The rage - Matthew 2:13-23
‘After Auschwitz’, said Richard Rubinstein, ‘it is impossible to believe in God.’ One Sunday afternoon in another concentration camp, Buchenwald, a group of learned Jews decided to put God on trial declaring that he had been negligent with regards to his chosen people. Witnesses were produced both for the prosecution and the defence. I guess that it will come as no surprise to you to hear that the case for the prosecution was found to be overwhelming. The judges, who were Rabbis, found the defendant –God-guilty and solemnly condemned him. The shear unspeakable horrors of the gas chambers have led some to speak of the Holocaust as a ‘negative revelation’ a kind of ‘Anti-Sinai.’ And of all the indescribable dreadful accounts of the Holocaust, perhaps none are so moving and stomach churning than reading what happened to the children. This was an evil of unimaginable proportions.
But has it ever struck you how in the Bible the suffering of God’s people is the one great constant? Think of Pharaoh’s attempted infanticide in the Book of Exodus. Think of Haman’s attempt at mass genocide in the Book of Esther. And so it is repeated again and again right through to the present day in Pakistan, Somalia, Eretria, Nigeria and North Korea. Suffering and salvation are somehow inextricably linked. In part this is because of the enemy of God’s people, Satan, who is the agent of death and invisible instigator of the persecution of God’s people. But just as God used death to defeat death on the cross, then in some way God uses suffering to ‘unmake’ suffering, such that some speak of ‘redemptive suffering’. And in the early chapters of Matthew’s Gospel we see God’s own identification with the suffering of his people in order to redeem his people.
As we saw a few weeks ago with the family tree of Jesus, Jesus is not ashamed to be associated with some rather shameful people. At the point of his conception Jesus is vulnerable to social stigma- one which Joseph initially entertained until corrected by God- he was not illegitimate- ‘conceived outside marriage’ he was Immanuel- ‘conceived of the Holy Spirit.’ Neither is he so lofty that he spurns the gifts of pagans- the Magi. But in the episode we are looking at tonight, we discover that he is not so distant that he himself doesn’t know what it is like to be surrounded by the shedding of tears and the shedding of blood.
Don’t you find it striking that moment the Maker enters his world there is a concerted effort to murder him? In Matthew’s account there are no angels singing only broken hearted mothers weeping. But at no point is God caught napping. No, the Saviour is to come out of suffering so that God’s plan will be fulfilled.
First we have a divine rescue. Did you notice how as in the earlier episode it is Joseph who stands out in the narrative? Nowhere do we have the words of Joseph recorded in the Bible, but we do have his actions, and if actions speak louder than words, Joseph’s actions are deafening. God speaks and Joseph acts- v13, ‘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. So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod.’ No vacillating, no questioning, just trusting obedience which leads to immediate action. We don’t know if Joseph was ‘the strong silent type’ but he must have been quite impressive simply as a man, squashing the caricature that ‘religion is for wimps’ there is nothing remotely wimpish about Joseph. You see, even the nearest part of Egypt proper was 150 miles away from Bethlehem and for Joseph the journey to Egypt would have taken more than a week at walking pace. That is some achievement. But that is what faith does, when faced with problems it is not paralysed into inactivity, it is propelled into action.
Which is a good job because of the fearful rage, v16 ‘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 and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.’
He was known as Herod the Great, maybe a more suitable title would have been Herod the Terrible- but that could only dared to be applied after he had died, while he was still alive calling him ‘the great’ may have ensured that you lived a little longer. We know this was true to character because of the other nauseating incidents recorded of Herod’s life outside the Bible. For starters he executed more than half the Sanhedrin- the Jewish ruling religious council, which is probably one reason they were rather concerned when the Magi turned up in verse1. He also killed three hundred court officers out of hand. But he didn’t stop there; he had his favourite wife Mariamne and her mother put to death together with two of his sons Alexander and Aristobulus. Even when he was on his deathbed he set his heart on one last atrocity. He knew that no one would mourn his death so he had nobles throughout the land arrested and held in custody ready for his death so that the moment he died they were to be killed which would ensure some national mourning. Here was a man of unbounded cruelty, nursing a fanatical neurosis about any threat. So he is not going to think twice about slaughtering children in some remote little village is he? Bethlehem was quite small, scholars estimate its population as being under a thousand and the number of children killed may not have been more than 20, but the pain and anguish it caused would have been no less profound and devastating. So you see from the very outset of his short life Jesus is immersed in the cruel perversity of man’s sin.
