Scripture: 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. 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. 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 2:19-23 ESV
Observation: This fourth dream of the birth narrative (and third directed to Joseph via an angel of the Lord) brings closure to Matthew’s Gospel account of the Christ-child. Following the angel’s command, Joseph returned to Israel, but after being rerouted in yet another dream, he settled his family in Nazareth of Galilee. Matthew then tells us that in doing so, Jesus fulfilled an apparent prophecy of the Messiah. According to Luke, both Mary and Joseph resided in Nazareth when they met (Luke 1:26-26) and, upon returning, would remain there through Jesus’ upbringing (Luke 13:52-58).
Regarding Matthew’s citation that Jesus fulfilled the prophets’ pronouncement that the Messiah would be called a Nazarene, there is no such reference in the Old Testament. But, as theologian D.A. Carson rightly surmises, the plural form of prophets and colloquial use of Nazarene likely sends an underlying message to the readers that Christ grew up in a community despised by upstanding Jews. Indeed, even Jesus’ soon-to-be disciple, Nathanael, questioned, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46 ESV)
Of further note, regarding Herod’s horrid death in 4 BCE, the Jewish historian Josephus provides a detailed report of the putrification of his digestive track and “privy member,” where he suffered convulsions and wreaked from breath and bowels (Josephus, Antiquities XVII, 168-69). During his decline, Herod revised his will to divide his kingdom into three regions. Archelaus assumed power over Judea, Samaria, and Idumea. Augustus Caesar confirmed the appointment contingent on Archelaus’ leadership ability. But Archelaus, while ruthless, proved to be an inept leader. Meanwhile, Herod Antipas acquired rule over Galilee and Perea. And like his brother, Antipas was weak and cruel but posed no threat to Jesus and his family.
Takeaway: There are two takeaways to this short passage. First, we must not put God in a box regarding where he will guide us. Matthew, above all the other disciples of Christ, emphasizes dreams as a means of steering Joseph outside his comfort zone:
- He married Mary, a pregnant teenager, against cultural morés.
- He departed to Egypt against Levitical law that prohibited seeking refuge in this enemy land that once enslaved Israel.
- He returned to Israel even though the next generation of wicked kings had assumed power.
- He settled in Nazareth, even though its reputation seemed unbefitting to the Christ-child, who the angel pronounced would one day save God’s people from their sins (see 1:21).
Whether dreams, a vision, or a timely word from a fellow believer, we need to be attuned to God’s direction. And we must be careful not to limit how the Lord may direct us—even when the locale seems unbecoming to a Christian. For example, the founding pastor of XXXchurch, which reaches out to people struggling with porn addictions, has received a lot of criticism from the Christian community. So while we must conduct ourselves in a manner that aligns with Scripture, beyond that, we have no business drawing boundaries on where to take the Gospel.
Secondly, and related to the first point, we can take comfort in knowing that our sovereign Lord, who created time and space, sees all and knows all—past, present, and future. And he is a loving God who guides his children from harm’s way or will give grace to them to bear up under persecution. Indeed, throughout the three-plus years of Jesus’ ministry, we will see him walk away from danger until the appointed time to bear his cross. And he pressed the boundaries of the Mosaic law and his target audience (tax collectors, prostitutes, and other wayward sinners).
So when we open our minds to the unconventional ways of our Lord that are merciful and just and abounding in grace, we too will successfully navigate the wiles of the enemy and find our way home.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who pressed the boundaries of religious conventionality to usher in our New Covenant of Grace. Would you please help us follow the Holy Spirit’s lead with an open mind and heart, trusting in his guidance that steers us away from the enemy’s wiles and leads us home? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling