Fulfillments and Fulfillment
MATTHEW 1 :18—2:23
IN 1893 CHICAGO HOSTED the World’s Columbian Exposition, also called the Chicago World’s Fair. Daniel Burnham, later responsible for The Plan of Chicago, was one of the distinguished architects called upon to design this event. At that time Burnham lived in Evanston. The Fair was to be in Jackson Park on the south lakefront, about twenty miles away. In those days, with poorly paved roads and inefficient means of transportation, for Burnham to commute daily from Sheridan Road down to S. Stony Island Avenue was unfeasible. So as he planned for the Fair, he actually worked and lived on the South Side. This time away from family in Evanston was very difficult for him, as attested by the many letters he wrote to his wife, speaking of how he missed her and longed to be home.
Now think of this. If it took Burnham in the late nineteenth century about half a day to travel from Evanston to Jackson Park, imagine how long it would have taken “the wise men” and their entourage in the first century to travel “from the east”—which could have been what is today Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, or even as far east as Afghanistan. From Baghdad to Bethlehem is 547 miles of extremely inhospitable terrain. But even if it wasn’t that far—if it was only 200 miles or twenty miles—why would anyone desire to do this? Why leave friends and family (maybe wife and children) for likely a year or two? What’s at stake? What’s the need? What's the driving impulse?
Our discovery begins with our grasping what Matthew is doing here in the first part of his Gospel. Like a good architect, he has structured his narrative of the life of Jesus in a certain way. He begins with Jesus’ genealogy in 1:1-17 in order to show that Jesus comes from the right line at the right time and how it is just the right design. That’s the groundwork he puts in place. From there he erects five pillars. Starting in 1:18 and ending in 2:23, Matthew gives us five (and many more) fulfillments of what has been said through the prophets—1:22, 23; 2:6, 15, 17, 18, and 23. The first two are what I'll call precise fulfillments; the latter three are patterned fulfillments.
By precise I mean: This is that. I borrow this phrase from Acts 2:16 in the King James Version or Young’s Literal Translation, where Peter uses it in his first speach. This (what is happening now) is that (what was said would happen). Thus, in Acts 2 the coming of the Holy Spirit is this, and the prophecy of Joel is that. Patterned fulfillments (i.e., typology) work differently. Here is my description of them: this is THIS. Something that happened in the past is a pattern for something that happens in the life and ministry of Jesus. I’ll explain this is THIS when we get to it. For now we’ll look at the precise fulfillments, at this is that.
We start with Isaiah. In Isaiah 7—11 we read that there will be a king from the line of David who will be called such titles as “Mighty God” and “Prince of Peace” and that this king will be born in a most unusual way—of a virgin. In Matthew 1:18-25 the Evangelist is saying: Listen, this is that. This Mary is that virgin, and this Jesus is that Son of God, that prince upon whose shoulders the whole world’s governance will rest.
The second involves the place of this child’s birth. The wise men know enough about Israel’s prophets to know the Messiah will be born. They believe this star testifies to his birth. But they don’t know the Bible well enough to know where the Messiah will be born. So they travel to Jerusalem perhaps thinking, “If the king of the Jews is to be born, he will be born in the capital city.” However, when they arrive and start asking around—“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?”—the current jealous and malicious king, Herod, naturally wants to help. Herod’s wise men—the scribes—inform Herod, who in turn informs the magi, about the prophet Micah’s prophecy, which said in essence: “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” (Micah 5:2, 4). When the Messiah comes, he’ll be from Bethlehem, a small town about five miles south of Jerusalem, the same place where King David was born. So again this is that. Jesus was born in this particular town. Micah predicted that the Messiah would be born in that same town.
Those are the two precise fulfillments. And when I think about the precise fulfillments, not just the ones about Jesus but the ones by Jesus—i.e., that the gospel would spread to all the nations of the world, that his words as well as his Ecclesia would last the test of time (see 28:16-20; Luke 21:33; Matthew 16:17, 18)—they are for me the closest thing to touching the wounds of Christ. When Thomas felt the hands and side and feet of Jesus, he believed. As I touch, so to speak, these fulfillments, they are almost tangible reminders that God’s Word and Son can be trusted.
