The Jewishness of Jesus - Matthew 2:13-23
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Theme: Herod’s evil plans are used by the all-powerful God to reveal three Jewish roles that Jesus came to fulfil: the perfect son, the promised saviour and the put-down servant.
Last summer I was on holiday with a friend in the Lake District when we both decided we would go and see the latest Batman film. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins is the fifth Batman movie to be released and the first since the disastrous Batman and Robin in 1997. It was the fifth most successful film of summer 2005 in America and it was the second most successful Batman film ever made. And last summer I was thrilled to find it showing at a small cinema in Penrith. I don’t know if you have ever been to the cinema in Penrith but if you haven’t then let me warn you it is not a multiplex. As far as I could tell it was run by two older ladies, who not only sold the tickets, but then moved on to sell the ice-cream, and then afterwards nipped upstairs to the projection room to start the movie rolling. I was feeling in a rather mischievous mood when I arrived to buy my ticket so with a straight face I asked one of the ladies for “Two senior citizen tickets for Batman Begins.” I still have no idea why I said that! She looked at me and said, “I’m sorry sir you’re not old enough to qualify.” And then I through out one of those cheesy lines which sometimes leads to a conversation about Jesus and sometimes leads to the emergency panic button under the counter being pressed repeatedly. I said to her, “But surely I do qualify because, would you believe it, I am an elder in the Church of England.” But no, apparently that doesn’t qualify for a senior citizen discount so I had to pay full price and therefore not enjoy an ice-cream as a result!
The film, however, was fantastic. I don’t know if you have seen Batman Begins but in contrast to most of the other Batman films, the most recent offering from Hollywood attempts to get us into the mind of Bruce Wayne. We are encouraged to think through why a grown man dresses up as a giant bat and fights against the criminals of Gotham City. Yes, of course, the gadgets are still there, the Batmobile still causes chaos on the roads and, yes, Batman still has a romantic love interest. But, despite all that, the film still manages to focus on Bruce Wayne’s journey to become Batman and how the man behind the mask is transformed through significant life experiences.
This will come as no surprise to you: I love the movie. And I love, in particular, the many questions the film is designed to raise. What is the difference between revenge and justice? In fact, what is justice? What inspires people to rise above a certain standard of behaviour? When is fear a good thing? And the list could go on and on. But here is my big problem with the movie. Despite all the positive features, I disagree entirely with the way it describes the relationship between good and evil. Those of you who have seen the film will know that it talks about one long battle between good and evil. It pictures a world where there is currently a clash between the soldiers of good and the forces of evil. And depending on where you are in the historical timeline, either side might be winning. So, for many years the city of Gotham has been declared the trophy of wickedness but as the film continues we see a number of individuals who overcome their fear to liberate the city from the evil vices that strangle its healthiness. There is a battle between good and evil. And what the city needs is for the good people to stand up and be counted. Or as the film puts it, “What chance does Gotham have when the good people do nothing?”
Now please do not misunderstand me. I am equally convinced that in this wicked world the people of goodness must make their voices heard. It is important that God’s people say something and do something to stop the spread of wicked behaviour in our towns and cities. But here is where I disagree with viewpoint of Batman Begins. According to the Bible, there has never been a day when evil has triumphed. Yes, evil is certainly real and yes evil is certainly culpable. The people who commit wicked acts will never escape the judgement of God. But let us understand that evil has never derailed the plans of God. Never in the history of the world has Satan managed to sneak into the heavenly throne room, tie God’s shoe laces together and then take advantage of his inability to act, to thwart his plans for his world.
Throughout the opening chapters of Matthew’s Gospel we are being told again and again that the God who made us is the all-powerful creator, the one who intervenes in his world to make sure his purposes always get carried out. We are being reassured that nothing in all the world can hinder the plans of God. And that, my friends, as I hope to show you this morning from 2:13-23, includes the actions of wicked people.
People just like King Herod. You may have noticed that the shadow of King Herod spreads over these verses like a dark cloud. His name is mentioned 5 times. At the end of verse 13, Joseph is told, by an angel, that he and the family are to stay in Egypt because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him. In verse 15 we read that they are to stay in Egypt until the death of Herod. Then in verse 16 we are told about the anger of Herod and his murderous plot to kill all the boys in Bethlehem, two years old and under. In verse 19 we hear of Herod’s death and then lastly, in verse 22, although the tyrant himself may be dead, his tyranny continues as his son Archelaus begins to govern. Let us make no mistake! King Herod was a wicked man. Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor who ruled during Herod’s Kingship, once said that it was better to be Herod’s pig than it was to be Herod’s son.
