Understanding the Gospel of Matthew and Why it Matters - Part 5
13 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.
14 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."
What Are Angels? (v.13)
Since this is the second time already that we have encountered an angel in Matthew's gospel, and since there are several more encounters to come, I think it might be beneficial to pause and answer a couple of questions concerning them. Let us begin by asking, "What are angels?" First, angels are spirits. Hebrews 1:14 says: "Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?" In this way, angels are more like God Himself than they are like human beings. They are different from God, however, because they are created spirits, whereas God is an eternal spirit. Nehemiah 9:6 says, "You are the LORD, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host?and the host of heaven worships you." (emphasis added). Psalm 148:2, 5 reiterates the same truth: "Praise him, all his angels; praise him all his hosts... Let them praise the name of the LORD! For he commanded and they were created."
Second, angels do occasionally take on bodily form. The Bible includes numerous examples of angels appearing in human form. Genesis 18 tells of the angels that talked with Abraham about the sinful city of Sodom. The book of Daniel speaks of the angel that shut the lions' mouths, rescuing Daniel from harm. The angel that appeared at Jesus' tomb, the angel that busted the apostles out of prison, and the angel that appeared to Paul on his voyage to Rome all revealed themselves in the likeness of human beings. Third, the Bible tells us that there is a very large number of angels in existence. The Apostle John, in Revelation 5:11, says, "Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads and myriads and thousands of thousands?" While John was certainly not attempting to give us an exact figure, the phrase "thousands of thousands" indicates that there are at least several million if not several billion angels in the universe.
Fourth, Scripture reveals that there is a hierarchy of angels. We read most often of this hierarchy in reference to the angel Michael. In Jude 9, for example, Michael is called the "archangel", meaning that he held a rank superior to other angels. Daniel 10:13 says that Michael is "one of the chief princes", implying that there are other angels of rank besides Michael. Since Revelation speaks of an army of angels, it is perhaps very possible that different angels hold positions comparable to our military commanders, generals, etc.
Fifth, contrary to common belief, people do not become angels. Human beings and angels are two very different creatures of God. The Bible never speaks of a human becoming an angel or an angel having been a human. In fact, there are some very important distinctions between people and angels. For example, people - not angels - are created in God's image. And when the angels in heaven rebelled, God never sought to show them mercy as He has to humans. Indeed, 2 Peter 2:4 teaches that "?God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment."
Though for the moment we are "a little lower" than the angels, there is coming a day when angels will be made subject to God's people. Paul reminds us of this day when he asks, "Do you not know that we are to judge angels?"
Hebrews 1:14 is probably the best statement of the purpose of angels in the entire Bible: "Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?" Notice that it does not say that the purpose of angels is to serve Christians, but rather to serve for their sake. Angels serve God, not man. Yet they were created to serve God by doing His bidding in regard to His salvation plan. Angels are God's agents to do what must be done that you and I might be saved. This includes spiritual warfare, providing unseen protection, and ultimately fighting a great battle against Satan
Isn't it amazing to consider than angels exist for your sake - if you are a believer in Christ. Take a moment and praise God for the countless activities of unseen angels on your behalf.
Does God Speak Through Angels and Dreams Today?
Both times that an angel appeared to Joseph, it took place in a dream. In the Scriptures we sometimes see God communicate through angels, sometimes through dreams and visions, and sometimes - as with Joseph - through both together. Should we expect God to speak to us in these ways today?
There is nothing in Scripture that indicates that angels could not appear to us today as they did in the Bible. In fact, the writer of Hebrews seems to say that we should anticipate the possibility of an angelic visit. In Hebrews 13:2 he says, "Do not neglect to show hosp-itality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."
That being said, it would be wrong to read of the many angelic encounters in Scripture and to infer that these were common events. Rather, there were often several centuries that passed by between Biblically recorded instances. We would be wise to note that in almost every occasion where the Bible speaks of someone encountering an angel that person is surprised and initially afraid. This indicates that angelic encounters were rare events - even in Biblical times.
