In his gospel, Matthew described several incidents in the early life of Jesus that he claimed fulfilled certain Old Testament prophecies. As noted earlier, skeptics have a field day with Matthew 2 beca use they can make it appear that Matthew took two Old Testament passages out of context and simply made up the third one.
Let’s examine each of Matthew’s quotations in the light of the whole Old Testament as well as in their immediate context to determine whether or not they are valid.
“Out of Egypt I called My Son” (Mt. 2:15).
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the Child and His mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the Child to kill Him.” So he got up, took the Child and His mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called My Son” (Mt. 2:13-15).
The problem comes when we check out Matthew’s Old Testament source. A casual reading of Hosea 11:1 indicates that the prophet was speaking about the nation of Israel. From an Old Testament perspective, it doesn’t seem that there are any messianic overtones in the text. So what gave Matthew the right to claim that Jesus’ return from Egypt fulfilled what Hosea said?
The problem looks different in hindsight. Matthew knew Jesus to be the Messiah. He knew Him to be all that man was created to be. He saw Him as the perfect sacrifice, giving substance to the shadow of priestly ritual. He saw Him as the conqueror of death. He saw the parallels between Israel and Jesus. Both are spoken of as a son of God, a chosen servant, and a light to the Gentiles. Both are given roles of prophet, priest, and king.
Yet Matthew was also aware of the differences between Israel and her longawaited Son. As a nation, Israel had failed repeatedly in her calling to be a holy people and a channel of blessing to the nations. Because of her longing for spiritual self-rule, Israel had fallen to the oppression of Roman rule. Matthew was well-acquainted with the hope-filled messages of the prophets who portrayed a day when Israel as a nation would be converted and restored to fulfill her destiny under the rule of a king from the family of David (Isa. 9:6- 7; 11:1-16; Jer. 23:1-8; Ezek. 36–48). When Matthew wrote his gospel, he believed that these promises would be fulfilled through Jesus Christ. He saw the carpenter and rabbi from Nazareth as the individual who did all that the nation failed to do, making provision for her restoration.
Jesus is therefore the ideal “Israel,” who experienced in principle some of Israel’s experiences in coming out of Egypt, being tested in the wilderness, and then showing the power of God to a watching world.
It is significant, from a New Testament point of view, that while Israel was described to Pharaoh as God’s “firstborn son” (Ex. 4:22) and “My son” in Hosea 11:1, Jesus was declared to be God’s “one and only Son” (Jn. 3:16). Matthew therefore saw Jesus as the perfect Son who would accomplish all that Israel, the imperfect son, had failed to achieve. Because of this, Matthew could apply passages to Jesus, which in their context seemed to relate only to Israel.
“Rachel weeping for her children” (Mt. 2:18).
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her chi ldren and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Mt. 2:16-18; cp. Jer. 31:15).
Here again Matthew quoted a passage whic h in its original form seemed to give no hint of messianic prediction. In Jeremiah 31, the prophet spoke of Ramah, a town 5 miles north of Jerusalem through which Israelites would pass on their way to exile to Babylon. Ramah was also the burial place of Rachel, the mother of Joseph (representing the 10 tribes) and Benjamin (representing Judah). Jeremiah figuratively portrayed Rachel weeping bitterly as the exiles tramped past her tomb on their way to a strange land. But she is told to cease her weeping because there is hope: Both the 10-tribe kingdom of Ephraim (vv.18-22) and Judah (vv.23-30) would repent and be restored. They would live under a new covenant that would be written in their minds and hearts as a converted and forgiven people who would never again become disobedient (vv.31-40).
Matthew saw a parallel between Rachel’s tears and the mothers of Bethlehem crying for their lost children. In both there was reason for tears. Yet, in both cases the grief of a few would be followed by the joy of many.
The exile would produce a new and transformed Israel. The heartbreaking death of Bethlehem’s infant boys was likewise part of a battle between Messiah and Satan. Herod could order the death of infants, but within a few weeks he himself died. Jesus, on the other hand, had “the power of an indestructible life” (Heb. 7:16) and would in time give life to countless numbers who believed on Him.
“He shall be called a Nazarene” (Mt. 2:23).
He went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene” (Mt. 2:23).
The controversy with this passage is that a prediction about Messiah being called a Nazarene cannot be found in the Old Testament. This is not a problem, however, if Matthew was referring to non-biblical prophets whose prophecies have not survived. On the other hand, some Christian scholars have suggested that Matthew was playing on the similarity of the Hebrew word nezer (translated “Branch” or “shoot” in Isa. 11:1 and Jer. 23:5) with the Greek nazoraios, here translated “Nazarene.”
Nazareth was a despised city. Note Nathaniel’s response to Philip’s statement that in Jesus of Nazareth they had found the Messiah: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (Jn. 1:46). It is possible, therefore, that Matthew was thinking of the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah when he made this reference to the prophets. The lowly Shoot (a Branch of the royal line hacked down to a mere stump) grew up in Nazareth, in a place guaranteed to win Him scorn.
A second possibility is that by using the plural term “prophets” and the grammatical construction of an indirect quotation, Matthew was only saying that by living in Nazareth, Jesus was fulfilling the many Old Testament prophecies that He would be despised and rejected (see Ps. 22:6- 8,13; 69:8,20-21; Isa. 11:1; 49:7; 53:2-3,8; Dan. 9:26).
We don’t have all the answers. There are many more questions that could be asked about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. But I hope that what has been presented in this booklet has convinced you that a skeptic cannot easily dismiss the claims of New Testament writers who saw foreshadowings of Jesus in the Old Testament.