The Reality Of Oppression
As noted last time, oppression is real. The enormous, almost unthinkable, death toll produced by various oppressive regimes in the 20th century stand as a stark witness to its reality. The Nazis murdered no fewer than 6 million Jews in an effort to exterminate an entire people group (genocide). The Soviets murdered 20 million farmers. The Turks murdered a million Armenians. No one knows how many millions Mao murdered in China. One of the greatest and quietest acts of oppression continues today. Americans have murdered more than 60 million infants since 1973. Perhaps more people were killed by oppressive regimes in the 20th century than in any other century in human history. That is not a record of which Modernity may be proud. At the moment the entire globe has become conscious of the evil of human trafficking. Remarkably, in what is supposed to be an “enlightened” age, we are still struggling with ancient and persistent evils.
This is because oppression, of course, did not originate in the 20th century. Cain oppressed Abel: “Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him” (Gen 4:8; NASB). Scripture characterizes Abel’s murder as an act of oppression and injustice: “He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground (Gen 4:10; NASB). Our Lord Jesus (Luke 11:51) lists the murder (might we call it a martyrdom?) of Abel as one of the injustices with which his generation will be charged. The Apostle John’s interpretation of Abel’s murder is instructive: “not as Cain, who was of the evil one and slew his brother. And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother’s were righteous” (1 John 3:12; NASB). Abel was righteous and Cain was unrighteous, “of the Evil One.”
The Evil One is the source of oppression. It is not that he is some deity parallel to the sovereign, Triune God who spoke creation into existence and who redeems his people by the blood of Christ. It is, however, that the Evil One is a liar and an oppressor. He promised a false liberation to our first parents, Adam and Eve. He promised that, were they to enter into covenant with him rather than to keep the covenant of works with Yahweh Elohim, that he would grant them power to be as God, “knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). He promised them eternal life (3:4). It was an alternative covenant, a false covenant, and a lying covenant. Of course, the outcome was entirely predictable.
We understand by observing daily life. Drug dealers make lying promises. They promise that meth, weed, cocaine, heroin, oxy, and booze will set you free. Lots of drugs produce an initial euphoria but, of course, it cannot last. Once one is hooked, one is a slave. Take a look at the before and after pictures of meth users.
The Egyptians oppressed the Israelites for 400 years (Ex 1:12; 3:9; Deut 26:6; Judges 6:19; 1 Sam 12:8). The Lord told Abram (Gen 15:13) that the Jews would be oppressed: “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers ina land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed (וְעִנּ֣וּ) four hundred years (NASB). God repeatedly said to his people that they must not oppress others because they themselves were oppressed and were liberated by God’s gracious power. More on this next time. The same verb translated with “oppress” in one form is also used to for rape (Gen 34:2; Deut 22:24, 29).
The Israelites were genuinely oppressed. Scripture says:
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Behold, the people of the sons of Israel are more and mightier than we. Come, let us deal wisely with them, or else they will multiply and in the event of war, they will also join themselves to those who hate us, and fight against us and depart from the land.” So they appointed taskmasters over them to afflict them with hard labor. And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread out, so that they were in dread of the sons of Israel. The Egyptians compelled the sons of Israel to labor rigorously; and they made their lives bitter with hard labor in mortar and bricks and at all kinds of labor in the field, all their labors which they rigorously imposed on them (Ex 1:8–14; NASB).
This went on for 430 years (Ex 12:41; Gal 3:17). Things began badly after Joseph’s death and they got worse. At one point the Egyptians slave masters made the Israelite form bricks without straw (Ex 5:7–18). We use this as a figure of speech when our bosses give us extra work without any additional help but it was literally true (as distinct from figuratively) for the Israelites. They were forced to make actual bricks without any actual straw.
Salvation From Oppression
The Israelites did not have to discover or invent an identity or an intersection of identities to find or invent ways in which they were being victimized. Every time a slave master’s lash hit the back of an Israelite, they knew they were being oppressed. It was so hopeless and they were so helpless, of themselves, that only God could save them and he did.
Just when he had promised all those years ago, Yahweh did deliver his people by his sovereign power. He sent 10 plagues upon Egypt. He hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex 9:16). Finally, Pharaoh released them and then, of course, changed his mind. There they were with their backs literally (not figuratively) to the Red Sea (or the Sea of Reeds). All looked lost but it was not:
But Moses said to the people, “Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the Lord which He will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you will never see them again forever. The Lord will fight for you while you keep silent.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the sons of Israel to go forward. As for you, lift up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, and the sons of Israel shall go through the midst of the sea on dry land…Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord swept the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land, so the waters were divided. The sons of Israel went through the midst of the sea on the dry land, and the waters were like a wall to them on their right hand and on their left (Ex 14:13–16; 21–22; NASB).
That is the nature of salvation from oppression. The Lord does it by the power of his Word, through a mediator. The ground of their deliverance was the blood of the lamb (Ex 12:21–32) and signified and sealed by water baptism (1 Cor 10:1–4) and by a supper afterward (Ex 12:42–51).
Redemption is just as real as oppression. Just as the Israelites were not able to redeem themselves, so it is with us. We need the Lord to go before us. We too need the blood of the lamb, a Mediator, baptism, and a feast. Praise God he has given to his people all these things: “…Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Hebrews says, “But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the Mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises” (Heb 8:6; NASB). The pastor who was writing to the Jewish Christians was contrasting the Aaronic (Mosaic) priesthood with that of Jesus’. Moses was a mediator. Aaron was a mediator but Jesus is the Mediator. They were only foreshadows of Jesus.
Jesus spent his ministry liberating the oppressed. In the gospels, however, the language of oppression is not applied to the socio-economic condition of the Jews (who were being oppressed by the Romans) but to their spiritual condition. People were being oppressed by the demons. When Jesus came, bringing the Kingdom of God and heaven with him, it provoked a mighty spiritual conflict.
Matthew chronicles Jesus’ repeated exercise of power and triumph over demonic powers (Matt 4:24; 8:16; 15:22). Peter characterized Jesus’ entire ministry thus: “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him (Acts 10:38; NASB). Those who were tormented by demons (e.g., the Gadarene demoniac (Matt 8:28—34) did not have to invent or discover ways in which he was being oppressed. Neither did he have to invent a Savior. Jesus set him free from his shackles. That is what he does. He frees those who cannot free themselves. This is how Jesus understood his own ministry. In the synagogue he announced:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18; NASB).
This is a series of quotations strung together in a chain (catena) from Isaiah 61:1; Psalm 146:6,7; Isaiah 42:7; and Isaiah 58:6. That last verse refers explicitly to the liberation of the oppressed.
The categories, poor, captives, and oppressed are synonyms but they were not intended by our Lord to be understood socially or politically. When Jesus died, the Israelites (and everyone else in the region) were still oppressed by the Romans. Jesus did not make the poor wealthy. He did not set up any health insurance co-ops, needle exchanges, or clinics. From the perspective of “community activism” and social reform, Jesus was a failure. This one reason why Judas turned on him. As far as he was concerned, Jesus was the wrong kind of Savior. Judas wanted something more earthy and earthly. He got his reward (Acts 1:25).
Oppression is real but it must be understood and evaluated correctly. God the Son did not deliver the Israelites out of Egypt to set an example for social action but to illustrate what he would do for sinners when he came in true humanity. He came, born of a virgin, obeyed, was crucified, dead, and buried. He did it to redeem sinners from the righteous judgment of God. He was raised for our justification.
The consequences of our liberation from the oppression of sin are also real.
Next time: Christianity Is Liberation, Not Oppression.
—R. Scott Clark, Escondido.