Responding to a recent piece about the Hebrew and Greek words which the King James Version translated as “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14 and in Matthew 1:23 respectively, a gracEmail subscriber asks for more discussion about Matthew’s use of the words “fulfilled” in connection with Old Testament language and events.
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We saw earlier that when Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ supernatural birth, he quotes the Greek word for “virgin” (parthenos) from Isaiah 7:14 of his Greek Old Testament, although the original Hebrew word (almah) simply meant a “young woman” (Matt. 1:18-23). Matthew then observes that Mary’s supernatural conception “fulfilled” the words of Isaiah 7:14. Jesus’ birth “fulfilled” Isaiah 7:14 because the event matched or fit the prophet’s words (in the Greek translation used by the early church). So far as we know, no Jew who lived before Jesus was born read Isaiah 7:14 as a specific prediction of the Messiah or anticipated a miraculous birth.
This is consistent with Matthew’s regular use of the word “fulfilled.” Before King Herod killed the baby boys of Bethlehem, God warned Joseph through an angel and the holy family escaped to Egypt. This “fulfilled” the words of Hosea 11:1, “out of Egypt I have called my son.” Hosea’s original statement referred to Israel. But Matthew relates the story of Jesus in a way that retraces Israel’s history, making the point that Jesus, not the unfaithful nation, is now God’s faithful “Son.” When Herod slaughtered the infants, he “fulfilled” Jeremiah 31:15, which first described mothers weeping over babies killed by Babylonian soldiers. Jeremiah’s words fit the scene in Jesus’ story, so the story “fulfilled” the words. When Herod died, Joseph moved his family to Nazareth, “fulfilling” prophetic words from some passage we do not even know, that “he shall be called a Nazarene” (Matt. 2: 23). The words matched the event and that was enough.
Matthew later calls attention to Jesus “fulfilling” words from Isaiah 9:1 by living in coastal villages (Matt. 4:12-16); from Isaiah 53:4 in his healing ministry (Matt. 8:16-17); and from Isaiah 42:1-4 because that ministry was conducted quietly (Matt. 12:16-21). Jesus “fulfilled” Psalm 78:2 by teaching in parables (Matt. 13:34-35), and Isaiah 6:9-10 because his hard-hearted hearers did not understand (Matt. 13:13-15). He “fulfilled” Zechariah 9:9 by riding a colt into Jerusalem (Matt. 21:4-5) and Scripture in general by his nonresistence to arrest (Matt. 26:54, 56).
This does not deny the presence of predictive prophecies which Jesus specifically fulfilled, but they are probably fewer than we have often thought. (And it is possible that God always intended a double meaning in these Old Testament passages, even though the readers did not understand that at the time.) It does not matter. Matthew’s point is more fundamental and also more exciting than that. As we trace the story of Jesus, the Old Testament sagas, scenes and sayings pass before our eyes and ears as well. But that earlier “Bible” ended on an unresolved note; the portrait it painted had an unfinished look. For Matthew and for his believing readers, Jesus is the missing note that resolves the harmonious chord. He is the final touch to the unfinished portrait. Jesus “fulfilled” the Old Testament in a way not less than predictive prophecy coming to pass, but in a sense and a manner that is so very much more