And 2000 years later it still goes on. Those who dare follow the prince of peace often pay the price for it. Missiologists and demographers tell us that during the last century, there were more Christian martyrs in the world than in the previous nineteen centuries combined. It’s as if the misery surrounding Jesus’s birth was a foretaste of what was to follow during the rest of his life, culminating in the cross, only to continue throughout the years this world slowly turns until he comes again.
This is what it means to be Emmanuel- ‘God with us’. So he and his family are forced to be asylum seekers, fleeing for their lives, gripped by terror and the fear of death. How do you think Joseph, and especially, Mary, felt when the massacre started? These were people they knew, they were their friends. These were little babies born at the same time as their own son. The fact that orders were given to kill all those under two years old, suggests that they stayed in Bethlehem some time and Jesus may have even played with some of boys as a toddler. The word tragedy doesn’t even begin to capture the sheer awfulness of what happened.
Now this dreadful event gives us a deep insight into the nature of sin - viz. it is often indiscriminate in its effects; innocents do get caught up in the fall-out of evil. This is so important for us to understand not only as we wrestle with the question of suffering, but as we try to help others understand. In his book, ‘How Long O Lord’, D. A. Carson writes, ‘War, plague, congenital defects, and many other afflictions like that are not very discriminating. Therefore, if we see them as retaliation or retribution for specific sins, we shall be terribly confused when people who have not indulged in such sins suffer along with those who have. But if, instead, we see suffering as, in the first place, the effluent of the fall, the result of a fallen world, the consequence of evil that is really evil and in which we ourselves all too frequently indulge, then however much we may grieve when we suffer, we will not be taken by surprise.’ It is significant that the church refers to this episode as ‘the slaughter of the Holy innocents’ for that is what they were. Yes, there is such a thing as innocent suffering caused by evil men and women and Christ does not distance himself from that- here he was its primary object. What does the writer to the Hebrews say, ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.’ That’s who we worship.
Now it is at this point that some well-meaning believers wishing to defend God against any accusation that he is in any way responsible for what happened, begin to come up with unbiblical solutions. And so some appeal to the notion of ‘free will’ without bothering to say what they mean and going on to argue that in order for conscious agents to be free, whether it be the devil or Herod, then God can’t know what is going to happen in the future any more than the next person. In this scenario God always has to operate ‘after the fact’, waiting for us to do something first to work out how best to respond and salvage what is otherwise a desperate situation he could not foresee.
But this passage as well as the Bible as a whole won’t allow us to reduce God in this way. God is always presented as personal. Almighty and unfailingly good who never has to second guess and whose redemptive purposes will be achieved, not inspite of sinful human beings, but often times through sinful human beings. One of the great Puritan writers, Thomas Watson puts it like this: ‘Herein is God’s wisdom, that the sins of men carry on his work, yet he has no hand in it.’ From an early age, St Augustine could confidently write: ‘In a way unspeakably strange and wonderful, even what is done in opposition to His will, does not defeat his will.’ Can we believe that? We must believe that. And we must believe that because Scripture teaches it and hope demands it.
And we see Scripture teaching it right here. The rage of Herod, for which he was personally responsible, nonetheless fulfilled God’s plan for his Son, as many years later the betrayal of Judas did. For all of this was to fulfil revelation.
The whole of the Old Testament is one long preparation for the coming of God’s Son, giving us patterns, symbols and types in biblical history which act as pointers to Jesus and in this sense we may think of much of the Old Testament as prophecy which is not the same as prediction. The technical term for this is ‘typology’. The Old Testament contains a record of certain things happening under God- ‘types’ which find their ultimate fulfilment in Jesus- the ‘antitype’. Notice how at the end in v 23 it says ‘so was fulfilled what was said through the prophets’ -plural. By these terrible events Matthew says that three ‘fulfilment’s' took place- linked to three of the major themes of the Old Testament- the Exodus, the Exile, and the Suffering Servant. And the thing that each one of these has in common is that God in Jesus so identifies with his people that what happens to them happens to him; there is a recapitulation of the life of Israel in the life of Jesus.
Let me explain what I mean.
