Jesus, the New Israel
What comes to your mind when you hear the word “prophecy”? What is your understanding of a prophecy? I suspect that when many people think about a prophecy they picture more like a prediction. Kind of like a horoscope or a fortune-teller telling you what’s going to happen in your future.
These kinds of prophecies are cemented in the popular imagination through many of the stories we tell. Thank about these words from the Lego Movie: “One day, a talented lass or fellow, a special one with face of yellow, will make the Piece of Resistance found from its hiding refuge underground, and with a noble army at the helm, this Master Builder will thwart the Kragle and save the realm, and be the greatest, most interesting, most important person of all times. All this is true because it rhymes.”
Based on my experience, I suspect that not a few Christians think about Biblical prophecy along these same lines. They think that prophecy in the Bible is a collection of predictions about what will happen in the future kind of like the Lego movie prophecy.
And truthfully there are some examples of prophecy in the Bible like this. Like when Samuel met Saul and told him exactly what was going to happen to him in the next few days, and it all unfolded exactly like the play-by-play.
But much of the prophecy in the Bible isn’t like this. It doesn’t work this way. And that’s what we’re going to discover in our passage from Matthew today. We’re going to encounter three episodes where Matthew tells us that Jesus fulfills the words of the prophets. And each time, the passages that he quotes as prophecy aren’t ones that we would readily identify as prophecy. The things that he says Jesus fulfills are things that we didn’t even known needed fulfilling.
But as we learn from Matthew about how Jesus fulfills the Bible, we’re going to learn a lot about how the Bible works, and how prophecy in the Bible works. More importantly, we’re going to learn more about Jesus. And I trust that one of the results of this morning will be a deeper knowledge of and love for Jesus.
The Flight to Egypt
So let’s jump into the first episode. This picks up right where we left off last week, after the magi went home by a different route so as not to tip off Herod. Verse 13 tells us, “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.’”
Oh, Joseph. You didn’t see this coming, did you? The angel hadn’t told you this: “Take Mary as your wife and call the baby’s name Jesus, and also, by the way, you’re going to have to flee across the desert and live as a refugee in Africa for a few years.”
We sometimes read these stories and get the idea that travelling to Bethlehem or fleeing to Egypt was just the kind of thing that that people did back then. But I doubt it. I suspect this would have been just as difficult and traumatic for them as it would be for anybody.
But there was a purpose in this difficulty. There’s always a purpose in our difficulty. And God’s purpose in this difficulty is revealed in verse 15: “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’” (Matthew 2:15b).
That’s why God told Joseph to go to Egypt and not some other place. God sent Jesus to Egypt so that He could bring Jesus out of Egypt in order to fulfill the words of the prophet.
But there’s a problem here, isn’t there? Because if we go read the original prophecy that Matthew is referring to, it’s not obvious that it’s talking about Jesus at all. It’s not even obvious that it’s what we wold call a “prophecy.” Let’s turn there together—this comes from Hosea 11:1-4.
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them” (Hosea 11:1–4).
In this passage, who is God referring to when He talks about His child, His son? He’s talking about Israel. And this is not strange. We see this many times in the OT. Exodus 4:22-23, for example: “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son’” (Exodus 4:22–23).
Israel is described as God’s son. Which meant more than just that they came from God, or that He created that nation in a unique way. He did. But in those days, to be the son of someone meant that you were like them. Sons did what their fathers did. When God calls Israel His son, He’s reinforcing their calling to be like Him.
And so if you had asked a 1st century Jew “who is God’s son?”, they would have said, based on God’s word, “Israel.”
Hosea 11:1 says “Out of Egypt I called my son.” That’s talking about the Exodus from Egypt—with the 10 plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea. God called his son Israel out of Egypt under Moses.
And Matthew quotes this verse, applies it to Jesus, and says that Jesus went to Egypt so that this Scripture could be fulfilled. In other words, before Jesus came, that Scripture about calling Israel out of Egypt had not been fulfilled. And now it was fulfilled in Jesus.
But what do you mean, fulfilled? That verse is talking about what happened to Israel in the past. God called them out of Egypt. What needs to be fulfilled about that?
The answer is that Israel’s whole story needed to be fulfilled. And here’s what I mean: when God called Israel to Himself, He was seeking a faithful son. A people who would be like Him, just like a son to a Father, taking on His identity and representing Him in this world.
