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The Sword-Pierced Heart
Jesus’ mission afflicts Mary
I served for five years as a nuclear engineer under Admiral Hyman Rickover, the “father of the nuclear Navy.” That time made a profound mark on my life. His group of engineers gave me my first experience with work, and I often felt as if I were chasing a fast freight down the tracks.
Many things the Admiral said influenced me, but one particular comment has stuck with me through the years: “Wherever there is motion, there’s bound to be friction.” He used that engineering principle to describe the steady resistance that must be overcome in accomplishing change.
Rickover spoke of opposition out of his own experience in fighting to build a nuclear-powered Navy. However, the same principle works in doing things for God. Even when believers are moving in the right direction and living for Christ, friction will impede their progress.
Joseph and Mary exemplified this principle in their long struggle to survive and to establish a home for themselves and their infant son, Jesus. We can imagine no more godly endeavor than that, yet the friction proved intense. And it took a severe toll on Joseph and Mary, especially Mary.
God sometimes sets us in motion and then uses the resulting friction to shape us into people who can be even more useful to him. He also allows opposition to challenge our willingness to follow him. Those factors certainly worked on Joseph and Mary when they struggled with external threats, their own fears, and — we will see — conflict with one another.
We too easily forget that Joseph and Mary were real people, just like us — a dad and mom who had hopes for their child and also a deep concern for their own lives. Through them God accomplished great change, but not without struggle. Yet the Lord proved faithful to them in their moment of need.
Because they endured friction in accomplishing change, Joseph and Mary give great encouragement in my personal life. Recently my wife and I prayed for her son and daughter-in-law while they were making a difficult but mandatory move to another city. Although they were under terrific stress, God brought them through the move against seemingly impossible odds.
So, I see the story of Joseph and Mary having direct application in the lives of each of us as we strive to live for Christ.
Matthew’s Midrash about Mary
I have stressed the importance of five women’s names in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. Matthew used these names to direct attention to several related stories in the Old Testament. The first two women’s names related primarily to Joseph’s story and that of King Herod, but the next three are all about Mary, the mother of Jesus.
By reviewing Table 1, repeated in the Appendix to the current chapter, you will notice that the Old Testament stories of Ruth (1:5), Bathsheba (1:6), and Miriam (the Old Testament equivalent of Mary in 1:16) underlie the part of Matthew’s account that we will consider in this chapter.
Matthew used these women as types of Mary and used their experiences to help clarify Mary’s experiences. You will remember that the Jews called this comparative technique midrash.
Matthew also selected Old Testament quotations to supplement his streamlined narrative. Thus, he made many of his points by implication rather than by direct statement.
A Forgotten Prophecy
Christ’s godly parents took him to be dedicated in the temple forty days after his birth. During this trip many prophecies were revealed — most of them concerning Jesus. By concentrating on him we can easily miss Simeon’s specific prophecy about Mary. Simeon predicted the controversy that would swirl around Jesus and the way that his ministry would reveal the very hearts of people. He concluded by saying to Mary “A sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35).
The sword represents discernment of Jesus’ real identity and division over that identity; the sword does not represent divine judgment. Concerning Mary’s situation, scholar Raymond Brown says, “Indeed her special anguish as the sword of discrimination passes through her soul will consist in recognizing that the claims of Jesus’ heavenly Father outrank any human attachments between him and his mother. . . . Mary here is part of Israel to be tested like the rest.”
Little did Mary know how quickly the secret thoughts of her own heart would come out into the open in the events that would follow. She had been granted an unparalleled privilege, yet an unusual burden came with it.
13 When they [the Magi] 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.”
14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 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.”
Using Matthew’s lead — the mention of Ruth in the genealogy of Jesus — I believe that the Book of Ruth correlates with this brief paragraph. The book pictures God’s protective care over his people. To describe all parallels between the two stories would take us too far afield.
To inspire your own comparative study, I will mention that the Book of Ruth tells about a husbandless woman — similar to Mary when she became pregnant — who had a son (under righteous circumstances!). This son became famous in Israel and was part of the royal line of David.
The story of Ruth also involves a family that fled Bethlehem in time of great trouble to take refuge among the ancestral enemies of Israel. It suits Matthew’s purpose perfectly to refer to this story of God’s sovereign protection in troubled times.
The husbandless woman was Naomi (Ruth 1:3, 20), who felt bitter because she thought God had brought affliction upon her life. In view of the many parallels between the stories, I think Matthew uses midrash to imply that Mary experienced similar feelings during her family’s flight to Egypt. Remember Simeon’s prophecy about the sword piercing Mary’s heart and consider the circumstances of the escape. Jesus’ parents didn’t even have time to wait for dawn, but had to leave in darkness to escape Herod’s troops.
