Reading the Bible with Dead Guys: J.C. Ryle on Luke 2

This article is part of the Reading the Bible with Dead Guys series.

Reading the Bible With Dead Guys is a new weekly blog series giving you the chance to read God’s Word alongside some great theologians from church history. With content adapted from the Crossway Classic Commentaries series, these posts feature reflections on Scripture by giants of the faith like John Calvin, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, John Owen, and more.

Today we’ll hear from J.C. Ryle (1816–1900) on Luke 2:1-7.

“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.” - Luke 2:1-7

Christ’s birth at Bethlehem

We have in these verses the story of a birth—the birth of the incarnate Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. Every birth of a living child is a marvelous event. It brings into a being a soul that will never die. But never since the world began was a birth so marvelous as Christ’s birth. In itself it was a miracle: God was manifest in the flesh (1 Timothy 3:16). The blessings it brought into the world were unimaginable. It opened to men and women the door of everlasting life.

But never since the world began was a birth so marvelous as Christ’s birth.

1. The time when Christ was born

In reading these verses, let us first notice the time when Christ was born. It was in the days when Augustus, the first Roman emperor, issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. God’s wisdom is seen in this simple fact. The Jews were coming under the dominion and taxation of a foreign power. Strangers were beginning to rule over them. Augustus taxes the world, and at once Christ is born.

It was a moment which was particularly suitable for the introduction of Christ’s Gospel. The whole civilized earth was at last governed by one ruler. There was nothing to stop the preacher of a new faith from going from city to city and country to country. It was indeed “the right time” (Romans 5:6) for God to interpose from heaven and for Christ to be born.

Let us always rest our souls on the thought that times are in God’s hands (Psalm 31:15). He knows the best time to send help to his church and new light to the world. Let us beware of giving in to anxiety about the events around us, as if we knew better than the Kings of kings when relief should come.

2. The place where Christ was born

Let us notice, second, the place where Christ was born. It was not at Nazareth in Galilee, where his mother, the Virgin Mary, lived. The prophet Micah had foretold that the event was to take place at Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). And so it came about. At Bethlehem Christ was born.

The overruling providence of God appears in this simple fact. He orders things in heaven and earth. He turns the hearts of kings to do his will. He overruled the time when Augustus decreed the taxation. He directed the enforcement of the decree in such a way that Mary had to be in Bethlehem when the time came for the baby to be born.


J. C. Ryle

This Crossway Classic Commentary by J. C. Ryle still speaks to Christians today, thanks to the careful work of series editors J. I. Packer and Alister McGrath, who have revived and tailored Ryle's wisdom for modern readers.

Little did the haughty Roman emperor and his officer Quirinius think that they were only instruments in the hand of the God of Israel and were only carrying out the eternal purposes of the King of kings. Little did they think that they were helping to lay the foundation of a kingdom before which the empires of this world would all fall down one day and Roman idolatry pass away.

The heart of a believer should take comfort in recalling God’s providential rule of the world. A true Christian should never be greatly upset by the conduct of the rulers of the earth. He should see with the eye of faith a hand overruling all that they do, to the praise and glory of God.

3. The way in which Christ was born

Let us notice, lastly, the way in which Christ was born. He was not born under the roof of his mother’s house but in a strange place. When born, he was not laid in a carefully prepared cradle. He was placed . . . in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

We see here the grace and humility of Christ. Had he come to save mankind with royal majesty, surrounded by his Father’s angels, it would have been an act of undeserved mercy. But to become the very poorest of mankind and as lowly as the lowliest—this is a love which passes understanding. Never let us forget that through this humiliation Jesus has bought for us a title to glory, and through his poverty we are made rich.

This excerpt was adapted from J.C. Ryle’s commentary on Luke, part of the Crossway Classic Commentaries series edited by Alister McGrath and J. I. Packer.

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