The Voice in the Wilderness

If you lived in Florida right now, you would likely be preparing for the approach of Dorian. How doe you prepare when it is your God who is approaching? Matthew 3:1–12 shows the preparations need for the coming of the God-man, the Messiah.

Repent, because Christ baptizes with fire! Listen to the herald. John’s preaching heralded the coming of the Messiah. “In those days,” (v.1) may mean in those crucial times. Matthew, like the other Gospels, introduces Christ’s work by describing the message of John the Baptist, called that to distinguish him from other men named John, and because his ministry was defined in terms of the baptism he administered.. He is an important figure, but as a pointer, a fore-runner. The account of John the Baptist is found in the New Testament, but in many ways he is an Old Testament figure. The quote from Isaiah 40 identifies him as a herald. The desert location recalls the Exodus, and the salvation God had once brought to his people. John’s attire recalls Elijah, the great prophet who had once summoned God’s people to repent. He is preparing God’s people fo rthe coming one. This coming Messiah baptizes with fire. The people of Israel longed for the coming of the Messiah, but John warns them that his coming may be more than they expect. He will come as a judge, with his winnowing fork in his hand, ready to burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. John’s baptism is provisional. It signifies repentance and preparation for the Messiah. The Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. John may be echoing Joel 2:28ff. “John’s role is provisional and preparatory, his call to repentance is anticipatory (cf. v. 4; 7:27f.); therefore his ministry in its entirety is set under the sign of water baptism. In contrast, Jesus is the fulfillment; therefore his ministry taken as a whole consists in the reality of baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Perspectives on Pentecost, p. 15).

How do you prepare? Repent! Although the word “repent” was not uncommon in Greek, it usually just meant a change of mind (from good to evil just as much as from evil to good). John uses the term, but with a meaning gleaned from the Old Testament. He summons his hearers to a radical change of the direction of their entire lives. Matthew focuses your attention on the concept, as it introduces the preaching of John. Repentance demands more than observing the outward ceremonies of the Pharisees. It is not enough to be a descendant of Abraham. Repentance, of which John’s baptism was a sign, means a turning from sin to God. The term repent seems to have fallen out of wide use—but it is crucially important to your coming to Christ. John, as the advance party of the King, does not smooth the road, but speaks to the heart, calling people to prepare themselves by turning to God. “John the Baptist appears here as the herald of the King. He preaches the baptism of repentance unto the forgiveness of sins. Repentance is always a turning away from sin–especially the sin of trusting in oneself–in order to surrender to God’s grace. Hence repentance is by faith and unto faith.” (S. G. De Graaf, Promise and Deliverance, Vol. 3, p. 181).

Trust the powerful coming one. When you turn from sin, you turn to Christ. Be ready for his coming. We often focus on the birth of Christ, and that is appropriate. John’s desert preaching introduces the ministry, the life and work, of the Messiah. Notice that the prophecy in Isaiah speaks of the coming of the Lord. The one for whom John prepares is none other than the Lord , whose glory Isaiah had witnessed when he was called as a prophet. Matthew is continuing to show you who Jesus really is. John lived at a crucial point in history. He introduced the Messiah. Christ did come. But, if he has come, why do we still talk about his coming? Because his coming is in two parts. He has come, and he will come again.

Live as those baptized with the Holy Spirit. Rejoice that Christ did baptize with the Holy Spirit. John describes the life work, the ministry of Christ, in terms of baptisms. The baptism that John administered, while important as a sign of repentance, was with water. It represented something greater. Christ was to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John may well have expected both to happen at once. Actually, Christ has delayed the baptism with fire, so that the Spirit could be poured out on you, his people. Live as those under the influence of the Spirit. The Spirit is Christ’s gift to the church once his earthly work is done. That Spirit works in your heart, producing faith in Christ. He enables you to live in obedience to the Word. “True repentance is not a matter of words and ritual, but of a real change of life.” (R. t. France, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 111).

Keep in mind the fiery baptism of judgment will indeed come. But you can be ready for it only because the Messiah, whom John announced, underwent that baptism by fire as he suffered your punishment on the cross. As the risen, triumphant Savior he has now baptized you with the Spirit to live to his glory.

Kingdoms in Conflict

Matthew 2:16–23 describes the nightmarish cruelty of King Herod. But behind the atrocity lies a conflict between two kingdoms–the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world in opposition to him.

Recognize that you are in a life or death conflict. Two kingdoms are doing battle. Some see Christ’s birth (and life, death and resurrection) as a convenient story. It is nice to believe, but doesn’t have much to do with the real world. Or, you can believe what you want, just as long as you confine your beliefs to the space between your ears. Herod feared a political rival. This blood-thirsty ruler had executed his wife, several sons, and close friends–all of whom he saw as potential rivals. He tried to use the Magi to locate the newborn King. When frustrated in his plot, he executed the children of Bethlehem. He probably left an ample margin for error in age. The first Christmas is a scene of war. Herod’s murder of the children is terrible, but his real goal is the murder of Christ, the dethronement of God. Herod’s plot is part of a cosmic struggle, Genesis 3; Exodus 1 & 2 (note the overtones of Pharaoh’s cruelty in Herod’s order), Psalm 2; Revelation 12. “It is the tension set up by the entrance of the new Son of David into a land where a king of the Jews already ruled that forms the background of, and provides the continuity in, Matthew’s birth narrative.”(Ned B. Stonehouse, The Witness of Matthew and Mark to Christ, p. 127). Two kingdoms, both of which claim total dominion, cannot co-exist. Appreciate the dimensions of the so-called “culture war” that is going on around us. This is not just traditional vs. contemporary morality, hypocrisy in opposition to openness and acceptance, or however else it is framed. Nor is it, as some Christians put it, the defeat of Christianity or the end of marriage as we know it. The tension and conflict that became evident when the magi left Bethlehem continues today. You live in a world that is increasingly self-conscious in its rejection of and opposition to Christianity. Be prepared for the conflict. Be prepared to suffer.

Listen to Rachel weeping. Rebellion against God results in suffering and grief. As Matthew recalls the keening of the women of Bethlehem, he quotes Jeremiah 31:15. Ramah was a town north of Jerusalem, through which Judah’s exiles passed on their way to Babylon. Rachel was the beloved wife of Jacob, the mother of Joseph (and grandmother of Ephraim and Manasah) and Benjamin. Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, recalls the grief of God’s people as they endured the judgement that came on them for their disobedience. The Babylonian attack was brutal, and God’s people suffered. Even those who remain faithful to the Lord endure suffering (Daniel and his friends). Terrible loss and suffering came to the little town of Bethlehem. Similar suffering faces Christians in a number of countries this week. Listen to the voices of the Rachels weeping today! Suffering and grief continue to affect our lives.

Rejoice in the victorious King. Herod plotted, but his plot was foiled when God sent a dream to the Magi to avoid returning to Herod, Matthew 2:12. Now, as Herod lashes out with insane fury, again the Lord spares the new-born King with a revelatory dream. The kingdom of darkness cannot conquer the new-born King, nor can it defeat his people. Thus ultimately there is comfort for God’s people. Jeremiah 31 goes on to speak of the Lord’s compassion for his people (v.20), and calls on you to dry your eyes (v.16). God spared his Son to live—so that one day he could die. He came to establish his kingdom through his own suffering, death, and resurrection. You can find comfort and hope, even in grief, as you trust the Savior God provided. Just as Jeremiah promised a return from exile, the Lord brings his Son back from Egypt to be the Redeemer of his people.

A new Exodus from Egypt prepares for the kingdom. Another dream brings Christ back to the promised land. The life of the cruel king came to an end. Matthew’s Gospel does not focus on him, but mentions his end almost in passing. Yet, especially for Matthew’s Jewish readers, the implication is clear. Herod may have been accountable to no one during his life, but now he would have to answer for what he had done. Matthew reminds you that you are ultimately accountable to God–whether or not you believe that. God may tolerate your rebellion for a while. But he will not ultimately ignore it. Herod died around 4 B.C., so the stay in Egypt may have been quite brief. In Egypt an angel of the Lord again appears to Joseph in a dream. The instruction parallels the earlier command in v.13, except for the change of destination. Joseph is assured that those who sought the death of the child are dead. Note the parallel with Exodus 4:19. Israel, not Egypt, was the place where the promised Messiah was to grow up and perform his work. Israel was the land God had promised to his people long ago in his covenant with Abraham, renewed with Isaac and Jacob, and again with the people of Israel. There was where he had placed his name. There was where the temple stood. That was the country where the judges had delivered God’s people. That was where the theocratic kings had ruled. That was where the Messiah would walk, teach, suffer, die and rise again. Thus the Messiah had to leave Egypt and return to the promised land, retracing the route by which God had led his covenant people in the days of Moses. Matthew reassures you that God is faithful to his covenant. He will never abandon his Son. That same covenantal faithfulness assures you that God is with you. That gives you strength as you are tempted. It comforts you as you face trials and losses.