Many of us have never experienced mortal danger so it’s hard for us to grasp the emotional impact of such an experience. God’s protection was quite real, but so was the danger! Swift obedience saved them.
Matthew’s account informs us that the stay in Egypt led to the fulfillment of prophecy: “Out of Egypt I called my Son” (Hosea 11:1). Many scholars have commented that in this journey Jesus reenacted the national experience of Israel during the exodus, except that he always responded in total obedience whereas the Israelites rebelled against God.
Fulfilling prophecy sounds great. However, after undergoing vicious ridicule in Nazareth, traveling by donkey to Bethlehem in advanced pregnancy, fleeing from a death order, and leaving her own country, we can certainly grasp that Mary went through a lot. She and Joseph had to take each step in an atmosphere of danger and uncertainty. It wasn’t easy!
A Reason to Hope
Though we recounted all of Herod’s history in the previous chapter — to cover it in one place — his biblical appearance extends briefly into our current passage below.
16 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. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
18 “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.”
Matthew used the name of Bathsheba (called “Uriah’s wife” in Matt. 1:6) to connect his own account with the Old Testament material that relates to this section. We find Bathsheba in chapter 11 of 2 Samuel, whose theme is that God establishes his king upon the throne in spite of sin and opposition in his path. This theme — God overcoming royal opposition to accomplish his purpose for the nation — perfectly correlates with Matthew’s account.
In 2 Samuel chapter 12, the king was tricked, became enraged, and as a result ordered death, a penalty that fell on the house of David. In each of these respects, the story in 2 Samuel matches Matthew’s story about Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
Realizing that he had been tricked, Herod flew into a rage and ordered death for all of the children near Bethlehem under two years of age. The people called Bethlehem “the city of David,” and this penalty fell on the house of David. Scholars estimate that about twenty young boys were slaughtered.
Various opinions have been offered about why Herod killed children under two years of age. Some think this means that the Magi had seen the “star” two years previous, while others simply see a ruthless man providing plenty of margin. For Herod to kill a few more people would hardly warrant special notice. He had done much worse before.
Matthew used the quotation from Jeremiah 31:15 for his own literary purposes. In the context of this Jeremiah quote, God rebukes Rachel, the wife of the patriarch Jacob. God tells her, “They [her children] will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your descendants . . . . Your children will return to their own land” (Jer. 31:16b–17).
Matthew was telling his readers that, in the midst of tragedy due to the death of the children at Herod’s order, God was working to bring hope for the future of his people in a child’s return — the return of Jesus — from the land of the enemy, Egypt. In this way, Matthew continued to use the midrash method to make comparative comments on the events related to Mary and Joseph.
The rebuke of Rachel also symbolizes a rebuke of Mary for her response to the terrible events of these days. If that sounds like speculation, I would remind you of the prophecy concerning a sword piercing Mary’s heart and urge you to reserve judgment until you hear the story of Miriam, which underlies the final paragraph of Matthew’s story.
Motion and Friction on the Road to Israel
19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 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.”
21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.
22 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, 23 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.
Mary’s name stands fifth and last among the five women Matthew listed in the genealogy of Jesus. We would expect this final section to deal with her life in a special way. Just as we traced the other women’s stories through their Hebrew names, using the Jewish technique of midrash, so we must look for Mary’s counterpart in the Old Testament stories through her Hebrew name. “Mary” is derived from the Hebrew name Miriam, a famous woman in Israel’s history.
Matthew cleverly drew upon the story of Miriam from Numbers 12–14 to help reveal the deep struggle Mary and Joseph went through in returning to the land of Israel. They were in motion, accomplishing God’s purpose, and yet friction relentlessly balked their steps.
The book of Numbers fits Matthew’s literary purpose because it tells the story of the struggles in the Israelite approach to the land of promise. Miriam’s opposition to Moses blends with the larger conflict between the people and God. Because of the Israelites’ unbelief, rebellion, and disobedience, the journey that should have taken a few months took over forty years. The episode with Miriam retarded the march toward Canaan, and it could not resume until God had dealt with her directly and decisively.
Matthew was implying that the sword had pierced Mary’s heart to a similarly grave degree. God had to deal with Mary before the family of the Messiah could complete its journey back to the land of Israel. Table 5 in the Appendix portrays some of the fascinating parallels between the Numbers incident and Matthew’s story about Mary.