Moreover, even in the rare occasions where humans receive messages from angels, the Bible warns that not every angel is to be trusted. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claimed that he received much of his doctrine from an angel. If this is true, the angel he encountered was not an angel from God, but a demon. The Bible warns that "even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light." Paul, seeming to anticipate the possibility of a devilish angel speaking false truth to humans, says, "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed." Ultimately, the Bible must be our authority from which we test all other claims. If an angel or anyone else declares something to be true which the Bible claims to be false - or vice versa - the Bible is the truth. God's Word stands firm against the opinions of any person, whether he be a human or an angel.
But what about dreams? Might God choose to communicate to His children through a dream or vision? There is good reason to think that He might. The prophet Joel spoke about the days following the ascension of Christ by saying, "And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams." In Acts 2:14-21, Peter makes it very clear that Joel's prophecy was describing the time between Jesus' death and His second coming. Thus, we should conclude that God is using visions and dreams to speak to His children today.
This does not mean that every dream is a message from God. Most of my dreams are about silly things that have no discernable meaning at all. Even dogs and other animals dream. The Scriptures seem to show that when God chooses to give somebody a special dream or vision, they immediately recognize that this is no ordinary dream. In speaking with people who have experienced these things, they described themselves as being awake and alert, fully conscious during the vision. They have assured me that what they experienced was not like any regular dream, but was clearly from God.
Once again, let me assert that Scripture alone is our final authority for knowing God's truth. While God may sometimes use dreams or visions to communicate a specific aspect of His will, He will never call or command anyone to do something that is against His already revealed will. If someone claims to have been told in a dream or vision to do something immoral, we can be assured that this person is either lying or deceived.
Did Matthew Make A Mistake? (v. 15)
Some might say that Matthew did make a mistake in interpreting Hosea 11:1 as a prophecy concerning Jesus being taken to Egypt. Matthew is still trying to convince his fellow Jews that Jesus fulfills the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah, and in this passage he argues that "Out of Egypt I called my son" applies to the baby Jesus. The problem with this is that Matthew does not quote the entire verse of Hosea, which says, "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son." In other words, the "son" in Hosea clearly referred to Israel, not Jesus! Did Matthew make a mistake?
No. Matthew knew exactly what he was doing. When Hosea spoke of Israel being called out of Egypt, he was recalling an event that had taken placed 700 years before him, and 1400 years before Matthew. Yet Matthew realized that Israel's exodus from Egypt was a picturesque prophecy of Jesus' exodus from Egypt.
God called Israel out of Egypt and chose them for Himself. He told them that they would be His people and He would be their God. He gave them His commandments and promised that as long as they obeyed Him, He would bless them as a people. Israel did not obey God, but followed after idols. They were made to wander in the wilderness for forty years, and then after finally coming to the Promised Land, their sin resulted in them being taken captive and deported to other nations. God chose them for Himself, but they would not obey.
Jesus came as the reconciliation between God and Israel. Jesus came to do what Israel could not do - namely, be completely and utterly obedient to God. Remember what Jesus said in John 6:38? "I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me." Jesus' life was devoted to being obedient to His father?even when this obedience required His death on a cross.
So when God causes Jesus to be brought out of Egypt like the nation of Israel, or later, when He moves Jesus into the wilderness for forty days and nights, He is clearly trying to display to the Jews that Jesus has come to take their place. Jesus has come to be the obedient people that they could not be, and to pay the price that they deserve, so that they could once again and forever be God's chosen people.
If you are a Christian, you are a spiritual Jew. Paul teaches in Romans 11 that God has chosen some Gentiles to be "grafted it" to His chosen Jewish tree. Furthermore, the Bible says that when this world is over, all believers will dwell in a new "Jerusalem" and we will be God's chosen people forever.
America has often been called "The Great Melting Pot", because so many people from vastly different ethnic heritages are citizens of the USA. Yet heaven will be the true "Great Melting Pot". Consider this mystery: In heaven, Israel - the chosen people of God - will be made up of Jews, Americans, Mexicans, Brazilians, Ecuadorians, South Africans, Australians, and Chinese, Russians, Japanese, and many, many more!
Jesus came to earth and lived and died so that every person who has faith in Him might be reconciled to God. Have you been reconciled to God? If so, praise God for His marvelous grace in Christ Jesus! Rest your faith completely on the merits of Jesus, and take time to consider your heavenly home and the many different kinds of people you will be with there.
Justin Nale is the pastor of Mount Hermon Missionary Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist Church in Rocky Mount, NC - http://www.mhmbc.org
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