Jesus fulfils what? (Matthew 2:13-15)

How can Matthew say that Jesus’ flight to Egypt fulfils Hosea 11:1? Hosea was talking about Israel’s exodus.

Open Matthew 2:13-15 and Hosea 11.

Matthew says Jesus fulfilled many Scriptures (1:22; 2:15,17, 23; 4:14; 5:17; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 26:54, 56; 27:9). But please read these before you claim that this proves Jesus was the Messiah. Some of these seem odd to us. Matthew 2:15 might be the most problematic:

Matthew 2:14–15 (NIV)
He got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Matthew seems to say that Jesus went to Egypt to escape Herod, and then returned because Hosea predicted it. But when Hosea spoke of God’s son, he meant the nation of Israel:

Hosea 11:1–2 (NIV)
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 But the more they were called, the more they went away from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images.

Was Matthew ignorant of the context, or desperate for proof-texts? The reason we don’t understand Matthew is that twenty-first century people don’t think the way first century people did. To make sense of it, we’ll need to think as they thought.

Hosea was referring to the exodus. The existence of the Hebrew people was in jeopardy when an oppressive ruler ordered the death of all the males (Exodus 1:16). The heavenly sovereign preserved the Hebrew people with ten miraculous signs, saving them from Pharaoh, bringing them to birth as a nation through the Red Sea. He led them to Sinai where he became their sovereign and they became his people. He called them his own child, his firstborn among the nations: “This is what the Lord says, ‘Israel is my firstborn son’ ” (Exodus 4:22).

But Hosea says they did not live up to their princely calling. They were supposed to show the other nations the wonder of divine rule. Instead, they gave themselves to other powers, so they ended up being crushed by those powers. As a result, when the heavenly ruler sent his Son, Jesus was born under oppression. The reigning tyrant wanted to destroy him, just as Pharaoh had tried to destroy them in the beginning. God’s Son, Jesus, was born in oppression, so he must fulfil the calling that God’s son Israel had failed to fulfil.

Notice the similarity. A tyrant tried to destroy God’s chosen son Israel before the nation was born. And now a tyrant has tried to destroy God’s Son Jesus at his birth. But this is no coincidence: it is the essential shape of sin. Pharaoh ordered the death of the Hebrew children to keep his power, and Herod acted in the same evil way for the same reason. Because Israel had not fulfilled its calling, Jesus is born into the same reign of evil that has terrorized humanity since the original rebellion.

Consequently, Matthew finds it unsurprising that Jesus is called to walk where Israel walked, under oppression and affliction from the earthly rulers. Jesus is called to fulfil what Israel has left unfulfilled.

In other words, Mathew is not treating Hosea’s prophecy as a prediction of Jesus’ travel itinerary. We’ve already seen that prophecy is relaying a message from the heavenly sovereign to his people (revealing, not predicting). The heavenly sovereign revealed his task for Israel through the Torah and the Prophets. Israel failed to complete its calling and was overwhelmed by the powers. Jesus must confront this on-going problem of the powers and fulfil Israel’s calling.

Matthew therefore tells the story of Jesus as the fulfilment of Israel’s unfulfilled story. Matthew’s opening words in Greek were literally, “Book of Genesis” (Βίβλος γενέσεως), as he set Jesus’ origins within the unfulfilled Abraham Story. Now he has told us why Jesus needed an exodus. He was called forth from Egypt, since the hope of release from tyrants like the ancient Pharaoh remained unfulfilled. Jesus must fulfil the divine sovereign’s calling for Israel. That’s what Matthew means by fulfil.

This kingdom perspective is much richer than other solutions I’ve seen offered:

  • It’s not merely proof-texting without regard to context: the whole story is Matthew’s context.
  • It’s merely not merely typology, drawing attention to interesting parallels.
  • It’s not merely recapitulation, the repetition of a previous event/motif.

It’s the difficult reality that the rebellion against God’s authority remained unresolved, that evil kept recurring as it was not sorted out. The divine vocation given to Israel is therefore the mantle passed on to the Messiah who must wrestle with the powers and restore God’s reign. Only then will earth is under divine governance again. Only then will the oppression of earthly rulers like Pharaoh and Herod be resolved.


What others are saying

R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 81:

Far from Matthew’s having seized on a convenient use of the word “son” (which in any case is not there in the LXX version of Hos 11:1) in relation to Egypt and illegitimately transferred it to a quite different kind of situation involving a different kind of son, this quotation in fact expresses in the most economical form a wide-ranging theology of the new exodus and of Jesus as the true Israel which will play a significant role throughout Matthew’s gospel. As usual, Matthew’s christological interpretation consists not of exegesis of what the text quoted meant in its original context, but of a far-reaching theological argument which takes the OT text and locates it within an over-arching scheme of fulfillment which finds in Jesus the end-point of numerous prophetic trajectories. When Jesus “came out of Egypt,” that was to be the signal for a new exodus in which Jesus would fill the role not only of the God-sent deliverer but also of God’s “son” Israel himself.

Update 2017-01-12:
G. K. Beale
, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 171:

That Matthew is, indeed, alluding to Genesis 2 and 5 is enhanced by observing that these are the only two places in the entire Greek Old Testament where the phrase biblos geneseōs occurs. Matthew’s point in using this phrase is to make clear that he is narrating the record of the new age, the new creation, launched by the coming, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

[previous: How did the magi find Jesus?]

[next: God as asylum seeker]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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