I remember when I was about five or six years old, my father reading stories to me. He used to read all the great children’s stories: Jack and the Bean-stalk, Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty. However, the one I will always remember the best is his reading of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Only, in Dad’s version it was called something different: Goldilocks and the Three Aardvarks. What Dad would do, and this would send us screaming in laughter all over the room, is that he would read the story with many details changed. We knew the story very well indeed, such that any details that were changed would be sure to be noticed. In the story Cinderella, when the prince asks Cinderella if she will dance with him, she says, “No.” But in Goldilocks, the bears would say things like, “Who’s been eating my…golf ball,” or “Who’s been sleeping on my…sofa?” Of course, the meaning of the new words had nothing to do with the old correct words. But if someone were to say things like that, the immediate reaction would be to correct the change into the original. This was one way my father had fun with us.
Matthew does a similar thing in our passage tonight. Matthew’s readers were Jews. They knew the Old Testament backwards, forwards, upside-down, diagonal, any way you like. So when Matthew retells the story, with certain details changed, the Jews reading this story would instantly know what Matthew was talking about. That happens three times in our story tonight.
The first time is when Joseph is forced to flee to Egypt with the child and his mother. Now, the background to this story is that an early Jewish writer Celsus, was saying that Jesus went down to Egypt to learn magical arts like star-gazing, palm-reading, and sorcery. So Matthew has to correct that impression by saying that, yes, Jesus did go down into Egypt, but it was as a baby, not an adult. There is some background.
An angel tells Joseph to flee the country, because Herod is going to try to kill the child. This happens in a dream (my, what a lot of dreams there are in these chapters!). Joseph’s response is of instant, complete faith. He takes the child and his mother and goes. The early church father Chrysostom says this, “Joseph, when he had heard (these order to flee), was not offended, neither did he say, ‘The thing is hard to understand: did you not say just now that He would “save his people?” and now He saves not even Himself, but we must fly, and go far from home, and be a long time away: the facts are contrary to the promise…’” That is what Joseph did not say.
Joseph responded in faith. Now, the application will come later. But we are not to get out of this that God will reveal to us in a dream what we are to do, and therefore we are to do it. God does not reveal anything to us these days apart from what is in the Bible and the Holy Spirit working through the Bible. We do not receive special revelation anymore. The Bible is a finished work.
But Joseph is not the first Joseph to go down to Egypt because of the hate of one of his brothers. Joseph in the Old Testament also had to go down to Egypt. But the situation is a little different this time. Matthew uses irony. Instead of saying that the Exodus was going to happen from Egypt again (Israel coming out of Egypt again), instead Matthew says that the Exodus happens out of Judea. You see, there is a new Pharaoh who wants to kill the baby Jesus. In the old Exodus, the Pharaoh of Egypt had been warned by some of his underlings (according to Jewish writers), that a child would be born to the Israelites who would be a threat to his kingdom. That is why pharaoh has all the male children killed, or tries to have the male children killed. The tactic does not work. God thwarts Pharaoh’s plan, just like He thwarts Herod’s plan. Joseph has already escaped from his clutches, just like Israel escapes the clutches of Pharaoh in the Exodus from Egypt. Herod is a new Pharaoh, who is just as powerless against God as the old Pharaoh was. That is why Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1 here. Jews who know the Old Testament story would immediately know that Hosea was talking about Israel. How in the world, then, can Matthew all of a sudden, bring up Israel’s Exodus at this time? What relevance does it have to Matthew’s story? It has everything to do with Matthew’s story. The fact is that Jesus is the new Israel. We could say that the old Israel was called out of Egypt by God, but then turned disobedient. Now, the new Israel, Jesus Christ, will again be called out of Egypt, only this time, the Son will be obedient.
This brings us to an important point in our study of Scripture. The Old Testament is often a mystery to us. Especially those bothersome laws in Leviticus, and all the genealogies in Genesis and Chronicles. What does that have to do with my every-day life? Well, the Old Testament is all about Jesus Christ. It points to Jesus Christ in so many ways. The way that Matthew sees here is called the “type.” A type is a story, an idea, or a person, or an object that is a shadow of something more real to come later on. The word comes from the Greek “tupos.” In Romans 5, Adam is said to be a type of the one who is to come, namely, Jesu Christ. In Hebrews 11, Paul is talking about the sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham received him back from the dead, as it were. Isaac was as good as dead, when the angel stopped Abraham from killing his son. When Abraham received Isaac back from the dead, that was a type of Jesus’ resurrection. The New Testament sees many things in the Old Testament as “types” or “shadows” of the reality that is now here in Christ Jesus. The New Testament doesn’t always spell it out for us like it did in those two examples. We should look for them all over the Old Testament. We are not reading out Bibles properly, if we are not seeing Christ all over the place. In creation we should see Christ there along with the Father; in the Flood we should see Christ coming to judge the world; in Noah we should see Christ bringing rest to the world, peace with the Father; in the Exodus, we should see a greater Exodus that brings us out of our Egypt of sin; in the manna we should see Christ’s body; in the water that comes from the rock we should see the water that comes from Christ’s body on the cross; in the Rock that followed the people Israel we should see Christ Himself, and the list goes on and on. This is what I preach from the Old Testament. I preach Christ. I preach Christ in all the types which look forward to Christ. But all of us, when we read the Old Testament, we should look for Christ in the Old Testament as if it were a treasure hunt. Now, not everything will point directly to Christ. Sometimes, something will merely contribute to the story that eventually ends up at the story of Christ.
But the entire Old Testament has a direction arrow. That arrow points to Christ. It is like a road sign directing us how to get to our destination. The destination is Christ. That is what is happening here in Matthew. He sees the Old Testament as being fulfilled in Jesus Christ. That is why he says all the time, “This took place to fulfill what the prophet said…” Matthew sees in the Exodus a type of Jesus Christ coming back out of Egypt. Jesus relives Israel’s story. He does what Israel did, except this time, there was no sin. That is the first time Matthew changes the story that the Israelites already know. So the Old Testament is relevant to us because it points to Christ. And if we believe in Christ, then we are in Christ. Therefore, the Old Testament is telling us our story through Christ. That is how Leviticus and Chronicles is relevant to us. It is our story.
The second time is when Herod kills all the male children of Bethlehem, hoping to kill Jesus in the process. Herod does not know that the child has already fled the country. Herod was still waiting for the wise men to return. After a few days, expecting them to find the child immediately and then report back (a matter of a week at most, since Bethlehem was so close to Jerusalem), Herod finds out the wise men outfoxed him. Really, of course, God outfoxed him. Herod therefore reacts in the exact opposite way to the wise men. The wise men were overcome with great joy when they found Jesus. Herod reacts with great anger when he does not discover Jesus. So, he sends a decree saying that all the male children two and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding area will be killed. He gives himself some geographical and temporal assurance that Jesus will be one of those children killed. It says that Bethlehem and the surrounding area are Herod’s target. That is just in case Joseph does not live within the city limits of Bethlehem. Two years and under gives Herod plenty of leeway with regard to Jesus’ age as well. But Herod did not take into account God’s providence. God knew the enemy very well. In fact, God knew Herod’s every thought. So Herod’s precautions come to nothing. Herod does exactly what the Pharaoh had done before him. The Pharaoh tried to have all the male children born to Israel killed lest the people become too great and numerous. Probably Pharaoh killed only males, because it was the males who would wind up wielding swords. Pharaoh is then a type of Herod. But this is all coming from the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. Pharaoh and Herod are the seed of the serpent. The seed of the serpent has always tried to kill of the seed of the woman. But God has always prevented that from happening. There is still a price to be paid, however. All the male children of Bethlehem die. We might ask why God allowed this to happen? Why does God allow evil things to happen? Well, these are the first martyrs for the Christian faith. Matthew Henry says that these children lost nothing on earth that they have regained in full in heaven. God is very merciful. Now, the number of children here could not have been large. Bethlehem at this time had between 600 and 1000 people in it. So, the number of infant boys is not usually estimated to be more than 30. Certainly it cannot have been 144,000, a number that some people have picked out of context in the book of Revelation. Those people in Revelation are those who have not defiled themselves with women. As one author wrote, “That is a safe attribute indeed to ascribe to children who are only two years old.” So the number could not have been 144,000.
Then comes the second of Matthew’s fulfillment passages, this time coming from Jeremiah. Ramah was the place where Rachel was buried. This is a passage of remarkable power, since the Rachel that was dead, the matriarch of Israel who married Jacob is said to weep for her descendents who are in exile. Matthew sees Rachel’s tears as the type of the tears that the mothers in Bethlehem shed for their lost sons. In Jeremiah, the sons are no more because they are in exile. Here in Matthew, they are no more because they are dead. But when Matthew quoted this passage, Jewish readers who knew their Bibles would also know that this verse comes immediately before the promise of the new covenant and the promise that Israel will return from exile. Matthew then is saying here that Israel has now returned from exile. In Christ’s fulfillment of the Exodus in being the new Israel coming out of Egypt, Jesus will also bring his people back from exile. That is the second way that Matthew retells Israel’s story.
The third example comes when Joseph, Mary, and Jesus go back to Israel. The angel of the Lord appears again to Joseph in a dream, telling him the danger is over and that they can go back. The angel says that “those who sought the child’s life are dead.” This echoes the Exodus story yet again. Moses is in Midian with his father-in-law Jethro. Moses asks Jethro permission to go back to Egypt. Jethro gives it, and the Lord tells Moses that all those who sought to kill Moses (because Moses killed the Egyptian) are dead. Even in this angel’s statement in Matthew, we have fulfillment of the Old Testament type: Jesus is the new Moses, the new law-giver. We will see that especially clearly when Jesus gives a second Sermon on the Mount (Moses got the first one on Mount Sinai). But when Joseph gets to Israel, he finds out that Archelaus, Herod’s reckless and murderous son, is on the throne. So Joseph goes to Galilee instead of going back to Bethlehem. Joseph feared that Archelaus would continue the search for the child’s life. Joseph is warned yet again in a dream, and so goes to Galilee. Galilee is a place where Gentiles live. Matthew might be trying to tell us something about how the Jews rejected Christ, and so Christ went to the Gentiles. Joseph winds up in Nazareth. Nazareth is a nothing-town. We could translate it “Podunk-town.” Remember what Nathanael says about Nazareth: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” What is doing is answering the question, “ How can Jesus be the Messiah, if He comes form the town Nazareth?” It is not even mentioned in the Old Testament. That is why Matthew’s last quotation here has always been something of a puzzle. Nowhere in the Old Testament do we find the statement, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” Notice first of all that Matthew says that this is what the prophets plural say. This indicates that we are not look for one particular quotation, but rather that what the prophets say in general goes in this direction. Second, we need to know that Matthew is executing a very elaborate word-play. First, take the consonants n-z-r. In Hebrew (remember that Matthew’s readers were Jews who knew their Old Testaments), the word nazir means “holy.” We might point to a passage like in 1 Samuel talking about Samson that he would be a Nazirite. Now, Jesus was not Nazirite, because a Nazirite had to abstain from drink and from touching dead bodies, both of which Jesus did not do. However, the point of the Nazirite was that he was holy to the Lord. The next part of the pun is that the vowels that Matthew chose to put in this word “nazarene” are actually the vowels of the word “qadosh,” a Hebrew word meaning “holy.” The third part of the pun is that “nezer” means “branch” in Hebrew. So, in Isaiah 11:1, when a righteous “branch” is promised, that refers to Jesus. So that is what Matthew is doing: a very elaborate word-play.
In all these ways, then, Matthew tells us that Jesus fulfills Israel’s story. If in chapter one, Jesus is the culmination of Israel’s history, in chapter two Jesus repeats Israel’s history. In chapter one, Jesus is portrayed as God to his people, and in chapter two, Jesus is the representative people of God. In chapter one, Matthew writes the story of the new Genesis, and in chapter two, writes the story of the new Exodus. Matthew is saying, “Look! The New Israel!” Of course, Jesus is also reliving the story of Adam of Eve, and therefore of humanity as a whole. Adam is exiled from the garden, and Jesus goes into exile in order to bring His people back from exile. Notice that the three place names in chapter two invoke the major events of Israel’s history: Bethlehem is David’s city, and tells us of when Israel got a king after God’s own heart; Egypt invokes the Exodus, of course; and Ramah invokes the Exile. Jesus is the new Israel.
So how are we going to react to Jesus? Will it be with joy unspeakable, like the magi? Or will we react with anger, like Herod? These are the two extremes, of course. Most of us will react somewhere in the middle between these two. But Matthew calls us to the reaction of the wise men, that of extreme joy. You see, this is Israel’s story told the right way, not like Goldilocks and the Three Aardvarks, but like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Jesus is the anti-type, to which Israel is the type. Israel points to Christ. Christ is the true story. Matthew is telling us here that the Israel story is the one that got garbled. Israel sinned, and so did we. Jesus’ story is also Adam’s story told the right way. We sinned in Adam. Israel sinned. But Christ did not sin. He is Israel’s story as it should have been. He is Adam’s story as it should have been. If we want to be part of that story, then we need to believe that Jesus is telling it properly through Matthew, and through the rest of the New Testament. That will bring us the joy of the wise men. We need to read our Bibles properly, seeing Christ as the whole point of the story.
Sometimes, though, we react poorly to Christ. “Do I have to hear the Gospel again? I want to hear something different. I want to go deeper.” The problem with this is that the truly deep things in the Bible are the same Gospel. The deep things are understanding the Gospel better, not going deeper than the Gospel. So we need to be careful in our reading of the Scripture that we do not lose sight of Jesus Christ. It is Jesus to whom all the Scripture point. In Him the Bible has its meaning.