A Decree of Caesar Augustus
December 22nd, 1957 @ 10:50 AM
A DECREE FROM CAESAR AUGUSTUS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-22-57 10:50 a.m.
You are listening to the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the morning message entitled A Decree from Caesar Augustus and the Decrees of God. It is a sermon on the sovereign hand of God in human story, in history. In the second chapter of the Third Gospel, Luke 2:1-7, are written these historical words:
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.
(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
To be enrolled, to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
And she brought forth her first-born Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger.
All of that sounds very historical, don’t you think? An exact date; that is the way Luke will do. In the next chapter, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,” the successor of Augustus:
Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea,
Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene,
Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests…
Thus all of it sounds very historical. There’s not anything in it that you cannot confirm. Read it on the monuments, dig it up with an archaeological spade, look at it in Hebrew and Latin inscriptions, look at it in the classics, the historians like Josephus and Suetonius and Tacitus, just read it.
Now, we’re going to do something this morning like a scientist does. An astronomer doesn’t create anything, he just discovers something that God made, and he just observes through a great telescope the works of Almighty God. He just sees it, he just looks upon it; it’d be silly to suppose or to suggest that he created these things. They were there in the beginning, and he just looks upon them. The same way with a physicist: he can look with a microscope into the infinitesimal world, there he thinks he sees ether waves, and as he calls them ether waves because he doesn’t have anything else to call them, he doesn’t know what they are, but they carry little messages that go out, and you pick them up with an ear tuned to it like with a radio or a television set. And he sees atoms; that is, he doesn’t see them, but he thinks that he does, and they are electrons and protons and neutrons. He doesn’t know what else to call them; they’re just there. To say that he invented them or that he created them would be ridiculous. All the physicist does is just see and observe what God has done. Those ether waves, those electrons and neutrons were there in the beginning; we’re just now being able to discover them, to know what God has done. So your physicist just looks at the world that God has made, and he watches the moving of the hands of the Almighty, that’s all.
Same way about an anatomist: he just looks at the working of this created life. He doesn’t create it; it’d be ridiculous to suggest that he could. He just observes and sees what God does. There is a little cell, and there’s an unseen hand back of it. And that unseen hand molds, and makes, and multiplies, and designates, and specifies, and delineates; and soon there comes into this world a new creature, you. He just watches it that’s all, what God does. Well, all of life is like that. This morning, I say, a true historian is like that. Now if he’s blind, he can’t see, but if his eyes are open, there can you look upon the moving of the hand of God in story, in human history, just the same as you see the workings of God in the infinite universe above or the infinitesimal microcosm below. There does God move.
Now, do you suppose Caesar Augustus—Augustus, that’s what he called himself. August was a name that the Latins referred to God. And this Octavius Caesar took unto himself the name of God, and over the empire, temples were erected for the worship of the Roman Caesar—kurios kaisar, “Caesar is God,” Caesar is Lord.
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled” [Luke 2:1]. Now I haven’t time to speculate on why he did it; maybe he was going to war, wanted to number the men he could command in an army, maybe he wanted money, they always did; they were going to tax the whole world to fill up the coffers and treasures of the imperial emperor. Well, whatever the reason, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world would be enrolled, a census taken. And in keeping with the way you had to do it in Judea, unless you precipitated another war, it was done by families, through those long genealogical tables. And each one went to his own city to be enrolled. And in the providence of God, in the providence of God, the hand of God, there went from Nazareth to the city of David, Joseph and his espoused wife, his promised wife, Mary, who being great with child in that city gave birth to a first-born Son [Luke 2:7].
That’s God! For over here in the first chapter of Luke, it says that this holy family lived in Nazareth, in Galilee, the other side of the country from Bethlehem. “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, To a virgin espoused, promised, to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary” [Luke 1:26-27]. They lived in Nazareth. But seven hundred fifty years before Micah said that the Child shall be born in Bethlehem! [Micah 5:2]. “And there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus” [Luke 2:1], a tin god, a crackpot god, a puny god, like men are gods. And he didn’t know it, he didn’t realize it, but when Micah said, seven hundred fifty years before, that the Child shall be born in Bethlehem, the decree from Caesar Augustus sent the holy family from Nazareth to Bethlehem [Luke 2:4], that the word of the prophet might come to pass according to the commandment of the Lord. All history is that history: back of it is the moving, sovereign, imperial hand of Almighty God.