And we all know how they did with that. Time and again they failed. They failed to reflect God. They failed to be like Him. They failed to represent him in this world. They failed in their calling of being a faithful son. “A son honours his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor?” asks the Lord in Malachi 1:6.
Israel was a faithless son. And so when Jesus is referred to as the Son of God, a significant part of what that means is that He had come to be everything Israel was not. He came to be the faithful son. To perfectly obey His father. To perfectly represent Him in the world. Jesus came to succeed everywhere that Israel failed.
In other words, Jesus came to be the New Israel. Jesus essentially assumes the identity of that nation. And what He does in His life is re-enact their history. He walks through everything they walked through in order to succeed at every point where they failed.
So that’s why Jesus goes to Egypt. He is reenacting when the nation of Israel went to Egypt, so that he can reenact the Exodus out of Egypt. Except that He will not complain or whine or test His Father’s patience like they did.
Later on in His life, Jesus re-enacts the 40 years in the wilderness with His 40 days in the wilderness. And that’s why every time Satan tries to tempt Him in the wilderness he quotes from the book of Deuteronomy, which are all passages talking about Israel’s time in the wilderness.
And in Matthew’s gospel we’re going to more than once how Jesus is portrayed as the fulfillment of Israel’s story. He has come to re-enact the history of that nation and to be a truly faithful son at every point where they failed to do so. He will submit Himself to His father’s will and become obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
So Matthew is not wrong to look to Hosea 11, and a passage which speaks about Israel, and apply it to Jesus. Because Jesus is the New Israel. Jesus is reenacting their story in order to fulfill it and bring it to completion and be the saviour that they—and the rest of the world—had been longing for.
The Slaughter of the Babies
Let’s consider the second episode in our passage. “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” (Matthew 2:16).
We need to review a few things here. First, this sad story fits really well into what we know about Herod. Like we heard last week, Herod was totally paranoid of losing his throne, and he killed a lot of people—even his own family—to protect it.
Furthermore, Bethlehem was not a big town. Some estimate that in that whole region there may have only been 20 or so male children within this age group. So it’s something Herod probably felt he could get away with without making too big of a fuss.
The second thing we should see here is that this sounds familiar, doesn’t it? A king so paranoid about protecting himself that he resorts to killing babies, and yet one special baby is saved by his parents. There’s a lot of similarities here between Jesus’ experience and Moses’ story.
And that is not an accident. Not only does Matthew portray Jesus as the new Israel, he also helps us understand that Jesus is the new Moses. Like Moses, Jesus escapes the death sentence of a murderous king while just a baby. And soon, like Moses, we’ll see him ascend a mountain and deliver to his people the word of God. Like Moses, he’ll miraculously provide bread for his people. We’ll see Jesus show his power over the sea and drown the enemy host in it—substituting demon-possessed pigs for the Egyptian army. Like Moses, Jesus will mediate a covenant with His people—a New Covenant, in His very blood.
Matthew’s gospel shows Jesus as the counterpoint to Moses again and again. Even the five-fold structure of Matthew’s gospel is an echo of the five books of Moses. And the point here is that Jesus is the new Moses who has come to bring about a new Exodus from the real slavery of our sin.
Just like Moses led his people out of the exile of Egypt into the promised land, so Jesus has come to bring about a New Exodus from the exile of our sin.
Have you noticed how often the exile has come up in Matthew so far? The genealogy in chapter 1 really drew attention to it. The story of the Magi is basically a reverse exile as foreigners from Babylon or Persia came to Bethlehem not to capture Jesus but to worship Him.
All of this is setting up Jesus as the one who is going to end the exile. And Matthew makes this explicit in the next verse as he once again quotes from the Old Testament. Matthew tells us that this slaughter of these babies fulfills “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’” (Matthew 2:18).
There’s so much that Matthew is saying here. And you won’t be surprised that, in order to really understand this, we need to go back to Jeremiah 31, where this quote comes from, and see what’s really going on. So let’s turn there.
As we turn there we should remember that Jeremiah was a key prophet in Israel’s history who prophesied at the time of the Babylonian exile—when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and took many of its inhabitants away to Babylon with him. And Jeremiah’s book is thus a really sad volume. But right there near the middle are two chapters, 30 and 31, referred to as the “Book of Consolation.” And they are full of hope and promises that God is going to reverse this exile and bring His people back to Himself.
Jeremiah 31:1 says, “At that time, declares the Lord, I will be the God of all the clans of Israel, and they shall be my people.”
