Fulfilment in Matthew 1-4

Fulfilment of Old Testament Scripture is a key theme throughout Matthew’s Gospel.  Prophecies are quoted and old testament images alluded to. It is not just that some prophecies specifically predict things that will happen, rather, Jesus takes on the history of the Old Testament, the identity of the people of Israel and makes complete in his life the things that they foreshadow.

The book of Genesis is punctuated by genealogies. Each new storyline starts with the words “These are the generations of …” and is followed by a family tree. Matthew’s Gospel represents a new beginning, a new creation and Jesus as the new Adam and the true King. So, Matthew too starts with a genealogy[1], the genealogy of Jesus. This is also a way of pointing to Jesus as the one who fulfils history and in whom the hope and faith of those great Old Testament characters is found.

One of the repeated phrases throughout Matthew is “this fulfilled” accompanied by a quote from one of the prophets. So, when the angel appears to Joseph, to assure him that Mary’s child is born of a virgin and is the saviour[2], we are told that this fulfils Isaiah’s prophecy of a child named Immanuel.[3] In chapter 2, the scribes respond to the wisemen’s visit by quoting Micah 5:2 but Matthew also goes on to tell us that the killing of the infants in Bethlehem fulfils Jeremiah 31:15.[4] The holy family’s journey to Egypt fulfils Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”[5] After John the Baptist’s arrest, Jesus moves out to the Capernaum region by Galilee and Matthew tells us that this fulfils Isaiah’s prophecy that the people of Zebulun and Naphtali have seen a great light.[6] Matthew also tells us that Isaiah 40:3’s description of a voice in the wilderness predicts the coming of John the Baptist.

In  Matthew chapter 4, Jesus quotes frequently from the Old Testament, particularly from Deuteronomy as he counters Satan’s temptations. However, the Old Testament echoes are not just seen in the direct quotes. Rather, scholars tend to agree that the whole event is a re-enactment or fulfilment of Israel’s experience. Just as Israel went through the Red Sea and later the Jordan, so too Jesus is baptised[7], from the waters he goes into the wilderness spending 40 days and 40 nights there echoing the 40 years of wandering but where the people of Israel failed, grumbling against the God who provided food for them, testing Him and bowing down to idols, Jesus overcomes, knowing that man depends on God’s Word and not human food, declaring that we are not to test God and refusing to bow down to Satan. Matthew 3:13-17 may also allude to New Creation. Just as God’s Spirit hovered over the waters of creation, so too, we see the Spirit coming down at Jesus’ baptism.  Further, Jesus is the beloved son, just as in Genesis 22, Isaac is Abraham’s only loved son. It is worth noting that this description of Isaac as beloved precedes testing, just as Jesus will not be tested.

Whilst some of the Old Testament quotations function clearly as direct predictions, this is not always obviously the case. For example, most scholars agree that Isaiah 7:14 speaks specifically to the context of Isaiah’s day and an immediate sign of God’s judgement.  This therefore functions as a double fulfilment with both immediate and messianic implications. The original Hebrew word refers simply to a young woman however, the LXX chooses specifically the word for virgin. 

The examples from Hosea and Jeremiah do not even appear to be predictive prophecies but rather descriptions of contemporary or prior events. Hosea’s reference to the father calling his son from Egypt is in fact describing the history of the Exodus to show Israel’s special identity.  These passages therefore function as typology where actual events prefigure and point to Christ. We can also conclude from this that Matthew was not inventing stories in order to match Old Testament predictions -he has no motivation to do this. Rather, Matthew is describing the incredible and wonderous events of his day and linking back these incredible things to Israel’s history to show that the incarnation is rooted in Israel’s Scriptures.[8]

Matthew shows us through these fulfilment accounts what Luke tells us in his report of the Emmaus Road conversation. All Scripture points to Christ and finds its fulfilment in him.

[1] Matthew 1:1-17. In fact, literally “This is the Genesis of…”

[2] Matthew 1:18-25. Note as well that Matthew here is also interacting with the law on marriage and divorce in Deuteronomy.

[3] Isaiah 7:14.

[4] Matthew 2:18.

[5] Matthew 2:15.

[6] Matthew 3:12-16 quoting Isaiah 9:2.

[7] Mathew 3:13-17.

[8] On this see Beale and Carson, A commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament, 7-11.

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