First Sunday after Christmas [a] December 29, 2019
13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” 19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.
In the Name of Jesus.
The first martyrs of the New Testament church, the little boys of Bethlehem.
King Herod wants baby Jesus dead. Herod knows the prophecy of the birth of a king. But he’s king. He can’t have other kings. He must secure his throne.
So Herod wants the new King—the one heralded by the wise men, foretold by the prophets—Herod wants him dead.
But Herod can’t find the baby Jesus—the wise men were no help to him in that. But the wise men had gone to Bethlehem, Herod knows that much. So, to kill the boy who is born a king, it seems easy. Herod will just kill all the Bethlehem boys two and under, and surely, he figures, that will take care of the Jesus problem.
So we have the first martyrs of the New Testament church, the little boys of Bethlehem. Historians say this would have been perhaps 10 to 20 little boys. They are martyrs. Their lives bear witness to Jesus, who himself is marked for death, but a death God has not appointed for another 30 or so years.
And, as the prophet Jeremiah had foretold, the Bethlehem families, after Herod’s murderous deed, were now in tears. Jeremiah 31:15:
“A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.”
Rachel is, of course, a wife of Jacob’s in the Old Testament. She stands in as a mother of Israel. Israel weeps. The boys have been killed; they are no more.
So these little boys will be forever known as the first martyrs of the New Testament Church.
The word martyr comes from the Greek. It means witness. A legal witness, one who bears testimony in a trial.
Here’s how that word martyr works. At the trial of Jesus, witnesses came forward and testified. They were false witnesses, to be sure, but witnesses in the trial. Matthew 26:60:
Now the chief priests, the elders, and all the council sought false witness against Jesus to put Him to death, but found none. Even though many false witnesses came forward, they found none. But at last two false witnesses came forward.
That word for witness, and the verb for bearing witness, is the Greek word martyr.
So to name those innocent little boys of Bethlehem as the first martyrs of the New Testament church is to say that their lives were given in testimony for the name of Jesus. In their innocent deaths, they bore witness to the innocent of death of Jesus which would be accomplished some thirty years later on the cross.
Tertullian, an early Church father, at a time when the Church was being severely persecuted and martyred, said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
When Abel was murdered by his brother, Cain, the Lord said to Cain, “The voice of [Abel’s] blood cries out to me from the ground.” [Genesis 4:10]
Abel stands in history as the first martyr of the Old Testament church, even as the sons of Bethlehem as the first martyrs of the New Testament Church. The blood of Abel as also the blood of the little boys of Bethlehem cry out from the ground in testimony of the Name for which they were killed, Jesus.
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
We, along with Abel, along with the boys of Bethlehem, are members of the Church of the Lord Jesus.
Our lives, as the life of Abel, as the lives of the little boys of Bethlehem, are marked with the Name of Christ—we, along with them, belong to the innocent death of the Holy One on the cross.
Our lives bear the Name of Jesus; we are marked with the cross. Romans 6:3:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
Baptized into Christ, into his death, united to him in all his suffering, our lives are given in testimony of Christ whose name we bear.
So we live in tears. The same tears that would’ve been shed by Adam and Eve as they mourned their son, Abel, who was martyred because of the faith. The same tears as those mothers and fathers in Bethlehem, who mourned their baby sons martyred because of the faith.
The tears of the Church, for those men wearing orange jumpsuits who were martyred by the Muslims on the beach in Libya and those martyred by the Muslims last week in Nigeria because they confessed the Name of Jesus; the tears of the Church for those 110 Christian girls kidnapped and stolen from their families by the Boko Haram Muslims in Nigeria; the tears of the Church for the Christian families in China threatened with reeducation camps if caught teaching the faith to their children, or the Christian judge in Texas under threat for her job for supporting natural marriage; the tears of the Church for the family going to bed crying each night over a child having been indoctrinated against the faith by a teacher; the tears of the Church over the suffering and persecution of those who bear the Name of Jesus.
We bear the Name. Our lives are lived in witness to him who is the Suffering Servant. Our lives bear testimony. We are given as martyrs, in the full sense of the word, which means, to bear witness.
But in midst of the tears, joy. In the midst of the suffering, hope and life. For our lives bear witness to Jesus, who is the Suffering Servant of the cross. But the cross then gives the empty tomb, the defeat of death, the certainty of tomorrow. Those who suffer, do not suffer in vain.
Abel, martyred by Cain, he lives at the face of God.
Those Bethlehem boys, martyred by Herod, they live at the face of God.
Those Christians martyred by the Muslims on that Libyan beach or in Nigeria, they are alive at the face of God.
The Church now, as she cries tears for the suffering, the afflicted, the persecuted, the martyred, she lives in faith at the face of God.
We live in faith at the face of God.
To those parents of the little Bethlehem martyrs, as they shed tears, the Lord’s Word, spoken by the Prophet Jeremiah some 600 years prior, was of hope and life. Jeremiah 31:17:
“Restrain your voice from weeping, And your eyes from tears; For your work shall be rewarded,” says the LORD, “And they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope in your future,” says the LORD.
We live in this hope. We have a future. We have a tomorrow. For we bear the Name of the One who redeemed us with the price of his own blood.
We bear the Name of him who in Baptism united us to his cross and his resurrection.
Our lives bear witness to him who cleanses us of all sin, who covers us in his righteousness, who justifies us before his Father in Heaven.
Our lives bear witness to him, so that when the world looks at us, the testimony they are given to see is not the testimony of a people who overcomes every obstacle, nor the testimony of a church which is victorious in the eyes of the world, but, when the world looks at us, the testimony they are given to see is the witness of sinners redeemed by the blood of Christ, forgiven of all sin, and forgiving of one another.
In the Name of Jesus.