Jesus & Prophecy: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 2

A few years ago, I attended one of Ron Luce's "Acquire The Fire" events and quite enjoyed myself. I was a youth minister at the time and had taken my students to the event mainly because the renowned apologist, Josh McDowell, was speaking. Prior to attending, I had read through and referenced a variety of McDowell's books. I admired what he was doing; he helped me through some tough, searching and trying times. At the conference, he came out and just blew everybody away with this spiel he did on biblical prophecy. He claimed that there were hundreds of thousands of OT prophecies that came true in the NT. He even showed this great little video that argued that the statistical analysis of the number of fulfilled OT prophecies should leave nobody with any doubts about the veracity of the Bible.

I got into this for a while, I must admit. But there came a point in time, when, through a different, more critical approach to the biblical texts, I began to realize Mr. McDowell's approach was erroneous. Indeed, the cherished "messianic prophesies" view that I once clung to, now had to be relinquished or better yet, remodified. This was scary on the one hand but freeing on the other. What was freeing about it was that now, I could read the Bible with less of my expectations forcing interpretations out of it and more of encountering it on its own terms. I know why so many evangelical Christians are so reluctant to let their cherished views be dropped and/or modified: you feel like a turncoat, you realize you were wrong, and you are sometimes feel threatened or embarassed by it all.

I say all of that to say that when I read the Scriptures today, particularly things like NT passages where authors say "it was fulfilled", I no longer understand that the way that I used to. You see, before reading contextually, I was coming to verses like Mt. 1.22: "And this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet" and reading that quite wooden-literally. In the comments section of my previous post (HERE), Jason asked me how I could see such a verse as not being "messianic prophecy". Well, there are a few things that contribute to my view:

1. As I have written about on Pisteuomen before, persons in antquity did not think of time like we do today. For starters, they thought in more of a circular fashion and not such a linear (timeline) way. Just as well, as persons in an agrarian civilization, they had little time to be preoccupied with the future. For them, the emphasis (as the Lord's Prayer suggests) was on "this day". While looking ahead was not totally out of question or view, looking further than the next season or two was a rare thing. So, understanding how the ancients thought about and lived in light of "time", really forced me to reconsider some of my views.

2. In addition to understanding time differently, I also had to understand things in their proper contexts. For example, when I read in Isa. 7, as I pointed out HERE, I must read in light of the context of Ahaz's socio-political situations. Then, when I read of something similar in Mt., I must also read in light of his socio-political situations too. Even more importantly, I must consider how Isa. 7-9 influences Mt. 1-4. As I have shown, the issue of "naming" there, is incredibly important. Thus, we begin to see that there is a reinterpretation and reuse of situations going on in Mt. This leads directly into my next point...

3. I realized that if I have to try to see things from an ancient, agrarian point-of-view, a non-linear view, I must reliquinsh my "linear" view of prophecy and fulfillment. Indeed, I would now suggest that thinking in those modes or categories is not all that helpful, in fact, it is quite distracting.

4. If I'm not thinking in terms of prophecy / fulfillment, then I must think in terms of reuse / re-application or re-implication. The truth seems to be that the NT writers often found similar situations to theirs in OT texts and then reused them. Paul's use of the muzzled ox in Lev. for instance, originally had nothing to do with paying missionaries. However, in Corinthians, Paul draws that analogy through creative interpretation. There is no fulfillment there, yet, there is reuse.

5. The Greek word for "fulfilled" is pleroo. It has multiple meanings: to make full, to fill fuller, to be filled, to complete, etc. Now, when Mt. says in 1.23 (and this goes for those other places he says it too!), that the "prophet said...and it was fulfilled", what he's really saying is: "the prophet said ____ in his context and now, in my context, I'm reusing it, attaching new implications and applications to it and thereby imbuing my current situation with a fuller meaning." There is no Sensus Plenoir reading or interpreting going on here! Matthew is simply filling out the meaning of his present context more than he already had, by injecting it with more meaning. The example of Civil Rights leaders quoting Scripture at rallys is something very similar. By invoking the Bible, they were filling the present situation even more full with meaning...namely, social and spiritual meaning!

