Though some of the facts about exactly where and when this atrocity took place are now being disputed, allegedly Isis (Isil) militants beheaded at least twenty, possibly twenty-one, Coptic (Egyptian) Christians who had been working in Libya. Why? Reports confirm that it was because they were Christians.
I Will Give People in Exchange for You
The question I had been mulling over in the middle of the night probably came from my reading of Isaiah 43 in the preceding days. I had tried for several days to get past it, but verse 4 kept coming to mind:
Because you [Jacob, Israel] are precious in My sight and honored, and I love you, I will give people in exchange for you and nations instead of your life (Isaiah 43:4, HCSB).
J. Alec Motyer, in his commentary, The Prophecy of Isaiah, says of this verse, “in order to deliver his people the Lord must consign all others to loss.” That’s quite a somber and staggering thought isn’t it?
The “I will give” in verse 4, Motyer suggests, is perhaps meant in the ongoing sense just as the relational descriptions of “precious,” “honored,” and God’s love are. He explains that, as Egypt was substituted for Israel in the Exodus, whenever the situation arose in the past or will arise in the future, God has stood, and will ever stand, ready to deliver his people, Exodus-style, even when it means that others will perish.
Not the Same Kind of Exchange
The Egyptians killed by Isis were identified as Christians and testimony of family and friends affirm this identity. These men were NOT unbelievers, like those Isaiah speaks of, that were given for the deliverance of current or future believers. So, I am NOT saying that Isiah 43:4 in anyway alludes to the beheading of these men who claimed the name of Christ.
In fact, quite the opposite would have been true. If Motyer’s interpretation is correct, and I think it is, we could imagine that Isaiah 43:4 lived out on earth the day these men were killed would have looked like a miniature Exodus. God’s people, Egyptians in this case, would have escaped at the expense of their unbelieving oppressors. But that physical deliverance didn’t happen.
Beheadings and God’s Glory
We wonder then, “Why were these men allowed to suffer and be killed before the world in such an evil way?”
The picture of Christian men in orange jumpsuits kneeling before black-clad Isis is NOT a picture of the wicked given in exchange for the righteous. But I think the idea of “exchange” is still a plausible answer to “Why?” It is plausible, because there is a sense in which God gives, not just his enemies or the enemies of his people, but some of his own children – perhaps Egyptian Christian martyrs in this case – in exchange for the lives of others.
If the deaths of these men were indeed an exchange, perhaps their deaths will mean that more will be done to fight the evil that is Isis thereby saving earthly lives. Or, perhaps Christian faith will be deepened, or more people will come to faith, because of these Christian martyrs. Perhaps some will see a picture of innocent suffering that points them to God.
Perhaps none of that will happen. Perhaps the opposite will occur and the effect will be that some will say that a good and all-powerful God could not allow such suffering as many have already claimed about similar sufferings through the ages. But we know that God works all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28) and so he ordains all things for his glory (Romans 11:36) even Christian suffering.
As an Aside
You may be appalled at what I just said and ask, “How can twenty-one gruesome beheadings speak of God’s glory?” I’m sure there are innumerable ways since God is, after all, an infinite God with glories beyond our imaginations. Though the encounters with that incomparable glory that each human mind and heart may possibly experience because of this horrendous suffering are beyond my statistical astuteness, there stands the picture of innocent suffering just mentioned, and I will offer another insight that is not mine. This insight belongs to artist, writer, theologian, and Baptist pastor, Alexander Maclaren who wrote:
All artists, and all other people know the power of contrast. White never looks so white as when it is relieved against black; black never so intense as when it is relieved against white. A white flower in the twilight gleams out in spectral distinctness, paler and fairer than it looked in the blazing sunshine. So, if we take and put these two things together – the dark mass of man’s miseries and the radiant brightness of God’s mercies, each heightens the colour of the other.
Consider the Martyrs
Church history gives us vivid reminders of the idea that some of God’s people are sometimes exchanged for others of God’s people and for God’s glory. Think of Stephen, the Apostles, and those early converts who were tortured and killed in extremely inhumane ways. Their lives and deaths testify to us of Christ’s value to them.