After a reign of some 33 years, he died a lonely and horrible death of cancer at Jericho in the spring of 4 BC. But during his life Herod’s reign was marked by violence and terror. He was a monster. He slaughtered the last remains of the Jewish priestly-kings who ruled before him. No chance of them getting back on the throne. He executed 300 court officials out of hand. He killed his own wife Mariamne, her mother Alexandra, and his sons Aristobulus, Alexander and Antipater. And then as he lay dying, in order to make sure people were mourning at the time of his passing, he arranged for all the notable men of Jerusalem to be assembled in the hippodrome and killed as soon as his own death was announced. He was a man of ruthless cruelty and a man who was fanatically paranoid that people everywhere were continually plotting against him.
And at first sight this wicked individual seems to be the main influence behind the many geographical movements in Matthew chapter 2. It appears that Herod controls the map. We seem to be watching the triumph of evil. Yes, we know that in the end the Christ will conquer. We know the end of the story. We have read the end of the book. But what about here? Is this really the day of evil? Is this a truly a moment when the actions of a wicked man have put the plans of God on hold?
Have a look at verse 15. “And so was fulfilled what the Lord has said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”” Or listen to what we read in verse 17, after the wicked slaughter of the babies of Bethlehem: “Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled.” And then, lastly, in verse 23, to explain the ultimate reason why Jesus’ family moved to an obscure and ridiculed town in the North of the country, we read: “So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.”” Do you see what we are being told? It is a wonderful encouragement in the face of evil. We are being reassured that evil never wins a day. Not even one. Three times we hear the word fulfill.
Three times we are told that the events of history are not directed by the hands of the wicked but by the overruling, awe-inspiring providence of the Creator God.
Now is this not something we need to hear? In our wicked world, with its many worldviews that question both the goodness and power of God, worldviews reflected and perpetuated in films like Batman Begins - in such a world, it is vital for us to hear that the plans of God are never frustrated. God has never been caught out by the actions of evil people. In fact, he is so powerful that he uses the actions of his enemies to forward the ultimate destiny he has prepared for the world. And when you think about it, you have got to be very powerful to use the hatred of your enemies to make sure your plans are accomplished. Is our God too small? Not according to Matthew chapter 2. So, this week, when we inevitably hear of yet another evil event taking place somewhere in our world let us remember that God has not been defeated. Evil has not won. Christianity does not deny the wickedness of human beings. It is a realistic faith. And we are held accountable for the decisions we make. Evil is culpable. But nevertheless the wicked decisions of human beings never have and never will derail the purposes of God. And if you ever doubt it please pick up your bible and read these comforting verses from Matthew chapter 2.
I think they are the New Testament equivalent of Genesis 50:20. Do you remember that verse? By this point in the story of God’s people another man called Joseph has been taken to Egypt as the result of a dream. Unknown to his father, he has been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, who then precede to tell their father that his precious son has been mauled to death by wild animals. Their intention was clear: they wanted to harm him, they wanted to get rid of him. But do you remember the scene when the brothers are eventually reunited in the country of Egypt?
They are gathered round Joseph, who by this stage has been appointed second in command of the entire nation, and they are fearful of what he will do to them. But then Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid.” Genesis 50:20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Now there in anutshell is the message of Matthew 2:13-23. Herod meant to harm the baby Jesus, but God used the evil intentions of Herod to accomplish the saving of many lives. And he did this in three ways. First of all, he made sure that Jesus could be called the Perfect Son. Secondly, he made sure that Jesus could be called the Promised Saviour. And, thirdly, he made sure that Jesus could be called the Put-down Servant.
First of all, the Perfect Son. Have a look at verse 13. “When they [the Magi] had gone, 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.”
You’ve got to love Joseph, don’t you? If I was him then no doubt I would be asking, “When am I going to get a decent night’s sleep? If it’s not the baby crying then it’s an angel of the Lord appearing in a dream to pass on a significance piece of information.” But not Joseph! Instead, he consistently does what he is told. We never hear a complaint from his lips. Rather, he is presented, again and again, as someone who responds to the Word of God in the correct way. He is a man who puts the Word of God into practice. He is a man who obeys what God says. Is this how we treat the Word of God? Do we listen and reject or do we listen and obey?
Egypt was a sensible place for Joseph and his family to hide. It was only seventy miles away from Bethlehem and it was out of Herod’s jurisdiction.
