Imagine it. One evening you are at home with your family and there is a knock at the door. When you open it, there are many strangers standing there. They are not only strange because you have never met them before, but because they look different than anyone you have ever seen. They are obviously foreigners from a far-off land. Their clothes, their accents, even the way they carry themselves makes it clear that they are from a very different world. And yet they enter your home bearing expensive gifts, and when they see your two-year-old, they bow down and start to worship Him.
This is something like what happened to Joseph and Mary when the Magi and their caravan showed up at their doorstep with offerings of gold and the richest of spices. The amazing things that God had revealed to them about their Son through angels and dreams and shepherds were now being revealed to strange but dignified men thousands of miles away! How oddly wonderful it must have been to see them bow down before their little boy and worship Him as King!
Was it odd for the wise men as well? When they arrived in Israel, they went to the king’s palace. That was the natural thing to expect. Yet when the star revealed the right place to go, it was over the home of a peasant…a carpenter…six miles from the capitol. The remarkable celestial sign trumped all of their earthly expectations, and so these foreigners, these Gentiles, were invited into the rightful honoring of the Son of God when He came.
After the Magi left, an angel of the Lord came to Joseph in a dream. He said, “‘Get up! Take the child and His mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’”
The carpenter and his wife were swept up in the power struggle of the pretender king in Israel against the Most High King of Heaven! How odd it must have been for Joseph to find himself fleeing with his family to Egypt. It was the land the people of Israel had once been so eager to escape. Now the bearers of God’s Salvation had to return to Egypt to find protection from Israel’s king.
Joseph obeyed the angel immediately. He got up in the night, woke Mary, and took the family on the long journey to the land that had once held God’s people captive.
When Herod found out that the Magi had tricked him, he went into a terrible rage. They hadn’t told him who the Christ Child was, and they were the only ones that knew how to find Him! So he ordered his soldiers to a terrible task. They were to go to the town of Bethlehem and the area all around it and kill all the baby boys under the age of two. The star had appeared two years before to the Magi, so they believed it was the age of the child.
Imagine that terrible day as the soldiers rode through Bethlehem, pounding on doors and demanding that the families hand over their beloved sons. Imagine the grief and shock of the mothers and the powerless rage of the fathers. The sin of Herod’s insane jealousy viciously ravaged the innocent, and the evil of the kingdom of darkness prevailed. There seems to have been no action by the Jewish religious leaders to stop this attempt to murder the promised Messiah or protect the innocent baby boys of Bethlehem.
Matthew tells us that this horrible act fulfilled a warning that God had given through the prophet Jeremiah:
“‘A voice will be heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.’”
Rachel was the wife of Jacob, the great Jewish patriarch. When she died, Jacob’s family was traveling, so she was buried along the way. It was at the place that would later become the town of Bethlehem. Now the mothers of Bethlehem would lose their sons because of Herod’s fury. In this beautiful, sorrowful, prophecy, Jeremiah expressed their terrible grief by speaking of the tears of Rachel. God knew about their pain five hundred years before it happened, and grieved for them over the ravages of this dark world through His prophet. What a beautiful Lord!
But God would not let the story end with grief! Jeremiah’s prophecies told of the ravages of evil on earth, but they also pointed to a brilliant future hope. The One that Herod sought to kill would one day destroy all evil. He will destroy death itself! And one day, there will be no more tears in Bethlehem. There will only be joy and life and peace.
As the horror of the curse and the power of sinful men tore apart the families of Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary escaped to Egypt with the Son of God. They made a life there, far from the clutches of the pretender king. How odd and adventurous and frightening their story must have seemed to them as they were caught up in the middle of it. Their lives were so different from everyone they had grown up with, so far afield from what was normal. Yet their willingness to radically trust God allowed God to use them to fulfill His prophetic purposes in the world.
When King Herod died, the angel of the Lord came to Joseph in a dream once again. He said, “‘Get up, take the Child and His mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the Child’s life are dead.’”
Once again, Joseph obeyed His Lord immediately. He got up and took his family back to the land of his people. Luke was careful to record how these events fulfilled prophecy that God had given hundreds of years before about the coming Messiah.
When Joseph learned that Archelaus, the son of Herod, was ruling over Judea, he was afraid to return to Bethlehem. Another dream came to warn him, so he took the child and Mary up to Galilee, far from the clutches of Herod’s domination. They lived in the town of Nazareth. The Lord Jesus grew up there and became strong and wise, and God’s grace was with Him.
It is interesting to look at how Matthew weaved the prophecies of the Old Testament into the story of this young family. In one place the Bible seemed to say that Messiah would come from Bethlehem:
“But you Bethlehem…
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.”
In another, he was to come out of Egypt:
“…out of Egypt I called my son.”
In another he was called a Nazarene:
“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from His roots a Branch will bear fruit”
[“Branch” in Hebrew is nezer, which is also the root word for Nazareth.]
For generations, faithful Jewish people read those prophecies with great confusion. How could they all be true about one person? But the problem that had once been so confusing became the proof that made everything clear. Amazingly, all three of those prophecies were fulfilled through the strange and perilous beginnings of the life of the Messiah! Jesus really was the One that the Magi and angels and shepherds declared Him to be. Simeon and Anna, his parents and his aunt and uncle were right! The glorious One foretold by the prophets had come!
It is interesting to learn what happened to Herod. In his last couple of years, the pretender king who reigned over the City of David only grew more horrific in his malice. But he was not allowed to carry out his selfish rule for long. He came down with a terrible disease. As his death drew near, he displayed the full measure of his evil heart. He ordered that when he died, his soldiers were to go kill a member of every family in Israel so that the entire nation would enter a time of true mourning. It is interesting that he knew they would not truly mourn his own death. In the end, Herod’s outrageous orders were ignored. For the rest of human history, Herod has been remembered only for his viciousness and, like a lunatic shouting against the rising of the morning sun, his failed attempts to destroy the plans of God.