The story of Christmas contains varied emotions. Each character experienced significant fears even though there is also a great deal of hope. We miss what God wants us to understand when we avoid the hardship and only reflect on the joy. Do you allow room for lament in your celebration of Christmas?
We come to a passage that predominately reflects upon the dark side of Christ’s birth narrative. That does not mean that the overarching message is dark and foreboding. But, in the midst of the joyful celebration of the Messiah’s birth, we read a story of great tragedy. This is the gospel narrative that we should not avoid. A confrontation between heaven and hell took place in Bethlehem and many families were left shattered in the aftermath.
Matthew structures his book around numerous references and allusions to the Old Testament. Five references are found in these first two chapters (1:23; 2:6, 15, 18, 23). We will cover the last three in our passage this morning. Everything took place according to God’s plan.
Read Matt 2:13-23.
Spiritual warfare erupted when Christ’s light invaded the darkness of this world. But God was accomplishing his redemptive purposes just as the prophets had foretold. Joy was followed by tragedy, but through it all God established the hope that all of us need regardless of our circumstances.
› Although the family’s flight to Egypt might have seemed like an unnecessary hardship at the time, it reveals how Jesus leads his people in…
A New Exodus (13-15)
After a slow first year in Bethlehem, Joseph was warned by an angel to “flee to Egypt” because Herod was seeking to destroy the child (13). Imagine the sudden shock and terror this would have caused Joseph and Mary. No doubt they experienced tremendous fear. They knew how important their roles were in nurturing and caring for Jesus, but now they must protect him from the threat of death.
Herod was a ruthless king. He had already killed his wife and had two of their sons strangled. The closer he got to his own death, the more paranoid he became. He eventually killed a third son for prematurely making arrangements as heir to the throne. The insecurities of his fragile hold on the throne haunted him with the news of the birth of another king. Instead of trusting in the only One who could relieve him of his anxious fears, Herod sought to destroy Him.
Joseph obeyed the angel’s instruction, probably the same night he had the dream. He departed for Egypt with Mary and Jesus and they “remained their until the death of Herod” (14-15a). Egypt made sense for several reasons.
• It was far enough to get out of Herod’s reach without being too far.
• There were roughly one million Jews in the area. They likely had relatives there who might have provided lodging and work.
But Matthew confirms that the primary reason for their flight to Egypt was to fulfill…
Hosea 11:1 ESV
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
In context, Hosea is not speaking of a future son. He is referring to the nation of Israel as his son. Hosea had the first exodus in mind as he wrote his prophecy. Of course, Matthew knew this. He is not twisting Scripture. Hosea spoke of Israel as God’s son. Matthew spoke of Jesus as God’s Son.
Matthew is revealing the relationship between Jesus and Israel. Israel spent forty years in the wilderness, Jesus would spend forty days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness (Mt 4:1-11). Whereas Israel was known for their grumbling and disobedience, Jesus would be victorious over every trial he faced. Whereas Israel was the fruitless vine, Jesus was the True Vine (Isa 5; Jn 15).
By coming in flesh, Jesus identified himself with those he came to save, yet he was without sin. Moses led a rebellious Israel out of their slavery in Egypt. But, Jesus is the true and better Moses whose perfect obedience enabled him to lead his rebellious people out of their enslavement to sin. Jesus identifies with the suffering of his people as the obedient Son.
Ferguson: Being deeply troubled by the birth of Jesus Christ was not only part of Herod’s Christmas. It is part of every Christmas. The light shines. But the clearer it shines the greater the efforts of the darkness to resist it.
On the one hand, we can rejoice that Jesus Christ brought the light of heaven down to earth. But, along with that, we should expect the darkness to fight back.That will look different for all of us. Your family might be healthy while your job security is weak. Or maybe it is the other way around. All of this fluctuates from season to season.
Several years ago, one of my pastor friends—the week before Christmas—learned that he had thirty days to find a new location for their church to meet. “Merry Christmas pastor! Also, sorry, we have to evict you.”
Anxious fears often escalate around the holidays. And as we near the end of 2022 and head into an uncertain future, I assume that many of you are feeling the weight of that pressure, even this morning.
But, regardless of whether we are in fearful or joyful circumstances, we always have the hope of eternal life that Jesus came to secure. I do not know your specific situation, but Jesus does, and I know that he can lead you out of any despair you might have sunken into this year.
More importantly, his new exodus has led all believers out of the estate of sin and misery and brought them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer.
› Jesus also binds us to…
A New Covenant (16-18)
There is another important connection between Jesus and Moses for us to consider. Both of them escaped death when they were born. Moses’s mother protected him from Pharaoh’s decree for the midwives to put all of the male Israelite children to death (Exodus 1-2). Matthew conveys Herod’s decree that threatened Jesus’s life.
Bethlehem, only five miles from Jerusalem, was a small city with a population under one thousand. Herod probably waited no more than a day or two for the wise men to tell him of Christ’s precise location. His paranoia escalated to fury when he learned that he had been deceived (16). He sent soldiers to Bethlehem in order to wipe out all males two-years-old or under. D.A. Carson figures there were about twelve boys slaughtered. Of course, that doesn’t make the event any less tragic.
If God is sovereign, how could He allow this to happen? Why would Christ’s birth lead to the death of so many? Ferguson reminds us that “correlation is not causation.” The fact that Jesus’ birth occurred in the context of Herod’s slaughter does not mean that it caused the slaughter. Herod’s sin caused the slaughter. But, does that theological truth comfort the grieving families who had their young, helpless sons ripped from their grip and ruthlessly executed? What can we say to them?
I know of no one who has imagined this scene more powerfully than John Piper in his poem The Innkeeper. Jesus returns to the place of his birth a few weeks before his death. He visits the innkeeper, Jacob, and hears the story of what happened a year after they housed his family that first Christmas night. Jacob runs the inn alone now, but that night he had a wife and two sons. His wife Rachel was still recovering from the recent birth of Ben.
“We got a reputation here that night. Nothing at all to fear in that we thought. It was of God. But in one year the slaughter squad from Herod came. And where do you suppose they started? Not a clue! We didn’t have a clue what they had come to do. No time to pray, no time to run, no time to get poor Joseph off the street and let him say good-bye to Ben or me or Rachel. Only time to see a lifted spear smash through his spine and chest. He stumbled to the sign that welcomed strangers to the place, and looked with panic at my face, as if to ask what he had done. Young man, you ever lost a son?”
The tears streamed down the Savior’s cheek, he shook his head, but couldn’t speak. “Before I found the breath to scream I heard the words, a horrid dream: ‘Kill every child who’s two or less. Spare not for aught, nor make excess. Let this one be the oldest here and if you count your own life dear, let none escape.’ I had no sword no weapon in my house, but Lord, I had my hands, and I would save the son of my right hand . . . So brave, O Rachel was so brave! Her hands were like a thousand iron bands around the boy. She wouldn’t let him go and so her own back met with every thrust and blow. I lost my arm, my wife, my sons — the cost of housing the Messiah here. Why would he simply disappear and never come to help?” They sat in silence. Jacob wondered at the stranger’s tears.
“I am the boy that Herod wanted to destroy. You gave my parents room to give me life, and then God let me live, and took your wife. Ask me not why the one should live, another die. God’s ways are high, and you will know in time. But I have come to show you what the Lord prepared the night you made a place for heaven’s light. “In two weeks they will crucify my flesh. But mark this, Jacob, I will rise in three days from the dead, and place my foot upon the head of him who has the power of death, and I will raise with life and breath your wife and Ben and Joseph too and give them, Jacob, back to you with everything the world can store, and you will reign for evermore.”
That is the hope of the resurrection that we believers have in the midst of even the most tragic circumstances! Piper’s imaginative reflection encourages us to lament, but it also restores us with the promises of the covenant that Jesus secured by his death on the cross.
