Rethinking How “Predictive” Prophecy Works: Reflections on Matthew’s Gospel

By: Garrett Best

My Christian life has been a roller coaster of ups and downs with the Old Testament. In the past, I was afraid of it because it seemed to be a confusing conglomeration of law, prophetic, and poetry books. I rarely read the Old Testament, and when I did, I played the game “Where’s Jesus?” It’s like the “Where’s Waldo” game only with Jesus instead. As I read through the Old Testament, I would look for Jesus in every nook and cranny. If you look hard enough, you can almost find Jesus almost anywhere (even in the Song of Solomon). It made perfect sense to me. God had planned for Jesus to come from the beginning and so he had been giving little bread crumbs of predictive prophecies all along the way. I saw those lists containing hundreds of “predictive prophecies” hidden within the Old Testament that predicted a future Jesus. These predictive prophecies seemed to prove the inspiration of the Bible and showed the miraculous nature of God’s revelation in the Old Testament.

At first glance, Matthew’s Gospel seems to encourage such a “Where’s Waldo” approach to the Old Testament. More than any other Gospel, Matthew points us back to the Old Testament as showing that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and prophets. However, as I continue to study Matthew, previously held presumptions are constantly challenged. In a previous post, I reflected on how Matthew’s Gospel has caused me to rethink my relationship to the Law. In this post, I want to reflect on how Matthew’s Gospel has caused me to rethink how “predictive prophecy” works in relation to Jesus.

Matthew uses a particular formula to introduce several instances where Jesus “fulfills” a passage cited in the Old Testament. These formulas and their corresponding Old Testament quotation are as follows:

  • Matthew 1:23 fulfilling Isaiah 7:14
  • Matthew 2:15 fulfilling Hosea 11:1
  • Matthew 2:18 fulfilling Jeremiah 31:15
  • Matthew 2:23 fulfilling (unclear?) Maybe Judges 13:5, 7? Isaiah 11:1?
  • Matthew 4:15-16 fulfilling Isaiah 9:1-2
  • Matthew 8:17 fulfilling Isaiah 53:4
  • Mathew 12:18-21 fulfilling Isaiah 42:1-4
  • Matthew 13:35 fulfilling Psalm 78:2
  • Matthew 21:5 fulfilling Isaiah 62:11; Zechariah 9:9
  • Matthew 27:9-10 fulfilling Jeremiah 3:6-9; Zechariah 11:12-13

So, if we go back to these Old Testament passages, it should be clear that they are predictive prophecies of Jesus, right? Wrong. Consider these three examples:

  1. Psalm 78:2 (Matthew 13:35) I begin with this passage because it is probably one of the most obvious ones. Go back and read Psalm 78 which is a “Maskil of Asaph” according to the heading. In my reading of that Psalm, there is nothing “predictive” about it. In fact, Asaph is rehearsing Israel’s past history to the new generation of Jews. In Matthew 13, a collection of Jesus’ teachings in parables is recorded. In verse 35, he says that Jesus’ parabolic teaching, “was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet…” This raises an important question. Since Psalm 78:2 is not a prediction of a futuristic parable-preaching Jesus in its original context, in what sense is Matthew saying Jesus “fulfilled” it?
  2. Hosea 11:1 (Matthew 2:15) My teachers and preachers have always encouraged me to read each biblical passage in its proper context. We are taught to be good stewards of the Word by learning the historical-critical method. We are supposed to make sure we are not reading into the text what is not there (eisegesis versus exegesis). Go back and read Hosea 11:1 for yourself. In my reading, again, there is nothing “predictive” about this verse. In fact, rather than speaking about a future Jesus, the passage looks backward at God’s great act of salvation at the exodus. In a modern seminary classroom, it appears that Matthew would not score so well on his use of the modern historical-critical method.
  3. Isaiah 7:14 (Matthew 1:23) In the original context, Israel and Syria have teamed up to defeat the Southern Kingdom, Judah. King Ahaz of Judah thought his only option for survival was to team up with the evil nation Assyria to defeat the Israel/Syria alliance (Syro-Ephraim alliance). Ahaz paid Assyria a tribute of gold from the Temple treasury to enlist their help. Isaiah was sent to Ahaz by God to remind Judah to put their faith in God, not Assyria. God knows that Ahaz needed a sign to confirm his faith. Isaiah 7:14 is the sign that was given to King Ahaz. Again, this passage doesn’t seem to be predicting a future Jesus, but talking about a sign that would happen in the days of King Ahaz. A “young woman” (or “virgin”) would give birth to a son and he would be called “Immanuel” meaning “God with us”. The message of the sign for Judah is striking. Don’t trust in Assyria because God is with us. Before the boy knew how to choose between the evil and the good, the Lord would make the land of Israel/Syria deserted. Interestingly, Syria was defeated by Assyria in 732 BC and Israel in 722 BC.

