The Struggle Begins


Matthew 2:13-23

Text Comment

 

The section we are reading this morning is composed of three short narratives each leading up to and concluded by a citation from Scripture.  Remember, Matthew is, in these early chapters of his Gospel, both introducing Jesus to us, explaining his origins, and demonstrating that he is the promised Messiah whose life and ministry were prophesied in the ancient Scriptures.

What we are going to find is that Matthew understands Jesus to be the fulfillment not only of explicit prophecies, but as well of the pattern of Israel’s history.  He is another Moses, another David, indeed, another Israel herself.  This is what is called typology.  The history of God’s people beforehand foretold the life and ministry of the Lord Christ because he was the object and the goal of that history.  God the Lord of history wove this higher, deeper meaning into it.  “In other words, the divine purpose runs through the whole of Scripture, and it all points in some way to the climax, the coming of Christ.”  [Morris, 44]

v.13     God preserved the life of his son in Egypt as, long before, he had preserved the life of his people there.  Here we begin to see Christ as another Moses. Moses also fled for his life from a king who was trying to kill him.  The one who saved his people from their sins is the counterpart to the one who saved Israel from bondage in Egypt.  [Hagner, 34]

            It was natural to go to Egypt, not only because of its proximity, but because it had already a large Jewish population.  Indeed, in Alexandria alone there were some 200,000 Jews, the largest concentration in any city of the empire.

v.14     The “during the night” indicates how promptly Joseph obeyed and how grave he understood the danger to be.

v.15     The citation from Hosea 11:1 is not itself a prophecy, but Matthew is noting the correspondence between the history of Israel and the history of her king and representative.  Both came up from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Redemptive history is full of these patterns or this typology by which the Son of God is seen to be the fulfillment of all that went before.  Jesus is the goal of that history and gathers up all its threads.  [Hagner, 36]

            By the way, this is the first instance in Matthew of Jesus being referred to as the Son of God.  It will not be the last, for it is an important emphasis in this Gospel.

v.16     The ruthlessness of Herod’s later years, as we pointed out last week – the victims included three of his own sons, as well as several large groups of suspected conspirators, in one case with their families – makes it not at all improbable that he would kill a few babies (Bethlehem was a village not a city) in order to eliminate a potential rival.  It would have been a minor incident in a period of history full of atrocities.  When Herod was himself near death, he left orders that one member of each family in his kingdom should be executed so that the entire nation would really be in mourning.  [France, 86-87; Josephus, Ant., 17.181]

            Of course, here again is a parallel with Israel’s early history.  Pharaoh also tried to kill the Hebrew infants and Moses was spared.

v.18     Once again Matthew points out the biblical pattern.  As Rachel in her tomb was said in Jeremiah, in a beautiful figure, to weep for the exiles as they were taken from the Promised Land, so here she weeps for the dead and the mourning mothers of Bethlehem.  “Again, in Matthew’s perspective, Jesus is understood as summarizing the whole experience of Israel as well as bringing it to fulfillment.  Every strand of hope and trial in the OT is woven together in the…appearance of the Promised One.”  [Hagner, 38]

v.19     Herod died in 4 B.C.  How long the family was in Egypt we do not know.

v.20     The language of v. 20 is taken from Exodus 4:19 where the Lord commands Moses, after his sojourn in Midian, to return to Egypt.  Jesus is a second Moses.  The correspondence is so exact that the plural in Ex. 4:19 is retained here – “those who trying to take the child’s life…” – even though we would expect the singular, as it was Herod himself who had sought the child’s life.

v.22     Archelaus was no better than his father, he was noted for his cruelty in an age of cruel men, but succeeded only to the rule of the southern portion of his father’s kingdom.  Galilee was ruled by Archelaus’ half-brother Herod Antipas, a more tolerant man and ruler, and was a safer place for the infant Messiah.

v.23     Matthew does not bother to tell us that Nazareth was Joseph and Mary’s home town; he assumes we know that.  He is more interested in the significance of Jesus’ hailing from there.  Now the quotation, “He will be called a Nazarene” is in fact nowhere to be found in the OT.  However Matthew’s formula for introducing the citation is different here.  Here it is prophets not prophet.  The implication seems to be that “He shall be called a Nazarene” is a summary of what the prophets said beforehand about the Messiah, it conveys the thrust of their expectation.  The obscurity of Nazareth, the unpromising nature of the place – Nazareth is not mentioned in the OT, in the Talmud or in Josephus, too inconsequential to be noticed –, recalls the prophetic expectation that the Messiah would be despised and rejected of men, that he would not meet the expectations the people would have for the coming king.  In John 1:46 we learn that Nazareth was not thought to be a worthy place of origin for the Messiah. Jesus of Bethlehem would have cachet for Bethlehem was associated with the royal house, but Jesus of Nazareth would be something like Jesus of Puyallup or Enumclaw.  [France, 89]

“Gospel” is an old English word that means, as you know, “good news.”  The four Gospels are good news because they tell us about the Son of God, who came from heaven, became a man in order to save his people from their sins and give them eternal life.  That is good news indeed!

But “good news,” as the word “save” itself, presumes that the human condition is otherwise bad news; that human beings are in need of good news, that human beings are longing for this news because their situation otherwise is so dark and hopeless.  If the good news concerns an intervention so stupendous as the Creator of heaven and earth becoming a man and suffering and dying on a cross to deliver his people from bondage to death, then that bondage must be bondage indeed!

Well, in this paragraph, for the first time in the Gospel of Matthew, we are introduced to the bad news, the backdrop of the Gospel, to the reality of evil in human life.  The baby is no sooner born – the baby upon whom rests the hope of the human race, all hopes for true and lasting happiness, the fulfillment of every true human longing – but an attempt is made on his life.  True enough, the man who sought to kill him was virtually a psychopath, but Matthew is not so much interested in the individual who ordered the death of the Messiah.  He is interested in the fact that the warfare between evil and good, between the forces of the Evil One and of the Lord Christ, between sinful man and God himself was underway immediately in the life of Jesus Christ.  No sooner is he born than he is the target of assassination.  Matthew knows very well, as we do, as he relates the flight to Egypt and the Lord’s return, that what Herod failed to do, a crowd of ordinary folk would later succeed at doing.  He knows very well that this war being waged against the Son of God is rooted in and is the continuation of a struggle between good and evil that has dominated the history of the world from its beginning.  This is not the first time Rachel has wept.

If Jesus, upon his becoming a man, was tempted to overthrow the rule of God in his life, so was Adam.  If Jesus was threatened with murder while still an infant, so was Moses.  If Jesus had to come into the world to rescue his people from bondage to sin and death, well, the history of the human race has been a history of that bondage and the centuries of Israel’s misery in Egypt was nothing other than a larger demonstration and illustration of that bondage.  Herod trying to kill Jesus is but a picture, painted in bold colors and large strokes, of the evil that is everywhere to be found in this world, the evil that had to be overcome for man to be saved, had to be overcome as guilt and had to be overcome as a power in human life.  It was to destroy that evil that Jesus came into the world; no wonder it should seek his life as soon as it could find him.

We live, you and I, in a world of evil.  We know this but don’t often face it as squarely as we should simply because it is too painful to face squarely.  Herod is Everyman simply enlarged so that we can see the detail more clearly.  Was he selfish, thinking only of himself?  So is everyone and so to a high degree are a great many husbands and fathers whose selfishness darkens the life of their wives and children.  Was Herod cruel? So are a great many in this world today who abuse others, sometimes even their own children and loved ones, whose speech is a knife cutting away the soul, whose thoughtless indifference to others causes untold misery not only to those around them but, given the organic character of human life, to generations yet unborn.  Was Herod angry?  He was in a rage, as many are today to the harm and hurt of multitudes.  Little Christian girls in Pakistan being beaten and having acid thrown in their faces, to be disfigured for the rest of their lives in the name of Allah and Islam.  Bystanders in shops and stores being blown to bits in an instant in Iraq or Israel or, for that matter, in Oklahoma City, and families will mourn for the rest of their lives the pointless, cruel violence that was the eruption of an angry heart.

“The most outrageous, brutal, dangerous, and intractable of all passions, the most loathesome and unmannerly, nay the most ridiculous too…. If I were to describe it, I would…dress it up as the poets represent the furies, with whips, snakes and flames:  it should be sour, livid, full of scars, and wallowing in gore, raging up and down, destroying, grinning, bellowing and pursuing, sick of all other things, and most of all of itself.”

That isn’t the Bible, that isn’t even a Christian.  That is Seneca, the Roman moralist, describing anger but he could see what damage anger does in human life and how few there are who are able to control it and subdue it.  Was Herod a fool?  Did he act stupidly?  So do countless human beings every moment of every day, and so do we!

Such is our world and Herod is its representative.  But to get people to admit this, to acknowledge this is very difficult, if not impossible.  They are willing to think Herod a madman, they are not willing to think him Everyman.  They are willing to think that what he did was very wrong.  They are not willing to think that they are very often wrong in just the same way he was:  selfish, cruel, thoughtless, angry, and utterly uncaring of who God is and what he has done.  They do not ponder the fact that what the madman Herod tried to do, ordinary folk, moral and religious by their own lights, succeeded in doing

It is no accident that Matthew shows us this evil and this evil arrayed against the Lord Jesus so early in his Gospel.  Because you cannot get started in understanding why Jesus came into the world, what made the incarnation of God the Son so vitally necessary, and why you must make Jesus Christ the supreme interest, commitment, love and goal of your life, unless and until you see yourself as part of that evil empire that resisted him at every step of his way through the wilderness of this world, from his birth to his death on the cross thirty-some years later.

The kingdom of God is not for the well-meaning but for the desperate.  It is not for those who think themselves in need of some improvement, but for those who know they are dead in their sins and need to be made alive again.  It is for those and only those who know very well that by their constant sinning they have buried themselves under a mountain of guilt and that they have no hope, none, unless God, the holy God, the God whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity, should nevertheless forgive them.

This is to be the key, this self-understanding, this acknowledgement of the truth about oneself, this is to be the key throughout the Gospel.  Those who were satisfied with themselves, those who were confident of their own goodness – if not perfection, adequate goodness – found Jesus a curiosity, then an annoyance, then an offense, then an enemy to be destroyed.

On the other hand, those who, in his presence, realized their unworthiness, saw with crystal clarity the vast gulf that separated them from the Son of God, they loved him, and gave themselves to him, and trusted him to save them from a judgment they deserved and could not themselves ever escape.

Sin is an ugly thing.  And one’s own sin is the ugliest of all.  To face one’s pettiness, one’s lust and evil desire, one’s greed, one’s envy, one’s hatred, one’s cruelty, one’s dishonesty, one’s self-centeredness, one’s utter failure to live according to the standard that he or she requires of others, one’s hypocrisy, that is hell on earth – but, it is also the beginning of heaven.  For it is the truth, the truth that sets one free.

The Gospel does not begin in comfort and ease.  It begins in dismay.  It begins with an urgent message in the middle of the night to get up and flee for Herod is seeking the life of the infant boy.  It begins in fear, disquiet, in uncertainty.  The family flees to Egypt and stays there.  Perhaps they sell the incense and the myrrh and use the gold to pay their way.  What will become of them? They had received the good news of salvation from angels and now find themselves hieing off to Egypt for fear of their lives.

And so it is in the individual life.  New life dawns when one comes finally to see the darkness, the loathsomeness of one’s life, one’s character, when one begins, only begins to see himself or herself as God sees. That is a terrible moment!  No wonder people hold it at bay as long as they can and no wonder many will never look and never see the truth about themselves.  But, it is in that moment, in that stark self-realization, in that dismay and fear and shame, that it becomes perfectly obvious why God the Son had to visit this world, why his life here should be so terrible a struggle, why so many would reject him and oppose him, and what a magnificent love it must have been that made them willing to undergo such terrible suffering and ignominy – at the hands of his own creatures – to deliver such as us from ourselves.  “He died for the ungodly” the Bible says in a thousand ways, but only those who know themselves genuinely, profoundly, shamefully ungodly, know what a wonder, what a power, what a glory is found in that truth.

He himself will say time and again throughout the Gospel that it is not the healthy that need a physician but the sick and that he came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.  Which, in the context, is an unmistakable reference to human hypocrisy and self-righteousness.  Jesus didn’t mean that there were righteous people who didn’t need his salvation, he meant that those who think themselves righteous will always be indifferent to him as well as arrogant toward others.  Those who think themselves healthy will never move heaven and earth looking for a doctor.

I’ve given you these statistics before, but they are worth hearing again and again, for they are a an open window on the human situation and the reason why people respond to Jesus Christ and the Gospel of eternal life through faith in him, as they do.

Several years ago a survey was taken of almost a million American high school seniors taking the SAT.  70% rated their leadership ability “above average” and only 2% below.  As to getting along with others, 0% rated themselves below average and 25% saw themselves in the top 1%.  In another study published in the journal Social Psychology in 1993, 90% of American business managers rate their performance “superior;” 86% of employees rate their performance as “better than average;” and among divorced couples 90% insist the breakup was their spouse’s fault.  In survey after survey the same kind of results are produced.  Most Americans think they keep the ten commandments, just as the Pharisees thought they kept the law of God.  But, among those confident of their righteousness nowadays, 64% admit they will lie if there is an advantage to be gained by doing so; 53% will admit that they would commit adultery if given a chance to do so and get away with it; and so on.  And, their moral failure causes them very little disquiet.  Though 86% admit lying to their parents, 75% to a friend, 73% to a sibling, 73% to a lover, only 11% cited lying as having produced any serious level of guilt or embarrassment.  This is a fact of human life so universal – this self-righteousness, this moral congratulation – that you find it among the shy and those with low self-esteem as well as among the self-confidant.

And what is more remarkable still, this self-righteousness, this easy acquiescence in one’s own morality is as likely to be found in a prison as in a boardroom, in a brothel as in a university classroom.  There may be some recognition that all is not well in the character, but there is an insistence that, taken as a whole, one is no worse than many and better than a sizeable number.  Or, we conspire together to allow one another to cancel sin with some public virtue.  We fail at this or that, but we do not do this and have done that, as if paying one’s taxes or giving good service to one’s customers is enough to blind God’s eye to the greed, the selfishness, the spite, the jealousy, the carnality, the arrogance, and the indifference to others.

It is these intractable facts about human beings – their systemic and profound sinfulness and their unwillingness to admit it, even their resentful defensiveness at the suggestion – that not only explain our world but explain the life and ministry of Jesus Christ and the responses that people made to him.

We will encounter any number of folk in the Gospel of Matthew who ignored Christ’s miraculous power and his remarkable kindness to so many in need, who turned away from that teaching that was so full of the bell-like tone of the truth.  And why did they do so?  They had salvation for the asking, eternal life in their hand!  And why do so many turn away today, and not turn away only, but scornfully denounce and reject? It is because in order to receive that gift, that indescribably great gift that Jesus Christ alone has to give, one must first admit that he is so desperately sinful, that she has lived her life and is living her life in a manner so completely at variance with the will of her Creator, that nothing short of the crucifixion of the Son of God could pay for sins as great, as numerous, as defiant as theirs.  And it is in the very nature of sin to make us proud and utterly unwilling to admit that truth – for truth it most assuredly is – about ourselves.

It will be the grace of God wielding the power of God that convinces sinners that they need a deliverance only Jesus Christ can bring.  As Jesus will say to believing sinners on more than one occasion:

“Flesh and blood has not revealed these things to you but my Father who is in heaven.”

As C.S. Lewis put it:

“A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity.  Christ takes it for granted that men are bad.  Until we really feel this assumption of his to be true, though we are part of the world he came to save, we are not apart of the audience to whom His words are addressed.”  {Problem of Pain, 57]

The story of the Gospel begins with human sin and with violence ranged against the Prince of Life.  It will continue in this vein, for that was the world into which the Savior came and it is the same world today.  Men are evil and to be rescued from that evil it was necessary that God become a man and live and die in the place of evil men.  And that men avail themselves of Christ’s triumph over sin and death it is at last necessary that they admit why he had to come, why he had to suffer and die, and that had it been only him, only her to be saved, Christ would have had to do nothing less than what he did.  Eternal life begins in a flinty honesty about oneself, an honesty that can see oneself even in a Herod.

There is more mercy and more saving power in Christ than there is sin in us.  So there is no danger in thorough and honest dealing with ourselves about ourselves.  One does not go easily to a surgeon, but if he is convinced that something must be cut out or he will die, he prefers the cutting, bad and fearful as that is, to the dying.  Well, in the same way, it is better to go with one’s ego cut and bruised to heaven than to go to hell feeling comfortable about oneself.