When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
In 2014, when discussing the influx of those arriving at the southern border seeking asylum, Nancy Pelosi stated, “I always reference the Conference of Catholic Bishops statement in which they say baby Jesus was a refugee from violence”.
This year, the argument continues to light up Twitter, recently with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posting a tweet on Christmas Day.
The argument that Jesus was a refugee is used to sway public opinion in regards to those who have arrived or will arrive at our southern border seeking asylum. It appears to be a good argument. It is meant to pull at the heart strings of Christians who tend to be more conservative politically. Many will go so far as to attach the “welcome the stranger” verse of Mathew 25 to solidify the premise that Jesus commands us to care for those that are strangers to our country, specifically those that arrive at the southern border.
The question of the day is: Was Jesus a refugee escaping violence? Was Joseph, Mary and Jesus a refugee family seeking asylum in Egypt due to persecution?
The UNHCR, an international refugee agency defines refugees as those who specifically are protected under international law. They are people who find themselves outside of their country of origin because of feared (government) persecution, conflict, violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order, and who, as a result, require ‘international protection’. Refugees are those that cross national borders to seek safety in nearby countries and need sanctuary in another country.
At first glance, we might conclude that the family of Jesus would fall under this definition since we assume the text is saying that the holy family had to leave their country of origin due to fear of persecution by way of Herod’s rampage to kill all the boys in Bethlehem.
However, a careful reading of Scripture and knowing a bit of Roman history leaves us with a different picture.
Herod was an Arab practicing Jew, whose father was given honorary Roman citizenship in 47 B.C., citizenship that was passed on to Herod. That same year Herod arrived on the political stage when his father appointed him governor (modern day equivalent to mayor) of Galilee. Six years later Herod was promoted to tetrach, a higher form of governorship that ruled over a province, a territorial subdivision of the Roman Empire. A tetrach had the authority of a Roman magistrate and held executive power, though was still subordinate to Rome. Herod was technically a “client king” of Caesar.
It’s important to note that Egypt was not a different country from Bethlehem, but rather Egypt was part of a Roman province and Bethlehem was a town in Judea, another Roman province. Egypt was annexed to Rome by Caesar Augustus in 30 B.C and continued to be a province of the Roman Empire until 330 A.D. Both Egypt and Judea had rulers that were appointed and voted on by the Roman senate.
The idea that the holy family left their country of origin and arrived at the border of another country for protection is false.
Egypt is approximately 430 miles from Bethlehem. The reality can be compared to the holy family leaving New York City to settle right over the South Carolina border…..or leaving Chicago to settle in Omaha, Nebraska….or leaving Los Angeles and settling in Tucson Arizona. The mileage is not the issue here, but rather, leaving Bethlehem for Egypt was the equivalent of moving from one U.S. state to another, negating the label of refugee completely.
It is safe to say Jesus was never a refugee according to the definition that imposes a need for international protection. The holy family did not leave the Roman Empire to seek out protection from another empire.
Furthermore, those that call Jesus a refugee do so by minimizing the work of God on the world stage by ignoring the reality that Egypt became a province under Roman rule. They fail to fully understand the doctrine of the sovereignty of God by acknowledging the grandeur of bringing a powerhouse like Egypt under Roman jurisdiction, even if God did so to provide Jesus and his family a place to rest until Herod’s death (Mathew 2:15). However, the holy family’s trip to Egypt was far more comprehensive and significant than securing a place of temporary safety.
We see the work of God in action when Joseph was warned in a dream to not divorce Mary due to assumed infidelity (Mathew 1:20). We also see the work of God in action when the wise men were warned in a dream to not return to Herod (Mathew 2:12). We can safely assume that if God wanted to thwart the plan of Herod’s psychotic jealous insecurities, God would have. However, Herod was insignificant in the grand scheme of God becoming flesh.
Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him. (Mathew 2:13)
Proponents of the idea that Jesus was a refugee seem to get stuck on the word “flee”, but we really need place our focus on the phrase “is about to” (ESV), which shows a future action. Towards the end of Herod’s life, he became engulfed with greed for his own position of power. He had already murdered several family members who he suspected were out to betray him. His insecurities provoked him to search for the child the wise men were looking for (Mathew 2:1, 8)
According to Josephus, a first century Jewish-Roman scholar and historian, writes that Mark Antony, a politician and general who was a subordinate of Julius Caesar, initially called Herod “king of the Jews” and convinced the Roman senate to vote Herod into office as ruler Judea and the Jews. After Herod learned from the wise men that there was another “king of the Jews”, a real King of the Jewish people, his desire to search for a child (vs 4, 8) grew.
