Hebrew Prophecies in Matthew’s Gospel

Bible study notes from 2004

There seem to be three ways of answering the question, what is ‘prophetic fulfilment’ all about?

The references that are included were prophecies of the events recorded here. Thus, Isaiah was talking about the Virgin Mary rather than, or as well as, events in his own lifetime. But the closer you look into this approach, i.e. studying the original sources, the more difficult it appears, e.g. Rachel weeping for her children is a message of hope in Jer. 31.15 but of despair in Matthew (unless the hope related to the child who survived is implicit, as in the story of Moses). The original context becomes lost or forgotten when the text is re-used. This is a question about the nature of prophecy, taking into account the rule ‘true prophecy is that which comes to pass’, and while some were delayed those who recorded them would not have been in a position to await fulfilment of anything which was specific (prophecies about the ‘day of the Lord’ or the ‘Messiah’ were open-ended, though even they had a contemporaneous ‘existential’ quality). Why would they record a prophecy that had not come to pass? Is prophecy a statement of what the future will be, is it less definite or is it something quite different?

A second approach would be to say that the passages used by Matthew belong to their own time and were not prophecies, they do not refer to events several hundred years later. It is easy to say this and logic may suggest it, but is it rather hasty? The advantage of this view is that the original context continues to be taken seriously and any attempt to ‘hijack’ the Hebrew scriptures may be resisted. It can allow new insights into the Gospel, particularly of Matthew’s outlook as an opportunistic text-recycler. Questions can be asked of chs. 1 and 2 — did these events really happen, or are they some kind of literary construction? These questions have been asked before and answers suggested: Jesus was not conceived by a virgin; he was probably born in Nazareth; he never went to Egypt; Herod did not slaughter the innocents. One thing is sure, whichever approach is taken we will never know conclusively. But is this theory helpful, is it just a dead-end? There must be a third way (I wish I had come up with a fourth, perhaps someone else will).

If you wanted to characterise this approach, it would be the one that takes into account the ‘open-ended possibilities’ of the First Testament. Have you ever read all the way through from Genesis to Malachi and picked up on the wave of expectation and unfulfilment which is driving things forward? Clearly something is expected (or we are made to expect it because the Biblical books have been re-ordered) and it is logical that Matthew follows immediately, he seems to provide a key, but not the one you were expecting? Why do the universal hopes of the later prophets suddenly contract? The original text, or revelation, is open-ended because it belongs to God (not the Biblical writers!) and is always looking forward, even when already fulfilled. Here there is common ground with the first approach, it recognises that a prophecy about ‘God with us’ continues to point to whatever is the ultimate experience of God being with us (making it seem as if Matthew does little, or less than might be expected, with this early blockbuster). Therefore, where the prophecies are used they speak of the significance more than the ‘reality’. The real events themselves, whatever they are, are insufficiently real, they are less real than the fulfilment formula. The re-use of the original prophecy borrows the ‘weight’ of the original pronouncement, a weight which belongs more to ‘thus says the Lord’ than anything which actually happened in the past. Isn’t it amazing that we learn nothing about the young mother of ‘Immanuel’, there is no record of the events, the facts. The significance is in the proclamation, the certainty of Isaiah, of course it happened, we don’t need to know any details … Similarly, the Egypt prophecies are poetic and refer to ancient memories of the Exodus and Rachel as an archetypal mother of the chosen people. How real are the events on their own? Do we find a reality in ‘the Word’ which is almost beyond its actuality?

Jesus himself uses various verses, much as a preacher would today, to illustrate, support and emphasise his points. According to Matthew it is Jesus who introduces the idea that John the Baptist is the prophesied messenger, when the original is not about either John or Jesus (it sounds good though, think of Handel’s Messiah when you read it, hence this version): Mal 3:1–3 — Behold, I will send My messenger, and He will clear the way before Me. And Jehovah, whom you seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the Angel of the Covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He comes, says Jehovah of Hosts. But who can endure the day of His coming? And who shall stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire, and like fuller’s soap. And He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver. And He shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may be offerers of a food offering in righteousness to Jehovah. These words must have inspired Jesus, and hence he lived in, and constructed, an environment in which he fulfilled them. But only so far, there is so much more here which remains with God. Unless we think that Jesus has so (re-) interpreted and fulfilled that we are now beyond this? Is this an argument for not holding on to either a rigid fulfilment or seeking to emulate Matthew and constructing a framework where we can expect further rigid fulfilments — like Jesus returning to the (non-existent) temple? But Jesus does show us how we can continue to use ‘the Word’ today, and reminds us how it is fulfilled every time we read it.