Matthew 1-2 used to trouble me greatly. I’ve always heard Bible prophecy is one of the top reasons to accept the story of Jesus and I believe that. I’ve heard the statistics about the number of prophecies and how they were filled exactly in Jesus. There are four direct quotes in Matthew 1-2 and one allusion. “Oh wow,” I thought, “Here in these first two chapters are five fulfilled prophecies.”
Isaiah 7:14 says the Messiah will be born of a virgin. Matthew 1:23 shows the exact fulfillment of that prophecy.
Micah 5:2 says the Messiah will come from Bethlehem. Matthew 2:6 says the scribes used this passage to help the wise men find the child Jesus.
Hosea 11:1 says the Messiah will come out of Egypt. Matthew 2:15 shows that is exactly what happened.
Jeremiah 31:15 says Rachel will weep for her children indicating a bunch of her children would be killed. Matthew 2:18 shows that is exactly what happened.
Then there is the fact that the scriptures teach that the Messiah would be called a Nazarene and Matthew 2:23 says that is exactly what happened.
Wow! Amazing! But wait. There’s a fly in this ointment. Have you ever looked at the actual prophecies?
Isaiah 7:14 does not say the Messiah will be born of a virgin. Rather it says that king Ahaz will be given a sign. A child will be born and by the time that child is old enough to choose good and refuse evil, the lands of Syria and Israel will be forsaken. These two kings were threatening Judah; Ahaz needed help from God. So, on first reading, this prophecy doesn’t appear to be about the Messiah at all. Unless God lied, it had an immediate fulfillment. In fact, it was likely fulfilled in the person of Maher-shalal-hash-baz in Isaiah 8:3-4. Hmmm.
Micah 5:2 doesn’t present much of a problem. It appears to be taking the rise of the Assyrians as an opportunity to provide a statement about the coming Messiah. That did happen as Micah said. No wonder the scribes and priests were able to pinpoint Bethlehem so readily.
Hosea 11:1 was not about the Messiah at all. In fact, it was not even prophetic in the sense we think of prophesy. It wasn’t describing something that would happen in Hosea’s future. It was describing something that had already happened in Hosea’s past. It was a reference to the nation of Israel and their stay in Egypt. God was reminiscing about His work with Israel and how they rebelled against Him. He called Israel out of Egypt, which called to mind His great work of mercy and deliverance for them. How did Israel repay Him? They continually went after false gods. Yikes. What do we do with this? It isn’t even a prophecy, let alone one of the Messiah.
Jeremiah 31:15 was not about a citywide slaughter of the children in Bethlehem conducted by Herod in his jealousy of the Messiah. Rather, it was about the captivities of Israel and Judah. Rachel was figuratively weeping for her children because they had been carried captive into foreign lands. If we keep reading in Jeremiah 31 we learn that this is actually a prophecy of the restoration of those nations that would eventually come. We know that happened under Cyrus. We read about it in Ezra and Nehemiah.
Finally, the most troubling one for me is that there is actually no Old Testament passage that says the Messiah will be called a Nazarene.
Okay, I have a problem. This number one test of truth is on shaky ground. Certainly, there is still the specific prophecy in Micah 5:2 that says something will happen with the Messiah in the future and it happened exactly like that. It was so specific and correct the scribes and priests could tell the wise men exactly which city to go to.
But 1 out of 5 doesn’t seem to be a good record. What is going on here?
The problem was not with the prophecies. The problem was with my western mindset. Having heard stories of Nostradomus and psychic hotlines, I had the idea that prophecy means foretelling an event and that event happening just as the prophecy said. A prophecy is a person saying, “So and so will do such and such on this day.” Then we wait to see if it happens that way. Certainly some prophecies are like that. Who can deny Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 and how specifically they foretell the crucifixion? However, that is not the limit of biblical prophecy.
When trying to figure this out, I didn’t just say, “Oh well, Matthew was so wrong, I can’t believe him.” My first thought was how could Matthew make such obvious mistakes? That just didn’t make sense to me. When I saw what seemed to be such obvious mistakes and I considered that Matthew was painstakingly trying to prove to his Jewish brethren the truth of the Messiah, I had to ask if there was something about prophecy Matthew and his readers understood that I didn’t. That is exactly the case.