In v.18, Matthew suggests that the weeping of these families fulfilled Jeremiah 31:15. There you have Rachel, the wife of the patriarch Jacob, weeping from her tomb. Her children had been carried off into the Babylonian exile. It was a time of deep mourning, but Jeremiah 31 is a chapter of hope. God promises that he would still be their God. The survivors would enjoy his favor and steadfast love. The people would eventually return to their land. Joy and celebration awaited. And God would also establish a new covenant with them.
Despite the weeping and loud lamentation occuring in Bethlehem due to Herod’s slaughter, there is hope in the fact that Jesus escaped! He would accomplish all that he came to do. The exile that occurred in Jeremiah’s day resulted in an abandoned throne. The Davidic line had no power to reign. But the birth of Christ fulfilled the tears of exile. The King has come!
Jesus is our hope in the midst of great loss.
It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting (Eccl 7:2). And yet, Paul discouraged believers in Thessalonica from grieving like the world grieves, as if they have no hope (1 Thes 4:13). Jesus escaped Herod’s slaughter, his death on the cross defeated sin, and his resurrection conquered death. By faith you and I can be united to Christ in his life and death and resurrection. We can be filled with the hope of a future restoration with all the saints who have gone before us. It will be a glorious time of celebration that will make us realize just how light and momentary our present afflictions really were.
› Finally, Jesus ushers us into…
A New Kingdom (19-23)
Joseph learns of Herod’s death, but with his son, Archelaus, reigning in his place, he fears returning to Bethlehem. Archelaus was just as ruthless as his father. Herod’s descendants were notoriously wicked. So Joseph takes his family back to their hometown of Nazareth (Lk 1:26-27; 2:39). And this decision was also the fulfillment of the prophets.
Where does a prophet suggest that the Messiah would be called a Nazarene?
• First, notice how Matthew carefully words this fulfillment. He writes “prophets” (plural) suggesting that this is a general theme of the prophets rather than the direct quote of a specific prophet.
• Second, Nazareth was a despised place (Jn 1:46; 7:42, 52). The first Christian readers of Matthew’s gospel would have easily understood his point, because they were mockingly referred to as “the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5).
None of the OT prophets predicted that Jesus would live in Nazareth, but many of them spoke of how he would be despised. One of the clearest coming in…
Isaiah 53:3 ESV
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Jesus was the King of kings yet he was also despised and treated like the lowest of men. He was not born in a palace, nor raised in one. Not only was Jesus despised as a Nazarene, but he was a prophet without honor in his own town (Mt 13:53-58). Jesus was despised and rejected by those who were used to being despised themselves.
This theme runs all the way through the gospel weaving up to the point of his crucifixion. His obedience to the point of death reveals the upside down nature of God’s kingdom. The way up begins by going down.
And that is where Matthew takes his readers in the next section. He jumps from Nazareth to the wilderness of Judea where John the Baptist called his hearers to repent (Mt 3:1-2). John was sent to “prepare the way of the Lord” as Isaiah foretold (Isa 40:3). People flocked to John, confessing their sins, and receiving a baptism that signified their repentance.
Anyone who desires to enter the kingdom of God must first humble themselves in repentance. They must bow before the true King.
Matthew follows the celebration and worship of the wise men with the loud lamentation of Israel after Herod slaughtered the male children in Bethlehem. It is a story of great pain and loss, but also confident hope. Satan knew that he was on the brink of defeat and did his best to eliminate the child.
But the fact that Jesus escaped means that he could face every kind of temptation in his life. He put to death the penalty of every sin that was ever committed by those who place their faith in him when he died upon the cross for their sins. And, because Jesus rose again from the dead, he has the power to restore life to all who have died in him.
Christ’s birth marks the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promise to reverse the devastating consequences of sin.
And he completed that redemptive work in his death. After dying on the cross, Jesus rose again and ascended into heaven. The glory of heaven followed the humility of the cross. If you repent and believe in him, that hope becomes your future reality too!