From Bethlehem To Egypt To Nazareth

From Bethlehem To Egypt To Nazareth

Lewis S. Johnson, Jr.

Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., a regular contributor to FOCUS, is a teaching elder at Believers Chapel in Dallas, Texas. His expository study on Matthew 2:13-23 provides many instructive insights on a passage less known and emphasized than the more popular first half of Matthew 2.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 2:13-23


It has been said by one of our leading evangelical scholars, the author of a commentary on Matthew, that “The apologetic aim of the evangelist can be summed up in the sentence ‘Jesus is the Messiah, and in Him Jewish prophecy is fulfilled.’”1 That is certainly in harmony with the section of the gospel to which we turn in this study.

There are three short narratives that make up the section. There is, first, the account of the flight into Egypt (vv. 13-15). And, then, Matthew speaks of the massacre of the children at Bethlehem (vv. 16-18). And, finally, he describes the settlement of our Lord at Nazareth (vv. 19-23). Each of the sections concludes with a statement that in each narrative a passage from the Old Testament Scriptures is fulfilled (vv. 15, 17-18, 23). The same verb, pleroo, meaning to fulfill, is used in each section, and two of them begin with, “an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream” (vv. 13, 19), all of which gives the impression that the sections are written with great care and a definite purpose. And that purpose seems to be to show that the events recorded are events foretold in Scripture. They, therefore, add to the growing testimony that Jesus is the Messiah, and that in Him Jewish prophecy is fulfilled.

There is another level of truth to which we should call attention here. Matthew’s attachment to the fulfillment of prophecy in the life of Christ has led him to lay great stress on the providence of God in prophecy and history. God is not simply an omniscient spectator at the great events of the divine redemption. When He inspired His prophets to write, and when He worked to bring about the consummation of what they wrote in the ministry of Christ, He demonstrated that He is the supreme mover, not only in prophecy, but also in history. He interfered to prevent the Magi from returning to Herod. He interfered to prompt Joseph to fly into Egypt. He interfered to direct the return of the family of our Lord out of Egypt. He interfered to lead them to settle in Galilee. And, perhaps, all of this was able to be done because He interfered to provide for the poor family of Joseph, through the gifts of the Magi, means to live and journey as they fled from Herod and Archelaus. In fact, to sum it all up, it is plain that the evangelist thinks that His God is a God “who works all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 4:11).

“It is comforting to know,” Hendriksen says, “that in the history of redemption everything proceeds according to God’s eternal plan. Hence, salvation rests upon a firm foundation.”2 It is exceedingly fearful, however, to remember that our destiny rests upon our reaction to this God who acts in sovereign self-determination. The obedience of Joseph leads to infinite blessing; the rebellion of Herod leads to everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord. “The dreaded Infant’s hand” proves more powerful than the mailed fist of Herod the king. Christ lives and grows, and they who are His; Herod rots and dies.

The Sojourn Into Egypt (2:13-15)

The sojourn (2:13-14). The appearance of the angel of the Lord evidently followed soon after the departure of the Magi. Joseph, the head of his family, is told to flee to Egypt for the protection of his wife and child from Herod’s vicious enmity.

Hardly has the infant been honored by the wise men from the distant lands than the royal family is told to flee for their lives. “How strangely blended in our Lord’s life from the very dawning,” Maclaren points out, “are dignity and lowliness, glory and reproach! How soon His brows are crowned with thorns! The adoration of the Magi witnesses to Him as the King of Israel and the hope of the world. The flight of which that adoration was the direct cause witnesses no less clearly to Him as despised and rejected, tasting sorrow in His earliest food, and not having where to lay His head.”3

Why did He flee into Egypt? Principally because Egypt was relatively near, and many Jews were living there. There would be friends upon whom they could call for help. Further, Egypt was outside Herod’s domain. From the divine standpoint, however, it appears that the fulfillment of prophecy was paramount in the mind of heaven.

Joseph’s obedience is immediate, as the expression “by night” indicates. When there is no hesitation, no reluctance, and no delay in the carrying out of the divine commands, divine blessing follows.

The Scripture (2:15). Matthew sees in the return of our Lord from Egypt the fulfillment of Hosea 11:1. The passage in the historical context is a reference to the initial calling by God of Israel out of Egypt at the time of the Exodus. In what way does Matthew apply it to Christ?

In the first place, since the prophetic statement refers to a historical fact, it can only be a typical prophecy of Christ. There can only exist a correspondence between the action of God in the Exodus of Israel and the action of God in the exodus of the Son from Egypt. Augustine, you may remember, wrote that in the Old Testament the New Testament LIES CONCEALED, and that in the New the OLD LIES REVEALED.4 In the light of this it is not surprising to find that Israel is a type of Christ, and that her experiences are recapitulated in the experiences of Christ. Israel is God’s national son, just because she included in herself the SEED through whom God does all that He does for Israel. Their covenant and promises were theirs because He was theirs. When Israel came out of Egypt, He the coming Seed came out of Egypt. Their promises could not have been fulfilled if He had remained in Egypt. In other words, He and Israel stand together, identified by origin and nature (cf. Rom. 1:3-4; 2 Tim. 2:8).5 As Gundry puts it, “Jesus is the representative Israelite in whose individual history the history of the whole nation, apart from its sin and apostasy, is recapitulated and anticipated.”6 We conclude, then, that the ancient statement finds its anti-typical fulfillment in the return of the Son of God from Egypt. What Israel was intended to be, but failed to be, He, the true Servant of God, was.

In later years the enemies of Jesus said that He went into Egypt to learn the magic and sorcery by which He was able to perform His miracles. The Talmud says, “Ten measures of sorcery descended into the world; Egypt received nine, the rest of the world one.” Celsus, the pagan philosopher and foe of Christianity, claimed that Jesus was brought up as an illegitimate child, that He served for hire in Egypt, coming to the knowledge of powers by which He later proclaimed Himself God. This is simply the slander of a twisted mind.

The truth is that His brief stay in Egypt served the very same purpose in His life which Israel’s stay served in their life. It sheltered Him from His enemies, and it gave Him room to grow stronger. The history of the past is a shadow of the future, for it is God who controls history, molding it to His purposes.

The Slaughter Of The Infants (2:16-18)

The slaughter (2:16). Herod, inflamed because He saw that he had been tricked, angrily orders a massacre of children in the village of Bethlehem and its vicinity. He really should have been angry with himself, for his own trick had simply boomeranged. His pride, however, was at stake. So the king order the slaughter of the children.

How foolish sin makes rebellious men! To think that the earthly king imagines that he is able to thwart the purpose of the heavenly King. Does he not realize that the God who sent the Magi home another way will cause his second attempt to overthrow the divine will to fail also? As Maclaren says, “What a contrast between the king de jure, the cradled infant; and the king de facto, going down to his loathesome death, which all but he longed for! He may well stand as a symbol of the futility of all opposition to Christ the King.”7

The slaughter of the children, obviously within the will of God, raises serious questions, the answers to which in their fullness lie hidden in the secrets of the will of God. It is evident that evil may have good issues, and, for the moment at least, we shall leave it at that.

“The fate of these few infants is a strange one. In their brief lives they have won immortal fame. They died for the Christ whom they never knew. These lambs were slain for the sake of the Lamb who lived while they died, that by His death they might live for ever. These

‘Little flowers of martyrdom,
Roses by the whirlwind shorn,’

head the long procession of martyrs, if not in intent, yet in fact, and, we may be sure, are now amongst the palm-bearing crowd, ‘being the first-fruits to God and the Lamb.’ ‘O happy little ones!’ says St. Augustine, ‘but just born, not yet tempted, not yet struggling, already crowned.’”

Maclaren concludes these beautiful comments by adding, “Even in His infancy, Christ came to bring not peace, but a sword, and the shadow of suffering for Him already attended the brightness of His rising.”8

It should be added that, due to the size of Bethlehem at the time, the estimated number of children slain is usually put at about twenty. The parallell of the incident with that of Pharaoh and the Exodus is clear (cf. Exod. 1:15-2:10).

The Scripture (2:17-18). Matthew sees in the incident a fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:15.9 To understand Matthew’s point it is necessary to understand the context of Jeremiah. In it Jeremiah is picturing the people of Jerusalem being led away captive into exile. The picture is that of vivid poetic imagery, based upon the fact that Rachel had been buried near Ramah, which, in turn, was near Bethlehem (cf. 1 Sam. 10:2-6; Gen. 35:19-20). The inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judah had been collected together in chains first at Ramah in Benjamin. Rachel was ideally the ancestress of Israel, the favorite wife of Jacob and a favorite with the nation (cf. Ruth 4:11). She died a pathetic and premature death, making a deep impression on the nation.

Thus, the evangelist in poetic imagery, too, pictures the mourning of the citizens of Bethlehem as being like that of the mourning of the captivity. Both took place under the very eyes of the mater dolorosa of the Old Testament, Rachel, who died in giving birth to Benjamin, and who still weeps over the sorrow of the exiles.

There exists, then, simply an analogy between the two passages. Both of them are highly poetic in their force, and Matthew has used the text to beautifully describe a similar situation in New Testament times.

One final point may be noted. In the Jeremiah passage the following context points out that the sorrow of the Babylonian exile shall be followed by the deliverance of a disciplined and revivified nation. Perhaps Matthew has the same idea in mind, too. A. C. Hebert has written, “Deeper meanings are suggested here: Rachel is the mater dolorosa of the Old Testament, who dies in giving birth to Benjamin, and is pictured by Jeremiah as still weeping over the sorrow of the exile. But the continuation of the passage is, that the children are to return from the land of the enemy; present sorrow is not the end of God’s purpose.”10 It is very fitting that there should follow in Jeremiah’s context the unfolding of the New Covenant, the basis of all of God’s promises of deliverance and forgiveness (cf. Jer. 31:31-37).

