Thinking Biblically: The Gospels – Reading the Story(ies)

Thinking Biblically: The Gospels – Reading the Story(ies)

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” 
- Matthew 2:13-15 NRSV

When discussing how to read scripture carefully and faithfully, a natural question to ask is “Where should I begin?”  Because the Bible is not one book but an anthology of books, it is not as simple as “Well, begin at the beginning.”   Afterall, there are two books in The Bible that start with the words “In the beginning”.  When reading through the whole Bible or engaging in deep study of The Bible for the first time, it is best to begin at the center, at the heart of it all; it is best to begin with Christ.  Read the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – it doesn’t matter what order you read them in, but read them all, and when you are done, go back and read them again, and then continue through the rest of the New Testament. So, that is what we are going to do here.  We will spend the next couple of weeks exploring the Gospels and how to read them,  and all the facets of them. Before turning to the specific passage, the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, we need take a minute to talk about genre.  What are the Gospels?

The Gospels are essentially ancient biographies with a deeper purpose, an evangelistic and theological purpose.  I emphasize ancient biographies, because ancient biographies where not like modern biographies.  Modern biographies are detail oriented, while ancient biographies where big picture oriented.  Modern biographies often spend a lot of time with and show great concern for specific details, while ancient biographies where far more concered with capturing the essence of the person about whom the biography was written. Plutarch, the preeminent biographer in the Greco-Roman world described his work like this.

Accordingly, just as painters get the likenesses in their portraits from the face and the expression of the eyes, wherein the character shows itself, but make very little account of the other parts of the body, so I must be permitted to devote myself rather to the signs of the soul in men, and by means of these to portray the life of each, leaving to others the description of their great contests.

Plutarch, The Life of Alexander. Quoted in , Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography by Michael R. Licona Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. (pp. 4-5)

The purpose of ancient biography, according to the preeminent biographer of his time, was to paint a portrait of the soul, of the essence, of the person whose story is told.  Some ancient rhetoric textbooks included lessons on paraphrasing, to teach students how to paraphrase in such a way as to convey the essence of what the speaker said.  Plutarch himself, when writing biographies of people who knew each other, often told the same stories in different ways, with different details, sometimes even shifting around the order of events (for more information about this , see the above-referenced book by Micheal Licona).

The Gospels do the same thing.  The Gospels are not merely different perspectives on the same events, but different paintings of the soul of the same man.  The Gospels contain differences.  They place events in different orders, and they contain different details.  What we call the Sermon on the Mount, for example, takes place on a mountain in Matthew, and on a level plain in Luke.  If we were to approach Matthew and ask “Did it happen on a plateau on top of a mountain, or was Jesus on a hillside while everyone was sitting on the plain at the foot of the mountain?” he would probably ask why we care, because that’s not the point.  The point is that this is what Jesus taught, this is what it means, and this is what it says about who He is.  While harmonization’s of the Gospels have a place, when we study the Gospels we ought to concern concern ourselves first with the order they are told, not the order in which they happened, because even when the stories are told in chronological order there is often a deeper point being made.  With this in mind, let take a look at how Matthew tells the story of the the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt.

Right before the Holy Family flees to Egypt, they are visited by the Wise Men.  Matthew gives us very few details about who they are or where they come from.  Even the word magi is very vague.  He tells us that they are wise men from far away, that they are not Jewish (that’s why  they needed to stop in Jerusalem to ask Jewish wise men where the Messiah would be born), and that they came to worship Jesus. It is a story that reveals that Jesus has come for the whole world, not just for a particular nation or people; he is a light to all who are in darkness.  And right after it is revealed that the Hebrew messiah has come for all people, he and his family flee to Egypt, Egypt of all places.  And notice what happens right after the Holy Family flees to Egypt.  The puppet king of Judea did the same thing that Pharaoh did when Moses was a baby, for same reasons, but with two important differences.  Pharaoh murdered the children of Israel because he believed that the people as a whole where a threat to his power.  Herod murdered the children of Bethlehem, the Messiah’s birthplace, because he believed the Messiah was a threat to his power.  The exodus should be on our minds when we read Matthew 2:13-15.  So let’s read it again, this time out of a different translation.

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” – Matthew 2:13-15 ESV

The prophecy at the end is a quote from Hosea. It is the second half of Hosea 11:1. Reading the whole verse can be a little bit shocking, unless you have the Exodus in your mind as you read story in Matthew.  Hosea 11:1&2 say this: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.”  The verse is about ancient Israel; it’s about the exodus.  At times this is interpreted as Matthew taking Hosea out of context, or having a sort of “Messiah Mania” and seeing Jesus everywhere in the Old Testament, but these interpretations do not give Matthew the credit he deserves.  Matthew was a brilliant, Hellenistic Jewish man with both a grasp of both the Hebrew scriptures and a demonstrative ability to use the techniques of Greco-Roman biography to paint a portrait of who Jesus is and what his life on earth means.   Yes, that verse is talking about Israel, that’s the point.   

Matthew’s point is that in Christ all the promises to Abraham, that through his children all nations will be blessed, and that they will be a light to the nations were fulfilled (cf Genesis 22:18). There, in the iron grip of empire, God fulfilled God’s promises. And when God did so, God did so in a way that was beyond anything anyone ever dreamed of: God became incarnate as a child of Abraham, as a son of David, to be a light to the world, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to give sight to the blind, and win the ultimate victory over sin and death.

We so often read this passage as a simple description of some moment in Jesus’ life or a simple affirmation that Jesus fulfilled some prophecy, but when we read it in context it says so much more and speak so powerfully into our lives. It tells something important about God. God keeps God’s promises, and when God does so it is often in a far grander and more beautiful way that we ever dreamed possible.

Wherever you go, whatever you do, whatever challenges await you today, remember that God keeps God’s promises. Even in the dark, even in the cold, we worship the LORD, the God of Creation, who keeps His promises, who fulfills His word, and often does so in way that is beyond anything we dreamed possible. Keep asking questions, keep wrestling, and whatever questions whatever struggles lie ahead remember that this Lord, The Lord of the Covenant, Keeper of All Promises, goes with you know and always.

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