Incarnational Fulfillment of the Prophets – A Conversation (Repost)

Rob Reid and Paula Fether have burst unto the scene, or seen?, with a conversation concerning prophecies. He would:

“like to engage in a scholarly dialogue about whether in fact there are hundreds or any direct messianic prophecies in the “Old Testament” (ironically, such a term is pejorative on its face!). Thus, I would like anyone who holds similar beliefs to articulate exactly what was predicted and where in the Hebrew Bible and then argue for how exactly “hundreds” of these were fulfilled. I am eliciting a hermeneutical query. I have no intention on entertaining whether or not Jesus was/is the Messiah. I personally believe he was. However, that is not to say that he is found under every nook and cranny of Hebrew Bible texts.”

Paula self-identifies as one who believes that:

“Jesus is the Messiah predicted in the Old Testament, as proven by hundreds of fulfilled prophecies, his miracles, and his bodily resurrection from the dead.”

I cannot stay away from a good conversation – so I want to input a tiny part of the dialogue. I agree with the statement that Christ is the Messiah expected through the Hebrew Scriptures.

Usually, we think of prophecies as something which is foretold, something hidden in mystery, and shroud in secrecy; however, not once in the Gospel do we find the word προφητεία (prophecy) applied to the signs pointing to Christ as foretold by the Hebrew Prophets. This is our definition of them, and indeed, several times, such as the apocalyptic passages in the Hebrew Bible and the book of Revelation, words fall into our neat category; however, I believe that the early followers of Christ understood the overall sayings of the Prophets in a much different way. Further, if foretelling was acknowledged, it was generally in accordance with the people (apostate Israel) who challenged Christ (cf. Matthew 15.7). Additionally, Christ was encouraged from time to time to prophesy, therefore it is safe to say that the writers of the Gospels knew the word as they employed it in our sense. For them, it was not about foretelling, but retelling.

The Virgin Birth is a historical and vital sign that Christ is the Messiah promised by God. Indeed, it is the first sign mentioned in Matthew:

Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet:


While the word ‘prophesy’ was in use, this was never the phrase used to signal a completion of the words of the Prophets. The phrase which I wish to briefly examine is, ‘γέγονεν ἵνα πληρωθη (took place to fulfill).’ It signals the reader to a passage from the prophets which is about to be completed. Just as Herod did, they began to look for different connections between the here and now to the words of the prophets. This is different from a prophecy about what will happen. Literally, we could translate the phrase as ‘in order to complete.’ The event in the past serves not as a direct foretelling of the thing(s) to come, but as something more like a measuring tool. Isaiah was not prophesying about the Messiah, but his words found completion in the Messiah. It might be better said that events, instead of actual words, were the center of Messianic signatures.

Before we move further, we should note that the office of a Prophet was rarely used to tell the far distant future. Instead, the person acted as a messenger of God for that moment.

Then Amos replied to Amaziah, “I am not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet; for I am a herdsman and a grower of sycamore figs. (Amos 7:14)

In Hebrew, the word prophet is ‘נָבִיא’. If we remove the theological language, it would simply be spokesperson, not a fore-teller of things to come. Rarely in what is commonly identified as prophecies do we see an instance of something on the horizon. (Note, 1st Samuel 9.9 indicates an ancient shift between the role of seer and that of the office of prophet.) If you read the Twelve Prophets, they deal primarily with the abuses of Israel and Judah to the covenant, calling for justice for this group or that group, while attempting to at once turn away the wrath of God and warn of the wrath of God. Essentially, they – both men and women – brought a current message.

Let us examine another passage, this time with minimal influence of the Divine (By that, I mean the lack of miracles). In the second chapter of Matthew, we find two markers of the Messianic, both including dreams. First, the Magi and Herod, with a dream from God not to return. Second, we find a dream given to Joseph which drove him to Egypt:

Now when they had gone, behold, 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 remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.” So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt. He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED MY SON.” (Mat 2:13-15 NASB)

While the matter may be semantics to some, I must force the difference. First, a prophecy, as used in apocalyptic writings is a foretelling wrapped in language meant to be hidden. We find here Messianic signs which are going to be used to judge the Messiah – yet, rarely if ever applied to Messianic Expectation writings.

The above marker comes from Hosea:

When Israel was a youth I loved him, And out of Egypt I called My son. (Hosea 11:1 NASB)

This is a passage written to rest squarely on Israel as a whole, much like the Servant’s Song found in Isaiah 53. It does not stand out as a prophecy or a cue to something hidden within the meaning, yet, Matthew felt compelled that indeed, this was a sure sign that this Jesus was the Messiah because of His family’s departure from Egypt. This refers to no one but Israel as the Son of God – and would not, unless relayed by Matthew, stand as anything remotely related to the coming Messiah.

