhaps the best way to find out what Christmas means to each one of us is to think about what comes to mind when we think of Christmas. What are the images in your head? What does your nativity set look like? What are the sights of Christmas? Lights? Decorations? What are the sounds of Christmas? Songs? Bells? Laughter? What are the smells of Christmas? Something baking in the oven, like cookies? Spices?

Does anyone here think of Christmas and then imagine a dirty, smelly room and a baby crying?

Probably not, but that’s how the first Christmas was, when Jesus was born. From a worldly perspective, or a natural perspective, the birth of Jesus wasn’t special or attractive. There was nothing glorious about it. But God delights in doing amazing things in unexpected ways. And, as we’ll see this morning, the birth of Jesus is contrary to what we expect when we think of a King and a Savior.

We’re continuing our exploration of the Gospel of Luke this morning by considering only seven verses. We’ll be reading Luke 2:1–7. To give us a sense of context, let me quickly review what we have seen thus far in Luke.

Luke is one of the four Gospels in the New Testament of the Bible. Each Gospel is a biography of Jesus, focusing on who he was and what he did, particularly in his miracles, his teaching, his death on the cross, and his resurrection. Each Gospel has its own emphases, its own themes. Luke is interesting because it was written by someone who didn’t actually witness the events he wrote about. Luke says at the beginning of his Gospel that he wrote this history on the basis of eyewitness testimony. He used written documents, he interviewed people, and he combined those historical accounts of Jesus into this book of the Bible (Luke 1:1–4).

In the rest of the first chapter of Luke, he tells two related stories of how an angel of God announced the coming of two special children. The first child is John, better known as John the Baptist. He was born to an old couple who were previously unable to have children. John’s role would be to turn the hearts of the people of Israel back to God and to prepare the way for the coming of the second child (Luke 1:13–17, 75–79).

That second child is Jesus, the long-awaited anointed King, the Messiah or Christ. He is also called the “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32), or the Son of God. The angel Gabriel told Mary, a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, that Jesus would be supernaturally conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. This certainly was no ordinary baby.

Now, the time for Jesus’ birth has come. So, let’s read through this morning’s passage and then I’ll point out a few things this passage teaches us. Let’s read Luke 2:1–7:

1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.[1]

Here’s the first point I want to make: Luke is writing history. He situates the birth of Jesus during the time of Caesar Augustus, and also during time of Herod the Great. Herod was mentioned in the first chapter (Luke 1:5). Since he died in 4 B.C., this must have been prior to that time. Some of us may be surprised to learn that Jesus wasn’t born in the year zero, or the year 1 A.D. Well, there is no year zero. And the fact that he wasn’t born in A.D. 1 is due to the fact that the numbering of years didn’t come until centuries later. And Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25, either. The reason that date is used to observe Christmas is because it was the date of a festival in the Roman Empire. If you want to know more about those details, you can read the article that I wrote, the one that is inserted into your bulletin.[2]

What’s important for us to see this morning is that Luke gives us two indications of when Jesus was born. It was during Caesar Augustus’s reign. He was the first emperor of the Roman Empire and he reigned for forty years (27 B.C.–14 A.D.). When he was born in 63 B.C. he was named Gaius Octavius. He was the grandnephew of Julius Caesar. When Julius Caesar was murdered (in 44 B.C.), he had named Octavius as his adopted son and heir in his will. Octavius then joined forces with two other men, including Mark Antony, to defeat Julius Caesar’s assassins. And when Octavius and these two other men fought against each other, Octavius prevailed. He was later named Emperor by the Roman Senate.

I’ll talk a bit more about Augustus in a moment. For now, it’s important to see that he was the most powerful man in the world at this time. And it was during Augustus’s reign that Jesus was born.

Luke also mentions another name, Quirinius. He was governor of Syria a few years after Jesus was born. The reason he is mentioned is because Luke tells us that Augustus decided to have a registration, or census, taken in the Empire. Luke says this decree required “all the world” to be registered. This is a bit of hyperbole, but it’s a phrase that was used of the Roman Empire (see also Col. 1:6). It’s not far from the truth, since the Roman Empire included most of the world known to people like Luke. Augustus wanted this census to be taken in order to tax everyone living under his jurisdiction. In addition to gaining revenue for the Empire, it was a way of showing the people who was boss.

