Volume 8 - Issue 1
The Old Testament and Christian faith: Jesus and the Old Testament in Matthew 1–5 (Part 1)By John Goldingay
Christian faith is focused on Jesus Christ, and we learn of him from the New Testament. So what significance attaches to what we call the Old Testament, the scriptures accepted by the Jewish religious community to which Jesus belonged?
Within the New Testament there are variations in the extent to which the Old Testament is referred to in different books, and there is also some variety in the way in which the Old Testament is used. As it happens, however, the opening pages of the New Testament offer a particularly instructive set of concrete illustrations of what the Old Testament meant in the context of the gospel of Christ.
Matthew 1:1–17 The Old Testament tells the story of which Christ is the climax
To the eyes of most modern readers, the opening verses of the New Testament form an unpromising beginning, with their unexciting list of bare names. Our attention soon moves on to the inviting stories of 1:18–2:23. But the young Jewish reader who came to faith in Christ through reading precisely these verses responded to them in a way that Matthew would have appreciated. This reader had seen that the verses embody a particular assertion about Jesus. By relating his Jewish genealogy, they establish that he was in fact a Jew. Indeed, they establish that he has a genealogy of a particular kind: his ancestry not only goes back via the exile to Abraham, it also marks him as a member of the tribe of Judah and of the family of David, and thus gives him a formal claim to David’s throne. Again, it is a genealogy which (unusually) includes the names of several women, names which draw attention to the contribution made by some rather questionable unions to this genealogy even before and during David’s own time, so that the apparently questionable circumstances of Jesus’ own birth (1:19) can hardly be deemed unworthy of someone who was reckoned to be David’s successor. It is a genealogy arranged into three sequences of fourteen names, a patterning which itself expresses the conviction that the Christ event comes about by a providence of God that has been at work throughout the history of the Jewish people but now comes to its climax.
One needs to note two features of this genealogy’s appeal to the historical past. One is that it is an appeal to real history. Matthew assumes that a person has to be a descendant of David if he is to have a claim to David’s throne; further, that a person has to be a descendant of Abraham if he is to have a ‘natural’ share in the promise to Abraham, still more if he is to be recognized as the seed of Abraham. Matthew has in mind legal descent, of course; you could be adopted into a certain family, and then you came to share that family’s genealogy as fully as if you had been born into it. Thus Matthew probably assumes that Jesus has a claim to David’s throne via his adoptive, legal father Joseph. But Matthew is talking about the real past, the real ancestry of Jesus, the real historical antecedents to the Christ event.
The other feature of Matthew’s use of the historical past is that he schematizes the past when he appeals to it. There were not factually fourteen generations from Abraham to David, from David to the exile, and from the exile to the Christ (1:17). But by shaping the genealogy in this way, Matthew creates something which is more artistic and easier to remember than it might otherwise be, and something which gives explicit expression to the conviction that a providence of God had been at work in the ordering of Israelite history up to Jesus’ time, as it was in his birth, life, death, and resurrection itself.
These two aspects of Matthew’s appeal to the historical past are consistent features of the gospels and of Old Testament narratives. The evangelists are concerned with the real historical Jesus, but they tell his story in a schematized way, selecting and ordering material in order to make the points of central significance clear. Shortly we shall consider Matthew 4. Here Matthew tells us of three temptations Jesus experienced; Luke includes the same temptations, but orders them differently. Then Matthew tells us of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Capernaum; Luke precedes this by the account of his rejection at Nazareth, which comes rather later in Matthew. Now it is not that either Matthew or Luke has made mistakes in his presentation. It is that sometimes a re-ordering or a rewriting will make the significance of a story clearer than a merely chronological account does.
In a similar way the Old Testament narratives which were among the evangelists’ models—books such as Genesis and Exodus, Kings and Chronicles—were concerned with real historical events, but they, too, select, order, and rewrite their material so as to make the message of history clear for their contemporaries. Much of the material in the opening part of Matthew’s genealogy comes from Chronicles, and Chronicles well illustrates this combination in the Old Testament of a concern for real people and events from the past with a concern for a presentation of them which makes explicit their significance for the writer’s day. It is this latter interest which explains the substantial difference between Samuel-Kings’ and Chronicles’ presentation of the same story.