Jesus was to be sought after because he was a threat to Herod’s rule, making it not necessarily public disorder persecution but premeditated murder. When the angel came to Joseph in a dream, he did not go back to sleep and wait till morning. He trusted the message from the angel, woke up Mary from her sleep and they departed by night. There was no ongoing outward persecution happening to Jewish boys that caused Joseph to flee with his young family. There was however, a personal plan to destroy Jesus secretly (vs 7).
It was not until the holy family departed Bethlehem and was safely on their journey to Egypt that Herod learned he had been tricked by the wise men. Only then did he order all the male children under two years of age in Bethlehem to be killed, which amounted to approximately less than 20 boys. Public persecution in Bethlehem did not occur until after Jesus left. This kind of persecution did not occur due to happenstance, but rather it was prophecy written by Jeremiah (vs17-18).
The life of Jesus was never truly in danger since he had parents that obeyed and trusted the voice of the LORD. Jesus’s life was sealed and protected from birth. Concerning Jesus, God left nothing to chance or coincidence.
God sent Jesus to Egypt and God brought Jesus out of Egypt, for no other reason than to send a public service announcement reminder to Israel, though they would not understand it until after Christ’s death.
In the exodus, God brought Israel out of Egypt, pointing to the revealing of God’s covenant with them. Israel coming out of Egypt is the “model of redemption as deliverance from oppression and reception into divine blessing. It’s a coming out of the bondage of sin and going into the family and presence of God” 
God sent Jesus to Egypt so that He could bring the Messiah out Egypt as a public declaration that Jesus was the long awaited Son of God and Messiah for the new covenant.
In Far as the Curse is found, Williams writes, “baby Jesus’ flight into Egypt and return recapitulates the Moses typology, establishing Jesus as the new Moses, the new law giver, before he ever preached the covenant law”, seen in the Sermon on the Mount.
The New American Commentary states that Mathew quoted Hosea 11:1 to prove that typically and primarily God called Israel from Egypt and antitypically and fully that God called the Messiah from Egypt, making it necessary that Jesus had to be called to Egypt.
Jesus was not forced to go to Egypt because of Herod. Jesus was called to Egypt by God. To call the family of Jesus refugees borders on the profane and lacks understanding of God’s redemptive plan to save his people.
The life of modern refugees are filled with perilous circumstances that force them to leave their country of origin to search for safety in another country. I have heard story after story of the hardships that refugee’s endure due ongoing persecution in their country. I know of a woman from Iraq who has been in mourning for several years. She has worn only black for several years. Her entire family became displaced across the globe when Iraq began persecuting Chaldean Christians. Her relatives ended up in Turkey, Greece, Spain, Canada, and the U.S. A few years ago she learned that her son, who was in his early 20’s died alone in a hotel room in Spain.
I don’t work with and minister to refugees because Christ lived a life similar to theirs. I work with and minister to refugees because Christ’s love for me compels me to love refugees enough to
The life of Christ and the lives of refugees are not similar simply because at one point Jesus had to move south from one Roman province to another. Herod’s psychotic paranoia was used by God to fulfill Scripture, but was not the main point of the story, God’s convent and redemption are. The life of Christ was divinely protected and every aspect of His time on earth was providentially orchestrated by God, for the sole purpose of waiting for His time to die for the sins of His people. When we miss the reality of divine guidance and intervention, we lose sight of God’s sovereignty. We profane the life of Christ and the protection of the Father when we grasp at modern day political language to pull at heartstrings for real refugees of today.
Instead of trying to create similarities between modern day refugees and Jesus, we should be looking to the people who were part of Jesus’s early life. They believed God at His word, in spite of cultural norms that would have called them insane. When we look at Mary’s resiliency when her honor is questioned or Joseph’s humility for accepting and caring for Mary as his wife, we can see the character traits that God values in his people. When we look at the wise men’s determination to search for a King against all odds geographically, as well as the shepherds acknowledgment of the presence of the Divine (Luke 2:8-20) we are reminded that beneath the surface of every day life, there is a Kingdom that is not of this world.
God taking on flesh was condescending enough. The second person of the Trinity took on human flesh. He did so without being stripped of his divinity or his divine attributes (John 1:1-14). In Philippians 2:5-11 Paul writes some of the most profound realities of Jesus. Jesus did not consider equality with God as something to be used solely for His own advantage. Likewise, we should not use the reality of the humanity of Christ, Jesus in the flesh, to compare him to modern day refugees or illegal immigrants for political advantage today.
Williams, Micheal, D. Far as the Curse is Found: The Covenant Story of Redemption. P&R Publishing, 2005. 22-23