Suppose someone asked you, “Can you name a famous person who lived as a refugee or an exile in a foreign land?” Who would you think of? Perhaps the Dalai Lama? Albert Einstein was a refugee from Nazi Germany. As was Anne Frank, who hid in the Netherlands until her death.
In church history, we see men like Athanasius, repeatedly forced from the city of Alexandria for his defense of the Christian faith. English Bible translator William Tyndale lived as a refugee on the continent for years, until he was hunted down and burned at the stake. And then, of course, there is the Lord Jesus himself.
Displacement and refuge in Jesus’ life
Really? Jesus Christ?
Yes, indeed. Our Lord and Savior was a refugee.
Think about how he began his life. First of all, his parents were temporarily displaced persons, forced by Roman law to go to Bethlehem for the census. Of course, Bethlehem was the ancestral home of Joseph’s family, but it was not Joseph’s home, nor Mary’s. So the Lord was born in a place far from what normally would have been his home.
Sometime after Jesus’ birth the Magi arrived from the east to honor him as the new king (Matthew 2:1–12). The Magi’s search for the newborn Messiah alerted King Herod that a new king had come on the scene. If Herod was anything, he was paranoid. History tells us that he had several of the royal family assassinated, in fear that they might attempt to take his throne. So the news of the birth of the Messiah, the promised King of Israel, fed right into his mad, obsessive paranoia.
Infamously, Herod gave orders to slaughter all male babies in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16). God had warned Joseph in a dream of Herod’s murderous plot (Matthew 2:13), so at the bidding of the angel of God, Joseph took Mary and the infant Jesus and fled to Egypt (Matthew 2:14–15). Thus, in the earliest days of his life, we see Jesus living in exile, a refugee in a foreign land.
We don’t how long he lived there. Some scholars think it was only a few months before the family returned to Nazareth. Some reckon it to have been a few years. Because of the short duration of the exile in Egypt, we have no way of knowing if Christ had any recollection of his stay there or not. Yet, even if he didn’t remember it, surely he was told about. The fact that his life began as a refugee in a foreign land must have made an impression on his life. I think that for this reason, our Lord must have a tender place in his divine heart for refugees, displaced persons, exiles, and “strangers” (as the Bible often calls them). And if these people are dear to Christ’s heart, should we not also carry them in our hearts?
A refugee heritage
When you think about it, it really should come as no surprise that Jesus was a refugee. It was actually a part of his family heritage. In Matthew 1:1–17 we have a genealogy of Christ. For most modern readers this is probably pretty boring stuff. But for followers of the Messiah in the first century, this was a critically important document. It helped established the Lord’s credentials as the son of David, and his legitimacy to claim to be the Messiah.
However, this is not a typical Jewish genealogy—in several ways. For one thing, it mentions women, a rare thing indeed. In fact, five women are mentioned here. Of these five, only one—Jesus’ mother, Mary—is definitely known to be an Israelite. Three of the five (Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth) were definitely Gentiles, foreigners living in the land of Israel. And there is some evidence that Bathsheba (mother of Solomon) was also a foreigner, a Canaanite.
Consider the implications of this—the lineage of the Messiah included foreigners in Israel. Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba were essentially displaced persons, living away from their homes. And Ruth was an alien, transplanted from a foreign land (Moab). This is yet another fact that Jesus certainly knew, and probably would have informed his attitude about foreigners and “strangers.” How could he not be concerned about aliens and displaced persons when his own foremothers were foreigners and newcomers to Israel?
There is one other passage to consider in addressing the matter of Jesus being a refugee: Philippians 2:6–11. This is a wonderful section of the New Testament. It is sometimes called the Carmen Christi, or the “song of Christ.” A number of biblical scholars believe that Paul has here recorded an early hymn sung in honor of the Lord. This passage portrays in profound and majestic language the Incarnation of Christ—defining his deity and describing his condescension to take on human flesh.
Here the Apostle Paul gives us a glimpse into one of the great mysteries of our faith. God the Son, eternal deity, infinite in his being, chooses to pour himself out for us, and be born in the womb of the virgin Mary. He who from eternity has only known sublime glory, transcendent splendor, supernal grandeur—he now dwells in the finite weakness of human flesh, the lowly impoverishment of earthly existence.
Jesus, the ultimate refugee
In one sense, of course, you cannot say that Christ “left” anything to come live among us as a man. Obviously as God, he exists everywhere. He is present from the heights of the heavens to the depths of hell. Where does he not dwell? Yet, his “natural state” (if we may use such a mundane term) was to exist as a divine spiritual Person. His “native homeland” was heaven (again, we are accommodating the mystery to terms we can try to grasp). But then he chose to leave this glorious state to be “transplanted” to earth, to become one of us, to live here among us. He was the ultimate “other,” the divine “Stranger,” who voluntarily exiled himself to live in a most alien and foreign land—this physical universe, this earth. I think we can certainly (and reverently) say that Christ was the ultimate refugee.
Considering all of the above, I think it is fair to say that our Lord has a personal and vested interested in the plight of refugees and displaced persons. He empathizes with them most intimately, because he was one of them.
It is no wonder then that in Jesus’ account of the judgment of the nations in Matthew 25 the king mentions treatment of strangers as one of the criteria for receiving either his blessing or his curse. To the sheep he says, “I was a stranger and you took me in” (25:35). To the goats the king declares, “I was a stranger, and you did not take me in (25:43). We would do well to ponder this—think about it long and hard. For Jesus Christ himself, the ultimate refugee, says to us, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
The image above is a re-creation of the face of a Jewish man from the Middle East during the first century. It was developed by medical artist Richard Neave with the help of modern forensic technology and informed by archeological research.