Jesus and the Old Testament

ISAAC MCPHEE

One of the most striking things you may notice as you begin to explore the book of Matthew is his seemingly constant use of the Old Testament from the very first verse. And while allusions and quotes from the Old Testament are everywhere in this book, the latter half of chapter 2 allows us a good opportunity to really begin to explore how Matthew is using the Old Testament as he answers the question: “Who is Jesus?”

Now, the sheer number of methods Matthew uses to refer to the Old Testament is striking. Sometimes it is made obvious, as in Matthew 1, where Isaiah made a prophecy and Matthew pointed out that Jesus was the fulfillment of that prophecy. That’s easy enough to decipher. But
I want to walk through these eleven verses in Matthew 2:13-23 and point to three specific ways (though there are several others even in this short section) that Matthew uses the Old Testament to make his point.

EXAMPLE 1: ISRAE & EGYPT
Beginning in verse 13, Joseph is warned to take Jesus and Mary and flee to Egypt in order to escape Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem. The very mention of Egypt and the murder of children by a wicked king should be enough to draw us back to the beginning of the book of Exodus, where another evil king – Pharaoh – ordered another murder of children (see Exodus 1 and 2).

Without saying so directly, Matthew is purposefully pointing us back to the Old Testament story of Israel. He’s showing that just as God once saved his people from a wicked king, he’s now saving his Son from another. And this same Jesus (we will see later) will become like a new Moses, leading all of God’s people out of slavery!

Along with the depiction of Herod as another Pharaoh, Matthew later quotes from the prophet Hosea, observing that the reason Joseph fled with his family to Egypt was “to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’” (2:15; cf. Hos. 11:1).

What’s interesting is that when God originally spoke these words to Hosea He was intending to look backward, not forward. He was looking back on the Exodus of Israel from Egypt and reminding His people that He has always considered them to be His precious children.
In fact, the full quotation from Hosea is helpful:

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols” (Hos. 11:1-2) 

Now, Matthew is reminding His readers of this same truth: Like Israel, Jesus is the beloved Son of God – but He is the true son. While Israel responded to its call by turning away from God, Jesus will respond in pure faithfulness and obedience. He will succeed where they failed. This is something Matthew will show us time and time again.

EXAMPLE 2: RACHEL & HER CHILDREN
Next, after Herod follows through with his wicked plan to murder the children of Bethlehem, Matthew makes another connection with the Old Testament, comparing this slaughter with a prophecy from Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more” (Jer. 31:15).
In one sense, the connection is obvious: Rachel was the wife of Jacob (Israel), and therefore in some sense she is the “mother” of all of Israel. So this image of her weeping for her children seems to fit.

At the same time, the connection is not obvious at all, since this passage from Jeremiah wasn’t intended to be a prophecy about the Messiah. Instead it spoke of Israel’s coming exile to Babylon. Jeremiah was saying that the people would be taken from the land and Rachel, the mother of Israel, would symbolically “weep” for her lost people.
So what is the connection between this prophecy and the story of Herod and the children of Bethlehem? In part, the purpose is that, once again, Jesus is being cast in the “role” of Israel in this new story.

Matthew is also drawing upon Rachel’s connection to the city of Bethlehem. We read in Genesis 35 that when Rachel died, “she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar over her tomb. It is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day” (Gen. 35:19-20).

So, once again Matthew is connecting multiple ideas. In one sense, the quotation of Jeremiah speaks of Israel in exile and awaiting salvation. In another sense, the reference to Rachel points specifically to Bethlehem, with the children of that small town being her true children.

EXAMPLE 3: JESUS & THE NAZARENE
Finally, the passage ends with perhaps the most difficult of the Old Testament connections. After Joseph and his family return from Egypt, they settle in the city of Nazareth, “so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that He would be called a Nazarene” (Matt. 2:23).
This verse can be very perplexing to Bible readers. For one thing, Matthew is not quoting any single prophet, but “the prophets”. A quick word search will show that, in fact, the prophets never suggested that Jesus would come from Nazareth, or be called a “Nazarene”. So what is going on here?

The most likely answer is actually fairly simple. Matthew is engaging in some wordplay. The word “Nazarene” in Hebrew is very similar to the Hebrew word (NZR, often pronounced “netzer”), meaning “Branch” or “Stick”. When we consider this meaning, we do find that the prophets frequently referred to the coming Messiah in precisely these terms: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit…” (Isa. 11:1; cf. Jer. 23:5, 33:15). Even in the fact of Jesus being raised in Nazareth, Matthew sees Old Testament prophecies being fulfilled.

These three examples go to show the incredible diversity of ways that Matthew is beginning to open up the Old Testament and show that all along it has always been pointing to Jesus.

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