Not long ago, during a sermon at Spring Mountain, I said something that I have said a hundred times before in different discussions and teaching situations. I said that, in Scripture, Egypt is the land of slavery and death, that its theological significance on any given page of the Bible is its function as a symbol of death and slavery. (One need not even look at the Bible to see that ancient Egypt was a place and a people obsessed with death. Think: mummies, grand pyramid tombs, etc.)
A few days later, I was having a conversation with a friend named Paul. He is one of my elders and a man who is well-versed in the Scripture and theology. He remarked that my statement about Egypt was interesting to him, since he had always seen Egypt as a place of preservation. His eye had seen God taking His people or His Messiah down into Egypt to be safe while troubles and dangers were raging elsewhere. Israel’s original sojourn in Egypt kept them safe from the great famine and kept them safely out of the way, while the wickedness of the Amorites in Canaan reached a fever pitch. And the family of the young Lord Jesus was kept safe from the murderous King Herod by vacationing in Egypt.
I had been seeing Egypt as a grave place, an entire country that was one big grave, as it were. Paul had been seeing Egypt as something of a storm cellar. Now I am thinking we are both right. Let me explain…
Once YHWH God had redeemed His people from Egypt, the land of death and slavery, He did not want them ever to return there. But every time there was trouble, it seemed that Israel’s immediate thought was to find security back in Egypt. The kings in the house of David found it a constant temptation to go to Egypt for help. For this reason, YHWH’s prophets regularly had to remind them of the folly of such a plan.
“Woe to the rebellious children,” declares YHWH,
“Who execute a plan, but not Mine,
And make an alliance, but not of My Spirit,
In order to add sin to sin;
Who proceed down to Egypt
Without consulting Me,
To take refuge in the safety of Pharaoh
And to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt!” (Isaiah 30:1-2)
In Romans 6, the apostle Paul teaches us at considerable length that we who belong to Christ Jesus by faith were once slaves to sin and death but have been freed “so that we would no longer be slaves to sin” (v.6). Having been freed from death and slavery, we are not to resubmit ourselves to our old master. You were freed from that cruel life of slavery, says Paul, effectively. Why would you ever want to go back to that again? Egypt is never mentioned here, but the parallel is quite strong.
Similarly, it is easy to hear echoes of Pharaoh and Egypt in these words from the book of Hebrews:
“Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.” (2:14-15).
So Egypt is the land of death and slavery. The Exodus is the great Old Testament parallel and type of the ultimate salvation that YHWH would eventually bring through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. Israel was not to return to Egypt, and individual believers are not to return to serving sin. This makes for a pretty complete theological picture, and a rather glorious one at that.
Yet in Matthew’s gospel, we find God’s own angel telling the step-father of Jesus to take his family to Egypt for safety from Herod (2:13-15). What?!! Why would God give such an order? It seems that the Lord Jesus, while barely a toddler, is already going through the motions of taking on Himself the sins of His people—in this case, the perennial foolishness of the house of David in believing that safety was to be found in a return to the land of death and slavery.
Still, there is something else here. I am reminded of the fact that, God gave similar instructions to Jacob.
God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also surely bring you up again; and Joseph will close your eyes.” (Genesis 46:2-4)
Going down to Egypt shows us a picture of our becoming slaves in the land of death, and coming out of Egypt shows us a picture of the powerful redemption God performs for us and His bringing us out of death and slavery. Yet somehow, going to Egypt also shows what my friend Paul was suggesting: that we are being safely preserved by God.
And now I realize something. Like anyone else, I want to stay alive, to stay on this side of the cemetery grass. But when Jesus is there, the grave is the best place to be. Does not the Scripture tell us that we who have entrusted ourselves to the Messiah have been crucified and BURIED with Him? If Jesus was wrapped in grave-clothes and laid in a grave, so was I!
I will finish this post, then, with a word about Josephs—three Josephs, in particular. There are others in the Bible (e.g. Barnabas), but I am thinking of three specific Josephs:
The first Joseph, of course, is the dominant character in the last fourteen chapters of the Genesis narrative. He is the favored son of Jacob who received the gift of a special coat from his father and whose brothers sold him into slavery. This Joseph ended up in a position of greatness in the land of Egypt. And there he brought his father and the rest of his family to come and live with him. At the end of Genesis, Joseph himself died. The last words of the book are “and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt” (50:26).
The second Joseph to whom I would point is the step-father of the Lord Jesus. He too conducts his family down to Egypt to take care of them there.
Then there is Joseph of Arimathea. It is he who takes responsibility for the body of Jesus after His crucifixion.
And a man named Joseph, who was a member of the Council, a good and righteous man (he had not consented to their plan and action), a man from Arimathea, a city of the Jews, who was waiting for the kingdom of God; this man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. And he took it down and wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid Him in a tomb cut into the rock, where no one had ever lain. (Luke 23:50-53)
These three Josephs, then, are men who bring God’s people—or God’s own Anointed One—down safely to a place of death. Lovingly, they bring Messiah down and gently lay Him in a grave.
The wrath of God rolls across the face of the earth. All those who are not safely tucked away in the storm cellar of Jesus’ burial will be destroyed. The children of Israel, covered by the blood of the Lamb, dwelt safely in Egypt while YHWH came through and killed the firstborn of Egypt. Even so, we who have been crucified and buried with Christ are safe here in the storm cellar with Him.