Matt 2:13-21 (ESV)
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.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 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.” 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. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “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.” But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 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.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.
Most modern commentaries will point out that part of the purpose of the gospel writers (especially the synoptics) is to show how Jesus recapitulates the history of the people of Israel in his own personal history. Jesus, the commentaries will tell you, is the true Israel. N T Wright has done much to highlight, popularise and resurrect this recapitulation perspective in recent times. I say resurrect for it is by no means new to Wright. Apparently it was outlined as long ago as Irenaeus. Certainly it was a view with which I was familiar in youth long before Tom Wright had written a line.
As a view, of course, it is older even than Irenaeus, for it is clearly that of the gospel writers themselves – learned no doubt from Jesus who had taught them that he was the True Vine (Jn 15). Israel was God’s Vine (Isa 5). Yet as a nation, despite God’s great care of her, she produced only wild grapes – there was no joy or pleasure for God in Israel. Christ, however, is the true Vine that produces fruit that satisfies God; Messiah is the true Israel.
This close identity between Messiah and nation is evident too in the OT. Isaiah’s enigmatic ‘servant’ is Israel, but is distinct from Israel. Ch 42-55 lay the groundwork for a Messiah who will be organically connected with his people’s history. Therefore, it is no real surprise when we find in the NT parallels between the history of the nation and the history of her Messiah.
The Baptism of Christ in Jordan, for example, seems to parallel Israel in the Red Sea. Just as Israel comes through the Red Sea to face the temptations of the wilderness (for forty years) so too Jesus’ baptism is immediately followed by his temptation in the wilderness (for forty days). After the wilderness Israel enters the Land and sets about overthrowing all that polluted the land. Likewise Jesus, the new Joshua and Israel, after his wilderness trials ranges through Israel overthrowing disease and demonic powers that pollute and destroy. He is clearing the land of all that defiles and oppresses.
Other parallels are clear. Moses on Sinai receiving the Law and Christ on the mountain giving the ethics of the Kingdom. The picture complicates as Jesus is in fact the progenitor of a new Israel of which his twelve chosen disciples paralleling the twelve tribes of Israel are the basis. The Kingdom is to be taken away from Israel and given to a nation who will bear Kingdom fruit. The twelve apostles are the rump of this new nation.
Israel’s history of disobedience inevitably results in the curse and catastrophe of exile. She experiences the anathema of ‘forsakeness’ as she is handed over to the gentiles. So too, the cross is the exile of Messiah, suffering like the nation at the hands of the gentiles, as God’s wrath-bearing judgement falls on him for the people on a gentile cross.
Exile, was for Israel a national death. Humanly speaking her future as a nation was bleak. Only a miracle could make her a nation again, a miracle akin to resurrection . The impossible must happen and long dead bones must live (Ezek 37). Such a miracle could only happen by the power of the spirit of God and the prophets believed it would. Messiah, like the people and for the people, finds life lies beyond judgement and death in resurrection, literal resurrection. Messiah dies and literally and really rises from the dead to be the first of a new humanity – a humanity, an Israel beyond death, sin, law, Satan and all that destroys.
Thus Messiah embodies Israel’s story. He is the King-Priest who experiences their experience and in the process delivers them from all their failure and its consequences. God’s ‘Son’ par excellence is not Israel the nation but Christ. He is the true vine, the true son that God calls ‘out of Egypt’.
Thus in Matthew 2, in the text above we see the infancy of the nation in the infancy of Christ. Just as ancient Israel moved to Egypt for protection and preservation in her infancy, so too does Messiah. If the dreams of a Joseph took Jacob and his sons to Egypt so too the dreams of another Joseph will lead the Christ to Egypt for protection. Ironically, if the danger for Israel’s male infants at the time of Moses lay in an Egyptian King then the danger for Israel’s male infants in the time of Christ lay with a Jewish King. Satan is active in the heart not simply of a gentile King but of a Jewish King – his goal throughout history has never changed – he wants to destroy the ‘woman’s offspring’ (Rev 12).
The parallel is clear, but as is so often the case, ironies appear. The enemy of Messiah is not the gentile nations (who have just visited to worship) but Israel herself. For Messiah, the enemy will be within the gate. He will be wounded in the house of his friends. As N T Wright has well said – Israel is not simply part of the solution, she is also part of the problem. She like all other nations is fallen and an enemy of God.
The immediate danger to the infant Christ passes with the death of Herod and Messiah like his people is called out of Egypt. God’s ‘son’ travels like the nation before him to the land of Israel, the Land of Promise. For the moment the danger is passed. The story has a happy ending.
But, of course, it is not the end.
Throughout Messiah’s life the serpent (Satan) rages and seeks to destroy, and ironically, his primary instrument, is the nation. While Herod, inspired by Satan, is unable to execute at Messiah’s birth, others will succeed some thirty or so years later when ‘the hour’ is come. Instigated by Israel, the Romans (gentile nations) crucify the Christ. The people will see placarded above his cross the crime for which he is crucified, ‘This is Jesus the King of the Jews’. The irony is exquisite and complete.
The Christmas story is not a pretty story. It is not a gentle tale. It is part of an epic and bloody saga, a tale of irrational hate, deception, intrigue, murder and unrequited love. It is a huge story as big as history itself. But above all it is an uplifting story, of love and betrayal, of blood and victory, of fall and redemption, of Homeric hope, herculean grace, and quixotic valour, not in imaginary tales but the love of God in Christ for a rebellious world. However devalued by the Hollywood machine, it is indeed, ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’.
And it is true.