6. It has taken me some time to own up to it, but at this point, as an honest interpreter, I must acknowledge that there were predictive items in the Bible that never came to pass (see Goldingay's commentary, which Greg Boyd recently mentioned and ingeniously expounded on HERE) and that sometimes, the prophets themselves disagreed (which I have written about HERE).

So, what does all of this have to do with the context of Jesus' birth? Well, a lot, really. It has a lot to do with it because in places like Mt. 1.22, we are now able to see what Matthew was actually doing (and what some have suggested he was doing, but wasn't). Matthew wasn't suggesting that messianic prophesy was being fulfilled! (And by the way, it is high time for Christians to stop making people-groups like Jews feel stupid because they don't believe in messianic prophecy! Why should they when that's not what the NT writers believed either!?) What he was suggesting, however, was that the contexts and situations surrounding Jesus' birth, can be imbued with more ethical, social and spiritual meaning when some imagery and language from Isaiah's text is borrowed. You can read about that in the previous post, or HERE.

So, when it comes to Jesus & prophecy in light of the infancy narratives, let us read the texts anew and with more clarity. Indeed, let us be "filled" with more meaning than we have ever been filled with and let us see things we have never seen before. If that is accomplished, then this nativity story is truly one that can be life-changing and prophetic! More on Jesus' birth in context to come, stay tuned!!!


  1. I used to loathe Matthew for his unartful and desperate-seeming appropriation of OT texts. Now I realize that Matthew's audience would not see his account that way. First century Jews expected their sacred literature to borrow aspects of the scriptures (the OT, of course) and apply them to figures in contemporary works. It is our modern Western mind set that treats the Gospels as literal God-manuals rather than as literature written with a purpose and audience in mind. Viewed from the first century these are not as inflammatory as they appear to us reading them today.

  2. Scott,
    I think many share your sentiments. There certainly is something to be said for reading Gospel narratives like they were supposed to be read/heard and then reading them like a "moral" or "counseling" manual today. No doubt, you're right on target with that!!!

  3. I'm definitely not totally sold on what you're saying, but I'm willing to listen more and give this line of reasoning a fair shake. Context is definitely important... but I think we must be careful not to swing the pendulum too far thinking our own modes of thinking are completely out of phase with past generations.

    I'm definitely of the mind that we can over-interpret the author's original intent. Maybe there are many instances where "fulfilled" is intended more as reuse than as "fulfilled". But I don't want to throw out the baby with the bath water. I believe that first-century Christians DID consider the events of Jesus life and death as completing prophetic scripture (and that much is yet to still be done). And trying to eradicate perceived differences and misunderstandings by dismissing it as over-reading seems to go too far. What I'm saying is - sometimes appropriate, but careful...

    I'm still learning (always!), so take this as, "I'll consider it and be watchful of my own assumptions"; not as "You're wrong and a heretic."

    Grace and peace!

  4. Sphodra / George, Thanks for your comments. I definitely get what you're saying here. I think that at the root, you and I understand Israel's hopes for a Messiah differently...but maybe not. For me, they weren't "predicting" that it would happen, they knew it would. The question is "when"? (Of course, that's still a debate today.) The NT writers were attempted to say "now". Not because "predictions" came true but rather, because they realized who Jesus was. To make their case, they were constantly recasting Him in terms of OT language and imagery.

    I would encourage you to continue to think on it. I definitely will continue to monitor my own views as well. Keep participating in the discussion.


  5. Thanks for your perspective. I'm reading along, though I've gotten a little behind. I like your perspective and find it helpful. However, doesn't the OT (linear) account of Israelite history indicate to us that the Hebrews actually were able to break out of the cyclical view — at least to some extent?

  6. Craig,
    I'm encouraged by your comments; I'm glad you're finding the series helpful. I just posted the most recent installment (pt. 4). As for breaking out the cyclical mould, I would say "yes", to some degree. However, it is hard to pinpoint exactly "how much" that happened. Yet, we still see remnants of it in the NT too: see this post: http://michaelhalcomb.blogspot.com/2008/11/time-of-jesus-crucifixion-in-mark-and.html