Matthew’s example, then, directs us towards a twofold interest in the Old Testament story. We are interested in the real events of Old Testament times which led up to Christ. It is this instinct, in part, that has made generations of students feel that their library is incomplete without a volume such as John Bright’s History of Israel on their shelves. If the history of Israel is the background to the Christ event, we had better understand the actual history of Israel. But we are also interested in the way that history has been shaped as narrative by the writers of the Old Testament and of the New. We recognize that we are not reading mere chronicle or annal but a story whose message is expressed in the way it is told—like Matthew’s genealogy. So as well as books like Bright which interpret for us the history of Israel itself, we need books like Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives1 or D. J. A. Clines’ The Theme of the Pentateuch2 to help us interpret the story of Israel as the Old Testament actually tells it.
In practice, it is easy to let one interest exclude the other. ‘Conservative’ readers can assume that we are concerned only with the bare events, and they ignore the literary creativity which goes into biblical narrative. ‘Liberal’ readers can become so aware of this creativity that they cease to recognize the fact and/or the importance of the fundamental historicity of Israelite history. Like the Old Testament narratives themselves, Matthew implies that both matter.
Matthew assumes, then, that the reader needs to know something of the history behind Jesus if he is to understand Jesus himself aright. In a sense, of course, he is only making an assumption which applies to every historical person or event. You will understand me aright only if you know something of my history, my experiences, and my background: it is these that have made me what I am. You will understand complex political problems such as those of Northern Ireland or the Middle East only if you understand their history. And you will understand the Christ event aright only if you see it as the climax to a story which reaches centuries back into pre-Christian times, the story of a relationship between the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Israelite people whom he chose to be his means of access to his world as a whole. One reason why the Old Testament story has an importance for Christians which (say) Indian or Chinese or Greek history does not is that this is the story of which the Christ event is the climax. A Christian, therefore, is committed to gaining as clear as possible a grasp of the Old Testament story, because that is an indispensible key to understanding the Christ event which constitutes that climax.
In relating Jesus’ genealogy, Matthew himself gives us one instance of what is meant by understanding the coming of Christ in the light of the story of Israel. His example, however, encourages us to ask with regard to other aspects of the Christ event, what light is cast on this facet of it by the fact that it has its background in Abraham’s leaving Ur, the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, David’s capture of Jerusalem, Solomon’s building the temple, northern Israel’s fall in 722 and Judah’s exile in 587, the Persians’ allowing the exiles to return and Alexander’s unleashing of Hellenistic culture in the Middle East, the events which were all part of a story which is the background to the coming of Christ. The Old Testament is Act I to the New Testament’s Act II. And, as in any story, you understand the final scene aright only in the light of the ones that preceded it. For this reason, a Christian is interested in understanding the whole Old Testament story, in order that he can see as fully as possible its implications for understanding Christ.
The converse is also true. As well as understanding Christ in the light of the Old Testament story, Matthew understands the Old Testament story in the light of the Christ event. Matthew’s claim is that the story from Abraham to David and from the exile on into the post-exilic period comes to its climax with the coming of Christ, and needs to be understood in the light of this denouement.
Now this is not the only way to read the history of Israel. A non-Christian Jew will understand it very differently. Whether you read Israel’s story in this way will depend on what you make of Jesus. If you believe he is the Christ, then you will believe that he is the climax of Old Testament history. If you do not, you won’t. (On the other hand, whether you think Jesus is the Christ may depend on whether you think it is plausible to read Israel’s history in this way.… A subtle dialectic is involved here!)
But once you do read Israel’s history in this way, it makes a difference to the way you understand the events it relates. The significance of Abraham’s leaving Ur, the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, David’s capture of Jerusalem, and so on through the Old Testament story, emerges with fullest clarity only when you see these events in the light of each other and in the light of the Christ event which is their climax.
