Matthew 2:13-23 // Finding the Light in the Dark Side of Christmas

[This sermon was preached on December 27th, 2020 for the Mars Hill Cumberland Presbyterian Church broadcast on their Facebook page.]

Good morning, we’re going to read from the Gospel of Matthew, and we’re just going to read verses 13-23. We’re going to read the violent scene that takes place at the hands of Herod, and we’re going to see what an awful scene like this means for us today.

When you get to Matthew 2:13-23, go ahead and stand for the reading of God’s Word.

TEXT: Matthew 2:13-23, NKJV

PRAYER OF ILLUMINATION:

Almighty and Everlasting God, we have a hard text before us. It looks bleak and we need help seeing the Gospel, the good news, in a text like this. So Father, would you come to us with the power of the Holy Spirit and open our hearts to hear what You have to say to us through this word? Father, send the Holy Spirit to cleanse our hearts leave the other side of this message looking more and more to you than when it began. We ask these things in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

INTRODUCTION:

Last week, I gave a brief history lesson over what was going on in Rome at the time of Jesus’ birth which made his arrival at that particular time all the more meaningful. Whenever we read the Scriptures, it’s important for us to consider the cultural and historical landscape of what’s going in the world around the writing of Scripture because Scripture wasn’t written in a vacuum apart from what was going on. Scripture was written by a particular people in a particular place in time and they assumed that their audience would know what was going on at the time because they didn’t expect the world to go on into this many future generations. They thought Jesus would have been back within a generation or two perhaps even in their own lifetimes, and a lot of information can be lost in 2000 years so it’s important for us to consider what was going on in the world that surrounds the writing of Scripture so we can see the full context of what we’re reading when we open the Bible. 

This week we’re going to expound more on what’s going on in the world around the time of Jesus’ birth. So many times we prefer the more serene pictures of the nativity that we see on Christmas cards at Hallmark or Hobby Lobby, but I don’t think we consider the darkness of the circumstances surrounding such a holy event. So, this morning we will consider “Where the Light Shines in the Dark Side of Christmas.”

Romans 15:4 tells us that “whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” We apply that principle to stories in the Bible that might be hard to grasp for whatever reason because we’re trusting that by reading those things it will strengthen our hope. 

So, the natural question is: where’s the hope? It seems like evil is running rampant, and Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are on the run. The only good thing about it is that at the end, Herod dies, and Joseph and Family seem to have found a place to lay down roots in Nazareth. So, what does it all mean? 

What I want to do this morning is I want us think about this passage under two headings, I want us to think about: The Suffering of the World, and The Savior of the World.

The circumstances surrounding Christ’s birth are interesting to begin with:

  • First, an angel appears to Zechariah and tells him that he and his wife will have a baby, and we know from last week’s Sunday School lesson that his child going to be John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ.
  • Then, an angel appears to Mary to tell her that she will give birth to Jesus.
  • Then, an angel appears to Joseph to confirm that Mary is in fact pregnant with the Son of God.
  • Then, angels appear to shepherds to tell them that a Savior had been born in the City of David. Now, shepherding was a working man’s job. Remember last week we said that it wasn’t exactly considered a noble profession and the testimony of shepherd weren’t even allowed to be heard in court. Shepherds aren’t the kind of people that anyone would expect to see the angels come to. 
  • Then wise men are guided by a star in the East to the place where Jesus was born. 

Then finally, in our passage, an angel appears to Joseph two more times to show him where to go and what to do. 

THE SUFFERING OF THE WORLD

Meanwhile, in the midst of all this good news and celebration, Herod issues an edict that all male children two years old and younger should be put to death. Why? Because he’s insecure.

  • In his mind, he’s the King of the Jews. Afterall, he’s the one who went before the Roman Senate petitioned to have that title. He’s going to kill anyone who threatens his place in society, including children, and not just children, but his own children as well.
  • Herod had three sons, and one of them framed the other two in a conspiracy to have Herod assassinated, and so Herod, feeling threatened, didn’t hesitate to have his own sons put to death. 

