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.