The Great Escape
Matthew 2:13 – 23
The Great Escape
The flight to Egypt
This morning, we’re find ourselves in this second part of chapter 2. We looked at the first half last week, and so just read those verses to set the context. Our task today is to get a handle on this section that we’ve called “The great escape”, or what it often used to be called, “the Flight to Egypt”.
I heard once of a Sunday School class who were studying this as part of their lesson one day, and the teacher said to the children, “Now I want you to draw a picture of “the flight to Egypt”.
One little boy proudly hands up his drawing at the end of the class, and, you guessed it, there’s Joseph, and Jesus, and Mary, sitting in an aeroplane, on their flight to Egypt.
But the teacher points to the person whom the little boy has drawn in the cockpit of the plane, and asks, “Who’s this?” And somewhat disdainfully, as if it ought to have been perfectly obvious, with a roll of his eyes, the little boy explains, “that’s Pontius, the Pilot”!
What are we to make of this account of the flight to Egypt, or, “the great escape”?
The Great Escape – a play in three acts
You would have noticed as we read through, that the story in verse 13 to 23 falls neatly into 3 sections;
A play in 3 acts we could call it,
Act 1 – Jesus Escapes
The story opens with the departure of the Magi back to the East, never to be heard from again, which means that King Herod has been thwarted in his plan, to kill the baby Jesus.
Verse 13, when they had gone an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
We’re only one and a half chapters in to Matthew’s gospel, and this is already the 3rd time that Matthew describes for us, God giving someone a message about how his plans are going to unfold.
And it happens twice more before we finish this chapter.
Very clearly, Matthew wants us to understand that God himself is driving these events.
When there’s a murderous tyrant on the loose, it can look like God’s lost control can’t it?
Many many Australians felt exactly that this week.
But right up front, it’s clear, that God is at work, bringing his plans and purposes to the ends that he seeks.
Herod’s not in control here, don’t think that for a minute!
Even when it looks like the terrorists hold all the cards, Matthew reminds us, “look, you can’t escape the fact that God is over-ruling in this situation.”
That’s a good reminder for living in a world when it often looks like God’s not in control, isn’t it?
Notice also there’s a corrective here, to the error that some Christians have fallen into throughout history, of making the Christmas story primarily a story about Mary.
This even works itself out in Christian art. There are countless famous paintings, in which the baby Jesus is actually painted as pointing to Mary, as if she’s the key character in the story!
There’s no room for that here,
Take the child, and his mother.
Verse 14, the child, and his mother.
Again in verse 20,
And again in verse 21.
Mary is not the central figure in God’s plans for reconciling the world to himself.
As is the case all through Matthew’s gospel, our attention is drawn to Jesus.
It is for his sake, that this mid-night flight happens.
Herod sees in Jesus’ kingship, a claim to the throne that he holds.
So Joseph got up, verse 14, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt.
It’s interesting that Joseph’s response to this command from God, is described in almost the exact same words, as the command itself. The angel said, Get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt.
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night, and left for Egypt
Joseph is obedient, if you like, to the letter.
This is the most attention Joseph gets in the whole of the book of Matthew. After this we never hear of him again.
He’s described earlier as being faithful, or righteous, and so the over-riding impression we have of Joseph, is that God’s faithful, righteous person, lives that out, in obedience to God’s commands.
What does God’s man look like?
God’s person is obedient.
Joseph flees with his family for Egypt. They left, probably that very night.
God’s people fleeing to Egypt was nothing new. Even though it was the land where God’s people had been enslaved, since that time, Egypt was seen as a place of refuge, and there are some examples printed on your outline, if you want to look them up later.
1 Kings 11:40, 2 Kings 25:26, Zechariah 10:10)
Act 2 – Herod Responds
In Act 2, verse 16 to 18, we hear of the paranoid Herod’s genocidal response to being tricked by the Magi. Last week we heard Herod saying “when you find Jesus, tell me, so that I may go and worship him too”
But God had warned them not to go back to Herod,
So they took the scenic route home instead, and Herod is sitting there in his palace, twiddling his thumbs, impatiently waiting for them to return.
Verse 16, When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem
Herod clearly doesn’t know that Jesus has slipped his grasp, but he doesn’t know where in Bethlehem Jesus is.
So instead of killing one baby, which was his original intention, actually the word Matthew uses to describe what Herod wants to do is destroy, he wants to destroy the child, now his scheme has to be expanded.
Herod orders the destruction of every male child in Bethlehem, 2 years and under, allowing for when the Magi told him that Jesus was born.
Throughout history this has been called “the slaughter of the innocents”, and I have to tell you, on Monday as I was preparing, with the TV in my office constantly updating with news from Martin Place in Sydney, I was desperately praying, that this term I was reading so much in my preparation, “the slaughter of the innocents”, wasn’t going to play out again, before my eyes.
And thankfully it didn’t play out particularly in that case, but of course, we did see 141 children massacred in Pakistan this week,
And reports are emerging of a massacre and kidnapping of hunreds of children in Nigeria in recent days.
We’re somewhat familiar with paranoid maniacs with murderous tempers.
By this point in history Herod had already killed his wife, and within probably a few months of this incident, he’d kill three of his sons,
all to shore up his position as king.
Leading up to his own death, he left instructions in his will, that when he died, one member from every family in Israel was to be killed, so that there would be universal mourning, to accompany his death.
This here in Matthew 2 is entirely in keeping with what we would we expect from Herod.
Bethlehem’s population was probably less than a thousand people;, boys under 2; most likely 20, 30 at the most.
Herod wouldn’t have batted an eyelid.
As one scholar described, almost with a sigh, I think, this “was a minor incident, in a period full of atrocities”
But where was God, in the midst of such a terrible atrocity?
It’s a question I heard asked numerous times this week;
Martin Place, Pakistan, Nigeria.
Where was God?
And what we see in the Bible, is that the experience of God’s people particularly, is a story of opposition and bloodshed. Human resentment and fury, poured out on those whom God has made his own. A Jewish rabbi said to me just a couple of weeks ago, “the entire history of our people” he said, “Can be summed like this:,
They tried to kill us,
Well Matthew has less to say about the “let’s eat” bit, but what he does want us to take away, is that even when humanity’s opposition to God, spills over into opposition to God’s people,
No matter how violent that opposition might be, still God faithfully and steadfastly works towards his plans for blessing and relationship.
Where was God?
God was weeping at human sin and rebellion, and working at his plan to wipe sin from the earth.
That’s Act 2.
Act 3 – Jesus’ returns
The third act, in verses 19 to 23, pictures Jesus’ return to the land of Israel.
Once again God speaks, After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
A little irony there.
Herod wanted Jesus dead.
Jesus is very much alive, because God is very much in control,
But Herod is the one who’s dead.
Verse 19 is very similar to verse 13, and they’re both slightly unusual in that Matthew uses the present tense. An angel of the lord appears, he says.
It’s a grammatical thing called the historic present; talking about something in the past, as if it’s happening now.
Some of us, are old enough to remember an Australian TV character named Kylie Mole! Teenage Kylie Mole introduced us to the term “bogan”, but more significantly, she used the “historic present” all the time; Her catch phrase was, you remember, “she goes, she goes, she just goes.”
It’s a way of emphasising your point;, making it sound like the thing is happening right here in front of you!
If you’re over 30, imagine Kylie Mole, describing this:
The angel appears,
He just appears!
I’m sorry! But do you feel Matthew’s vivid excitement? An angel of the Lord appears!
And we know where Joseph and Jesus and Mary are, but Matthew tells us anyway!
The angel appears, in Egypt.
God is everywhere
Egypt wasn’t the land where God had promised to dwell with his people,
It wasn’t in Egypt, where God had had a temple built, so the nation could know his presence.
Egypt was a foreign land,
And yet, God’s power,
Extend even to Egypt.
No wonder Matthew , he just appears!
There is nowhere, outside of God’s sovereign control.
Matthew doesn’t tell us that the angel appeared in Egypt because he thinks we’re stupid and that we might have forgotten that’s where Jesus and his family are.
But he does think maybe we need to be reminded, that there isn’t a square inch of the earth, where God is not present,
Where God does not see,
Where God is not able to drive his plans and purposes forward.
You might remember back in 2008 that Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester in the UK, wrote that Islamic extremists had created “no-go areas” in some parts of Britain, where it was too dangerous, impossible, for non-muslims to enter.
“no-go areas”, “off-limits”,
Well not to God.
If God can be with his people in the pagan land of Egypt,
He’s sovereign over those parts of Britain where many of us couldn’t safely go.
If God can be present with his people in Egypt,
He can be with his people in a Sydney café,
He can be working his purposes out in Littlehampton, and Mount Barker, and Nairne,
On the South Coast,
He is present with the child, the only Christian in his family, whose parents punish him for reading his Bible, by banning him going to church or youth group,
God is present in the home of the young Christian mum, whose husband has no interest in her faith, and despite the aching feeling of loneliness that brings, she can know that God is in that situation with her, brining his plans and purposes to their fulfilment.
Even there, God can be at his work.
Joseph obeys, again in exact terms, verse 23,
and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth.
The Great Escape, a play in 3 acts.
The great escape fulfils Old Testament Scripture
Except, we skipped some bits, didn’t we?!
We read the story, the action, but Matthew doesn’t just give us the story, does he?
He doesn’t just describe the action, and leave it to us, to try and interpret the action,
Or figure out what the events mean.
No, as we find throughout the Bible, we’re not just presented with events, but we’re given the correct interpretation of the events,
We’re told what the events mean.
And I’m sure you noticed, each of the 3 acts in the story, concludes, with an Old Testament quotation or reference.
The Old Testament of course, for Matthew and his readers, was their Scripture
It was God’s Word,
It was how God spoke to them,
Not only, how God had spoken in the past,
But they believed that God spoke to them in their day, through the written Scriptures, much like today, Christians believe that God speaks to us, in our situation, through the whole Bible.
So Matthew draws the curtain on each of the 3 acts in his account, with a quotation from their Holy Scriptures, and in each case, he makes the enormously provocative statement, that the events of this great escape, fulfilled what God had spoken centuries earlier.
That’s a big claim to make, isn’t it?
To claim that these events fulfil the words that God spoke through the prophets, is to say that what God did back then was incomplete.
To claim that these events, verse 15, fulfil what the Lord had said, is to say that God hadn’t finished his plans, with the close of the Old Testament era, and that now he begins to draw those purposes to their long-awaited conclusion.
Perhaps we who live in the New Testament era don’t find that quite as remarkable as Matthew’s original readers, but perhaps for us, what is most surprising, is that in these events that bring God’s plans to culmination, it looks like God is kind of ducking for cover, on the back foot.
Having to flee for your life doesn’t look like you’re setting the agenda.
“No,” Matthew says, each unfolding stage of this episode, happens according to God’s plan, and in fulfilment of promises that he had made.
The Old Testament words had a real meaning in their context
Now, that’s not to say that when God spoke those words originally,
Verse 15, Out of Egypt I called my son
And verse 18,
A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
It doesn’t mean that when God’s prophets spoke those words, that they were meaningless, or that they expressed some future hope that no one quite understood.
No, they were messages from God to his people, in reference to real events,
Out of Egypt I called my son comes from the prophet Hosea, chapter 11. And God is speaking about bringing the nation of Israel out of slavery in Egypt.
Verse 18 comes from chapter 31 of Jeremiah, another one of God’s prophets. His message from God was as message of mourning, remembering 10 northern tribes of Israel, who were wiped out by the Assyrians.
The loss of children there, pictures them being carried away into dispersion and exile, and perishing as the invading armies raged across the land.
So when God’s prophets spoke these words, they were speaking about real situations.
And yet Matthew says, those words are fulfilled, here.
The Old Testament words are incomplete without their fulfilment in Jesus
See what Matthew wants us to understand, is that in the New Testament, God deliberately repeats events from history,
Even sovereignly over-rules over sin and rebellion like Herod’s, to highlight the various themes of the Old Testament, and show how they all find their climax in Jesus.
All the countless ways that God has spoken,
And whatever else! throughout Old Testament history,
None of those things stand alone,
None of them gives us a full picture of God’s character and his action,
All of them are part of a plan for relationship and blessing that converges, on the person of Jesus Christ.
Each endeavour of God in the Old Testament,
Each Word spoken by his prophets,
Every mighty act of deliverance,
Is a piece of the puzzle,
But the finished puzzle, the complete picture, is Jesus.
Is any individual piece of the puzzle a legitimate piece? Yes!
But to really understand it, and to really see it, you have to see it when it takes its place in the completed whole picture.
As I’ve been driving down the South Coast church plant each Sunday night this year, if my kids are in the car, we play what we call “the Bible game”, which is like 20 Questions, but it’s all about things from the Bible; people, animals, places. We’ve even branched into foods, and smells, from the Bible.
And, naturally, if you’re trying to guess, what character or event from the Bible the other person is thinking of, one of your first questions is, “Is it in the New Testament, or the Old Testament?”
Now this is somewhat complicated if I’m playing it with my 3 year old or my 5 year old, because despite my best efforts, they’re not always entirely clear on the major divisions of God’s Word!,
But it’s also complicated because of exactly what Matthew shows us here:
There is a correspondence, between Old Testament events and characters, and events and characters in the New Testament.
It might seem to us, strange, even wrong, to quote Hosea 11:1, where God speaks of bringing Israel out of Egypt in 1500 BC, and say this is fulfilled by Jesus fleeing to Egypt as a baby.
Or to say the weeping in Bethlehem, fulfils the mourning of the Assyrian invasion 722 BC.
But Matthew is saying, “See the big picture of how God works.”
He wants us to unstained that Jesus fulfils not just the specific promises, the prophecies, if you like, of the Old Testament;
Jesus is also the fulfilment, entire direction of the Old Testament.
There are, specific threads in what God had spoken previously, that line up particularly to Jesus.
But more broadly, we see here, the whole fabric of God’s Old Testament revelation points us to Jesus.
The prophecy that isn’t shows Jesus’ fulfilment of God’s purposes
And perhaps the clearest example of this, is at the very end, verse 23, he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
It sounds fair enough,
Except, nowhere in the Old Testament, did God promise that his king, the Christ, would come from Nazareth.
The town isn’t even mentioned in the Old Testament, in other Jewish writings, in the records of the historians, until this moment in time.
Nazareth was a hick town in the middle of nowhere.
Nazareth was the town on the road to Melbourne, where you stop to clean the bugs off your windscreen.
I grew up at Longwood just up here. And as I’ve got older, I’ve discovered that’s how people think of Longwood!
Except the Longwood people thought that about Bradbury just up the road!
Everyone’s got their Nazareth, haven’t they? Even the Bradbury people can point to somewhere else!
See Matthew’s not referring to a specific Old Testament passage that is fulfilled here, but to the unmistakable undercurrent of God’s plans, that his king would be, would appear for all intents and purposes, to be a nobody.
The prophets definitely spoke of someone who would be despised.
They definitely spoke of one who would be rejected, thought of as nothing.
They definitely spoke of a king from lowly birth, meagre circumstances.
The point of these words of fulfilment that punctuate this episode, is that just as God has worked for his people in the past,
So in these events, he is working for his people.
But this work, the work that centres on the person of Jesus is greater;,
It’s not just another one of God’s acts, but the fulfilment of what has come before.
Of course, that means that if we want to grasp more deeply the significance, the achievements of Jesus’ ministry, we will want to make sure that we have a good understanding of the Old Testament, of how God acted in those days of promise, in order to prepare people for the days of fulfilment.
In these last couple of weeks, I’ve been re-writing some of “God, Church & Me”, which is a course we run to help people find their place in our church community.
One of the questions we wrestle with as we look at the Scriptures together, is “What would be lacking in our understanding of Jesus, if we didn’t have the Old Testament?”
It’s a question that always generates lots of discussion, and it’s a good question for Christian people to grapple with, because it’s easy for us to content ourselves, with what we might honestly call a shallow level of understanding, I’m not saying a wrong understanding, but God’s laid before us, in the Scriptures, the grand fabric of his plans and purposes, and we rightly rejoice in its fulfilment.
But I do wonder, how much more we might rejoice, could rejoice,
How different our response to God’s grace might be, if we better understood the fulfilment, in all the richness of God’s preceding action?
Now, you might have come here today, you’re not a Christian, but you figure this might be a good place to come and find out, who Jesus is.
And it might sound like I’ve just told you, you’ve got no hope of figuring out who Jesus is, unless you first understand all 960 pages of the Old Testament, before you even get to Jesus!
That’s not what I’m saying!
If you want to find out who Jesus is, you are in exactly the right place. And this story is a great place to begin.
Read Matthew 2,
Read Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life.
Grab someone, the person you came with today, and say, “read this with me. I want to know who Jesus is!”
But do this for me, when you find the answer to your question, When God makes it clear to you, who Jesus is,
How he is the centrepiece of all of God’s plans for creation,
And how the very heart of God’s plan, is for Jesus to die, in your place, for your sin and rebellion against God, as polite as it probably is,
When you find your answer, don’t stop reading.
Jesus is presented as a new Moses
So let’s look at 2 particular implications of this Old Testament fulfilment that Matthew highlights.
The first one is that Matthew presents Jesus as a new Moses.
You might know something of the story of Moses.
At the time that he’s born, the king orders all the Israelite babies killed,
Moses’ mother hides him, and sends him out, as it happens, into the royal household of Egypt, in order to save his life.
But there are other ancient Jewish stories which Matthew’s original readers would have been familiar with, that include an account of the king being warned, by magicians, that a new leader for Israel, a deliverer, has been born.
And the king paranoid for, orders all the baby boys murdered.
Knowing that background, Matthew’s audience would hear this account, and immediately understand that Jesus is being held up as a new Moses.
A new leader for God’s people.
In fact Moses himself had prophesied, by the Holy Spirit, that one day God would raise up a prophet like himself, to lead his people.
Well, what’s Matthew saying?
It’s not an exact copy of Moses’ life and ministry, is it?
As Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life goes on, we see that Jesus is so much greater than Moses.
Also, the particular threat Moses’ life faded when God called the nation of Israel out of Egypt, But of course the threat to Jesus’ life continued throughout his ministry,
This wasn’t the only time he escaped an attempt on his life.
And in fact, later on, when the leaders of Israel are plotting to kill Jesus, Matthew describes their actions, time and time again, with very same word he reports for Herod, literally, his wish to destroy Jesus.
Who is Jesus?
He’s the new leader for God’s people!
He’s the prophet God promised, to lead, and guide, and gather, and deliver, speak God’s word.
All those things that Moses did for God’s people Israel, Jesus does, but infinitely greater, and with eternal benefit.
Jesus is presented as a new Israel
But Jesus is presented, not just as a new Moses, a new leader of Israel, he’s pictured as the new Israel itself.
God called the nation of Israel his son. That’s the quote from Hosea in verse 15.
But if those words can be said of Jesus, then Jesus kind of fulfils Israel.
If you were with us 2 weeks ago, you might remember that we talked about Israel as having a purpose in God’s plans, a purpose of making known the blessings of living in relationship with God. “God’s display home” we called them.
But we also saw that Israel repeatedly failed to live up to that role.
They failed in that role of demonstrating, “look what it’s like to live in the environment God creates.”
But God never wavered in his plan, and here, with Jesus as the new Israel, we see just how that plan of God, that people would enjoy blessing and relationship, might come about.
And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.
This is the first of a number of occasions in Matthew’s gospel, where he presents Jesus as fulfilling the role of Israel.
What God could speak in the Old Testament about Israel, in terms of his desires and plans for that nation as his instrument, those words are applicable also to Jesus, the son of God, the new Israel.
The one who is everything Israel could not be,
Who stands where Israel falls,
Who achieves for all the world, what Israel could not.
Here is the new Israel, through whom God’s blessings will come to the world.
Just as God brought Israel out of Egypt to enter into a covenant relationship with them in the days of the Old Testament,
Now God brings his Son out of Egypt, to put into place a new covenant, a new kind of relationship.
And this new covenant, yes, in some ways it starts with Jesus’ birth, the flight to Egypt, and eventual return, but this new covenant actually comes into effect through Jesus’ death.
See Jesus is just a small child, yet our eyes are already cast forward, unmistakably, to his impending death.
We cannot read these words of God bringing to fulfilment his eternal plans for blessing and relationship, without falling under the shadow of Jesus execution.
That little Sunday school boy, “here’s Pontius the Pilate”, featuring in the Christmas story.
He wasn’t, so, far, off, was he?