It had frequently been a refuge for God’s people over the centuries, and it was the natural place for Joseph to go when he was warned of the threat to the child’s life. But at the end of verse 15 we are presented with quite a different reason why Jesus had to be taken to Egypt. “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”” Now this is a quotation from the Old Testament book of Hosea, 11:1. The words were written approximately 720 years before the birth of Jesus and if you go back to the original message you will discover that it’s all about the nation of Israel. God is lamenting the failure of his chosen people who he refers to as his son. He has cared for them like a devoted parent, taking them in his arms, teaching them his ways, but after their rescue from the slavery of foreign domination they turned away from him and followed other gods of their own imagination. They were, by practice, God’s Disobedient Son. They were a people who were incapable of keeping God’s commandments and so therefore they became a people who found themselves under God’s judgement.
But here is the wonderful truth to get hold of. Because God wanted to save a people who were incapable of keeping his commands and who were liable to his condemnation, he sent his Eternal Son into the world, to become the Perfect Son. Jesus is the Perfect Son who lived a life of perfection on this earth, in the place of people who could never make the grade. When we speak of Jesus’ mission, in this church, we often focus on Jesus’ death as the unique place where God chose to deal with the judgment deserved by his elect. And that is right. We must never move away from the centrality of the death of Jesus as the only place where people can have their sins forgiven. But what sinful people like you and me require is not just a clean slate to start again but a perfect copy book that declares that we have kept all the rules. What we need is not just a ‘rewind salvation’, a salvation that somehow takes us back to the Garden environment of Genesis chapter 2.
It is not good enough for us simply to be given Adam’s original position again - not guilty but still lacking the righteousness that comes from obedience to God’s commandments. We need something much more. In fact, what we require is a perfect Adam, a perfect Israel, a perfect Son of God, someone who is innocent and yet someone who is also perfectly obedient.
Why was the baby Jesus taken to Egypt? Not simply because it was convenient but because it enabled Jesus to be called the Perfect Son. Just like Israel, many years before, he had been taken into the land of Egypt and just like Israel he would be rescued from this foreign environment. Therefore, he could be legitimately called the Son of God – which according to Exodus 4:22 was a title applied by God to the nation of Israel. But unlike faithless Israel, who failed miserably after their rescue from Egypt, Jesus would be faithful after his return from this foreign land.
Herod may have intended it for harm but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. We could not be sure of our future salvation if Jesus was not the Perfect Son but because he was perfect, those of us who have put our trust in Jesus are declared completely innocent and perfectly obedient. What I am talking about is technically called ‘Justification by faith alone through the merits of Christ alone’ and it is a belief that separates true Christianity from all the other deviations. If you read the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans you will find the concept again and again. But what does it mean? If someone tells you that you have been justified by faith in Jesus Christ then what is your status before God? Sometimes people define justification like this: Justification means to be treated just as if I had never sinned. Have you heard that before? Of course you have. But, my friends, that’s only half true. Yes, God treats us as those individuals who have never sinned at all but God also treats us as those individuals who have always perfectly obeyed his commandments. Let’s get this right.
We are not justified by our faith, we are justified by our faith in Christ. And so because Jesus is the Perfect Son, by faith in him, we receive all of his benefits. Which, not surprisingly, is always great news for the Christian who is struggling with guilt and failure. So, if that is you this morning, be encouraged! Jesus has walked the path of obedience in your place.
Secondly, Jesus is also the Promised Saviour. Have a look at verse 16. “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. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 18 “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.””
Ramah was just five miles north of Jerusalem and it was the place where King Nebuchadnezzar’s Commander gathered the Jewish exiles after the fall of Jerusalem in 587BC. Rachel, who was originally the wife of Jacob, was known by the Jewish leaders as the mother of Israel for all time and her place of burial was very close to Ramah. In fact, the Jewish exiles would have to walk past her tomb on their way to captivity. So are you beginning to visualise the picture from the prophet Jeremiah? The symbolic mother of Israel is shedding bucket loads of tears as her children walk past her and are taken away from their land. They are going into exile. It sounds horrific, doesn’t? And it was. Exile for the people of God was a serious judgement because of their persistent rebellion against their maker. But if you read the surrounding verses of Jeremiah chapter 31, which is where this quotation is taken from, the whole mood of the chapter is one of optimism and hope.
In fact, the very next verse that is found after our quotation says this: “Retrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears…they will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your future, declares the LORD.”
