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The Life of Jesus - Series 1: Episode 12

The escape to Egypt & the return home

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 2:13-23

Herod is angry. Joseph, warned in a dream, takes the family to Egypt where they are refugees. They return to Nazareth, in Galilee. Matthew uses many Old Testament prophecies.

Herod is angry. Joseph, warned in a dream, takes the family to Egypt where they are refugees. They return to Nazareth, in Galilee. Matthew uses many Old Testament prophecies.


Hello and welcome to Series 1 and Episode 12. Thank you for joining us again. This is the story of 'The escape to Egypt and the return home of Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus.'

Introduction and Recap

If you have been studying the previous episodes, you will realise we are now towards the end of this incredible series of stories about the birth of Jesus and the miraculous circumstances that surrounded this birth. The birth took place at Bethlehem; the shepherds saw a remarkable sign in the sky and angels and came to worship; and then we saw, in the last episode, how Magi (or wise men) from the East (probably from Babylon) travelled all the way to the land of Israel after seeing a remarkable sign, which they considered to be a star, in the sky. They arrived in Jerusalem and then found the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, where they worshipped him and gave gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. That is the story so far.

It leaves us with a point of real tension and difficulty: there is the family (Mary, Joseph and Jesus) in Bethlehem still - probably planning to go home quite soon to the northern part of the country, to Nazareth - but nearby in the capital city, Jerusalem, is King Herod the Great, the ruler of the country. We saw from the last episode in Matthew 2, how Herod was very agitated by the arrival of the wise men and he was concerned about the significance of this newborn child who might threaten his rule over the country in the long-term. This is the context of the story that we are going to read now.  

Matthew 2: 13 - 23: (speaking of the Magi)

“When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 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.” When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child's life are dead.” So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

Matthew 2:13-23, NIV

Herod's Reaction

Another very remarkable story here - with some sinister implications and some radical decisions. Herod was very angry when the Magi didn't return to him because they could easily have come from Bethlehem back to Jerusalem, just a few kilometres away, and made a courtesy call to King Herod having seen the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. They could easily have told Herod about this discovery and then returned home but, as the text previously said, they were warned in a dream not to do that, and so they went by another route and went back to their home, probably in Babylon. Herod was angry and so he planned a rather vindictive and typically tyrannical move - he had done many things like this before and other historians have recorded his actions and they are very brutal. He sent in some of his soldiers to kill off young boys in and around Bethlehem in the hope of identifying the baby Jesus and killing him in the process. But you will notice what happens here: God intervenes through a dream and through the activity of angels.

Flight to Egypt

Joseph, as the father of the family, has a series of dreams and was warned, initially, to escape quickly. The story says as soon as he had this dream he went during the night - he left Bethlehem; it was really urgent that they got away from this threat. Herod's soldiers were going to come very quickly to Bethlehem and the surrounding areas and try and find this child and kill him in his infancy. Very suddenly, Joseph, Mary and Jesus are on the road again and this time they are going to Egypt. In other words, they are going outside the country of Israel. Herod the Great ruled the whole of the country of Israel on behalf of the Romans, which we discussed more fully in the previous episode, so anywhere that they went in Israel they wouldn't be safe if Herod was seeking to find them. Under the instruction of the angel and through the dream, Joseph made a radical decision: he would leave the country. He made the obvious decision - to go south. He was already in the south of the country but he had a long way to go to get to Egypt. There was a road that went from Jerusalem right the way down towards the coast, the Mediterranean coast in the area of Gaza, and then along the Mediterranean coast through a desert area called the Sinai Desert. It was the main trading route, the main road of connection between Israel and Africa - between Europe, Asia and Africa. It was a very major trade route for the whole of the Ancient World. That is the route that Joseph and Mary took with their infant, Jesus, travelling - I would estimate - between three and four hundred kilometres, depending on exactly where they ended up in Egypt, which we are not told. This is a desert route. This is difficult travelling. This is dangerous travelling. This is hot, dry and arid and they had to make this journey with Jesus, literally, only a few days old. Just imagine making such a journey with a newborn child - a tremendous and demanding journey was made.

When they got to Egypt, we know that they would have been able to connect with Jewish communities there because from the period of the Old Testament there were a substantial number of Jews who went into exile at various times, particularly during the times that the Babylonians came into Israel. Some of them went into exile in Egypt and established thriving Jewish communities in cities like Alexandria and in other towns in Egypt. The likelihood is that Joseph and Mary found refuge amongst their fellow Jews living in Egypt - perhaps in the city of Alexandria, a major northern city with whole districts that were Jewish. We don't know exactly what happened at this time but it is interesting to speculate: they must have found somewhere safe to stay and they had to stay until they had an indication to return.

Return to Israel

God gave them an indication, according to the story here, when Herod the Great had died. As was said in the last episode, Herod's life was near its end at the time when the Magi arrived and Jesus was born; he was a very old, frail and ill man at that time and it is quite possible that within a year, or perhaps two years, of the flight to Egypt, that Herod had died. Joseph got an indication of this and felt that the time had come that he needed to return to his homeland, to Israel. They took the route back, three or four hundred kilometres, just to get as far as Bethlehem, but they had much further to go - because the story tells us that they ended up in Galilee, which is in the north of the country. They might easily have travelled 500 or more kilometres on that return journey.

On the way up, Joseph was talking to people, no doubt, and found out that in Judea (where Jerusalem and Bethlehem is) Herod's son, Archelaus, was ruling. We know from other historians that he was as brutal as his father - he was deposed by the Romans a few years later - and so Herod's son was dangerous. In fact, the Romans had divided up Herod's kingdom and the area of Galilee was to be ruled by another of Herod's sons. Three of his sons took three parts of the country: Herod Philip, Herod Antipas and Archelaus. It was Herod Antipas who ruled in Galilee - and we also know from accounts in the Gospels and elsewhere that Herod Antipas was not such a brutal ruler.

Joseph took Mary and Jesus back to Galilee, where they had come from in the first place -back to Nazareth the town that I described to you in an earlier episode when the angel appeared to Mary and we found out about Mary and Joseph, and the area of Nazareth which was a rather remote village in central Galilee. They ended up there and were able to live safely for the childhood of Jesus. These are very dramatic events - traumatic events, if you think about it, for Mary and for Joseph - for a mother having her first child and feeling that the security of the child was under threat. That is a very challenging emotional situation - quite apart from the practicalities of being on the road and living away from home, away from your relatives and away from any support.

Old Testament Prophecy

As we look over Matthew 2, we notice an interesting thing which is that Matthew frequently quotes from the Old Testament. I have mentioned this briefly before but we will come back to it and in a little more detail now. There are a number of quotations which you will have noticed that Matthew uses. He uses quotations from the Old Testament in three different ways which are illustrated in Matthew 2. I will mention them briefly - to help us understand the role of Old Testament prophecy in the New Testament. This pattern you will see in many different writers but it is particularly clear in Matthew.

Sometimes Matthew quotes what we call a direct prophecy: one of the Old Testament prophets foresees something very specific which is fulfilled through Jesus or through the Church or the Gospel. We saw an example of this when the Magi were talking to King Herod and Herod called in his advisers and the religious leaders and he asked them to give some Old Testament explanation about where the Messiah, or the future king, would be born. They turned to the pages of Micah, the prophet, 5: 2, and they read it in Herod's presence. It is a very clear direct prophecy. It is the simplest level of prophecy. This often happens in the quotations in the New Testament: a prophecy from the Old Testament is directly fulfilled through Jesus, the Church and the Gospel and the events surrounding Jesus' coming.

