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:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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:
- 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)
- 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)
- 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.