Out of Egypt
December 5, 2007
Sometimes you’re reading along when suddenly a phrase pops out and you say, “Whoa! Where did that come from?” That happened to me this week as I was reading the Biblical Illustrator in preparation for this message. I ran across a statement by W. P. Balfern regarding my text, which has Matthew quoting Hosea 11:1 regarding the flight to Egypt by Joseph, Mary and Jesus. Bible scholars have long wondered at Matthew’s use of the text from Hosea because at first glance it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Jesus. It’s about the children of Israel leaving Egypt and making their way eventually to the Promised Land. Just as God called them “out of Egypt,” Matthew appears to be saying that that Jesus was called “out of Egypt” to return to Israel so that he might provide deliverance from our sins.
Perhaps this will make it clearer.
Joseph and Mary were in Nazareth when the conception of Jesus took place.
They traveled to Bethlehem where Jesus was born.
Herod the Great ordered all the baby boys under the age of two in Bethlehem to be slaughtered.
An angel warned Joseph to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt for safety.
They left by night and fled to Egypt and stayed there until Herod died.
Then they returned to Nazareth where Jesus was raised.
All of this fulfilled the word of the Lord spoken by Hosea, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matthew 2:15).
There are many mysteries about all this:
1) We don’t know how old Jesus was when they went to Egypt.
2) We don’t know where they stayed in Egypt.
3) We don’t know how long they stayed in Egypt.
4) We don’t know how old Jesus was when they returned to Nazareth.
All we know is that Herod wanted the baby Jesus dead, he ordered the male babies of Bethlehem put to death, an angel warned Joseph who took Mary and Jesus during the night and fled to Egypt. Some time later, after Herod died, an angel told them it was safe to return. But when he heard that Herod’s son was reigning in his father’s place, he took Mary and Jesus and returned to Nazareth.
Again, all of this fulfilled Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Because we know so little about their sojourn in Egypt, there is much speculation but not much solid information. I did find a website with a variety of classic paintings of the flight to Egypt but not much else. So as I began to study this text, I ran across an intriguing sentence by this man W. P. Balfern:
Cross-handed providences often bring our greatest mercies.
And that set me to thinking because I had never seen the phrase “cross-handed” before and didn’t know exactly what it meant. What exactly is a “cross-handed” providence? And how do they bring us great mercies? And what does that have to do with the flight to Egypt? I wish I could tell you what W. P. Balfern meant but I can’t. When Joseph Exell put the Biblical Illustrator together in the late 1800s, he often included sermon outlines on various texts. That’s all he includes in this case. Mr. Balfern evidently wrote a sermon with these four points:
1. That when God brings forth good, evil is sure to oppose.
2. God permits wicked and lawless tyrants to be supreme for a time.
3. That cross-handed providences often bring our greatest mercies.
4. That while self is always in a hurry to display itself, real greatness is content to wait its time.
Point 1 is easy to see in Herod’s murderous attempt to kill Jesus and his unconscionable slaughter of the baby boys of Bethlehem. Whenever God does anything good in this world, the devil puts his demon spirits into overdrive, stirring up men like Herod to do their dastardly deeds.
Point 2 is obvious in that wicked men like Herod come to power by God’s permission. He allows them to rise to power, he does not always stand in their way, and he does not always stop their acts of monstrous evil. For some people, this poses an enormous problem, and I confess that it confounds all the righteous because we all can see that wrongdoers not only prosper, sometimes they prosper in the midst of their bloodthirsty activities. It is a great mystery why God permits evil men to do evil, hurting others in the process, apparently unchecked. I say “apparently,” not as a throwaway word, but as a profound theological truth. Things are rarely what they seem to be. No one gets away with sin forever. There is a road that seems right to a man, but the road of evil leads only to death. Your sin finds you out in the end. Herod died eventually, and then he faced his Creator.
