"Our Redeemer - Preserved!"
(Delivered Sunday, March 21, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture is taken from the New King James Version, unles.)
The last time we looked together from the Gospel of Matthew, our focus was on the identity of our Lord Jesus with respect to His incarnation. Matthew, in the first chapter, focused our attention on the Savior's birth. He has shown us that, through His genealogy, Jesus was established in His humanity as the King in the lineage of David (vv. 1-17); and that, through his birth announcement, He was established in His deity as the Son of God.
When we come to the second chapter of Matthew's Gospel, we find that we're still talking about Jesus' childhood. But here, the focus is different. Having established Jesus as the Son of God who was born into the human family as the long-promised King of the Jews, Matthew now shows us how He was received in the world of men. Though welcomed by some, this promised King was born into a situation that was hostile to His coming; and Matthew shows us how God preserved Him in this hostile situation, so that He could - at the right time - serve as our Redeemer by dying on the cross for our sins.
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But before we turn to Matthew's Gospel, I'd like to take you to another passage - one that I believe gives us an important behind-the-scenes look at what's going on in this morning's story. This other passage is found in the twelfth chapter of Revelation; and deals with a great conflict that rages in spiritual realms.
In Revelation 12, the Holy Spirit has revealed a picture to us of events that span the history of God's redemptive work. John, under the leading of the Spirit, tells us, "Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars" (Rev. 12:1). This woman serves as a picture of God's chosen people, Israel. Back in Genesis 37, Jacob's son Joseph shared a dream he had with his twelve brothers - all of whom were to give birth to the twelve tribes of Israel. And in his dream, he saw his father Jacob and mother Rachel pictured as the sun and the moon; and he saw his twelve brothers as eleven stars (Gen. 37:9-11). And so, plainly, this picture in Revelation is a representation of Israel - God's chosen people.
In this vision, Israel is presented to us as the nation that gave birth to our Redeemer. As we read on, this becomes very clear; "Then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great, fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail drew a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born. She bore a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron. And her Child was caught up to God and His throne. Then the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, that they should feed her there one thousand two hundred and sixty days" (vv. 2-6).
There are many mysteries in this passage; but please notice that the woman - Israel - was represented as large with Child. She was about to give birth; and plainly, her Child is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the "male Child" who was born from Israel - born from the tribe of Judah and in the lineage of King David - who was destined to "rule all nations with a rod of iron".
And there, before her, was a horrible dragon. This dragon is identified later for us in verse 9 as "the great dragon . . . that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world". He was heaven's great 'rebel' who managed to draw a third of the angelic hosts with him in his rebellion against his Creator. And in this passage, we see a horrible scene: the devil as it were "crouching" before the woman - ready to devour her Child as soon as He was born.
You see; the devil has everything to lose in our redemption. The Bible tells us that we - who have trusted Jesus Christ as our Savior from sin, and who have been redeemed by His blood - are destined to be the devil's judges. The Bible teaches us, "Do you not know that we shall judge angels?" (1 Corinthians 6:3; see also Revelation 20:4). Jesus was manifest, the Bible teaches us, "that He might destroy the works of the devil" (1 John 3:8; see also Hebrews 2:14-15); and that He might fully "crush" the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). And it's the Lord's intention that it be by the feet of His redeemed ones that this crushing would occur! As Paul said to the Roman believers, "And the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly" (Romans 16:20).
Satan has everything to lose in our redemption; and as it was time for the Redeemer to be born, he had everything to gain in destroying Him before our redemption could be brought to pass. And so, the devil is pictured in this passage as ready to devour the Child - our Redeemer - as soon as He came into the world.
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Praise God! The dragon has failed; and our Redeemer was not only born, but went all the way to the cross for us! Satan's ultimate doom is secured now; and we have fully overcome him by the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 12:11)! But I have taken the time to show you this vision from Revelation, because I believe explains what's happening behind the scenes in the second chapter of Matthew's Gospel.
Matthew's second chapter tells us of how the devil, through a human instrument named Herod, sought to destroy the infant Child, as soon as He was born, and before He could become our Redeemer on the cross. We often think lovingly of the peaceful manger scene at Christmas; but we need to realize that it was a scene that all hell was in a fury over, and one that the devil was desperately marshalling all his forces against.
And what's more, this morning's passage tells us the story of how our sovereign heavenly Father Himself acted to thwart the devouring efforts of the dragon, and to preserve our Redeemer for us. I believe that, by looking closely at what Matthew tells us, we draw encouragement from how faithfully our God preserved our Redeemer for us. And we can also grow in the assurance that, just as He preserved our Redeemer for us, He is also faithful to preserve all of us who have trusted in Him unto the day of our full and complete redemption in glory!
Now; much in the story of this morning's passage is already very familiar to us. We often enjoy reading it every Christmas season. But during our time this morning, let's look behind the scenes of the Christmas story and see the spiritual warfare that was being waged. Let's take notice of how God faithfully preserved our Redeemer for us.
First, consider how He was . . .
1. PRESERVED THROUGH THE MAGI (vv. 1-12).
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him" (Matthew 2:1-2).
There was more than one place in Israel named "Bethlehem". Matthew clearly identifies this place as Bethlehem of Judea. This place is noteworthy; because it was the birthplace of King David. David was the son of "Jesse the Bethlehemite" (1 Samuel 16:1); and so, how appropriate that He who was born of the lineage of David, as the one destined to sit upon David's throne, should be born in the city of David (Luke 2:11)! And do you know what the name "Bethlehem" means? It means "City of Bread"; and so, how appropriate also that Bethlehem of Judea should be the birthplace of Him who proclaimed, "I am the bread of life" (John 6:48)!
It was some time after Jesus was born in Bethlehem that a group of "wise men" came from the Persian lands into the city of Jerusalem. These "wise men" - or "magoi" as they are called in the Greek - were astrologers. They were astute observers of the stars. And it apparently came to pass that a star had suddenly appeared in the sky that they had never seen before. They observed this star from their vantage point in the East; and knew that its appearance marked something of great significance. Whether or not it was a literal star, or just how they came to understand its significance, we're not told. Perhaps, as some Bible teachers have suggested, they knew something of the promise in the Scriptures that had been given through the prophet Balaam:
I see Him, but not now:
However it was that they came to interpret the significance of this sign in the sky, we can know for sure that they interpreted it correctly. They came to Jerusalem to inquire of the King whose birth it proclaimed. How many of them came is something we don't know. We're used to thinking of three magi - perhaps because they came bearing three gifts (v. 11). But it's always a dangerous thing to develop our theology from Christmas cards. There were perhaps many more than just three.
They came as a group of dignitaries to Judea, asking a question that they would naturally assume everyone in Judea would know the answer to. They said, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him." Word of this question got to Herod, king of Judea. And the reaction of the king was telling: "When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him" (v. 3).
To understand why he was troubled, you need to know something about Herod himself. He was king; but not by birth. And he was a Jewish king, but he himself was not even a Jew. He was an Idumean - born from a father who was lineage of Esau and of a mother who was Arabian. Herod was a descendent of the Edomite people; and was not naturally born as a king of the Jewish people, but was appointed as their king by the Romans nearly forty years before Jesus came into the world. He was a great builder and a great politician; but he was also very self-conscious of the fact that he was not king by birth. From the standpoint of Scripture, he was not on the throne legitimately. To hear the wise men ask Herod, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?" was something that would understandably be "troubling" to him. Such a question pointed out the impropriety of his rule.
But we also notice that "all Jerusalem" was troubled "with him. And this leads us to something else you need to know about Herod - he was an unspeakably brutal, paranoid and murderous ruler. He once had his wife and two of his own sons murdered because of his fear that they might plot against him. Herod's conduct toward his own family prompted Caesar Augustus to say that he would rather be Herod's "sow" than Herod's "son". Murder and death were among the regular features of Herod's reign. When it became apparent that he was going to die - in what has to be one of the most self-centered acts in recorded history - he ordered that one person from every Jewish household be killed at the same moment of his death, so that his own death would be accompanied by great mourning throughout the land. Thankfully, as far as we know, this monstrous "last wish" was not carried out.
So, when Herod was asked where the One who was "born" as King of the Jews could be found, and when this question "troubled" him, it's no surprise that "all Jerusalem" was also troubled too. As Spurgeon wrote, this cruel prince "delighted in shedding blood, and the darkness of his brow meant death to many."1 All Jerusalem, no doubt, feared what might come next whenever Herod grew suspicious or troubled; and as we read on in the story (see v. 16), we find that their fears were well-founded.
Word of the magi's question finally reached Herod; and he was so troubled by it that he searched into the matter even further;
And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for this it is written by the prophet . . ." (vv. 4-5).
And then, they quoted from Micah 5:2;
It's interesting, isn't it, how quickly the scribes and priests knew the answer? They knew where the Messiah was to be born. But we don't see in any of this that they were excited about the prospect of the Messiah having been born. The noble wise men came all the way from the East to inquire of Him and worship Him; but, as the apostle John writes, "He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him" (John 1:11).
Herod knew that this was a signal of the birth of the Christ - the true "King of the Jews" - but he was troubled that his own position might be threatened. And even though he had evil intentions in his heart toward the infant Christ, Herod managed to hide it all under an outward mask of piety. Matthew tells us,
Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me that I may come and worship Him also" (vv. 7-8).
Herod acted out of his own fears. He wanted to know where the Child was so that he could kill Him and protect himself from any possible threat to his throne. But I hope that you can see in all this how Herod had clearly become the unwitting puppet of another. He was the tool of the devil - that vile dragon who was preparing to devour the Redeemer as soon as he could, in order to prevent Him from going to the cross and saving us!
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The wise men were respectful to the king; and although they resolved to obey his command, we don't really know how they felt about his pretended enthusiasm. But after all, it was their intention to find the Child all along. And so, the left to seek the Child; and God miraculously aided them in their search. Matthew goes on to say:
When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worship Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold frankincense, and myrrh (vv. 9-11).
What a picture this is! Did you know that the Old Testament promises that such a thing will characterize the earthly reign of the Messiah? Psalm 72:10-11 tells us that "The kings of Tarshis and of the isles will bring presents; the kings of Sheba and Seba will offer gifts. Yes, all the kings shall fall down before Him; all nations shall serve Him." Isaiah 60:6 says of Israel that "The multitude of camels shall cover your land, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come; they shall bring gold and incense, and they shall proclaim the praises of the LORD." Here, the magi were simply giving us a taste of things yet to come!
Some Bible teachers have noted a particular significance in these three gifts. You'll notice that Isaiah's prophecy (60:6) mentions only two gifts: gold and incense. But here, we see three: gold (a precious metal which, universally, speaks of Christ's royalty), frankincense (a white, gummy resin that was hardened and used as incense, which speaks of the worship of Christ's deity), and myrrh (an extract that was used in grave wrappings, which speaks of Christ's suffering). Perhaps these wise men recognized not only the royalty and the deity of the Child, but also something of the eventual suffering that He would fulfill for us on the cross.
But the wise men were also in danger. Matthew tells us,
Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way (v. 12).
Thus, we see how God preserved our infant Redeemer for us - keeping Him out of the clutches of an evil puppet of the devil, and from the malice of the very ones who most should have welcomed Him. And God brought this preservation about through - of all people - Gentiles from a pagan land! How grateful we should be that God providentially preserved our Redeemer from the jaws of the dragon; so that He could eventually hang on the cross for us!
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We further see that our Redeemer was . . .
2. PRESERVED IN EGYPT (vv. 13-18).
We should be grateful for the magi. But we should also be grateful for Joseph. He is one of the great unsung heroes of the Bible. We don't hear much from him after the time of Jesus' childhood; and many Bible scholars believe this was because he died before Jesus reached adulthood. But Joseph figures greatly in the story of our redemption, because it was also through him that God preserved our Savior for us.
Matthew tells us what happened after the wise men left:
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, "Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him." When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, 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" (vv. 13-15).
Matthew here quotes from Hosea 11:1. It's a passage that speaks of how God, in great love, chose Israel for Himself and called its people out of bondage in Egypt - bringing them into the land of promise. But here, Matthew observes that this promise also had a more particular fulfillment: God's own Son Jesus was going to be called out of His brief time of preservation in Egypt.
And what a marvel this is! What an unexpected place for the King of the Jews to be preserved! In, of all places, Egypt - the land that had formerly been the bondage place of His people! Did you know that the Bible promises great future grace to the land of Egypt? God speaks through the prophet Isaiah and says,
"Then the LORD will be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians will know the LORD in that day, and will make sacrifice and offering; yes, they will make a vow to the LORD and perform it. And the LORD will strike Egypt, He will strike and heal it; they will return to the LORD, and He will be entreated by them and heal them.
Perhaps Egypt's future blessedness is reflected the grace God showed to her in allowing our precious Redeemer to be preserved there in safety.
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And that brings us to what it was that Jesus was preserved from. Matthew goes on to reveal to us the depths to which Herod's depraved, devil-inspired paranoia led him.
Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:"A voice was heard in Ramah,
Matthew here quotes from Jeremiah 31:15 - a passage that speaks symbolically of the Jewish matriarch Rachel weeping as her descendants were carried off into exile into Babylon. But again, Matthew shows us that the events of Jesus' life fulfilled a more particular fulfillment of prophecy; because the traditional burial place of Rachel is Bethlehem - the very place where all these innocent children were put to death by Herod.
What an unspeakably brutal tyrant Herod was! What a tool of the devil! He sought to kill any male child in Bethlehem who was two years old or under, in order to eliminate any possibility that He who was born as King of the Jews could threaten his rule. Scholars suggest that this vicious murder might have involved as many as twenty-five to thirty little boys. No wonder there was such weeping and great mourning!
And once again, we detect in this the hand of the devil. It was, ultimately, he who was seeking to devour the child as soon as He was born - just as it was also he who also inspired the king of Egypt many centuries before to order the destruction of every male child of Israel during the time of Moses (Exodus 1:15-22).
But we also detect the hand of God in the preservation of our Redeemer. What a sense of divine irony! God used the very place where the devil once sought to destroy our Redeemer's people, to now preserve our Redeemer!
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This leads us, finally, to notice how our Redeemer was . . .
3. PRESERVED IN NAZARETH (vv. 19-23).
Matthew tells us,
Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, "Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child's life are dead." Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there (vv. 19-22a).
The cruelties of Herod the Great revealed themselves in the latter part of his reign. But historians tell us that his son Archelaus revealed his cruelties right away. It was said that he possessed none of his father's skills but all of his cruelty. In fact, he was so brutal that the Romans removed him from power a short time after he began to reign. Joseph was understandably hesitant to return to Judea. It would have seemed like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.
But as Matthew goes on to tell us,
And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, "He shall be called a Nazarene" (vv. 22b-23).
Matthew's reference to the prophets here has caused scholars a lot of headaches; because there is no Old Testament prophet who literally says, "He shall be called a Nazarene." But there is a prophecy in Isaiah 53:2-3 that says,
For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him (Isaiah 53:2-3).
Nazareth, you see, was an isolated "country" village in the lower Galilee region. It had a bad reputation as a town that was culturally backwards and morally low. People who came from Nazareth were considered "hicks". We even see this in the response of the disciple Nathanael who, when he first heard from Philip that the Messiah had been found - "Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph" - simply exclaimed, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (John 1:46). To be a Nazarene was to be 'despised' and 'rejected' and 'unesteemed'.
But humble Nazareth has been accorded an esteemed place in God's redemptive history; because it is the place where Mary first heard from the angel that she would be the mother of the Savior (Luke 1:26). And it was in humble Nazareth that our Redeemer grew up into manhood. And so, how wonderful of God that He would choose to protect and preserve our Redeemer for us in the place that it would have seemed least likely for the King of kings and Savior of the world to be found - in, of all places, Nazareth!!
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There is much in this chapter; and many sermons could have been preached from it.
A sermon could be preached about how the King of the Jews was received by the world - sought out by the Gentiles, rejected by His own people, and found living among the humble and despised.
Another sermon could be preached on how the King's childhood fulfilled prophecy - born in Bethlehem as the prophet Micah promised, called out of Egypt as the prophet Hosea promised, and raised in humility as Isaiah promised.
Still another sermon could be preached on how Jesus' early childhood was marked by remarkable revelations from God - identified by a star, instructed by dreams, and led by angels.
But the thing that stands out the most to me in this passage is how God - in great grace - preserved our Redeemer for us, even though all the forces of hell itself were focused on destroying Him. The dragon sought to devour Him through Herod's treachery; but our Redeemer was preserved through the Magi. Then, the dragon sought to devour Him through Herod's rage and cruelty; but our Redeemer was preserved in Egypt. Finally, the dragon sought to devour Him through Herod's son; but our Redeemer was preserved in Nazareth. At every turn, our sovereign God preserved our Savior for us; and all so that He could eventually grow up into manhood, live a sinless life, and die for our sins in our place on the cross.
And the application of it all is this: If God has gone through such great lengths to preserve our Redeemer on earth for us, then we can be sure that He'll never fail to preserve us for heaven in our Redeemer. As Paul tells us;
In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory (Ephesians 1:13-14).
1C.H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon's Popular Exposition of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, n.d.), p. 5.
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