Another Word Concerning Jesus and Jewish Messianism

A brief follow-up to my last post (here The Danger of Imprecise Assertions of Truth).

First, a qualification. I want to reassure everyone that, while I feel it critical to speak as precisely as possible, in no way should you think I would jump up and down and criticize anyone who made the statement, “Such and such is a prophecy concerning Jesus.” Sometimes we make statements that we would not make upon further reflection, and more often than that we are guilty of making statements that exceed our level of learning. So, I cringe when I hear these statements, and given the opportunity to correct in private I would (or I might just let it go, depending of the maturity of the speaker) or, more preferably, when given the opportunity to teach correctly I would do that. So, here in this space I can speak as loudly as I want, and I hope to stir my readers’ conscience a little so that when they go to make statements that sound true, but cannot be defended by Scripture, that they back up a little and reconsider their verbiage.

A second issue when we speak of Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah that are ultimately fulfilled in Jesus is the fact that, at least in Matthew, quite a few of them are not messianic at all, and at least one is not a prophecy! When Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1 he is not quoting a prophecy – Hosea is making a historical reference! But, here is a critical clue – Matthew does not call this text a prophecy. He simply said that the events he recorded of Joseph, Mary and Jesus escaping to Egypt “fulfilled” what the Lord had spoken. Now, we subconsciously interpret that to be a prophecy, but note that Matthew never calls it a prophecy.

Here is where we fall into a series of false assumptions. False assumption number 1 – that the word “prophecy” means a “prediction” that is only “fulfilled” when every aspect of the prophecy is met. False assumption number 2 – if a prophet speaks or writes, everything he says or writes is a prophecy (meaning prediction) that has to be fulfilled 100%. False assumption number 3 – if that prophet is quoted (or referenced) in the New Testament, what is being referenced is a prophecy (prediction) that has to be fulfilled 100%.

So, Matthew quotes (or references) Hosea, and since Hosea is a prophet, and since prophets say or write pure predictions, then what Hosea said or wrote is a prophecy that is fulfilled 100% in Jesus. Except, Hosea said and wrote a lot of things that were not prophecies, especially messianic prophecies, and what we read in Hosea 11:1 is just simply not a prophecy. Matthew (guided by the Holy Spirit) did see in that text a fulfillment of “what the Lord had spoken,” but is careful never to mention that it was a prophecy.

Check me on this – Matthew is very guarded in his language regarding the texts he uses to buttress his argument that Jesus is indeed the messiah. In 1:22 he quotes Isaiah 7:14, but once again does not use the word prophecy. Indeed, how could he, since Jesus was named Jesus, not Immanuel? In Matthew 2:5-6 he quotes Micah 5:2, and once again refrains from making specific reference to a prophecy. [Note: in all of these texts this is the one that fits our definition of a prophecy the best, but still, it is not specifically called a prophecy.] Then in 2:18 he quotes Jeremiah 31:15, and yet again refrains from making a specific claim to a prophecy. Indeed, once again, this is a reference to a current, or past, event, not a future “prediction.” Yet, he uses each of these texts to support his ultimate claim that Jesus is the messiah.

How can he say that Jesus fulfills these texts if they are not “prophecies?” Simply because he is working with one concept of Scripture, and we are working from another. We are working under the assumption that a text can only be “fulfilled” if it is a “prophecy,” because to us a “prophecy” is a “prediction” that demands a 100% one-to-one equivalency.

To me it is clear beyond any question that Matthew is using Old Testament texts to demonstrate (“prove”) Jesus is the messiah. Yet, Matthew was unquestionably aware of the multitude of varying views of the messiah that were current in his day. He was careful to use language that communicated his point, without unduly clouding his gospel with extraneous misunderstandings. In my most humble opinion, his gospel is a beautiful example of the use of precise language. We cloud and disrespect that language when we make the text say what WE want it to say, and not allow Matthew to speak clearly.

Once again with emphasis – the Old Testament authors spoke (and wrote) about a coming Messiah. Jesus fulfilled all of those passages, and the New Testament writers, guided by the Holy Spirit, took those passages and demonstrated how Jesus is the answer to the question, Who is the Messiah, and what will his reign look like?

Let us proclaim Jesus is the Messiah, let us do it fearlessly, and, above all, let us do it precisely, as Scripture calls us to do.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

4 thoughts on “Another Word Concerning Jesus and Jewish Messianism”

  1. Paul, I agree with you completely. Great minds and all that (lol). In all those Christian Evidence classes and books we read years ago, Jesus fulfilled some 300 prophecies. But when we realize that the Jews reading all those “prophecies” did not see them the way we do, it does us well to rethink how we are looking at them. Just those few in Mt. 1-2 show that and Matthew maybe making another point or two that we might not see; like Jesus being the new Moses reliving the Exodus for one.

    Anyway I like the way you expressed better than mind. I use to say that there were prophecies that were clearly such (Micah 5:2 being about the only one). Then there were prophecies that the New Testament tells us are such (most of them). Then there were prophecies that are not found in the NT but appear to be (Isaiah 9:6-7). But I also realized that prophets were not constantly giving information about the future but about their current circumstances. After reading your article I can see how this can be misleading so a change in wording is necessary. Thanks again for the good article.

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    1. Hello again George, and sorry for the delay in responding. I get kind of cantankerous when it comes to lazy speech – there are clearly some passages that we can refer to as “prophecies” as the NT identifies them as such. But, just as one example, to suggest that Gen. 3:15 is a “prophecy” about Jesus is, to me, just nuts. For a group of people who have demanded for 2 centuries now that we “speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent” to make such unsubstantiated claims just borders on the absurd. But, again, I do not think the best way to overcome this is to stand up in the middle of a class and give a lecture on the semantics of the word “prophecy.” I think a lot more education is needed, but that is true with virtually every aspect of our teaching. I have learned to be very, very careful in my speech, and even so, I made a pretty significant goof the other day in reference to a particular text (I HATE that when it happens!). I wouldn’t exactly call my mind “great,” but it is persnickety.

      Paul

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      1. Paul, it’s a good thing God doesn’t require perfection or we would all be in trouble. I was talking with a sister in Christ this past Sunday on another topic, but something she had heard over and over throughout her life. She sees it differently today but still has a hard time getting passed the “this is the way it is” mentality. You and I both have face that just like “it means what it says and says what it means.” It surprises people when I point out that when Matthew quotes Isa. 7:14, there is both an historical background and a bigger context that has to be considered (Isa. 7-12). Likewise with Jesus’ why have you forsaken me quote of Ps. 22:1 that He may have had the entire text in mind. “I hadn’t heard it that way before therefore…”

        Enough with the quotes. Having fun studying scripture without having to worry about answering to anyone but God.

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