The interpretation of the exodus provides us with a useful example, both because of the intrinsic importance of the exodus event in the Old Testament and because of interest in this event in contemporary liberation theology. On the one hand, understanding the Christ event in the light of the Old Testament story indicates that the contemporary assertion that God is concerned for political and social liberation is quite justified. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is one who is concerned for the release of the oppressed from bondage; the nature of the Christ event does not change that. On the other hand, understanding the Old Testament story in the light of the Christ event highlights for us that concern with the spiritual liberation of the spiritually oppressed which is present in the exodus story itself and which becomes more pressing as the Old Testament story unfolds. Any concern with political and social liberation that does not recognize spiritual liberation as the more fundamental human problem has failed to take account of the development of the Old Testament story after the exodus via the exile to Christ’s coming and his work of atonement.
Matthew himself later issues his own warning about misreading Israelite history. He tells us of the warning John the Baptist gave to his hearers: ‘Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father” …’ (3:9). Merely having the right history does nothing for you. It places you in a position of potential privilege, but requires that you respond to the God who has been active in that history if you are actually to enjoy that privilege. The story is quite capable of turning into a tragedy if you allow it to do so. ‘The axe is laid to the root of the trees …’ (3:10). That God has been working out his purpose in history is of crucial significance for Christian faith. But it effects nothing until it leads me to personal trust and obedience in relation to him.
Matthew 1:18–2:23 The Old Testament declares the promise of which Christ is the fulfilment
As I have suggested above, for most readers Matthew’s Gospel really begins with the five scenes presented to us from the story of Jesus’ birth in 1:18–2:23. How do these relate to the Old Testament?
It is striking that each of these five paragraphs gives a key place to a passage of Old Testament prophecy which is said to be fulfilled in the event which is spoken of. In the first, Joseph is reassured that his fiancée’s pregnancy is the result not of her promiscuity but of the Holy Spirit’s activity which will bring about the birth of someone who will save his people. The point is clinched by a reference to the fulfilment of what the Lord had said by means of Isaiah concerning a virgin who would have a child called ‘God with us’ (1:18–25; cf. Is. 7:14). In the second, the place where ‘the king of the Jews’ is to be born is discovered to be Bethlehem, as a result of the priests and scribes referring Herod and the wise men to the prophecy in Micah concerning the birth there of a ruler over Israel (2:1–12; cf. Mi. 5:2). In the third, the account of the departure of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to Egypt is brought to a climax by describing this event as the fulfilment of what the Lord had spoken by means of Hosea about his son having been called out of Egypt (2:13–15; cf. Ho. 11:1). In the fourth, the story of Herod’s massacre of baby boys in Bethlehem is brought to a climax by being described as a fulfilment of Jeremiah’s words describing Rachel’s mourning for her children (2:16–18; cf. Je. 31:15). Then in the fifth, the account of the family’s move back from Egypt beyond Judaea to Nazareth is clinched by describing this as a fulfilment of the statement in the prophets that the Messiah was to be called a Nazarene (2:19–23).
The reference of this last passage is not clear, as there is no Old Testament prophecy which actually says ‘he shall be called a Nazarene’. Three passages have been commonly suggested as perhaps in Matthew’s mind. One is the description in Isaiah 11:1 and elsewhere of a coming ruler as a ‘branch’ growing from the ‘tree’ of Jesse, which was ‘felled’ by the exile; ‘branch’ in Hebrew is neṣer, so to describe Jesus as a Nazarene or noṣri could be taken as an unwitting description of him as the ‘Branch-man’. The second passage is the description of the servant later in Isaiah as despised and rejected by men (Is. 52:13–53:12); Nazareth was a city in the despised and alien far north, Galilee of the Gentiles, the land of darkness (Mt. 4:14–16, quoting Is. 9:1–2), and Nazareth was specifically a city that was proverbially unlikely to produce anything that was any good (Jn. 1:46). So to be a Nazarene was likely to mean being despised and rejected by men, as prophecy had described the servant of Yahweh. A third passage which might have been in Matthew’s mind is the angel’s description of what Samson was supposed to be, a Nazarite to God from birth (Jdg. 13:5); the events surrounding the birth of Jesus’ forerunner also reflect the angelic visitation to Samson’s mother (see Lk. 1:15; also 1:31 itself).