This kind of evil that Herod perpetuates isn’t like a tornado or a hurricane that comes through and kills people, and damages property. Natural disasters like that are impersonal, but the death of these children is an active and decisive act of someone who is evil and bent on retaining control and power. 

  • If modern day psychologists were to peer into his mind they would probably deem him a deranged sociopath.

But this is the world that Jesus is born into. 

“Perhaps no event in the gospel more determinatively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the death of these children. Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants… 

The Herods of this world begin by hating the child, Jesus, … [they] end up hurting and murdering children. That is… the politics of murder to which the Church is called to be the alternative.” – Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew

So, this is where we begin to learn about Jesus, the savior of the world. 

THE SAVIOR OF THE WORLD

Jesus is born into a world of suffering. Jesus is born into a world of pain. Jesus is born into a world where children are murdered and where people are fighting each other for control of a world that they only have a few years to live on. 

And the reason Jesus is born into this world is so the world can be transformed and renewed, and in order for that to happen, Jesus has to be better. 

  • First, Jesus has to be the better Adam. 
  • God’s plan for the world was to create a dwelling place for himself, and He gave Adam a responsibility, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it…” (Gen. 1:28) He also tells him that there’s a tree that he can’t partake of. It’s the tree of the knowledge of good and evil
  • Adam fails in his obedience to God, he partakes of the tree with wife, and they are kicked out of the garden.
  • Jesus has to be the more obedient Adam. He doesn’t disobey God in any way, instead He fulfills the law in every aspect. 
  • Secondly, Jesus has to be the better Moses.
    • Have you noticed that the beginning of Moses’ life, and the beginning of Jesus’ life are very similar? At the beginning of Moses’ life there’s a Pharaoh who feared God’s people. He feared that the Jewish population would get so big that there would be an uprising to Egyptian government, and he would lose his power. So, he sets out to murder their male children, and Moses’ life was spared because Exodus 1 tells us that the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them. (Exodus 1:17)
    • At the beginning of Jesus’ life there’s a king who also fears losing his power, and now he’s hearing about this baby who is supposed to be the king of Jews so he sets out to kill all the male children in his region. Do you see how Moses’ life and Jesus’ life are running parallel?
    • In Exodus 2, Moses kills an Egyptian soldier and takes refuge in Midian because Pharaoh is out to kill him. In Exodus 3, Moses see the burning bush, and God tells him that it’s time to go to Egypt. When we come to Exodus 4, God tells Moses that he can finally go back to Egypt.
      • “Now the Lord said to Moses in Midian, “Go, return to Egypt; for all the men who sought your life are dead.” – Exodus 4:19, NKJV
      • Does that sound familiar? It’s the almost exact same phrase from our passage in Matthew 2:20 where the angel appears to Joseph and says, “…go to the land of Israel for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” Like Moses, his life is being sought after, and like Moses, God makes a way for him to go back to where He is to lead God’s people.
  • According to Matthew 2:15, this all took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Hosea, “Out of Egypt I called my Son.”
    • When you’re reading your Bible in the New Testament, and you notice that the text says, “this was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet” or “as it is written…” go back in your Old Testament and see what’s being said in context. If you do that, I promise the Bible will open up to you.
    • So, when Matthew says that this was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, we need to see where it comes from. Most your Bibles have cross references, and if you follow your cross-references it should take you back to Hosea 11.

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son.

