How Does Christ “Fulfill” Historical Remarks?

Matthew often speaks of Christ as fulfilling the Scriptures (e.g., Matt. 1:22; 2:23; 8:17). When the Scripture referenced is a promise or a prediction, the idea of fulfillment is relatively straightforward (as in Matt. 21:4–5). But what can Matthew mean by saying that Christ fulfills the Scripture when the Old Testament passage in question was a historical notice? Consideration of one passage, Matthew 2:13–18, where this is the case may shed some light on the general meaning.

This pericope contains two episodes, each ending with a fulfillment formula (Matt. 2:15, 18). These two episodes relate how Joseph took the child Jesus to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod, who wound up destroying all the young children in the environs of Bethlehem. In this brief section, there are allusions to Genesis and Exodus, as well as quotations from Hosea and Jeremiah, which will be considered in turn.

Genesis 46

The patriarch Israel and his sons have been summoned to go into Egypt by Joseph, the betrayed brother who has risen to be ruler of the land. This news came as a shock to his father (Gen. 45:26), who had previously refused to be comforted for Joseph’s non-existence (Gen. 37:35; 42:36). As the journey reached its first stage, Jacob/Israel was confirmed in his purpose by speech with God “in visions of the night” (Gen. 46:2).

God promised to go with them into Egypt, and bring them out again, as well as the note that Joseph would be present at Jacob’s deathbed (Gen. 46:4). It was thus by faith in God’s promised presence and restoration that Jacob left the land of promise to sojourn in the land of Egypt.

These thematic echoes make this a suitable passage for Matthew to allusively incorporate into the fabric of his narrative of the early life of Jesus. The question of presence is important for Matthew’s account of Jesus. He is God with us (1:23), he is present wherever two or three gather in his name (18:20), and he is with his disciples as they pursue his commission until the very end of the age (28:20). Thus the promise of God’s presence in Egypt in the text of Genesis was likely to attract Matthew’s attention. Furthermore, Matthew relates the descent of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus into Egypt with a view to explaining that they came out: that juxtaposition of entrance and exodus is also found in Genesis 46.

Although God addresses the patriarch as “Jacob, Jacob” (Gen. 46:2), the text itself speaks of Israel as journeying, and God speaking to Israel (Gen. 46:1–2). There is a certain ambiguity to the name, because it can refer to Jacob as an individual, or to the whole clan and nation springing from him. This ambiguity creates room in which Matthew can present Jesus as Israel, the one who finally recapitulates and encapsulates what is true of God’s people. Jacob went into Egypt, but only his embalmed corpse came out (Gen. 50:2, 13). Jesus went down into Egypt and returned, because God was with him, as the original promise given to Jacob in Genesis 46 guaranteed. How could it be otherwise when Jesus is the locus of God’s presence with his people (Matt. 1:23)?

Exodus

There are multiple allusions to the events of Exodus in this part of Matthew. There are at least tacit comparisons between Jesus and Moses on the score of being infants threatened with death by tyrannical monarchs (Matt. 2:13 and Exod. 2:3).[i] The fact that other infants die when the one special named infant does not is another point of similarity between the two narratives. There is also an echo of God’s words to Moses in Exodus 4:19 when Joseph is told that “those who sought the child’s life are dead” (Matt. 2:20).[ii]

In the text of Exodus itself, it is clear that the experience of Moses the deliverer and Israel the delivered contain parallels. Both left Egypt in haste (Exod. 2:15; 12:39). Both were in a manner drawn out of water (Exod. 2:9; 14:22). Later revelation points out that ultimately both spent forty years in the wilderness (Acts 7:30; Num. 14:33).

The dialectic of individual and people again allows an ambiguity where Matthew can represent Christ as the new Moses, as well as the new Israel.[iii] For instance, when Christ spends forty days fasting in the wilderness and being put to the test (Matt. 4:1–2) this inevitably reminds the reader both of Moses’ extended fast on Sinai (Exod. 34:28) and of Israel’s long years of trial (Deut. 8:2). This dual presentation is not an inconceivable stretch, because Moses was the representative and mediator of Israel as they were constituted a nation.

It should also be noticed that in both Genesis and Matthew, Egypt is a place of safety and provision, whereas in Exodus it is the place of danger and bondage. Herod’s rule, then, makes Bethlehem into an analogue of Egypt, returning the promised land to the state it was in before God’s promises to Abraham were fulfilled through Joshua. The deliverer is born as promised in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:6), but as far as his safety went, pagan Egypt was a better place than the city of David. It is hard to imagine a more stinging indictment of the national condition at the time of Christ’s birth: the only way it could get worse is if they were to succeed in killing Christ…[iv]

The importance of Exodus as a source of Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus is further confirmed by his explicit quotation of Hosea, since he chooses a passage in which Hosea remembers the events of Exodus.

Hosea 11:1

The prophet Hosea addressed an impassioned appeal to the disobedient kingdom of Israel (i.e., the northern ten tribes which had broken away from allegiance to the house of David). As part of that appeal he reminded them of the great watershed event of Exodus—their deliverance from Egypt.

Thus God speaks of his love for Israel as a child, a love which was exhibited in calling his son out of Egypt. Here Hosea himself is alluding to the terms of God’s word to Moses in Exodus 4:22, as well as to the successful departure from Egypt recorded in the following chapters. The affectionate terms as well as the historic facts bore witness to the depth of God’s love for his people. And yet that people did not respond in kind, but were constantly unfaithful (Hosea 11:2).

When Matthew took up that great word that God called his son out of Egypt, the quotation is from Hosea, but that quotation includes the allusion to Exodus 4:22. Thus the affectionate term for Israel, “my son” was applied to Jesus. He is truly God’s Son, the firstborn. The terms of Exodus and Hosea apply most fully and properly to him. The process of inner-biblical exegesis which led Hosea to reflect on Exodus 4 is continuing, with ever-increasing clarity.

The faithlessness of corporate Israel (or “Ephraim” as Hosea says in 11:2, 8–9) placed an enormous question mark over its status as God’s son. Can it be that this is how the son of God behaves? The answer is no; but the full solution of this dilemma awaited the appearance of God’s ultimate Son, who fulfills all righteousness (Matt. 3:15).

Blomberg argues for seeing in Matthew’s usage of Hosea an instance of “pure typology,” that is to say, “divinely intended ‘coincidence’” discerned in “striking parallels between God’s actions in history.”[v] This is not quite strong enough. The striking parallels are present because God is gradually making clear over time the ultimate referent of all these events. It is not that the Exodus was similar to the life of Jesus because God repeats himself. Rather, the meaning of the Exodus was Jesus. The deliverance of Israel from Egypt was a model meant to point to the greater deliverance of God’s true and natural Son, and of all God’s people in and through him. It is thus not sufficient to say that Exodus or Hosea can be appropriated to explain Christ: rather, Christ was the point all along (see Vos on Christology and Hermeneutics).[vi] As Ulrich Luz put it: “It is true for Matthew and for all of early Christianity that the OT alone makes it possible to proclaim and understand the risen Jesus.”[vii]

This was made clear in the unfolding of revelation not only by successive recapitulations and the individual-corporate dialectic already mentioned, but also by the failures of the people which are so strongly emphasized in the context of Hosea 11:1. The deliverance of the people from Egyptian bondage was not an ultimate deliverance; in no small measure, they carried their bondage with them. That was why Herod could recreate Egypt in Bethlehem.

The types necessarily looked forward. Their good features suggested categories within which God’s great work on behalf of his people and presence with them could be understood. But their very imperfections highlighted their prospective nature. Because of this future orientation, it is not the case that God did again with Jesus what he did before through Moses. Moses was just a preparatory prologue.

Because Christ was not just another in a series of parallels, but the culmination and goal of the whole redemptive-history, fulfillment of prophetic utterance comes to its height in him. Matthew shows this by highlighting that even the surroundings of Christ are fulfilling prophetic words, in this case those of Jeremiah.

Jeremiah 31:15

As Blomberg points out, this verse contains one note of sorrow “that reflects the current grief surrounding the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles” in a chapter that is otherwise full of glorious promises.[viii] The sorrow of mothers bereaved of their children is personified as Rachel weeping for her children. As pointed out above, the language here may draw on Jacob’s grief over Joseph’s loss.

Rachel is mentioned only three times in the Hebrew Bible outside of Genesis. There is reference to the location of her grave in 1 Samuel 10:2; her name is linked with Leah’s as a term of blessing in Ruth 4:11; and there is Jeremiah 31:15. The citation of this text in Matthew 2:18 provides the only New Testament reference to her.

It is thus an interesting question why Jeremiah chose to speak of Rachel weeping for her children. The Genesis narrative reveals her as envious (Gen. 30:1), and as seeing herself in conflict with her sister Leah (Gen. 30:8). Her sorrow over her initial barrenness was perhaps only partially alleviated by Joseph’s birth (cf. Gen. 30:22–24). As she died giving birth to her second son and named him “Son of my sorrow”, she was a sufficiently natural choice as a type of grief (Gen. 35:16–19). It seems likely that the text was suggested to Matthew’s mind because of the association of Rachel’s burying place with Bethlehem (Gen. 35:19; 48:7).

She weeps in Ramah because this was “a stopping-off point for the captives from Judah and Jerusalem on their way to exile in Ramah.”[ix] This last point can be verified by a reference to Jer. 40:1, which shows that Jeremiah was taken with other captives of the Babylonians as far as Ramah before being released. Perhaps the sight of the other captives who were not so fortunate added a very immediate pathos to Jeremiah’s composition of these words.

In the sorrow of bereaved mothers, Matthew sees a point of contact between Jeremiah’s words and the aftermath of Herod’s massacre. It is as though all the sorrows of loss in the long record of Israel’s oppressions were now revealed in the desolation surrounding the unsuccessful attempt on the life of Jesus. Perhaps this fulfillment also suggested some comfort. Jesus would return from his time in Egypt, as Matthew goes on to narrate: just as Jeremiah had prophesied that the children who were not would return (Jer. 30:16).[x] Rachel ultimately need not weep for her non-existent children when Jesus has come in fulfillment of the prophetic word, as the presence of God with us, and as the one who saves his people from their sins.

However that may be, it is clear that all kinds of prophetic words are finding their fulfillment in and around Christ. It is not the occasional messianic prediction only that he fulfills, but the meaning of the prophets taken quite broadly.

Conclusion

The preceding discussion leads to the conclusion that Matthew thinks of the prophetic word as something that required fulfillment, even when that word was not obviously predictive. Neither the quotations nor the allusions found in the section considered have any obviously future connotation in their original contexts, but are historical remarks. Even the quotation from Jeremiah, which does come from a context of promise, refers to the sorrow as a past or present event, not as something to be looked for in the future.

For Matthew, however, these historical notices are not mere statements of fact, nor even (as might have been expected from the Hosea reference) the basis for strong exhortation or rebuke. Rather, they have a referent ultimately beyond the boundaries of the historical events considered in themselves. History can be fulfilled only if it had a meaning, a goal whose character was in some sense sketched out in the events leading up to it.

In other words, Matthew’s typology is not simply a question of repeating patterns, but involves the whole concept of redemptive-history. It is a very clear lesson of the fulfillment formula that God is in control of the events. And in the events of the life of Jesus, the plan of God which was adumbrated in the past experiences of Jacob, Rachel, Moses, Israel, and Jeremiah is coming to its culmination.

This has implications for Matthew’s hermeneutical method. If he is interpreting the Scriptures typologically within a redemptive-historical framework, it is not possible to say that he twists the Scriptures[xi] except by rejecting his presupposition of a genuine advance in the progress of redemption that is focused on the coming of Christ. “The concept of fulfillment is at the heart of biblical theology.”[xii] On Matthew’s presuppositions, then, the genuine twisting of the Scriptures would be by trying to understand them without reference to Jesus Christ. He is the fulfillment of all the prophetic word.

For Further Reading

Apart from the books mentioned in the endnotes—Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament and the collection of essays, The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Text?—readers may find these studies of particular interest.


[i] Noted by Craig L. Blomberg, “Matthew” in G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson, eds., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 7.

[ii] Both parallels are mentioned by Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1–7: A Commentary on Matthew 1–7 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 119.

[iii] Cf. the explanation of corporate solidarity in terms of “the interchange between the nation and its representative, with the Messiah being the embodiment of Israel’s hopes and the ultimate recipient of God’s promises to his people” by Richard N. Longenecker, “Who Is the Prophet Talking About? Some Reflections on the New Testament Use of the Old,” pp.375–386 in G.K. Beale, ed., The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?: Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 377.

[iv] Luz, Matthew, 121 is right in saying that “What we have here, however, is not a merely biographical interest in documenting the various stations of Jesus’ vitafrom the OT but a christological statement made with geographical statements.”

[v] Blomberg, “Matthew,” 8.

[vi] Cf. the comment of Douglas A. Oss, “The Interpretation of the ‘Stone’ Passages by Peter and Paul: A Comparative Study,” (JETS1989), 182: “Primary to the approach of the New Testament is a pronounced Christocentric perspective that resulted in interpretations being conducted along Christological lines in a very consistent manner.”

[vii] Luz, Matthew, 131.

[viii] Blomberg, “Matthew,” 9.

[ix] Gerald L. Keown, Pamela J. Scalise and Thomas G. Smothers, Jeremiah 26–52 (Dallas: Word Books, 1995), 119

[x] So Blomberg, ”Matthew,” 10.

[xi] As does S.V. McCasland, “Matthew Twists the Scriptures,” pp. 146–152 in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts, when he says (147–148): “As only Matthew records the flight to Egypt, there is a strong possibility that the entire episode is an inference from the misunderstood Hosea 11:1.”

[xii] Longenecker, “Prophet,” 376.

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