israel

Jesus, the New Israel

The Gospels present Jesus and the Kingdom he inaugurated as the fulfillment of Israel’s story. For example, Jesus’ birth fulfills Israel’s longing for a Messiah; his return from Egypt as a child mirrors their Exodus out of Egypt; his temptations in the desert allude to Israel’s temptations in the desert; his twelve disciples recall the 12 tribes of Israel; Jesus’ five sets of teachings in Matthew are a parallel of Moses’ Pentateuch; his sufferings fulfill the call of Israel to be a suffering servant, and his resurrection completes the hoped for resurrection of Israel. In sum, the Gospel authors see Jesus as “the appropriate ending” of the story of Israel, as NT Wright notes. Remembering that “Son of God” was a title for Israel as well as of the Messiah, the life, death and resurrection of God’s Son in the Gospels must be understood as “the climax of [Israel’s] election as well as the fullest self-revelation-in-action of the sovereign God.”[1]

All the Gospel authors, but especially Matthew, see various details of Jesus’ life as fulfilling certain details in the OT narrative. While there are a few passages in which it is clear these authors believed Jesus fulfilled something that was predicted in the OT, the vast majority of examples cannot possibly be understood along these lines. They rather reflect the thoroughly Christocentric perspective of these authors on the OT. Here I want to illustrate this point with two examples from Matthew.

Matthew’s Christocentric Interpretation of Rachel’s Weeping. The first example I want to highlight is found in Matthew 2:16-18. Here we read how Matthew interprets the wailing of mothers in Bethlehem after Herod’s massacre to be the fulfillment of parents wailing as they journeyed through Ramah as they were being deported to Babylon. This is a reference back to Jeremiah 31:15. It’s evident that Matthew was not suggesting that the Jeremiah passage predicted the Bethlehem massacre, for there is, in fact, nothing predictive about Jeremiah 31:15. Rather, reflecting an intensely Christocentric focus, Matthew understands the wailing that surrounded the birth of Jesus to be the quintessential expression of the sort of wailing Jewish mothers have often endured at the hands of Gentiles, as expressed in Jeremiah 31:15. If the application strikes us as a stretch, this simply reflects the fact that we don’t share Matthew’s interpretive strategy or the intensity of his Christocentric conviction that the real significance of every passage is the significance it has in the light of Christ.

Matthew’s Christocentric Fusion of Two Texts. The second example is found in Matthew 21:1-5, which narrates Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. Here Matthew sees this act as the fulfillment of two awkwardly spliced together verses from Zechariah and Isaiah (Zech. 9:9; Isa 62:11). Matthew is again not suggesting these passages predicted Jesus’ entrance, for there is in fact nothing predictive about either passage. Rather, in Jesus’ royal-yet-humble entrance into Jerusalem, Matthew sees the supreme expression of the sort of king Israel has always longed for, as reflected (in Matthew’s mind) in the two passages he splices together.

Perhaps even more significantly, we should note that the Zechariah portion of the Scripture Jesus “fulfills” in Matthew is taken from the Septuagint. While it’s apparent that the “donkey” and “colt” in the original Hebrew of Zechariah 9:9 is an example of Hebraic parallelism and thus refers to one animal, the translators of the Septuagint for some reason inserted a kia (“and”) between the donkey and colt, thereby rendering them as two different animals. Following this translation, Matthew rewrote Mark’s account (assuming Markan priority) to portray Jesus as somehow riding into Jerusalem on both animals (Mt 21:7). For the same reason Matthew modified Mark’s account of the disciples finding the donkey to include her colt (Mk 11:2-3//Mt 21:3).

From our vantage point, Matthew’s interpretive technique and the unusual depiction of Jesus that results from it can’t help but seem forced, perhaps to the extreme. For some readers, they may also raise questions about the meticulous historical accuracy of Matthew’s portrait and thus about the inspiration of his account. These questions need not detain us presently, however, for our only interest concerns the manner in which Matthew’s interpretation reflects the intensity of his Christocentric convictions.

This just illustrates how everything in Scripture—even, apparently, the insertion of a kia (“and”) in the Septuagint—is assumed to bear witness to Jesus and thus to find its fulfillment in Jesus. Jesus brings God’s dealings with Israel throughout the OT to a climatic fulfillment, and so any aspect of Jesus’ life that in any way has a parallel in the OT is seized by the Gospel writers as “fulfillment” of that parallel.

[1] N.T. Wright, “Christian Origin’s and the Question of God,” in Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives, ed. B. McCormack (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 21-36.

Photo credit: StateofIsrael via VisualHunt / CC BY-SA

Related Reading

What To Do With the Violent God of the Old Testament

For eight years Greg has been researching for and writing the book entitled The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. In it he confronts the commonly held idea that the Old Testament depictions of God behaving violently should be held alongside of and equal to the God revealed through Jesus dying on the cross. But if the Old Testament…

Jesus Repudiates OT Commands on Oath-Taking: A Response to Paul Copan (#9)

In his critique of Crucifixion of the Warrior God (CWG), Paul Copan argues that “Boyd pushes too hard to make Jesus’ teaching appear more revolutionary than it really is” [italics original]. Whereas I argue that Jesus repudiates aspects of the Old Testament (OT), Copan argues that Jesus merely repudiates wrong applications of the OT, not…

Don’t all religions believe in the same God?

Bruxy Cavey takes a swing at this question and scores a home run.  

Religion that Blinds Us to God

For a variety of reasons, many Jews at the time of Jesus had come to believe that heaven had been closed since the writing of the last book of the Old Testament. God was distant and no longer active among his people. Their religion focused on holding fast to the law God had given in…

Defining Love

If God’s eternal essence is love, as discussed in this post, then we must ask: What does this confession actually mean? We must explore this question carefully because “love” has been defined in many theological streams in ways that seem contradictory to the kind of love revealed by Christ. As with so many other things,…

God’s Aikido Way of Defeating Evil

Greg continues his thoughts on the atonement with this installment highlighting the way God uses the evil intentions and actions of his enemies to bring about good. And because this strategy is based in love, the demons who encountered Christ could not possibly imagine what he was up to. They ended up participating in their…