Written by Kevin DeYoung and originally published by The Gospel Coalition on December 4, 2014.

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 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)

That last verse has caused plenty of consternation over the years.  The Holy Family goes to Egypt, and this somehow fulfills Hosea’s reference to Israel’s exodus? It looks like Matthew is connecting the prophetic dots by the slimmest of connections.

Here’s what we read in Hosea 11:1-4:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them.

Clearly, Hosea (speaking for the Lord) is harkening back to the Exodus. He is remembering when Israel was just a little toddler of a nation, and God delivered them out of bondage in Egypt. “Many years ago, by Moses and the plagues and all that, I called my son Israel out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”–that’s what Hosea 11 is about.

But look again at Matthew. “Out of Egypt I called my son” here refers to God hiding Jesus away in Egypt to avoid Herod’s decree and then calling him back from Egypt when Herod is dead. This seems to be unrelated to anything Hosea was talking about. How can Matthew say this flight to Egypt fulfilled the words of the prophet Hosea when the two events seem connected by no more than the word Egypt? How can this possibly be a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy? Hosea say what?

Those who suggest Matthew is playing free association with Biblical prophecy–“Jesus came out of Egypt; here’s something in the prophets about coming out of Egypt; let’s put these two things together”–haven’t looked closely at how Matthew uses the Old Testament in his Gospel. More than any gospel writer, Matthew goes to great lengths to show that Jesus’ birth, life, and death, are rooted firmly in the Old Testament. Jesus was born of a virgin (fulfilling Isaiah 7:14). He was born in Bethlehem (fulfilling Micah 5:1-2). He was sought out to be killed by Herod (fulfilling Jeremiah 31:15). He was preceded by John preparing the way (fulfilling Isaiah 40:3). He healed diseases (fulfilling Isaiah 53:4). He spoke through parables (fulfilling Psalm 78:2). He came to Jerusalem riding on a donkey (fulfilling Zechariah 9:9). Matthew is very deliberate with his use of the Old Testament. So his citing of Hosea 11 must be more than just a loosey-goosey connection with the word Egypt.

Jesus as the True Israel

The first step toward understanding Matthew’s purpose is to look more carefully at the word “fulfill.” It’s the Greek word plēroō, and it is a very important word in Matthew, occurring 15 times in the book (1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 3:15; 4:14; 5:17; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 13:48; 21:4; 23:32; 26:54; 26:56). Most basically, it means to fill up. Sometimes this means very specifically that the Old Testament predicted the Messiah’s birthplace would be in Bethlehem and Jesus was, in fact, born in Bethlehem. There you go. That’s fulfillment. But fulfillment can be broader than that. It can also mean that Jesus brings the Scriptures to their intended goal, that the incomplete revelation to and through Israel has been brought to completion.

Take Mark 1:14-15, for example. “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” When Jesus said “the time is fulfilled,” he did not mean “right now a specific prediction of Scripture is coming to pass.” He meant, “with my preaching of the gospel, the time has been filled up and the kingdom is here. The Old Testament is reaching its climax.” Likewise, I don’t believe Matthew thought Jesus’ flight to Egypt was predicted in Hosea 11:1. But I do believe that Matthew thought Jesus’ flight to and return from Egypt was filling up Hosea 11:1.

So what exactly is Jesus fulfilling, or filling up in Matthew 2:15? Jesus, as Matthew correctly understands the situation, is filling up the redemptive historical purposes of the nation. In other words, Matthew can claim that this Hosea passage, which talks about the Exodus of Israel out of Egypt, is fulfilled in Jesus, because Jesus is the embodiment of Israel.

To read the rest of this excellent post, click here.