If the precise fulfillments are like touching the hands of Christ, the patterned fulfillments here (and ironically for typology) are even more tangible. They are like holding the hand of Christ. They are not only like a momentary touching of the hand, but holding it and feeling your hand fit in his because his hand fits these Old Testament patterns so perfectly. Let me show you what I mean as we look now at 2:13-23.
A few months ago a young man from my congregation asked me when I was going to start preaching on Matthew. I replied, “Very soon.” He said, with a sigh of relief, "Good, because I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about chapter 2. I don’t know what Matthew is doing with Scripture.”
Yeah, what is Matthew doing here? At first glance it seems like he is randomly taking Old Testament verses and trying to squeeze them into the life of Jesus, much like the husband whose waistline has grown two inches since Thanksgiving trying on the new jeans his wife bought him for Christmas, sucking in his stomach, and saying, “Look, honey, they fit great!”
At a first reading I can see how you might think that’s the case. You might think like William Barclay did when he wrote, “Matthew is doing what he so often did. In his eagerness he is finding a prophecy where no prophecy is.” Or with equal skepticism you might think as Ulrich Luz does. The distinguished Swiss scholar wrote:
Thus at our text one can speak no longer of a fulfillment of Old Testament predictions by God but only of the early Christian belief in this fulfillment. Instead of God's activity in history leading to Jesus, there is—to overstate the case—the belief in that activity.
The problem with this kind of reading is that it views these Old Testament texts (back to my analogy) as a pair of jeans that must fit a certain size body perfectly, rather than a puzzle that has seemingly random pieces that, when pieced together, fit just as they are supposed to. In fact, what we have here is a double-sided puzzle with the pieces fitted together and lying on a glass table. When you look at it faceup, sitting on top of the table, the pattern is of two key Old Testament events and what l think is the combination of two key Old Testament ideas. But when you look underneath, beneath the glass, facedown, you’ll see the face of Jesus Christ, or as Paul put it, “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’’ (2 Corinthians 4:6).
If it helps, think of what Matthew is doing here as being similar to what the author of Hebrews does. In Hebrews we have laid on the glass table the pieces that comprise the temple, the priesthood, and the sacrifice. Once those are nicely fitted together, we look under the table and see Jesus. Jesus is the fulfillment of the whole sacrificial system. In a similar manner (although we’ll deal more with history than typology), Matthew is not thumbing through his Bible looking for random proof texts that Jesus might somehow fulfill. Rather, he is reading through the whole story of Israel and noticing, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, how this story is like THIS one.
Out of Egypt
Here is the first similarity Matthew sees:
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod.
This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (vv. 13-15)
“The prophet” referred to here is Hosea. This is a quote from Hosea 11:1. In the original context Hosea is recalling how God through Moses called Israel out of Egypt. So as Matthew looks through Hosea 11:1 back to the exodus (and the beginning of Israel as a nation) he sees a similar pattern in Jesus’ early years. As Rudolf Schnackenburg said, Matthew sees that “The old Mosaic exodus is repeated and fulfilled in a new way.” But it’s not just that Jesus is like Moses, a new and better deliverer (see Hebrews 3:3; cp. Matthew 1:21). Rather, Jesus is the embodiment of Israel itself, a new and better “son.” As we move on to the next five chapters, this will become especially clear. John Stott summarizes:
As Israel was oppressed in Egypt under the despotic rule of Pharaoh, so the infant Jesus became a refugee in Egypt under the despotic rule of Herod.
As Israel passed through the waters of the Red Sea, so Jesus passed through the waters of John's baptism in the River Jordan. As Israel was tested in the wilderness of Zin for forty years, so Jesus was tested in the wilderness of Judea for forty days. And as Moses from Mount Sinai gave Israel the law, so Jesus from the Mount of Beatitudes gave his disciples the true interpretation and amplification of the law.
So here, at the start of this providential pattern, Matthew is saying: picture the exodus; picture Jesus. Picture Israel whom God calls in Hosea at the start of this plan of salvation “my son,” and picture Jesus, whom God calls in Matthew “my beloved Son” (3:17; 17:5). And just as Israel went down to Egypt and then came out of Egypt into the promised land, so God’s Son will make that same journey. This story is THIS story.
