Today’s passage can be divided into four parts. In verses 1 to 12 we have the visit of the Magi. In verses 13 to 15 we have the escape to Egypt. That’s followed in verses 16 to 18 with the killing of the Jewish infants. And in verses 19 to 23 we have the return to Israel. Once again, there are connections between what happened in the life of the Lord Jesus and what happened in Old Testament times; and these connections underline for us once again that the coming of Christ into the world is the fulfilment of God’s Old Testament promises. And I’ll concentrate on those connections in what follows.
Verses 1 to 12
We begin with the visit of the Magi. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago how early on the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek. In that Greek translation, the Greek word for Magi appears in the book of Daniel to refer to the wise men who advised the kings of Babylon. Babylon, of course, was to the east of Israel and that’s where these wise men have come from. We’re told they arrived in Jerusalem and asked about the new king who was born; and they explain that they had seen his star in the east and had come to worship him. That is, they have come to pay tribute to this new king.
The commentators discuss what kind of star they might have seen and whether it may have been a comet or a conjunction of planets or a supernova or some other regular astronomical occurrence in the sky. But I can’t see any reason why we shouldn’t conclude that this was an extra-ordinary event and that the Lord miraculously provided a special star to guide these men to the new king.
It’s not clear how the knew that the star signified the birth of a new king. However, the commentators tell us that the idea that special stars signified special events was widespread in the ancient world. Furthermore, I remember hearing a sermon in which the preacher wondered whether Daniel’s visions had been passed down from one generation to another among the Babylonian wise men so that they were expecting the birth of a special king, because Daniel spoke of the coming of God’s Anointed King. I don’t think there’s any evidence that this was the case, but it’s an interesting idea that the wise men in Babylon kept and passed on Daniel’s visions, waiting for their fulfilment. In any case, these wise men turned up in Jerusalem, looking for the new king.
Though the Lord had promised in many places in the Old Testament that a new and better king would come to rule in the place of David, Herod and the people of Jerusalem did not welcome this news. However, Herod pointed the wise men in the right direction and asked them to return to him once they found the new king. He pretended that he wanted to pay tribute to him, but we learn later that he really wanted to kill the new king.
The star in the sky went ahead of the wise men and guided them to the place where the child was. And we’re told they bowed down and worshipped him. This doesn’t mean they regarded him as divine, because the word translated worship can merely mean to pay homage. And they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts, suitable for a king. And then, having been warned in a dream, they returned home by another route and didn’t return to Herod.
At the centre of this part of the passage is the quotation from the book of Micah and the announcement that Bethlehem would be the birthplace of God’s new king. Matthews alters the words of Micah to emphasis that the king would be from Judah. This is significant because way back in Genesis 48, when Jacob was blessing his sons, he announced that a king would come from his son, Judah. And it’s also fitting that the Lord Jesus, who is King David’s greater Son, should be born in Bethlehem which was David’s birthplace. In fact, it’s possible that the last part of the quotation is from 2 Samuel 5:2, where the Lord said about David that he would shepherd God’s people Israel. Those words are now applied to the Lord Jesus, the Son of David, because just as David once cared for God’s people and rescued them from the Philistines and other enemies, so the Lord Jesus cares for God’s people and he rescues us from sin and Satan and death.
But there are other connections with the Old Testament. The coming of the wise men from the east to pay tribute to the king recalls Psalm 72 which speaks of kings of distant shores who come to pay tribute to Lord’s Anointed King and to present him with gifts. And Isaiah 60 speaks of the nations coming to Zion with gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord. So, the Lord promised his Old Testament people that the time would come when the nations would come to worship him and his Anointed King in Jerusalem. And the arrival of these wise men from the east is a partial fulfilment of that promise. And at the end of Matthew’s gospel, the Lord Jesus commanded the Apostles to make disciples of all nations. And all across the world, women and women and boys and girls from every nation are hearing the good news of the gospel and they are bowing down and worshipping Christ the King. And in the end, believers from every nation will gather in the heavenly Jerusalem to worship God for ever and for ever.
Verses 13 to 15
We turn now to the second part, verses 13 to 15, which records how an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and commanded him to take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. They had to escape because Herod wanted to kill the child. And Joseph did exactly what the Lord’s angel told him to do. Matthew concludes this part by saying that this fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet. And he quotes Hosea 11:1: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’
The words of Hosea in their original context recall the time of the Exodus, when God’s people were living in Egypt as slaves. But God sent them Moses to bring them out of their captivity and to lead them to the Promised Land. And the commentators see a number of parallels between the life of Moses and the Lord Jesus at this point in his life. Both lived in Egypt. Both of them were threatened by an evil king: Moses’s life was threatened by Pharaoh and the Lord’s life was threatened by Herod. Pharaoh tried to get the Hebrew midwives to help him, and Herod tried to get the Magi to help him. However, neither the Hebrew midwives nor the Magi did what the evil kings wanted. And just as the Lord delivered Moses, so the Lord delivered the Lord Jesus. These parallels are significant, because, in his gospel, Matthew presents the Lord Jesus as a new and better Moses. And the most important thing they have in common is that just as God delivered his people by the hand of Moses, so he will deliver his people by the hand of the Lord Jesus.
However, Matthew also presents the Lord Jesus as a new and better Israel. Israel was God’s son and, according to Hosea 11:1, God called his son from Egypt. However, Israel was a disobedient son and throughout their time in the wilderness and beyond, the people disobeyed the Lord again and again and again. But Matthew now applies Hosea 11:1 to the Lord Jesus, who takes the place of Israel as God’s ‘son’. And, like Israel, he went to live for a while in Egypt. And God will eventually call him out of Egypt. But unlike the people of Israel, the Lord Jesus was obedient, doing everything God commanded him to do and obeying his Heavenly Father in all things. When Israel was tempted in the wilderness, they gave in to temptation and sinned. But when the Lord Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, at the beginning of his ministry, when the Devil tempted him, he resisted every temptation and remained obedient. Throughout his life on earth, the Lord Jesus was obedient to his Father in heaven unlike the people of Israel. Both had come from out of Egypt, but they were very different from one another. And by his obedience to his Father in heaven, even to the point of death on the cross, the Lord Jesus has won for us the right to enter the Promised Land of Eternal Life so that we can dwell with God forever.
Verses 16 to 18
In verses 16 to 18 we have the killing of the Jewish infants. When Herod realised he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious and gave orders to kill all the boys in the region of Bethlehem who were aged two and under. He was clearly hoping that, by killing all of them, he would kill the new king as well. We sometimes assume that the number of children who were killed must have been a massive number. However, since Bethlehem was a fairly small town, some commentators suggest that the total number of boys who were aged two and under at any one time may have been only 20. It was still a wicked thing to do and heartbreaking for every family, but apparently Herod is known for doing much, much worse than this.
The killing of these children recalls Pharaoh’s order to kill the Jewish children in the days of Moses. But Matthew tells us in verse 17 that this event fulfils the words of Jeremiah about Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more. In its original context, in Jeremiah 31, Jeremiah was lamenting how God’s people were being taken into exile. And so, he pictured Rachel, the wife of Jacob, weeping loudly because her children — the people of Israel — are no more in the sense that they’ve been taken away and no one will see them again. However, Jeremiah 31 itself contains a message of hope for God’s people, because the chapter speaks of God’s everlasting love for his people and how he will gather his exiled people and restore their fortunes once again. He will ransom and redeem them. In Jeremiah 31 Rachel is told to restrain her weeping, because she will be rewarded and her children will return. And Jeremiah goes on to announce the new covenant which he will make with his people in days to come. So, in its original context, Rachel’s lament is placed in the midst of a message about hope and restoration and joy and God’s commitment to his people. Therefore it’s possible that Matthew refers to Rachel’s weeping in order to suggest that despite the tragedy that has occurred because of Herod, there is still hope for God’s people, because God is about to fulfil his promises and establish his new covenant with them through Jesus Christ his Son, who will shed his blood on the cross for the forgiveness of all our sins and who will be raised from the dead so that all who believe in him will likewise be raised to live for ever. Therefore, although the birth of Christ was accompanied by much weeping, God will turn all our mourning into joy.
Verses 19 to 23
And the final part of today’s passage is verses 19 to 23 where we read about Herod’s death and how an angel of the Lord appeared again to Joseph in a dream to tell him to return to the land of Israel. Once again, Joseph did as he was told and returned. But being warned in another dream about Herod’s son, he took the child and his mother and went to live in Nazareth. And so was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, ‘He will be called a Nazarene.’
If you’re using the NIV, you’ll notice there isn’t a footnote beside that Nazarene quotation. That’s because there’s nowhere in the Old Testament where a prophet said those words. There are lots of suggestions to explain what Matthew meant. For instance, the Greek word for Nazarene is similar to the Hebrew word for branch and therefore Matthew might be signalling that the Lord Jesus is the Branch from the stump of Jesse, which Isaiah spoke about in Isaiah 11. Or perhaps Matthew meant that the Lord Jesus will be called a Nazirite. Nazirites were people in Old Testament times who devoted themselves to serving God. Samson was the most famous one. Was Matthew therefore saying the Lord Jesus would be like Samson, who saved God’s people by means of his own death?
There have been other suggestions, but none are very convincing. In any case, Matthew didn’t say ‘So was fulfilled what was said through the prophet…’, but ‘So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets….’ So, at least one commentator (France) suggests that the significance of Nazareth is that it was an insignificant place. As Nathaniel once said, ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ No-one important ever came from Nazareth. And so, calling someone a Nazarene was an insult. And while the prophets may not have called the Lord Jesus a Nazarene, they did make clear that the Promised Saviour would be disregarded and despised and rejected and humiliated by the people he came to save. And they would insult him. And yet this despised and rejected man is the Eternal Son of God, who for our sakes came to earth as one of us to deliver us from our sin and misery and to give us eternal life in his presence in fulfilment of all of God’s Old Testament promises.