For the ancient eastern mindset, prophecy was not simply an issue of directly foretelling an event and it happening. Rather, what Matthew was demonstrating was that Jesus did not simply fulfill direct statements like Micah 5:2. Rather, He was the ultimate fulfillment of the Old Testament in general. Matthew is pointing out that Jesus is an amazing figure whose story mirrors that of God’s people for their whole existence. Was Israel called out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1)? That wasn’t just a story about Israel. That wasn’t just a story about the past. That was a marker for the future. When Jesus comes along and follows that same story, He stands out. Did Rachel weep for her children when children of Israel were killed in wars and taken captive (Jeremiah 3:15)? Look at what happened when Jesus was born. She wept again as her children were killed when the Messiah came on the scene. Was a child born to a maiden during the days of Ahaz as a sign for deliverance to Judah (Isaiah 7:14)? How much more is the birth of a child to a virgin a sign of deliverance for God’s people?
What about that Nazarene issue? This is really powerful. Matthew, talking to Jews, speaks in Jewish idiom. The issue of being called a Nazarene was not simply about where a person was from. Rather, being a Nazarene was no badge of honor. For the Jews of the first century, saying someone was a Nazarene meant they were backwoods and not to be honored. Notice Nathaneal’s response in John 1:46. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” While the words, “He shall be called a Nazarene” are not in the Old Testament. The teaching that the Messiah will not be someone who comes in the world as obviously worthy of honor was taught. Isaiah 53:1-3 gave that specific message. The Messiah would not be someone deemed worthy of honor. Or, as the Jews would say, He would be a Nazarene.When the Old Testament prophesied how not honorable Jesus would seem and then God has Him grow up in the very city that represented lack of honor to the Jews, that is pretty powerful.
So what is the wrap up on this? The wrap up for me is that the veracity of Jesus is more secure. Jesus’ life is not merely a series of events that follow straight line prophecies. Rather, not only does He fit some prophecies like that, His very story demonstrates fulfillment of the entire story of God’s people throughout history. God weaved the story of the Messiah through the history of Israel and Jesus fulfills it. To me, that is amazing.
Born of a virgin, called out of Egypt, without the obvious appearance of honor, surrounded by the mourning for children but a sign of coming deliverance and restoration–Jesus fulfills it all. He doesn’t just fulfill a few instances of prophets foretelling the future. He fulfills the entire story. That doesn’t just happen by accident.
Some times the things we do with the best intentions still cause problems. For instance, just the other day, I came into the dining room to find the dinner dishes on the table and no one else was there. I decided to clean up. I scraped all the food on the plates into the trash, rinsed the dishes, loaded the dishwasher, and went on my merry way. A few moments later, I heard Marita call from the dining room, “Hey, where’s the rest of my supper?” Oops. The fact is, sometimes even what we do with good intentions can cause some problems.
This is true with teaching the Bible also. There are times when we have the best of intentions as we try to teach, explain, or illustrate some Biblical principle. However, sometimes even our best intentions cause problems. This is why we need to be careful regarding how we teach. Consider an example.
We are extremely concerned about sticking with the Bible and following the pattern it establishes. We read II Timothy 3:16-17 and learn that a work is good only if the scriptures provide equipping for it. In order to convey this idea, we have sometimes said things like, “We can only do what they did in the New Testament.” The problem is that statement just isn’t true.
We can only do what the New Testament authorized. However, that is not the same thing as only doing what they did. Because of that kind of statement many people today are constantly saying we do all kinds of things that aren’t in the New Testament—Bible classes, song leaders, song books, buildings, etc. They then conclude that while we say we need authority, we actually practice whatever we want. We get upset and try to correct that, but we rarely realize our own statements caused the misunderstanding.
We need to be clear when we teach. We are not limited by the example of the early Christians. We can do things they did not do in the New Testament. Their scriptural example is merely one means by which we find authority and equipping to act. For example, the church’s job is to uphold the truth (I Timothy 3:15). As far as I’m aware, we never see the churches of the New Testament have a set of Bible classes in which they divide up the congregation and have small group studies. However, when we have done that, we are doing nothing more than teaching the truth to a group of people. No, we don’t find Bible classes in the New Testament. However, we do find equipping for Bible classes in the New Testament.
