Satan’s First Assault
“And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son. Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not. But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child's life. And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee: And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.”
From the beginning of time Satan has opposed his Creator. When God made known to his holy angels his intention to save sinful men by the blood and righteousness of Christ and thus to exalt manhood to the place of highest dominion over all creation, so that even the angels would be servants to chosen, redeemed sinners, Lucifer said, “No I will not be servant to man. I will be like the Most High” And he led one third of the heavenly host in rebellion against God and against the purpose of God. From the beginning of time Satan has been opposed to Christ and has attempted to nullify the purpose of God. And so it shall be until time shall be no more and the old serpent, the devil, is cast into the lake of fire.
In the passage of Scripture now before us the Holy Spirit describes Satan’s first assault against the incarnate Christ, his first attempt to destroy the Savior and keep him from accomplishing the redemption of his people. But there is no cause for alarm or fear. Though Satan goes about the earth as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour, all his devices and plans are easily foiled by our omnipotent God. Our God is so infinitely and totally sovereign that he is not only beyond the reach of Satan and able to foil the old serpent’s plans; but he even makes Satan’s deeds and devices subservient to his own great purpose of grace, as we shall see in this passage.
Matthew’s narrative of the historical events here recorded are easily and quickly perceived by the most casual reader. Verses 13-15 describe our Savior’s flight into Egypt with his parents. Being commanded by the angel of the Lord to do so, Joseph took the young child and his mother and fled into Egypt to escape the fury of Herod.
In verses 16-18 Matthew describes Herod’s slaughter of the infants in the realm of Bethlehem. Many translations and editions of the Bible place a caption above this passage and call it “the slaying of the innocents.” But that is not accurate. Though babies are innocent of willful transgression and have not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, they are far from innocent. All are born in sin and spiritual death (Ps. 51:5; Rom. 5:12). Adam’s transgression is imputed to all and his nature imparted to all, so that from infancy we are estranged from God (Ps. 58:3) and full of enmity toward God (Rom. 8:7).
In his fury and jealousy Herod gave command that every infant in Bethlehem two years old and under be slain. It is almost beyond conception that such an order could be given, much less carried out. Greater, more barbaric cruelty cannot be imagined. Yet, in our day thousands of mothers murder their unborn children in their own wombs, not to protect a crown like Herod, but to avoid the inconvenience of an unwanted child!
Verses 19-23 tell us of our Redeemer’s return from Egypt and settlement of his family in Nazareth. After Herod died, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and told him to return with his family from Egypt, which he did and settled in the little town of Nazareth, where our Lord was raised as the carpenter’s son.
Those are the historic events covered by these verses. But what do these verses teach us? What lessons do they unfold? What spiritual truths do they illustrate?
The very first thing that confronts us in this passage is the ministry of the angels of God. Again and again in these first two chapters we are told, “the angel of the Lord appeared” to Joseph (1:20; 2:13; 2:19). In those days angels of God were frequently used by God to be special messengers of grace. I do not hesitate to avow that God does not speak to men today by angels. He has spoken and speaks to us by his Word. We need no other Word from him (2 Pet. 1:19-21).
But that does not at all imply that the angels of God are inactive, or that they no longer serve God’s elect. I do not pretend to know a great deal about angels. However, I do know that the angels of God reverently wait at the throne of God to do his will (Isa. 6:2). They encamp round about God’s saints to protect them (Ps. 34:7; 2 Kings 6:17). The angels of God are ministering spirits sent forth to minister to those who shall be the heirs of salvation (Heb. 1:14). They attend the worship of God’s saints and the preaching of the gospel with keen interest, hoping to learn from us the wonders of redeeming, saving grace and love (Eph. 3:10-11). And the angels rejoice every time a sinner repents of his sin, trusting Christ as his Savior and Lord (Lk. 15:10).
Second, these verses of Scripture stand as an irrefutable testimony to the inspiration and divine origin of the Bible. I am fully aware of the fact that many today and throughout history have given vague words of prophecy that might be fulfilled in many different ways. And foolish men and women are certain that the lying dreamers and fortunetellers are inspired of God. But Bible prophecies are not vague representations of what might be. Prophecy in the Bible gives names and details with such clarity that, when the prophecies have been fulfilled, they stand as irrefutable proofs that the Bible is of divine origin and is divinely inspired, as it claims to be.
Matthew, more than any of the other gospel writers, takes notice of the fulfilling of the Old Testament Scriptures by Christ. He does so because his gospel was the first to be published among the Jews, who held the Old Testament alone to be the Word of God. Everything he has told us thus far has been the unfolding of Old Testament prophecy. The birth of Christ at Bethlehem (v. 6) fulfilled Micah 5:2. The flight of Joseph into Egypt with the young child and his mother was necessary for the fulfillment of Numbers 24:8 and Hosea 11:1.
