Commenting on the return from Egypt by Jesus and His family, Matthew says:

This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matthew 2:15).

This is a peculiar comment for a couple of reasons. In the first place, if you refer back to the passage Matthew says is fulfilled by the journey home from Egypt – Hosea 11:1 – the “son” in that text is not Jesus, but Israel. And in the second place, Hosea 11:1 is not a prediction about the future but a reflection on the past.

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 (Hosea 11:1-2).

Why, then, does Matthew quote this reflection on Israel’s past and say that in coming home from Egypt Jesus “fulfilled” this Scripture?

The key to understanding this passage is something biblical scholars call typology. Somewhere along the way I stumbled across what I think is a better term – categories. Think of your favorite awards show (the Oscars, the Grammies, or the Slammies from old WWF days!). Those awards programs features categories – Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Song, etc. In each category there are nominees, all reflecting various levels of excellence. But then there is one nominee that excels all the others and best captures the essence of that category. “And the winner is…!”

The Bible also uses categories. And one of those categories is “son of God.” There are many “nominees” in this category. Adam, “the son of God” (Luke 3:38). Israel, collectively described by God as “my firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22). The offspring of David, to whom God promised a special relationship – “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (2 Samuel 7:14). And of course, Jesus. “This is my beloved Son” (Matthew 3:17).

But just as there is one nominee that best represents the category of Best Actor or Best Movie, in the biblical category of “son” there is one member that typifies the essence of the category better than all others – Christ. He fulfills (fills to the full) what that category is all about. In fact, if you think about the other nominees in the category of “son” – Adam, Israel, the Davidic kings – the New Testament draws on each of those members of the “son” category to explain the supremacy of Jesus. He is the “last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45); He experienced (triumphantly) hunger in the wilderness like Israel (Matthew 4:1-11); He is the great David’s greater Son (Matthew 22:41-45).

When Matthew says that Jesus “fulfilled” Hosea 11:1, he is not speaking about the fulfillment of a prophecy in the way that we normally think of it. Usually we think in terms of a prophet making a prediction of a future event and then some time later that prediction coming true. But Matthew is not claiming any sort of predictive fulfillment. He is saying that in Jesus there is typological (or categorical) fulfillment of the role of “son.” Israel was supposed to be a son but failed in disobedience. What Israel was supposed to be, Jesus is, in the the fullest way imaginable.

This also helps us to understand the logic of the first four chapters of Matthew. Matthew is consciously describing the story of Jesus in terms of a retelling of the story of Israel. Think of these experiences of Israel and the parallels Matthew draws in the life of Jesus:

  • The threat of murder at birth by a king
  • Exile in Egypt
  • A return from Egypt
  • A journey through water (the exodus and Jesus’ baptism)
  • A description as God’s son
  • A wilderness wandering filled with temptation

But of course, instead of forsaking God in disobedience like Israel did (Hosea 11:2), Jesus is perfectly obedient. That’s why He’s the winner of the “Best Son” category!

Some other great categories to think about are servant, temple, sacrifice, king, shepherd. Think of those categories in terms of the various examples of each, and then how Christ is the ultimate version of that category. Looking at the story of the Bible in these categorical or typological terms opens up a very fruitful way of grasping the biblical message, and especially of understanding how Jesus is the focal point of all of Scripture.