In the [forty-ninth] chapter of the Book of Genesis, Israel, Jacob, being a prophet, turned to his fourth son, rejecting Reuben, rejecting Simeon, rejecting Levi [Genesis 49:1-7], turned to the fourth son, called him by name, and said, “Judah, thou art the one”; then the prophecy, “There shall not depart from Judah the scepter, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come” [Genesis 49:8-10]. God said by His prophet Israel, Jacob, that Judah should have a family and a government and a nationality until Shiloh come. And there arose in those centuries the wasters of the earth, and they destroyed Manasseh, and they destroyed Ephraim, and they destroyed Issachar, and they ravaged and wasted the tribes of Israel. Tiglath-pileser, and the winged bull of Asshur, and Shalmaneser, and Sargon, and Sennacherib, and Esarhaddon, and the Assyrians wasted Palestine. But God said, “Judah shall have a government and a nation until Shiloh come.” And there arose in those later centuries Nabopolassar, and Nebuchadnezzar, and Belshazzar, and they wasted Palestine. But God said, “Judah shall have a government until Shiloh come” [Genesis 49:10]. And there arose Alexander the Great, and Antigonus, and Lysimachus, and Cassander, and Ptolemy, and Seleucus Nicanor, and Antiochus Epiphanes, and they wasted Palestine. But God said, “Judah shall be a government and a people until Shiloh come.” And there arose Pompey, and Caesar Julius, and Caesar Augustus, and Antony, and Herod, and they wasted Palestine. But God said, “Judah shall have a government and a nation until Shiloh come!” [Genesis 49:10]. And according to the Word of the Lord, Judah was a nation and a people until Christ was born; then the nation was destroyed [Luke 21:24]—the moving hand of Almighty God.
Oh, it is interesting to read the Book and just to observe the hand of God in history. For example, in the thirty-sixth chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, the great prophet said, “Israel shall go back to the land in unbelief. Unconverted Israel shall return to their land blind in heart, in unbelief, unconverted” [Ezekiel 36:22-29]. After the destruction of the nation in 70 AD and the few years that followed, for one thousand five hundred years, no Jew was in Palestine. He was buried in the nations of the earth [Deuteronomy 4:27]. He was scattered to the four corners of the globe. He was everywhere, but he wasn’t in Palestine. For a thousand five hundred years, no Jew was in Palestine. But two thousand five hundred years ago, God said, in the thirty-sixth chapter of Ezekiel, that the Jew would return to Palestine [Ezekiel 36:22-29]. And for a thousand five hundred years, the centuries mocked God, and the prophecies fell to the ground. Then in 1882, there were twenty-four thousand Jews gathered in the land. In 1900, there were fifty thousand. In 1922, there were eighty-four thousand. In 1927, there were one hundred fifty thousand. In 1936, there were four hundred four thousand. In , the year of the birth of the nation of Israel, there were six hundred fifty thousand. Today there are approximately one million seven hundred thousand, increasing at the rate of about one hundred thousand a year. God said two thousand five hundred years ago, by the mouth of His prophet Ezekiel, that they should return to their land. And the hands of God move in history. Just like you watch the stars, just like you watch the formation of an anatomical body, so the hand of God moves in human destiny.
Now, may I return to my story? “And in those days it came to pass, through the decree of Caesar Augustus, that this [Child] who had been prophesied, was born, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger” [Luke 2:1, 7]. Look at the hand of God in history. Daniel, in the second chapter of his book, Daniel saw an exceeding great and resplendent image. It was of a man, his head was gold, his breast was silver, his thighs were brass, his legs were of iron; and when Daniel gave the interpretation of the vision to the king, it was a prophecy of the course of human history [Daniel 2:31-37]. “Thou, O king Nebuchadnezzar,” head of the Babylonian Empire, “thou art that head of gold” [Daniel 2:38]. And the first great kingdom was the Babylonian Empire. And it wasted Palestine; it destroyed the country, it plowed it up into heaps [Micah 3:12].
