Messianic Prophecies Out of Context?

One of my favorite questions. It’s a really good one, and it may take more than one post to answer.

3.  I am reading the Messianic prophecies, and many of them are entirely out of context.  David was not talking about Jesus’ death, he was talking about his own experience feeling hounded by his enemies.  Things where we point out and say, “See?  That is Jesus there!” in the OT are talking about something entirely different in context.  So in the OT, we don’t care about context, but suddenly in the NT, we care a lot about context.  Why the flip?

Several years ago, I wrote an article for SIGNS on this topic, titled ” Did Ancient Prophets Predict Jesus’ Birth?
Although constrained by the assignment I had been given, it still serves as a beginning point.

Here’s a short quote from that article

Take the passage in which Matthew quotes from Isaiah 7 about a virgin giving birth to a son: “ ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.’ ” But the birth of that Child was recorded in chapter 8. How could it also be a prophecy of Jesus, to be born centuries later? Or what about the time Matthew cites the prophet Hosea: “ ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ ” In that passage, God told Hosea He loved Israel enough to deliver them from Egyptian slavery. How can that be a prediction about the life of Jesus, to come many years in the future?”

Matthew, in fact, is full of such hermeneutical shenanigans (Cofession time: I’m working on a Biblical narrative in which Matthew explains his gospel to a long-lost friend right now, so I’m kind of excited about this topic).

The first thing to realize is that Matthew’s Gospel is written for the Jews.  There is plenty of evidence for this idea.  Literally first of all, Matthew begins in the genealogy that demonstrates Jesus is a view, and a descendent of the royal line.  Another evidence would be the five very rabbinic sermons in Matthew.  There is a lot more evidence, and if need be, I will produce it.  But if you will accept the basic idea that Matthew was at the Jews for now, we can move forward.

This focus on the Jews makes Matthew’s Gospel different in a number of ways.  In Matthew, the Kings come to see the baby Jesus, but not the shepherds.  Only Matthew records the slaughter of the innocents.  There are many other ways where Matthew’s distinctly Jewish outlook shapes his account of Jesus’ life and teachings.  In the first five chapters of his Gospel, Matthew is endeavoring to demonstrate that Jesus is not just the fulfillment of a few Old Testament prophecies, but rather is the fulfillment of all of Israel’s history, all of God’s saving acts on behalf of his people.

In Matthew one, he shows that Jesus is the new king, and the King was always anointed, that makes Jesus the Lord’s anointed, the Messiah.  When he quotes Isaiah 7, about a virgin conceiving, Matthew was aware that the baby prophesied in Chapter 7, was born in Chapter 8.  But in Matthew’s view, that baby foreshadowed the baby Jesus.  It may seem far-fetched to us, but it made sense to his Jewish audience.  Especially when you consider the rest of the events that he notes.

In Chapter 2 of Matthew, the kings visit, seeking the newborn King, and with gifts fit for a king.  This is further evidence to Matthew and his audience that Jesus must have been a king.  Herod confirms that, by seeking to destroy his rival for the throne.  This action, for Matthew, indicates that Jesus is also the new Moses.  How can that be?  Because Jesus, like Moses, is the only one to survive in his generation.

Then Matthew tells us that Joseph took Jesus to Egypt, and thus reenacting the history of Israel. When Israel leftEgypt, it did so by passing through the waters of the Red Sea.  Matthew has Jesus returned from Egypt, and immediately passes through the waters of baptism.  He sees Jesus as reenacting all of Israel’s history.  When Israel passed through the Red Sea, it moved on to the desert.  In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life, Jesus goes directly from baptism into — you probably guessed it—in the desert!  While there, Jesus is tempted three times.  He answers all three temptations with quotations from Deuteronomy.  Specifically, from the portions of Deuteronomy that are looking back at the 40 years wondering in the desert.  Oh yes, and Jesus stands 40 days in the desert.

Just to make things even more interesting, while in the desert, the Israelites spent a full year at Sinai.  While there, Moses brought them the law.  In Matthew, immediately after the wilderness temptations, comes the sermon on the Mount.  In other words, the new Moses climbs a new mountain and brings a new law.  Lest there be any doubt about it, Jesus repeatedly quotes the laws of Moses, and either extends for overturns them.  Repeatedly, he says, “You have heard it said… but I say.”  And every time he is quoting the law of Moses.

I could go on, but this is getting somewhat lengthy.  I hope I have demonstrated that for Matthew, Jesus is the living fulfillment of all of Israel’s history.  So, when Hosea is told, “Out of Egypt have I called my son,” Hosea understood it as a past saving action of God.  Matthew does not deny that, but rather sees that earlier action as a foreshadowing of the greater saving action to be realize in the redemptive life of Jesus.

I hope I have given some understanding the answer to your question.  I certainly welcome feedback on this issue.  Anyone wishing to explore this further should read The Israel of God in Prophecy, by Hans La Rondelle, to which I am heavily indebted.


Messianic Prophecies Out of Context? — 2 Comments

  1. Ed, you are really drilling deep here–good stuff and plausible to me. I think that God demonstrates His sovereignty in how He quotes from the OT in the NT. He is not limited to our exegetical methods–he can transcend them in the very process of establishing the overall theme that our own exegesis leads us to.

    Regarding Matthew and its comparison to the other Gospels . . . It’s interesting how Sabbath conflict cut and pasted from its chronological order in Mark and Luke to be placed relatively late in his ministry in Matthew 12. This is strategic, of course. God intends that Matthew connect with Jewish readers and win their confidence before introducing Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath and all the opposition from Jewish leaders. But once that tipping point is past, the relationship between Jesus and the Jewish leaders gets very bad very quickly, to the point of Matthew 23 where Jesus has that awful confrontation finished with the final pronunciation: “Your house is left unto you desolate.”

    This shows to me that each Gospel is a theological document with its specific purpose, not a slavish xerox of chronological events. There are many other examples of this cutting and pasting in the Gospels, as I’m sure you’re aware.

    Thanks for giving us food for thought again, Ed.

    • Thanks, Martin.

      I guess, to sum up my understanding of this issue:

      Salvation is what God does, not what we do;
      Jesus is what God has always been doing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *