In the gospel of Luke, the most familiar account of the Christmas story—the one most commonly read in churches and homes—is firmly rooted in history. The narrative begins, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken” (Luke 2:1). Luke’s mention of Augustus isn’t incidental or minor. It sets the whole backdrop for the Christmas story.
Augustus was known as the “Savior” of the Roman Empire, bringing “peace” and “salvation” to his subjects. He was called the “Lord” and came to be worshiped as god on earth. Roman citizens were commanded to pray to him and offer sacrifices. Temples and shrines were built in his name. The census ordered by Augustus was one of the ways he controlled the empire. By demanding taxes (or tribute, more specifically), Caesar could provide for his far-flung armies as well as humiliate the peoples under Roman “peace” by reminding them they lived at the will of Rome.
Against this political backdrop, the announcement in Luke’s gospel is the announcement of a king born in direct opposition to the rule and reign of Caesar. It is almost as if all the titles applied to Caesar were applied to Jesus in order to force people to choose between them. If Jesus had been called one thing and Caesar another, people would have been tempted to believe they could worship both. But when Savior, Lord, King, gospel, peace and salvation are specific descriptions applied to both rulers, the Christmas story forces us to choose: Who is our Lord? Who is our Savior?
The differences between these two saviors could not be overstated. Augustus’s rule was defined by the sword, the shield, and the banners of his legions. The kingdom of Jesus of Nazareth was marked by a manger, a cross, and a tomb. No greater contrast could be imagined. The birth of Jesus Christ was simply revolution: the birth of a different king, ushering in a differing kingdom, and threatening the kingdoms of this world.
Two different empires were established on the day of Jesus’s birth. One built on power, the other on love. One built on control, the other on freedom. One built on oppression and bondage, the other on liberation. Augustus was the embodiment of the best the world in all its ambition and lust can offer, a ruler who sat at the apex of a world-wide system of worship and domination. Jesus, on the other hand, was destined to humble himself on a tree, sacrificing himself out of love.
Jesus represents the dangerous alternative to the power of this world: a different power, a different glory, a different peace, a different salvation. The Christmas story ceases to be an idyllic myth: it becomes clear these two empires are destined to collide. The birth of Jesus is divine insurrection and outright revolution.
The Christmas story forces us to choose between these two kingdoms. Do we bow before the Caesars of our time, or dare we embrace the kingdom of Jesus?
From The Jesus of Suburbia by Mike Erre (W Publishing Group)