Israel and Egypt
Passing over point 3 for a moment, I can see what Mr. Balfern must have had in mind in Point 4. This applies to Jesus only indirectly in that as an infant, he had no say in where his parents took him. But the larger point applies to all of us very directly. The path of life takes many unexpected zigs and zags, and we all find ourselves fleeing to Egypt for safety from time to time. When Charles Spurgeon preached on Matthew 2:15, he began his sermon this way:
Egypt occupies a very singular position towards Israel. It was often the shelter of the seed of Abraham. Abraham himself went there when there was a famine in the laud of his sojourn. To Egypt Joseph was taken that he might escape from the death intended for him by his envious brethren, and become the foster-father of the house of Israel. Into Egypt, as we all right well know, went the whole family of Jacob, and there they sojourned in a strange land. There Moses acquired the learning which was so useful to him.
He points out that while God sometimes sent his children to Egypt to protect them, he always delivered them from Egypt later. So Moses and the children of Egypt came “out of Egypt” in the great passage through the Red Sea. We need Egypt for protection, but we are never meant to stay there forever.
The living seed may go into strange places, but it can never be destroyed. The host of God may walk through fire, but it shall not be burned.
True greatness waits its time. It does not rush the Lord or complain when things happen slowly or when the plans of life suddenly are overturned. By faith we go down to Egypt in the middle of the night, knowing that one day by faith we will come “out of Egypt.” Both the going and the coming are part of God’s plan for us.
Herod’s Sinister Plot
That brings me to Mr. Balfern’s Point 3: That cross-handed providences often bring our greatest mercies. It must mean something like this. The ways of God rarely make sense to us in moments of great crisis. Did Mary wonder about God’s plan when she suddenly had to take her baby on a difficult journey across the Sinai Desert to Egypt? Did Joseph and Mary discuss it together? We do not know, but we know that Mary was a deep thinker who pondered things in her heart (Luke 2:19).
I said earlier that I had never heard the phrase “cross-handed” before. When I Googled it, I discovered that it is a common golfing term referring to a certain way of gripping a putter. Though I doubt this is what W. P. Balfern had in mind, the golfing image is helpful because it suggests a situation in life where the normal lines are somehow all crossed up. Nothing is what you expect it to be. Sometimes life can be very “cross-handed.”
The term applies to Herod in many ways. First, he was shocked when the Magi showed up in Jerusalem looking for one born king of the Jews. That was a direct challenge to his authority. Then he was shocked when the scribes immediately knew that according to Micah 5:2, the baby was to be born in Bethlehem. Then he tried to cover up his evil intentions by “playing nice” with the Magi, asking them to let him know when they found the baby so he could come and worship him too. But he got thrown for another cross-handed loop when the angel warned the Magi to return home by another route. Then this sick, evil tyrant hatched a monstrous plot to murder all the baby boys two years old and under in the Bethlehem region. You would be hard pressed to find something more sinister than this. But in a strange cross-handed providence of God, an angel warns Joseph to take Mary and the child and flee to Egypt.
Back to Hosea 11
But there is yet one more twist to this story that we should notice. If you go back to Hosea 11 and examine the context, you discover that God is declaring his love for the people of Israel in spite of their sin. You get both sides of the picture in verses 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.
Like a father who cannot give up on his own children, the Lord continually reaches out to his own people and says, “I am bound to you forever with cords of love.” Though the Jews turned away from God and said, “We prefer idols instead,” the Lord disciplined them, but he never utterly cast them away. They paid a heavy price for their disobedience, but God never gave up on them despite their repeated failure. When God says, “Out of Egypt I called my son” in verse 1, he is thinking of the nation as a whole. It is because God regarded Israel as “my son” that the next phrase stings so deeply: “The more they were called, the more they went away.”
The kinder God was, the more they rebelled.
The more God showed his love, the more they turned away.
The more God answered their prayers, the more they said, “We don’t need you.”
