The king we meet in the second chapter of Luke was no surprise to the reader. He came from a humble yet distinguished lineage of military leaders. His name literally meant “great” and his rule was majestic, ushering in a time of peace. This king, of course…was Caesar Augustus.
You may have been surprised just then, but Luke’s audience was not. The Roman people in Luke’s time were big fans of the kingdom their emperor had created. The elite were wealthy, successful, peaceful, and prosperous because of their leaders, and to them, society only seemed to be getting better.
As seemingly random as Caesar Augustus is to us, so Luke’s mention of his census seems strangely random in the context of this story. What is so important about this census?
The work of registering people by census has been in use for thousands of years. In almost every instance, its purpose is to acquire information that will build up the kingdom of its ruler. We see this happen throughout Scripture. In Exodus 30, God commanded his people Israel to take a census in order to provide for the priests and the tabernacle. This work was done so that atonement for sins by sacrifice could continue to be made by the priests on behalf of the people. Later on in Israel’s history, in 1 Chronicles 21, King David sinfully required a census to be taken of Israel, not for the sake of sacrifice and worship, but for the sake of assessing his military might. Here in Luke 2, the pagan Caesar Augustus registered his own kingdom for the sake of taxation. This money supported various infrastructures and built up his own house.
Above all of this, the author of Psalm 87 reminds us who truly is the ruler and registrar of his people. Speaking of God’s eternal kingdom, he says, “and of Zion it shall be said, ‘This one and that one were born in her’; for the Most High himself will establish her. The LORD records as he registers the peoples, ‘This one was born there.’”
God knows his people intimately not just because of his supreme intelligence to count them but because of his divine omnipotence to create them. When the governor Quirinius requires the people of his locality to register at their ancestral homes, he’s just cataloguing their place of birth for tax purposes.
When God registers his people, he doesn’t just know their place of birth—he causes them to be born.
We may selfishly seek to be served through wish lists and holiday plans. We may greedily chase after our own gain through working overtime. We might even obsessively control others’ affections through the things we buy and give. All of these efforts prove that our flesh desires to assess and build up our own kingdoms. But Jesus, the Savior who made us, came “not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” He even taught the people to pay taxes to the government that would unjustly murder him, knowing that his legally unjust death would be the vehicle of divine justice for our salvation.
The prophetic birth of this Jesus in old King David’s town came about when two humble citizens simply obeyed the census of Caesar Augustus. That is the sovereign power that God alone has over human history.
As believers of the good news of Jesus Christ, we have been adopted into an eternal family and given a new and lasting birthright. God foreknew this in his own census taken long before any of us were ever born. That’s why we can have confidence in his kingdom while living in the midst of broken ones. God’s word and gospel is a sure foundation of hope and direction for those living in a broken and hopeless world.
This hope does not come from the temporary peace made by politicians, and God’s call to humbly submit to imperfect authorities is not an endorsement of them. No—our hope is in Jesus, the only eternal king. Turn from all lesser hopes and trust in him, knowing that when you do, God has your name written down in his book of life, to be remembered for all eternity.
Jesus may have lived briefly as a citizen of Caesar’s kingdom but he came to establish God’s eternal kingdom. The kingdom of Caesar Augustus has long lay in ruin, with most of its citizens completely forgotten, but the kingdom of Jesus Christ is still very much alive, recruiting a divine list of global citizens across all human history. And one day, the book of that census will be opened, and not a single name who has believed in him will be forgotten.
 Psalm 87:5-6
 Mark 10:35
 Luke 20:19-26
 Ephesians 1:3-10
 Luke 10:20, Revelation 21:27
by Graham Jones