August 18, 2013
God’s good rescue is always seen in contrast to the world’s evil.
I. God rescues to move his plan forward (Matthew 2:13-15)
II. Evil is always trying to thwart God’s plan (Matthew 2:16-18)
I want to begin this morning by showing three versions of a beautiful Hubble Space telescope image. This is what is called a barred galaxy, a galaxy with only two arms that connect to a straight core. This first image is not very impressive because I’ve changed the background to an average value of the color of the stars; you can hardly see anything. If I change the background to pure white you can’t see anything at all. But if I go to the original, you see clearly the beauty of the stars. God’s work stands out against the dark background.
When we were in Slovakia we had several physical injuries, head colds, stomach bugs and back trouble. As we talked and prayed about this we saw that despite these issues, God was doing remarkable things among us, even through us. At some point that image occurred to me: just as stars are best seen against a dark background, so God’s marvelous provisions, miracles and rescues are best seen in the midst of darkness. Our text this week, Matthew 2:13-18, is an example of this: his good rescue is clearly seen in contrast to the world’s evil.
Before we read our text, let’s look at context. Last week we looked at Matthew’s genealogy and noted that God is THE master at working a long term plan to bring us a Messiah King. The rest of Matthew 1 gives Joseph’s viewpoint on Christ’s miraculous birth: His betrothed, Mary, was pregnant. Joseph intended to divorce her, but then an angel spoke to him in a dream and told him that the baby was a gift from God. Joseph is told to name the child Jesus because ‘he will save his people from their sins.’ Matthew adds that “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.”
Matthew 2 tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea when Herod was king. Herod was a baddie. He was appointed by Caesar to rule his mother’s people, the Jews. He was a marvelous builder: he rebuilt the Jewish temple and created whole cities. But he was also a psychopath, insanely jealous of his power. He killed wantonly and often. He had one of his wives and several of his sons murdered. Caesar once said it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.
Let’s think about Herod’s evil for a minute. God told his people that all the nations of the world would be blessed through them. This implies that there is a need for blessing, that somehow the nations are in poverty or darkness. And Herod and the Romans reveal that at the heart of that poverty is the wanton cruelty and evil of men, their sin and inhumanity. The Herods and Neros and Hitlers of the world are the dark backdrop against which God’s rescue takes place.
It is to this Herod that wise men, magi from the east came looking for ‘the king of the Jews.’ These magi may have come from Babylon, where there was a large Jewish community. Aware of the Jewish writings, they had associated the appearance of a new star with the promise of a Jewish Messiah King. Numbers 24:17 says “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” We don’t have time this morning to rehearse all the theories about this star, but whatever it was it convinced these learned men that a king had been born, and that they needed to go to Jerusalem to find and honor this king.
When Herod heard this he was troubled, and when Herod ain’t happy ain’t nobody happy. So he asked both the chief priests and the teachers of the law where the Messiah was supposed to be born. Notice that even Herod, who wasn’t an expert in Scripture, correlates ‘Messiah’ with ‘King.’ And the experts had his answer immediately. Micah 5:2 says “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.” The Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem.
So Herod tells the Magi where to go look, but he seems to already be plotting evil, because he asked them exactly when the sign appeared. Then he asks them to tell him what they find, “that I too may come and worship him.” It’s obvious Herod never intended to honor him as king – but the magi left to do just that.
The star, further adding to its mystery, reappears and leads them to Bethlehem, possibly to the house where toddler Jesus and his family were now staying. The magi found the child and his mother and they honored or worshipped him. Then they gave him gifts. It’s not likely they knew enough to associate the gold with his kingship and the frankincense with his deity and the myrrh with his Passion, but they gave valuable gifts that honored him as a king. Then one or more of them had a dream, a warning anyone in Jerusalem could have given them, that Herod was dangerous. So they went home by another route.
So why is this story here? First, it reinforces what we learned in chapter 1, that Matthew’s account is of one who is the Messiah, one who came to be king. Matthew wants us to know that Jesus is the Messiah King promised in Scripture. Over and over he cites the Old Testament as pointing to Jesus.
Second, this particular story also shows that Jesus was a gift for all the nations. God promised Abraham that through his offspring all the nations would be blessed. Psalm 72 describes the messiah king and says “May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! 11May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!” Isaiah 60 says that “all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord.”
Matthew wants you and me to believe that Jesus was not a historical accident, but the fulfillment of age-long promises. And he wants you and I, Gentiles, to believe that we’ve been included in those promises from the beginning.
But these promises are fulfilled despite the presence of great evil in our fallen world. God’s work stands in stark contrast to that great evil. Our text shows that God is at work to rescue, to make his plan happen. Verses 13-15: Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Egypt was a natural place to flee. It was nearby, a well-ordered Roman province outside Herod's jurisdiction; and, with a large Jewish population. In previous generations Egypt had at times been a stumbling block for the Jews looking for protection, but Scripture also remembers that in Genesis Egypt was God’s provision for the protection of his people, when first Joseph and then Jacob and the whole clan went down to Egypt rather than starving in the famine.
So as he had for Jacob, God now took sovereign action to preserve Jesus, his Savior Son. The angel's explicit command was that Joseph, Mary, and the Child must remain in Egypt, not only till Herod's death, but till given leave to return. The command was also urgent. Joseph left at once, setting out by night to begin the seventy-five mile journey to the border. And verse 15 tells us that Joseph, Mary and the child were not given that leave to return until after the death of Herod, and that this return fulfilled Scripture written long before.
The quote is from Hosea 11:1, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” One of Matthew’s big ideas is to show that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises of a Messiah King. The Isaiah and Micah verses just quoted accomplish this. But every so often Matthew tells us that Jesus fulfills a verse that doesn’t even seem to be prophetic. So we need to take a minute to explore this. How does Matthew use the Old Testament?
We start by recognizing that the New Testament doesn’t always use the word ‘fulfill’ in the narrow sense of the prophets predicting something. They do that, but the history and laws of the Old Testament are also perceived to have prophetic significance. This is obvious when we think of Jesus saying that he came to fulfill the law and the prophets. Jesus sees his keeping of the law as having prophetic value – it was part of God’s rescue plan.
Another example: the writer of Hebrews argues that laws regarding the tabernacle and the sacrificial system were from the beginning designed to point toward the only Sacrifice that could really remove sin and the only Priest who could serve as an effective Mediator between God and man. These instructions point to Jesus even though they themselves are not prophecy.
In quoting verses not strictly prophetic, the New Testament writers are pointing to fulfillments and fruitions of Old Testament themes. So when we look at a fulfillment verse that seems jarring, we have to ask what larger themes are at work. Hosea probably didn’t have Jesus explicitly in mind when he wrote 11:1, but he did have the great theme of God’s rescue in mind. The rest of Hosea 11, a beautiful chapter, shows how God loves his people and shows mercy, even rescuing them when they deserve judgment. Jesus fulfills that theme: God will call him ‘out of Egypt,’ to be that rescuer. In this sense Hosea would agree with Matthew there is Messianic force and fulfilment in 11:1.
Don Carson says it this way “Hosea himself looks forward to a saving visitation by the Lord. Therefore his prophecy fits into the larger pattern of Old Testament revelation that both explicitly and implicitly points to Jesus the Messiah.” Israel's history looks forward to this one who fulfills it. So does Hosea 11:1.
Matthew 2:13-15 is in fact a remarkable example of God’s plan at work. Jesus is born in Bethlehem in fulfillment of prophecy, but in a fallen world, in that day, Bethlehem isn’t a safe place. Evil is at work. Evil choices are being made. Satan wants to stop every plan, God’s plan. So God rescues, working through his messengers, angels that appear in dreams. He sends the family to a safe place and then calls his son back so that his plan for the Messiah king, his plan for rescue and redemption can go forward.
Which leads us to our last verses and to arbitrary evil and to the light which is best seen in the midst of darkness. Matthew 2:16-18 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 18“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
This account is, sadly, in perfect harmony with what we know of Herod's character in his last years. There is no record of this event outside of Scripture, but that’s not really surprising. The death of a few children, maybe ten to twenty, would hardly have been recorded even in Josephus’ detailed account of Herod’s life, because he and those around him carried out so many larger crimes.