Or listen to verse 8-9: “Behold, I will bring them from the north country and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, the pregnant woman and she who is in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with pleas for mercy I will lead them back, I will make them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble, for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn” (Jeremiah 31:7–9).
Verse 13 describes the celebration when God visits and saves his people: “Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:13).
But then in verse 15, right in the middle of this happy section, is a note of sadness. Here’s what that one single verse says: “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’” (Jeremiah 31:15).
Ramah was the city where the exiles where gathered together before the long march to Babylon. And Jeremiah is picturing Rachel, one of Jacob’s wives, the mother of some of the twelve tribes, standing there and weeping as her descendants are led off to Babylon. It’s a very sad and poetic way of describing the exile, as if the sorrow ran so deep that it hit Rachel herself.
But then the very next verse in Jeremiah is a rousing promise about the exile being over and salvation finally coming: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country’” (Jeremiah 31:16–17).
And the chapter goes on to talk about the joy of the return from exile, and it builds up to the incredible promise in verse 31 about the New Covenant. “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…” And he goes on to talk about the inner transformation and the final forgiveness of sins that comes to us in the New Covenant.
And that’s all in Jeremiah 31: an incredibly joyful chapter about a second Exodus, a return from exile. And yes, in the middle of the chapter is one sad verse about the exile, but it’s only there to remind people that those days are going to be over.
Now let’s remember what happened to God’s people. After 70 years in exile, Cyrus king of Persia did send them back to the land. The physical exile ended. We read in Ezra and Nehemiah how they came back and rebuilt the temple and rebuilt Jerusalem.
But what we also read in Ezra and Nehemiah is that the exile never really did end. The sin that caused the exile kept on going. They kept on doing the kinds of things that had earned God’s wrath in the first place. God’s people were no longer in Babylon, but Babylon was still in them. They were back in their land, but God’s presence was not there with them.
And that’s why the Old Testament ends on such a sad note with the book of Malachi, who prophesied that God was going to come and judge them if they didn’t repent.
And so that was the situation in the time of Jesus. Back in their own land, but still but still fundamentally in exile. And so when Joseph heard those words from the angel, “He will save his people from their sins,” that would have meant one thing to him: the exile is finally going to be over. The real Exodus is finally going to happen as they are set free from the sin that enslaves.
And all of these references to Moses are saying the same thing: Jesus is the one who was finally going to bring about this second Exodus and deliver His people from their captivity to sin.
Herod tries to stop this from happening by murdering those babies. And this horrible act would have caused so much sorrow on the part of those mothers and families in Bethlehem. They would have wept. And yet do you see what Matthew does here, by quoting from Jeremiah 31? He’s connecting their tears with the tears in Jeremiah’s day. In other words, Rachel had kept on weeping for her children. The days of tearlessness that Jeremiah promised in verse 16 never really came.
But that’s all about to change. Here’s how author Matt Smethurst explains this:
Matthew understands Israel’s long exile—her banishment because of sin—to have finally reached its climax. The end is now in sight. Indeed, Rachel’s weeping is about to cease, for God’s Messiah has finally come to bring an end to Israel’s—and humanity’s—exile from God’s favor and blessing.
Matthew is showing us that the King is on the scene to bring God’s people home, and no human monarch can stop him. Jeremiah 31:15 was couched in the hope that God wouldn’t leave his people in exile forever. In Jesus he has arrived to accomplish that homecoming—not simply from Babylon to Israel, but from judgment to forgiveness and from death to life.
The tears of the exile, then, are finally being “fulfilled,” for the tears begun in Jeremiah’s day reach their climax in the tears of the mothers of Bethlehem. David’s royal heir has arrived, the exile is ending, and God’s true Son will soon inaugurate the new covenant promised in Jeremiah 31.
And so Rachel weeps, but not for long. The trail of tears is coming to an end in this true and final Moses named Jesus. And once again, from a slightly different angle, we see that Jesus fulfills the story and history of Israel. It’s all about him.
The Return to Nazareth
Let’s review for a moment. In our first episode in our passage today, we saw how Jesus, as the Son of God, steps in to the place of Israel and fulfills the story and the destiny of that nation, that people. Jesus is the new Israel. In the second episode, we saw how Jesus steps into the place of Moses as the one who brings about the promised second exile. In the third and final episode today, those two themes are woven together with some new material to create a beautiful tapestry of fulfillment.
It begins in verse 19: “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” (Matthew 2:19–21).
