The Early Sorrows of Christ
William J. Baldwin
No mother like Mary the wide world can show
Here begin in earnest the sufferings of Christ. He has already humbled himself more than we can imagine to become man. But at least he came with great fanfare!
He was conceived by the Holy Spirit. His coming was announced to Joseph by an angel. Wise men came from afar to worship at the cradle of the king of the Jews. And they brought with them such gifts as befit a kinggold, frankincense, and myrrh. Not since the Queen of Sheba traveled to see Solomon had such gifts come from the East. And behold, One greater than Solomon is here. It is altogether fitting that such gifts should come again.
Now this. He will not grow up in Bethlehem, the town of his birth. He will live life on the run before he is old enough to walk. Before he can do much more than sleep and cry, before he can say a word, he has offended men so bitterly that they seek his life. So he will grow up in a backwater town, surrounded by Gentiles, in obscurity.
Here we see in Jesus a new Israel. For this is the identity and experience of Israelfrom the Exodus to Babylon to the Returnconferred on Christ. This is your Savior's identity and experience. And in him, it is yours.
A Pilgrim Identity
From these, his earliest days, Jesus takes on the identity of a pilgrim. He cannot make his home in this world. We might have hoped otherwise given the sweet beginnings of his life on earth. But in the background of angelic jubilation and the worship of sages, already there was the agitation of the wicked.
Herod and the chief priests and scribes had been troubled, not comforted, to hear of his birth. How could it be otherwise? Were they not the movers and the shakers of their world, the ones with power and honor and glory? Yet wise men come with gifts to set before the "king of the Jews." Herod claimed that title for himself, yet he was not the one the wise men sought. The chief priests and scribes claimed moral and religious authority over the Jews, yet they were not the rulers whose birth was announced by a star.
Naturally, they hate the child and must seek to destroy him.
He is born at odds with the world in which he lives. His very existence is a repudiation of the powers that be. For in Christ a new and eternal power has arrived to which all else must bow the knee. The world hates him. How could it not? Thus he must begin his life as a fugitive, hated by the rulers of this present evil age who seek his life.
So it was with Jesus. So it is with you.
Jesus confers this pilgrim identity on you, his body. You too are pilgrims in this present evil age; you cannot make your home here. You too, by your very identity with Christ, have become hopelessly at odds with the world in which you live. Your desires, your values, your allegiances all focus on the world that is to come. Your very existence as a citizen of heaven, a new creature born from above, denies the permanence and significance of the things of this earth and the powers of this age. Your every breath repudiates the world that is passing away.
The experience of Jesus, conferred on you, prepares you for how the world must react. The peaceful beginning to the Christmas story is shattered by the murderous rage of the pretender to Christ's royal throne. Herod seeks his life to destroy him.
A New Exodus from a New Egypt
Joseph is warned in a dream and so he flees by night for Egypt. There they stay until the death of Herod. "That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, 'Out of Egypt I called My Son.'" We'll take a look at the context of that prophesy in a moment. But first let's look at how it is fulfilled in Christ.
We look at that statement "Out of Egypt I called My Son," and we think, that's fulfilled by Jesus taking refuge in the land of Egypt and then being brought up out of that land. Jesus had to go down into the land of Egypt so that he could be brought back out, thus fulfilling the Scriptures. But that's not what Matthew is saying. Do you see the context?
There is a king, Herod, who seeks to destroy Jesus, just as in Egypt there was a king who sought to destroy the children of Israel in general and Moses in particular. This king, Herod, orders the slaughter of innocent children, just as Pharaoh, king of Egypt, ordered the slaughter of the Hebrew infants. Do you see how the parallels are going? The "Egypt" Matthew is talking about is right in the middle of Israel.
Geographical Israel has become spiritual Egypt.
It is in Israel that a king like Pharaoh exists, seeking to destroy the children of God. It is out of Israel that Jesus is called to flee. Israel is Egypt in this story. Do you see it? Geographical Israel has become spiritual Egypt.
The prophecy "Out of Egypt I called My Son" is fulfilled when Jesus leaves Israel, fleeing the persecution of a wicked king. It is Israel that has become the place of unbelief and wickedness. And it is out of this New Testament Egypt that God calls his Son.