We need to measure our speech, be clear, and make correction when our intentions cause problems. We need to quit leaving the impression that we are only allowed to do what is specifically exemplified in the New Testament. Rather, we are looking for authority from the New Testament and that authority can come in multiple ways. No, that won’t cause everyone to suddenly agree that we need New Testament authority to act. However, at least we won’t be contributing to their misunderstanding.
Communication is tough work and we’ll always make mistakes. However, let’s work hard at improving our teaching by being as clear and accurate as possible.
This past week, I started listening to a grammar podcast. I had no idea I would hear something to help me understand Scripture. Someone asked about “illegal” and “unlawful.” Read what was said about the difference.
“Black’s Law Dictionary defines unlawful as not authorized by law, illegal. Illegal is defined as forbidden by law, unlawful. Semantically, there is a slight difference. It seems that something illegal is expressly proscribed by statute, and something unlawful is just not expressly authorized.
“Jaywalking is a good example of an unlawful act. Traffic regulations do not typically say that you cannot walk diagonally through an intersection. So, it is not illegal. Rather, traffic regulations typically provide that you can cross within a crosswalk when the little walky-man appears. Crossing in any other way is unlawful because it is not expressly permitted.
“Selling cocaine is a good example of an illegal act. A federal law specifically provides that you may not do so.”
Many today act as if I’m crazy when I suggest we are looking for permission to act and not just prohibition to keep us from acting. However, this is not just something somebody in a “church of Christ” made up and passed on to everyone else; this is a principle people understand even in American law.
In the New Testament, there are “illegal acts.” That is, acts specifically prohibited; e.g. Romans 13:14 says, “…make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Like the issue of cocaine in our modern law, God specifically forbid this.
However, there are also “unlawful acts.” That is, acts which are not authorized by the New Testament; e.g. Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 both teach us to sing and make the melody in our hearts. Yet, there is no authorization for adding a mechanical instrument. Therefore, the instruments would be unlawful. Like the issue of jaywalking, we cannot find a “thou shalt not;” however, God’s law has told us what kind of music to use as we worship God and teach others. It does not provide for the instrument.
I found one more statement in the podcast extremely interesting:
“Practically, there is no difference for punishment purposes. Both illegal and unlawful acts can get you into trouble.”
II Timothy 3:16-17 explains the Scriptures, in their entirety, provide us with everything we need to serve, honor and glorify God. If we simply stay within their pages, we’ll be complete, competent and ready for every good work. I’m not making this stuff up. We’re not making this stuff up. These are simply principles everyone should understand applied to using the Bible. Let’s make sure we don’t commit anything illegal or unlawful.
Earlier this week, for my work on giveattentiontoreading.com, I read John 5:18 and was again impressed with the concept that one can prove anything he wants if he is willing to take enough Bible passages out of context. “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (ESV).
There it is; the Bible proves it. Jesus was a law-breaking sinner. He broke the Sabbath. Or did He?
This passage does not tell us what Jesus did. Rather, this was what the Jews thought of Jesus. They viewed His lawful miracles on the Sabbath as Sabbath violations. They also viewed His statement about doing His Father’s work as blasphemy, but this didn’t make Jesus a blasphemer.
The point of all this is when we study the Bible, we cannot just take each verse for its face value without consideration of the context. Who was speaking or writing? To whom were they speaking or writing? What was the purpose of the greater surrounding passage? How does this verse fit in that greater purpose? What was the significance of the statement within its historical context? These are all questions we must ask before we just make a statement about a particular verse all by itself.
Throughout my time as a Christian, I have heard this point made repeatedly with an accusatory finger at all those denominationalists out there who take things out of context. However, we need to think primarily about our own study. We can just as easily be guilty of this very thing.
For instance, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Christians start off a congregational assembly commenting about Jesus’ presence because where two or three are gathered in His name, there He is in the midst of us (cf. Matthew 18:20). Or, even worse, suggesting that they don’t actually have to meet with a congregation but can just meet with a few Christians on the lake because where two or three are gathered…
Look at the context. This is not defining when we have a sanctioned assembly. Rather, it is talking about when two or three witnesses bring testimony to the church about an impenitent sinner. If they are doing this with the authority of Jesus it is as if Jesus Himself is bringing the charge against the sinner, therefore the congregation has authority to act in discipline.
How easily we can take things out of context? Let’s double our efforts to study thoroughly and keep things in context before we spend too much time pointing at everyone else.