If today’s Bible readers are like home builders, there are many who frame the house well but forget the drywall, the light fixtures, and the flooring. They have the skills to pound nails – important skills – but there is more to building a house than that. What I am talking about is a certain approach to Old Testament prophecy that looks at every prophecy as having an exact, literalistic fulfillment in the future. Everything has a one-to-one fulfillment or no fulfillment at all. It’s almost mathematical.
Now of course, that sort of exact, literal fulfillment happens all the time in the Bible. Let me give an example: when the Old Testament prophet Zechariah says, in chapter 9 verse 9, that Jerusalem’s king will come in “lowly and riding on a donkey” there is an exact fulfillment, a one-to-one correspondence, between that passage and Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (Matt 21). Jesus fulfilled that prophecy literally. His literal fulfillment of this prophecy, and dozens of others, validates his ministry as the Messiah, the Saviour-King of Israel. So this approach is fundamentally good, useful, valid, necessary, and needed.
Every house needs a frame – and all you need is a hammer and a strong arm to get going – but we must not end there. We need to rediscover a couple more tools in this area:
Tool 1: Corporate prophecy funnelling into individual fulfillment
One of the key points in the opening of Matthew’s Gospel is that Jesus fulfills the identity of the people of Israel. That is to say, the corporate entity that is Israel (and Judah) is taken up, summarized, and recapitulated by Jesus the individual. This is no literal, wooden fulfillment. Matthew’s point is that the story of Israel is the story of Jesus. He fulfills every part of it. Jesus is the great sequel – the finale to what happened in Act One. Let me show you what Matthew says in 2:13-18:
“…an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to look for the child to kill him.” Then he got up, took the child and his mother during the night, and went to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod died. In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: “I called my Son out of Egypt.”
When Herod saw that he had been tricked… [h]e sent men to kill all the children in Bethlehem and throughout the surrounding region from the age of two and under, according to the time he had learned from the wise men. Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud wailing,
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she did not want to be comforted, because they were gone” (NET).
Herod was a maniac and a loose-canon, but God orchestrated his lunacy to fulfill, in Jesus, the promises he gave to Israel. In the first text, Matthew says that when Jesus’ parents took him to Egypt in hiding, their return fulfilled Israel’s exodus – the great, miraculous event when Israel, God’s “firstborn son,” was delivered from Egypt through the sea (Ex. 4:22). Likewise, when Herod the despot slaughtered all the little children, Matthew says that was, for Jesus, really a second exile – the text quoted (“weeping in Ramah”) is from Jeremiah 31:15 and is all about the exile when God’s people are taken captive to Babylon. Jesus fulfills that too.
So there you have it – Jesus fulfills the identity of Israel. This is no literal, mathematical fulfillment – it is the corporate identity and the story of the nation of Israel funnelled into the identity and life events of Jesus.
This is exactly the thing Paul is saying in Galatians 3:16 where he writes: “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ” (NIV). Elsewhere Paul writes that “all the promises of God find their Yes in him” that is, in Christ (2 Cor 1:20). The point is exactly the same as in Matthew – Jesus individually fulfills all the promises spoken to Abraham. Jesus is the great recapitulater. This approach to Bible interpretation has many implications for us as we seek to put our Bibles together, so to speak.
And there is another tool to use:
Tool 2: Typology
Typology is a fancy word that simply means Old Testament people, images, or events point to, or foreshadow, New Testament people or images or events. In many ways this sort of pattern-fulfillment “typology” was the linchpin that held the Old Testament and the New Testament together in the minds of the New Testament authors. For example, in Romans 5:14 Paul says that Adam was “a type” (Greek: typos) of the one to come (Jesus). Adam brought death to all; Jesus, the second Adam, bring life to all. The idea is that Adam is a foreshadow of Jesus – Adam’s “anti-type.” David also fits this category. David is an anointed king. Jesus is an anointed King. God has layered history with pictures of Jesus before he even came on the scene. This sort of thing is all over the place – Paul says that when Israel drank from a rock that rock was Christ (1 Cor 10:4). Jesus himself says that when he is lifted up on the cross he will save his people just like when Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness so that whoever looked on it would be saved (John 3:14-15).
The entire Bible points to Jesus. He is the anti-type – the fulfillment – of hundreds of Old Testament types:
- Adam fell to temptation in a garden. Jesus resisted temptation, to the point of sweating blood, in a garden.
- The Israelites spent forty years in the wilderness testing God. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness refusing to put him to the test.
- David defeated a giant. Jesus defeated the giant.
- Jonah spent three nights in a whale. Jesus spent three nights in the grave.
I could go on…
The idea is that the second thing we need to see is that the entire Old Testament story line is a magnificent, multi-faceted narrative that culminates in Jesus. The entire layering of Old Testament history is a straight line to Jesus.
So yes, there are many instances where Scripture shows Jesus fulfilling prophecy in an exact, literal way. But that is only one approach that the New Testament takes to the Old Testament. Without these other approaches it’s like we are building a house without drywall. We need to employ not merely a literalistic approach to Old Testament prophecy-fulfillment but also the great multi-faceted, narratival, and thoroughly Jesus-centered approach that the New Testament authors also used.