We have another interesting example here - two different examples of two different usages. In verse 17 and 18 when the young boys were killed in Bethlehem by King Herod's soldiers, Matthew, interestingly, says that this was to fulfil what the prophet Jeremiah had stated. He quotes the following statement from the book of Jeremiah. “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” Ramah is a small town or village in this vicinity, in central Israel. When you look back in the prophet Jeremiah 31, where this is quoted from, you will see that the context is invasions and incursions into the land by either Assyrian or Babylonian invaders. As they came in, they attacked the land, burnt villages, took captives, killed people - children died. Jeremiah describes what would happen when these incursions into the country took place back in his day. He describes a woman called Rachel. Rachel is one of the matriarchs of Israel, one of the founders of the nation, and so using the word ‘Rachel’ is a representation of Israel as a nation. He is describing something that he foresaw happening in his lifetime. Matthew, basically, says here that what happened then was being reiterated or recapitulated: it was happening again in a different context: a foreign, oppressive ruler is causing suffering to the nation of Israel by killing its children. Herod the Great was a foreign ruler, like the Assyrians and the Babylonians were foreign invaders seeking to rule the country, and just as great suffering happened, with tremendous sadness for the mothers in Israel at the time that Jeremiah prophesied, so something similar happened in the time of King Herod the Great. This is what we call a typological prophecy. There is one central, core meaning in the prophecy but something similar can happen on more than one occasion where that core meaning is fulfilled.

Thirdly, Matthew and other writers take a statement from the Old Testament which isn't a prophecy but iis just a description of things happening and he describes a fulfilment based on that. For example, if we read verse 15 again: ‘And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Just as Jesus, the Son of God, came out of Egypt - was called by God to come back into the land of Israel in the way that I described to you - so the Prophet here (who happens to be Hosea in chapter 11) is describing something similar, but he is not actually prophesying a future event. He is describing something that had already happened in his time - that God had called the people of Israel (also known as the Son of God in a collective sense); his ‘son’ had been called out of Egypt. That is when Moses took the people of Israel out of Egypt; out from under the authority of the Pharaohs; through the Red Sea; into the wilderness and then, later, into the Promised Land. The fulfilment, in this third instance, is like a kind of application: just as something described in the Old Testament happened once, so something very similar can happen again and that is an application. It isn't a prophecy, it is a statement, but a statement that events can happen in a similar way again. Israel was the corporate ‘Son of God’ and came out of Egypt; Jesus was the unique, single, Son of God (the one Saviour, the Messiah) and so he also came out of Egypt.

Fulfilment of prophecy can take place in a number of different ways. We will see this theme coming back from time to time. Many people are very interested in prophecy and how it functions in the Bible and so I have just taken time in this talk to illustrate these three ways: a direct prophecy; a typological prophecy, where one event is prophesied in the past but another similar one happens in the New Testament; and an application, where an event described in the past is very similar to an event that happens in the New Testament period and there is another recapitulation, or repeating, of something very similar. In three different ways, these are fulfilments. The significance and meaning of the history and the prophecy of the Old Testament comes to fulfilment in Christ. We will see this pattern, or parts of it, many times as we go through the Gospels and I will mention direct prophecies, typological prophecies and applications on those occasions quite often - and now you will understand what I will be meaning when I mention them.


As we draw to the end of this episode, I want to step back from this extraordinary story. I find it very helpful to get my imagination to work out what was really going on for Joseph and Mary. It was very remarkable and it tells us something very important about their character.  i have mentioned this in previous episodes but I want to come back to this fact because it is very important for our story: Joseph and Mary were two very remarkable people. Greatness was thrust upon them. Responsibility was thrust upon them. Suffering was thrust upon them. Prominence was thrust upon them. Nothing could have prepared them for this in their human experience: living a rural life in central Galilee in the quiet village of Nazareth, with just a few hundred people living there. There was nothing special about their lives, but there was something special about their characters. Something, perhaps, rather hidden from view in their earlier lives but, amazingly, when Mary was given this tremendous responsibility of carrying Jesus and nurturing him as a child, she was willing to accept that responsibility, and, amazingly, when Joseph realised that he needed to lead this family and protect this family, he took on that responsibility despite the first child not being his biological child. They had a very difficult journey to go to Bethlehem and a very uncomfortable context in which Jesus was born. Then the next year or so was extremely difficult and uncomfortable for them. How much they must have missed their family back in Galilee. None of their family had seen this newborn child. Here they were in Egypt, they didn't know how many years they were going to spend in Egypt before it was safe to return to their own country. They were a wanted family: they had the fear of being captured if they went back into the country, and fear that their child would be taken away from them and killed.