But out of that Babylonian Empire, there arose three great imperishable blessings. First: there came to the children of God a dedication to monotheism from which they have never swerved. The chosen people today are fanatically monotheistic! They never worshipped idols again; not after the days of the Babylonian captivity. Second: out of that Babylonian captivity, that empire of gold, there came the fixed canon of the Old Testament Scriptures. Ezra and the great synagogue sealed forever the sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament. When I hear a certain denomination advertise in all the magazines and newspapers of the land, “The Bible is a,” and then they name themselves, “book. The Bible is our book,” I just wonder at the ridiculousness of what some denominations do in order to purport to be the church. Ezra, back there five hundred years before Christ, and the great synagogue sealed the canon of the Old Testament Scriptures, “This is the Word of God”; and it is sealed to this day. They did it. That was the second great thing that came out of the Babylonian captivity, that empire of gold [Daniel 2:38]. And the third thing that came out of the wasting of the Babylonian captivity was the birth of the synagogue, which is the birth of our church. Our services are like a synagogue, exactly, except there where we have a baptistery, they will have an ark, holding the sacred Torah, the law of Moses. But out of that Babylonian captivity came the synagogue. And as they say in the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Acts, “Everywhere and in every city Moses hath his witness” [Acts 15:21]—the hand of God marshalling history against the great day of the Lord.
Then he said, “And the breast is of silver; that O king is the Medo-Persian Empire” [Daniel 2:32, 39]. And out of that empire came the decree from Cyrus [2 Chronicles 36:22-23], and out of that came a pure Judaism, returning back with Ezra, and Zerubbabel, and Nehemiah, rebuilding the city, rebuilding the temple, and getting ready for the great day of the Lord [Nehemiah 1:1-7:73; Ezra 6:3-15]. “And then the thighs,” he said, “is the Greco kingdom, the Greek kingdom” [Daniel 2:32, 39]. After those days rose Alexander the Great; and he spread the Greek language everywhere, so that there was a universal language. And he spread Greek culture and knowledge everywhere; and he created one great civilization in the Mediterranean basin, getting ready for the great day of the Lord. Then he said, “And the legs of iron represent a tremendously strong and mighty kingdom; it divided into two parts, the East and the West. And that, O king, is the Roman Empire” [Daniel 2:33, 40]. And the Roman Empire, which is the last great empire the world shall know until the day of the Lord, the Roman Empire created a universal peace. Every nation was subject to the imperial Caesar on the banks of the Tiber. And the roads they built made possible the swift passing of the feet of the messengers of the Son of God, getting ready for the great day of the Lord. Through time, through tide, through history, through the nations, through Cyrus, through Alexander, through Julius Caesar, getting ready for the great day of the Lord—the hand of God in human history.
There is a poem I came across entitled “Finale”:
God’s hand is on the organ keys
To sound the tones of days and years,
That in the march of centuries
And swift the great crescendo nears.
Nor cannons crash, nor thundering car,
Nor death bomb hurled from war torn skies
Nor shouted boast or threat can mar
That glorious anthem’s onward rise.
Supreme above the high command,
With all their counsels may decree
The highest shapes with sovereign hand
The final chords of destiny.
Held fast in that all bending sway
Vain armies move with clanking tread,
A crushing, ravening horde today,
Tomorrow numbered with the dead.
Even now a mightier chord resounds,
The grand finale sweeps along
And suffering earth’s remotest bounds
Join with all heaven the victory song.
Rejoice, He maketh wars to cease
He setteth captive peoples free
He bringeth everlasting peace,
Immortal love, eternity.
[Author and Source Unknown]
“Finale,” I liked it.
Now, until 12:00, may I speak of that in human life? The hand of God, the moving hand of the Lord, the sovereign hand of the Almighty. In the [forty-ninth] chapter of the Book of Genesis is the story of the death of Israel, Jacob [Genesis 49:29-33]. After their father was dead, the brethren who had sold him into slavery [Genesis 37:26-28], gathered and said, “Now he will slay us, that our father is dead” [Genesis 50:15-18]. And Joseph, who was as Pharaoh, when he heard of it, called his brethren, and said, “No, no, what you did you meant it for evil; but God meant it for good, that we might be saved, that our lives might be spared” [Genesis 50:19-20]—the moving hand of God.
