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.” 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. 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).”
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.