RPM, Volume 17, Number 7, February 8 to February 14, 2015

Joseph's Dreams

Matthew 2:19-23

By D. Marion Clark


Do you sometimes wake up tired because of vivid dreams? I imagine Joseph had that problem. Matthew records four dreams through which an angel of the Lord spoke to him. The first dream was to assure him that he could take Mary as his wife and that the child she bore was the Messiah Immanuel — God with us. The second dream warned him of Herod's intent to destroy the child and to flee to Egypt. The third dream lets him know it is time to return to Palestine, and the fourth gives specific directions where to go. When an important decision needed to be made, Mary did not question her husband when he said, "Let me sleep on it"!

But when it comes to dreaming, many readers think Matthew is the dreamer by the way he uses Old Testament Scripture to back up his story. Joseph dreams four times; Matthew refers to prophecy five times, all of the references seeming somewhat suspect. Is Matthew too anxious to justify his story that he twists Scripture to suit his purpose? Let's continue with the story and then we will check his references.


But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, "Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead."

Dream three: "Herod is dead; you can return home." Herod the Great is dead. The unpopular king, who ruled over Palestine for thirty-three years through his wits and unflinching will to do whatever is necessary, such as slaughtering children, is dead. God lives on and continues to carry out his purposes. As the prophets say, "Why fear man who is here today and gone tomorrow?" Man is not only mortal, but his days are numbered by the Lord.

21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee.

It is evident that Joseph intended to return to Bethlehem. Apparently Mary and he had begun to settle down in the community before their sudden journey to Egypt. He heard, however, that Archelaus is reigning over that territory.

Here is what happened. Herod had reign over all Palestine, which included both Judea (where Bethlehem was) and Galilee in the north. After his death, his realm was broken into three areas: Archelaus' area included Judea, another brother Antipas has Galilee, and yet another brother, Philip, had other territory. The worse of the three was Archelaus and one of the reasons the realm was broken into three areas was his violent beginnings. Archelaus possessed his father's willingness to crush rebellion, but not his judgment and craftiness. He would last ten years before being deposed by Rome, which then placed its own governors over the territory. Antipas had a long reign in Galilee and is the "Herod" we read about during John the Baptist's ministry and Jesus'.

For Joseph and Mary, Nazareth was the logical second choice. That was their hometown and was far away from Archelaus' clutches. Thus, as Matthew records, 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: "He shall be called a Nazarene."

The Old Testament and Christ

If Matthew had cut out that last line, he would have avoided a lot of criticism that would follow, especially in the last hundred years. The line is that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: "He shall be called a Nazarene." What's wrong with this comment? There is no prophecy that says, "He shall be called a Nazarene.

Matthew's critics think this is but one example of his off-the-wall proof-texting. Do you know what proof-texting is? It is finding Scripture texts to support a doctrine. This is proper to do. A Christian should not profess a theological belief that cannot be backed up by Scripture. A problem is that we can twist Scripture to say what it doesn't really say, if we are not careful. It seems that if I followed Matthew's example, I could prove that I am the Messiah who fulfills the prophecies. How so? My hometown is Kingstree, I am from the "King's Tree," which fulfills what the prophets say, "that a branch will spring forth from the stump of Jesse." My first name is David, and we all know that the prophets referred to the Messiah as another David to come. Somehow, I have a feeling that I am not going to convince anyone, which means I fulfill another prophecy, "that a prophet is not honored by his own people." Before I get out of hand, let's explore together how he and his fellow New Testament writers interpreted the Old Testament to come up with Jesus rather than me as the Messiah.

That the Scriptures prophesied a messiah to come was not news to the Jews of Jesus' day and that of the New Testament writers. They had high hopes for a messiah because of what they understood from the Scriptures. Matthew demonstrates this in verses 4-6. Herod asks the priests and scribes where the Messiah (Christ) is to be born, and they are able to come up with an answer from Scripture. Herod does not ask if they ever heard of anything about a messiah; he asks about the Messiah and they know what he is talking about.

They had, actually, a rather elaborate concept of who the Messiah would be and what he would do. They argued about their ideas, just as Christians today argue about the Second Coming, but, like Christians today, they argued over how to interpret the Scriptures, not over whether Scripture could be trusted or if Scripture did actually speak of a messiah.

They understood a lot about how to see the Messiah in their Scriptures. They Micah 5:2 right, that it was a prophecy of where the Messiah would be born. They knew that he would be from the line of David, that he would be the Branch spoken of in the prophets. They interpreted psalms that spoke of the king as being messianic psalms, i.e. that they could be applied to the Messiah as well. They expected a king and a priest, which led to debates over how he would fulfill both. From the prophets, they expected a forerunner to the Messiah to prepare his way. They understood, further, that history was leading up to the coming of the Messiah as well, i.e. to the "Day of the Lord." History was not circular or aimless. And they understood, indeed, this was their hope, that the work of the Messiah was about redemption.

Then comes along Jesus. Luke records a scene with Jesus back in his hometown of Nazareth, attending synagogue services. He was asked to read the day's lesson from the prophet Isaiah. Here is what he read and his comment on the passage:

18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat
down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
21 And he began to say to them, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

This was Jesus' way of saying, "I'm here. Your Messiah has come." We speak of delusional and egotistical people as having messiah-complexes. Jesus had one big-time. 39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me… 46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me (John 5:39, 46). Oh, and he mentioned Abraham too. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad (John 8:56).

