The First Martyrs
Today we take up one of the most horrifying passages in all of Scripture. The Church has commemorated this event as “Holy Innocents” (December 28, see my devotion under tab, “Christmas I”). Indeed, we almost wish that this passage wasn’t ever recorded; it seems to spoil the entire account of our Lord’s birth. Why must these babies die? We recoil at the injustice of it all.
Herod (called, “the Great,” because of his vast building projects) was a paranoid, wicked, and lecherous old man. Herod murdered three sons, one wife, a mother-in-law, a brother-in-law, and several others he feared were threats to his throne. Caesar Augustus remarked, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.” He had even planned for all the Jewish nobility to be slaughtered when he died just so there would be genuine mourning at the time of his death (R. T. France, NICNT, 84-85). So we are not surprised when we read that after the Wise Men (who were not fooled by the decrepit old man’s longing for the child) left by another way, that he committed this deplorable act which shall forever remain the standard of measure by which we judge ruthless and paranoid brutes who pretend to be rulers.
But back to our question, “Why must these children die,” besides the matter of having to satisfy a butcher’s paranoia over rival toddlers to the throne. The slaughter of these children serves not only as the measure of this one man’s sin, but of all men’s sins. Herod is the mirror image of ourselves when we have given ourselves completely over to the flesh, the world, and the devil. Herod is the man totally turned in upon himself, who took the sinful nature in which he was born and nurtured it to its most hideous form. We must stand in judgment of this man’s sin, but at the same time be reminded and tremble before such a stark display of what human beings—of what we—are capable of doing when we care for nothing but our own desires.
But at the same time, these children gave themselves for the One who would give himself for them thirty years later. They led the way as the first martyrs of the Church. They could not speak for themselves, but their sacrifice (and that of their parents) speaks volumes. We must remember that for Christians, death has been defeated; it is not the last word—not by a long shot. These babes found themselves in glory just like the Old Testament saints who died looking forward to the blessing which would be theirs when Messiah came. So let us contemplate their testimony in the face of absurd evil, but also rejoice that our Lord has received them and conquered all.
When writing a devotion on this passage, the martyrdom of the children in Bethlehem must take center stage. But I do wish to speak briefly on something else—something very important—that is happening in this passage. Because the angel appears to Joseph in a dream warning him of Herod’s intentions, Joseph leaves for Egypt. (A cynic might ask why the angel didn’t warn all the other fathers in Bethlehem, but we must understand that God works for our salvation even in the most horrible circumstances. And this particular baby will grow up to be the means of salvation for those babies.)
But what is happening with the holy family is a replay (the ancient fathers of the Church called it “recapitulation”) of the Old Testament account of God’s people. The holy family flees to Egypt under difficult circumstances, just as Jacob (Israel) and his family did eighteen centuries or so before. He then goes out of Egypt just as the Israelites did four hundred years later in the exodus. He returns to the land of Israel, as the ancient Israelites did, and settles in Galilee. Jesus will then live his life in the land of his fathers, as the Israelites did, yet without sin, as the Israelites did not, be crucified (we might call this his “exile” from the land as the Jews were exiled under the Babylonians, 586 B.C.), and then rise again (his return as the Jews were later allowed to return to the land under Persian King Cyrus seventy years later).
All of this is to show that our Lord not only lived our life but also relived in his own life the entire history of the people of God—which is why the early Church called his life a recapitulation of everything in the Old Testament: Adam—as the last man recapitulates the first; Israel—as the last holy nation (His body—the Church) recapitulates the first; Moses—as the last Lawgiver full of grace and truth recapitulates the first; Aaron—as the last Priest recapitulates the first; David—as the King of kings recapitulates Israel’s greatest king; and all the prophets—as the last Prophet recapitulates all the others as the final Prophet, Priest, and King. In short, our Lord’s entire life and ministry is a recapitulation of all things from Adam to the present as the One who came in the fullness of time for our salvation.
In our Lord’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, the history of God’s people, and each of our personal histories, are relived, recapitulated, and thus, restored to us, as his redeemed people. Don’t you just love the intricacy of the history of God’s redemptive work among His people!