Yesterday I was debating the topic with my Progressive Christian friend who claimed that the Lord was a refugee.
Was Jesus Christ, by definition, a refugee?
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Was Jesus Christ a refugee?
By definition, Jesus was in fact a refugee for several months or years? In fact the whole Holy Family were refugees when they fled to Egypt in order to flee from Herod the Great!
With refugees and migrants in the news, some commentators have sought to draw parallels between their plight and that of the Holy Family—Jesus, Mary and Joseph. How accurate are these comparisons? Were Jesus, Mary and Joseph what we would consider today “refugees”?
In the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, we read the story of the “Flight into Egypt” in which, after the birth of Jesus and the visit from the Magi, an “angel of the Lord” comes to Joseph in a dream and warns him to leave Bethlehem for Egypt (Mt 2:12-15). Why? Because King Herod was planning to “seek out the child to destroy him.” Mary and Joseph do leave, along with Jesus, and, according to Matthew, make their way into Egypt. Afterward, King Herod slaughters all the male children in Bethlehem under two years of age. This dramatic episode is part of the Gospel reading for the “Feast of the Holy Innocents,” celebrated on Dec. 28.
So, according to the Gospel of Matthew, what is going on? A family is forced to flee their homeland for fear of persecution. This is the classic modern-day definition of a refugee. In fact, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees defines that group of people as follows:
A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
Even some older liturgical books of the Catholic Church commemorated this even on February 17: The Flight of Our Lord Jesus Christ into Egypt (Pro aliquibus locis)
Yes, Jesus was a refugee multiple times.
If you're forced to leave your home in the middle of the night (Matt. 2:14) because the government wants to kill you (Matt. 2:16), and you have to flee to a foreign land (Matt. 2:13) for an extended period of time until the political situation calms down back home (Matt. 2:20), I would say that decidedly qualifies as a refugee.
2. During His ministry
Jesus had to flee Nazareth, Jerusalem, and other locations for His safety. People sought to throw Him off a cliff, turn a mob on Him, stone Him, hand Him over to the Romans, etc. It was He who said:
The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head (Matt 8:20).
The reason there is so much drama in the Gospels as Jesus prepares to go to Jerusalem for His final Passover is that everybody knows the Sanhedrin is out to kill Him, and will apprehend Him the first chance they get where He's not surrounded by a throng of adoring admirers.
Additionally, it was Jesus who, just before His death, declared:
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Matt 27:46)
The previous Sunday, He was adored by a multitude. By Thursday night, just 12 close friends remained by His side; then 11 when one went out to betray Him. The circle close around Him shrunk to 3 in Gethsemane, then James fled, then Peter denied, then John followed at an increasingly impotent distance.
As Jesus' disciples scattered and spread, leaving Him alone, He still always had the presence and support of the Father. Then, in Christ's final agony, the Father apparently withdrew that support: Jesus felt what it meant to be entirely forsaken, entirely alone. Because He won that victory, we need never be entirely alone.
Jesus knows exactly what it is like to be a refugee: He is the ultimate example of being despised, rejected, and forsaken (see Isaiah 53:3-4)
Because Jesus never left the Roman empire (that we know of), the most technically correct term to use in modern English would be internally displaced person:
An internally displaced person (IDP) is someone who is forced to leave their home but who remains within their country's borders. They are often referred to as refugees, although they do not fall within the legal definitions of a refugee.
A standard definition of 'refugee' is
"a person who flees for refuge or safety, especially to a foreign country, as in time of political upheaval, war, etc."
Jesus' family fled for safety to Egypt from Judea. Whether this was a 'foreign country' in the contemporary sense is debatable - both these areas were under Roman control at the time (see Tristan's comment below, the exact status of Judea is debatable). Perhaps this was somewhat like moving from one country to another within the European Union nowadays.
There also was a large, established Jewish community at the time in Egypt, where presumably they were able to find help.