Some have tried to explain these passages by suggesting that Matthew was an inspired author and so he was able to see fulfillment in the Old Testament that the common, uninspired person (like me) could never understand. This is sometimes called the “sensus plenior” of the text which is Latin for “fuller sense”. My personal hesitation to accept that explanation is that it seems to make the text unaccessible to the common man. The idea that Matthew could see hidden meanings in the Scriptures that I never would be able to see doesn’t fully satisfy my curiosity. Maybe it should. For full disclosure, men INFINITELY smarter than me do believe Matthew is doing something that we could never see or do. For one example, see Richard Longenecker’s Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period. However, I think there is a better approach than explaining fulfillment in terms of a mysterious revelation given to Matthew by God.

I find David Turner’s views helpful in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. First, he suggests that part of our problem is that we have mistakenly equated prophecy with prediction. What we have seen in the few examples above is there seems to be little “prediction” involved in Psalm 78 and Hosea 11. While the prophecy in Isaiah 7 does involve a futuristic element, the sign was for the immediate future of Ahaz, not 1,000 years later. Forecasting the future is only one element of biblical prophecy. More often, prophecy involves judgement on the present circumstance or hindsight about the past. Second, he suggests that we must shift our thinking from “predictive prophecy” to “historical patterns in God’s redemptive history”. He says, “Biblical redemptive history provides a pattern that leads up to climactic fulfillment in the NT. But the fulfillment is the climax of a historical pattern, not a predictive oracle.” (pg. 23) If I might sum up what Turner is suggesting in my own words, it is this: “God has acted in this or that way in the past, and we see that God acted in those same historical ways in the person of Jesus who is the climax of God’s involvement in redemptive history.”

Consider what Turner suggests about the three examples above:

  1. Matthew 13:35 “Matthew finds in Asaph’s words a precedent providing a pattern that Jesus fulfills. Just as Asaph utters profound truths for the next generation, so Jesus reveals the ultimate secrets of the kingdom of heaven to his own generation… Just as Asaph discerns the pattern of God’s faithfulness to his people that overrides their disobedience, so Jesus’s parables lay out for his disciples the pattern of kingdom reception and rejection until the day of ultimate judgement and reward (13:19, 39-43)…” (Turner, 347)
  2. Matthew 2:15 “It is that in its original context, Hos. 11:1 is not a prediction of Jesus but a reminiscence of the exodus. This was at least as clear to Matthew as it is to modern interpreters. But Hos. 11:1 alludes to a theological motif that was dear to Matthew: divine sonship. The exodus demonstrated Israel’s unique status as God’s firstborn son. What was true of Israel on a metaphorical level is more profoundly true of Jesus the Messiah… In Hos. 11:1 the exodus provides a historical pattern of God’s loving preservation of his son Israel from Pharaoh’s wrath. From a Christian perspective, this past event is recapitulated by God’s loving preservation of his Son, Jesus, from Herod’s wrath.” (Turner, 90-91)
  3. Matthew 1:23 “Matthew reads the events of the Bible from a Christian perspective and from a belief in divine providence. Thus he discovers events and motifs that come to climactic fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah, who is David’s son and Abraham’s son… When Matthew, as a disciple of Jesus the Messiah, read Isa. 7, Isaianic motifs acquired new significance. He did not create the virgin birth narrative as an imaginative midrash on Isa. 7. Neither did he view Isa. 7 under inspiration as an intended prediction of Jesus’s virgin birth. Rather, he saw the motifs of the oracle of Isa. 7-9, particularly its stress upon the house of David (7:2, 13; 9:7), a young girl giving birth to a son (7:14-16; 8:3-4), and the presence of God with his people (7:14; 8:8, 10), in light of the miraculous birth of the Messiah… In Jesus the Messiah, the house of David was culminated. Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus the Messiah amounted to an infinitely greater sign to Israel. And Jesus the Messiah was himself God with the nation of Israel.” (Turner, 70-72)

I think this is a much more healthy understanding of Matthew’s methodology for seeing prophecy/fulfillment. In my view, this reading of Matthew has important implications for how we understand and appreciate the Old Testament as Christians.

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5 comments

  1. Thanks so much for posting about this. Like you, it certainly challenges my view and interpretation of the OT. I think Turner is on to something, and I like the beautiful way he describes things.

    I’m glad you were unafraid to mention Matthew 2:23. Either that verse has been lost, or Matthew’s reference is so obscure that it is nearly impossible to find what he was referring to.

    I disagree about Is 7:14. Because Isaiah told Ahaz that the VIRGIN would give birth, this can ONLY be a future prophecy. Because Isaiah wrote “virgin,” Jesus is the only One who has or will fulfill Isaiah’s words. (Isaiah most certainly wrote “virgin.” Of course, this is a very different can of worms.)

    1. Thanks for reading the post and being a fellow struggler to understand the Gospel of Matthew. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one. Just a question to push back a little on your understanding of Isaiah 7:14… Do you think that when God told Ahaz through Isaiah that he would give him the sign of the young woman (or “virgin”) giving birth to the son, do you think God fulfilled his promise to Ahaz to give him the sign? Do you not think there was a child named Immanuel born in the days of Ahaz? If not, why would God promise a sign to Ahaz that he wasn’t going to fulfill for 700 years? Also, what do you do with the “before he knows to choose between the good and the evil” the land of Syria and Israel would be deserted? Does that apply to Jesus or the days of Ahaz?