2 As they called them, so they went from them; they sacrificed to the Baals, and burned incense to carved images. 3 “I taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by their arms; but they did not know that I healed them. 4 I drew them with gentle cords, with bands of love, and I was to them as those who take the yoke from their neck. I stooped and fed them.” – Hosea 11:1-4, NKJV

  • What God is describing here, is how he pulled Israel from the dust, and he set them on their own two feet, and then in verse 2 it says they sacrificed to Baals. So, what happened was that God brought them out of Egypt (“out of Egypt I have called my Son”), He establishes them as a nation (“I taught [them] how to walk, taking them by their arms”), and then they turn away from God and turn to idols.
  • Matthew is assuming that when he quotes from the Old Testament we’re going to know what he’s talking about it. So, when he quotes Hosea passage here, he’s communicating to us that the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is a type and shadow of Jesus’ return to Israel from Egypt.

This leads us to our third point about the Savior of the World, he has to be the better Israel. If the world is going to be made right, then Jesus has to lead the charge obediently and faithfully, better than Adam, better than Moses, and more faithfully than Israel. 

  • Going back to the quote from Hosea 11, think about the whole book of Hosea. We have a story where God tells a prophet to go marry a prostitute, and have children with her because this is how God was loving His people.
  • And what happens is that even after being married to a prophet and having children with him, this woman goes back to street corner and returns to prostitution and God tells Hosea to go back and buy her. The cycle continues, and the rest of the book Hosea is God calling out Israel’s idolatry, and promising judgement, but finally the end of the book takes a different turn. The final chapter in Hosea is chapter 14, and it’s there where God calls them to turn back to Him.

“I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely, for My anger has turned away from him. 5 I will be like the dew to Israel; He shall grow like the lily, and lengthen his roots like Lebanon. 6 His branches shall spread; His beauty shall be like an olive tree, and his fragrance like Lebanon. 7 Those who dwell under his shadow shall return; they shall be revived like grain, and grow like a vine. Their scent shall be like the wine of Lebanon. 8 “Ephraim shall say, ‘What have I to do anymore with idols?’ I have heard and observed him. I am like a green cypress tree; your fruit is found in Me.” 9 Who is wise? Let him understand these things. Who is prudent? Let him know them. For the ways of the Lord are right; The righteous walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them.” – Hosea 14:5-9, NKJV

That’s how the book ends. 

Everything that Israel went through, all their trials, all their judgements, everything they would face would point forward to a deliverer better than Moses. 

Israel was not true to its identity and was finally cast out of the land. But Hosea saw that God’s anger against His people would not last forever; He would provide a renewed Israel who would serve the Lord faithfully (vv. 2–12; see 2:14–23).

That hope for a new Israel—a true Israel that would embody all that God called Israel to be—persisted all across redemptive history. This hope was finally fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ. Matthew tells us that Jesus fulfills Hosea 11 (Matt. 2:13–15). He is the true Israel, the faithful Israel who succeeds where old covenant Israel failed.

Like ancient Israel, He came up out of Egypt, passed through the waters, and was tested in the wilderness. In Matthew 4 and in Luke 4, both of those authors recall Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. He was tempted with the same kinds of things that they were tempted with, and He was tempted with the same kinds of things that we are tempted with, but the difference is that Jesus passed the test where Israel failed. Jesus passed the test in the same areas of our lives where many of us have failed.

  • Because of that, we look to Jesus as the true and better Israel, we look at Jesus as the true and better Adam, we look to see Jesus as the true and better Moses who brings us into the fulfillment of everything that God has promised to us. 

The good news of the gospel is that when we are in Christ we are made members of the new Israel. If we are in Christ, we share in the privileges and relationship He enjoys as God’s true Son… As such, we inherit all of the promises given to old covenant Israel. Those promises of God that Israel would rule over her enemies and enjoy abundant covenant blessings (for example, Isa. 14:1–2)—those promises are for all of God’s people united to Christ by faith alone. In Him we are the true Israel of God, heirs of the destiny promised to God’s old covenant people (Zeph. 3:14–20).

CONCLUSION

The question I want us to ask ourselves this morning is: where are we? 

Are we trying to serve God on our own terms or are we resting in the fact that our lives are hidden in Christ?