Also, because they fled after receiving the gifts of the Magi, which included gold, they presumably had some wealth - perhaps significant wealth - which also would have helped them during this time.
After perhaps a few months up to 2 years, they then moved back to the land of Israel, settling in Nazareth.
Answer: yes, for a short period of time Jesus was a refugee.
Although Jesus's family could arguably be a refugee while Herod tried to kill babies and children under two years old (Matt 2:12-15), for the rest of his ministry I don't think Jesus qualifies to be called a "refugee", so I disagree with @HoldTheRod's application of the verses he cited as meeting the modern definitions of a "refugee" or even an "internally displaced person" (IDP).
In contrast, David WAS a refugee when he had to reside in Philistines or Moab because Saul hunted him down. A better characterization is that Jesus was persecuted when preaching the gospel and at times suffered the feeling of alienation that a refugee or an IDP might feel. This is the feeling of why do the country of my birth rejects me when what I am doing is good for my people? This is similar to the feeling of Paul being depressed by the rejection of his own Jewish people in many synagogues during his missionary journeys (cf. Rom 9:3). But Jesus felt safe enough to reach out to the multitude in many towns before deliberately entering Jerusalem for the final time in his passion week. Paul was not a refugee either, in fact the Roman government recognized his citizenship and helped to protect his physical safety from the Jerusalem leaders when Paul deliberately went there! So both Jesus and Paul deliberately put themselves in harm's way for the sake of the gospel. In contrast, refugees do not deliberately put themselves in danger when there are many other safe places in the country!
Therefore the 3 verses @HoldTheRod mentions need to be read in their proper context:
"being despised, rejected, and forsaken" (Isaiah 53:3-4) refers to how people rejected the servant's message (Isa 53:1) and who thought that Jesus's beatings and death on the cross were punishment for his own sins (Isa 53:4). Read the full Isaiah 53 as a beautiful portrayal of how Jesus suffered for our sins. A refugee wouldn't be able to reach the masses that gathered for his sermon on the mount, who welcomed him in Capernaum and other towns, etc.
"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matt 27:46) was not the cry of a refugee. This should be read as the servant's expression of faith in God who would resurrect him and who would deem him victorious (Isa 53:11-12). Jesus only said v. 1 of Ps 22 knowing that the listeners understand that he also referred to the triumphant v. 24 (see point #2 in this article). A refugee flights for safety outside the country, but Jesus deliberately stayed in Jerusalem, letting himself be captured (!!) after the agonizing prayer at Gethsemane.
"The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head" (Matt 8:20). The context here was Matt 8:18-22 regarding the cost of following Jesus. Jesus was saying that we will encounter people who reject us when preaching the gospel. Did Jesus literally have "no place even to lay his head?" That's not true, since Jesus had stayed at many friends' houses such as the house of Mary and Martha in Bethany, etc. Jesus was an itinerant preacher who moved from town to town by virtue of the nature of his work, not as a refugee. At some places he was welcomed, at other places he was rejected.
It seems unfortunate that so many automatically think of the political meaning of a refugee being a person who flees his own country (or home) to seek refuge elsewhere, as an alien - no longer of fixed abode - at the mercy of an aggressive force unless fleeing. A refugee is a victim of political or social or agricultural crises, and to become a refugee is usually drastic action, of last resort, no other course being open if freedom, or life itself is to be maintained. This being a Christianity site, and the question being about the person of Jesus Christ, the biblical view of whether Jesus became a refugee should be sought.
Some allude to his earthly parents fleeing to Egypt when Christ was little more than new-born, but that does not qualify, because Joseph was told by an angel to go there for a certain period of time before any danger became apparent, and gold had just been gifted to enable this to be done without being cast on the mercy of others. Temporarily moving to an adjoining country, not depending on the good-will of that country, hardly qualifies as becoming a refugee. Further, the Old Testament foretold this event, so that God would call his Son out of Egypt (when the would-be-murderer of Jesus had died). This was all in the foreknowledge and control of God. The infant Christ was not a victim of circumstances.
When an adult, Jesus chose when and where to go in order to avoid other attempts on his life, prior to the ordained time for him to die. But when his time had come, he set his face towards Jerusalem, knowing he would be handed over to wicked men and killed. He had spent years without a home, going around, but never fleeing to another country. He never became a refugee.
If there is one crucially important point about the Son of God, it is that he left his heavenly home in order to be born in poverty, on earth, as a man. This was all in the plan and foreknowledge of the Father and the Son. The timing of that event was meticulous so that all the situations on earth would combine to see the fulfillment of hundreds of prophecies with regard to Christ. At no stage was Jesus ever a victim of circumstances, being forced to flee or to seek refuge anywhere.
On the contrary, it is we who need to flee to Christ for refuge! The Bible states that due to the immutability of God's will, we find our refuge in Christ (Hebrews 6:19). We are as aliens in this world, as are all those who have the kind of faith in God that pleases him. Abraham set off, away from his homeland, to obey God's command, though he knew not where he was going. That didn't make him a refugee, but a sojourner in a strange country - a bit of a nomad. The key point, as Hebrews further states, is that he was seeking a better country - a heavenly one (Heb. 11:8-14). Moses left Egypt but not out of fear of the pharaoh: as seeing the invisible one who was calling him to lead his people to the promised land - which he only got to see from atop a mountain just before he died. He, too was a sojourner, a bit of a nomad, but not a refugee (Heb. 11:24-27). Jesus had nowhere to lay his head, but that did not make him a refugee.
Jesus certainly understands what it is like for people to become refugees, but that no more means he had been a refugee than his ability to understand what it is like for people to become crippled or blind must mean he became crippled or blind when on earth. The difference between Jesus and all refugees is that they cease to be in control of their circumstances, fleeing unwillingly; Jesus was always totally in control of his circumstances on earth, and willingly did everything that he did as that was the will of the Father. Never was Jesus a victim, as are refugees.
If a person deliberately, with planning and complete foreknowledge, enters enemy territory in order to rescue those who are being held captive there, can that person truly be considered a refugee?
This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; - 1 Timothy 1:15a
If such a one has actually created everything that there is and deigns to move about within that creation, where and from what shall refuge be sought?
Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. - Luke 9:58b
A refugee is a victim, moved about against his will by harmful circumstance either natural or man-made. The Lord Jesus Christ was, at no point in all eternity, a victim. Yes, He was reviled and persecuted, mistreated, misunderstood, and put to death by the hands of wicked men but ... and this but is enormous ... this is exactly why He came:
Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour. - John 12:27
If being moved about within or without one's home territory is actually part of the rescue plan, how can those movement's be considered the acts of a refugee?
Jesus Christ is Lord! He was Lord before He came, Lord in His humility in flesh, and Lord evermore! No refugee is He.
The answer comes down to if the Roman Empire was one nation or a collection of individual nations.
According to Crisis Management professionals, in order to be called a "refugee", you have to cross an international border. If you are still in your own country, trying to flee violence, you are called an Internally Displaced Person (IDP).
So Jesus fleeing the mob trying to push him off a cliff wouldn't make him a refugee, nor would not owning his own home.
Fleeing to Egypt would, if Egypt is considered a different country.
But since Israel and Egypt were both under Roman control, I think the answer is "No, he was never a refugee."
But if you consider Egypt a separate nation, thus causing him to cross an international border, then he would be.
Jesus was not treated as a political refugee during his public life, and during his trial . See John 18: 28-31 :
Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate came out to them and asked, “What charges are you bringing against this man?” “If he were not a criminal,” they replied, “we would not have handed him over to you.” Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.”.
Here we see Pilate affirming that Jesus is a Jew to the core. He goes on the install the writing on the cross "Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews ". What else is required to prove that Jesus was not treated as a political refugee ?