In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Last week, we talked a little about the structure of the gospel of Matthew. And we talked a little about the motif of fives. The passage that we looked at last week contained two Old Testament references; today’s passage contains three more, which rounds out the five Old Testament references that are contained in this first section of Matthew’s gospel – that is, the early years of Jesus. So our passage today is, in some way, a continuation of our passage last week. With that, let’s take a look at the passage.
So as you noticed, this section includes three references to scripture, that is the Old Testament, wrapped up in essentially two stories or episodes. The first occurs in v. 15.
13 When they 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.”
14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 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.”Matthew 2:13-15
Now this reference comes from Hosea 11:1, which says:
11:1 When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.Hosea 11:1
Last week we looked at two Old Testament references, both of which seemed to offer encouragement to the people of Israel when they were facing the loss of their nationhood, the loss of their people-hood. The passage from Hosea takes a slightly different tack – Hosea is angry at Israel because they have forsaken their God and forsaken the covenant. Essentially, Hosea is reminding Israel that they are only Israel because of what God has done – so how can they continue to forget, and not only forget but reject the God who has saved them. Nevertheless, says Hosea, God will be faithful. God promises to be faithful and rescue Israel, as he has done before.
So Matthew’s use of this passage seems to be doing two things. First of all, it seems to be functioning, much as last week’s passages did, as warning and encouragement to Israel who is facing significant challenges to their identity. We spoke about this last week – about Israel’s extended exile, and the rise and fall of false messiahs. So we won’t repeat that today.
But the second thing this passage might be doing is making the connection between Jesus and Moses. Jesus’ life is threatened by Herod – Herod who is afraid of what it might mean for his power if the actual Messiah were to appear, and so orders all of the young boys in the region to be killed. Because of the warning of the angel, Joseph and Mary take Jesus to Egypt. In the Israelite mind, this may connect Jesus to Moses, whose life was also threatened by a maniacal ruler who had all the young boys murdered. Moses found refuge in the house of Pharaoh, just as Jesus found refuge in Egypt.
The second reference occurs just a few verses later.
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,Matthew 2:16-18
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
Now this is a passage from the book of Jeremiah:
15 This is what the Lord says:Jeremiah 31:15
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
Now the Jeremiah passage seems to be saying something like, given the situation of the Israelites who have been decimated by the Babylonians, if the matriarch Rachel were to witness what had happened to her children, the people of Israel, she would weep. So it’s a lamentation. Now it’s important to keep in mind once again, that the situation in which the Israelites find themselves is very much one of their own making. Scripture tells us emphatically that it’s because of Israel’s unfaithfulness, their chasing after other gods, forgetting the God of their fathers, because they have not kept the terms of the covenant that they have suffered the consequences of the covenant. And so, Rachel weeps.
So when we consider the situation to which Matthew attaches this scripture, Herod’s murder of all the young boys in Bethlehem, and when this is set in the context of Herod’s kingdom, which essentially amounted to serving as a puppet regime for the Romans, we can only pause and consider how fall Israel has fallen from their chosen purpose. Is it any wonder that so many people were longing for the Messiah? And so, Rachel weeps.
The third scripture reference, and the fifth overall, that Matthew points to in our passage is the most confusing because he doesn’t quote anything specific. Rather, he alludes. But we know he alludes to scripture because he says, “So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.” Here’s the passage:
19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he 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, that he would be called a Nazarene.Matthew 2:19-23
So what was the prophecy that was fulfilled? To what and to whom is Matthew referring. Well, it’s pretty much conjecture, but scholars basically think it’s one of two things.
Firstly, it’s possibly a reference to Judges 13:5
5 You will become pregnant and have a son whose head is never to be touched by a razor because the boy is to be a Nazirite, dedicated to God from the womb. He will take the lead in delivering Israel from the hands of the Philistines.”Judges 13:5
This passage from Judges is referring to Samson, whose story most of us know. Samson was a judge and also a Nazirite – one who was consecrated to God. And as we see from Judges 13, and know from the story, Samson would deliver the Israelites from the Philistines, their enemies.
The connection between Nazareth/Nazarene and Nazirite comes obviously from the similarities in the words. This is pronounced in the Hebrew which focuses on the consonants. However, other than the “deliver Israel” part, there doesn’t seem to be any other connection between Jesus and “Nazirite.” Jesus didn’t follow any of the requirements of being a Nazirite.