First of all, we have Jesus identifying with the Exodus -v 14: ‘So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son."’ This is a direct quote from Hosea 11:1. And when you look at the context you soon realise that the prophet is not talking about a future event but a past event, the time God called his ‘son’ Israel out of Egypt under Moses in that great escape called the Exodus. You will remember that it was at night that the Jews had to flee Egypt, and it is at night that the holy family flee to Egypt. Matthew looks back on the redemption out of Egypt and sees in Christ the Redeemer who has come to lead his people, not to an earthly Canaan but to an eternal kingdom. Here is the new Moses and the new exodus; a new history will be wrapped up in this little bundle carried by Mary out of danger and taken for a while into Egypt.
So there are two things here which are vital for us to understand.
First, it is the lot of those who follow Christ to identify with him as he identifies with us, namely, in the language of the apostle Peter, that we are ‘strangers and pilgrims’ in this world. In one sense we don’t belong to this world- the world of Herod in his rebellion against God, any more than Jesus did. In a profound sense he didn’t belong here because his ‘home’ was heaven, he was ‘Emmanuel’ God with us. He saw and experienced the world as an ‘alien’ in the sense of being a stranger. And this little episode acts as a vivid reminder of that fact. He had to live, as Israel lived, as a stranger in Egypt for at least a year if not two until things had settled down back home (v20), but even then things were still going to be hot with Herod’s son, Archelaus who was a chip off the old black in terms of tyranny. No doubt the gifts brought by the Magi would have come in handy in helping them survive there. But the point is this: if Jesus was made not to feel welcome in this world, don’t expect yourself to be if you are a Christian. A sense of alienation and not fitting in goes with the territory.
Secondly, Jesus is being presented as a new deliverer like Moses. This prince of Egypt knew banishment, but as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, ‘[Moses] chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. (Heb 11:25-27). Here Jesus is mistreated and has in his heart a far greater treasure than the gifts of the world, the treasure of those who will be delivered in a new exodus by way of the cross.
Also, Jesus identifies with the Exile. Having described the slaughter of the innocents in v 16, Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15 : ‘Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more." This text pictures Rachel, the wife of Jacob as the idealised mother of Israel. She died in labour as she gave birth to Benjamin. But in Jeremiah 31, she is portrayed as the mother who weeps because Israel- her offspring- is being carted off into captivity into Babylon as punishment for sin ( her grave was located on the route to Bablyon). Matthew in his Gospel in a variety of ways shows that while Israel’s literal Exile ended centuries ago it was still in a state of spiritual exile but that this too was about to end for the King, the Messiah has come and this weeping of Bethlehem’s mothers is but the final stage of grief to that period of exile. As bitter as it was, it pointed to the relief of the new covenant that God was about to establish in his Son Jesus.
But then we have the strangest fulfilment of all in which an Old Testament passage is not even quoted -v 23 ‘And he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene." Now what is that all about?
Well, part of the answer is that the term ‘Nazarene’ stands for someone who is despised. Remember what Nathaniel said to Philip when he was told that he had found the Christ and it was Jesus of Nazareth? ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth’? And after the resurrection ,when the opponents of Christianity wanted to label the Christians in a sneering put down way, they called them ‘That Nazarene sect’ (Acts 24:5)- it was nigh on racist. Those living in Nazareth had a pronounced accent which was looked down on. They would be the butt of many a joke- the country bumpkin. Such folk had a social disadvantage from the very start. I tell you, having a plumy accent at Oxford sets you at an advantage no matter how dumb you are and having a thick northern accent is seen as a hurdle no matter how bright you are. And yet, here in God’s providence and plan, that is what Jesus was happy to be known as- the bumpkin- ‘Nazarene’. In this sense Jesus fulfils many OT prophecies not least Isaiah He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind.’ (Is 53:2-3)
We worship a God who from the cradle to the cross knows what it is like to be unloved, to be rejected, to be looked down upon and to be hounded from pillar to post, just like you may feel in fact. And yet has triumphed over them all. And that is why Christians can be people who believe, sometimes in the teeth of what is going on all around them that nothing lies outside God’s good purpose for his people. Is it possible to believe in God after Auschwitz? This passage would say however hard it may be at times, most certainly. How did Jesus put it? ‘In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’
 See Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses p 500
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