To cite just one example, shortly before or after the Bethlehem incident, Herod placed a Roman emblem, an eagle in the Temple courtyard and when the Jews rioted he had forty of them publicly, brutally killed as an example to others.
Herod probably didn’t wait long to carry out this slaughter. Bethlehem was only five miles away and he must have expected to hear from the magi within a day or two. When word didn’t come his patience must have been quickly exhausted. So he sent his soldiers to kill all Bethlehem’s male children two years and under, based on his conversation with the magi. And you have to ask – what kind of insanity is this? So protective of his own position that the existence of an unnamed peasant baby incites him to multiple murders? So callous to evil that the death of babies doesn’t even daunt him?
Matthew asks that question in verse 17 using another Old Testament text, Jeremiah 31:15 Thus says the Lord: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” In context, Jeremiah is describing the cry of the people’s hearts as they were sent off to Babylon in 586 B.C. The captives were gathered at Ramah before they were taken into exile. Rachel, one of the historic mothers or matriarchs of the Jewish people is seen as crying out, because her "children," her descendants "are no more." that is, they are being removed from the land and are no longer a nation.
Why does Matthew refer to this Old Testament passage? We’ve already seen that a prophecy does not need to have been specifically aimed at a future fulfillment to be fulfilled in the eyes of the New Testament writers. It is enough that the prophecy express the unfolding understanding of how God worked with his people then and how he is working with them now. In this case, the Jeremiah verse perfectly captures the anguish of living in an evil world where horrible things happen even to God’s people. This was why Rachel wept in Jeremiah’s day, and it is an equally good reason for her to weep in Jesus’ day.
Carson says “The tears of the Exile are being "fulfilled" – that is, the tears begun in Jeremiah's day are climaxed and ended by the tears of Bethlehem’s mothers. The heir to David's throne has come, the Exile is over, the true Son of God has arrived, and he will introduce the new covenant promised by Jeremiah.”
So God’s good rescue – of Jesus in this case - is seen in contrast to the world’s evil, the slaughter of the innocents. Yet we can’t help but ask why? Why should these innocent infants have had to die when God could and did rescue Jesus? Why was Herod allowed to carry out this slaughter in the first place? Couldn’t God have just stopped it? Why does he allow this evil, or our suffering, or disasters like the holocaust or abortion?
These are legitimate questions, the cry of a heart encounter what is called ‘the problem of evil.’ How can a good God allow evil to exist, especially evil against the innocent? This is one of the ways the world and unbelievers mock Christianity. If God is both powerful and good why does he allow evil?
The truth is that many good answers have been given. C. S. Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain and less formally A Grief Observed to address just this issue. I read a reviewer this week who said of the first ‘Lewis's classic is still the most wide-ranging, accessible, and cogent response to the problem of evil. Don't let its analytical tone make you forget, as many do, that its author lost his mother in childhood and fought on the frontlines of the First World War.” And of the second “This cry from the heart keeps any intellectual response to evil rightly modest. Ideas are good; prayers, even angry ones, are better.”
Don Carson, whose Matthew commentary I’m using with this series wrote a really good book called How Long, O Lord? in which he addresses the tension between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Joni Eareckson Tada wrote one called When God Weeps. And there are dozens of others. I want you to know today that the problem of evil has been handled compellingly and sensitively by many. Far from being a road block, often these questions become a door to faith. So read these books, have these conversations.
I’ve already implied one of the answers I find compelling and that is that a sovereign God has allowed human choices, and Satan’s choices for that matter, to be meaningful. He’s still sovereign; he’s will accomplish his plan, but he orders the universe and allows choices that have real and meaningful consequences. Adam and Eve’s choice was real and irreversible. Adolf Hitler’s choices fostered a system in which the murder of millions was gruesomely effective. America’s philosophical choices lead to a system in which millions of people a year can choose to inflict painful suffering death on babies. And while God allows these choices, he isn’t passive toward them. He promises to bring both rescue and judgment. He has already brought rescue to millions of people through faith in Jesus Christ, the forgiving power of his death on the cross.