In my favorite comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin informs Hobbes that evolution and history have worked over the ages to produce him, Calvin, a thought which makes Hobbes a bit uneasy. This was Jesus' claim. The theologian, Geerhardus Vos, explains Jesus' attitude towards the Scriptures: "Jesus regarded the whole Old Testament movement as a divinely directed and inspired movement, as having arrived at its goal in himself, so that he himself in his historic appearance and work being taken away, the Old Testament would lose its purpose and significance." Did you get that? As far as Jesus was concerned, take him out of the picture and the Old Testament may as well have not been written. Now that is a grandiose view of oneself!

If Jesus did fulfill the Scriptures and the Jews were waiting for someone to fulfill them as the Messiah, how come so few recognized him when he came? They missed him for the same reason that his very disciples misunderstood what to expect. We have referred to this passage before, Luke's account of Jesus' discussion with two of his disciples on the Emmaus road after his resurrection. Listen to the disciples explain to Jesus, whom they do not recognize, what has taken place.

And they said to him, "Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, 23 and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see" (Luke 24:19-24).

Note the line, we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. They had hoped he was the Messiah. How do they identify him? As the one to redeem Israel. Again, the Jews were looking for redemption. The problem was that their idea of redemption differed radically from Jesus' idea. They thought the Messiah would come as a king to deliver God's kingdom (the Jewish nation) from bondage to the pagan gentiles and establish that kingdom (the Jewish nation) as the dominant nation over the earth. This thought is so engrained in their minds that after the resurrection, and Jesus had spent weeks explaining the Scriptures to them, they asked him when he spoke of the Holy Spirit's coming, Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel? (Acts 1:6)

But back to the Emmaus road. Here is Jesus' response.

25 And he said to them, "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself… 44 Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things (Luke 24:25-27, 44-48).

"The Scriptures are about me," Jesus is saying. Thus, if we want to understand the Old Testament, we have got to start with New and look back. It is one thing to read the OT and misinterpret what to expect about the Messiah. That is understandable. But now that Jesus has come and done his work of redemption, we must adjust our expectations to fit him. That would be wrong, if Jesus did not fulfill the Scriptures. That would be twisting Scripture to say what it doesn't say. But it is exactly the right thing to do if Jesus is truly the Messiah.

How then do we know? How do we know that Jesus is the Messiah, the apex to which the OT Scriptures moved towards? Read the book the way Jesus says to read it. Lovers of mystery books know that a good mystery is worth reading more than once. Why read when you already know the ending? Because the fun is in going back and finding the hidden clues and appreciating how the events lead up to the conclusion. The mark of any good novel or movie is that every element plays a role in leading to its climax or conclusion. The better this is done, the more rewarding it is to go back time and again to gain a greater understanding of the ending.

If you do this with the OT, you will be amply rewarded and enlightened. Now that you understand the theme of the Bible, both OT and NT, is redemption, you will see the events of biblical history in a new light. The creation story teaches us what we were meant to be — the images of God. The Fall records our fall from innocence and sets the stage for the rest of history — God's preparation for our redemption. The exodus from Egypt is the primary model for the Messiah's work, but all the events of Israel's deliverances from enemies are precursors to the deliverance that the Messiah would bring.

Read the story of Israel with the life of Christ in mind. Read the story of Jesus as though he were embodiment of Israel, and you will be surprised at what you find. That both Jesus and Israel were referred to as "God's beloved son" that both were despised; that both went into exile in Egypt and out of Egypt were called; that through both would come the blessing for all the nations.

Read about the great figures and deliverers and see how they prefigure Christ. You've heard of "Christ-figures" in literature and the movies. The OT had them before Christ had come. Noah, Abraham, Melchizedek, Boaz, Moses, Joshua, and David are but a few. When you read about the religious practices and laws, consider how they apply to Jesus and his redemption: the sacrificial system and Jesus' great sacrifice, the work of the priests and Jesus' work as our high priest. Look for Jesus in the Jewish feasts: the Passover (Jesus is our Passover), the Day of Atonement (Jesus is our Atonement), even the Sabbath (Jesus gives us the Sabbath-rest).

Observe the titles and descriptions of Jesus, and then read the OT with them in mind. You will see Jesus again and again: he is the shepherd of God's people, the manna sent from heaven, the brass serpent lifted up to save, the lamb sacrificed for sin, the Lion of Judah who reigns, the rock from which living water flows.

There are specific prophecies such as Jesus' birthplace and his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. There are psalms and passages that eerily describe the events surrounding Jesus' death. And then, there is the great work of Isaiah that will blow you away, presenting time and again the coming of the Deliverer. You will read about a child named Immanuel to be born of a virgin, who will be a Branch from the stump of Jesse, a banner for the nations. You will read about the Suffering Servant who will be wounded for our transgressions.

When you read the OT over and over again through the life and work of Jesus, you will say to yourself, "I see now why Jesus did what he did. I see now how that applies to Jesus. I see how Jeremiah's reference to Rachel weeping, who was buried near Bethlehem, is fulfilled in the mothers' weeping for their massacred children."

Even Matthew's reference to Nazareth and Nazarene makes sense. To be from Nazarene was to be despised, looked down upon, as coming from a hick town. The prophets said he would be despised. To come from Nazareth is to come from a place whose root name probably meant "branch," one of the names for the Messiah. We know that though the Messiah was of the branch of David, he would yet be despised and so Jesus fulfilled what would be said of him

Jesus said in Matthew 5:17, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." He fulfilled them by redeeming us from our sins. That is what Christmas is about — redemption. Read about it in the OT, as well as the NT. Read about what you were created to be, about your real need to be redeemed, and about the hope that awaits all who call upon the Redeemer of Israel.

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