      1. I did not know how to answer your questions so I looked into the context. 🙂 Here are some thoughts.

        As I study this, Isaiah must be giving a dual prophecy. As I was studying, I found a clue in Is 7:3. God told Isaiah to bring his son, Shear-jashub. Now, notice that Ahaz refuses to ask God for a sign in verse 12. What follows is how God will force a sign. As Isaiah tells Ahaz this sign, I can see Isaiah using his son as a pre-figure for the coming sign. Isaiah said (7:14) a son will be born of a virgin. That can only be Jesus. Isaiah said (7:15-17) that a son will not know right and wrong by the time the Assyrians come. Now, this sign was fulfilled in the next chapter (8:1-10,18) in Maher-shalal-hash-baz, another of Isaiah’s sons. However, now notice that 8:11-17. This is not about Maher-shalal-hash-baz but about Jesus. “He will be a sanctuary,” and, “I will wait for Him,” mean that this Child has not been born yet.

        So in summary, this has to be a dual prophecy. One is born of a virgin (7:14) and the other is not (8:3). One is a sign about the coming of Assyria (7:15-17) and the other will be born a long time in the future (8:16-17). The first son is Isaiah’s. The second Son is God’s.

        Back to the point you are making in your post, I think it is very valid. Both sons prove that God works historically through patterns (a method of prophecy). Both of these Sons are “God with us:” Isaiah’s son in 8:8-10, and God’s son in Matt 1:23, Luke 1:31, and John 1:14. As Turner said, Jesus Christ is “the fulfillment is the climax of a historical pattern.”

        Again, the reason I do not believe 7:14 is for Ahaz is because of the virgin birth. Isaiah makes it clear in 8:3 that Maher-shalal-hash-baz was not a virgin birth, even though he is Ahaz’s sign. Therefore, 7:14 must be specifically about Jesus.

        John Wesley has a good quote on this subject….
        Because you [Ahaz] despise me [God], and the sign which I now offer to you [Isaiah’s sons], God of his own free grace will send you a more honourable messenger [Christ], and give you a nobler sign [virgin birth]. But how was this birth, which was not to happen ’till many ages after, a sign of their deliverance from present danger? This promised birth supposed the preservation of that city, and nation and tribe, in and of which the Messiah was to be born; and therefore there was no cause to fear that ruin which their enemies now threatened.

      2. I am confused by your post for a number of reasons. You say, “Isaiah said (7:14) a son will be born of a virgin. That can only be Jesus.” Why must a virgin birth necessarily refer to Jesus. Multiple times in the Old Testament, God miraculously grants fecundity to a barren or childless woman. Your reading of the passage seems to be driven by your desire to make it a predictive prophecy of Jesus. I would be interested to know if you could find support for your two birth hypothesis.

        I have difficulty with your explanation because if you are right, God’s words to Ahaz were a false sign. Even though he said there would be the birth of a son named Immanuel and before he was able to choose between evil and good (we would call this the age of accountability) God would defeat Syria and Assyria. I assume that age is somewhere around 8-13 years. God’s promise is that in about a decade, he would destroy them. And, you clearly know that happened. God did defeat the two nations as he promised. But, somehow you believe God fulfilled his promise to destroy the nations without actually giving the sign. I just don’t see how you could read Isaiah 7 and not think that God’s promised sign happened in Ahaz’s day.

        Maybe I should clarify my remarks. What I am challenging is the idea of “predictive” prophecy. What I am not challenging is that God works providentially throughout history and I certainly believe Jesus is the fulfillment of the Scriptures (and even Isaiah 7). However, that fulfillment is not because Isaiah 7 is a futuristic prediction of Jesus. God chose the sign he would give in Isaiah 7 as you rightly noted. In Turner’s words, God set the paradigm through the prophet Isaiah that he responds to the needs of his people through miraculous births to children named Immannuel. Thus, Matthew sees Isaiah 7 like the other historical paradigm fulfillments in his Gospel. God has acted this way in the past during the days of Isaiah and Ahaz, and Jesus is the fullest expression of that same interaction with the world.

  2. Isaiah can only refer to Jesus because of two reasons. One, there is no OT fulfillment of it. Two, Matthew and Luke explicitly say it is true. I’m not reading any kind of predictive prophecy into it. The predictive prophecy is true for the two reasons I stated above.

    Can you be specific in what further proof you need for the two-birth explanation? I believe I gave enough proof before.

    How were God’s words to Ahaz a false sign? Some of Isaiah’s words were fulfilled in the next chapter. The rest were miraculously fulfilled in Christ. And why do you say, “somehow you believe God fulfilled his procise to destroy the nations without actually giving the sign”? God did fulfill this. The sign’s name was Maher-shalal-hash-baz.

    Are you familiar with what a dual prophecy is? Also, do you believe that God has made predictive prophecies?

    Why do you believe that Isaiah 7 cannot be a predictive prophecy?

    I agree with your final few sentences. Your main point in your post is both new to me and true.

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