This is what Paul has to say about his relationship to Christ, and hopefully we all can say this as well.

“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” – Galatians 2:20, NKJV

Then Paul challenges us even farther in Colossians 3. 

“If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. 2 Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. 3 For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” – Colossians 3:1-3, NKJV

Now, I’ll ask again, are you in Christ? Are you resting in Him, trusting in Him, pursuing Him? Or are you on the outside? Are you wondering why everyone else is so excited, why everyone else takes their faith so seriously, wondering why other people are experiencing a deep joy that goes beyond surface-level happiness? Look to Jesus.

The Closet Concept

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
– Matthew 6:5-6 (NRSV)

“Prayer is the most powerful resource we have in this life; yet, many only turn to it as a last resort. When unbelievers pray for repentance of sin and ask for God’s forgiveness, prayer is the spiritual dynamite that obliterates the darkness and despair of a sin-soaked soul.” – Franklin Graham

A while back I preached on the subject of the Prayer Closet. I’ve found myself being gripped again by the conviction of the Holy Spirit about this subject. I’ve failed in my own life to pray like I should. I have a great head knowledge of prayer, but the journey from my head to my heart seems to be longer than it seems.

God has been showing me recently that effective prayer will always do one of two things. It will change the situation or it will change how you view the situation.

When Jesus tells us to pray, He tells us to go into our room. I’m old school, so I prefer how the King James renders the word “room”. It calls it the “closest”. The word “closest” might give us the mental imagery of that miscellaneous room in our house where we keep coats, jackets, old clothes, board games, and various other things. But, what do we put in the closet? What do the coats, jackets, old clothes, and various other things have in common? Why do we put them in the closet? It’s simple. We don’t want to deal with them.

So, what is Jesus saying when He tells us to go into our closet? Is it so we can have private time with God? Certainly that’s part of it because Jesus even says that the hypocrites love to stand in the street corners and the synagogues and pray publicly, and He tells us not to be like them. But I think there’s another aspect of the closet that we’re missing. The closets in Jesus’ day weren’t much different than our closets today. They were storage spaces, and guess what went in their closets. That’s right. Crap they didn’t want to deal with.

In Jesus’ command for us to go into the closet and pray is not just a command to pray privately, but a command to confront issues in our life that we’ve dismissed and just don’t want to deal with anymore. Maybe there is habitual sins in our lives that we’ve tried to hide away from everyone else and shove into our proverbial closet, but Jesus clearly sees what we choose not to see and implores us to to go to Him in our prayer closet confront everything that might hinder from a deeper walk with Him.

In the NKJV, Matthew 6:6 reads like this:

“But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”

It actually implies that our Father is in the secret place waiting on us to come to Him in prayer. He’s excited to hear from us in prayer, and He longs for us to allow Him to work in our lives and deal with those issues that we’ve shoved away for so long.

The Quantity and the Quality of our Faith

“For by the grace given to me I say to every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” – [Romans 12:3 ESVUK]

There are times in our lives where it’s just hard for us to act on our faith. It would be easier to give up and live in compromise, comfort, and complacency. I’ve been there. I know how it is. I know how it is when you can’t seem to feel God no matter how hard you try. There are just those days when you don’t even want to get out of bed. What we have to remember in all of this is that God has dealt us a measure of faith. It’s our responsibility to work with that measure of faith that God has given us. Jesus said in Matthew 17:20:

“He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”” – [Matthew 17:20 ESVUK] 

Thinking about Romans 12:3, Paul said that we’ve been given the measure of faith. If memory serves me correct then the word, ‘measure’ in Greek refers to a specific measurement like it does in Revelation 6:6. If this is true, then a a measure would be about the size of a pint. Jesus said that it only takes faith the size of a mustard seed but Paul said that God went ahead and gave whole pint of mustard seed faith. I challenge you to do something for God today that would make you uncomfortable and put your faith to work.

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”, without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” – [James 2:14-17 ESVUK]