Message: The Grand Reversal | Scripture: Matthew 2:13-23 | Speaker: Stephen Choy
I know today’s a football day, but as some of you may know, on Thursday night, the Brooklyn Nets, an NBA team, made a trade that sent shockwaves through the league. Kevin Durant, a beloved figure here in the Bay, was traded to the Phoenix Suns. Yet, what makes this particular trade notable the fact that it came out of nowhere. Report after report came out near the trade deadline saying that Kevin Durant would not be dealt and that the Nets were determined to build a winning culture around one of the biggest names and faces in basketball. So, to say that this trade was a surprise is to speak reservedly. In less than 24 hours after those sources reported no trade would happen, it happened, to the chagrin of the rest of the league—under what seems like the cover of night, and Phoenix reversed its season trajectory, going from being unlikely winners of this year’s championship to becoming the overwhelming favourites.
And while I dislike this trade, it serves as a perfect illustration for our text this morning. Why? Because our text is about a great reversal—not merely a reversal, but one that turns the world onto its head—a move so unexpected by outsiders to the Kingdom of God that even Matthew takes a break after writing about it to focus on John the Baptist.
And yet, the way that Matthew frames this great reversal isn’t by telling us that it took place by coincidence. No, he frames it as something that was within the plan of God all along. He frames it as something that might come as an absolute shock to his readers, but it’s always been there—right in front of them to see. God has always been this way. God has always acted in a way that subverts the wisdom of the world to show why he is ultimately supreme, incomparably sovereign, and unquestionably set apart as our Creator.
So, while we’ll be speaking about reversals and a reimagining of what our expectations as Christians living in a world that does not fear its maker should be, our proposition is meant to ground us and prevent us from being tempted to think that God is out to confuse us. We are to trust in God’s sovereign faithfulness to do what he’s always done. That’s what our passage teaches us—that God has always acted this way—that he will always surprise the world, but it is only because the world does not know him. We know him, we know that we can trust him, and we know we can trust him because of how the gift of his Son conforms to his plan from eternity. And this remains true even in our heaviest moments, even when all seems lost or when we are most in pain—God is trustworthy.
Looking, then, to our first point, we are to trust in God’s sovereign faithfulness to do what he’s always done even . . .
1) In the Loss of Stability
Read along with me in Matthew 2:13-15. TWoL: 13 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.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and 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.”
Just to fill in some context, we’re in Bethlehem, a small city about 5 miles from the main Israelite city of Jerusalem. It’s here in Bethlehem that the Christ is born and people—the gentile astrologers—also called magi—have come to visit him. But on the way, they stopped by the, then, gentile king’s residence—King Herod—and asked him where to find the one born King of the Jews—a designation that Herod covets.
So, he devises a plan to have these wise men ascertain the exact location of Jesus for him, but what he does not consider is that God is orchestrating all things so that the magi never return to Herod. And it’s in our text that we find out why both Herod wanted these men to tell him where Jesus is and why they did not return to Jerusalem. We’re told in verse 13, after the magi leave, that God, through an angel, speaks to Joseph in a dream—the third time in these first two chapters that God has directed the course of events via dreams—saying that he must flee to Egypt because Herod means to destroy Jesus.
Remembering, then, who Joseph is from chapter 1, a righteous man—dedicated not to the world but to the commands of God, he listens to the what he’s told in his dream, and he flees. But he doesn’t just flee to any place. He flees, as he’s told, to Egypt, which must have been extremely difficult for him. Why? Because of what Egypt was to the Jews.
Now, you should know that Egypt, by this time, was a safe haven for Jewish political refugees. There the Jews had pockets of its own people due to the fact that many of them escaped to Egypt during the Babylonian exile of 586 BC. But, in doing this, there’s a great sense of irony and reversal for Israel because to remain in Egypt is to live in conflict to the entire tradition of their life. This is the land that is spoken of in the Shema—Jews were meant to recite this—that God graciously delivered his people out of Egypt, and that is why they are to follow his commandments.
But, now, Joseph is going back to Egypt—the entire fabric and foundation of his belief system is being ripped apart. He is, in this moment, not only filled with dread at the thought of Herod’s pursuit, but even more so, he is likely filled with deep sorrow and deep instability because everything he knows—everything he believed about the dwelling place of his God in Israel—his livelihood in Bethlehem—his place of worship near Jerusalem—his family and friends—all of it is being torn away from him in exchange for the place where, in his mind, God never intended him, or his people, to be.
And why does Joseph do this? Because he loves his son, and he knows his God. Remember, it’s Jesus—not Joseph or Mary—that Herod’s after. It’s his son who is the focus of the angel’s words in verse 13 and Joseph’s action in verse 14—the uncommonly ordered statement to take the child and his mother—places the emphasis on the child. What so many commentaries and people miss about this passage is the depth of love that Joseph displays—the depth of love shown by a father towards his son—and in this context, not even towards his biological son, but his adopted son. This kind of care and affection towards an adopted son in that day would have been unprecedented (not only in the adoption but in the complete destruction of one’s social fabric for the child’s sake).
