Adventist Media Response and Conversation

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Matthew, Prophecy and Context

As the subject of Prophecy and the Bible in general is the subject of this quarter’s Lesson Study Guide here are some thoughts based upon some of the things that were touched upon in my Sabbath school class.

For some time I have had a distaste for the book of Matthew. The biggest problem I have with Matthew is the author’s way of taking material out of context from the Old Testament and applying them to the life of Christ. Now we don’t know who the author of Matthew was for certain. It is set forth by tradition to be the disciple Matthew; it may or may not be. We do see that in the book of Matthew at least in the first several chapters, an intentional literary device is employed. The book tries to create a recapitulation the events of ancient Israel in the life of Jesus Christ. The writer of Matthew therefore attempts to create or recount similarities between the life of Christ and Israel or Moses. Jesus is endangered in infancy like Moses by an evil king, Jesus goes down to Egypt like Moses and/or Israel and subsequently out of Egypt. Israel passes through a baptism of water by their crossing of the Red Sea and Jordan River. Both spend time wandering about the wilderness at God’s command. There are other ways the book of Matthew continues this comparison but they may not be as easily seen as the above. For instance some say that the Sermon on the Mount is similar to the Law delivered on Mt. Sinai etc.

As the Expositor’s Bible Commentary writes in reference to Matt 2:15:

1. Many have noticed that Jesus is often presented in the NT as the antitype of Israel or, better, the typological recapitulation of Israel. Jesus' temptation after forty days of fasting recapitulated the forty years' trial of Israel (see on 4:1-11). Else where, if Israel is the vine that does not bring forth the expected fruit, Jesus, by contrast, is the True Vine (Isa 5; John 15). The reason Pharaoh must let the people of Israel go is that Israel is the Lord's son (Exod 4:22-23), a theme picked up by Jeremiah (31:9) as well as Hosea (cf. also Ps 2:6, 12). The "son" theme in Matthew (cf. esp. T. de Kruijf, Der Sohn des lebendigen Gottes: Ein Beitrag zur Christologie des Matthausevangeliums [Rome: BIP, 1962], pp. 56-58, 109), already present since Jesus is messianic "son of David" and, by the virginal conception, Son of God, becomes extraordinarily prominent in Matthew (see on 3:17): "This is my Son, whom I love."

A related concept is that Matthew used a technique often used by Jewish Commentators called Pesher:

The term pesher means, "to explain." In fact, however, pesher is an application of OT scripture with little to no concern for the context of the passage applied. Pesher may refer either to commentaries on the OT found amongst the Dead Sea scrolls or to the interpretive technique typical of these commentaries. Pesher interpreters assume that OT authors were speaking to the contemporary audience. This form of interpretation is tied to a word, text or OT allusion, which is then related to a present person, place or thing. The interpretations are generally aloof from the source context and appear to lack any coherent methodology. According to Lundberg, "This kind of commentary (pesher) is not an attempt to explain what the Bible meant when it was originally written, but rather what it means in the day and age of the commentator, particularly for his own community." Matthew's Use of the Old Testament: A Preliminary Analysis
by Lee Campbell

There also seems to be a recurring theme if we look a little deeper at the verses that the author of Matthew uses. In the following verses the section used in Matthew are highlighted in bold.

To Christians the most important of these Old Testament verses is that found in Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.(NIV)

Thanks to the book of Matthew’s use of this verse it is often only considered to be a prophecy of Christ. Even though there is no place other then Matthew that calls Jesus Immanuel. However it is not to the name Immanuel that Matthew wants to draw attention, it is to the idea of what the name means, “God with us”. In fact it was the idea of “God with us” that Isaiah had presented to the Israelites hundreds of years before. In our ardor to insist upon Immanuel as a Messianic Prophecy we often ignore the repetition Isaiah uses of the terms with the meaning of “God with us”. Besides the reference in Isaiah 7:14 he precedes to us it two more times:

Isaiah 8:8

And sweep on into Judah, swirling over it, passing through it and reaching up to the neck. Its outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land, O Immanuel!"

Isaiah 8:10

Devise your strategy, but it will be thwarted; propose your plan, but it will not stand, for God is with us. (NIV)

God is with us is Isaiah’s words of comfort to a people about to suffer a major defeat by their enemies. And even when the enemies appear to be winning God notes that even the purposes of the enemy will not stand because God is with his people. So like the sign to Ahaz, the child born is a reminder that “God is with us”, though bad may come, God will not abandon his people, He does not leave them alone. In the echoes of Immanuel we see that though the people may have failed in their covenant with God, God has not nor will He fail. For we see an inherent promise of hope in Isaiah.