Matthew Henry wrote, “It is no new thing for God’s sons to be in Egypt. They may be hid in Egypt, but they shall not be left there.” Though often found in the strange land and house of bondage, at the time appointed they are fetched out by almighty grace. All God’s elect, being children of wrath by nature, were born in a spiritual Egypt. But in conversion they are called out by effectual power. Even so, as Israel was brought out of Egypt and highly honored, Christ Jesus was brought out of Egypt that he might be brought up to glory. Thus the Scriptures were fulfilled.
The slaughter of the infants by Herod fulfilled the words of Jeremiah 31:15 – (vv. 17-18). The fact that the Lord Jesus was raised in Nazareth as a Nazarene (v. 23) fulfilled the universal consensus of the prophets that he would be despised and rejected of men. “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Perhaps reference is here made to Isaiah 11:1. The word Branch is Natzar, from which the word Nazareth comes, which means a shoot, or a sprout.
Being the divinely inspired, inerrant Word of God, the Bible alone is our rule of faith and practice (2 Tim. 3:16-17; Isa. 8:20). “Thus saith the Lord,” is the standard by which all things in the church of God must be judged and determined. Believing men and women bow to the authority of Holy Scripture in all things. Our doctrine, the ordinances we observe, and the rules of conduct by which we live arise directly from the Book of God. We must neither add to the Scriptures by imposing upon God’s saints the customs of men’s creeds, confessions, and opinions, nor take anything away from the Scriptures by refusing anything taught in them.
Enmity Against God
Third, Herod stands before us as an example of the enmity of man’s heart against God and his opposition to Christ and his cause. The Lord Jesus came down from heaven to save poor sinners. What could be more noble and beneficial? But as soon as he came into the world Satan had Herod in place and inspired his heart with barbaric cruelty to “seek the young child to destroy him.”
Reprobate interpreters of history tell us that Christianity has been the cause of great cruelty and bloodshed. But if they were honest they would say, “It has not been Christianity, but man’s opposition to Christianity that has been the cause of great cruelty and bloodshed.” Here are three things that we must never forget, or expect to change…
1. The cross of Christ and the gospel of God’s free grace in him are an offence and stumbling block to unregenerate men (1 Cor. 1:21-23; Gal. 5:11).
While he was upon the earth, our Savior said, “They hated me without a cause,” and nothing has changed. The offense of the cross has not ceased. Men do not object to Christ being a Savior. The offense of the cross is that the gospel insists that Christ is the only Savior. Men do not object to Christ being a partial Savior. The offense of the cross is that the gospel declares that Christ alone is Savior.
The gospel of God, the gospel we believe runs in direct opposition to the religious world in which we live. The gospel of God’s free and sovereign grace in Christ is contrary to all the natural religious sentiments of all men. To all men by nature, to all lost, unregenerate men, religious or irreligious, the cross of Christ is an offense. It is not possible to make the gospel palatable to lost men. Every attempt to do so, of necessity, involves compromise. It is not possible to faithfully preach the message of salvation by God’s free and sovereign grace through the merits of Christ’s sin-atoning death and imputed righteousness without offending those who reject and deny it.
2. The great, powerful, influential men of this world, though they are almost always religious, are the foes, not the friends of righteousness. Josiahs are few. Herods are a legion.
3. The cause of Christ does not depend upon and must never seek the power and patronage of political figures and civil government.
It is written, “Put not your trust in princes” (Ps. 146:3). It is common today, as it has been throughout history, for churches and religious leaders to seek approval and authority from political leaders and by civil law. While we are and should be happy to be free from the fear of political persecution, believers ought to quietly submit to civil authority and never seek to promote and build the church and kingdom of God by civil law (Rom. 13:1-7). Let those whose god is such a pigmy, that he needs the laws and swords of men to give him power, do what they will, we are to do everything within our power to lead a quiet and peaceable life with all men (1 Tim. 2:1-2).
Fourth, in all that is recorded in these verses we are again reminded of the sovereign rule and wondrous mystery of divine providence. Satan wanted the Christ child destroyed. So he moved Herod with the rage of petty jealousy to kill him. But God had other purposes and designs, which he used Herod to accomplish (Ps. 76:10).
Herod’s wrath forced Joseph to flee with the young child and his mother into Egypt to fulfill Holy Scripture. Herod’s slaying of the infants in Bethlehem, his hell-inspired, hell-bent slaughter of babies, was the means of God’s mercy to those who were slaughtered, the means by which he brought multitudes of elect infants into glory.
Men often accuse those who believe the teaching of Holy Scripture with regard to election and predestination of teaching that babies go to hell. Such accusations are without foundation. I fully agree with C. H. Spurgeon’s comments on verses 17 and 18.