In each of these vignettes from the opening years of Jesus’ life, then, a key place is taken by a reference to Old Testament prophecy, as if to say, ‘You will understand Jesus aright only if you see him as the fulfilment of a gracious purpose of God contemplated and announced by him centuries before.’ In particular, if you find it surprising that he should be conceived out of wedlock, born in a little town like Bethlehem rather than in Jerusalem, hurried off to Egypt at an early age, indirectly the cause of the death of scores of baby boys, and eventually brought up in unfashionable Nazareth, then consider the fact that all these features of his early years are spoken of by the prophets.
Now the utilization of Old Testament prophecy by Matthew and other New Testament writers in this way has been severely criticized. Is it not mere ‘proof from prophecy’, designed to remove the scandal from the story of Jesus and to win cheap debating points over against non-Christian Jews?
In actual fact, Matthew’s use of Old Testament prophecy in this way is of a piece with his interest in other aspects of the Old Testament in Matthew 1–5 and elsewhere. He is concerned with understanding Jesus and understanding the Old Testament; as far as one can see he is not merely out to prove something to some unwilling hearer or to explain away something to some disciple of shallow faith. He simply believes that Jesus is to be understood in the light of the Old Testament promise of which he is the fulfilment, and he therefore seeks to interpret his significance in that light. Perhaps this understanding of Matthew’s attitude is supported by a consideration of the next episode he relates, the ministry of John the Baptist (3:1–12). Here the thesis that Matthew is utilizing apologetic ‘proofs from prophecy’ is even less plausible than it might be earlier; but in this story, too, a passage from Old Testament prophecy has a key place: John is the voice preaching in the wilderness which is spoken of in Isaiah 40:3.
This last passage, however, as much as the earlier ones, raises a problem about the way that Matthew interprets Old Testament prophecy, which contrasts with the approach to interpretation which characterizes modern scholarship. The modern instinct is to interpret prophecy, like other biblical material, by concentrating on the meaning that the original had for its author and his readers. Now a passage such as Micah 5 is future-orientated in its original context, and it is possible to argue that Matthew’s use of it is quite in accord with its original meaning. One cannot prove exegetically that Jesus is the coming ruler over Israel spoken of there; Matthew’s use of his text goes beyond its statements, in the light of his faith in Jesus. Nevertheless, his use of his text is not alien to its statements. At another extreme, however, Matthew’s appeal to Hosea 11 takes the text in a totally different way from the meaning it would have had for Hosea and his readers. Hosea 11 is a record of God’s inner wrestling over whether he is to act in relation to Israel with love or with judgment. It opens by recalling the blessings God had given to his people—beginning with his calling them out of Egypt at the time of the exodus. Thus Hosea 11:1 is not prophecy (in the sense of a statement about the future, which could thus be capable of being ‘fulfilled’) at all. It is history.
In between these two extreme examples there are several passages among the ones Matthew appeals to which are future-orientated, but which relate to the fairly immediate future of the prophet’s day. Perhaps Micah 5, too, had such a shorter-term future reference to an imminent King. Certainly Rachel’s weeping (Je. 31:15) is the lament she will utter as the people of Judah trudge past her tomb on their way to exile. The voice in the wilderness (Is. 40:3) is one at the end of the exile commissioning Yahweh’s servants to prepare the road for his return to Jerusalem (and for theirs with him). The child to be born of a virgin (Is. 7:14) is a more controversial figure. I take it that ‘virgin’ is the right translation of the Hebrew word ‘almah’ but this does not necessarily mean that the girl in question will be a virgin when she conceives and gives birth. The Prince of Wales will one day rule Great Britain; this does not mean he will rule as a prince, rather that he will become king and will then rule. So in Isaiah 7 the prophet is promising that by the time a girl yet unmarried has had her first child, the crisis Ahaz so fears will be over; she will be able to call her child Immanuel, God is with us, in her rejoicing at what God has done for his people. Finally, if ‘he will be called a Nazarene’ refers to Judges 13, this reference, too, takes up a statement about a specific imminent event; if it is an allusion to Isaiah 11 or Isaiah 52:13–53:12, it more resembles the appeal to Micah 5.