What’s more is that he knows his God. He’s not contemplating the magnitude of his sacrifice, which is immense. Rather, as a righteous man, he has seen God’s hand behind all of this—just as his hand has been behind all of Israel’s history—and he knows that just as God has always saved his people, God shall do so again.
It’s by his love and his confidence in God that he’s enabled to obey and act in the best interest of someone other than himself at great detriment to himself, which thereby sets the stage for a greater, grander reversal. See, the fulfillment quote, “Out of Egypt, I called my son” comes from Hosea 11:1. There, the prophet isn’t prophesying about Jesus, he’s making a statement about the past. If you read Hosea 11:2-7 with verse 1, you’ll find out that verse 1 is a concession as he’s thinking about history—that despite calling Israel, the nation whom God called his son, out of Egypt, they’ve gone on to prostitute themselves and lust after idols. And no matter how many times he’s called and saved them—the more he’s called, the more and the worse they’ve prostituted.
In this pattern, there seems to be no end—the son, Israel, will always fail, and God will always need to come in and save. But what Matthew is saying here is that through Joseph’s love and faithfulness, he sets the stage for the possibility and actuality of the end. For by this work—by Joseph’s obedience—the true Son of God will be called out from Egypt, and he will prove to be faithful and reverse the pattern of the previous, faithless son—going back not just to Israel but to Adam. Jesus is the pattern’s fulfillment—the true Israel, the better Adam.
In fact, he is not only the fulfillment due to his faithfulness in things that the previous sons of God failed to do, but also because he is God himself come incarnate to deliver, once-and-for-all, those who remain in their sin-wrought exile. He is called out of Egypt not as the wayward son that needs to be saved but as the perfect, righteous Son who will save. His exodus—his deliverance of his people through the pouring out of his own blood upon a cross—shall fix the chasm that exists between God and his sinful people forever.
Now, the main point of this section of our passage is, undoubtedly, about how Christ is the fulfillment of Israel. He is the new and greater Moses. He brings about the new and greater exodus. But brothers and sisters, we mustn’t miss the application for us: that we are to live out our trust in God’s sovereign faithfulness to do what he’s always done in extravagant, sacrificial ways even in the loss of our stability in the world. And what that trust looks like—the tangible nature of it is borne out not just in Joseph, but in God himself who gave up all he had and all he loved for the sake of those who did not love him. The application for us is to love this way—to give of ourselves extravagantly, and dare I say, recklessly, to others.
Joseph didn’t know the extent to which Jesus would save, but he fled to Egypt anyway, ensuring his son’s fulfillment of the calling he had as the greater Israel. How much more, then, as the sons and daughters who are on the other side of the exile—on this side of the cross—as those who know right from the get go the full extent of Christ’s destabilizing sacrifice and substitutionary atonement for our sin and wrath—how much more are we to give up our lives, even to the extent of being unsettled and unstable, for those who deserve nothing from us?
We can be this extravagant—this reckless—not only because such extravagance has been demonstrated for us in Joseph and, even more so, in Jesus, but because we have a confidence that as those who are in Christ, we will be saved in this life from our sojourning and our exile still. Christ has reversed the effect of our sin. He has loved us at great cost to himself, and our future, because of that love, has been made secure. Trust in God’s sovereign faithfulness to do what he’s always done, even when such trust means the loss of your stability in the world.
2) In the Long Night of Terror and Darkness
Read along with me in Matthew 2:16-18. TWoL: 16 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. 17 Then 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.”
Here, in verses 16-18, Matthew isn’t just trying to tell us a story of what happened when Herod found out that the Magi weren’t coming back. He’s trying to counsel us in our current waiting—in our current exile—and in our long nights of terror and darkness. Remember, his audience are Jewish Christians being threatened with persecution on every side—both from the Roman state and from their own Jewish relatives. They are people without a true home—exiles among exiles.
Our author has just told them in the preceding section that Jesus comes to reverse the failures of Israel as the new, true Israel—to be the answer to their exilic problem, but there’s more to it than that, Matthew says. And we’re to keep two things in mind as we come to see what that more is. The first is the fact that an allusion is being drawn here to the story of Pharaoh back in Exodus 1 when he kills all the Jewish infants in Egypt because he’s afraid of being overthrown by the increasing number of Israelites in his nation. We’d do well to remember that Moses survives that rampage and becomes the greatest leader that Israel has ever known by emancipating them from their slavery.