Return from the Exile
So that’s the first patterned fulfillment: the exodus and Jesus. The second is the exile and Jesus, or more specifically the return from the Babylonian exile and the restoration that Jesus brings to the world.
Let’s say you ran into me at the grocery store and you pulled me aside and said, “I have a very important question for you. Can you quickly name the seven most important events in Israel’s history?” I would reply, “Of course I can. That’s what I’m here for.” I would stop squeezing the lettuce and begin without further adieu: “(1) The call and covenant of Abraham, (2) the conquest of Canaan, (3) the exodus, (4) David and the Davidic covenant, (5) Israel’s exile to Assyria, (6) Judah’s exile to Babylon, and (7) the return and restoration from exile.”
Now if you followed that up by saying, “Nice job. How about your top two? What would those be?” I would scratch my head (only momentarily) and say, “(1) The exodus and (2) the return from the exile.” I honestly would have said this before reading Matthew 2. But now having studied Matthew 2, I’m really proud of myself that I landed exactly where he did. For Matthew says, “Look at the exodus; look at Jesus.” Then he says next, in verses 16-18, “Look at the exile and the return from it, and look again at Jesus. You’ll find another similarity of sorts.”
Listen again to this tragic text (and I’ll explain soon what I'm specifically getting at):
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “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.”
What Herod does here (usually called the slaughter of the innocents) is horrific. I don’t want to downplay the evil of that event, but having said that, our focus in this lesson is more on verses 17,18 (the prophecy) than on verse 16 (the tragedy). In the next chapter we will return to this text and will look at this event from a slightly different angle. Then we will focus more on Herod and on this atrocity. But for now we’re focusing on how this tragedy fits with this prophecy and how both of them fit with Jesus.
This prophecy comes from Jeremiah 31:15. When Jeremiah speaks of Rachel he is referring to the matriarch, the wife of Jacob, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. Rachel died, if you’ll recall, giving birth to Benjamin. Because of this she took on a symbolic role for God’s people. She was known as the water dolorosa (sorrowful mother) of the Old Testament as well as “the mother of Israel for all time,” as the rabbis called her.
At one point the prophet Jeremiah, like many Judean prisoners, was held prisoner in Ramah (Jeremiah 40:1), a town about five miles north of Jerusalem. This was the town where Rachel was likely buried (Genesis 35:16-19). It was also a town through which God’s people were marched, having been captured by the Babylonian army in the early sixth century BC as they traveled north from Jerusalem. Concerning this event, Jeremiah envisioned in chapter 31 the mother of Israel, as if alive in her tomb, weeping for her children as they walked to captivity right before her eyes.
You say, “Okay, but what does Jeremiah 31 have to do with Jesus? Why quote from that chapter and relate it to the slaughter of these children?” Here is the relationship between the two. In Jeremiah 31 Rachel’s tears—the tears of the exile—have reached their climax in the tears of the mothers of Bethlehem. In other words, with Jesus the trail of tears is finally coming to an end. That is the message of the whole chapter of Jeremiah 31. Unlike most of the book of Jeremiah, this chapter is not one of sorrow but hope. The verse right after what Matthew quotes starts, “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears” (Jeremiah 31:16). Now, why should God's people refrain from crying? Because God’s people finally “shall come back from the land of the enemy” (Jeremiah 31:16), and they shall “serve the Lord their God and [the ultimate] David their king” (30:9). The exile is over. The reign of a new king under a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:33, 34) is at hand.
Matthew is saying that with the coming of Jesus, the time of the exile is coming to a close! He hinted at it in the last verse of the genealogy (1:17). Now he alludes to it through the prophets. The tears shed by the mothers in Bethlehem inaugurate the reign of the one who will shed tears of blood for the forgiveness of sin and who will eventually, in the restoration of all things, wipe every tear away (Revelation 21:4).
So, can you feel your hand fitting nicely into Christ’s, saying to yourself, “Yes, these patterned prophecies have helped me to grasp Jesus and to hold on to him even more tightly”?
