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Slaughter of the Innocents

Matthew 2:13-23

Lesson audio

It is well known: being innocent does not protect you from pain and peril. Indeed, from the point of view of the evil, it makes you just that much easier to exploit - or destroy. Here is a famous example of the problem:

Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord *appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him." So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt. He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED MY SON." Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi. Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: "A VOICE WAS HEARD IN RAMAH, WEEPING AND GREAT MOURNING, RACHEL WEEPING FOR HER CHILDREN; AND SHE REFUSED TO BE COMFORTED, BECAUSE THEY WERE NO MORE." But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord *appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, and said, "Get up, take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child's life are dead." So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: "He shall be called a Nazarene."

(Mat 2:13-23 NASB)

Suffering of the Innocent

It is problem enough for us that there is suffering in this world. If God’s such a nice guy, why did he allow this in our lives? This question is often asked in hospital corridors. But when it is asked, it’s usually in the context of, “Why did this suffering happen to me? Or the someone I love?” This instance is different.

Did Christ cause the slaughter of the innocent?

Let’s take another case and see where our thoughts lead us. You will remember Peter’s miraculous escape from prison:

Now about that time Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church in order to mistreat them. And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword. When he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. Now it was during the days of Unleavened Bread. When he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out before the people. So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God. On the very night when Herod was about to bring him forward, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and guards in front of the door were watching over the prison. And behold, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter's side and woke him up, saying, "Get up quickly." And his chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, "Gird yourself and put on your sandals." And he did so. And he *said to him, "Wrap your cloak around you and follow me." And he went out and continued to follow, and he did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. When they had passed the first and second guard, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city, which opened for them by itself; and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel departed from him. When Peter came to himself, he said, "Now I know for sure that the Lord has sent forth His angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting." And when he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who was also called Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. When he knocked at the door of the gate, a servant-girl named Rhoda came to answer. When she recognized Peter's voice, because of her joy she did not open the gate, but ran in and announced that Peter was standing in front of the gate. They said to her, "You are out of your mind!" But she kept insisting that it was so. They kept saying, "It is his angel." But Peter continued knocking; and when they had opened the door, they saw him and were amazed. But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had led him out of the prison. And he said, "Report these things to James and the brethren." Then he left and went to another place. Now when day came, there was no small disturbance among the soldiers as to what could have become of Peter. When Herod had searched for him and had not found him, he examined the guards and ordered that they be led away to execution. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and was spending time there.

(Act 12:1-19 NASB)

Please note: the soldiers who were guarding Peter – some commentaries say that they were actually chained to him – were executed for their failure to keep him prisoner. It hardly seems just, that.

Whatever else need be said, we see that Peter cannot be held responsible for the deaths of the soldiers. He was inadvertently the proximate cause, but there was no way he could have prevented it, or even foreseen it. Had he known beforehand, he might have objected to the process – for a Christian causes no harm to someone which can be prevented.

The same cannot be said of Christ. It is clear from the prophecy in Jeremiah that God knew that this slaughter was going to happen. By his coming in this place and time, he knew that these innocent babes were to be mercilessly slaughtered. So we cannot claim it was inadvertent.

Why do the innocent suffer?

We might start with a more general question: why do the innocent suffer at all, at anyone’s hand? The Christian answer has always been: We live in a fallen world, tainted by sin. The place is run by a cherubim in rebellion named Satan.

It’s an old maxim: tell me why God created Satan, and I’ll tell you why there is evil in this world. It seems hardly bright of God to do such a thing, knowing what suffering would be caused.

God’s answer is not to defend His creation but rather to suffer like us. He came in the form of a baby; when he grew up He became the lamb of God. The Innocent One suffered too. To create beings with a free will implies the possibility of rebellion against the truth; but to suffer and die to end that rebellion in forgiveness is indeed divine. With that, we shall examine God’s defense.

God’s Defense

There are several ways in which God allowing suffering is seen to be righteous:

  • First, suffering is for this world; for the children of God, this suffering will be rewarded in the life to come.
  • Second (though not in this case) suffering may bring forth a greater good. The Crucifixion was horrible suffering – which yielded up salvation.
  • Such suffering is often God’s discipline – which is a bit hard to see in this instance.

Those are the classic arguments. But may I point out something? It is utterly presumptuous to even debate the issue. His ways are high above +ours; we cannot know the answer in this life. As Job put it, “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”[1]

The real relationship between church and state

The prince of this world

The New Testament makes it clear: the things of this world are ruled over by Satan.[2] His rule is markedly different from what me should want:

  • He blinds the world to the Truth.[3] Christians often are troubled by the way non-Christians see things. They should be more troubled by the way non-Christians don’t see things. He is actively working to prevent the people from knowing the Truth.
  • He can be seen in various disguises; a common one is to appear as an “angel of light.” Indeed, Lucifer is his name. His schemes often are portrayed as being goodness itself. We slaughter a million babies a year to “prevent back-alley abortions.”[4]
  • Fraud comes naturally to him; he is the father of lies – and the father of liars. Lying is his native language.
  • Most important, we must remember that our struggle is against him. We are not to be bystanders in this conflict.
Character of Herod

In Herod’s character we can see the kind of ruler Satan wants in place.

  • He wants one who will act in anger. Herod had the innocents slaughtered in a fit of rage.
  • He’s also a man of duplicity – asking the location of the child “to worship him.” (The rest of the history of the man includes murder, intrigue and what some consider plain insanity.)
  • He is a man with no care for the right – only for might. He has the soldiers, the soldiers have swords. Nothing else counts, in his mind.
  • He is, foremost, a man of pride. He will tolerate no rival because he has no humility before God. Pride – the sin by which Satan fell.
The Christian’s reaction

If you will see it, the normal state of affairs between church and state is one of conflict. Both claim the highest allegiance of the citizen; only one can have it. We in America have been blessed to have seen this only lately; but the time is coming when the choice will need to be made.

When that happens, what is the Christian to do? Joseph gives us the example here: flee. Even when he is returning, he is told to find another province in which to live. He goes to Nazareth for fear of Herod’s son – who, after all, would have the same motive as dad did.

Sometimes that’s just not an option. In such case, the Christian is then privileged (you read it right) to suffer in imitation of his Lord. In such case we are commanded to patient endurance, for this finds favor in God’s eyes.[5]

In all this we are not to fear, nor even be troubled.[6] If you look at it through “forever eyes” you will see it as it truly is: a brief moment of darkness which will be swept away by the light of our Lord’s return.


It is instructive to deal with prophecy at this point. The entire question of suffering is changed when you consider the Lord’s return. Our attitude towards it changes as well. So let us look at the prophecies surrounding his first coming, and the reaction they got.

  • He was to be called a Nazarene. Search as you will, there is no place in an English translation which will provide this. The usual verse cited for this is Isaiah 9:11. It makes no sense – unless you know that the word Nazareth means a sprout, a bud, a branch. The Hebrew would be clear at the time; the English is not.
  • The slaughter of the children was prophesied.[7]
  • The return from Egypt was also prophesied.[8]

That last is important. In the symbolic interpretation, Egypt is usually a stand-in for sin. So, if you are teaching on the Old Testament, you see the flight of the Jews to be a symbol of our flight from sin. Similarly, in the New Testament the Son is shown coming out of Egypt – a symbol of His sinless nature.


So how did Joseph and Mary react to this? Their conduct is a model for us even today:

  • First, they show us the virtue of obedience. The angel commands, the couple goes. Prompt obedience finds favor with God.
  • Nest, they show us the virtue of trust. It is one thing to blindly obey; it is another to obey one in whom you trust. Trust in the Lord with all your heart; you will find Him worthy of it.

We are concerned today with His second advent. What should the Christian be doing about the imminent return of the Lord?

  • First, keep on the watch! His return is like a thief in the night; you will not know the hour of his return.
  • But you will see the signs of the time. Be on the lookout for those, so even though you don’t know the time, you’ll recognize the season.
  • Finally, heed the warnings of prophecy. The First Megalithic Church of Laodicea is not nearly as healthy as she thinks she is.

[1] Those interested in exploring this topic more fully would do well to start with C. S. Lewis’ classic work on the subject, The Problem of Pain.

[2] Matthew 4:8-11

[3] 2 Corinthians 4:3-4

[4] The entire history of the abortion movement shows this same sort of deception. What’s disturbing is our casual acceptance of it.

[5] 1 Peter 2:20

[6] 1 Peter 3:14

[7] Jeremiah 31:15-17. Usually quoted as only the 15th verse, Jeremiah makes it clear that these innocents will rise from the grave. It is a prophecy of slaughter – and hope.

[8] Hosea 11:1

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