Galilee provides safety for the young King. Joseph and the family initially return to Judea, likely to Bethlehem. Matthew passes over in silence what Luke tells you, that Joseph and Mary came originally from Nazareth. Perhaps Joseph considered the city of David the most appropriate place to rear the Messiah. However, Archelaus, the son of Herod, ruled Judea. His cruelty rivaled his father’s. He ended up being deposed after only a ten year reign. But his rule did not make Bethlehem of Judea appear to be a safe place for the Christ. Again Joseph is directed by a dream, and he takes the family to Galilee. God is still providing protection for his Son. He had sent him into the world to suffer and die for his people, but that death would take place at the time that God had ordained, and not at the whim of a tyrannical ruler. God shows himself trustworthy, not only towards his Son, but also to you. “The final episode relates the return from Egypt to ‘the land of Israel,’ and explains why, instead of settling in the region of his birth in Judea, he came to dwell in Nazareth of Galilee. That Jesus was a Galilean is of course not without great meaning for the understanding of the rest of the life and ministry of Christ.” (Ned B. Stonehouse, The Witness of Matthew and Mark to Christ, p. 126).

Locating in Nazareth of Galilee fulfills the prophets. For the final time in his birth narrative, Matthew links a God-sent dream and the fulfillment of prophecy. Having moved to Galilee due to the warning in the dream, Joseph settles in Nazareth. Matthew identifies this as fulfilling prophecy. The refrain of fulfilling what the Lord had said through the prophet has echoed through this narrative: Matthew 1:22; 2:5, 13, 17. Each prophecy can be identified: Isaiah 7:14; Micah 5:2; Hosea 11:1; Jeremiah 31:15. This time the more general term “what was said through the prophets” is used, and it is difficult to identify a specific Old Testament Scripture that Matthew has in view. Some have suggested that Matthew has in mind Numbers 6, which gives the laws regarding the temporary vows that separated one as a Nazirite. However, not only is the word different, but Jesus was not being temporarily set apart to fulfill a vow. Others point to Isaiah 11:1, and the reference to a shoot (netzer). But again, the word is different, though it sounds somewhat similar. And that citation hardly fits the fulfillment of prophets (plural). Rather, Jesus fulfills prophecy by humbly living in Nazareth of Galilee, a despised location, a town that is never mentioned in the Old Testament. Isaiah 9:1 mentions “Galilee of the nations,” hardly a compliment as far as Israel is concerned. Even godly Nathaniel doubts that Nazareth can be the place from which the Messiah comes, John 1:46. Matthew’s point is that this Jesus, whose impending birth was heralded by an angel appearing in a dream, this Jesus, whose life was repeatedly spared by the intervention of the angelic messenger in dreams, the Child who was worshiped by the Magi from the East, the Child who is the fulfillment of these great Old Testament prophecies, this Child does not grow up in splendor. Rather he is reared in lowly Nazareth in Galilee. His life is one of suffering. Christ’s suffering is crucial to his being your Savior–as you live in a suffering, sin-cursed world. “[T]he connotations of the derogatory term ‘Nazorean’ . . . captured just what some of the prophets had predicted — a Messiah who came from the wrong place, and and who did not conform to the expectations of Jewish tradition, and who as a result would not be accepted by his people.” (R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT, p. 95). Perhaps, if we really listen to the birth narrative, we shouldn’t be quite so surprised at the way that Jesus turns the standards of the world upside down in his teaching. We shouldn’t be taken aback by the opposition, the suffering, and the death of Christ, all of which intervene before his resurrection and exaltation. If you grasp the humiliation and suffering of the Nazarene, be willing to identify with him. A few years ago I was glad to see Christians appropriating the Arabic letter “nun” to identify with Christian being expelled from and killed in Mozul by the ISIS. But remember that identifying with Jesus in his suffering is much more challenging than changing your Facebook photo to an Arabic letter. It involves being willing to be mocked for his sake. It involves being willing to share in his sufferings. This humble Savior is the One in whom Matthew invites you to trust. Jesus of Nazareth is the King whom you are commanded to serve.

How do you prepare for this conflict of kingdoms? You recognize that as God’s people, you suffer in this world, and you weep with the Rachels. But you also take hope, for despite Herod the Great and the lesser Herods in power today, out of Egypt God has called his Son. And thus he has called you out of bondage into the glory of his kingdom.

Exodus–Part 2

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.