How many of you have ever clicked a blue link when you are browsing the Internet? It’s a very common thing to do, isn’t it? We do it all the time. Just think back to the last time you were searching for information. You’ve got Google on the screen, you’re trying to work out what combination of random words will lead you to the information you desperately want and then at last, before your eyes, you are presented with a whole list of what are called hypertext links. Now, as you know, each link only contains part of the information we need to read. To fully understand what is being said we need to click on the link and read the whole document.
The same is true when the New Testament quotes the Old Testament. If we are to make sense of why a New Testament writer quotes from an Old Testament book then rather than simply reading the hypertext link, we must turn to the full document and discover the bigger picture. Jeremiah 31 is actually a very hopeful chapter about the end of the exile. Yes, of course, we read about the tears of Rachel but one day God promises to remove the reason for the tears. One day the exile will be over. And not just the physical exile but the spiritual exile from God that is symbolized by God’s people being physically removed form their land. God promises a day when he will forgive his people and remember their sins no more. He promises that their separation from his presence will be a memory of the past. The only question is: When will such a day take place? Matthew 2:17: “Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled.”
Herod may have intended it for harm but God intended it for good. We mustn’t forget that Herod will be judged for his evil actions. Evil is culpable. But even the slaughter of these babies could not stop the plan of God. In fact, it was used by God to show us that Jesus is the Promised Saviour, the one who came to end our spiritual exile.
In one of their recent songs, the popular British band, Coldplay, sang these words: “Are you lost or incomplete? Do you feel like a puzzle, you can’t find the missing piece?” And what do so many people in our generation reply? Yes, that’s exactly how I feel. Completely lost and incomplete. The Bible says it is a sign of spiritual exile. It is a sign that we are separated from the God who made us and so therefore what we need is the Promised Saviour who can bring our exile to an end.
Who is Jesus? He is the Perfect Son. He is the Promised Saviour. And, lastly, he is the Put-down Servant. Have a look at verse 22. “When Joseph heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 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.” Nowhere in the Old Testament do we find the words, “He will be called a Nazarene.” But if we look closely at what Matthew actually says in verse 23 this is not a problem. He does not say, “So was fulfilled what was said through the prophet.” No, he says, “So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets.” Therefore, Matthew does not simply have one prophet in mind to quote from but is thinking instead of a more general picture that is fulfilled by Jesus living in Nazareth. We know that Nazareth in the time of Jesus was a small, Northern town, that was despised and ridiculed by most other people in the country. You may remember that in John 1:46, when Nathanael is presented with the good news of Jesus, all he can say is this: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” It was the ultimate put-down in the nation of Israel. You would meet new people, introduce yourself and sooner or later they would ask you where you were from and you would say, “Nazareth.” And then you would hear the laughter. “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”
But this was exactly how the Old Testament predicted a person called the Servant of God would be treated.
According to Isaiah 53, he would be despised and rejected by the people. He would be mocked and insulted rather than honoured and obeyed. He would be the put-down servant. And this was a role Jesus fulfilled. Look at his life and what do you find? A man ridiculed by the people. Look at his death and what do you find? A man ridiculed by the people. And what happens if we look at where he lived? What did people think about this Northern town? It was a place ridiculed by the people. So, Matthew wants us to understand that Jesus is the Put-Down Servant. His life, his death and even where he lived all point to the same conclusion: Jesus is the one who would be despised and rejected by the people.
And that should be our expectation to. As Christians we are part of the Nazarene Sect, as it is called in Acts 24:5. We are followers of the Nazarene. We are destined to be a minority group. We are destined to be mocked and insulted and put-down by the people. So when you feel like that at your desk or when you are working at a machine or when you are looking after the children don’t think it’s unusual or even peculiar to you. If they did it to Jesus they will do it to us. Therefore, do you see why it’s vital that we meet together like this? And do you see why it’s crucial that we do get to know some Christians beyond the superficial? We need support in this life. We will struggle. We will feel marginalised. Therefore, we all need encouragement to keep on living the Christian life. Coffee after church isn’t good enough. Yes it’s a start but real Christian fellowship involves sharing at a deeper level. But for that to happen we must get to know each other much better than we do already. So let me encourage us all this morning to be thinking of practical ways to put what we’ve just heard into practice? I have a few ideas of my own, which I’m happy to share with you if you want to know. But whatever we end up doing let’s make sure we are known as a church that supports each other as we live for Christ in a world that puts us down. Let’s pray together.
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