The Branch for the Nations
Jesus and the exodus, that’s the first pattern; Jesus and the return from exile, that’s the second. Finally we come to the third patterned prophecy, which is the hardest puzzle of all. Take a look again at verses 19-23:
But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appealed in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead." And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.
What makes verse 23 (italicized above) difficult is that there is not a prophecy like this anywhere in the Bible. In fact, Nazareth is not even mentioned in the Old Testament or any ancient Jewish writing. So, what is Matthew up to? Is he using his apostolic authority to pull a white bunny out of a trick hat?
The key to beginning to understand this complex allusion is Matthew’s use of the plural word “prophets.” Instead of saying, as he has done thus far, “this was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet,” here he writes “prophets,” using the word in the same way Peter does in his discourse at Solomon’s Portico (see Acts 3:18,24; cp. 10:43). What specifically does Matthew have in mind? “The prophets” is a big category. I think he has in mind an amalgamation or a blending together of two messianic ideas. From the time of David onward, the prophets talk a lot about the ultimate Davidic king, often called “the Son of David.” They also talk about a seemingly contrary idea—at least unfathomable to the Pharisees of Jesus’ day—of the Gentiles becoming part of God’s people under the rule of God’s king.
When Matthew says of Jesus in verse 23, “he would be called a Nazarene,” he is bringing these two ideas together. Here is why I say that. In Hebrew the word for “branch” is neser. Isaiah 11:1, an important messianic text, uses this word. Isaiah writes, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch [neser] from his roots shall bear fruit.” From David’s royal line shall come a branch (i.e., the Messiah).
Lo, how a rose e'er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse's lineage coming
As seers of old have sung.
The town of Nazareth was likely named after Isaiah 11:1. It was originally settled by a remnant of Israel who returned from the exile, were from David's line, and who thus consciously gave their new settlement a messianic name." They called the town neser/eth. I imagine under the town name something like, “Welcome to the City of the Branch.” So, Matthew is saying that Jesus came from the city of David (Bethlehem) as well as from the people of David (Nazareth). Jesus is “the branch.” Jesus is “the Son of David.” The fact that he grew up in Nazareth as a Nazarene puts an exclamation point on this!
The other interesting fact about Nazareth is its location in the region called Galilee, a region that had a mix of Jews and Gentiles. This is why Isaiah called it (and Matthew will quote this in 4:15) “Galilee of the nations [footnote: Gentiles]” (Isaiah 9:1). Due to this ethnic diversity, Galilee (and Nazareth in particular) was looked down upon. What Nathaniel says when he first learned Jesus was from that town was the sentiment of many—“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Nathaniel was looking for the Jewish Messiah, who he assumed wouldn’t come from that region of the world. “Ah,” Matthew says here in verse 23. “think again.” Think about the prophets! Think about this vision they had of the Davidic King who would rule all the nations. Think of Isaiah 11:1—“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,” and think of Isaiah 11:10—“of him shall the nations inquire.” Think of wise men from the east traveling perhaps farther than the queen of Sheba to see a King greater than Solomon.
Here we have two precise and three patterned prophecies that find their fulfillment in Jesus. But that’s only part of what’s going on here. It is one thing to see what is being taught—“Oh, I see,” But it’s quite another thing to see it— “Oh ... I see!” That is, to find intellectual, emotional, spiritual fulfillment in what is seen here, in Jesus who fulfills these five prophecies.
There are the fulfillments, and then there is our fulfillment in the one who fulfills. I’m not just doing a cute play on words here. I actually believe part of Matthew’s intention here, with the wise men in verses 1-12, is to show us that the long journey from Baghdad to Bethlehem was worth it, that Jesus filled the hollow of their hearts. Look at the second half of verse 2. The wise men say, “We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” And then the first half of verse 11, “going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.”
What is Matthew saying with this? He is not giving us the life story of the wise men. We don’t know what happened to them. We don’t know if this first act of worship was their only act or if they continued on with lives of love and service to Jesus. But he is telling us what wise men (then and now) do. Wise men and women and children—from the south and north, west and east—come to Jesus, and wise men find fulfillment through worshipping the newborn and forever born King of kings.