Matthew here testifies against the unbelieving Jews that they are like the wicked ones of Egypt, with Herod even repeating the sins of the Egyptian Pharaoh. And ironically, where does Jesus flee this spiritual Egypt? He flees to geographical Egypt where he is protected. Again Matthew foreshadows the inclusion of the Gentiles in the covenant of grace (just as he did when the Gentile wise men came to worship). For it is in Gentile Egypt that the Christ is received and nurtured and protected.
Is this what you expected for the king of the Jews? Is this where the story seemed to be headedthat he should run and hide as one who fears for his life? Why does he not rise up and smite his enemies? Why does he not put Herod the pretender in his place and take his seat in Jerusalem and establish his kingdom and begin his dominion? Where is his power? He is a helpless, squalling infant. He cannot even run from danger but must be carried to safety by another.
This beginning of his sufferings foreshadows the consummation of those sufferings at Golgotha, the hill where he was crucified. The eye of flesh can see no power, no strength in this picture, just as it can see no power in the shame and weakness of the cross. So they mocked him, crying "Hail, King of the Jews!" They thought it obvious that one so weak and apparently defenseless could not possibly be a king. There was no visible power in that weakness.
But by faith, you apprehend what the world cannot see. By faith, you embrace this defenseless child, murderously hated by the world, forced to flee and hide as though he has no strength. By faith, you embrace this king who was exalted in this world not by being raised up on a throne but by being lifted up on the cross. In this apparent weakness, you see strength. In these humble circumstances, you see greatness. And in this suffering, you see victory.
So it was with Jesus. So it is with you.
Will this life of triumph you lead manifest itself as you renovate the culture, dominate the society, and revolutionize the politics of your world? Put such thoughts behind you lest you seek the things of men rather than the things of God. Your victory will manifest itself in suffering, your strength in weakness, your conquest of the world in events the world will see as your defeat.
The experience of Christ is here given to you to compel you toward this understanding.
A New Israel Is Begun
We see then how Christ has fulfilled the prophecy "Out of Egypt I called my Son." But what is the context of this prophecy? What understanding can we gain by looking at the text Matthew quotes?
Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1"When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son."
Clearly this refers to what? To the children of Israel being brought out of geographical Egypt, physically, in the time of Moses. It's a historical observation, isn't it? Not what we normally think of as a "prophecy."
Yet Matthew just helps himself. He says, do you want to know what that passage was ultimately talking about? It was talking about Christ. God has ordained that the history of Israel's origins should point to a greater and more glorious story of a greater and more glorious Son of God. The whole experience of Israel in being brought out of Egypt is taken as a picture of Christ, a picture to be definitively fulfilled in Christ's suffering, death, burial, and resurrection.
Matthew is teaching us how to understand this Old Testament experience in the light of our Savior. And in turn he is teaching us how to understand our experience as those who belong to Christ. The story of Israel has become the story of Christ. And the story of Christ has become ours. We share in his definitive fulfillment as we appropriate the sufferings of Christ and look for the glory that is to come.
The story of Israel's beginning is about much more than the historical event of physically leaving an earthly Egypt to seek a geographical promised land. It's about following in the footsteps of Christ. It's about leaving behind the false, enslaving security of this world and seeking the kingdom that is in heaven.
Israel's rejection by Egypt signaled Christ's rejection by the world. And Christ's rejection by the world signals what must happen to all who put their hope in him. "Do not be surprised if the world hates you," Jesus said. "It hated me first." So the experience of Israel becomes the experience of Christ and through him it becomes your experience as well.
This is your identityto be rejected by the world, to be unable to make your home here, to live your lives as pilgrims who travel from place to place. Not literally but spiritually. You may live in one physical house all your life, yet spiritually your identity is that of a wanderer, a nomad, someone who has no permanent city here. You look to the city that has foundations whose builder and maker is God.
A Life Surrounded by Suffering and Apparent Weakness
We see our thoughts confirmed as the passage continues. For Jesus is not the only one who suffers in this story. All those identified with him suffer as well. Innocent children are identified with Jesus because of the time of their birth. And they are slaughtered for it.
And what can they do to resist? And what can their mothers do but weep? The scene is terrifyingly somber. How helpless everyone appears! How far from a reign of power and glory this new king seems!
Is this what you expected from the king of the Jews?
Yet here it is. His suffering is conferred on those identified with him by birth. How much more shall it be conferred on those who are spiritually identified with him by being born from above?
He is murderously hated by the world. And all those identified with him are murderously hated as well.
And let us note again, Herod does not hate him for his deeds but for his identity. The problem is fundamental. If the offense were something he'd done, he might be able to change his actions and ingratiate himself to this earthly king. But here he is, a baby; and Herod hates him before he's done anything, hates him for who he is.
Who is he? He is the Son of God and so he represents all authority and power. Remember the sin of the first woman in the garden? The serpent deceived her saying, you can be like God and make your own decisions about what's right and wrong. This desire to usurp God's authority is the original sin and is at the root of all sinswe want to rule ourselves. So when someone comes who has the authority of God himselfit's only natural that sinners want to kill him.
The difference, as we say, is fundamental. It can only be resolved by their bowing the knee to him, which they shall do at the last day if not before. Now, though, he must suffer persecution in accordance with the Scriptures and in that way enter into glory.
A New Israel from Start to Finish
Commenting on the slaughter of these babes, Matthew makes another one of his daring applications of prophecy, this time from Jeremiah 31:15: "A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more." And what was this prophecy originally about? If you guessed Israel, you're starting to get the picture. Jeremiah is referring to the event of the Jews being deported to Babylon.
The area of Ramah, the place of Rachel's burial, was the way station where the Babylonian conquerors gathered the conquered Jews together and deported them in bulk to Babylon.
And in Jeremiah's depiction of this, Rachel, the favorite wife of Jacob, is portrayed as weeping for her children being taken away from their home in the Promised Land. The figure of Rachel represents the whole of Israel weeping because the children of Israel are being exiled.
As with the last quotation, the prophet is making a historical observation about a past event. But again Matthew takes this historical observation and calls it prophecy. The history of Israel, he tells us, is no mere history. It is an experience that must be fulfilled in Christ and through him in his church.
So it is that Jesus' exile is accompanied by great mourning and lamentation as the mothers of Israel weep, because their sons are not merely being deported but slaughtered. From the very beginning, Christ's life is surrounded by sorrows and misery, and he himself is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
So it is that you are called to partake of Christ's sufferings, to share in his humiliation, and to be hated by the world.
But that isn't the end of the story.
A Greater Triumph in Store
Let's look a little further at the context of the Jeremiah quotation. Jeremiah speaks of Rachel weeping for her children, then immediately says this (Jeremiah 31:16, 17):
Do you hear that? The bit about Rachel weeping was history. And now Jeremiah is prophesyingthings won't end up that way. Israel will return to her country with great joy. God will ransom her and bring her back never to languish again. The mothers of Israel have mourned to see their sons taken away, but they shall rejoice to see their sons returned.
But how is this possible in the story of Jesus? How can this apply to these children, slaughtered as infants? Who will bring them back into the land of the living that they may rejoice and their mothers may be comforted?
Truly a greater salvation than has yet appeared is necessary if these mothers are to rejoice and receive their sons again. Truly Christ has come to provide a better triumph. These children have gone down to the grave. That is their exile. But up from the grave they shall come, to everlasting life. They shall be restored not to the earthly Israel but to the heavenly.
Do you see how it must be so?
If the slaughter of these innocents fulfills the text about Rachel weeping, then only their resurrection can fulfill the text about the rejoicing that will occur at the return of the exiled sons.
Indeed, the text about Rachel weeping is surrounded by such assurances. We have heard what comes after that text. Now hear what comes before it:
The talk of Rachel's weeping is hemmed in, behind and before, with assurances of joy, joy at last.
Christ begins as a man of sorrows, surrounded by suffering. But already our attention is directed to the end of things when he shall rise with great joy, having conquered sin and death.
So it was with Israel. So it is with Jesus. So it is with you.
With this, Matthew has just helped himself to Israel's entire history and applied it to Christ. From her beginning in being brought out of Egypt, all the way to her exile to Babylon almost one thousand years later and her return from that exile. Matthew is boldly announcing, it ALL belongs to Christ. It ALL speaks of him. It is HIS history.
And in him it is yours.
