Have you ever read the nativity story in Luke chapter two and thought, “How convenient that there was a census at the exactly right time that Mary and Joseph needed to go to Bethlehem, so Jesus could be born there?” As a kid, I can even remember people telling the story as if Mary and Joseph made it just in time to give birth to Jesus! Census, Bethlehem, baby. Was it really that easy? How difficult and trying was this experience for this young couple? How did God work in the lives of Mary and Joseph to get them from Nazareth to Bethlehem? My goal in writing this blog will be to explore the events leading up to the birth of Jesus in an attempt to see how God worked in the lives of Mary and Joseph on the road to Bethlehem. In order to do so, I will try to fill in the Biblical account with some details while also acknowledging that they are by no means conclusively facts.
It all starts in Nazareth when the Angel visits Mary and tells her that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and she will conceive and give birth to a son (Luke 1). While Luke records Mary’s experience, Matthew records Joseph’s experience. It is in Matthew 1:18 we can see the beginnings of a potential issue: “When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit.” Mary is found to be pregnant by someone other than her betrothed. The results of this apparently scandalous situation would bring shame and embarrassment not only on Mary and Joseph, but also upon their families. There was nothing sinful about the work the Lord had done. The alleged shame and embarrassment came from the optics of the situation - how their families and the people in their city perceived this situation.
This was a scandal in the eyes of the Jews because Mary and Joseph were betrothed. In Jewish culture, betrothals were more binding than engagements are in our culture today. A betrothal meant that a bride and groom were officially pledged to each other but had not yet consummated their marriage; advances towards anyone else were thus regarded as adulterous. A betrothal also differed from an engagement in that they were more legally binding. In our culture, all that is required for an engagement to take place is for a man and a woman to mutually consent. But to establish a Jewish betrothal, you needed mutual consent as well as two witnesses, the groom’s declaration, and possibly all or part of a Bride price paid by the groom.
You can begin to imagine the shock and scandal this would have created as people began to find out that Mary was pregnant before she and Joseph had come together. On top of that, who would have believed her when she would have told the truth that her baby was the result of the Holy Spirit’s visiting her? After all, it was not as if virgin conceptions were all that common! Most likely, her family and neighbors would have looked at her not only as an adulteress, but also as a liar, and worst of all, a blasphemer! Even her husband didn’t believe her at first. As recorded in Matthew 1:19, Joseph was planning to divorce her before the Angel appeared to him:
19And her husband Joseph, since he was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. 20But when he had though this over, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to receive Mary your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21She will give birth to a Son; and you shall name Him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” 22Now all this took place so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: 23”Behold, the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they shall name Him Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” 24And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and received his wife, 25but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he named Him Jesus.” (Matthew 1:19-25; NASB, emphasis mine)
The Angel is telling Joseph not to divorce (i.e. put away) his wife Mary, but to continue (i.e. receive) with his marriage pledge because she had in fact conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and had not been unfaithful to him. The word receive in verse 20 is the Greek word paralabein, and it can also mean “to associate with oneself.” The Angel is telling Joseph not to be afraid to be associated with his wife Mary. And in verse 24, we see the character and faith of Joseph: He obeyed God! Even though he had decided initially to divorce Mary; even though he was afraid to be associated with her, yet he decided instead to obey the Lord.
We read this and correctly conclude that Joseph did the right thing. What about his family and neighbors? Would the Jews of their day agree with us? Matthew tells us that the Angel appears to Joseph, but was he the only one? Did anyone else find out via Angelic pronouncement? We don’t know for certain, but it could be that at least their immediate families knew. While we do not live in or fully understand Jewish culture of that time, we do understand sinful behavior and how people tend to react to it. Our cultures, customs, and traditions might change over time, but the sinful heart rarely does. Imagine the possible immediate hostility or incredulity of their close family and friends, at least for a while. We do not know for sure their circumstances, but one thing is clear: this divine pregnancy did not come without hardships. Who would want to be associated with a man who brought shame and dishonor to his family? Would Joseph’s family even want to live with them under the same roof? Now, aside from speculation, what should be understood here is that this entire experience must have been difficult for Mary and Joseph. And, I think it was God’s providence that they should endure this hardship.
Have you ever wondered why God chose to conceive in Mary’s womb while she was betrothed? Why didn’t he do it before when she was still single? Why cause Mary and Joseph to bear this grief, animosity, and shame when it could possibly have all been avoided? Because, Jesus needed to be born in Bethlehem. If you read both accounts of the Angel’s visiting Mary and Joseph, you can see that in both instances the Angel tells them how the child will be/was conceived, and what his name will be. But what the Angel doesn’t tell them is that the child needs to be born in Bethlehem. Could the Angel have actually told them but it wasn’t recorded? Sure. Did Mary and Joseph know about Micah 5:2 that Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, so that’s where they needed to go and, therefore, didn’t need to be told? Absolutely. But that’s not what Luke records in chapter 2. Instead, he focuses on a Roman census.
This was not part of the normal cycle of censuses that Rome regularly conducted. God, in His providence, used this census to provide an opportunity for His son and his earthly parents to relocate, temporarily, to Bethlehem. I believe this was a temporary relocation from Nazareth and not a quick trip. The reason for this conclusion comes from the fact that Mary went with Joseph to Bethlehem. Only men were required to register for a Roman census on behalf of their families. The fact that Luke specifically records that Mary, being pregnant, decided to travel with Joseph when she wasn’t required by Roman law to do so may suggest that this wasn’t intended to be a short trip to Bethlehem just to register for a census. If it was, wouldn’t it have been better to leave Mary in Nazareth in case she went into labor so she would be cared for by family and midwives?
Instead, I think Mary and Joseph saw this as an opportunity to relocate to Bethlehem for a time, away from the shame and disgrace that now plagued them in Nazareth. Stay in Bethlehem for a while and let things settle down. This decision was by no means an easy one. They would be doing this largely on their own as young parents-to-be. Talk about an act of faith!
As we contemplate these events surrounding the nativity story, I can’t help but marvel at the faith of these two. Both of them obeyed the Lord even though they knew it could cost them their reputations, friends, employment, and family. Their obedience came at a cost. They could have acted like Jonah and complained that what God was asking them to do was too difficult and could have refused to obey the Lord. But, they didn’t. They endured the scorn, shame, and disgrace from people for sins they did not commit, a precursor of what their son would do to perfection thirty-three years later at Calvary! This year as we read the Gospel account of the birth of our Lord, let us appreciate the faith and obedience displayed for us by his earthly parents and what they were willing to sacrifice and endure for the Glory of God. Would we be willing to do the same?
 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), Matt 1:18-1:24-25, p. 48.