Some people think that this mention of Quirinius is an indication that Luke got his history wrong, because a census under Quirinius was taken in 6 A.D., some ten years after these events. I deal with this in the article I mentioned earlier. There are two ways of dealing with this issue to show that Luke wasn’t wrong. One, it’s possible that an earlier census was taken, or that this same census had begun years earlier and took a decade to complete. It’s possible that an earlier census was overseen by Quirinius prior to his time as governor of Syria. It’s also possible that the same census took a long time to complete, that it had begun under someone else’s oversight, and that it was finished by Quirinius years later. So, that way of dealing with the issue states that we don’t really know all the details of this period of history. That’s fairly common for the ancient world. We don’t know everything that happened. We have to rely on artifacts, most of which are ancient writings. Some things were never written down, and much of what was written has not survived decay and destruction.

The second way of dealing with this issue is to realize that perhaps verse 2 isn’t translated correctly. The ESV says, “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” But a footnote in the ESV says it could be translated, “This was the registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria.” That’s because the Greek word translated as “first” could also be translated as “before.”[3] If that is case, then Luke is not wrong at all. In fact, in Acts, the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, he tells of the effects that Quirinius’s census had on the Jewish people—it led to a rebellion (Acts 5:37). So, Luke is basically saying, “The Roman Emperor called for a census. No, this wasn’t that census, the one carried out by Quirinius. This was an earlier one.”

This census was taken according to Jewish customs, which had people return to their ancestral homes. Joseph, who was betrothed to Mary, was from the tribe of Judah and the line of David, the premier king of Israel who was from Bethlehem. Perhaps Joseph had inherited some property there. We don’t know. What we know is that this registration required him to go to Bethlehem. We also know he took Mary with him. Perhaps they had already been married yet did not consummate the marriage, and that is why they are said to be betrothed. If that is the case, she might have been required to be with Joseph. I’m sure he wanted his wife to be with him when she gave birth. So, for that reason, they traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a journey that might have been about 90 miles or so.

The second thing I want to point out is that Luke probably wants us to compare Caesar August and Jesus. Augustus was the leader of the world’s superpower. He was the most powerful man in the world. He received the title “Augustus,” which means “Illustrious One,” or “Exalted One,” when he became Emperor. He was also known as Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus, or “Commander Caesar, Son of the God, the Illustrious One.” That is because Julius Caesar was viewed as being divine. Over time, the Roman Emperor was viewed as a god and he was worshiped.

Augustus was known for expanding the size of the Roman Empire to include more of Europe and Africa, for strengthening the Empire, and for establishing what was known as the Pax Romana, or “peace in Rome.” Ironically, that peace was achieved through violence. One way to achieve peace is to conquer your enemies with the sword until they submit.

If you asked anyone in the Roman Empire in those who days who was the most important person in the world, the most powerful person in the world, anyone would say, “Caesar Augustus.”

But little did they know that the most powerful and most important person who ever walked the planet was being born in an unexpected place. Jesus, the King of kings, was born to a couple of humble people in a strange place, among animals. And he was placed in a feeding trough.

I should say now that some of the details of the Christmas story that we imagine aren’t necessarily true. There’s no mention of Mary heading to Bethlehem on a donkey. She probably walked, which would have taken several days. And when Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, they weren’t rejected by an innkeeper who said, “Bah! Humbug!” There is no innkeeper mentioned. In fact, the word that is translated here as “inn” might mean “guest room.”[4] Houses at that time were simple. They didn’t have many rooms. There would be a main room for the people who lived there, a room for guests (because hospitality was necessary in a world without hotels), and perhaps a separate room for animals. Animals were brought inside to be kept warm. Or perhaps the body heat of the animals would help keep the humans warm. Joseph and Mary probably found lodging in someone’s house, but they weren’t put in the guest room. No, they were in a room with animals, which is why there was a manger there. And they placed their baby in that manger, or feeding trough.

There couldn’t be a greater contrast between Augustus, the Emperor, and Jesus, the Messiah. I bet if you told people in their day that the most powerful king the world has known was about to be born, they would imagine that birth taking place in a palace in a major city. They would imagine that the parents were a king and queen. But Jesus was born to two ordinary people, and he was born among animals, probably in filth.

There’s a children’s Bible that we’ve read a number of times to our kids. It’s called The Big Picture Story Bible. (We have a few copies on the back table, available for anyone who wants them.) This is what that children’s Bible says about Caesar and Jesus:

This Roman ruler thought he was very important. One day he wondered to himself, How will everyone know that I am the great Caesar, the Roman ruler, the king of the world? I know! I will count all the people under my rule. Surely that will show the world how great I am. So Caesar, the Roman ruler, the king of the whole Roman world, began counting all his people to show everyone how great he was. What Caesar did not know was that God, the world’s true ruler, the king of the universe was getting ready to show everyone how great he was. . . . And do you know how God was going to do this? Not like Caesar . . . not proudly, by counting all his people, but humbly, by becoming one of his people. In the power of his Spirit, God would bring his forever king into the world as a baby![5]

God often does the unexpected. He uses the small, weak, poor people more often than he uses the powerful and the rich. God delights in showing his strength through human weakness. God seems to enjoy doing things in a way that we would never imagine.

In Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat, she says of God,

51  He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52  he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate (Luke 1:51–52).

God was doing just that in Jesus’ birth. God even used Caesar to cause Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. If not for the census, Jesus would have been born in Nazareth. But it was prophesied that a ruler would come from Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2). God is greater than the greatest human beings, and even when they don’t know him and claim to be gods, he can use them to do his will.

Jesus is the one who brings about true peace, peace with God. He didn’t come the first time to set up a political kingdom, at least not in the way the world would imagine a political kingdom. He didn’t come with a big army, ready to conquer the Roman Empire. He could have done that. But he didn’t. The reason that Jesus came was to take care of our biggest need, our problem of sin. Sin is our rebellion against God. It’s more than just wrong actions. Sin includes wrong desires and wrong motivations. It’s a power that is at work within us, corrupting us from the inside out. What we need is someone who can remove our sin and make us right in God’s eyes.

In Matthew’s Gospel, an angel says to Joseph, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:20–21). Jesus came to save his people from their sins. He does that by living the perfect life that we don’t live. Therefore, he fulfills God’s requirements for humanity. But he also dies a death in our place, taking the penalty for our sin. When Jesus was born, he was wrapped in swaddling cloths. After he was crucified, his body was wrapped in linen cloths (Luke 24:12; John 19:40). We need to remember that Christmas led to Good Friday, when Jesus died to pay for our sins. And that story leads to the good news of Easter, when Jesus rose from the grave and cast aside those cloths. He was unbound, having defeated the powers of sin and death.

Augustus created a peace of sorts through military strength. Jesus creates real peace through his own death. The greatest man who has ever lived was not proud. He was humble, laying down his own life.

And that leads me to the third point I want to make: God comes down to us in our filth. We often have a nice, pleasant view of Jesus’ birth, even though we know he was born among animals and placed in a manger. Our view of Christmas is sanitized. But the reality was that it was probably a filthy, foul-smelling environment.

Years ago, I read a book of Advent and Christmas readings. Some of these writings were by authors like C.S. Lewis and Martin Luther. Others were written by authors I didn’t know, some of whom were Catholics. One such author was Giovanni Papini.[6] He begins by saying Jesus was born in a real stable, one that was dirty, not the tidy stable of our imagination. He says that the only clean thing in the stable is the manger, where the hay is placed. (I can’t imagine the manger and its way was too clean, but I suppose it would be relatively clean.) Then he starts to describe how the hay is made. He writes,

Fresh in the clear morning, waving in the wind, sunny, lush, sweet-scented, the spring meadow was mown. The green grass, the long slim blades, were cut down by the scythe; and with the grass the beautiful flowers in full bloom—white, red, yellow, blue. They withered and dried and took on the one dull color of hay. Oxen dragged back to the barn the dead plunder of May and June. And now that grass has become dry hay and those flowers, still smelling sweet, are there in the manger to feed the slaves of man. The animals take it slowly with their great black lips, and later the flowering fields, changed into moist dung, return to light on the litter which serves as bedding.[7]

That’s a nice picture, isn’t it? Where is he going with this? Well, we must read on:

This is the real stable where Jesus was born. The filthiest place in the world was the first room of the only pure man ever born of woman. The Son of Man, who was to be devoured by wild beasts calling themselves men, had as his first cradle the manger where the animals chewed the cud of the miraculous flowers of spring.

