The short passage in Scripture that refers to Jesus’ family’s escape from Herod into Egypt is probably one of the most overlooked passages in the Christmas narrative, yet it is rich in meaning and theological significance.
The surface meaning of Matthew 2:13-15 is simply this. The king, Herod the Great, perceives a threat to his power and is planning to destroy this baby born in Bethlehem. Joseph is warned of this plan by an angel in a dream after the wise men leave. He awakes from this dream (really a nightmare) and starts out to Egypt in the middle of the night. They will be safe in Egypt, which is outside of Herod’s rule. And they have the very expensive gifts the wise men left with them to support themselves during this time. Herod is old and sick and will die soon, and then they can return to their homeland.
But the really significant part is the last sentence of verse 15:
This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:15b)
This is a reference to the Old Testament prophet Hosea. Hosea’s prophecy is a very compelling one in which the Lord asks Hosea to take a wife (named Gomer, bless her heart). Gomer has one child with Hosea, but she becomes unfaithful to him and conceives other children with other men, becoming a sex slave. Instead of rejecting her, Hosea buys her back (“redeems” her) and restores her to her rightful place as his wife. The book of Hosea makes it clear that what Hosea is living out is symbolic of the relationship between God and his people. God loved his people and rescued them out of Egypt, but his people became unfaithful to him and pursued worship of other gods. Romans 1 puts it like this: “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator…” (Romans 1:25). In other words, we are all unfaithful to God. Despite the fact that He created us and loves us, we all wander and worship other things (money, success, “happiness”, relationships) instead of Him.
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. (Hosea 11:1-2)
Baals were false gods. This verse is saying that God called his people Israel (which he refers to as His son) out of slavery in Egypt, but the more He called them to Himself, the more they turned away to false gods and idols. A Redeemer is necessary. Matthew is pointing to this prophecy and saying that God is going to also bring “out of Egypt” the Redeemer who will save His people from their sin once and for all and restore His people to their rightful place as His children.
As Romans 1 says, all of us have done this and are doing this. We have (and are continuing to) exchange the truth about God for a lie. We have (and are continuing to) worship and serve created things rather than the Creator. In other words, we are all unfaithful to God. Our situation is hopeless in that we cannot find our way back to God on our own. We are, literally, slaves to sin. This week, we celebrate the fact that God has provided a Redeemer who paid the necessary price (death on a cross) to buy us back and restore us to our rightful place as God’s children.