In the eighth century before the birth of Jesus, the Jewish prophet Micah predicted, “Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2).
Then there are the words of another Jewish prophet by the name of Isaiah. As he spoke of the pains of war and spiritual darkness, he referred mysteriously to the people in “Galilee of the Gentiles… “seeing a great light,” and wrote the words since exalted in Handel’s Messiah, “For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace There will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgment and justice From that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this” (Isaiah 9:6-7).
But there are other prophecies that, in their original setting, are more obscure. Some of the fulfillments of prophecy cited by the New Testament point back to Old Testament statements that are written in the past tense and seem to point historically to someone other than a future Messiah.
The gospel writer Matthew, for instance, built some of his case for Jesus on “fulfillments” that are difficult to match with clear predictions in the Old Testament.
For example, Matthew’s Gospel describes how Joseph and Mary, take the child Jesus to Egypt to hide him from Herod, the sitting king of Israel who was intent on killing the baby who, according to rumor, had been born “king of the Jews.” Matthew goes on to say that 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 is quoting the ancient prophet Hosea who, in context, clearly seems to be looking back to the birth of the nation of Israel rather than forward to the birth of a personal Messiah (Hosea 11:1).
What Is Matthew seeing? In the chapters that follow, Matthew makes it clear that when he speaks of “fulfillment” he’s thinking of something that includes but is not limited to, specific prophetic predictions.
For instance, in the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, he quotes Jesus as saying that he came “to fulfill” both the law and the prophets (Matt 5:17-18). He went on to show that he was speaking of fulfillment in ways that were more common to Jewish rabbis than to ourselves. Matthew saw Jesus personifying and giving fulfillment of meaning not only to clear and mysterious predictions of prophets, but to be:
- The Chosen Servant who brought fullness of meaning to a chosen servant nation.
- The Long awaited Author of our Faith who showed us that the unfolding drama of the Bible is really His-story.
- The Personal Standard and Measure who completely fulfilled the spirit and heart of the Law of God.
- The Ultimate Leader who fulfilled completely what Israel’s prophets, priests, and kings could only do in part.
- The perfect Lamb of God who fulfilled the symbolic anticipation of the sacrificial system of Israel.
- The Immanuel of God who by being God with and among us personified and gave completeness of meaning to the Jerusalem Temple of God’s presence.
- The Ultimate Holiday: Passover, Unleavened Bread, and First harvest of a future resurrection who personally fulfills the meaning of the feasts and holy days of Israel.
Looking back, 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).
For conversation: Can we honestly “look one another in the eye” and say that, in spite of all of our own pain, darkness, and broken dreams, we find in the Son of God a fulfillment of meaning that speaks peace, joy, and hope to the deepest needs of our hearts and minds? And if so, can we also/still relate to those who say they need to see the credibility of the Bible before they put their faith in it?