One striking feature of Matthew’s presentation of the birth and early childhood of Jesus in the first two chapters of his Gospel is the way he views each step as the fulfillment of Old Testament Scripture. He does this five times in these chapters, citing Isaiah 7:14 in Mathew 1:23; Micah 5:2 in Mathew 2:6; Hosea 11:1 in Mathew 2:15; Jeremiah 31:15 in Mathew 2:18; and an uncertain text in Mathew 2:23. These citations make an important point: Christianity is not a novelty but rather a religion founded by God long ago and now brought to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. These texts also document the link between the two testaments – they demonstrate, as Augustine said, “the New Testament is in the Old concealed, while the Old is in the New revealed.”
Matthew’s reference to the Old Testament also teach us something about how biblical prophecy should be understood. When most people today think of prophecy, they think of specific, clear predictions of some future event. And sometimes prophecy is exactly that. We have already seen one clear example in Matthew, and another example that is not quite as clear but is probably of the same kind.
The clear example is found in Mathew 2:6, where the religious leaders appeal to Micah 5:2 as a prediction of where the Messiah will be born: “In Bethlehem in Judea, for this is what the prophet has written: “ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’ ”It is difficult to imagine a clearer, more specific prophecy. The Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
The other prophecy is found in Isaiah 7:14, which is cited in Mathew 1:23. There is some uncertainty as to whether it is a prophecy about the birth of Jesus only, without reference to anything else, or is somehow linked to another, normal birth in Isaiah’s own day, but it is probably specific.
This is only one type of prophecy. The Old Testament sacrificial system is an example of another type. The author of Hebrews argues that the entire sacrificial system pointed forward to Jesus’ death for sin and was fulfilled by him in the atonement. “Elsewhere in the New Testament,” writes D. A. Carson, we learn how the law anticipated the Gospel, how the levitical priesthood pointed to a new high priest who would effectively stand between God and humanity and never need replacing, how the ancient kingdom of David served as a model or “type” of the kingdom of God, how certain covenants had a built-in obsolescence that led believers to look forward to the dawning of the promised new covenant and much more.
It is important to understand these general types of prophecy, because many of the links between the Old and New Testaments are general in nature, though no less significant than the specific predictions. More to the point, many of the Old Testament citations in Matthew must be understood in this broader way, as is the case with the following example.
Three Old Testament prophecies together cover the years between the coming of the wise men to worship Jesus (Mathew 2:1–12) and the appearance of John the Baptist as Jesus’ forerunner (Mathew 3:1–17). These stories are about: (1) the family’s flight to Egypt (Mathew 2:13–15); (2) Herod’s murder of the children of Bethlehem (Mathew 2:16–18); and (3) the family’s return to Nazareth (Mathew 2:19–23).
Herod must have thought he was being very clever when he asked the Magi to come back after they had found the child so that he could “go and worship him” too. He had no intention of doing that. Instead, he wanted to murder this apparent usurper to his throne. When he discovered that the wise men had outwitted him, he was furious and sought to eliminate the child by murdering all the young male children of the town.
In view of this danger, God warned Joseph to “take the child and his mother, and escape to Egypt” (Mathew 2:13), which they did (Mathew 2:14). Egypt was a natural place for the family’s escape. It was not far away, and the border was only about seventy miles from Bethlehem. Besides, Egypt was a well-ordered Roman province well beyond Herod’s jurisdiction, and it had a large Jewish population, roughly one million strong, according to Philo, who wrote about A.D. 40. Joseph would have had no trouble finding relatives and friends in Egypt or in securing work there.
It is at this point that Matthew brings in a text from Hosea: “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’” (Mathew 2:15). When we turn to this verse in Hosea, we find that it is not really about the Messiah who should come, but rather about Israel and God’s deliverance of the people from Egypt at the time of the Exodus under Moses. William Barclay concluded of this and similar verses that Matthew was grasping for any possible prophecy he could find, even passages that are obviously not about Jesus at all. What Matthew understood (and wants us to understand) is something beyond a mere futuristic prophecy, namely, that Jesus is the ultimate embodiment of Israel, the one in whom is wrapped up the true character and destiny of the people. The fact that Jesus was taken to Egypt & returned from Egypt was one of God’s ways of alerting us to how significant Christ’s tie with his people really was.
Further, the context of the Hosea passage is not only the deliverance of the people from Egypt but also God’s faithfulness to them in and beyond Egypt in spite of their disobedience. Israel was God’s son, but a disobedient son. By contrast, Jesus is the beloved Son with whom the Father is “well pleased.”