In the book of Matthew the author has taken this hope, this certainty of God with us and applied it to the person of Jesus Christ. Not because Jesus was to literally be named Immanuel and not even because of a virgin birth but because Jesus Christ was now seen as truly “God with us”. Remember the author is writing after all the events in Christ’s life had happened. He is going back in time to state his case as to why this Jesus is the Messiah. In some ways the book of Matthew is very much like the book of John. When they both begin to tell about the person of Jesus they both tell us that it is God with us, Matthew by means of Immanuel and John by means of the Logos, the Word become flesh.

Many people become sidetracked by the part of Isaiah 14:7 about a virgin conceiving a child however in the Hebrew it just means a young woman. It works out well for the book of Matthew’s purposes but again it is a foreshadowing of events to come rather then a clear straight forward prophecy of the messiah. There seems to be no indication that the child born was from a literal virgin as we use the term today. Interestingly Isaiah in the first part of Chapter 8 also has a son who is used to foreshadow what will happen to Judah’s enemies when they are defeated. The first child with the name Immanuel brings confirmation to Ahaz of the disaster to come but the name and its echoes also confirm that God has not left the people.

After the proclamation of the good news that God is with us Matthew moves on to the recapitulation of the Messiah with Israel, it is also possible that it is to Moses the deliverer of Israel that Matthew is comparing Christ.

"When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them. (Hosea 11:1-4 NIV)

Herod’s death decree against baby boys reminds us of the death decree Egypt inflicted upon the children of Israel in slavery (Exodus 1:16). "When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live." (NIV)

Like the miraculous deliverance of Moses, Jesus is delivered from Herod’s evil also. Matthew then quotes Jeremiah 31:15-17 to show the sorrow of the people under Herod’s decree. 13 Then maidens will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow. 14 I will satisfy the priests with abundance, and my people will be filled with my bounty," declares the LORD. 15 This is what the LORD says: "A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more." 16 This is what the LORD says: "Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded," declares the LORD. "They will return from the land of the enemy. 17 So there is hope for your future," declares the LORD. "Your children will return to their own land. (NIV)

The verses in Jeremiah are referring to the exile of Israel and once again while the people must suffer the exile, God has promised relief, they are not abandoned, they can say, “God is with us”. While the verse in Jeremiah has nothing to do with Egypt or Herod’s decree Matthew has changed its setting to reflect the story he is telling. While the story being told may have a much deeper meaning then it appears. All the verses he has used reflect in their original context the healing and deliverance God offers. Matthew is a book that presents us with this Messiah, the anointed one who delivers his people from sin and its consequences.

The book of Matthew then moves a step farther then we today can comprehend. …and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene.”. (Matthew 2:23 NIV)

Since there is no Old Testament reference like this it may be that the author was using an expression of scorn used against the Messiah. Such as that expressed by Nathanael,

"Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" Nathanael asked. "Come and see," said Philip. (John 1:46 NIV) Conceptually there may be some places which could offer the author the incentive to make the statement. Certainly the ancient history of Israel is filled with Israel’s scorn of the things of God.

But Matthew’s failure to reference something in the Old Testament while stating it was something said through the prophets is perhaps the key to unfolding Matthew’s intent in the second chapter of Matthew. The history might not be accurate, but the concepts are what the author found most important. The Messiah has come, God with us, the deliverer miraculously inserting Himself into mankind’s world. The precious gold of God presented to a world that would kill its very savior. So in the book of Matthew the author tells us of the myrrh given to child, an aromatic resin used for the preparation of a corpse for burial. The gift of incense, the sweet fragrance that for centuries was used in the worship of God, even the gifts of the Magi have deeper meanings.

Matthew 2 is not the simplistic story I was indoctrinated to believe. It is a piece of in depth literature with more substance then history. But then isn’t that the way of so much of the Bible. Literature, poetry, Chiastic Structure, and analogy all and more find themselves used within the Bible. Human creativity and God given inspiration can create amazing things. Yet we can in our excitement of discovery often trample all over what was written in our haste to explain what our tradition has taught us.

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