Israel was taken away into Babylon with great weeping and returned with great rejoicing. So it was the identity of Jesus to be persecuted and then to receive his reward. Did you not know from the whole of prophecy how the Christ must suffer many things and then enter his glory? Do you not know from the history of Christ that this must be so for you as well.
The apostle Peter did not understand this before the resurrection. And so he attempted to dissuade Christ from going to the cross. But afterwards Peter understood and embraced the way of the cross. Hear what Peter says in 1 Peter 4:12ff.:
A Life of Obscurity and Rejection
We have seen that this new Israel is a pilgrim; he suffers and appears weak; he is hated by the world. Now, lastly, we see that he is a man of obscuritynot world-renowned, not likely to rub elbows with those who are great in the eyes of men.
Joseph returns his family to Israel, but not to the southern half where evil Archelaus reigns. Rather, he goes to a backwater town in Galileeactually the town Joseph was living in before going to Bethlehem to be taxed. Thus Jesus ends up living in a mostly Gentile area of Israel, again a symbol of his rejection by his people and of his extending salvation to the Gentiles.
And Matthew says this was done, "That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, 'He shall be called a Nazarene.'" What is Matthew talking about?
There is NOWHERE in Scripture that speaks of the Messiah being called a Nazarene. There's nothing even close.
Some have suggested that Matthew is making an obscure pun on a Hebrew word, but that's quite a stretch. We can do better. If we understand what we've read so far, the answer will come to us.
Look at what Matthew says. In verse 15, he speaks of the word of the Lord through the prophet, referring to Hosea. In verse 17, he speaks of what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet. Clearly, he has specific prophecies in mind for those two examples.
But here he speaks more generally. He talks about what "the prophets" have said. He doesn't say this is a quotation taken from this or that prophet specifically. Rather, he says, the basic message of all the prophets together is that the Messiah will be a Nazarene.
What then is a Nazarene?
Perhaps you remember from John 1:46 what Nathanael said when he was about to meet Jesus and found out he was from Nazareth: "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Nathanael was reflecting the feeling of the time. He wasn't suggesting Nazareth was evil, merely that it was insignificant. "Can anything of much importance come from Nazareth?" is his sentiment.
Nazareth was an obscure city. It was a backwater town, a place of no consequence. And people who came from there were obscure and of no consequence. To have the Messiah come from Nazareth of all places just seems like such a letdown. It's as though he came to America only to take up residence in a small town in South Dakota.
Yet that's exactly what happened. The Messiah came from an obscure, backwater town. He was a yokel, a hayseed, a hick. From the beginning he was marginalized and deprived of earthly significance and splendor.
That's what it means to be a Nazarene.
And that's exactly what all the prophets had said. The Messiah will not be a mover and a shaker with a lot of clout in the world. He will be despised and rejected by men. He will have no form or comeliness that we should desire him. He will be weak and foolish in the eyes of the world. The king of the Jews will enter Jerusalem, "humble and riding on a donkey." He will be the stone that the builders rejected, yet he will become the chief cornerstone of a new temple.
So it was with Israel, So it is with Jesus, So it is with you.
Israel also was obscure. Their experience foreshadows that of the Messiah in this way as well. See what the Moses tells the people in Deuteronomy 7:7, 8:
So it is with Jesus. Born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth. Rejected by the scribes and the Pharisees, the movers and the shakers. He gathered together a ragtag crew of fishermen, tax collectors, political extremists, and what have you as disciples. He had no clout, no power, no outward glory. And he died the death of an outcast, a shameful death, deserted by even his friends.
He is indeed a Nazarene. And so are you. Let us go to him then, outside the camp, embracing his reproach. The message of the Nazarene is the message of the cross. His life bears the image of that cross from the very start, and so shall yours.
Paul tells the Corinthians as much in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31:
And is this not what your own pastor has been telling you week after week from Paul's second letter to the Corinthians? Paul begins that letter like this:
And in chapter 4 he again states this central theme:
And toward the end of the letter, in 2 Corinthians 12:9,10, Paul shares how God declined to remove a certain "thorn in the flesh," a malady that afflicted Paul greatly:
The list of passages could go on and on, and not just from 2 Corinthians. This is the theme of the cross and therefore the theme of Scripture itself. The experience of Christ is held out to you, not only so you may know what he suffered on your behalf, but also so you may appropriate his suffering and share in it.
A New Year
Child of God, what will the new year bring? At this time of year, the world busies itself with hopes for a brighter and more prosperous future. But you consider the reproach of Christ greater than all the treasures of this spiritual Egypt in which you live. So you seek, rather, to be conformed to the sufferings of Christ. You may be confident that the new year will bring exactly that.
Be not afraid. Behold, this is good tidings of great joy! Christ does not suffer still. He sits in heavenly glory, having received his reward. He has secured that reward on your behalf so that you who suffer with him will assuredly also be glorified with him. He testifies from heaven that even his deep sufferings were not worthy to be compared to the glory that has been revealed in him. A cloud of witnesses who have gone before you testify to this as well.
Come and embrace this heavenly pilgrim, and be yourself a pilgrim. You have a home with Christ in heaven. Come and suffer and be weak as he suffered and was weak. (Yet, oh, how strong he was and how strong you are in him.) Come even though your experience may have the appearance of defeat. Christ was not defeated by the cross; and you shall not be defeated if you take up your cross and follow him. Come and be a Nazarene obscure, marginalized, dismissed, ignored. As long as the eschatological Nazarene does not dismiss you, you have lost nothing.
Set the world behind you; it is passing away. Set your face like flint toward the heavenly Jerusalem as those who long for the day of Christ's appearing. And in that day? Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, no one has ever conceived the vastness of the glory and the richness of the reward that awaits you.
Postscript: A Note to the Reader
This sermon is an expansion of a sermon originally written in outline form. I originally delivered it as part of a sermon series in Matthew with all the extemporaneous comments and fleshing out of details that is usual with that method of sermonizing. That same outline, slightly retooled, became the subject of a sermon I delivered as a guest preacher at New Life PCA Mission Work in La Jolla, California on New Year's Eve of 2000. I have transcribed this latter version above, but without the benefit of a tape. (There was a problem with the recording equipment.)
As such, there are some notable differences between the transcription above and the original outline and the sermon as delivered at New Life. A brief discussion of these differences may prove helpful:
1. The sermon as preached took 35 minutes. I suspect the above would take 10 minutes longer. So some of the material provided probably consists of things I wish I'd said, but didn't. It's also true that a preacher can make things clear through tone, volume, and speed of delivery that can only be made clear on paper by adding words.
2. The sermon as originally preached included some material that was appropriate as part of a series, but less so as part of a stand-alone sermon. Specifically, I omitted the observation that Jesus is not only portrayed as a new Israel but as a new Moses in this passage. Like Moses, he is saved from the slaughter of the innocents that he may grow up to lead his people. And the statement of the angel in verse 20"those who were seeking the child's life are dead"deliberately echoes the Lord's words to Moses in Midian. "Go back to Egypt, for all those who were seeking your life are dead" (Exodus 4:19). (Note that this also confirms the thesis that Israel has become a spiritual Egypt in the time of Christ. It is to Israel that Christ returns when it is safe, just as Moses returned to Egypt.)
The theme of Jesus as a new Moses could make a whole sermon on its own (so I did not include it in this one). Or, in a series, the theme can be mentioned here and then developed at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. There, when he takes his seat on the mountain and delivers his discourse, he reveals himself as a new and better Moses. Both the parallels and the great contrast are deliberate.
3. The sermon as preached at New Life has a couple of contexts that the original one did not. First, it came as a hiatus from the regular sermon series in 2 Corinthians being preached by New Life's pastor, James Lee. That is why near the conclusion the examples of triumph in suffering have been selected from 2 Corinthians. As I mentioned in the text (though not, I suspect, in the actual sermon as orally delivered) such examples really could have been selected from anywhere in the Bible.
The sermon also came on the occasion of New Year's Eve. It was therefore particularly appropriate to begin the sermon by quoting the Christmas hymn "I Wonder As I Wander." And it was appropriate to address at the end the question of what they ought to seek in the coming year.
I elected not to delete these context-specific elements to make the sermon more generic. I hope that these elements may serve to illustrate how a Redemptive Historical preacher may address the context of the congregationsomething we are accused of never doingwithout compromising the context of the Scriptures or vitiating the other-worldly focus of his preaching.