There’s two layers to what’s going on here. On the one hand we have the Moses layer. Do you remember how Moses was told to go back to Egypt, because those who sought his life were dead (Exodus 4:19)? Just like Moses, Jesus can return home now that the murderous king is dead.
And yet unlike Moses, Jesus isn’t going back to Egypt. Like Israel, he’s leaving Egypt to return to the land of promise. And verse 23 tells us, “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” (Matthew 2:23).
Once again, we see another case of Matthew referencing a fulfillment of the words of the prophets. And yet there’s something unique about this last reference: nowhere in the Old Testament do we actually see anything about Nazareth, or the Messiah being a Nazarene. So what can Matthew mean when he says that this fulfills the words of the prophets, if the prophets never said anything about Nazareth?
We’re helped along if we understand that Nazareth was a small town with no reputation that nobody knew about and nobody cared about. In John 1:45-46 we read this: “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’” (John 1:45–46).
So that’s the reputation, or lack thereof, that Nazareth had. This is hard for us to see because Nazareth has become a famous town to us because of Jesus. But back then, saying you were from Nazareth was like going to the city and telling people you’re from Aylsham or Pontrillas. People look at you and say, “where’s that?” Or even worse, like with Nathaniel, they recognize the name of the town but not for good reasons.
And that’s where Jesus was raised. This would be where he’d spend the next number of years and what would become known as his hometown. God did not choose for His son to be raised in the spotlight and opportunities of a big centre. He wasn’t like Paul, who had the prestige of being from an important city like Tarsus. No, Jesus grew up in Podunk Nazareth.
And in so doing He fulfills the words of the prophets which tell us that the Messiah would not be a great man of the world with good reputation and vast accomplishments, but a man who was poor, rejected, despised, unknown.
“Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers…” (Isaiah 49:7).
“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:2–3).
And taken together with other passages in the Psalms (Psalm 22:6, 29:10-20), these passages describe someone who would be from a place like Nazareth. Away from the spotlight. In a town of poor reputation. Humble and despised and rejected. This is exactly what the prophets foretold and this is exactly what Jesus experienced as he grew up in Nazareth.
As we come to the end of this message today, I think it’s important for these truths to land on us in a couple of ways.
First, we need to stop and appreciate once again how it’s all about Jesus. How Jesus fulfills the Scripture left, right, and centre. How he embodies Israel and how all of God’s promises come down to this one person.
This should have a big impact on how we read the Bible. Every time the New Testament authors reference the Old Testament, there’s a goldmine waiting to be discovered. This is one reason why slow, careful reading—in other words, “study”—is so important. There’s so much for us to discover.
And ultimately, this should have a big impact on how we treat Jesus. Don’t treat Jesus lightly. Don’t treat him poorly. Don’t put him on ignore. Don’t let his Nazareth upbringing fool you. Jesus is surpassingly important, and any opportunity you have to be with Him or get to know Him better should be understood to be a vast and incredible privilege.
If the only thing you took home from this message today is that Jesus is worthy of your worship, Jesus is worthy of your obedience, Jesus is worthy of your life, you would be doing well.
Because that is, in large part, Matthew’s point. It’s all about Him. It’s not about you. This story is not about you, your life is not about you. It’s about Jesus. So look to Jesus and be amazed.
We can also take this in a more personal direction as we think about these big themes of exile and exodus. Because without Jesus, you and I are no different than any of those men and women of Israel in any of those long, hard centuries before He arrived. If Jesus does not invade our lives with His Holy Spirit, we’re just as stuck in the ruts of sin, spinning our tires and getting deeper and deeper until someone comes to save us.
So if you know Jesus today, praise Him for rescuing you from exile. For leading you out of the wilderness of sin and into the Promised Land of His love and presence.
Listen to these words from 1 Peter 2: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:24–25).
Do you live, do you act, do you think, do you feel, do you pray, like someone who has been brought safely home from the wilderness of sin to the warm fold of the shepherd?
And do you have a desire to share this experience with others? Who in your family, your friend circle, your workplace, is still wandering in the exile of sin? And how are they going to come to know the safety and salvation of Jesus? And what are you going to do about that?
Maybe you’re here this morning and you realize that you are still in spiritual exile, still wandering around in the desert of your own disobedience. There’s all kinds of people around here today who would love nothing more than to help you find your Saviour. I’d love to talk to you about this.
Even now, as we sing this last song, make it a prayer. I promise that He won’t put you on ignore. Emmanuel is here for each one of us today. Each one of us, let’s draw near to Jesus as we sing these words.