Pharaohs and Herods

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One of the lesser known doctrinal themes in Scripture is the idea of ethical reversals. Sometimes the reversals are connected to classes of people, and other times to ethnic groups or nations.

Whenever God delivers a group of people, there is what we might call a temptation cycle, one that we see operating all through the Scriptures. The cycle goes like this. God delivers a people from the evil they are going through. They initially rejoice and express their gratitude. The second stage is that they start to take their new status for granted. And the third stage is when they become ungrateful, and run a great risk of becoming the kind of people they were initially delivered from.

The Christ, when He came, was going to be disruptive in a way that started one of these cycles.

“He hath shewed strength with his arm; He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.”

Luke 1:51–52 (KJV)

“And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against”

Luke 2:34 (KJV)

Now when we are talking about the wealthy and the poor, we can surmise that these reversals are running in the background all the time. In other words, when the mighty are pulled down from their seats, in about five generations, they could easily be the downtrodden of the earth. For all we know, the homeless bum with his “please help” scrawled on a piece of cardboard could be a direct lineal descendant of Napoleon Bonaparte.

It goes the other direction also. When those of low degree are exalted, they need to be reminded pretty regularly that while they might be a princess now, their great, great, great grandmother was a charwoman.

But the thing that really throws people off is the enduring presence of ethnic or national markers. What do I mean? The homeless guy descended from Napoleon has no external indicators that this is so. He has no papers. But this is not the case with the Jews. They know who they are, which is one of the central reasons why they do not know who they are.

This is how John the Revelator made the point.

“And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.”

Revelation 11:8 (KJV)

The Lord was crucified, of course, in Jerusalem, and John calls them “the great city,” but also under the typological names of Sodom and Egypt. That’s a reversal right there. Peter’s cryptic remark about the church in Babylon (1 Pet. 5:13) is a likely reference to Jerusalem, another reversal.

We see this done any number of times. Herod the Great was an Idumean, which is another way of saying that he was an Edomite. At the same time, he very much wanted to be accepted as a king of the Jews—which is why he went to such great lengths to build such a magnificent Temple. But when the wise men arrived in Jerusalem with their query, Herod determined to kill the hope of Israel. When the wise men were warned and went home another way, Herod became furious, and ordered all the boys two and under in the region of Bethlehem to be slaughtered. In other words, the king of the Jews had become just like the Pharaoh of Egypt. He also had ordered the execution of little Jewish boys (Ex. 1:22).

Matthew underscores this point when he tells us about the flight into Egypt.

“When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.”

Matthew 2:14–15 (KJV)

The prophecy of Hosea (Hos. 11:1) was thus fulfilled in two senses. One was literal—the Messiah, as a young child, came up out of the literal nation of Egypt. Just as the old Israel had come up out of Egypt, so also the new Israel, the Lord Jesus, came up out of Egypt. But there was yet another sense in which the prophecy was fulfilled. Israel had become a new Egypt, ruled over by a harsh Pharaoh—Herod. Israel was no longer a safe place for an Israelite boy to be—so God called Him up out of the land of “Egypt.” He fled from Egypt to the safety of . . . Egypt.

In another place, Paul argues that the physical descendants of Sarah the free wife were actually the spiritual descendants of Hagar, the slave concubine.

“Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children.”

Galatians 4:24–25 (KJV)

He also (quite insultingly) says that those who prided themselves on their spiritual legacy of circumcision, one that went all the way back to Abraham, were actually just dogs. Not only animals and not men, but unclean animals to boot.

“Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision. For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.”

Philippians 3:2–3 (KJV)

This is right at the heart of his argument in Romans also. You puff yourself up as a descendant of Abraham. Oh, like Ishmael (Rom. 9:7)? Well then, why not puff yourself up as descended from Isaac? Oh, like Esau (Rom. 9:12-13)?

“What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles? As he saith also in Osee, I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved. And it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people; there shall they be called the children of the living God.”

Romans 9:22–26 (KJV)

God can make sons of Abraham out of rocks, as John the Baptist put it. He can even make sons of Abraham out of Gentiles.

“For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

Galatians 3:26–29 (KJV)

In the flesh, we don’t think this way. We want the Jews to stay put. We want the Edomites to remain Edomites. We want the Scythians to continue on as Scythians. That way, when the ethnic groups stay put, our ethnic animosities can also remain secure and predictable. And if there is anything we want to count on, it would be our ethnic animosities. We want Haman the Jew-hater to stay that way (Esther 3:5-6), so he can be the perpetual antisemitic bad guy. But a few centuries later, we find that some Haman-type is the one who gave Saul of Tarsus the documents he needed to persecute the Christians at Damascus (Acts 9:1-2). As Dostoevsky knew so well, the hard hand of Caiaphas and the hard hand of the Grand Inquisitor could both fit the same glove. Knowing this is right at the heart of spiritual wisdom.