In most if not all of these cases, then, Matthew attributes to these prophecies meanings that they would not have had for their authors. How can that be justified?
An interesting passage in John’s Gospel suggests the principle which lies behind what Matthew is doing. At a meeting of the Sanhedrin called to discuss what is to be done about Jesus, the high priest Caiaphas declares that ‘it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish’ (Jn. 11:50). Caiaphas means that Jesus must be killed lest he continue to arouse messianic expectations and ultimately cause a revolt which the Romans would have to crush violently. But John can see a hidden meaning in his words: ‘He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation’ (11:51). At one level, of course, Caiaphas did speak of his own accord, and he knew what he meant. But John intuits that he spoke the way he did by a divine prompting, and that his words had a second meaning that arose out of this. Jesus will die to avert from his people not merely the wrath of the Romans but the wrath of God.
John’s conviction about the Israelite high priest suggests to us what was Matthew’s similar assumption about Old Testament prophets. Whatever meaning prophecy may have had historically, he finds within it particular sentences which were (in a special sense) not spoken by the prophet ‘of his own accord’ but by a divine prompting which gave them a meaning that their original hearers could not have perceived but which is apparent in the light of the event they refer to. John can see a hidden providence of God in a high priest speaking in a certain way; Matthew can see into the back of God’s mind in his giving words to a prophet which had a God-given historical meaning but also a God-given messianic meaning. It is this latter meaning to which 2 Peter 1:21 refers.
If Matthew ignores the Old Testament’s historical meaning, however, does this not undermine our conventional emphasis on texts’ historical meaning? A further consideration of John’s approach to Caiaphas’ ‘prophecy’ may be helpful. John does not suggest that every human statement, or even every statement by a high priest, or even every statement about the future by a high priest, or even every statement about the future by this particular high priest in this particular year, is to be assumed to have a double meaning. He rather indicates that occasionally the form of words that a particular person uses may be so striking in some other connection that the question of a second meaning in them arises. The way he is able to identify this second meaning is his own faith in Jesus as the Christ.
Matthew’s interpretation of these passages from Old Testament prophecy, then, implies that when he looked back to the work of the prophets in the light of Christ, sometimes he found statements so appropriate to the circumstances of the Christ event that this reference must have been present in them from the beginning by God’s will, if not in the awareness of their human authors. But, like John, he moved at least as often from some aspect of the Christ event back to a passage which turned out to illumine it, as vice versa. (This, incidentally, reduces the plausibility of the theory that stories in the gospels were developed to provide fulfilments of Old Testament prophecies. The hermeneutical movement is from the puzzle of Jesus’ flight to Egypt to a re-interpretation of Hosea 11, not from the natural meaning of Hosea 11 to a story which assures us that it has been fulfilled.)
So can we continue to interpret Old Testament prophecy in Matthew’s way? A possible instance is Psalm 22:16. Psalm 22 is a lament of a man abandoned by God and attacked by his enemies; it is several times quoted in the New Testament as fulfilled in Christ. In verse 16 he says, ‘they have pierced my hands and feet’ (so rsv; the text and translation are problematic, but for the sake of argument we will assume a version that is most open to a prophetic interpretation). This verse is not quoted in the New Testament, but many Christians have found a prophecy of the crucifixion here.
Now there is no hint that the author of the psalm saw his lament as a messianic prophecy, nor that other Israelites of Old Testament times would have understood it so. The suggestion that it refers to Christ works back from the Christ event to the text and intuits that God must have had the facts of the crucifixion in the back of his mind when by his providence an afflicted Israelite expressed himself in these terms. It is, however, difficult to see how one can establish whether or not this was the case. Inspired interpretation of scripture of this kind is similar to other forms of inspired utterance; it is difficult to test, possible sometimes to disprove, but very hard to prove. I accept Matthew’s intuitions about the Old Testament because I believe he was inspired; I could not ask you to accept mine on the same basis!
