How Does Christ “Fulfill” Historical Remarks?

What can Matthew mean by saying that Christ fulfills the Scripture when the Old Testament passage in question was a historical notice?

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.

 

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).

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[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.”