When Paul was incarcerated, jailed, beat, and in dungeon, you would think it meant the end of the ministry of the great missionary and evangelist of the gospel of the Son of God. He was chained to a soldier on that side and a soldier on that side; and as the soldiers were changed three times a day, every soldier in the Praetorian Guard, which was the private army of the emperor and lived in Caesar’s palace, every member of the Praetorian Guard chained to the preacher heard the power of the message; many of them saved. They all knew the gospel story, and through them in Caesar’s household went out to the ends of the earth [Philippians 4:22]. And there in that prison, Paul had time to meditate and to pray, and God thrust into his soul those great vivifying, saving, regenerating truths that you read here in the Word of God. You would never have had your prison epistles, most of the New Testament, had it not been for the incarceration of God’s preacher—the moving hand of God in human life.
Augustine: in the fifth century the Vandals came, they were hordes of Teutonic, warmongering people who carried their families with them to battle, who fought to live or to die. And the Vandals overwhelmed the Greco-Roman Empire and destroyed it forever. They murdered the teachers or enslaved them, they burned the library, they destroyed the great classics of art and literature, they sacked Rome and the cities of the Roman Empire. And in those days, there arose a great Christian named Augustine, and he wrote—as the Vandals pounded at the gate of the city—he wrote the immortal, The City of God, which said to his fellow Christians, “Our kingdom is in heaven and can never be destroyed” [Daniel 2:44; John 18:36]. Isn’t it strange? The Vandals destroyed everything; but they had an unusual holy awe for the Bible. Destroyed everything but the Word of God; and through those Vandals, that even made the once proud Latin language to die and never be spoken again, the Vandals made the Bible the primer of Western civilization, the Book for the teaching of Europe.
Time would fail me to speak of a multitude of others. May I speak last of the moving hand of God in the trials that our people sustain? God is back of them. You see, I am very finite; a lot of times I just have to say, “I don’t know. I don’t understand. But God knows, and He understands.” And there’s an almighty and sovereign purpose back of the vicissitudes and fortunes and trials that overwhelm us like a flood. When I was in Africa, one of those missionaries said at a Christmas party, each one was standing up saying what he was thankful for, each one having a gift, like that dear precious girl stand up and say, “Thank you for the Buckner Home,” they were standing up thanking for the Christmas gifts. And one leper stood up and said, “And I want to thank God that I am a leper.” And the missionary said, “You thank God you are a leper?”
“Yes,” said this heathen, “I want to thank God that I am a leper, for when I became a leper, I was brought to this clan settlement. Here I was taught the gospel of the love of God, and here I was saved. Had I not been a leper, I would still have been a heathen.” And he concluded, “I’d rather be a leper and have Jesus than to be well and be a heathen”—the moving hand of God.
And talking about this Christmas season: there was a poor preacher named Clement Moore. And he had some little girls, and he didn’t have any money for presents for his little girls. And because he didn’t have any money, he wrote them a poem, and that was their Christmas. And that poem is, “Twas the Night Before Christmas, and All Through the House.”
And the church was almost destroyed by a heavy snowstorm in a little Tyrolean village; and it destroyed the organ, and they didn’t have any accompaniment for their planned Christmas music. So the pastor of the little church and the choir leader, they got together and wrote a Christmas carol that they could sing, the choir could sing without accompaniment. And that’s where they got “Silent Night, Holy Night.”
And it was because she was poor and didn’t have any nice bed for her little Boy, and she didn’t have any clothes for Him, but she wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger [Luke 2:6-7]. And that’s why the Book says, “We have a great High Priest who can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities” [Hebrews 4:15]. Anybody comes to a stable. Anybody bow at a manger. Anybody look on this Christ Child. “Draw near with boldness that you may receive grace to help in time of need” [Hebrews 4:16]—the hand of God back of the providences of life.
And just like God moves in the stars above, just like God moves in the infinitesimal electrons beneath, so God moves in the shaping of human history, and so God moves in the inconsequential in your life. It is He that reigns and lives, whose name is Jehovah Jesus, our Lord and our King.
Now, we’re going to sing our song, “Silent Night.” All right, we’re going to sing our song, “Silent Night,” written because they didn’t have any organ—snowstorm had destroyed it. Going to sing that song and while we sing it, somebody give his heart to the Lord, somebody put his life in the church, a family you, or one somebody you, while we sing, would you come? Down these stairwells, down these aisles, “Here I come, pastor, and here I am. I make it now; I make it this morning,” while we stand and while we sing.