The second thing to keep in mind is how the fulfillment quotation in verse 18 is functioning as it points us back to Jeremiah 31:15, which is a text that comments on the coming exile of Judah to Babylon in 586 BC. The prophet, there, is saying that so great is the travesty of Israel’s sin and judgment leading to exile that even the mother of Israel—Rachel—weeps from her tomb at the loss of her children. Said another way, Jeremiah is using hyperbole—exaggeration in his prophecy—to tell us how sorrowful the state of the Jews is.
And yet, chapter 31 of Jeremiah is not a prophecy of lament—it is a joyful one because if you continue reading on in the following verses, God promises that their weeping will end. He will bring his people back, and when he brings them back, he will establish a new covenant with them, writing the law upon their hearts and ensuring their fellowship with him forever. It is a prophecy about hope for the future and return of his people to be his people.
So, when we put these two things together—the allusion to Pharaoh and Moses coupled with the quotation and its context from Jeremiah 31, what Matthew is telling us is that a great, Moses-like deliverer is coming in whom the weeping—the lament—shall see its end. Just like Moses led his people out of their exile and slavery before, this great Moses-David-Abraham-Joshua-like figure shall “fulfill” the tears of the greater exile—the exile of sin that we’ve placed ourselves in—the exile from the presence of God that has alluded us since Eve reversed the created order by biting into that fruit. Jesus comes to right the ship.
In Jesus, the tears that had their origin in Jeremiah’s day shall draw their final cry in these tears of the mothers of Bethlehem because the Messiah—the Son of God incarnate has come. The exile and its anguish are at an end. And in him shall be established a new covenant—not one that can be broken like the former, lesser Mosaic law—but one that will last forever. He is the dawn of the end of the exilic age. In him, the kingdom of the infinite, immutable God is being inaugurated.
And don’t you see why this is so important for us to get right? Because even in human tragedy—even in the darkest, longest night of terror—even in our waiting for the suffering and sorrow in this world to come to an end—there is an overall purpose and hope in God—that even in those long, dark nights, God is still doing for his people what he’s always done. He’s pointing us to Jesus.
I have a family friend named Allen along with his wife, Kay. I grew up with Allen being my Sunday School teacher, my basketball mentor, my babysitter, my VBS counselor, my children’s worship leader, the guy who would always make a joke and light up the room with his charisma. He was and still is a man I look up to because of his intentionality with me in those formative years of my life.
I remember when he and Kay started having children, I’d think to myself, those kids are some of the luckiest kids in the world because of who their parents are. But nearly eight years ago, Allen and Kay, having just conceived their fifth child, were brought into their doctor’s office, and they were confronted with the sorrowful news that their daughter—the first time they’d heard her gender—had a rare genetic disorder that meant it would be unlikely that she would survive birth, and even if she did, she would not survive very long because her condition meant she would never be able to eat or drink anything for as long as she lived.
Upon asking the doctor what their options were, the doctor had only two. The first was that in order to prevent the baby’s suffering and to protect Kay from what would inevitably be a dangerous delivery, the best option would be to have an abortion. But Allen and Kay knowing that God alone is the author, sustainer, and taker of life, they chose the second option. They decided to have the baby. And on May 16, 2016, Liliya was born to the world weighing 3 lbs and 11 oz. She lived 6 days getting the opportunity within that time to meet her mother and father, her grandparents, all of her siblings, and even some of her neighbours, and in the evening of her sixth day, she passed away in her sleep.
I remember that day, despite the fact that I wasn’t there physically with them, because I remember Allen penning a letter on the night of Liliya’s death, which he shared with people in the church, talking about that long night of terror and darkness for their family. The sorrow and the pain from that letter is still, to this day, too much for me to bear, but I remember him asking the question near the end of that letter, “Why does God allow human tragedy in this way? Why was my Liliya given such a short life filled with pain and suffering only to be rewarded with death for her courage and strength?”
“It’s so that we might be reminded that Christ, alone, is our hope in life and death. It is only in Jesus that all human tragedy makes sense because in the cross—in his suffering—we find joy in the thought of tomorrow. In the cross, our sin has been vanquished, and death has been defeated. In the cross, our suffering is turned from tears of sorrow into everlasting joy and light.”
Trust in God’s Sovereign Faithfulness to Do What He’s Always Done—to save us not just from terrible things but from the darkness of our own sin. Trust that he will return to relieve us of our waiting. Trust that he is bringing all things to their appointed end, restoring and reversing the effects of sin in the kingdom that is to come, and on that day, when we see him face-to-face, all of our tears—all but the joyful ones—shall be wiped away, and He shall be our God, and we shall be his people forever.
3) In the Looming Threat of Obscurity
Read, lastly, with me from Matthew 2:19-23. TWoL: 19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.
I want to end with this question—up until this point, we’ve learned that Jesus comes to reverse the failures of Israel and to give us hope that the end of the exile has come, but how is it that he accomplishes these things? This is what Matthew answers in our last few verses—he answers “how”—how Jesus is the fulfillment of all that has come before.
And the first thing we’re to note is that God is still in control of and orchestrating these events through dreams—he gives Joseph two of them in this final section—one regarding the time of his return and the second regarding the direction of their return.
In the first dream, Joseph is told to return after all those who are seeking to kill Jesus have died, and this is significant for us—this statement in verse 20—because it once again draws our attention to Moses who was called back to Egypt to save Israel in Exodus 4:19 after all those who sought his life had died. So, we’re reminded, again, that Jesus has come to fulfill a Moses-like exodus of his people.
But even more surprisingly than the time of Joseph, Jesus, and Mary’s return is the course in which they are directed to return. They’re told, by God, in a dream, not to return to Bethlehem but to Galilee—and within Galilee, to a city named Nazareth. This is a staggering thing to ask of Joseph and his family for two reasons. First, his life is in Bethlehem. They were there for roughly 2 years before the Magi came to them. So, they would have had a home by then. Friends to see. Family to visit. Work to do.
However, because Archelaus reigned in Jerusalem, one more ruthless and thirsty for power than Herod, Joseph is forced to retire to Nazareth in Galilee. Consider this, our second staggering reason, Joseph isn’t only being told to forsake all the comforts that await him in Bethlehem, but he is also being directed towards a city that was equivalent to what we would call a Podunk town. It was a place so dreary, so unknown, so undeveloped, so irrelevant and insignificant that, in Joseph’s day, it was not even worth situating on a map. They were being told to flee into obscurity.
Yet, it is in Joseph’s doing this that we’re given our last fulfillment statement, only this time it’s not a quotation. This statement that Joseph’s son, Jesus, might be called a Nazarene is not something that any prophet or other known Jewish text has ever said. And the reason for this is because Matthew isn’t quoting Scripture. He’s describing a theme.
Now, enough commentators have argued that the word Nazarene alludes to the word NSR in Isaiah 11:1, which means branch—a branch that shall shoot forth from the stump of Jesse—the Messiah. And while I think there’s merit to this, especially given the context of Matthew 1 and 2 revealing to us that he is the prophesied Davidic King of the Jews, I don’t think that is all there is to this text. Because the clue that we’re given by Matthew is that in being called a Nazarene, Jesus doesn’t just fulfill what the prophet says, he fulfills what was spoken by the prophets—plural.
So, more than alluding simply to the Messiah of Isaiah 11:1, I believe Matthew is trying to sum all of it up for us—he’s answer the question of “how” Jesus fulfills the name Immanuel, of how he will be Israel’s Shepherd-King, of how he will reverse the course of Israel’s failure, of how he will bring an end to the exile of our sin. It is by being called a Nazarene.
And what does it mean to be called a Nazarene? Well, we’re given a second clue by one of Jesus’ disciples, Nathanael, in John 1, when, after being told by Philip that the Messiah is from Nazareth, he says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” To which, the implied answer is that nothing good comes from Nazareth.
In other words, to be called a Nazarene—to be associated with Nazareth in that day was to be called a name—it was to be scorned and likened to someone who can be ignored or who has no significance in the world. And this accords exactly with what the prophets predicted. For example, in Zech 9-14, Psalm 22 and 69, which have prophetic overtones, and the suffering servant passages of Isaiah, among other texts, we’re told that a Messiah would come and be unrecognized and not taken seriously by his people. He will be a royal figure unexpectedly humble. He will be a shepherd to his people, but his sheep will not accept his voice or authority. He will be as one who is pierced by the people of Jerusalem. He will be struck down by the sword of God. He will not be recognized. He will be disdained, unimpressive in appearance, despised, persecuted, abandoned, struck down—a man of sorrows acquainted with the deepest grief.
Jesus shall be called a Nazarene to fulfill the prophetic expectation and the real world problem that he is the Messiah who came from the wrong place, who does not conform to the expectations of Jewish tradition, and who, as a result, would be condemned, in every way, by his own people. This, brothers and sisters, is the grand reversal—this is how Jesus fulfills it all—by condescending himself to become nothing. And in becoming nothing to the point of dying like a common criminal upon a cross for the wrath of our sin, we’ve become, in Jesus, the righteousness—the joy—the pleasure—dare I say, the glory of God.
Is not this sovereignly faithful God—the God who has worked through all of history to reveal his Son to us as the fulfillment of all things on our behalf—is he not trustworthy? Has he not proven himself by sending that Son to become the very definition of obscurity for us so that we might be his treasure and receive him as our eternal prize? And will we not live, in response, as those who have an unshakeable confidence that he will continue to work out these things for our good until we see him face-to-face? So, he is. So, he has. And so, we shall ever live to his glory and praise.