It can be reasonably said that Israel did not always expect a Messiah. Further, we can see a progression through the prophets of the understanding of God’s justice, revealed by the prophets, and then the need of a Messianic figure to liberate Israel – not of spiritual bondage, but of physical bondage, and began to be fully recognized in the ‘inter-testamental’ period. Second, the Messianic figure would be one to establish God’s kingdom on earth, with Israel as the center. But again, this was not really seen in the Hebrew Prophets – until the coming of Christ.

Returning to the idea that statements about a personified Israel can be placed on Christ, we find the Servant’s Song in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 in which we read of the punishment for sins as a near destruction to the body of the Servant.

Throughout Isaiah we find the phrase עֶ֫בֶד (my servant) used in relation to historical figures, such as David, or even the prophet himself.

“But you, Israel, My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, Descendant of Abraham My friend, You whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, And called from its remotest parts And said to you, ‘You are My servant, I have chosen you and not rejected you. (Isa 41:8-9 NASB)

The phrase – unless referring to the examples above – refers to the Israel of Isaiah’s time. Yet, we know that it was transferred to the body of the New Testament Jesus.

As a final example we read the mother’s appeal in Matthew 20.20-23:

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus with her sons, bowing down and making a request of Him. And He said to her, “What do you wish?” She said to Him, “Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your left.” But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to Him, “We are able.” He said to them, “My cup you shall drink; but to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father.” (Mat 20:20-23 NAU)

Arguably, the question of canon faced not only the Church, at a later date, but the Jews as well. One of the discarded books by the Jews, and held in reservation by the early Church was the book of Great Wisdom (of Solomon). In it, we find a hint at the Messianic anticipation of the mother:

For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. They will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them for ever. Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his elect, and he watches over his holy ones. (Wis 3:4-9 RSV)

The reason I use this is to set the example – Messianic Expectation included not the idea that the Hebrew prophets foretold Christ in an apocalyptic manner with prophetic language, but that communities expected the Messianic figure to exemplify, to personify, the words of the Hebrew Prophets found in various writings considered sacred by the sects. In other words, the record of sacred writings was the mirror of the Messiah. If the Messiah could not be said to be the personification of rare and obscure passages of the prophets, then the person was a fraud.

Only later did certain segments become more prophetic in understanding, such as the Balaam’s star (Numbers 24.17-19) and Bar Kochba. It is worth mentioning that with the mention of the star in the East in Matthew, this was not connected to Balaam’s star. We know that apocalyptic communities later focused on the star in Numbers and connected to the Messiah – yet, we do not find this connection in the Gospels; however, do find it in pseudepigraphical writings of the period, including the Testament of the Patriarchs, which came to the final conclusion in the 2nd century after Christ.

And after this there shall arise for you a star from Jacob in peace. And a man shall arise from my posterity like the sun of righteousness, walking with the sons of men in gentleness and righteousness, and in him will be found no sin. And the heavens will be opened upon him to pour out the spirit as a blessing of the holy Father. And he will pour out the spirit of grace on you. This is the shoot of God most high; this is the fountain of life of all humanity. Then he will illumine the scepter of my kingdom, and from your root will arise the shoot, and through it will arise the rod of righteousness for the nations, to judge and to save all that call on the Lord. (Testament of Judah 24.1-6)

Further, we see it earlier in the Qumran Community,

And the star is the seeker of the Law who came to Damascus, because it was written A star has came forth out of Jacob and a scepter has risen out of Israel. The scepter stands for the prince of the congregation. At his coming he shall break down all the sons of Sheth. (Damascus Document 7.18-21)

A meditating time frame, we find the Targum Onkelos (c.110), which does connect Balaam’s Star to the Messiah,

I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh. When a king shall arise out of Jakob, And the Meshiha be anointed from Israel, He will slay the princes of Moab, and reign over all the children of men; (Num 24:17)

I note that by it was during the period which saw the development of the Testament of Judah was finalized and the writing of the Targum Onkelos, Simon Bar Kochba (c132) was declared Messiah, nicknamed ‘son of the Star’ and led the Jewish people into final defeat against the Romans. For many of the later commentators, the star in Numbers is a key sign to Christ – yet, nothing of it is found in the Gospels.

The Gospel writers and the early apostolic communities in the Jesus Way began to see the entire corpus of sacred writings as pointing to Christ – not just segments of obscure language, and not in a foretelling sense, but all of the writings, especially of the prophets. For them, everything the prophets said could be said to be incarnated into the person of Christ. This is highlighted in the words of Christ,

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; (John 5:39 NASB)

Christ was not merely speaking of certain prophecies, but of the proto-canon – it all testified of Him. Further, we see from different authors ques connecting the life of Christ to the story of Israel – not the blatant ones, but ones such as

who, appearing in glory, were speaking of His departure (ἔξοδον exodus) which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. (Luke 9.:31 NASB)

οἳ ὀφθέντες ἐν δόξῃ ἔλεγον τὴν ἔξοδον αὐτοῦ, ἣν ἤμελλεν πληροῦν ἐν Ἰερουσαλήμ. (NA-27)

Here, we find Luke sees the soon death/departure as a sign of the Exodus – which should have brought to the mind of his readers the release from slavery after the Passover. (Also see the use of  ‘ἐδόξαζον τὸν θεὸν’ as a queue by Luke to the Hebrew Scriptures.) For the primitive followers of the Messiah, they were not so concerned with ‘prophecies’ such as those of His returning (which are true prophecies) but of connecting His life and work to the collected writings of the prophets. They didn’t look for foretellings, but retellings. Comparing Him to Moses, Solomon, Jonah, and David was not unheard of in the Gospel. While they were the shadow of things to come, He was the archetype.

Finally, we take as evidence of this case, Jonah.

But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Mat 12:39-40 NASB)

This is not a prophesy of the Messiah, and in no way was thought to point to the coming Messianic figure; however, Christ took history from the sacred writings, and applied it to Himself. No one can easily say that Jonah prophesied about Christ, yet his sign was completed, incarnated, in Christ. It is not that the Gospel writers and the primitive communities of believers backwards wrote the Messiah, but it was only through history that Christ was identified as the Messiah. As Luke recounts,

Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luk 24:45-47 NASB)

Written where? In one specific passage? Not hardly, but written in the entire corpus of Scripture. It was not minute passages of prophetic material which pointed to Christ, but the entire recognized work. He did not fulfill prophecy, but completed the Hebrew Prophets.

I am sure I have left out a key to the argument somewhere, or perhaps made no argument at all, so feel free to bruise and crush me as you see fit. For those who would desire to see me torn apart and laid upon the altar of pseudo-academia, please remember I bruise easily and I’ve been known to cry if my feelings are hurt.

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46 Replies to “Incarnational Fulfillment of the Prophets – A Conversation (Repost)”

  1. Number 2 biblioblogger??? Not so! Not so at all…
    You are the best of the best…The creme de la creme 😉 Numero uno… I must print this and read the scriptures tonight at work (on break of course)…

  2. Interesting perspective, Polycarp. I think at present I land somewhere between “hard” and “soft” prophecy, meaning I think there are prophecies that are such in the foretelling sense and also in the fulfilling sense that you nicely articulated here. And I would say that Jesus’ being the Passover Lamb would rank as the pinnacle of them all.

    Per the conversation you refer to, I’m afraid it got off on the wrong foot, so I’m not sure if or when I’ll post there again. I’m really not interested in a dissection of the OT on this topic, as my interests lie primarily with the NT, but since I was invited I thought I should show up. 🙂

  3. Joel,
    Very nice, you have hit the “key” simply…He, Christ is the fulfillment and completion of the Hebrew Prophets and Prophecy!
    “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Rev. 22:12-13, ESV)
    Fr. R.

  4. Joel,
    Yes, this is the whole point and reality to the “time” when Jesus did come into the world. And I am not sure myself, that J the B did not feel that Jesus was not the Lamb of God, etc. But his faith did perhaps waver some, as he was put to the test, etc. I am not that liberal minded myself Mr. Reid.
    Fr. R.

  5. Wow. Fr. Robert,
    Is it really “liberal” to think that John the Baptist didn’t fully grasp who Jesus was? He was certainly led by the spirit to proclaim something about him. Something that seemed to imply he was the Messiah. But is it liberal to think John’s categorical understanding of what it meant to be “messiah” didn’t incorporate dying as a sacrifice for the sins of the world? Perhaps he thought Jesus would throw back Roman oppression and set up the kingdom…you know like Peter and the “Sons of Thunder” did?

  6. Indeed, it is always best to work our way backward with the Text. Looking for the textual evidence first. Historical theological ideas can and does change sometimes. I can remember when scholars thought that Matthew had a written Hebrew text behind the Greek one. And then came the priority of Mark first. The q stuff, etc. But what does it matter to the Christological reality? Now has come the Second Temple ideas. Perhaps? But again, does it really change the Christology? I think not, and thank God!
    Fr. R.

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