Think of William Tyndale and all those burned in the 1500’s during the Protestant Reformation who considered it worth their relentless effort to bring the Bible with its Christ and gospel message to common people. Consider all the converts and missionaries in between and afterward up to our present day who decided that the Christ they trusted was worth their own miserable suffering and death. Reflect on those named and unnamed who have suffered in other ways (Hebrews 11:35-38) whose suffering tells us something of Christ’s value (Hebrews 11:39-40). The suffering of all of these shows us the face of God’s glory shinning through the ages in the hearts of those he loves (2 Corinthians 4:6).
From what I just said, you may easily think the idea that God exchanges one thing with another is confined to the time between the New Testament and today, but that thought would be wrong. The idea of exchange was not even new to Isaiah. From Genesis through the prophets we see line upon line of animals slaughtered as the means to satisfy God’s justice and restrain the divine punishment that human transgression earned. In the book of Numbers we see a different kind of exchange. God claims the Levites in exchange for Israel’s firstborn males who, by the way, God had consecrated as his when he struck down the firstborn of Egypt (Numbers 3:11-13, 40-47). Even in the triumph of the Exodus, there were those of God’s people who did not escape but instead suffered and died under Egyptian tyranny. Was this not a type of exchange in an even different sense than the one Isaiah 43:4 speaks of?
It is in the New Testament, however, that we see the greatest exchange of all – Christ for us in every sense. The verse in Isaiah 43 that precedes the one quoted earlier says:
“For I Yahweh your God, the Holy One of Israel, and your Savior, give Egypt as a ransom for you, Cush and Seba in your place (Isaiah 43:3, HCSB)
This verse reminds us of the exchange of Egypt for Israel that took place in the Exodus but ultimately, as all prophecy does, it points to Christ. Someone did suffer for me to know God, the Holy One of Israel, and that someone was Christ himself.
Egypt for Israel
In a very real sense Christ as Israel became Egypt and died for Israel. The genuine, real, proper, ultimate, and final Israel culminates in Christ – the “True Israel” as some call him. Christ, the True Israel, not only came out of Egypt (Matthew 2:15; Hosea 11:1), but became the outcast represented by Egypt and Cush and Seba and paid the price for Israel’s freedom. Christ, the personification of God’s people, became the one exchanged for “not God’s people” so that you, who did not belong to God’s people, could belong.
Through faith in Christ that freedom and identity is yours, and it is mine, for we are now God’s covenant people (Jeremiah 31:31-34), his children, and his heirs (Galatians 4:4-7). This exchange, Egypt for Israel, God for us, provided a way for us to escape the bondage and blindness sin kept us in.
Perhaps someone, and I hope many, will come to know something of Christ through the tragic suffering and death of those Coptic Christian men, but the suffering of these men cannot enable you to know God. Their suffering can only witness to the suffering of the only One whose suffering can bring you to God (1 Peter 3:18) because that Suffering One was God.
What do you think? Is it worth another’s suffering for you to know God?
- Jones, Sophia, “ISIS Boasted Of These Christians’ Deaths. Here Are The Lives They Lived,” TheWorldPost, February 18, 2015, accessed from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/18/isis-christians-killed-_n_6703278.html
- Maclaren, Alexander, Expositions of Holy Scripture: The Book of Psalms 1-49, “Two Innumerable Series,” London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1908 [Public Domain], pp. 283-284, accessed from http://www.archive.org
- Motyer, J. Alec, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary, Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1993, pp. 331-332.
- Motyer explains that some scholars see the verb, “give,” in Isaiah 43:3 in a continuing sense – God’s always has someone who will pay the price for his beloved’s deliverance. Others see “give” in a future sense, not our future but Isaiah’s to the expected conquest of Egypt and beyond by Cyrus. Motyer sees the “give” of verse 3 in past tense; God is reviewing the past history and points back to the Exodus where it was “at the expense of Egypt (Ex. 10:7) that Israel was chosen and liberated.
- Sproul, R.C., Ligonier.org, “True Israel,” accessed from http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/true-israel/