We are very familiar with the Christmas stories: There was no room at the inn, so Jesus was born in a stable; a choir of angels appeared to insignificant shepherds; and the Magi followed the star to give Jesus, now a toddler, gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Less well-known is the story of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, found only in Matthew 2:13-18.
When the Magi arrived at Herod’s court, they caused panic (vv.1-3). Herod’s paranoia was triggered, for the Magi were from “the East,” just like the Parthians, whom he had had to defeat before he could become King of Judea. Herod asked the Magi to report Jesus’ location back to him, with worship on his lips but murder in his heart (vv.7-8, 16).
The Magi, however, were warned away in a dream (v.12). Thwarted, Herod furiously murdered all boys in Bethlehem aged two years old and below (v.16). Joseph, however, had been warned in another dream the night before, and fled to Egypt with Mary and Jesus (vv.13-15).
The theological importance of this event is linked to Jesus’ role as Saviour-Substitute for all people, and for the Jews in particular. As our Saviour-Substitute, Jesus identified himself as one of us and took our place to bear the penalty for our sin. 2 Corinthians 5:21 describes this amazing exchange of standing and status: “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”
As part of this identification and substitution, Jesus experienced life on earth, living the trials, threats, and temptations that the Israelites experienced. Matthew highlights Jesus’ experience as a refugee in Egypt to remind us of three experiences God’s people had in the Old Testament:
Firstly, God’s people became a nation in Egypt (Exodus 1:6-7), generations after Joseph brought his family there to save them from famine (Genesis 46:1-7). Similarly, the New Testament Joseph brought his family to Egypt to save his family’s life.
Secondly, God’s people faced a tyrannical Pharaoh who commanded the murder of every baby boy at birth (Exodus 1:16). Similarly, Jesus faced a tyrannical king who commanded the murder of every boy in Bethlehem aged two years and below.
Thirdly, God extracted His people out of Egypt with 10 terrible plagues (Exodus 7:14-12:51). Similarly, once Herod had died, God appeared to Joseph in a dream, instructing him to bring Mary and Jesus back to Israel.
Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1, applying to Jesus what the prophet said of Israel: “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matthew 2:15). For Jesus is the new Israel, and He succeeds where Israel failed – in being a faithful son (Hosea 11:2, Matthew 3:17), and in being a blessing to the whole world (Genesis 12:3, John 3:16).
Materials from this page are adapted from “Discovery House Bible Atlas” by John A. Beck, Chapter 9: Birth and Early Years of Jesus, pages 223-235 and used with permission.
Father, thank you for sending your Son, Jesus, to be our Saviour-Substitute. Thank you that just as He succeeds where Israel failed, so also does His moral perfection fulfil the Law and cover our wrongdoings, and His resounding victory over sin and death overcome our every bondage and fear. This Christmas, we behold once again all that He has done for us, and we adore Him, Christ our Lord; our Immanuel, God with us. Amen.
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