A Tale of Dispute and Correction
The problem between Miriam and Moses initially centered on Moses’ wife Zipporah, who was a Cushite woman (Num. 12:1). Miriam then disputed that God spoke only through Moses and claimed that God spoke through her as well (Num. 12:2).
Moses, a humble man, did not try to stop this rebellion, but left it in the hands of the Lord (Num. 12:3). The Lord immediately called three people out of the tent of meeting: Moses, Miriam, and Aaron. There God revealed his anger against Miriam, in particular, for her rebellion against Moses, and he inflicted her with leprosy for seven days (Num. 12:4–10).
Afterward, the people of God continued their journey toward Canaan. As part of their preparations to enter Canaan, the Israelites sent spies on a reconnaissance mission (Num. 13:2–3). When the spies returned, the majority spoke adversely about the land and the prospects of conquering the Canaanites (Num. 13:31–33). This new obstacle led to fresh unbelief among the people, so God directed them away from Canaan and into the wilderness (Num. 14:25). But God set Joshua apart, along with Caleb, as a man who had followed him without reservation (Num. 14:30).
How It All Fits Together
Following Matthew’s lead, I will now correlate the Numbers story with what Matthew said about Mary and Joseph.
Just as Moses had a conflict with Miriam, Matthew implies — through the midrash using Numbers — that Joseph was having a conflict with Mary, who was rebelling against his authority to take them back into the face of danger. Perhaps Mary questioned whether God had really commanded them to return, and stressed that the Lord hadn’t told her anything about it! The angel had spoken to Joseph (Matt. 2:19), not Mary, about returning to Israel.
Joseph, a humble man like Moses, left the problem in the hands of the Lord. As a result, the Lord summoned Mary, Joseph, and the child and dealt decisively with Mary’s resistance. This is never stated but is implied by the midrash using Numbers.
In the wake of this crisis between Mary and Joseph, the journey continued until a bad report was received about the land — similar to the report from the twelve spies about Canaan. The report concerned Archelaus (Matt. 2:22), the foolish and ruthless successor to the dead Herod.
Archelaus had Herod’s willingness to kill, but he lacked the cleverness and diplomatic skill of his father. Because of this, Archelaus quickly fell into conflict with the Jews and, very early in his reign, killed three thousand of them in the temple during Passover. I believe that was the report that was given to Mary and Joseph, and it ignited their fears.
Matthew directly states that Joseph feared to enter Judah (2:22) and indirectly suggests that Mary struggled with the same thing (just like the Israelites). In response to this, God directed their path to a new destination, just as he had redirected the children of Israel when they struggled. Mary and Joseph would return to Nazareth, not Bethlehem.
Even in this change of plans, Matthew saw a fulfillment of the words spoken by the author of the Book of Judges: “He would be called a Nazarene” (Matthew 2:23 quoting Judges 13:5). To be a Nazarene or Nazarite means to be set apart to God from birth.
Jesus, whose name is derived from the Old Testament name Joshua, was set apart for the work his Father had given him and for the fulfillment of all the promises to Israel. This resembles Joshua, whom God set apart to enter Canaan, defeat the enemies of God, and gain an inheritance for all the people.
Another Glimpse of Friction
One final element of Matthew’s account confirms the general interpretation of events given above. The angel said to Joseph, “Those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead” (Matt. 2:20). Scholars have long wondered why Matthew spoke in the plural (“those”). They have also noted God’s similar words to Moses: “all those who wanted to kill you are dead” (Exod. 4:19).
While researching this reference in Exodus chapter 4, I was amazed that it involved another story — in addition to Num. 12:1 — concerning Moses and his wife Zipporah! After all, the name Zipporah only occurs four times in the whole Bible, so this connection has to be intentional.
In this puzzling episode (Exod. 4:24–26), God called Moses and his family to return to Egypt and deliver his people, but that directive resulted in a grave conflict between Moses and his wife on the journey. Only God’s highly threatening intervention resolved the conflict between Moses and Zipporah and allowed the journey to continue. The similarity to the other stories is obvious; Matthew clearly made another attempt to give the reader background information about the story of Mary and Joseph.
The story of Moses and Zipporah suggests that Moses did not do all that the Lord had instructed, and Matthew’s use of this tale probably implies that Joseph also failed in some of his responses. Matthew certainly informed us that Joseph feared to return to Judea (Matt. 2:22) in spite of the protective hand of God. Mary was not the only one feeling the pressure!
A Backward Glance
Supplementary information is fascinating, but I don’t want it to distract you from the main point. In accomplishing God’s will and fulfilling their role in the salvation program, Mary and Joseph moved forward only in the face of friction from every quarter.