“Our Rachels still weep; but holy women who know the Lord Jesus, do not now say concerning their little ones that ‘they are not.’ They know that their children are, and they know where they are, and they expect to meet them again in glory. Surely, if these women had but known, they might have been comforted by the fact, that though their little ones were slain, The Childrens’ Friend has escaped and still lives to be the Savior of all who die before committing actual transgression.”
I will leave to the theologians to wrangle over their points of logical deduction and theological calculation. I simply tell you what I know. All God’s elect are saved and all babies dying as such are elect, chosen in eternal love, redeemed by precious blood, and saved by omnipotent, free grace. I cannot help thinking, “How good it was of our God to keep these maliciously slaughtered children from ever experiencing personal sin.” Robert Hawker’s comments on this passage are excellent.
“In relation to the infants themselves; they were only removed from the evil to come. Had they lived to old age, they would have lived to have seen the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, which the Lord Jesus so mournfully foretold, when they would have said, “blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck.” If those sweet babes who died for Christ died also in Christ; were they not such as John heard a voice from heaven concerning, saying, “blessed are the dead which die in the Lord” (Rev. 14:13)? And is it not said, “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psa. 116:15)? And may we not without violence to the words suppose, that these little ones of Christ’s fold, were among that holy army John saw on Mount Zion, when he said, “I looked, and lo, a Lamb stood on the Mount Zion, and with him an hundred and forty and four thousand, having his Father’s name written in their forehead” (Rev. 14:1-5)?
I do not mean to suggest that infants are not sinners. They are. We are all born in sin. As the sons and daughters of Adam, we all have his nature. But the Scriptures speak of small children as those who have not sinned “after the similitude of Adam’s transgression” (Rom. 5:14). I certainly do not want you to think, as ignorant people often do, that the Lord took those children to make them angels! — No! He took them to give them all the fulness of grace and glory with Christ, beloved of God, chosen by grace, redeemed by his precious blood, and born again by the power of his Spirit.
Let me give you three reasons why I am confident that those children dying in infancy are saved by God’s grace. I mean by that that they are chosen, redeemed, sanctified, justified, and born of God.
1. Our God is good (Ex. 34:5-6).
2. No child will ever go to hell and suffer the wrath of God because of the sins of its fathers. — God does not send people to hell because of Adam’s transgressions, but because of their own (Ezek. 18:20).
3. The only example we have in Scripture of a child’s death, with comment concerning its state after death, is that of David’s son. David’s words concerning his son assure us that he was completely confident the child went to glory when he died (2 Sam. 12:23).
Fifth, Joseph here stands before us as an example of the obedience of faith. When the angel of the Lord said to Joseph, “Arise, take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt,” he did not pause to pack his bags, go on deputation to raise support, or solicit funds to make it possible for him to do what God commanded. He simply took his family to Egypt. When the angel of the Lord told him to return to the land of Israel, he returned. Matthew Poole wrote, “True faith always produceth obedience to the precept of it…They indeed believe not the Scriptures to be the Word of God, who take no care to live up to the rule of life prescribed in them.” — “Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it” (John 2:5), conferring “not with flesh and blood” (Gal. 1:15-16). The only thing that causes disobedience is unbelief. Precisely to the degree that we believe God we obey him.
Sixth, this passage shows us a great example of the humiliation of our Lord Jesus Christ as our Mediator. When the Son of God lived on this earth he spent 30 of his 33 years in Nazareth, a small, obscure despised town in Galilee. No one lived in Nazareth except those who could not afford to live anywhere else. This is where the Son of God chose to reside. Let us learn from his example.
We must never seek great things for ourselves (Jer. 45:5). It is not nearly as important as people imagine it is to have property, position, power, praise, and money. It is a very great sin to be covetous and proud. But it is no sin to be poor. As J. C. Ryle put it, “It matters not so much what money we have, and where we live, as what we are in the sight of God. Where are we going when we die? Shall we live forever in heaven? These are the main things which we should attend.”
The fact is great wealth is a great danger to any man’s soul. Those who seek the riches of this world know not what they seek. They are likely to fill our hearts with pride and chain our affections to this world. Our Master said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God!” “How hardy shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God?” Seek not riches, but righteousness. Seek not money, but mercy. Seek not greatness, but grace.
Seventh, we see in this passage that death is a great leveler. “Herod was dead!” Death enters the palace of kings just as it does the dens of paupers. None can resist its power. The murderer of helpless infants was himself helpless before the Lord God when the hour of his departure from this world had come. At the hour appointed, we too shall die. After death, we will stand before God in judgment. After judgment we will spend eternity somewhere, either in heaven, or in hell. Where will you spend eternity? Are you prepared to meet God? Am I? The only way to be accepted with the Holy Lord God is to be washed in Christ’s precious blood and robed in his perfect righteousness. For that, we must trust him. May God the Holy Spirit give us grace to “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.”