Another passage that is frequently pointed to – the scripture that Matthew says is fulfilled – comes from Isaiah 11:1. This says:
1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;Isaiah 11:1
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Isaiah passage continues:
2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—Isaiah 11:2-3
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
3 and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
Now this passage, and the following verses, is a familiar messianic passage. It points to one who will deliver Israel. The passage tells us that this person will come from the stump of Jesse – David’s father. And the connection between Isaiah and Matthew comes from the use of the word “Branch,” which in Hebrew is Netzer. To make a long story short, some believe that Nazareth comes from the same root – that Nazareth essentially means “branch town.’ Therefore, the fulfillment of this passage from Isaiah essentially is that Nazareth, “Branch town” bears forth the fruit of the Messiah, Jesus.
So, Matthew gives us five scriptures (two from last week and three today) that he uses to demonstrate that Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah. And in each case, he tells us that the coming of Jesus fulfills the prophecy, or scripture. However, it is far from clear that all of these passages are, in fact, meant to be prophetic. And it’s even less clear that all of these passages are “prophesying” the Messiah. (Maybe it is clear – I don’t’ know. Maybe you all have a good grasp of how this works). So what does Matthew mean when he says that the birth and coming of Jesus fulfills these passages?
First of all, I tend to think that we sometimes don’t understand how prophecy, or rather how prophets, worked in scripture. When I was young, I think I had a pretty simplistic understanding of how prophecy worked in the bible. I understood prophecy as essentially foretelling what would happen in the future. Now I’m not saying that this is necessarily wrong, but (again) I think it’s reductionistic – or at least it’s incomplete. Often when the prophets spoke, there was a future element involved, but I think it really had more to do with making people aware of the presence and will of God right now. In other words, often the prophets were speaking to a particular people in a particular time and place and reminding them that God was present. God had a plan and God had a purpose, yes – this often accounts for the future element – But God has something to say, now.
So I don’t think that Matthew believed, or was suggesting, that the prophets or scriptures that he was referencing were necessarily making future projections that somehow “came true” in Jesus. So what is he doing? How is he demonstrating that Jesus is the fulfillment of the words of these prophets, many of which aren’t future-oriented?
Craig Evans refers to what Matthew is doing as “Typology.” By this, he means that what the prophets are addressing, whether a person, or a situation, can be seen as a type, of which Jesus is the fulfillment.
Now by typology, we mean something along the lines of, but without the negative connotations of, a “stereotype.” It represents something that we recognize because we’ve seen or heard it before. It’s not the same thing, and it’s not exactly a representative thing, but it makes sense to us.
Now when we think about the history of Israel, we know that God has chosen this people to be His special possession, to be blessed to be a blessing to all nations. And we know that God gave Israel His covenant law so that they could be that blessing. But we also know that Israel repeatedly rejected God, implicitly and explicitly, they were repeatedly faithless in the light of God’s faithfulness.
And so, God repeatedly delivered Israel from their faithlessness through various agents – through Moses, through Samson, through David, through the prophets. These agents all, then, are types.
So I think that what Matthew is saying that Jesus, in line with the various scriptural references he introduces, falls in line with those types. However, I think Matthew is also saying more than this. He isn’t suggesting that Jesus is one more in a long line of rescuers in Israel’s long and sordid history. He’s saying that Jesus is the fulfillment of them. He’s saying (or he will say, in the course of his gospel) that Jesus is the ultimate realization of God’s redemptive purposes in history.
So to say that the words of the prophets are fulfilled does not mean that “it has come true” (as if they are the words of some carnival fortune teller). It is more along the lines of the fullness of God’s purposes, to which the prophets spoke, has now been revealed in Jesus.
So What Now…?
So, as we wrap up, a couple of things. Firstly, this notion of fulfillment is something that we’re going to see repeatedly in Matthew. Matthew makes frequent mention of the Old Testament (or, what for Matthew is simply the scriptures), demonstrating how Jesus fulfills scripture. And he makes frequent allusion to Old Testament characters and situations to which Jesus is the fulfillment. So we’ll try to keep an eye out for this as we work our way through the gospel.
But second, this is not just a literary convention. Rather, Matthew is making a significant theological statement about salvation and about the kingdom. What he’s saying is that all of the work of God in history finds it’s fulfillment, it’s fullness, it’s completion, in Jesus. He’s saying that, though God worked through various means and people in the past, and though we know that God works through various means and people in the present, the work if fully and finally completed in Jesus. Jesus is the climax of the story.
There’s nothing to be added, nothing can be taken away, there is no more beyond Jesus. It’s in Him that we find the fullness of God’s intention for us; it’s in Him that we find the fullness of salvation and the fullness of the kingdom; it’s in Him that we find the fullness of what it means to be human beings, made in the image of God.
There is no need to look for anything more because in Him, all is fulfilled.
So, as we continue through the gospel of Matthew, and as we allow the word of God to speak into our lives, we will continue to keep our eyes on Jesus. We continue to look to him, to walk in Him, and to find our lives only in Him.