MATTHEW: FULFILLED PROPHECY
Matthew, the first book of the New Testament, serves as a bridge between the Old and New Testaments. Matthew is Jewish, and writes for Jewish readers. He has great interest in the fulfillment of prophecy, because he expects to persuade Jewish readers by it. Also, by his frequent references to these prophecies, he makes it clear to us that Jesus did not just appear on the scene unexpectedly. All along, God has been laying the groundwork for the coming of the Messiah. All along, God has been telling his people to expect the Messiah to come. The surprise is not that the Messiah has now come in the person of Jesus, but rather that he has come in such a humble manner.
Matthew’s Gospel makes sixteen references to fulfilled prophecy (1:22; 2:5, 15, 17, 23; 3:3; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 24:15; 26:54, 56 and 27:9), more than twice the number in the other three Gospels combined.
Matthew stretches far in his search for fulfilled prophecy. He refers to texts that were not originally intended to be messianic prophecies. In one case (2:23), he refers to a text not found in Hebrew scripture.
MATTHEW 2:13-23. THE CONTEXT
Matthew’s Gospel includes a number of parallels between Jesus and Moses, giving us a sense of Jesus as another Moses. This Gospel lesson includes several such parallels:
• Jesus’ flight to Egypt to escape Herod (2:13-15) parallels Moses being hidden in the bulrushes to escape Pharaoh, who schemed to murder infant Jewish boys to lessen Jewish power and the danger of a Jewish takeover (Exodus 1 – 2:10). It also parallels Moses’ flight to Midian to escape prosecution for murder (Exodus 2:11-22).
• The murder of baby boys by Herod (2:16-18) parallels the murder of baby boys by Pharaoh (Exodus 1:15-22). Both Moses and Jesus escaped the murderous plans of their respective rulers.
• Jesus’ return to Israel (2:19-23) parallels Moses’ elevation to Pharaoh’s palace as an infant (Exodus 2:1-10) and his return from exile after the death of the king of Egypt (Exodus 3-4).
• “for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead” (2:20) parallels “Go back to Egypt; for all those who were seeking your life are dead” (Exodus 4:19).
However, there is a significant twist in the New Testament account. When Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites go, God killed the firstborn sons of the Egyptians. Moses then led the Israelites through the Red Sea, killing the Egyptian soldiers. God led by might. The story in Matthew is quite different. God does not kill Herod or his soldiers (although verse 19 does report Herod’s death of ordinary causes). Instead, Herod kills the infants and other men will, in a few years, kill Jesus. In the Old Testament, God leads by power. In the New Testament, God leads by vulnerability.
The places cited in this lesson are important. Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the city of David. His journey to Egypt is like that of Jacob’s family, who went to Egypt to escape famine.
The events of this lesson show how Jesus happened to grow up in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem. In Galilee, he will grow up rubbing shoulders with Gentiles, which is appropriate to a Gospel that begins with Jesus being honored by wise men from the East (2:1-12), requires him to live for a time in Egypt (2:13-23), and concludes with a mission to “all nations” (28:19).
MATTHEW 2:13-15. ARISE; FLEE INTO EGYPT
13Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.”
14He arose and took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt, 15and was there until the death of Herod; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
“Arise and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him” (v. 13b). Imagine how Joseph must feel. Not long before, he was a middle-class, respected citizen, soon to be married. Now, a few weeks later, he is a fugitive from the king and his soldiers. In between, we have a wedding (1:24), the birth of a new baby, the visit of the wise men and their odd gifts (2:1-12), and the visit of an angel (2:13). Joseph must feel as if he has stepped onto a carnival ride.
“He arose and took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt” (v. 14). Joseph takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt, where they remain until Herod dies. It is a journey of at least 150 miles (240 km), so the journey will take many days. However, Joseph obeys immediately, not waiting for daylight. He begins his journey in the dead of night.
It is not unusual for Israelites to seek refuge in Egypt when life becomes difficult elsewhere. It is not far from Israel, but is outside Herod’s jurisdiction. Egypt has a substantial Jewish population, about one million people according to Philo (Boice, 39), so Joseph and his family will not live in isolation.
As noted above, this trip echoes the story of Moses as an infant. It also echoes the story of the earlier Joseph (Genesis 37-50), whose going into Egypt laid the foundation for the birth of the Israelite nation and the Exodus. That first Joseph was a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams. God also appears to this new Joseph in dreams (1:20; 2:13, 19).
A forced exile poses hardship, especially for poor people. Joseph and his family depart “by night.” They were away from home when the angel appeared, and could not return home to settle affairs or pick up Joseph’s tools. They will have to pay for food and lodging on their journey. The gold, frankincense and myrrh that the Magi gave to the baby Jesus (2:1-12) are part of God’s provision for the journey. These gifts are valuable and portable. Joseph can take them on the journey and sell them as needed until he gets established. For the longer haul, Joseph can find work as a carpenter in Egypt.
