Monday, June 30, 2014

A Voice Crying in the Wilderness – Matthew 3:1-12

The message of the coming kingdom requires a response.  It requires a response of repentance and faith.  Repentance of those deeds that are incompatible with the reality of the kingdom and the law of the King, and faith in the one who is invested with royal power and authority.  Judgment comes upon those who do not prepare the way of the Lord, and salvation to those who do.

John the Baptist was just different.  He was a man who wore strange clothes and who kept up an even stranger diet.  In verse 4, Matthew describes the man: “Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.”  Even back then and in that culture, this must have been strange – else it is hard to see why Matthew would bother to point it out. However, John’s wardrobe and culinary tastes were not the result of strange idiosyncrasies: they were undoubtedly chosen on purpose to communicate a message about who he was and what he was doing.  As one has put it, “Even the food and dress of John preached.”[1]

John’s clothing was meant to remind people of Elijah, who was described to the King of Israel in 2 Kings 1:8 as a man who “wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.”  The King immediately knew whom they had described: “And he said, ‘It is Elijah the Tishbite.’”  It seems that Elijah must have set such a precedent that later prophet-wannabes wore this type of clothing to indicate their occupation as the local seer.  In fact, in Zechariah 13:4 we read that in the day when idolatry is rooted out of the land and the false prophets are cut off that, “On that day every prophet will be ashamed of his vision when he prophesies.  He will not put on a hairy cloak in order to deceive.”  

But when John put on the hairy cloak and the leather belt, he was no false prophet.  He was figuratively the reincarnation of Elijah.  We know this because this is exactly what Jesus says: “And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matt. 11:14; cf. 17:10-13).  

In keeping with the rough clothing, John led a rather ascetic lifestyle.  He was known as one who “came neither eating nor drinking” (11:18).  The locusts and wild honey were part of this lifestyle.  And by the way, these were real locusts, not the fruit of the locust tree as some have claimed.  These were large grasshoppers, and they are still eaten by people in the East.  At times, John probably had parts of grasshoppers sticky with honey sticking in different parts of his beard.

And then there was John’s church.  It was not a building; it was not even a tabernacle in a nice place.  Instead, John preached his message “in the wilderness of Judea” (3:1), a place that encompassed the lower Jordan valley and the area directly west of the Dead Sea.  Carson describes it as “hot and, apart from the Jordan itself, largely arid, though not unpopulated.”[2]  

The meager diet and rough clothing and unpleasant location were meant to provide in some sense a frame for his message.  John did not come to preach pleasantries to people.  He did not come with a plastic smile and pointers on how to have your best life now.  Instead, he wanted people to see that after 400 years of silence, God was speaking again, and speaking through him.  He wanted people to see that the message he came to give was serious and real and earthshattering.  He wanted people to see that they needed to stop spending so much time on earthly comforts and instead prepare themselves for the kingdom of heaven.  For the King was coming.  And it would be good for us to put ourselves in the shoes (or sandals) of those who came to hear John.  For the King who came once is coming again.  The response appropriate in John’s day is still the response that is appropriate in our own.  What then exactly was his message?

The Message of the Kingdom

John preached that men should repent.  But we need to understand why repentance is called for, and why it is utterly imperative that we do so.  To really understand John’s message we need to know what he means when he grounds his call to repentance in the kingdom of heaven: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (3:2).  In fact, the reality of the kingdom of heaven not only grounds the call to repentance, but also the warning to flee from the wrath to come (3:7) and the expectation of the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire (3:11).  In other words, we need to understand what John meant by the kingdom of heaven.

A couple of preliminaries are in order.  First, since Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience and as a Jew himself, he followed the Jewish practice in his gospel by using circumlocution for “God.”  Thus, whereas other gospel writers say “kingdom of God,” Matthew mostly says “kingdom of heaven.”  So we should not make the mistake that some have made in making a distinction between the two.  They are the same thing.  In fact, we see this even in Matthew’s gospel.  In 19:23-24, Jesus is speaking his disciples, and Matthew quotes him this way:

And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”  

It is clear that Jesus is referring to the same reality in these verses by “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God.”

Second, this message was not unique to John.  It was the same message preached by Jesus and his apostles, both before his Resurrection and after.  When Jesus began to preach, we are told that “from that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (4:17; cf. v. 23).  When Jesus sent his disciples out to preach, he told them, “And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (10:7).  As Jesus forecasted the events leading up to his Return, he told his followers that “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (24:14).  This is exactly what we see Paul doing at the close of Acts: “And he lived two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 24:30-31).  In other words, the message of the Christian church, the message which we still have the privilege and responsibility of proclaiming, is the message about the kingdom of heaven.

What then is the message of the kingdom of heaven?  To understand what John was talking about, we need to understand what he meant by the word “kingdom.”  In modern parlance, kingdom usually refers to a domain, a realm, and piece of land over which a king reigns and where his authority is recognized.  But this is not what the biblical authors primarily meant when they spoke of the kingdom of heaven.  John Stott was correct when he wrote that “the kingdom of God is neither a territorial jurisdiction nor even a spiritual structure.  God’s kingdom is God himself ruling over his own people and bestowing upon them all the privileges and responsibilities which that rule implies.”[3]  In other words, in the Bible, kingdom has a dynamic connotation and stands for the reign of God.

We see this usage illustrated very clearly in several places in Scripture.  I will point to one.  In Luke 19, Jesus tells a story of a nobleman who goes to a far country to receive a kingdom (19:12).  Now clearly, he did not go to get a realm, for he returns later to assert his authority over his realm after he has received his kingdom.  In this story, to receive a kingdom means to receive the authority or right to rule.  Thus, the kingdom of God is the authority that God exercises to assert his saving rule over the nations.  

George E. Ladd defines the kingdom of God this way.  He says that “the kingdom of God is the sovereign rule of God, manifested in the person and work of Christ, creating a people over whom he reigns, and issuing in a realm or realms in which the power of his reign in realized.”[4]

Thus, the kingdom of God is both present and future.  It is present wherever God’s rule is manifested, however imperfectly.  Thus, in the parable of the Sower, the kingdom of God is compared to a seed which is sown in the hearts of men (Matt. 13:19).  The kingdom can be found now and treasured now (13:44-45).  We are told in this gospel that when Jesus cast out demons that this was a manifestation of the kingdom of God there and then: “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28).  And when Jesus comes into our hearts, and reforms them into hearts that love his law and rest in his salvation, then the kingdom of God has come into our hearts.  The new birth brings the kingdom of God in the here and now: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

But the kingdom of God is also future.  God’s saving rule has not yet perfectly come in this broken world.  That is why we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” (Matt. 6:10).  Jesus talks about entering the kingdom of God at the end of the age (Matt. 7:21).  Those who are born again do indeed enter the kingdom of God in the sense that God has extended his saving reign over their hearts.  But the full and perfect enjoyment of that kingdom awaits the future when Christ returns.

When John the Baptist preached that the kingdom of heaven had come near, he was right on because it had come near in the person of the Son of God, the King.  God’s rule is manifested in Christ and established by him.  To preach the kingdom of God is to proclaim the sovereignty and the authority of the King who saves.  And to preach that the kingdom is near is to declare that the King is near in his power to rule.  Or, to use the language of the prophet, to preach that men should repent because the kingdom is at hand is to cry that men should prepare the way of the Lord and to make his paths straight (3:3).  The message of the kingdom then, is the proclamation that the King has arrived and we need to be prepared to welcome him.

We are thus reminded in the language of the kingdom that Jesus is King.  The Magi worshipped him as such, and now John the Baptist announces him in the same way.  Moreover, he is more than just another earthly king, as the prophesy indicates.  This is a quote from Isaiah 40:3, in which the Lord is a reference to the God of Israel.  Here, Matthew equates Jesus with the Lord of Isaiah 40:3.  Thus, this is yet another reference to the divinity of our Lord.

My friends, it was not just the first-century Jews who needed to prepare for the coming King.  We, who live between the first and second Advents of our Lord, need to be prepared, as well.  Isn’t this the point of Jesus’ command to watch?  (See Matt. 24:36-51; 25:13).  “Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes” (v. 46).  How then, do we do this?

The Call to Repentance

The fundamental message of John the Baptist, our Lord, and his apostles was a message of repentance.  The reason we need to repent is because on account of our sinfulness and selfishness we have turned our backs on the King.  Instead of doing his will, we live to do our own will.  Instead of obeying his commandments, we become a law unto ourselves.  In other words, the human race as a whole lives in complete denial of God’s right to rule over them.  Thus, the reality of the kingdom demands a response of repentance.  Or, in the words of the text, we ought to repent because God has come in the person of his Son to reassert his rule over us.  To those who embrace him, there is mercy; to those who reject him, there is judgment.

But what is repentance?  Let’s begin with what it is not.  And there is no better way than to illustrate this with the audience John had with the Pharisees and Sadducees.  We read that many of them came to his baptism – probably just to observe, but they certainly got an earful!  John takes the opportunity here to win friends and influence people.  In verses 7-10 we read about the encounter:

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

With these words, John dispels the notion that repentance is merely external.  It’s more than getting religion.  You can get religion and still go to hell.  Both these religious groups were good at religion and yet John calls them out for what they were: a brood of vipers.  Repentance is therefore a thing of the heart; after all, God is the Lord of our hearts and minds, not just of our bodies.  If you would repent, you must therefore repent with all your heart.  You must not only forsake your wrong ways, you must also forsake your wrong thoughts (Isa. 55:6-7).  Our main problem, anyway, is a problem with our heart.  It’s a problem of loving ourselves instead of God, and we need to repent of this fundamental idolatry.

Repentance is also more than just a change of mind.  Sometimes you will hear the word defined in those terms.  But this is not enough.  John warned these religious leaders that they needed to produce works worthy of repentance (ver. 8).  A changed heart is going to produce a changed life.  In fact, in Luke we read that John gets very practical with how people should repent, what it should look like (Luke 3:10-14).

How do we receive the King?  What then is repentance?  It is this: it is a complete change of heart and mind accompanied by a corresponding change of life that is the result of seeing Jesus for who he is: our Lord and King.  I love the way the Shorter Catechism puts it: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience” (Q 87).

True repentance is always accompanied by faith in Christ, or an “apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ.”  John doesn’t just call people to repent; he calls them to look for the one who “is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry” (ver. 11).  He is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.  Here, fire is a cleansing agent (much like the coal from the altar that took Isaiah’s sin away, Isa. 6:6-7), and the Holy Spirit is the one who will cause God’s people to embrace from the heart his rule over them.  Probably John had Ezekiel 36:25-27 in mind:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
In other words, here is the mercy of God.  Our hearts are hardened and stiff in our opposition to God; we do not submit to the law of God, neither can we (Rom. 8:7), but the Holy Spirit comes and changes our hearts and turns us to God.  And the one who makes this work possible is Jesus Christ.  The ministry of the Holy Spirit is founded in the person and work of the Son of God.

The very fact that Christ has come is an indication that this is a mission of mercy and that the call to repentance is not a call to make ourselves fit for God but is a call to embrace God’s mercy in Christ in a way that is appropriate to that mercy.  You don’t embrace God’s mercy by putting up your hand and saying “No!” to his King; you embrace God’s mercy by embracing his King through repentance and faith.

The Warning of Judgment

What happens if you don’t repent of our self-centeredness and embrace Christ as your King?  John has some very troubling words for such people.  He warns that “every tree . . . that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (ver. 10).  This fire is not cleansing; it is destroying.  A few verses later, he pictures Christ as a farmer who winnows his wheat to separate the wheat from the chaff, and though he gathers his wheat into his barn, “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (ver. 12).  He is undoubtedly referring to hell and to the possibility that a person can be lost forever.  As Ryle put it, “It is no small matter whether we repent or not.”  

Conclusion

There is a call to all men to repent (Acts 17:30).  And this call to repent is a call to fundamentally alter the direction of our lives, so that we are no longer self-centered, but God-centered.  There is a sense in which this takes place at the beginning of our Christian life in a unique way.  But I was reminded recently that for the believer repentance is not just something that we did a long time ago to become a Christian; it is a way of life.  Every day we need to repent because every day the world is tugging at your heart to turn it away from Christ.

What areas are there in your life right now that the Holy Spirit is telling you to turn over to him?  What areas of your heart are unsurrendered?  

We should never make the mistake to let sin fool us that it is worth it to follow our lusts and those desires that put us in opposition to God.  Sin offers you a kingdom in the here-and-now; Christ offers you a kingdom into which you enter now but which lasts forever and far exceeds the delights of this world in its excellence and glory.  The rule of God is not a terrible thing; it is a freeing and saving reality.  And it is a reality that all of us will have to reckon with, sooner or later.



[1] Bengel, quoted in D. A. Carson, Matthew (EBC: 1995), page 102.
[2] Carson, p. 99.
[3] I’m quoting this from memory, so it may not be exact.  The quote comes from John R. W. Stott’s commentary on Ephesians.  
[4] Crucial Questions About the Kingdom of God (Eerdmans: 1952), page 80.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Through many dangers, toils, and snares – Matthew 2:13-23



We are all familiar with the hymn “Amazing Grace” by John Newton.   In the third verse, Newton writes,

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far
And grace will bring me home.

Newton was not simply being poetic when he penned these lines.  His journey to faith was fraught with peril and several near-death experiences.  Though raised in a Christian home, he later renounced religion for free thinking and a debauched lifestyle.  Going to sea, he became known for his wickedness among men who were not known for their goodness.  He was kicked off his ship for insubordination, and enslaved by slavers in Africa with little hope of escaping and little sympathy from his overlords.  When he was rescued, the ship that brought him home was nearly shipwrecked and he nearly drowned.  Yet through this all, God brought this “African blasphemer” – as he later called himself – to faith in Christ and to a life of ministry in the gospel.  

God could have saved Newton at an early age and spared him most of his troubles.  Instead, it was “through many dangers, toils, and snares.”  For reasons ultimately known only to God, Newton was not truly converted until much later in life when, in a desperate storm at sea, he cried out to God for the first time in sincere prayer.

Though it is stupid to think that we can discern all the details of God’s eternal plan with respect to particular people and events, yet a few things are clear.  God did save John Newton, and the fact that he saved him when he did is a demonstration that the vilest of men are not beyond the reach of the grace of God.  Like Paul.  He wrote to Timothy that this is one of the reasons God saved him when he did: “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim. 1:16).

Though it is always wrong to ascribe sin to God, as if he caused the sins of Newton in order to put his grace on display, yet Scripture is clear that God certainly allows bad things to happen within the limits of his sovereign rule over his universe.  And he does so ultimately to show us his glory – the glory of his grace, his justice, his power, his love.  

What that means for those of us who believe is that we should not despair when bad things happen to us or to those we love.  Why should we despair if God is in control and if all that is happening is happening according to his wise and good and holy plan?  Why should we fear when all things work together for the good of those who love God (Rom. 8:28)?  God is not just at the beginning and the end; he is with us in the middle, too.  He is with us in the “dangers, toils, and snares” that we endure before God by his grace brings us home.  They don’t take him by surprise: “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Pet. 4:19).

The bottom line is that God will save his people because nothing can happen to them that is outside his sovereign plan.  And yet that doesn’t mean that God will always save us from trouble.  Sometimes – many times (most times?) – he saves us through troubles, troubles that in the end deepen our faith and love for Christ, strengthen the graces of humility, patience, endurance, and magnify the greatness of God’s salvation toward broken people in a broken world.

Of course, the reason we are saved has nothing to do with our goodness or strength or endurance.  We are saved because of Christ, because of his goodness for us and strength for us and endurance for us.  Our hope that God will bring us safely through dangers is reliable because God first brought his Son safely through dangers on our behalf.  On the other hand, because God rescued his Son, we can be confident that he will rescue those who belong to him.

Which brings us to our text.  This text is all about God bringing his Son through danger.  When we last left off, the Magi had just departed Bethlehem, being warned in a dream not to return to Herod in Jerusalem.  Now Herod’s wrath will descend upon Bethlehem as he seeks to destroy Christ. Therefore, Joseph is warned in a dream that he will have to take his wife and Jesus out of the country for a time, to Egypt, where they will live until Herod dies and the danger passes.  As Joseph returns to Judea after Herod’s death (again prompted by a dream), he discovers that his cruel son Archelaus is ruling in his stead and so instead of settling in Bethlehem he returns to his hometown of Nazareth (in obedience to a warning in the final dream of this narrative). 

This text highlights the truths we have been introducing this morning.  It highlights the protection God gives his Son in the face of peril and threats to his life from cruel men.  Through dangers God saves his Son in accordance with his plan.  We see this in the three distressing events that unfold in the narrative, in the three dreams revealed to Joseph, and in the three Scriptures fulfilled by these events.

Through Dangers: Three Distressing Events

God does not save us from trials, and we know that because he didn’t save his own Son from trials.  If we claim to follow Christ, we must follow him through any suffering we are called to go through.  Trials will come.  They came for Christ at the very outset of his life here on earth and followed him all his life to the cross.  We see the beginning of them here in the three events that Matthew records.

The first event that unfolds in this part of the narrative is the flight of Joseph, Mary, and the Child to Egypt (2:13-15).  Commentators on this text note that this was the reasonable choice, because it was a well-ordered Roman province, it was outside of Herod’s jurisdiction, and it was relatively nearby (roughly 75 miles away).  It was a safe place.  Moreover, this was where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob went in the hard times.

However, though Egypt was perhaps the best choice among other alternatives, it still must have been difficult to move the family there.  The fact of the matter is that they were refugees.  This was no vacation, nor was it a pleasant sabbatical for Joseph from the carpenter’s bench.  In fact, though the Magi lavished expensive gifts upon the family (2:11), we know that later in life Jesus was very poor: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (8:20).  Where did all this wealth go?  Most likely, it was spent in these early years to finance the family while in exile.  

It must have been especially hard on Joseph and Mary.  They were far from their hometown Nazareth.  Especially since they didn’t stay in Egypt that long (Herod probably died no more than one or two years later), they didn’t have time to lay down roots.  They were strangers in a strange land.  There were probably no family, little ability to communicate with loved one back home, and no knowledge of how long they would be there.

Place is important, a feeling of belonging is important, and every time we are uprooted from our home and family and move to a place where we are strangers we feel how important it is to belong, to have a home.  It is not easy being strangers and pilgrims in this world.  But that is often what God calls his people to be.  And it is what God called Joseph and Mary to be, at least for a time.

The second event in the narrative is the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem (2:16-18).  Just to be thorough, Herod has all the male children in Bethlehem who were two and under killed.  He was taking no chances, and so he orders this terrible massacre.

Some people think that Matthew just made this up in order to tie it to Jeremiah 31:15.  However, this is very unlikely for two reasons.  First, this act of brutality is completely compatible with what we know Herod was capable of at this point in his reign.  And though one does not want to trivialize this terrible tragedy, the population of Bethlehem was relatively small (from a few hundred to a thousand), so the number of children killed would have been no more than 20 at most.  “It was a minor incident in a period full of atrocities, and the absence of clearly independent accounts in secular history is not surprising.”[1]  Second, those to whom Matthew was writing would have been able to verify whether or not this story was true.  But if in fact it was made up, then Matthew’s argument falls to pieces.  His whole point is that this event fulfilled Scripture.  It would hardly convince anyone to argue that an imaginary event fulfilled prophesy.  Thus, this is not just a made up story by Matthew, it is in fact history that he is recording.

Throughout the whole of Jesus’ life, people are either trying (like the Magi) to crown him or (like Herod) to kill him.  Now his parents have to get him out of the land for fear of his life.  

Certainly, this is one of those unspeakable tragedies.  One often wonders why people have to endure this kind of evil.  And though Joseph and his family escaped, others did not.   How could God allow such evil?  Yet he did.  On the one hand, we must firmly protest any slight against God.  He did not make Herod kill those children.  God is not evil.  God hated what Herod did.  (And, according to Josephus, it seems that his terrible death was a foretaste of God’s judgment upon him for such wicked acts.)  On the other hand, God could have stopped it, and he didn’t for what must have been good and just reasons.  And it is very arrogant for us to assume that because we cannot see why a holy God could allow such a thing, therefore that no good and just reason exists.

The fact of the matter is, because of sin we live in a broken world.  We cannot expect that, even though we are among those upon whom God has set his saving love, we will not have to see or endure some pretty hard stuff.  Even though the Son of God had come into the world, tragedies did not cease.  That day is coming because of what Christ has accomplished by his death, but for now we must endure in an evil world while we hope for the age to come.

The third event in this narrative is the return to Nazareth (2:19-23).  Though Matthew does not tell us that Joseph and Mary were originally from Nazareth, we do know this from Luke’s account (Luke 1:26).  However, it seems that Joseph at first wanted to resettle in Bethlehem, but could not do so because Herod’s son Archelaus was on his throne.   When Herod died, he gave Archelaus Judea, Samaria, and Idumea, while his other sons (Herod Antipas and Herod Philip) got his other territories.[2]  Unfortunately, Archelaus was brutal like his father.  Thus, when Joseph heard he was ruling in his father’s place, he was understandably nervous.  He opted to put his family back in the home town of Nazareth.   Though Archelaus was deposed about ten years later (in A.D. 6) by the Romans and the southern part of Palestine was ruled by a Roman procurator, by this time Joseph had already settled north in Galilee.

This may not seem like a bad thing, but settling in Nazareth when you could have settled in Bethlehem (a mere 5 miles from Jerusalem) is like buying a house near the dump when you could have lived in an upscale neighborhood.  Evidently, Nazareth didn’t have a great reputation.  Years later, Nathanael would say when he heard that Jesus was from this town, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46). Of course not.

Thus, at the very beginning of his life, Jesus and his family are surrounded by dangers, by tragedies, and by less than optimal choices.  What is amazing about this, though, is that Jesus chose this.  He chose the poverty.  He chose the dangers.  He chose to endure the enmity and hatred of wicked men.  “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).  We can endure the dangers now because we know that by his poverty he has given us unspeakable wealth forever.

God Saves his Son: Three Dreams revealed to Joseph

Herod thought he had it figured out.  He would deceive the Wise Men into thinking he wanted to worship the King of the Jews.  But God intervenes by revealing his secret plans, first to the Magi, then to Joseph (2:13,19,22).  Herod’s plans come to naught because our God is bigger than any earthly king.  

Joseph and his family didn’t just barely escape.  In some sense, they were never in danger at all.  God was always one step ahead of the plans of wicked men.

Often, we are too ready to put stock in human technology, power, and wealth.  We are liable to think that God’s cause cannot go forward unless we can negotiate with the powers that be.  But that is not necessary.  “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we will trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Ps. 20:7).  No one – not even the powerful Herods of this world – can close a door which God has opened.  

This is because God is sovereign.  He is not jockeying for the control of his universe.  “The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Ps 103:19).  “The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples.  The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations” (Ps. 33:10-11).  He foresees all that will come to pass and reveals it to whom he will, not because he is a good predictor, but because nothing can happen that is outside of his sovereign plan.   And in a very real sense, though Matthew does not quote it, these events are fulfilling the words of Psalm 2:1-6:

                    Why do the nations rage
                                         and the peoples plot in vain?
                    The kings of the earth set themselves,
                                         and the rulers take counsel together,
                                         against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
                    “Let us burst their bonds apart
                                         and cast away their cords from us.”
                   
                    He who sits in the heavens laughs;
                                         the Lord holds them in derision.
                    Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
                                         and terrify them in his fury, saying,
                    “As for me, I have set my King
                                         on Zion, my holy hill.”

And those who belong to God’s Son can expect the same Fatherly care.  This does not mean that God will rescue us from every pain and trouble and care while here on earth.  Jesus was not immune to suffering, and neither should we expect to be.  But it does means that God will never leave or abandon his children and that they will come through the trials on the other side as heirs of eternal life.  As Paul put it to the Romans: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:16-17). 

According to God’s Plan – Three Scriptures Fulfilled

In this part of the narrative, Matthew quotes three Old Testament prophesies that were fulfilled by the events of the flight to Egypt, the slaughter of the children, and the return to Nazareth.  The fact that these prophesies were made hundreds of years before demonstrate that God is sovereign, as we have been saying.  They also demonstrate that Jesus is the Christ, the fulfillment of the Old Testament hopes and the embodiment of all the typology embedded in the Jewish religion.

The first Old Testament prophesy mentioned by Matthew is found in Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”  Though Hosea was primarily referring to the Exodus and the nation of Israel by “my son,” it was not incorrect of Matthew to use this text to point to Christ.  For just as the Exodus pointed to God’s ultimate salvation of his people by the Messiah, even so the people of Israel as God’s son pointed to the ultimate Son of God, the Messiah, who would effect this salvation.  Matthew thus shows us that Christ not only fulfills specific prophesies, but that his life was in some sense a recapitulation of the history of Israel (like the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness recapitulated the history of Israel in the desert, cf. chap. 4).

The next prophesy that Matthew refers to is taken from Jeremiah 31:15 and is applied to Herod’s massacre of the children in Bethlehem.  In the immediate context of Jeremiah’s words, the passage is a poetic reference to the land of Israel personified (by “Rachel”) weeping for her children – the Israelites taken into captivity, first by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians.  Yet the overall context is one of hope.  This is the chapter where God reveals his New Covenant.  The weeping will cease.  The exiled ones will come home.  And thus, again, in such a context it was entirely appropriate to refer such a passage to Christ.  The weeping that had characterized the people of Israel since their captivity reaches its climax in the weeping over the slain children in Bethlehem.  But Christ has come, and thus for God’s people this weeping will turn to rejoicing.

Even so, such a prophesy teaches us that though we can expect weeping for the present age, we can still have hope (cf. 1 Thess. 4:13).  Christ has come; he has inaugurated a New Covenant; he will bring his people home – a place where every tear will be wiped away.

Finally, Matthew writes with reference to the return to Nazareth, “so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene” (2:23).  Many commentators have been puzzled over this reference, because there is no passage in all the Old Testament that refers to Nazareth, or to the fact that the Messiah would come from this specific town in Galilee.  However, note that Matthew’s quotation formula is a bit different here.  He does not refer to a specific prophesy, but refers to “the prophets” in general.   This indicates that he did not have a specific text in mind; rather, he is summarizing the teaching of many prophets.

But what teaching is he summarizing?  We have already pointed out that Nazareth was not known for being a great place to call home.  To be from Nazareth was to place yourself in the sights of the cynical and scornful.  In other words, by sending his Son to Nazareth, God was beginning to fulfill the myriad of prophesies that the Messiah would have a lowly origin among his people.  “Here Jesus grew up, not as ‘Jesus the Bethlehemite,’ with its Davidic overtones, but as ‘Jesus the Nazarene,’ with all the opprobrium of the sneer.  When Christians were referred to in Acts as the ‘Nazarene sect’ (24:5), the expression was meant to hurt. . . . [Matthew] is not saying that a particular OT prophet foretold that the Messiah would live in Nazareth; he is saying that the OT prophets foretold that the Messiah would be despised (cf. Pss 22:6-8, 13; 69;8, 20-21; Isa 11:1; 49:7; 53:2-3, 8; Dan 9:26).”[3]

What can we say to all this?  Like Jesus, we cannot expect to be exempt from hard choices and hard times.  We can expect tears and tragedy.  But we can know that God will save us because we belong to his Son.  God rescued his Son, and he will rescue those who belong to him.  He gives, not an easy time in this life, but forgiveness of sins and the expectation of the enjoyment of eternal life in his presence.  And we can be confident in our hope, not because we are worthy of God’s salvation but because God sees us in Christ, who has been worthy for those who belong to him.  And God is sovereign.  His hand is not shortened, that he cannot save.  So let us not weep, as those who have no hope.  Instead, through the tears, let us rejoice, for we are more than conquerors through Christ who loves us.



[1] R. T. France, Matthew (TNTC: 1985), 86-87.
[2] D. A. Carson, Matthew (EBC: 1995), 96.
[3] Carson, p. 97.

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