Their experiences amply fulfilled Simeon’s prophecy that Mary would struggle within herself. Mary and Joseph were real people — not the strain-free caricatures we so often carry away from Christmas pageants. Their lives illustrate the friction we too will face in bringing about God’s purposes in our own lives. He will protect us and care for us, and at the same time leave us under certain tensions, which he will also use to shape our lives.
Our Motion and Our Friction
Use the following ideas to bring this truth home in your own experience. Remember that God teaches us his principles to change our lives, and not just to make us smarter!
1. Discouragement, bitterness toward God, fear, and resistance to God’s guidance all find expression at times in the lives of righteous men and women. We will never enjoy it when we see those responses in ourselves. Every believer will experience such feelings at points, though it takes emotional sensitivity and courage to admit to having those emotions. We cringe when we see ourselves resisting God. How do you relate to the following statements?
I need to deal directly with such responses so that I am not hindered in living for Christ.
The Lord concerns himself primarily with my overall attitude toward him; he knows I will have lapses, and he deals with me patiently.
God didn’t dump Mary and Joseph because of their problems. He continued using them to play a vital role in the life of his Son. The Lord undoubtedly took into account that this righteous man and woman were facing tremendous pressures. He takes our circumstances and limitations into account as well.
2. Some types of personal growth take place only through repeated applications of pressure. I used to jog six days a week, but not because I liked it. To me it was never fun. But I couldn’t get into good physical condition without repeated applications of exercise.
Some types of growth and change in life can only come through stressful experience. You can’t learn everything you need to know out of a book. Even Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). In spite of this reality, many of us think of learning as something that happens only in a classroom. That’s only the tip of the iceberg!
What is Christ trying to teach me through my experiences — especially the hard ones?
Focus particularly on repeated patterns in your behavior. Have you missed some important insights that could enrich your life?
Do you find yourself running into the same brick wall again and again? Do your failures tend to cluster in a certain area? What is God trying to teach you through those experiences?
3. God uses the hardships we face to prepare us for the future. I don’t think he ever leaves us totally tension-free. If he leads us into a troubled situation, we can trust him to be there with us. Ask yourself:
What does the Lord want me to face?
Am I facing it or running from it?
A Final Word
During World War II, the Japanese sent kamikaze pilots on suicide flights in a desperate attempt to prevent defeat. Those men flew what amounted to bombs with wings on them.
Most planes have landing gear, but Kamikaze planes had wheels that fell away on take-off so the pilot couldn’t change his mind! Some of the pilots didn’t appreciate the missions they were ordered to do. One man took off, flew his plane over his commanding officer’s house, and strafed it with machine gun fire before heading out to sea! You see, those men were expendable in the eyes of their superiors.
God may send us into spiritual battle, but he doesn’t consider us expendable. We are not like paper cups that God casually throws aside after each use. The Lord wants to use us, just as he did Joseph and Mary, but it won’t always be easy and our faith will be tested at times.
As we live for Christ and grow in him, we will accomplish motion only by facing friction. As he calls on us to overcome great opposition, he will personally go with us every step of the way.
Coming next . . .
In Chapter 4, we join Jesus at the point just following his baptism when the Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. That temptation must be endured before Jesus enters his public ministry.
Appendix to Chapter 3
Table 1 shows the women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy and the corresponding material in the Old Testament that contains their stories.
Table 1 (repeated)
The Literary Structure of Matthew 1–2
Related Old Testament Story
|Tamar (Genesis 38)|
|Rahab (Joshua 2–6)|
|Ruth (Book of Ruth)|
|Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11)|
|Mary = Miriam (Numbers 12–14)|
Table 5 illustrates the kind of comparison that lies at the heart of the midrash technique Matthew used to add depth to his lean account about Jesus.
A Clue to a Conflict between Mary & Joseph
|Numbers 12–14||Matthew 2:19–23|
|Problem with Moses’ wife (12:1)||Problem with Joseph’s wife*|
|God speaks to Moses (12:2)||God speaks to Joseph (2:19–20)|
|Moses a humble man (12:3)||Joseph a humble man*|
|Three called out (12:4)||Three called out (2:19–20)|
|God deals with Miriam (12:5–10)||God deals with Mary*|
|Journey continues (12:15)||Journey continues (2:21)|
|Report about the land (13:26–33)||Report about the land (2:22)|
|God directs new path (14:25)||God directs new path (2:22)|
|Joshua set apart (14:30)||Jesus set apart (2:23)|
*Implied by the parallel passages in Numbers.