Updated: Jul 14, 2021
Refugee: A refugee is one who has been forced to flee their country of origin or place of birth due to persecution or threat. In Matthew 2, Herod viewed the birth of Jesus, the king of the Jews, as a threat to his own kingdom. Upon hearing from the wisemen of Jesus’ birth, Herod immediately begins to plot the death of Jesus. The wisemen do find Jesus but are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they return to their own country another way.
The angel of the Lord appears to Joseph, Jesus’ father, and instructs him to take Mary and Jesus into Egypt and to remain there until the death of Herod. Joseph obeys. Jesus and His parents leave home, family, and all that is normal and familiar to become refugees in a foreign land.
We know, in part, that Jesus lived His life on earth so that He could identify with our suffering through His suffering. We know that through our suffering we are tempted to sin and often do sin, yet at the same time we are looking for one who can enable us to endure life’s trials. We need One who has been where we are and survived. We need One who has been to the end without stumbling. We need One who has successfully been “there and back again” to understand and aid us in our suffering and struggles. Hebrews 4:15 tells us that in Christ we have a high priest who can sympathize with us because He suffered as we now suffer, yet without sinning. He suffered but did not give into the suffering or allow His suffering to become His identity. He is greater than the suffering. Hebrews 5:2 tells us that Jesus, as our high priest, deals gently with us in our ignorance and going astray since He is clothed with our weaknesses. He knows what we are going through because He also went through it. The word “weakness” refers to our physical infirmity, struggle, and susceptibility. Jesus knows what we are going through because He also went through it successfully.
One of many ways that Christ understands our suffering is that He endured life as a refugee. First, a refugee is forced to leave what is rightfully theirs and what is familiar. As the Son of God, Philippians 2:6 reminds us that He willingly left heaven and all that is rightfully His. This departure is forced by mankind’s sin. As a human, He lived as a refugee. Jesus was forced to leave his birth town, and even after being able to return to Israel, he lived as a refugee in Nazareth, a place where He never was truly accepted.
Second, a refugee is under threat. This threat is often for their own life. Jesus’ life was threatened by Herod even though Jesus was just a child. The chilling effects of Herod’s anger is realized when he orders the death of all the male children under the age of two in the region of Bethlehem. We may not know the exact numbers of deaths, but we do know, based on Matthew 2:18, that weeping and lamenting were heard throughout the region of Bethlehem. All the boys Jesus would have grown up with were killed in Herod’s fury and jealous rage. Imagine His survivor guilt as He reheard the account of Herod’s actions.
Third, a refugee is a foreigner. Whenever I have traveled to foreign countries, it takes only moments for me to be recognized as a foreigner. Mostly, as an American traveler, I am received without open disdain. My worst experiences typically have to do with being taken advantage of when making purchases. But imagine Joseph, Mary, and Jesus as foreigners in Egypt. A lot of history passed between these two countries going all the way back to Abraham when Israel was a population of two, Abram and Sarai. The history of these middle eastern countries is well remembered. There is no doubt that Jesus and his family were easily identified as Jews. It is equally understandable that they arrived under questionable circumstances. Imagine the rumors and gossip that flowed around the marketplace as they shopped. Jesus’ family would not have been connected in the community, the markets, or in the religion. They would have faced housing issues, language barriers, cultural differences, and political strain. At the worst, they would have been unwanted in the neighborhood and possibly even threatened, and at best, they would have been continually watched with suspicion. They would have lived as outsiders.
Last, refugees face instability. Think of a child’s birth in our culture today. One of the primary goals is to provide a safe and stable environment. Jesus would have known little safety or stability as a refugee. His food, family, environment, culture, language, and friends were all in flux for the first several years of His life. He was living in the land of Israel’s historical enemy. By all the standard indicators, Jesus was understandably destined to be a dysfunctional adult.
Understanding Jesus’ plight as a refugee helps us to realize that Jesus understands the difficulties that we face whether as a refugee fleeing for our life or as one who faces decisions outside our control, threat, rejection, or instability. As we face these and other struggles, we can be confident that Jesus identifies with us, ministers to us, and deals gently with us. Jesus lived as a man through struggles so that we would know that He understands our struggles in life.