In the first two chapters (the introduction of the book), five times Matthew refers to events as fulfillments of prophecy. But when viewing these events in Christ’s life as the realizations of prophetic predictions, we may think Matthew reaches a bit far to conclude as he does. In fact, liberal interpreters roundly criticize Matthew (or, rather, as most insist, the author of Matthew) for his pointing out Scriptures that have no Messianic prophetic intent. Some accuse Matthew of employing pesher or midrash in his interpretations. Those terms refer to Hebrew interpretive styles that tend to find meaning seemingly in almost every stroke of every letter of every word of Scripture.
But Matthew’s prophecy fulfillment pronouncements may not be as far-fetched as only a cursory review would indicate. Gather together Matthew’s Scripture quotes and review them with one eye on his storyline and the other on the overall purpose of this Gospel, and a pattern emerges. Matthew does not merely mention events in Christ’s life and attempt to match them with some obscure OT reference so that he can squeal “Prediction fulfilled!”
Part of Matthew’s purpose in writing is to demonstrate that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. Another part is to show that the Messiah is not just some civil ruler/king that would lead Israel back to its Solomon days of glory. Matthew wants to show that the Messiah is called by, is protected by, and in fact is himself their very God. Matthew uses his Scripture references to tie these thoughts together. To understand this well, we need to examine each reference and how Matthew is using it.
In chapter 1 verse 23, Matthew provides a quote from Isaiah 7:14. We discussed this passage in Part 2. In Isaiah, the sign is that a virgin (Hebrew almah – young girl of marriageable age [implied virgin]) would conceive and that before that child is old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, Judah’s two enemies would have been brought to nothing. This sign would indicate that God was with Judah. That’s why the child in Isaiah 7 is called Immanuel, meaning “God with us.” The emphasis on this sign was not the virgin, but the child as a sign from God, showing God’s interest and activity among them. Matthew takes this passage and provides us with a deeper meaning that pertains to God’s overall covenant plan. Matthew declares that Mary was, in fact, an actual virgin, and the conception of Jesus in her was a miraculous sign showing that God himself was involved in this act. Through the genealogy and to this very point Matthew is showing that the concept of “God with us” takes on a deeper and fuller expression as God himself comes into the world as Messiah Savior. Although Matthew does point out that Mary is a virgin when Jesus is conceived, he is not trying to tie her virginity to the Isaiah passage. He is emphasizing the Immanuel significance of Jesus’ birth.
The next reference Matthew uses is in his discussion of the birthplace of Jesus. The Magi are looking for the recently born (within the last year) king of the Jews. Herod gathers his scholars, and they tell him that it is in Bethlehem because Micah so indicates. As we read Micah 5, we find that Matthew does not quote him exactly. Micah 5:2 says this:
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”
But Matthew 2:6 says:
“And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”
Why does Matthew say “by no means least…” when Micah clearly implies littleness? Why does Matthew say the Messiah will shepherd when Micah leaves it as a ruler? A little more reading in Micah 5 gives us the answers to both. Matthew is not quoting Micah 5:2, but rather summarizing Micah 5:2-5. Those two thoughts that Matthew indicates are exactly what he wants to convey from the Micah 5 passage. Bethlehem is little. But even though it is of small size, it would produce the great ruler king who is more than a mere civil leader (Hebrew – melek). He will be a shepherd ruler (Hebrew – mashal, broader concept of control).
From the two passages quoted so far, Matthew is drawing the minds of his readers to the fact that God is here among us, and it is he who will rule as a shepherd over his people. The prophecies are not meant to show some specific prediction of an act to be performed that finds its realization when Christ performs it. This is not predictive prophecy. This is prophecy in a deeper sense that has fulfillment in the same sense that we see Christ coming to fulfill the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17).
Next, Matthew chooses a text that, were we to assume that his purpose is merely to show fulfillment of only predictive prophecy, we would surely cry foul. An angel warns Joseph to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt. Matthew tells us that this is to fulfill the word of Hosea prophesying that “out of Egypt I called my son.” If we concentrate only on the prediction, it seems that the angel tells Joseph to get Jesus into Egypt just so this one prophecy could be fulfilled. But without Matthew’s indication here, we would never have looked at Hosea 11:1 as a Messianic prophecy. In Hosea, God is merely recounting the care he gave to Jacob (Israel) in bringing them out of Egypt. Not even a hint of a future Messiah is found. But Matthew’s point is not the realization of predictive prophecy. Matthew is paralleling the protection and care of God for Israel to the protection and care of God to Jesus—the covenant-keeping, fulfillment of Israel. This is Matthew’s purpose, and it fits in well with the whole of his context so far.
A few verses later in Matthew 2 we find Herod on a rampage, slaying all the infants in the region of Bethlehem. At this time, Matthew says, was fulfilled what Jeremiah had spoken: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” Rachel’s literal, immediate children, Joseph and Benjamin, had a part in both the northern tribes (Israel) and the southern tribes (Judah). The weeping in Ramah—the gathering spot for Judah’s deportation by Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon—was because all seemed lost for the covenant people of God. Israel had already been carried off into captivity and dispersed. Now Judah was being carried off into slavery. God’s people seemed to be at an end. Only despair prevailed. This is the tie that Matthew hopes to bring to mind. Christ, the supposed King, Messiah, and God of his covenant people, is fleeing to Egypt. Herod, a pretender to the throne, wields his violent power, and it appears that there is only despair—that God’s covenant people will be lost. But that very passage in Jeremiah immediately turns around. In the next verse God says to keep your voice from weeping. Jeremiah 31 goes on to give us the prophetic promise of the New Covenant to be written on the hearts of God’s people. Matthew’s point is that although despair seemed to prevail here with the infant Jesus, he would return and he would fulfill that New Covenant promise for his covenant people.
Joseph is warned in a dream not to go back into Judea, so he heads north to Galilee and Mary’s hometown of Nazareth. Matthew tells us that this was to fulfill the prophets’ word that Jesus would be called a Nazarene. Again, a cursory look may make us think that Matthew erred. No OT prophet ever said that the Messiah would be called a Nazarene. Some have concluded that Matthew is giving a play on words. Isaiah 11:1 is a messianic prophecy saying, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” The Hebrew for “branch” is netzer, written in Hebrew (which did not have vowels) as NZR. Those are the main letters of Nazarene (Greek – Nazoraios). I think that kind of play on words is a little bit too cryptic for Matthew to expect his readers immediately to remember Isaiah 11:1 and connect the implication.
Other scholars insist that OT prophets did foretell that Christ would be despised. Those from Nazareth were thought of as less by the Judeans. Remember Nathaniel’s comment in John 1:46? He said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But again, if it is that Matthew wants us to get this connection, the despising of the Messiah that Isaiah prophesies hardly seems to fit the less intense disparagement of the Judeans to one from Nazareth.
I think that Matthew’s statement relates to the same theme that he has shown from the OT all through this passage. Jesus is Messiah God who is cared for by God and would be guided and watched over all the way to the fulfillment of his mission as Messiah. The words Nazarene and Nazareth have at their root the meaning “the guarded one.” This then is a fitting conclusion to this introductory portion of Matthew to show Jesus as Messiah, as God himself, and as the one whom God would guide and guard as he fulfilled his work in establishing the New Covenant.