Once the frenzy of Christmas shopping and all the returns have finished, stores and most of society turn away from Christmas to the next big thing. But the Christmas season in the church calendar goes on for a couple of weeks. In this time after Christmas, it seems especially important to look at what else happened in Jesus’ life shortly after his birth. Matthew’s account of the flight to Egypt cites three prophecies that especially deserve attention.
Matthew 2 tells of the visit of the Magi and Herod’s violent response to the birth of Jesus. It adds more to what it said in the first chapter about the heroic faith of Joseph. And, of course, it also reminds us that nothing can ever thwart God’s purpose or take him by surprise. Not only does he know everything before in happens, but prophets may have already spoken of it.
The flight to Egypt
Joseph and Mary knew very well that their son would be the promised Messiah, the savior. They surely knew of Micah’s prophecy that the promised ruler would come out of Bethlehem. They also knew that they didn’t want to return to all the gossips in Nazareth.
So it was that the Magi found the holy family living in a house in Bethlehem. Joseph had probably opened a shop there and possibly anticipated that Jesus would eventually reveal himself from there.
Then came the dream.
After the Magi departed, God appeared to Joseph in a dream—suddenly, it says––and told him to take his family to Egypt. Joseph must have left quickly, because Herod’s troops arrived very soon and very suddenly and killed all the boys two years old or younger that they could find.
Matthew 2 quotes Hosea 11:1: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (HCSB). Hosea, in turn, refers back to Exodus 4:22, where Moses passed on the word of the Lord to Pharaoh declaring that Israel was God’s firstborn son.
Very often, prophetic utterances have more than one fulfillment. Where Moses and Hosea see the nation of Israel as God’s son called out of Egypt, Matthew noticed that Jesus had likewise been sent to Egypt and then called back out.
Herod thought he could thwart an ancient prophecy by resorting to mass murder. The devil’s tools never learn, do they?
Matthew devotes as much space to quoting Jeremiah 31:15 as he does to describing Herod’s atrocity:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
a lament with bitter weeping—
Rachel weeping for her children,
refusing to be comforted for her children
because they are no more.
In Jeremiah, the verse comes in the midst of a promise that God’s people will return after the Babylonian captivity. Rachel, of course, was the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. She died and was buried in Ramah, near Bethlehem, which was in the territory assigned to the tribe of Judah in Joshua’s time. The tribe of Benjamin was a neighbor and close ally of Judah.
So Judah, while not technically one of Rachel’s children, had long been Rachel’s closest neighbor. Well might she lament both the captivity of Judah/Benjamin and the massacre of the babies in Bethlehem.
In Jeremiah, however, the promise that her lament would turn to joy explicitly mentions her grandson Ephraim returning from his exile. And that hasn’t happened yet. Jeremiah’s prophecy has seen two of at least three fulfillments.
Matthew 2 doesn’t say how long Joseph and his family stayed in Egypt or what they did there. But for the third time in Matthew, an angel of the Lord appeared––suddenly––in a dream. Each time, Joseph had to lay aside whatever he was planning in order to obey God.
Herod had died and split his territory between two sons, Archelaus and Antipas. Both were wicked and corrupt rulers. Archelaus, who ruled Judea, had inherited his father’s cruel streak. Antipas had not.
Return to Nazareth
So Joseph returned to Israel, heard about Archelaus being in charge and was afraid to go back to Bethlehem. He had a fourth dream, but Matthew doesn’t use the word “suddenly” to describe it. Perhaps because Joseph had no plans to abandon?
God sent him to Galilee, where Antipas’ less violent rule presented no immediate danger. But of all the towns and villages in Galilee, why did God send him back to Nazareth, the last place he wanted to go?
Matthew says it was “to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets that he will be called a Nazarene.” And not a single passage in the Old Testament says any such thing!
Seventeenth-century scholar John Lightfoot wrote an important commentary on the New Testament based on the Talmud and other Jewish sources. He points out that Matthew didn’t cite any one prophet but all of them. And one thing they all agreed on was the lowly outward conditions the Messiah would live in. The servant songs in Isaiah, especially the last, express that thought with stark clarity.
Isaiah 11:1 says, “a shoot will grow from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.” “Branch” translates the Hebrew netzer. Lightfoot (although not the later sources I looked at) finds netzer at the root of both Nazirite (separated) and Nazarene.
If the Nazirites were separated to God for holiness, Lightfoot suggests, Nazarenes were separated from other people for general unworthiness. As Nathanael asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).
So Joseph in Matthew 2 followed the same pattern of instant obedience he showed when we first met him. And God’s prophets had described the early events of Jesus’ life long before, even including a subtle hint of the village where he would grow up.