Loving Those Who Reject Us
When God reached out to them, they repaid his kindness by making a golden calf. Nothing tests our faith like a loved one who rejects our love. What do you do when your son or your daughter or your husband or your wife says, “I don’t need you in my life,” and walks out the door? Your response when rejected tells a lot about your theology. Earlier this year I received an email from a woman whose daughter has rejected her Christian upbringing. The mother said that sometimes she felt so angry that she had a hard time praying for her daughter. That email started me on a journey that eventually led to my most-requested sermon of 2006, Praying for Your Prodigal. Here is part of what I said in that sermon:
We need to be reminded that an astounding miracle lies at the heart of our faith. We believe something absolutely incredible–that a man who was dead came back to life on the third day. We believe that God raised him from the dead. Now if God would do that for his Son, indeed if God has the power to raise the dead, who are we to question God’s power to change the hardest hearts? After all, if you go to the cemetery and stay there waiting for a resurrection, you’ll wait a long time. There are lots of people going in and no one coming out. You will see plenty of funerals and no resurrections. What are the chances that a man who had been tortured and then crucified and then buried in a tomb would be raised from the dead? The odds would seem to be against it. You can’t start with what your eyes see or what you can figure out. And you can’t trust your feelings in something like this because your emotions can play tricks on you. We must therefore start with God who can raise the dead, not with the person who is spiritually dead. If it is God alone who can raise the dead, then our focus must be on God alone.
Three Days Before Christmas
I am writing these words early in the morning three days before Christmas. Very soon we will celebrate an absolutely astounding miracle—that God became a man through the virginal conception of Jesus Christ within the womb of a young girl named Mary. After two thousand years, we are no closer to understanding the Incarnation than we were when it happened. We know what the Bible says, but we can’t explain God becoming a man any more than we can explain the creation of the universe ex nihilo, out of nothing. You either believe it or you don’t, but your belief doesn’t rest on your ability to “explain” how God could become a man.
The Christian faith is filled with miracles. Take the miraculous out of our faith and there is nothing left. In particular, we believe that the earthly life of Christ was bracketed by two utterly astounding miracles:
He entered the world in an utterly unique, never-to-be-repeated manner, and he demonstrated his true identity as the Son of God by defeating death once and for all when he rose from the dead on the third day.
I mention this because good theology can save your life when you are heartbroken over a loved one’s unbelief. When you children turn away from you, it challenges everything you have been taught to believe. Sometimes in our anger, we turn away from those who have turned away from us. We say, “Good riddance!” and in our pain, we put up walls that separate us from our own flesh and blood. Maybe our silence will teach them a lesson, or so we think.
That’s where the message of Hosea 11 becomes so relevant. God had worked a mighty, stupendous miracle when he delivered his people from Egypt. And how did they express their gratitude to him? By making a golden calf! The more he called out to them, the more they turned away. It was as if the Jews decided, “We’re going to see how far we can run away from God.” And run they did, chasing after idols of their own making.
What do you do if you are a father and your ungrateful children spit in your face? This is what God did:
He loved them anyway.
He never gave up on them.
He would not let them go.
Let Thy Goodness Like a Fetter
“Oh, how can I give you up, Israel? How can I let you go? … My heart is torn within me, and my compassion overflows” (Hosea 11:8 NLT). Several weeks ago I happened to watch a television show featuring an enormous choir of young people singing Thanksgiving hymns. Near the end of the program, they sang Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing. The last verse contains a line that goes like this:
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
When they came to that line, the camera focused on a beautiful young woman who sang those words with tears streaming down her face. I think I understand a little of what she felt that day.
It is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance.
It is God’s kindness that causes us to weep.
It is his readiness to forgive that blows us away.
That’s the kind of God he is. He never gives up on us even when we give up on him. That’s the message of Hosea 11.
You are my beloved children.
You are part of my family.
I called you out of Egypt.
I gave you every blessing.
And still you turned away from me.
You disobedience has caused you to suffer.
But I still love you!
I will not let you go!
You are still my children even when you disappoint me.
Who wouldn’t love a God like that?
Who wouldn’t serve a God like that?
Who Is a God Like You?
Just as I wrote those words, I thought of my beloved friend Gary Olson, in heaven since 1999, who loved to quote Micah 7:18 in prayer:
Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.
Who is a God like you? Answer: There is no God like the God of heaven.
He does not stay angry forever.
He delights to show mercy.
When God brought his people out of Egypt, they failed miserably and repeatedly, yet he loved them anyway.
That is why, 1500 years later, he brought another Son, his one-and-only-son, the virgin-born Son from heaven, out of Egypt. That Son succeeded where Israel failed.
This is God’s answer to our failure.
This is God’s response to our sin.
Not only will he not let us go, he sends his Son to the earth, sends him to Egypt, and then calls him out of Egypt, as a kind of divine object lesson to teach us two important truths:
The greatness of our sin
The magnificence of his grace
It’s not as if God sees our failure and then calls out from heaven, “Try harder next time.” When you have failed a thousand times, trying harder won’t get the job done.
The Gospel in Three Sentences
This leaves us with a hugely important principle that I will state this way: There is something in God that causes him to provide whatever we need to meet his righteous demands. That “something” is his grace. The word means “unmerited favor” or “undeserved bounty” and refers to the fact that God’s generosity moves him to give us what we do not deserve and could never earn. It literally means that he gives us the exact opposite of what we deserve—eternal punishment in hell.
Here is the whole gospel in three simple statements:
God said, “Do this.”
We said, “We can’t.”
God said, “All right. I’ll do it for you.”
God demanded perfection. We couldn’t meet the standard. So God sent his Son who was perfect in our place.
God demanded payment for sin. We couldn’t make the payment. So God sent his Son who paid the price in full on our behalf.
God demanded righteousness. But all we had to offer were the filthy rags of our soiled self-righteousness. So God sent his Son who took our sin so that we might be clothed with his perfect righteousness.
God demanded a scapegoat that would be rejected and sent away. When Christ died bearing our sins, the Father turned his back on his own beloved Son so that Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
God demanded a bloody sacrifice for sin, but we could not meet that demand. So he sent his Son to die in our place, shedding his blood, paying the price, bearing our burden, offering himself as the final sacrifice for our sin.
His holiness demanded a perfect sacrifice.
His love sent us his Son.
In this we see the glory of the gospel. God says, “You must.” We said, “We can’t.” God said, “I will.” And he sent his Son from heaven to earth to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. This is why the Bible repeatedly declares that “salvation is of the Lord.” Everything starts with God. Salvation doesn’t start on earth and rise to heaven. No, a thousand times no. It starts in heaven and comes down to earth. God takes the initiative. He makes the first move. That is why the most famous verse in the Bible begins this way: “For God so loved the world that he gave” (John 3:16). You’ll never understand why Jesus came until you grasp the meaning of those words. Jesus is God’s gift to the human race. Entirely undeserved. A gift given in spite our sin. A gift many would despise and reject. A gift that would be brutally crucified. But even his crucifixion was part of the gift from God. In his death he gave us eternal life.
He Ran After Us
We can expand this thought in many directions:
* God knew we were dead in our sins so he sent Christ to give us life.
* He knew we were his enemies so he sent Christ to make us his friends.
* He knew we were like orphans so he sent Christ to bring us into his family.
* He knew we had no hope so he sent Christ to give us a home in heaven.
* He knew we were poor so he sent Christ to make us rich.
* He knew we were enslaved so he sent Christ to set us free.
* He knew we were afraid to die so he sent Christ to die and then raised him from the dead.
* He knew we had nothing so he gave us all things in Christ.
What he demanded from us, he gave to us.
What we needed, he provided.
This is why God called his Son “out of Egypt.” It is an amazing “cross-handed providence of God” that brings a river of mercy flows from heaven to earth.
When we ran away, he ran after us.
When we wanted nothing to do with him, he chased after us.
When we said, “Get away from me,” he said, “I love you too much to let you go.”
That’s why that young lady wept as she sang, “Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee.”
So, then, let us marvel at the kindness of God whose love goes farther than our love would ever go. And let us weep with sorrow over our sins and then let us rejoice that Christ came out of Egypt to be our Redeemer.
What a God!
What a Christ!
Glory to his name forever. May our hearts be filled with joy and wonder and overflowing faith this Christmas season. Amen!