The sorrow of the bereaved mothers, then, is destined in the divine providence to result in great reward, the salvation of the people of God through the preservation of the Lord Jesus for this saving ministry.11

The Settlement At Nazareth (2:19-23)

The settlement (2:19-23a). In the remainder of chapter 2 the evangelist recounts the return of Joseph and the Babe to the land. Herod died in 4 B.C. in his 70th year at Jericho, ravaged by foul and fatal diseases, which neither his physicians nor warm baths could help. Josephus has summed up his life in the words, “He was a man of great barbarity toward all men equally, and a slave to his passion.”

The angel of the Lord appeared again to Joseph to give him guidance at the necessary time. His words, “they are dead who sought the young child’s life,” are a vivid reminder of the real Sovereign of the land. In fact, the words sum up in short sentence the failure of the attempt on the life of the Messiah, and they remind one of the words given Moses to encourage him to return in Egypt, “All men are dead which sought thy life” (Exod. 4:19).

They are “like an epitaph cut on a tombstone for a man yet living —a prophecy of the end of all succeeding efforts to crush Christ and thwart His work.”12

Archelaus (cf. v. 22) was a chip off the old block, and it is no wonder that Joseph feared him. Josephus says that he inaugurated his rule with the massacre of 3,000 people. As a result Joseph and the Babe find their way back to Galilee (cf. Isa. 9:1-7), to the city of Nazareth. In this city the Lord Jesus lived and grew into maturity.

The Scripture (2:23b-c). Again, Matthew is reminded of a prophecy, or prophecies, from the Old Testament Scriptures. “He shall be called a Nazarene” cannot be found in the Old Testament, and the problem has plagued biblical scholars for centuries. Alford concludes his discussion with, “I leave it, therefore, as an unsolved difficulty.”13 Plummer is no less uncertain, saying, “The difficulty about the prophecy quoted in verse 23 is one which our present knowledge does not enable us to solve.”14

I am sure it seems rash to suggest a solution in the light of these typical comments, and, while I shall offer a solution to the problem, I wish it to be understood that the suggestion is put forth with some hesitancy It has been suggested by some that the reference is to passages in prophetic books now lost. Others have made a very close connection with the word netser (AV, “Branch”) in Isaiah 11:1. Since that word suggests the lowliness of the Messiah, the suggestion is not implausible, although it is difficult to trace the word, “Nazarene,” to that Hebrew word. Others have suggested a reference to the Nazarite (cf. Jud. 13:5), but our Lord was not a Nazarite (cf. Matt. 11:18-19) and the terms are really different.

Finally, it has long been held that the evangelist refers here to no single text, but to the GENERAL TENOR of the Old Testament, namely, that He would be despised of men. The view assumes that a “Nazarene does refer to someone from the village of Nazareth (the identity is not certain). There may also be some connection with the netser of Isaiah 11:1 and the thought of lowliness there.

The advantages of the last-named interpretation are that it suits the plural, “prophets,” the absence of a verb of saying, as in other citations (cf. vv. 15, 17), and the implicit connection with the passage in Isaiah 11:1. If this is the meaning of Matthew, then he is simply saying that the Lord’s residence is the fulfillment of Scripture in that the general tenor of the Old Testament is that the Messiah shall be despised by men and lowly in status (cf. Isa. 53:24; Psa. 22:6-8; 69:11, 19). Nathanel’s words are then, understandable, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). “The name,” Maclaren points out, “was nailed over His head on the cross as a scornful reductio ad absurdum of His claims to be King of Israel.”15


Again, we note as we conclude our study that the evangelist places a heavy emphasis again upon the divine initiative in the story of the infancy of Christ. It is the angel of the Lord who warns Joseph to flee and, thus, to escape the hands of Herod. It is the angel of the Lord who appears to Joseph to command him to leave Egypt. It is the angel of the Lord who directs Joseph to Galilee by another dream. And, pre-eminently, it is the evangelist’s great purpose in the section to show that all of this history is divinely intended to harmonize with the written prophecies of the Old Testament record. The history of redemption is the history of the working of a sovereign and predestinating God, who is carefully moving all things forward to the time when they shall be gathered together in Christ (cf. Eph. 1:10).

And, finally, from Joseph’s experience we learn that they who patiently wait for the divine guidance, not moving until the cloud moves, are never disappointed, nor left undirected. The text of Scripture, “I will guide thee with mine eye” (Psa. 32:8), is sufficient.

1 Tasker, p. 18.

2 Hendriksen, p. 192.

3 Maclaren, I, 31.

4 Augustine, Quaestiones in Hept., ii. 73.

5 James Morison, A Practical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew (London, 1902), p. 21.

6 Gundry, p. 210.

7 Maclaren, I, 33.

8 Ibid.

9 In view of the fact that Matthew uses the particle tote here, which means simply then, rather than hina, meaning in order that, it would seem that the idea of intent or design in the fulfillment is played down.

10 A. G. Hebert, The Authority of of the Old Testament (London, 1947), p. 229.

11 Hill, p. 86.

12 Maclaren, I, 35.

13 Henry Alford, The Greek Testament (London, Oxford, and Cambridge, 1874), I, 18.

14 Alfred Plummer, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel of S. Matthew (Grand Rapids, 1953) p. 18.

15 Maclaren, I, 36.