Is it possible that followers of Christ have overstated the case for fulfilled prophecy?
Like many others, I grew up hearing that one of the strongest reasons for believing in Jesus is that He fulfilled hundreds of predictions in the Jewish Scriptures. Years later I found myself wondering where most of those prophecies were. More often than not, when I checked the sources for myself I found obscure or mysterious statements, written in the past tense, and referring historically to someone other than a future Messiah.
The gospel writer Matthew, for instance, built some of his case for Jesus on such passages. To convince his Jewish countrymen that there is a relationship between their Scriptures and Jesus of Nazareth, he repeatedly claimed fulfillments where most of us would probably agree there are no clear predictions.
One example occurs when Joseph and Mary took Jesus to Egypt. Matthew says this happened, “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, ‘Out of Egypt I called My Son’ ”(2:15). But where is the prediction? Matthew happens to be quoting the ancient prophet Hosea who, in context, was looking back to the birth of the nation of Israel rather than forward to the birth of a personal Messiah.
What Is Matthew Seeing?
While we cannot directly ask Matthew about this problem, we can listen carefully to the way he clarifies what he is saying. In the chapters that follow, he makes it clear that when he writes about “fulfillment” he is thinking of more than the end result of specific predictions.
In the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, he quotes Jesus as saying: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (5:17). Jesus goes on to say that every detail of the Law must be fulfilled (v.18).
To understand how the Law as well as the Prophets could be fulfilled, it’s important to know that Jesus would have seen more in the term Law than just moral commandments. To this day Jewish people use the term Torah, or the Law, to refer to the total instruction that God entrusted to Israel. It began with the five books of Moses and encompassed all of the law, history, and ceremonial rituals of God’s chosen people.
A Fulfilled Story of Israel
It was in this broad sense that Matthew wrote of fulfillment. As he reflected on specific events in the life of Jesus, he saw how they gave a fullness of meaning to historical patterns and principles in the history of God’s chosen people.
Israel and her long-awaited Messiah were both chosen servants. Both would bring blessing to the whole world (Genesis 12:1-3). But there was to be an important difference. Israel would live and die as an example of what happens to those who trust God and to those who disobey God. Her Messiah would live and die in perfect obedience, to become God’s love-sacrifice and sin-bearer for the world (Isaiah 53; John 3:16).
A Fulfilled Sacrificial System
John the Baptizer must have confused the crowd listening to him when he pointed to a rabbi from Nazareth and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). It would be three years before these words could be understood. Yet, looking back we can see that the pieces of an ancient puzzle were falling into place. The mysterious suffering servant described in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah was about to be seen in the execution of Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. Only after Jesus’ resurrection did it become clear that the entire Jewish system of sacrifice was fulfilled when God’s own Son died for our sin (Hebrews 10:10).
A Partially Fulfilled Calendar
For thousands of years, the nation of Israel has been celebrating an annual cycle of holidays that date to the time of Moses (Leviticus 23). Since the first century ad, these festivals have had new significance. Jesus was crucified on Passover—to provide the ultimate exodus from bondage. He was buried during the Feast of Unleavened Bread—to once and for all “put away” the leaven of sin. He was raised on the Feast of Firstfruits—as the first of all who will be resurrected in His Name. Fifty days later, on the Feast of Pentecost, the day on which Jewish people celebrate the giving of the Law—Jesus sent His Spirit to enable His followers to fulfill the principle of the law from their hearts. Three holidays remain unfulfilled. They fall at the end of Israel’s annual holiday cycle and correspond to predicted events that have not yet come to pass.
A Fulfillment of Clear Predictions
In addition to fulfilled patterns of worship and history, the prophets of Israel also give us some clear and compelling predictions. They tell us when and where the long-anticipated Son of Abraham and David would be born. The prophet Micah foresaw that a mysterious, eternal ruler would come out of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2; Matthew 2:2-6). Then there is Daniel who, writing hundreds of years before Christ, predicted the exact time of Messiah’s coming (9:24-26). (For a detailed explanation: Google “The Daniel Papers,” or go to www.discoveryseries.org/Q1207 on RBC’s Web site.)
No one but God could have orchestrated all of the patterns, principles, and predictions that were fulfilled in Jesus. Together they show that Matthew was not overstating the case for Jesus. As our Creator, all history begins in Him. As the perfect Israelite, He fulfilled the spirit and letter of the law and history of the “chosen people.” As our Judge, all history ends in His courtroom. As our Savior, all who trust His offer of mercy will find fulfillment, not in what we have done for God but in what God has done for us—in Christ (Colossians 2:20).
Father in Heaven, thank You for helping us to see that Your Son is always more rather than less than what we are looking for. As the patterns, principles, and predictions of Israel find their fulfillment in Him, please help us also to find, in Him, everything and more than our own hearts long for. –Mart De Haan