Herein lies the difficulty in the suggestion that we should follow Matthew’s expository method. The advantage of a historical approach to interpretation is that it is generally much easier to argue for or against such a historical understanding of what a text will have meant for a human author in his particular context. Theologically, the basis for an emphasis on understanding Scripture in this way is the conviction that God himself spoke and acted in history. Some passages of Scripture may have an inspired second meaning, an extra level of significance in the back of God’s mind which (as such) is difficult for us to identify. All Scripture has an inspired first meaning, its meaning as a communication between God and his people in some particular historical context, to which we can have access by the usual methods for interpreting written texts.
Similar considerations apply to the study of the precise form of the biblical text. In Psalm 22:16, the Masoretic Text actually reads not ‘they have pierced my hands and feet’ but ‘like a lion [at] my hands and feet’. The former translation follows the Greek, Syriac, and Latin versions of the psalm. It may be that the difference between these two is no coincidence. Christian textual tradition preserves a reading which is amenable to a Christian interpretation, Jewish textual tradition one that is not. It is difficult to say which is right, because either could be arguing back from what they believe. (Jesus is the crucified Messiah, and the Old Testament text will be expected to hint at that; or he is not, and the text will not be expected to hint at it.) The preservation of the text can be influenced by the same factors as the interpretation of the text; the movement is fromcontemporary beliefs to the text itself, as well as vice versa.
This post-New Testament phenomenon is paralleled within the passages from Matthew which appeal to Old Testament prophecy. The quotation from Micah (Mt. 2:6) instances this most clearly, since Micah’s ‘insignificant Bethlehem’ has become Matthew’s ‘by no means insignificant …’—which was indeed the result of Micah’s prophecy being fulfilled. The way the Old Testament text is read is allowed to be influenced by the way it has now been fulfilled.
It is characteristic of textual work in New Testament times (within the New Testament itself and, for instance, at Qumran) to pay close attention to the text itself in the conviction that one is handling the very Word of God; and the conviction that one now sees him acting in fulfilment of his Word enables one to specify in the Word itself the nature of the fulfilment.
Now as with his way of interpreting prophecy, Matthew’s way of handling the text of prophecy is probably not one we shall feel free to follow. But we will follow his concern for the details of the text as the inspired Word of God, even if we express that concern in a different way in making it our aim to establish a text of the Old Testament which is as near as we can to the one that issued, by God’s providence and inspiration, from its human authors.
If our study of Old Testament prophecy is to concentrate initially on its meaning for its authors and their hearers, then our interpretation of passages such as the ones Matthew quotes will not be limited to noting the meaning he finds in them when he interprets them in the light of particular circumstances of Christ’s coming. Isaiah 7, for instance, belongs in a context of dire peril for pre-exilic Judah, and relates how Judah’s king was challenged to a radical trust in God despite the reality of this threat. Such a trust would issue in doing the right thing before God and before man, despite the temptation either to yield to Syria and northern Israel’s attempts to lean on him to join their rebellion against Assyria, or alternatively to react by seeking help against Syria and Israel from Assyria herself. The power of Syria and Israel threatens to destroy Judah; but within a year (says Isaiah) it will all be over, and you will know it is true, ‘God-is-with-us’. That promise is reserved in Scripture for the impossible situations that most need it (see e.g. Gn. 28:15; Ex. 3:12; Je. 1:8; Ps. 46:7, 11; Mt. 28:20). In those contexts it lifts people back on their feet again, promising them that they do not face the future alone and that God will deal with whatever crisis threatens. So it does in Isaiah 7:14 (see also 8:8, 10), and so it does in that other situation of crisis in Matthew 1:18–25.