Joseph models unwavering obedience. As peculiar as his situation has become, Joseph obeys without complaint. He says not a word. We know little about him, but his prompt obedience is crucial to God’s plan. He knows nothing except the next step of the journey, but he takes that step. So also is our obedience crucial to God’s plan. We cannot see the fullness of God’s plan for our lives any better than Joseph could see it for his life, but we can be assured that our faithfulness will lead to great things too. We will not always be aware of them. Sometimes a seed that we plant in one place will blossom, unseen by us, in another. In any event, God will not fail to bless our faithfulness.
“and was there until the death of Herod; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son'” (v. 15). The verse is Hosea 11:1. The original reads, “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt” This was not a prophecy, but was instead a comment about God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. However, Matthew often finds these sorts of messianic connections in Hebrew Scriptures.
Israel had gone into Egypt many centuries earlier, and had come out of Egypt under Moses’ leadership. Jesus’ journey into Egypt as an infant connects him with that part of Israel’s history–and also with Moses’ role in freeing his people. Moses freed the Israelites from slavery to Egypt. Jesus will free people from slavery to sin.
MATTHEW 2:16-18. HEROD KILLED ALL THE MALE CHILDREN
16Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked by the wise men, was exceedingly angry, and sent out, and killed all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding countryside, from two years old and under, according to the exact time which he had learned from the wise men. 17Then that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, saying,
18“A voice was heard in Ramah,
lamentation, weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she wouldn’t be comforted,
because they are no more.”
“Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked by the wise men, was exceedingly angry, and sent out, and killed all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding countryside, from two years old and under, according to the exact time which he had learned from the wise men” (v. 16). There is no record of this incident other than Matthew’s account, but the story is fully in keeping with Herod’s murderous ways. He kills anyone whom he thinks to be a rival, including his wife and three of his sons. There is no reason not to believe this account of a massacre of babies.
Bethlehem is not a large city, perhaps a thousand people, so the male infants under two years of age would be few––perhaps ten or twenty (although the early church greatly exaggerated its estimates of this number). In a tyrannical time and place, the incident could easily escape notice except by those directly affected.
It would be hard to imagine such evil behavior if we had not seen it. Murderous behavior by one tribe––or religion––against another is still rampant today. Herod is alive and well––and not just in other people. There is a bit of Herod in each one of us when we feel threatened.
It is worth noting that God does not stop the massacre. God allows us freedom to do good or evil.
“A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; she wouldn’t be comforted, because they are no more” (v. 18). Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15, which portrayed the grief of Rachel, Jacob’s wife, at the fate of her people as they were led into exile. Rachel was dead, of course, and was reputed to be buried at Ramah––or perhaps in Bethlehem––on the route to Babylonia. Even in her grave, she wept at the fate of her children as they paraded by her in chains. Again, the verse from Jeremiah has nothing to do with the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem, but the verse from Jeremiah can look forward as well as back.
Matthew makes the exile a major turning point in Jesus’ genealogy (1:11-12). There were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen between David and the exile, and fourteen more from the exile to the Messiah (1:17). The exile brought the Davidic line to an end. Jesus, coming from the house and lineage of David, will reestablish it.
Rachel refused to be consoled. Any mother who has lost a child can understand Rachel’s inconsolable grief.
MATTHEW 2:19-21. WHEN HEROD WAS DEAD
19But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, 20“Arise and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel, for those who sought the young child’s life are dead.”
21He arose and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel.
“But when Herod was dead” (v. 19a). Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. Jesus’ birth had to take place 2-3 years earlier––perhaps 7-6 B.C.
“behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt” (v. 19b). This is the third appearance of an angel to Joseph in a dream (see 1:20; 2:12).
“those who sought the young child’s life are dead” (v. 20b). “The plural suggests the complicity of the ‘chief priests and scribes’ (2:4) and perhaps even ‘all Jerusalem’ (2:3). This expression points forward to the passion story and to the enemies of Jesus there (see 26:3)” (Harrington, 45).
The angel, who was silent for some period of time, puts God’s plan back in motion. As noted above, the angel’s words echo God’s call to Moses (Exodus 4:19).
“He arose and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel” (v. 21). Again, Joseph obeys without complaint or comment.
MATTHEW 2:22-23. HE WILL BE CALLED A NAZARENE
22But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in the place of his father, Herod, he was afraid to go there. Being warned in a dream, he withdrew into the region of Galilee, 23and came and lived in a city called Nazareth; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene” (Greek: Nazoraios)
“But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in the place of his father, Herod, he was afraid to go there” (v. 22a). When Herod the Great died, his kingdom was divided among his sons. Archelaus became tetrarch (a lesser title than king) of Judea. His extreme violence causes so many problems that the Romans will depose him in 6 A.D., after which Judea will be ruled by a Roman procurator except for the reign of Herod Agrippa I (A.D. 41-44). Joseph knows Archelaus’ reputation and is afraid.
“Being warned in a dream, he withdrew into the region of Galilee” (v. v. 22b). For the fourth time, Joseph receives his guidance in a dream, and again he obeys. Herod Antipas reigns in Galilee. Antipas is Archelaus’ brother, but is a more enlightened ruler––although he, too, is known for unethical behavior and violence.
“and came and lived in a city called Nazareth; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophets: ‘He will be called a Nazarene'”(Nazoraios) (v. 23). Joseph and his family settle in Nazareth. Matthew attributes this to the fulfillment of the prophecy, “He will be called a Nazarene.” There is a problem here, because the word, Nazoraios, does not appear anywhere in the Old Testament. There are several possible explanations.
Nazoraios might be a play on words. It sounds much like two Old Testament words, Nazarite and neser.
• A Nazarite is a person set apart as holy, and is required not to cut his hair, touch a dead body, or consume wine (Numbers 6; Judges 13:3-7). Jesus is set apart as holy, but he will touch a dead body (9:18-25) and drink wine (26:26-29; Luke 7:34), so he cannot be a faithful Nazarite.
• Neser appears in Isaiah 11:1, a messianic text: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch (neser) shall grow out his roots.” Jesus is clearly the branch to grow out of those roots.
• However, a number of scholars (Boice, 42; Bruner, 61; France, 94-95) note that Matthew said, “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet” (singular) in verse 15 and “that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet” (singular) in verse 17––but in verse 23 says, “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophets” (plural). They conclude that, when Matthew speaks of a Nazoraios in verse 23, he is not speaking of a specific prophecy by one prophet but rather of a more general series of prophecies that tell of the humble circumstances that the Messiah will experience.
For instance, Isaiah says, “to him whom man despises, to him whom the nation abhors, to a servant of rulers” (Isaiah 49:7)––and one who “gave (his) back to the strikers, and (his) cheeks to those who plucked off the hair; (who) didn’t hide (his) face from shame and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6). Isaiah also speaks of one who “was despised and rejected by men, a man of suffering and acquainted with disease” (Isaiah 53:3). Daniel speaks of an “Anointed One (who) shall be cut off, and shall have nothing” (Daniel 9:26). The Psalmist tells of one who is “a reproach of men, and despised by the people” (Psalm 22:6)––and one who has experienced insults, shame and dishonor (Psalm 69:19).
These scholars note that Nazareth was a very small town, probably only a few hundred people––sufficiently obscure that Josephus doesn’t even mention it in his list of towns. Nathanael helps us to understand Nazareth’s humble status when he asks,
“Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Nazareth is as modest as a hometown can be.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David (Luke 2:4, 11), an auspicious birthplace. However, he grew up in Nazareth, and was known as Jesus of Nazareth rather than Jesus of Bethlehem. Therefore “‘He shall be called a Nazorean,’ …may mean at least this: ‘he shall be considered a nobody.’ It is the Great God’s way to work exactly with nobodies in order, in Paul’s words, ‘to bring to naught the somebodies’ (1 Cor 1: cf. Judg 6-7 and Gideon)” (Bruner, 61).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1956)
Bergant, Dianne with Fragomeni, Richard, Preaching the New Lectionary, Year A (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2001)
Beker, J. Christiaan, Proclamation 6: Advent-Christmas, Series A (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995)
Boice, James Montgomery, The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1: The King and His Kingdom (Matthew 1-17) (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001)
Boring, M. Eugene, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Borsch, Frederick Houk and Napier, Davie, Proclamation 2, Advent-Christmas, Series A (Fortress Press, 1980)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV––Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Bruner, Frederick Dale, Matthew: Volume 2, The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28 (Dallas: Word, 1987)
Carson, D.A., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Farris, Lawrence W., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001)
France, R.T., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007)
Hagner, Donald A., Word Biblical Commentary: Matthew 1-13, Vol. 33a (Dallas: Word, 1993)
Hamm, Dennis, Let the Scriptures Speak, Year A (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2001)
Hare, Douglas R. A., Interpretation: Matthew (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993)
Harrington, D.J., Sacra Pagina: Matthew (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991)
Hauerwas, Stanley, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006)
Hultgren, Arland J. Lectionary Bible Studies: The Year of Matthew: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977)
Johnson, Sherman E. and Buttrick, George A., The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 7 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1951)
Long, Thomas G., Westminster Bible Companion: Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
Morris, Leon, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1992)
Pilch, John J., The Cultural World of Jesus: Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1995)
Senior, Donald, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Matthew (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Soards, Marion; Dozeman, Thomas; McCabe, Kendall, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Year A (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993)
Wylie, Samuel and McKenzie, John L., Proclamation: Advent-Christmas, Series A (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974)
Copyright 2009, Richard Niell Donovan