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Fulfilment of Scripture in Matthew


Sermon series 3.


In the last two sermons in this series we have thought about the structure of the gospel of Matthew and how it follows the five-fold structure of the Pentateuch or the Torah; we have looked at the picture of Jesus that it presents, and seen that by comparing him with Moses, Elijah, the suffering servant, it shows Jesus fulfilling and exceeding all these and argues that he is the promised Messiah.

Today we are thinking about the theme in Matthew of fulfillment of Scripture, which is one of his most prominent and unmissable themes.

If you read all of the birth story in Matthew, in ch 1 and 2, and count the number of times Matthew quotes from the OT you should find 5 separate quotations. They come thick and fast in the passage we read just now - there were 3 in those 11 verses.

If you compare that with Luke’s version of the birth stories, there are no OT quotes in Luke - except that Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is largely based on the song of Hannah from 1 Samuel chapter 2.

Luke was writing for Gentiles; Matthew for Jews so this makes complete sense. The Gentiles would not recognise an OT quotation if it got up and bopped them on the nose! Whereas the Jewish readers would probably compete with each other to spot the most obscure OT allusions.

This sets the scene for Matthew’s perspective on how the events of Jesus link to the past, to the Scriptures of his day, what we call the OT.

In the whole gospel there are 10 places where he says this formula : ‘this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet...’

Each time this formula is used, the material is extra to what is found in Mark’s gospel.

Just to remind you or if you missed the first of this series, most of Matthew is based on Mark; then there is material shared with Luke, which is mostly teaching material like parables or the sermon on the mount; then there is some other material which is unique to Matthew. This emphasis on OT fulfillment is unique to Matthew.

Those quotes from the OT introduced by that formula are the tip of the iceberg in terms of his OT references, because he often makes allusions without quoting - his readers were mainly Jews anyway so they would have recognised slight allusions without having to have them underlined.

For example when Jesus was on the cross, he says ‘they offered him wine to drink mingled with gall’ which closely echoes Psalm 69.21 ‘they gave me poison for food and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink’. The word poison is translated gall in the Greek OT.

Or think about the OT reading we heard - Isaiah’s vision of the vineyard planted by God - Matthew alludes to this in his parable of the workers in the vineyard in chapter 20 - ‘the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who hired workers for his vineyard.’ The focus has moved from the grapes to the workers, but no-one who knew the OT could read this without thinking of Isaiah 5 and comparing it.


Behind all this use of quotes and allusions is Matthew’s overall belief and conviction that the Jesus event was foreshadowed in the OT Scriptures and that it fulfills Scripture.

This is rather commonplace for us today - Christians now tend to assume that Jesus fulfilled the OT, because that idea has entered our subconscious over centuries of reading this gospel. At the time it was new and controversial. He had to make out a case for it.

It may be a familiar idea today but I think it is also rather a misunderstood idea for many people. The concept of prophecy in particular is often misunderstood.

Look at it this way. Take Isaiah, prophet of the 8th century BC. So he is living over 700 years before Jesus -  that means that if Jesus was alive now then Isaiah would have lived in the 14th century. If someone in the 14th century had said ‘Well, in the year 2013 this is going to happen...’  whatever that event might be, what interest or use would that be to the people of the 14th century? Absolutely none. It would be utterly irrelevant. Moreover, to imagine that such a prophecy could happen assumes that events over such an extended period of time are fixed-   like fate. That would be contrary to Christian belief - and Jewish belief. We believe in God having given us freewill. We are not controlled robots. We make our own decisions. Therefore we cannot and should not be able to predict events much in advance at all, let alone hundreds of years ahead - which would be a pointless exercise anyway.

So: Isaiah was NOT speaking about Jesus of Nazareth in his prophecies! He was NOT. He was speaking about events of his own time, declaring the words of God to his own people. Same with the other prophets. They may have said if you do x, y will follow - they often did - but those were immediate or close consequences. Like saying to a politician: if you pass this law, you will lose the next election.

Foreseeing the future is not what prophecy really meant. It was about speaking God’s word and God’s will into the present. ‘Thus says the Lord’  they said, to announce God’s view on a current situation. That was relevant and important.

However having said that with lots of emphasis because it is often misunderstood, the Jewish rabbis also saw their prophetic writings as having depths of meaning or interpretation not plumbed by that first surface meaning. In other words, a prophet could say something which made sense in the immediate present or close future; but those sayings were kept, recorded, copied out over and over again and treasured, why - because they were believed to have a longer significance and might find further fulfillment later.

This is what Matthew is talking about. It’s not that every quote he produces has never had a meaning until Jesus came along and fulfilled it hundreds or thousands of years later. It’s rather that looking at the Scriptures in the light of a new event, new meanings are seen, discovered, further layers of meaning.

So lets take the phrase ‘out of Egypt have I called my son’. It’s quoted from Hosea 11.1. Matthew uses it in ch 2.15, talking about Joseph and Mary who had fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s purge of babies, returning form there to their home. In Hosea he is writing a poem about how God feels when his people abandon him. ‘When Israel was a child I loved him. and out of Egypt I called my son.’ that in turn looks back to the Exodus under Moses when the children of Israel fled from slavery in Egypt after the plagues and crossed the Red Sea to escape the Pharaoh. Neither of those contexts is about Jesus. But Matthew feels justified in quoting that phrase because he has seen a new meaning in it. ‘Oh look - we call Jesus God’s son. And there is this story that as a baby he was taken to Egypt - so he must have come back. That’s like what Hosea said - out of Egypt have I called my son.’

There is a rather interesting little verse in Matthew which could be autobiographical - it could refer to Matthew himself. In ch 13.32, he writes ‘ every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’ It doesn’t make sense in context; but it could be Matthew’s understanding of what he was doing in his gospel - the new was the words and actions of Jesus, the old was the received Scripture, the OT. His task as a Jewish Christian writing polemic to convert more Jews, was to match the old to the new as closely as possible, and he did that partly by matching event to prophecy. Matthew was certainly a trained and highly skilled scribe, with a lot of texts, or treasures, at his fingertips to use and draw upon in his gospel. He used his skills in the service of the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of Jesus the Messiah, who fulfilled all the highest hopes and visions of the OT.