These are significant issues for them but what we see is a story of faithfulness and willingness to pay the price for the things that God called them to do. As I have done in previous episodes, I want to just underline the character of Mary and Joseph and commend them to us and encourage us to take the responsibilities that God gives us even though the road in life is not necessarily going to be easy - there is nothing in the Gospels which suggests to us that to follow Christ is to find an easy and comfortable life. It is a life of challenge, a life of cost but it is a life of immense fulfilment, because that is what we are meant to do. We know, even though this life can be tough and difficult at times, that the rewards are phenomenal - the eternal rewards for faithfulness and the rewards of God's blessing on our lives (even when we take the tough road, as Mary and Joseph did, as they set out along that coastal road that took them from Bethlehem to Gaza and through to Alexandria and the other northern part of Egypt where they would have stayed).

Another reflection I want to make from this particular episode is the fact that Jesus and his family became refugees. They were refugees for a small period of Jesus life, only a year or two perhaps, but nevertheless they were refugees. That provides a wonderful point of identification between Jesus and the human condition: here we are in the 21st-century and statistics tell us that there are more refugees in the world today than at any time since the end of the Second World War and that number may well rise further. We live in a very turbulent world and on every continent there is the risk of the need to become a refugee from your own country. In some places that is a very extreme risk, in others it is a very small risk but the issue of refugees around the world is such a major consideration. Some of those reading this episode - you will be refugees from your own country, you will have had to flee from your own country, maybe because of your faith, or maybe because of economic circumstances or political circumstances. I want to suggest to you that you can find encouragement in: in the fact that even Jesus, the Son of God, was, for a time, a refugee from his own country. Some of us are called to serve refugees and that is a uniquely powerful function of the Church, which in many countries is able to welcome people from other nations and help and support them.

The final reflection I want to make here is concerning the power of government and this is represented in this story by Herod the Great and his son, Archelaus, who gets a brief mention in this passage. Both Herod and his son Archelaus were brutal, selfish and difficult rulers. Unpopular and unloved. They showed hostility - Herod the Great in particular - to anything truly spiritual. He tried to support the Jewish religion and he built up the Temple but it was only to gain popularity., There is no indication that Herod had any good spiritual inclinations at all. Governments can be hostile to the Church as Herod the Great was hostile to the infant Jesus. As we look around the world today, there are many governments that are hostile to the Church or cautious about its function in their nation and trying to control it in one way or another but just as God helped Joseph, Mary and Jesus, so I believe God helps and protects his people in countries where their governments are hostile to one degree or another. He can help and support us and he can protect the Church, even though sometimes it is necessary for Christians to flee from one country to another and become refugees just as Joseph, Mary and Jesus had to do in this particular circumstance at the beginning of Jesus' life.

I hope you can take encouragement from this story and find some meaning that can apply to you and to me in the 21st century. Thank you for joining us in this episode.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Mary, Joseph and Jesus became refugees fleeing for their lives. Consider your response to refugees in the 21st century world. How significant is it for you that Jesus was a refugee for part of his life?
    2. Dreams seem to be an important way in which God speaks to people. How do you think you would recognise such a dream?
    3. Using a map, look at the journeys made by Joseph and Mary, and then with Jesus at this point in his life.
  • Discipleship
    1. Herod feared a baby! This seems so unlikely and his response was hostile and brutal. Why do you think this was; why was Herod so angry?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Use tagging to find the importance of ‘dreams’ and ‘angels’ in the early part of Jesus’ life.
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