Now how and why does all this matter in a discussion of antisemitism? In the long and sorry history of Jewish/Christian relations there have been many dirty deeds. In certain eras, the Jews were the persecutors, not the persecuted. In other eras, it went the other way—and largely because the Christians ignored the apostle Paul’s warning about this very thing.

If you meet a Jew who will not admit that the Jews of the first century were filled with a hot, persecuting zeal, and were the worst of the worst, then you are talking with someone who is refusing spiritual wisdom. And if you meet a Christian who is unwilling to admit that the pogrom at York in 1190 A.D. was a Godforsaken hot mess, then you are talking with someone who is also failing at life.

“For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews: Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men: Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.”

1 Thessalonians 2:14–16 (KJV)

Paul here says that the Christians in Thessalonica suffered at the hands of their own countrymen, and that this happened in just the same way that the churches of God in Judea were attacked by the Judeans. This, incidentally, is one of the places where I think it is important to render the word Judaios as Judean, and not as Jew. A Judean is to be distinguished from a Galilean, while a Jew is to be distinguished from a Gentile.

These Judeans killed the Lord Jesus, their own prophets, and they persecuted Paul and his band. They are hostile to “all men,” and when it comes to the salvation offered to the Gentiles, they wanted to play the role of the dog in the manger.

They had made many attempts on Paul’s life, and they were pretty eager to get it done.

“And there came thither certain Jews from Antioch and Iconium, who persuaded the people, and, having stoned Paul, drew him out of the city, supposing he had been dead.”

Acts 14:19 (KJV)

“And when it was day, certain of the Jews banded together, and bound themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul.”

Acts 23:12 (KJV)

But here we come to the cash payout. This is the New Testament warning, delivered ti the Gentiles, telling them not to become like their persecutors. Do not turn into your adversary. If you turn into what you hate, it is an indication that you only thought you hated their sleek arrogance of power. You didn’t hate it—you just envied it.

When God pulls down the persecutors from their seats, and replaces them with the lowly of heart, one of the things that the lowly of heart need to be reminded of is the spiritual fact that lowliness of heart does not maintain itself. Over time, it turns into something else.

There are two major places in Paul’s writing where he warns the Gentiles not to be caught flat-footed by this principle of reversal. And antisemitism is a stubborn refusal to heed this warning.

At Corinth, the Christians there were putting on airs because they, unlike the Jews, had some glorious spiritual privileges. And Paul’s response was “so?” He says that the Jews were all baptized into Moses (1 Cor. 10:2). They were baptized also. And do you have the bread of the Supper? Well, they had spiritual food as well (1 Cor. 10:3). And do you drink the wine of the new covenant? They drank from the Rock that accompanied them, and that Rock was Christ (1 Cor. 10:4). And then Paul gets to his warning. They had everything you Corinthians have, and yet “with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (1 Corinthians 10:5). Mark it well, Corinthians. They had what you had, and yet their bodies were scattered all over the wilderness (Heb. 3:17).

“Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted.”

1 Corinthians 10:6 (KJV)

“Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.”

1 Corinthians 10:11 (KJV)

He hammers this point home in Romans 11 as well. There Paul talked about the irrevocable nature of the promises given to Israel. Here we need to look at the solemn warnings given to the Gentiles who were freshly grafted into the olive tree. Keep in mind that we are here discussing people groups, and not individual saints. Paul made it clear in Romans 8 that no one can lay a charge against God’s elect because it is God who justifies (Rom. 8:33). At the same time, he solemnly warns the Roman Christians to not make the same mistake that the unbelieving Jews had done.

“And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert graffed in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be graffed in. Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee.”

Romans 11:17–21 (KJV)

But these natural branches, these unbelieving natural branches, were by nature persecuting branches. And if there is one thing that persecutors are, it is high-minded. Paul tells the Roman Christians to resist, as a profound temptation, the snare of all such haughty high-mindedness.

And so here is the heart of the matter. What matters is spiritual kinship. Children of the flesh persecute. Children of the promise are the persecuted. This is the tell. It is a perennial reality, true in all ages.

“Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now.”

Galatians 4:28–29 (KJV)

And this is why we have the liberty to lump a certain kind all together. But it is not the color of their flesh that unites them, or genetics, but rather the fact of their flesh—the sarx as sin principle. They are carnal, of the flesh, worldly. They are of their father the devil. And the number that belongs in this category is too great to itemize, although we can mention a few—Caiaphas and his crew, Tomás de Torquemada, Saul before his conversion, Bloody Mary, numerous medieval managers of pogroms, Himmler as the architect of the Final Solution, the incipient totalitarianism of Herbert Marcuse and his doctrine of repressive tolerance, and of course Stalin. There is a long chain of other names, but to mention them all would soon become morbid.

Those who are descended from their father Abraham bear a family resemblance to him.

“They answered and said unto him, Abraham is our father. Jesus saith unto them, If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham.”

John 8:39 (KJV)

If you were Abraham’s children, in other words, you would look a little more like him. The same principle applies in the opposite direction.

“Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.”

John 8:44 (KJV)