Friday, December 14, 2018

Devotional: Jesus the New Israel, Matthew 2:13-23

Outline of Matthew 2.12-23

Matthew concludes the account of Jesus’ birth and childhood with the story of how God preserved his life from Herod’s attempt to murder him and how that resulted in Jesus growing up in Nazareth of Galilee. Matthew is telling the story in a way that reveals Jesus as the embodiment of the nation of Israel who will accomplish what Israel was supposed to do and thus, will “fulfill” what God had planned to do through Israel. It is likely that the main background for this is the servant songs in Isaiah in which the Servant-Messiah brings in the kingdom of the age to come through his message, substitutionary death and exaltation (Isaiah 53). This was a common theme in the Hebrew scriptures and Matthew will cite Jeremiah, Hosea, and allude to many other passages to make his point. Jesus will not only bring in the peaceful worldwide kingdom promised to David and Abraham, but he will also recapitulate the slavery, suffering and exile of Israel. But, unlike the nation, he will live without sin, perfectly fulfill the covenant and accomplish Israel’s mission to bring blessing to the whole world. .

The Magi are the first of many Gentiles who will come, worship and follow Jesus. Herod, on the other hand reminds us that opposition to Jesus’ mission and rule is deep within the human heart and, wherever Jesus message goes out, there will also be persecution of the messengers.(2:13-15) The irony here is that pagans are honoring God's Messiah, while the religious leaders of the Jews, who know enough to know where Messiah will be born, are not willing to go out of their way even to go find him. Herod typifies the oppressor of God's people. He reminds one of pharaoh. And like the Israelites in Egypt (Hosea 11:1), Jesus's family become refugees fleeing Herod, but are miraculously preserved by God. Matthew reminds us of Israel's history to encourage us that when we follow God’s call he will also preserve us through suffering and persecution because Jesus leads us in a new exodus into God’s kingdom.

The journey to the new exodus is not easy. The worship of the Magi leads to the murder of the infants in Bethlehem.(2:16-18)  As throughout history, the desire to preserve the earthly power of leaders leads to the suffering of their people. Matthew likens the suffering of the people of Bethlehem to that of the people in the slaughter of the Babylonian invasion and exile of Israel when their children were slaughtered before their eyes (Jeremiah 31:15). But with this reminder of the “normal” intense suffering life in this evil world brings, Jeremiah 31 is also a reminder that, when suffering leads to a turning to God, there is restoration, a new covenant, and hope for  a new world. This is what Jesus came to earth to bring to us.

But tyrants die and God’s plan to bless the world goes on. The angel who has been guiding Joseph announces the good news of Herod’s death and tells Joseph to return to Israel. (2:19-23) But this time the angel directs him to settle in Nazareth of Galilee. The angel speaks to Joseph four times in this short section to direct him and save his life. Joseph’s attentiveness to God’s direction and quick obedient response is an example for how we should navigate difficult and chaotic times.

Matthew ends the story of Jesus’ birth and childhood with the note that he would be called a “Nazarene” “so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled.” (2:23) This is a puzzling statement because Matthew cites no specific prophecy. It is likely that Matthew is thinking about Isaiah 9:1 which predicts that the “great light” will come from “the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.” The word “Nazarene” is also a puzzle. It is possible that Matthew is making a word play off of the Hebrew word for “branch” (נצר natsar). This word is used in several places (Isaiah 11:1 for one) to describe the coming king as a son of David who will bring God’s final kingdom. Matthew’s point is that, like David, even though Jesus came from an insignificant town and a lowly background, he is the king of Israel and will fulfill the career predicted by the prophets.

The bottom line is that we can be sure that, despite opposition, suffering, and anything else this evil world can throw at us, Jesus has lived through it, has overcome it and will preserve us through it. We follow the path of the new exodus into blessing as we are attentive to the voice of the Spirit and as we trust and follow Jesus.

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