What did Matthew understand by Jesus fulfilling Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah?
He certainly believed that Jesus fulfilled the prophetic words of the Old Testament, a quick look at Matthew chapters 1-2 alone confirms that. But what has struck me this week is the varied ways in which Matthew seems to apply Old Testament prophecies to Christ. Below are some examples of how Matthew saw that the early part of Jesus' life was the fulfilment of OT prophecy.
20But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."
22All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23"The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"—which means, "God with us."
Bishop Tom Wright suggests that there is no evidence that anyone before Matthew saw Isaiah 7:14, which he quotes here, as being something that would be fulfilled by the coming Messiah. Isaiah's prophecy certainly originally referred to events that took place some 800 years before Christ, with the birth of Mahershalalhashbaz, Isaiah's son. Matthew evidently saw in the name 'Immanuel' and in the theme of a special child (in Isaiah 7-12) the foreshadowing of a greater fulfilment in Christ.
3When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5"In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written:
6" '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.'"
A fairly standard use of prophecy - a specific prediction about the future from Micah 5:2 about where the Messiah was to be born. However, it is worth noticing that Matthew also weaves in 2 Samuel 5:2, on which Micah's prophecy was seemingly based. Again, Matthew is drawing attention to the kingship of Christ.
13When 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." 14So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15where 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." 16When 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. 17Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 21So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene."
A curious prophecy, as it seems Matthew has taken Hosea out of context! Hosea 11:1, which is cited here, looks back to the exodus where God's 'son' (see Exodus 4:23), Israel, was called out of Egypt. It seems that Matthew is using the return of Jesus from exile in Egypt to point to part of Jesus' future role and vocation as the true Israel, who succeeded in being a 'son' where the people of Israel failed (see especially Matthew 4:1-11).
18"A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more."
This next quotation provides a prophetic backdrop to Herod's slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem, and is taken from Jeremiah 31:15. Chapter 31 is one of the chapters in Jeremiah's prophecy about the renewal of the covenant, whereby Israel is finally brought back from exile. Rachel was the mother of Joseph, who in turn was the father of Ephraim and Manasseh. Ephraim and Manasseh were the northern tribes that had gone into exile in Assyria. In Jeremiah's prophecy, Rachel's weeping stands for the grief of Israel. In Jeremiah 31, this weeping is answered by the Lord's prophecy of restoration.
How does this apply to the slaughter in Bethlehem? The best explanation I have found that Rachel was buried near Bethlehem (Genesis 35:19) - she weeps again for her people. However, Matthew's citation Jeremiah 31 gives the hint that there is more to come: rescue is on the way, and there will be deliverance even when things seem bleak and hopeless.
This prophetic fulfilment is perhaps the most curious of all, since 'He will be called a Nazarene' is not a line in the Old Testament at all. Consulting the commentaries, it seems that several explanations have been put forward to attempt to explain this. However, for me, the key to understanding this verse is that fact that Matthew says that this was the word of the prophets (i.e. plural). Given what we know about first Century Jewish contempt for those from Nazareth (see John 1:46, for instance), could it be that Matthew is saying that Jesus' Nazarene upbringing is a fulfilment of Scripture that prophesied that the Messiah would be despised and rejected (see, for instance, Isaiah 53?).
What I find really interesting about all of this is that Matthew saw that Christ fulfilled the Old Testament at a whole series of levels. He saw that Christ fulfilled specific prophecies, but he also saw that Christ fulfilled the whole story of the Old Testament, a story of the nation of Israel and its history. He also saw that Christ fulfilled more of the ideas about the Messiah that are sketched but not drawn into specific prophecies. He saw Christ as a greater rescuer than the rescues that God had performed for his people in the Old Testament. This is instructive for us: we impoverish ourselves if we see Christ's coming as only a fulfilment of the more famous predictions of the OT: the whole thing points forward to Christ and his fulfilment (see Matthew 5:17-20).
16When 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. 17Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
21So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene."