Matthew describes the dangerous threat against the newborn Messiah. In pointing you to the deliverance God provided, however, he has much more in view than simply protecting a baby from a murderous king, as you see in Matthew 2:13–15.
You have a problem. The life of the infant King is threatened. Herod is a wicked king who tolerates no possible threats to his throne. So, when the Magi appear in Jerusalem asking for the newborn King of the Jews, he sends them to Bethlehem, asking them to report back so that he can also worship the King. In the verses following our text you see just how ruthless he is. But God spares his Son, first by warning the Magi to return by a route that avoids Herod, and then by sending Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to Egypt. An angel speaks to Joseph in a dream, warning him to take Mary and the Child, and to flee to Egypt. Joseph obeyed, though we don’t know the details as to where in Egypt they found refuge, nor how long they spent there. It may be that the gifts the Magi had given provided the resources needed to survive this time. But Baby Jesus is not the only one threatened.
The nation of Israel is oppressed by a godless ruler. Matthew gives us a thin slice of Herod’s cruelty, Here is a self-centered, godless ruler. His murder of the boys in Bethlehem doesn’t even rise to the level of note even in histories written by those with no love for the king. Matthew is giving you a glimpse of the desperate situation of the nation into which the Messiah had been born. God’s people need more than a human king. The church today needs to be careful not to look for a political messiah. Not only does God spare his Son from Herod’s murderous grasp, but as Matthew 2 goes on to tell you, Herod dies. He met his Judge. The kingdom of darkness cannot conquer the new-born King, nor can it defeat his people. But it is not just the nation of Israel nor the infant Christ who are in danger.
You are endangered by the enslaving power of sin. Matthew is beginning to make the point that there is more dangerous ruler than Herod. You have a problem that cannot be solved by a brief exile in Egypt or even by the death of Herod. Christ did not come to remove Herod or his Roman overlords. He came to deal with a more basic problem—the enslaving power of sin and Satan. You need a deliverance greater than what any human conquering hero could provide.
You need Exodus–Part 2, the real Exodus. Egypt may seem like an ironic place of refuge. Egypt is where the Israelites had endured slavery centuries earlier. Egypt was where Pharaoh had ordered the midwives to murder infants at birth, and when that failed, ordered that the male babies be drowned in the Nile. Now Egypt becomes a refuge from baby-murdering Herod! Matthew quotes Hosea about Egypt. Some have wondered if Hosea and Matthew are on the same page. Hosea was a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah. He warned of the judgment God was going to bring on Israel at the hands of the Assyrians. Why does Matthew quote this passage? Over the centuries that interpreters have wrestled with this question, some have concluded that Hosea wrote 11:1 sort of blindly, writing a prophecy that Matthew would quote seven centuries later, but without much idea of what it meant. Others, perhaps in reaction, have suggested that Hosea focused on his contemporaneous situation, referring simply to the Assyria and Egypt of his day, and that Matthew picks up those words, but but uses them in a substantially different sense. But both positions fail to do justice to the fact that behind the writing of Hosea the prophet and behind Matthew writing his Gospel, God, the Holy Spirit, is the ultimate author. Matthew believes he is quoting Hosea appropriately—this is the third of five instances in the birth narratives in which Matthew specifically quotes Scripture and points to its fulfillment in Christ. As has been said, not only does Matthew understand the context of Hosea’s prophecy, but Hosea understands the context of his own prophecy. He might not have been able to see its fulfillment as clearly as Matthew did, or as you do, thanks to Matthew, but he was looking beyond his own day. So, look at the context.
God calls his true Son out of Egypt. As you look at the context in Hosea 11, the prophet, in the midst of pronouncing judgment, speaks of the mercy of God. Just as Hosea’s marriage to an unfaithful wife, whom he had redeemed from her slavery pictures God’s mercy to his people earlier in the book, so here Hosea comforts his hearers with the knowledge that even the exile is not God’s last word. He will bring his people back to himself even though Assyria has scattered them. How can you know that? Hosea points you to the grand redemptive event of the Old Testament—the Exodus from Egypt. Hosea 11:1 reminds you of Exodus 4:22–23. Israel was God’s firstborn son, and thus Pharaoh, no matter how he hardened his heart, would be unable to resist God. And God even hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that his redemptive power would be displayed, not just in the first nine plagues, but climatically in the Passover, when the blood of the lamb spared the sons of the Israelites as the firstborn son died in each Egyptian home. God led Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness, but you know how badly Israel failed to live as God’s son—making a golden calf to worship, grumbling, complaining, and wishing to go back to Egypt. God sends his true Son to Egypt, so that he could call him out of there. He would come out of Egypt, and the first thing he would do after his baptism marked the beginning of his public ministry, would be to go into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. But where Israel had failed, this Son would succeed. “Jesus goes to Egypt, the primeval place of God’s people’s enslavement and perennial sign of the need for deliverance caused by human sin, so that he may be called out from there to an exodus ordeal of wilderness testing, leading to salvation for sinners, not only in Israel but also in all nations.” (Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., in Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views, p. 108). Hosea by faith saw that coming day, though dimly. Matthew is correct in seeing Hosea as pointing to something that Christ fulfills.
God calls his Son our of Egypt to redeem you as his people. Egypt was also where God had shown his love to his people, calling Israel “his son.” Egypt was where God had raised up a mighty deliverer. Egypt was the setting for the plagues, displaying the redeeming power of God. Now Egypt has become the place where the God-man, the new-born Savior would flee, and from which he would come to deliver his people one day. The life of fellowship with God in which you live as God’s people rests on the Son coming out of Egypt. “The beginning of the Decalogue (‘I am the Lord, your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, the house of slavery’) comes to stand on a firm foundation when God the Father led our King Jesus out of Egypt” (Jakob van Bruggen, Matteüs: Het evangelie voor Israël, p. 54, quoted by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., in Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views, p. 108). The deliverance you experience in Christ is not just from harsh slavery in Egypt, but from the even more burdensome bondage to sin. It is accomplished by the Son humbling himself and truly becoming the Passover Lamb. You might have expected Matthew to quote Hosea 11:1 nearer the end of the chapter, as he describes the actual return from Egypt. But putting it were he does, he makes clear that God was sending his Son into Egypt for the purpose of bringing him out as your Redeemer. This new Exodus forms the new people of God, forgiven and righteous in Christ, the true Son of God. He is the one who enables you to live as God’s children. “Then also there is no doubt, but that God in his wonderful providence intended that his Son should come forth from Egypt, that he might be a redeemer to the faithful; and thus he shows that a true, real, and perfect deliverance was at length effected, when the promised Redeemer appeared. It was then the full nativity of the Church, when Christ came forth from Egypt to redeem his Church.” (John Calvin, Commentary on Hosea 11:1).
God deals with the problem of the threat against Jesus, and with the problem of blood-thirsty Herod. But he also deals with the deep problem of your sin and rebellion. What you cannot do for yourself, he does in his Son, whom he calls out of Egypt to be tempted in the desert, to suffer, and to be sacrificed for his people. Because Jesus is the true Son, death cannot hold him, and he rises to lead you in triumph to his Father.