It was not by chance that Christ was born in a stable. What is the world but an immense stable where men produce filth and wallow in it? Do they not daily change the most beautiful, the purest, the most divine things into excrement? Then, stretching themselves at full length on the piles of manure, they say they are “enjoying life.” Upon this earthly pigsty, where no decorations or perfumes can hide the odor of filth, Jesus appeared one night.[8]

We take the beautiful things that God has made and turn them into filth. And Jesus came into that filth. And, as we’ll see later in the Gospel of Luke, people acted beastly towards Jesus and they killed him. This was all God’s plan.

Think about that. God stoops down and enters into our filth. We don’t have to clean ourselves up to get to God. No, he rolls up his sleeves and comes into the muck of this life to rescue us. That is what is amazing about Jesus and about Christianity. Religions generally say, “Do this and you’ll be acceptable to God. Do this and you’ll get to heaven, Paradise, Nirvana, etc.” Christianity says, “You can’t do that. Your sin taints all your efforts. You can never make yourself pure enough. You can’t save yourself to get to God, so God must come down and save you.” That is why Christmas is amazing.

And we must see that Jesus lived a real life. Yes, it started with a miraculous conception. But he lived as a human being. As a baby, he soiled his diapers. And I’m sure he cried. The familiar hymn, “Away in a Manger,” says “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” But that is silly. We have no reason to believe that Jesus wouldn’t cry. He cried as an adult, why not as a child?

The sights of the first Christmas included animals and probably a very simple structure with a dirt floor. The smells include manure. The sounds included a woman in labor and a baby crying. God enters into this environment to save us. He enters into our chaos, our noise, our filth.

Here’s a fourth thing that we should see in this passage: The baby Jesus is placed in a feeding trough. This is where the food for animals would be placed. Perhaps this is no accident. If we turn all the beautiful things that God has made in this world into filth, perhaps we need better food. And Jesus provides that food. He is our spiritual food. Food sustains life. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Of course, this is a metaphor. We “feed” on Jesus by trusting that he alone gives us eternal life. He alone can save us from our sin. He alone gives us true life. He alone can satisfy the deepest cravings of our souls. It’s no wonder that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, for Bethlehem means “house of bread.”

No emperor could do this. No president or prime minister can. No businessman, no scientist, no professor, no celebrity, no entertainer, and no athlete can do this. Only Jesus can. He is the greatest person who has ever lived, yet he came humbly, stooping to our level to bring us up to his.

So, how should we respond to this message? I think there are two ways that people generally respond to Jesus. I suppose one way is the way of Caesar. We could rely on our own strength, too proud to see that we need a savior. We could say, “I find all that talk about being a beast and turning good things into crap offensive. I’m not like that.” Perhaps we have some knowledge that we do need a savior, but we don’t want to come under the authority of Jesus. If that is the case, we’re responding with the way of Caesar.

Another way of responding is the way of Joseph and Mary, and, as we’ll see tonight, the way of the shepherds. We can receive the gift of Jesus with joy and humility. We can submit our lives to God’s authority. We can wonder that God would come to save lowly people like us. I must say this as clearly as possible: no matter how much you’ve fouled up your life, no matter how much you’ve taken beautiful things and turned them into excrement, Jesus can save you. Turn to him and trust him. Learn about him, believe that he is who the Bible says he is and that he has done what the Bible says he has done. Confess your sins to him and ask him for cleansing.

Jesus came as a baby, but this is no kids story. We dare not sanitize the story by making it a cute little tale. No, this is a real, gritty story. And because of that, it’s a powerful story. Best of all, it’s true. Jesus, the light of the world, entered into our darkness. Jesus, the only pure human who has ever lived, came into our mire. Jesus, who gives us the water of life (the Holy Spirit), came to clean us up. He did this at a great cost to himself. He is the greatest Christmas gift, and his salvation comes to us without price. Will you receive this gift?


  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. “When Was Jesus Born?” can be read at
  3. πρῶτος.
  4. The Greek word is κατάλυμα.
  5. David Helm, The Big Picture Story Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 235–241.
  6. Giovanni Papini, “Ox and Ass,” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004).
  7. Ibid., 236.
  8. Ibid., 236–237.


Born This Day in the City of David (Luke 2:1-7)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 2:1-7. Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the most humble–and filthy!–circumstances. Jesus, the true King, is contrasted with the ruler of the Roman Empire, Caesar Augustus. Jesus came humbly into this world, stepping into our filth to rescue us from our sins.