Tuesday, March 8, 2011

NT Use of OT Part 11: Some Observations Concerning Matthew's Purposes in Matt 1--2

I now want to start addressing three difficult and controversial uses of the OT in Matthew 1–2. In doing so I acknowledge that there is much debate on these three passages and I have chosen not to go into much depth on how different camps understand and interpret these texts. I mostly want to focus on my understanding of these three texts and how they fit into Matthew’s purposes.

Anyone who has spent time studying how the NT uses the OT may be aware that three texts—(1) Matt 1:23/Isa 7:14; (2) Matt 2:15/Hos 11:1; and (3) Matt 2:17-18/Jer 31:15—have tested the interpretive skills of many Bible students. The latter two have sometimes been used to support the idea that Matthew uses the OT non-contextually.

But before I address these passages individually, I want to make some observations concerning what I think is going on in the early chapters of Matthew’s gospel and why Matthew uses the OT the way that he does. In my next blog entry I will start examining the three passages more specifically.

To start off, I think it is highly likely that Matthew is pointing out divinely intended historical correspondences between events in Israel’s history and events in Jesus’ life. And in doing so Matthew intentionally links Jesus with Israel. In fact, I think it is accurate to state that Matthew presents Jesus as the true Israel, the corporate head of Israel, who recapitulates key events in Israel’s history and succeeds where Israel failed. Look at the following:

--A child born in Isaiah’s day to a young woman prefigures/corresponds to the virgin birth of Jesus Christ (Matt 1:23/Isa 7:14).

--Israel’s calling and exodus from Egypt as God’s son prefigures/corresponds to Jesus’ calling and return from Egypt as God’s Son (Matt 2:15/Hos 11:1).

--The mourning over the men of Israel being deported during the Babylonian captivity from Jerusalem through Ramah prefigures/corresponds to the mourning that took place in Bethlehem as a result of the slaughter of infants under Herod (Matt 2:17-18/Jer 31:15).

--Israel’s forty year wandering in the wilderness prefigures/corresponds to Jesus’ forty day temptation in the wilderness from Satan (Matt 4:1-11).

--Moses’ reception of the Mosaic Law on Mount Sinai prefigures/corresponds to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where Jesus, the authoritative lawgiver, reveals what He expects from His followers (Matt 5–7).

These examples show that the connection between the OT and the NT goes beyond verbal predictions and prophecies. God also intends for historical events in the OT to prefigure later events in the NT. These show the divine unity in God’s workings in history and shows there is a divine author behind salvation history. This concept of historical events prefiguring later events often escapes modern readers of Scripture who usually expect “fulfillment” terminology to refer solely to fulfillment of a written prophecy. But fulfillment in the Bible can also refer to correspondences between historical events. Thus, both verbal predictions and historical events can be forward looking.

Yet there are certain errors we should avoid as we correctly acknowledge that Jesus is the true Israel whose experiences correspond to what happened in Israel’s history. One error is to claim that since Matthew is connecting Jesus with Israel this must mean that Jesus dissolves national Israel’s significance. This is an incorrect application. The belief that since Jesus fulfills Israel this must mean the non-significance of the nation Israel is a non-sequitor—it does not follow biblically or logically. Isa 49:1-6 indicates that one of the purposes of Jesus as the true Servant and true Israel is to restore the nation Israel. Plus, multiple NT passages affirm future significance to the nation Israel (Matt 19:28; Acts 1:6; Rom 11). Jesus’ relationship to Israel is that of corporate solidarity in which the One represents and restores the many without dissolving the significance of the many. I will address this point with more depth in a future blog entry.

Another error is to conclude that since Matthew is saying an event in Jesus’ life “fulfills” a historical event in Israel’s life that Matthew has abandoned historical-grammatical hermeneutics or has adopted principles of second temple hermeneutics that ignore the contexts of OT passages. Matthew uses pleroo (“fulfill”) in multiple ways and his use of this term does not always refer a direct fulfillment of a verbal prophecy. Matthew’s use of pleroo can indicate that events in Jesus’ life heighten or have a divine correspondence with earlier events in Israel’s history. In addition, we should not conclude that fulfillment language means that Matthew is reinterpreting the OT or saying that the historical events of the OT only have reference to Christ and not the original referent—Israel.

Hosea 11:1, for instance, refers to God calling Israel out of Egypt at the time of the Exodus. No later revelation can or will change that fact. But Matthew, under inspiration, can point out that this historical event has a divine correspondence with Jesus’ return from Egypt (see Matt 2:15). Thus, we can interpret Hosea 11:1 literally but also see that God intended for God’s calling of Israel during the Exodus to prefigure God calling Jesus out of Egypt centuries later. The fact that there are divine correspondences or types does not negate historical-grammatical hermeneutics. Historical-grammatical hermeneutics is consistent with divine correspondences as we will see in my next entry where we discuss more specifically verses in Matthew 1–2.


  1. Mike, I'm really enjoying your careful analysis of the relationship between the Old Testament and New Testament. You may get into this in your next blog, but I have one question. Are the New Testament writers, functioning under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, occasionally led to make a “divine correspondence” that we, using the principles of historical-grammatical hermeneutics, should not make? Or to say it another way, does the true Author of scripture (God) sometimes use a future human author to fully reveal what He was communicating through the original author?

  2. Thanks for the great analysis (the whole series, not just this article). I am not a theologian and was unaware of the controversy surrounding the usage of the OT in the NT.

    I appreciate your work. I purchased a book about this subject in Logos some time ago with contributions by DA Carson and GK Beale but haven't had a chance to peruse it yet. Thanks for the excellent primer before I dive in!

  3. Phil, great question and I'm not sure I have the perfect answer. Concerning the wording of your first question, I would say "Yes." I think we are best to limit the connections between Israel and Jesus to what the NT writers give us. Although, when we put it all together we see a pattern that several events in Israel's history prefigure several events in Jesus' life. The same is true for the relationship between Jesus and David as I'll argue later on.

    Your second question is a little harder to answer. I do think God knew from the beginning that Hos 11:1, for example, would prefigure Christ although Hosea probably did not specifically think this. I'm reluctant to call this sensus plenior of "fuller meaning" though.

  4. Vcdechagn,
    Thank you for your kind words. They mean a lot to me and are encouraging as I move on in this series. Let me know if you have any questions.

  5. Dr. Vlach, How many more parts to go in this series?