God grieves at these things and is doing something, has done something, will do something about them. Michael Card, reflecting on Rachel weeping for her children, wrote a song, ‘The Spirit of the Age’ which has clear application to the abortion tragedy. But it can also address other evils that have mystified us in recent generations. On the Slovakia missions trip some of us were taken to Auschwitz. Like most people and I was struck deeply by the mechanical efficiency of the death machine the Nazis created, and by their seeming complete insensitivity to the human suffering and evil they carried out.
So I took my video from Auschwitz and some footage from recent abortion news and combined them with Michael Cards song. I want to play that for you now:
“I thought that I heard crying coming through my door. Was it Rachel weeping for her sons who were no more? Could it have been the babies crying for themselves? Never understanding that they died for someone else? A voice is heard of weeping and of wailing. History speaks of it on every page: of innocent and helpless little babies, offerings to the spirit of the age.
“No way of understanding this sad and painful sign. Whenever Satan rears his head, there comes a tragic time. If He could crush the cradle then that would stop the cross. He knew that once the Light was born His every hope was lost. A voice is heard of weeping and of wailing. History speaks of it on every page: of innocent and helpless little babies, offerings to the spirit of the age.
“Now every age has heard it, the voice that speaks from Hell: "Sacrifice your children and for you it will be well." The subtle serpent's lying, His dark and ruthless rage, behold, it is revealed to be the spirit of the age. A voice is heard of weeping and of wailing. History speaks of it on every page: of innocent and helpless little babies, offerings to the spirit of the age
“Soon all the ones who seemed to die for nothing will stand beside the Ancient of Days. With joy we'll see that Infant from a manger come and crush the spirit of the age. We'll see Him crush the spirit of the age.”
Do you see where Michael Card goes with this? He feels the tragedy and the horror, but he tells us that God has not abandoned the world to the consequences of evil. He will judge the spirit of the age; he will judge Satan; he will judge evil; he will judge sin and he will judge sinners. And Matthew also wants us to see that he is a God who is working a rescue plan in Jesus. The light and beauty is always seen against the backdrop of evil. The one who gives life is confronted from the very moment of his birth with heartless murder. But God rescues him so that he might rescue others.
And the whole life and ministry, the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus follow the same pattern. His own righteousness will be seen against the evil temptations of Satan. His teaching of heart religion will be seen against the darkened hearts of the Pharisees. His healings must by definition occur in a world of sickness and pain. His miracles over nature, of provision and peace occur in a world that is fallen and dangerous and poverty stricken. His rescue of those who are possessed by demons are rescues to light of those in Satan’s darkness.
And of course in his passion he was wrongfully accused, unjustly condemned, beaten, tortured, mocked and crucified by those who deserved everything he received. He came into the world as light but men loved darkness; he came to his own and his own received him not. Why? To make the glory of the light of his sacrifice shine even brighter. God’s rescue of us is the bright light shining in the darkness of sin. It is to a world of danger and death and destruction and despair and unmitigated evil that Jesus came as the rescuer. And he accomplished that rescue by taking our sins on himself. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross that we might die to sin and live for righteousness. He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was upon him and by his wounds we are healed.
This astounding sacrifice shines as a light against the darkness of a universe in rebellion and offers us our only hope. In Jesus God breaks the bonds of darkness and addresses our evil hearts through the forgiveness of sins. We have said that all of the evil we see comes through choices: choices made by individuals, choices made by cultures, choices made by leaders, choices made even by spiritual forces, and even the choices made by Adam and Eve and the consequences of all those choices. God, while entirely sovereign, allows human choices to have meaningful and even heartrending consequences.
But you and I still have choices: today you can trust in Jesus and find forgiveness, or shake your fist at him and become remain in the darkness. Jesus says “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.” God’s good rescue is always seen in contrast to the world’s evil. God’s light shines in darkness. Herod and Hitler and Gosnell are not the final word, for against the darkness of Herod and his atrocity in Bethlehem is set the rescue of Jesus, the escape plan to Egypt. And against the Herod and the Hitler and the Gosnell in our own hearts stands Jesus’ death on the cross by which we can be delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of Jesus’ light.
There is still weeping in this world, but the messiah king has come and shone the light of God’s good rescues into the darkness around and within us.