Isaiah 9, too, needs understanding in its own right. Its context speaks of the darkness, anguish, gloom and distress of war (Is. 8:21–22); but of more than that, for these are the darkness, anguish, gloom and distress of the Day of Yahweh’s judgment (cf. Am. 5:18–20), embodied in historical events for northern Israel, now the despised ‘Gentile Galilee’. But then it portrays darkness dispelled, anguish and distress comforted, the grief of a funeral replaced by the joy of a wedding (Is. 9:1–2). It goes on to speak of a son of David ruling the world in justice and righteousness (9:3–7): not a vision we yet see fulfilled, but one that must be fulfilled.
What of the branch, the neṣer (Is. 11:1)? If a branch can grow from the trunk of a tree that has been felled, then no-one or nothing is ever finished. If God says there will be new growth, there will be. For five centuries it must have seemed as if that promise was as dead as the trunk it referred to. But then there was new growth, in the person of the Nazarene.
To gain the full implications of prophecies such as these for the significance of the Christ event, we need to go back to those prophecies themselves. We also need to take Matthew’s appeal to particular aspects of particular Old Testament prophecies as an encouragement to us to undertake a broader study of the over-all pattern of God’s promises in the Old Testament so that we can learn more about Christ from them. Matthew’s utilization of a number of specific passages (and the references elsewhere in the New Testament to other passages) hardly indicate the total range of Old Testament prophecies which are to illumine the Christ event for us. They only model the process of understanding Christ in the light of Old Testament prophecy, and they invite us to look at the total range of these prophecies in order more fully to understand the One in whom all God’s promises find their ‘Yes’ (2 Cor. 1:20). These extend right back even beyond God’s promise to Abraham, of the blessing of family, land, and a secure relationship with him, to the words of God about blessing and removal of the curse in the opening chapters of Genesis.
In the story from Genesis to Kings these promises keep receiving fulfilments of a kind, yet no fulfilment is complete or final, and each experience of fulfilment or of loss stimulates renewed hope in God’s over-all promise. This hope becomes more overt in the prophetic books themselves. What they offer is an updated version of the ancient promises of God to his people. Then it is this over-arching and ever reformulated promise which is fulfilled in Christ. So he is to be understood in the light of this ongoing Old Testament promise, and we are encouraged to look at those promises in order to understand what he came to achieve. At this point, as much interest attaches to aspects of those promises which did not obviously find their fulfilment in the Christ event as to aspects which did. For in so far as all the promises of God are reaffirmed in him, all of them reveal to us aspects of his significance and calling. So if, for instance, the hopes of a new world of justice and righteousness have not been fulfilled through Christ’s first coming, they will be through his second coming. They must be, because (if one may put it this way) if Jesus is truly God’s Messiah, he has no choice but to be the means of fulfilling all God’s promises.
Matthew’s example, however, also suggests a converse of this point. As well as understanding Christ in the light of Old Testament prophecy, we are invited to understand Old Testament prophecy in the light of Christ, if he is its fulfilment. The notion of ‘God-with-us’ points to a presence of a much fuller kind than one would have guessed from the words in their Old Testament context. The darkness into which God brings his light is not merely the darkness of this-worldly suffering but that of the absence of God. The growth from the felled tree is, in the person of the Branch-man, more extraordinary even than Isaiah pictured it.
The considerations we have been outlining above put question-marks alongside the approach to Old Testament prophecy taken by books such as Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. In seeing prophecies in books such as Ezekiel or Daniel as referring to events of his own day, Lindsey ignores the meaning that his texts will have had for the prophet whom God inspired and for the readers to whom God spoke through them. We have acknowledged, however, that Matthew does that too. The question then is, can Lindsey’s interpretation be acknowledged as inspired as Matthew’s was? That it cannot is suggested by the fact that it fails one obvious test: Matthew begins from the Christ event and interprets the Old Testament in the light of it; his interpretation has part of its justification in its faithfulness to God’s revelation in Christ. Lindsey interprets the Old Testament in the light of the newspaper, and it is doubtful whether this is as good a starting-point.
1 K. R. R. Gros Louis (ed.), Nashville/London: Abingdon/SPCK, 1974.
2 Sheffield/Winona Lake, IL: JSOT/Eisenbrauns, 1978.
Fuller Theological Seminary