Matthew 2:13—23

Watching how people react to Jesus is always entertaining. For some, Jesus evokes emotions of exuberant joy and praise. It’s wonderful to see people head over heels in love with Jesus; to see how He has changed their lives and how they express their love and gratitude to Him. Others are not so much in love with Jesus as they are in love with the idea of Jesus. These types are easy to spot. They’re the “bleeding hearts” of American society; all concerned with the poor, always citing Jesus’ example of how to treat the poor, and even quoting Bible verses. Of course, these people are under the delusion that Jesus came only to help the poor; to save them from their poverty, not their sins. And still others react to Jesus with indifference; they don’t hate Him, they don’t love Him, they just recognize Him as an historical figure who said nice things and founded a religion and gave them a holiday at the end of the year. But then there are those who hold a visceral hatred toward Jesus and everything associated with Him. These are the people (“knuckleheads” is the theological term that best describes them) who rage against any public displays of Christmas. They have a hate on for Christmas trees and manger scenes and Christmas carols that dare to mention the name of Jesus. They use the courts to shut down Christmas. They’re really a bunch of Grinch’s, and in New Testament King Herod was the worse Grinch of all.

Hosea 11:1 is the verse that must be understood so that the whole story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in Egypt will be understood:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.

This was really a stunning prophecy because we can see it fulfilled in history. When Hosea uttered this word, it was prophetic in the sense that it hadn’t happened yet. For us, though, Hosea’s prophecy is just history because we can see how it was fulfilled. In fact, it might be accurate to say that Hosea’s prophecy was actually fulfilled twice. Out of Egypt God did called His son, which was a nation (the Exodus of the Hebrews); and out of Egypt God called His Son, who was a Person, the child Jesus. The circumstances surrounding the sojourn in Egypt are at once both interesting and chilling.

1. Dreams, dreams, and dreams, 2:13, 14

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” (verse 13)

Dreams figure prominent in Matthew’s birth narrative, with no less than four important dreams in the first two chapters. Here, God took special action to preserve the life of His Son. But, it wasn’t just His Son God was concerned with. The “they” mentioned refers to the Wise Men. They had also been warned in a dream:

And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. (verse 12)

These Wise Men must have been a tremendous comfort to Joseph and Mary. Their visit served to confirm all the things spoken to Mary by the angel Gabriel, by the shepherds, and by both Simeon and Anna. Not only that, the young family had been given gifts that amounted to a small fortune—gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Recall what Simeon had said to Mary:

This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34, 35)

That piercing was now beginning. The malevolent king Herod, who thought nothing of killing some of his own sons, instituted what Bible scholars refer to as “the Slaughter of the Innocents.” But the real story here is Joseph. Once again, we see Joseph obeying the angel of the Lord immediately, without question. Here was a man who was used to obeying without asking questions. In the night, they made their escape to Egypt, a journey of some 200 miles. We know absolutely nothing about the family’s stay in Egypt. We don’t know where they lived or how they lived. We do know they had plenty of resources to make life in Egypt comfortable, thanks to the gifts of the Wise Men. It’s amazing how the Lord provides; sometimes even before we know we have a need!

Most scholars think that the birth of Jesus happened during the final year of Herod’s life, and the return from Egypt shortly after Herod’s death and the threat gone. We don’t know how long after the birth of Jesus this flight to Egypt took place. We do know that by the time the Wise Men came, the family had been living in a house in Bethlehem; they had long since left the manger. Some think Jesus could have been as old as two years of age, but that is pure conjecture.

2. The Slaughter of the Innocents, 2:16—18

When the Wise Men failed to show up at the palace, King Herod realized he had been snookered. Flying into a rage, he ordered all baby boys to be killed in and around Bethlehem, all under the age two. This portion of Matthew’s Gospel is widely criticized because there is nothing in the historical record to support this “slaughter of the innocents.” While this is true, the incident fits perfectly with the character of King Herod. This man had already slaughtered three of his own sons, one of his wives, and her mother. How vile was this man? Jewish historian Josephus notes that on his deathbed, King Herod called all prominent Jewish men in the country to come to Jericho, on penalty of death. There these men were imprisoned in the hippodrome and orders were given for them to be  slain upon the King’s death. Why would Herod give such an order? He was so fearful that he himself would not be mourned at his death, he wanted to have “the honor of a memorable mourning at his funeral.”

So the so-called “slaughter of the innocents” finds no support in secular history, but then neither does the crucifixion of Jesus, so it shouldn’t surprise us. However, to put the incident in perspective, in all probability very few children were slaughtered. Herod died very soon after the order was given, and Bethlehem was so small, many Bible scholars think barely a dozen baby boys were killed, if that many. The threat was what propelled Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to Egypt, all in fulfillment of another Old Testament prophecy:

A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (verse 18)

Exactly why Matthew cites Jeremiah 31:18 has caused some debate. It baffles modern readers of Scripture. Ramah, or Rama, was located about 5 miles north of Jerusalem, and the tomb of Rachel is thought to have been located in the same general direction. Here is what the scholars think was in Matthew’s mind. Jeremiah was writing in reference to the imminent deportation of  the tribes of Judah and Benjamin to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar had rounded up all the captives and held them at Ramah before taking them with him into exile. The words of Jeremiah picture this event as a great time of mourning; when the people lost their homes, their property, and their dignity as they faced 70 years of captivity in a foreign land. Similarly, in the time of King Herod, weeping and mourning took place in the same general area. This time, though, only one family was uprooted, the family of Jesus, and this time it wasn’t the family being forced to leave that wept and mourned, it was those left behind; weeping and mourning over the death of their baby boys at the hand of this wicked king.

So once again, we see how a sovereign God used people and events to accomplish His will.

3. The return home, 2:19—23

Here is yet another dream, the third appearance of the angel of the Lord, and another divine initiative in the protection and guiding of the Son of God. From the way verse 20 is worded, the Child is obviously the main concern of the Lord’s:

Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

Something of minor interest it the wording of verse 19, where we read this: an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. It was an angel of the Lord, not the angel of the Lord. The angel of the Lord—the preincarnate Christ—was now clothed in flesh and living among men, specifically in the land of Egypt, which He and His family now needed to leave.

At first Joseph’s instructions are very vague; he is told simply to go to the land of Israel, anywhere in the land of Israel. The family had just spent, perhaps, two years in Bethlehem. They had a house a there, and it is likely that Joseph had established his carpentry business there, so that would probably have been the place the family would have settled had it not been for this:

But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee… (verse 22)

Another dream  moving Joseph along; this time, though, Joseph is aware of a problem. Herod the murderer was dead, yes, but Archelaus was in power, so Bethlehem was still a dangerous place for Jesus to be. Who was this man Archelaus? Achelaus was the worst of Herod’s sons, and that meant he was as wicked and as demented as his father or worse. History notes that this Archelaus was known for his cruelty and his wild rages of temper. Josephus tells us that immediately after his accession to the throne, Archelaus the monster massacred some 3,000 people. No wonder Joseph was fearful, and no wonder the Lord came to his aid with another set of instructions:

he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene. (verse 23)

Joseph and his young family finally settled in Galilee, in a town called Nazareth. Galilee was governed by Herod Antipas, who we read about later in Matthew 14, but Nazareth in particular was under the rule of Herod Philip. If Archelaus was the worst of Herod’s offspring, then Antipas was the weakest but he also cruel. Philip, though, was markedly different from the rest of his brothers, and it was into his territory that the family of Jesus settled. This region was deemed to be very safe for Jews, so it is no wonder that many times during the life of Jesus, He retired to the Galilean country side find rest.

According to Luke’s Gospel, Nazareth was hometown to both Mary and Joseph. What a wonderful God we serve. He providentially guided Joseph every step of the way, carefully orchestrating world events to move Joseph along His predetermined course. From the moment young Joseph met young Mary, the divine dance of destiny began, choreographed by God Himself. The census, the shepherds, the wise men, the threat to Jesus’ life, the sojourn in Egypt, the return to Israel and Galilee all fulfilled ancient prophecies. As if to reward Joseph and Mary for their unwavering faithfulness and patience, God allowed them to settle in familiar surroundings. This too was a fulfillment of prophecy, according to Matthew:

So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.” (verse 23b)

You’ll search high and low to find those words in the Old Testament, but they aren’t there. The fact is, we aren’t sure what prophets Matthew is quoting from. What we do know is this: the Hebrew word for Nazareth is netzer, which really means a “branch” or “shoot.” The town of Nazareth was so named because of its insignificance. That same word, netzer, is seen in the Old Testament in three prominent passages:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. (Isaiah 11:1)

He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. (Isaiah 53:2, 3)

But I am a worm, not a human being; I am scorned by everyone, despised by the people. (Psalm 22:6)

Jesus was referred to as netzer, not only because His earthly roots ran back to Jesse, or that He was considered as insignificant by some, but also because He was raised in the town of Nazareth—netzer. He was therefore called a Nazarene, a netzer, a nothing from the town of nothing, thus fulfilling many prophecies.

If you have been paying attention to the “Christmas story” in our studies, then you must have noticed the importance of the prophecies concerning the location of the birth narrative. He was born in Bethlehem, fulfilling a prophecy. He was called out of Epypt, fulfilling another prophecy. There was weeping and wailing in Rama as the prophet Jeremiah foresaw. And Jesus was called a Nazarene, fulfilling yet another prophecy. Nobody but God could have worked things out in such a perfect way so that this single birth would fulfill some many ancient prophecies and promises, and touch so many lives.

(c)  2010 WitzEnd

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