Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us [Caesar] Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things […] The birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him. [9 BC]
The text above is from a stone inscription celebrating the birthday of Caesar Augustus, though the language is eerily familiar to modern churchgoers heading into the Christmas season. The good tidings of a savior, one who ends war and arranges all things, presents the gospel of an emperor who is no longer thought of in quite this light. So much of that has to do with the way each of these phrases is defined. How is this good news for countries of his conquest? For his political enemies? Caesar’s peace, Pax Romana, will come by sword.
This is especially true of the name Augustus, which can be translated as something like “The Great One,” a name he took on as he rose to power which had far more inspirational appeal than his given name, Octavian, number eight. According to the verbs summarizing his life in Wikipedia, Augustus was, by most definitions, pretty great. After a reign of expanding, reforming, establishing, conquering, developing, restoring, and making it so that we say his name the eighth month of every year, he died at 75 of natural causes and was declared a Roman god. Boom. Well done.
Cover art for “The Great One” by Josh Green.
As part of the advertising of the time, his chosen name was ubiquitous on the sculptures, coins, and tablets of his domain with an intent to inspire and unite his people. It is in this context that Jesus holds up a coin that likely says something like “The Great One: Son of God” and says, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” He doesn’t have to correct it, because his definition of those phrases is entirely different. He will redefine Messiah in a way that does not require an army to overthrow the government, and what it means to be truly great will be forever inverted.
Several years ago Travis Hutchinson, the chaplain of the school where I teach, preached on that fascinating juxtaposition between the language that surrounded Augustus and Christ, and the song that I am sharing today was my way of working out those ideas in the weeks that followed. I’ve shared it at house shows and churches (and Hutchmoot!) for years with just my guitar, but I am especially excited today to share a fuller version of it. “The Great One” is out today on all music platforms.
P.S. Special thanks to Andy Crouch for sharing the Priene Calendar Inscription with me over a Hutchmoot meal back in 2018.
The Great One
He was just another number, Octavian, number eight, but the emperor inside him knew his name was not his fate. So he changed it to Augustus, The Great One, The Highest, so that Caesar, Son of God, would be the star that burned the brightest.
He would be… The Great One! The Great One! His people would proclaim his name above all names: The Great One.
He spoke chaos into order by edict and decree. He fortified new borders and preserved prosperity. Then he made of marble what had been made of clay, so his hand would span the centuries and even to today. All people who opposed him were crushed or put to flight, and the Peace of Rome filled every home by military might.
He was… The Great One! The Great Ons! A man above all men with a kingdom without end. The Great One! The Great One! His people would proclaim his name above all names: The Great One.
So when he counted up his people like money on the table two nobodies from nowhere looked for shelter in a stable, and the homeless hearts within them burned for a better day, while the brightest star was burning for their baby down in the hay. He would be…
The Weak One. The Poor One. The Suffering One. The Scorned One. The Guilty One. The Foolish One. The Forsaken One. The Slain One.
The Blameless One. The Faithful One. The Loved One. The True One. The Mighty One. The Merciful One. The Risen One. The New One.
The Highest King who came to take upon our shame. A Man above all men with a Kingdom without end. His people would proclaim His Name above all names: The Great One! The Great One! The Great One!