Matthew’s Use of the Old Testament - Part 1

As It Is Written in the Prophets

Much of prophecy is talking about what is going wrong right now: Social Injustice and Idolatry. Much of prophecy is about the immediate future: recognize a real prophet by checking outcomes. A relatively small portion of prophecy is about the distant future.
Saint Matthieu, by Artus Wolffort, 1620, Musée des beaux-arts et d'archéologie de Besançon.  Click to enlarge.
Saint Matthieu, by Artus Wolffort, 1620,
Musée des beaux-arts et d'archéologie de Besançon.
Wikimedia Commons. Click to enlarge.
How did Matthew use prophecy?
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Micah 1:1-9, 3:1-12, Much of prophecy is talking about what is going wrong right now: Social injustice and Idolatry. (08/20/18)

Several months ago when I asked for study ideas, fellow-reader Heather D. wrote to say, "Could you do a study that links New Testament references to Old Testament passages? Maybe some of the Old Testament context will help to understand what is being conveyed in the New Testament passage." And ... she's exactly right. I decided to use the Gospel of Matthew as an example, because Matthew is especially fond of telling about some event and then saying something like, "This happened to fulfill what was written by the prophet ...," followed by a quote from the prophets. The rest of his Gospel is jam-packed with other references, too, which he usually just expects you to recognize on your own.

But before we get started with Matthew, there's something important you need to know about prophets. Old Testament prophets weren't usually talking to you and me, who were in their far distant future. Usually they were talking to the people of their own time about what was going on – mainly what was going wrong – right there in front of them. The prophets were especially upset with the people of God who were committing idolatry (1:1-9) and social injustice (3:1-12). (Actually, maybe they were talking to you and me.) The true prophets were also critical of false prophets (3:5-7).

Now, what is vs. 1:5 about? After the death of Solomon, the kingdom was divided into two parts: Judah and Samaria. Samaria, the northern kingdom, got off to a bad start when their new king immediately set up some idolatrous shrines at each end of the kingdom. Things went downhill from there, and eventually Samaria made the worship of the idol Baal into a religion more or less equal to the worship of God. The "high places" were idolatrous shrines on hilltops. So in vs. 1:5 Micah is saying that Judah worships idols and supports high places, just like Samaria. Here's a little background primer on the message of pre-Exilic prophecy.

Amos 4:1-5, 5:4-15, 8:4-8, Much of prophecy is talking about what is going wrong right now: Social injustice and Idolatry. (08/21/18)

Amos the prophet preached in the northern kingdom of Samaria; they didn't like him and told him to go back to Judah (Amos 7:10-17). It's actually not too surprising that they didn't like him, since (among other insults) he compares the high-ranking women to fat and violent cows. I'm wondering if we aren't supposed to see a connection between the women who are cows (4:1) and the shrine at Beth-el (e.g., 4:4), which is the location of one of the golden calves set up by the first northern king, Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:26-30). The calves have no power, says the prophet (vs. 5:5), but, he says sarcastically (4:1), go there and sin! Why not add idolatry to your numerous sins of social injustice and neglect of the Law?

Isaiah 44:6-20, Much of prophecy is talking about what is going wrong right now: Social injustice and Idolatry. (08/22/18)

The prophets could be bitingly sarcastic on the subject of idolatry. I like what God says here: "Okay, if there's another god like me, let's have a contest! Let that so-called 'god' tell the future – you've seen me do it; how about you?" Isaiah goes on to ridicule not only idols but the people who are so silly that they make something with their own hands and then worship it.

1 Kings 18:21-40, Much of prophecy is talking about what is going wrong right now: Social injustice and Idolatry. (08/23/18)

Today we read about a contest between God and Baal (no contest, really) and sarcasm about idols and the people who worship them! King Ahab of Samaria was married to a Philistine princess, a very religious Baal worshiper named Jezebel. She supported an enormous crowd of prophets of Baal and was instrumental in leading the kingdom far down the path of idolatry. God's prophet Elijah got fed up and challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest, which God won hands down.

When the prophets of Baal get no response from their god, Elijah encourages them to yell louder. Most translations give you a cleaned-up version of what he said. The Contemporary English Version, like the Hebrew, pulls no punches: At noon, Elijah began making fun of them. "Pray louder!" he said. "Baal must be a god. Maybe he's day-dreaming or using the toilet or traveling somewhere. Or maybe he's asleep, and you have to wake him up."

Deuteronomy 18:21-22; 1 Kings 22:1-14, Much of prophecy is about the immediate future: recognize a real prophet is by checking outcomes. (08/27/18)

So how do you know that a prophet is a real prophet? It's actually very simple. Since most prophecy is about the near or immediate future, you just wait a short time to see what happens. In fact, this is exactly what the LORD told Moses to tell the people. That way, if the guy or gal is a real prophet and you don't pay attention, you have no excuse.

Micaiah prophesied in the northern kingdom of Israel under the reign of King Ahab. (You may recall that Elijah also prophesied to Ahab. He was a bad person and a bad king, so God sent him more than one prophet.) Ahab wants to go to war against Aram, and every prophet he asks says, "Yeah, O king! Do it! You'll win! Go!" His ally King Jehoshaphat of the southern kingdom of Judah apparently senses that these prophets may be speaking for Baal, not the LORD, because he asks whether there isn't a prophet of the LORD available.

Ahab says, "Yeah, but I don't like him, because he never says anything good about me." Well, that's true, because Ahab is a murderer and an idolater, among other sins, but he sends someone to get Micaiah anyway, just to humor Jehoshaphat. We – along with Ahab and Jehoshaphat – will find out tomorrow whether Micaiah is a real prophet or not.

1 Kings 22:15-37, Much of prophecy is about the immediate future: recognize a real prophet is by checking outcomes. (08/28/17)

When Micaiah first answers the king, he parrots the other so-called prophets in telling Ahab to go to war. We have to assume that his sarcasm is evident, in view of the king's response: "Darn it, Micaiah! Tell the truth!" So Micaiah tells the truth, and Ahab still isn't happy. Unfortunately, the truth from God is the truth, and Ahab and all the survivors of the battle soon learn that Micaiah is a genuine prophet.

An important point is that Ahab had time to act on Micaiah's message and avert his own death, but he chose not to. We ignore the voice of true prophecy at our own peril.

2 Kings 18:17-19, 31-35; 19:1-19, Much of prophecy is about the immediate future: recognize a real prophet is by checking outcomes. (08/29/18)

Isaiah spent more time than most prophets talking about the distant future – the coming of the Messiah from the house of David, the return of the remnant of Israel, and the restoration of paradise. So how did the Jews know he was a real prophet? He also brought messages from God about the near-term future.

When the Assyrians besiege Jerusalem, they deliver a "reasonable" message: "You might as well give up now," said the messengers. "Nobody's else's gods were able to save them from us, and yours won't be able to either." King Hezekiah was one of the better and more devout Judean kings, and this offends him no end. I love what he does when he gets the second message from Assyria. He takes the letter to the Temple and puts it on the altar. "LORD! You see what these lousy Assyrians are saying about you? But if you rescue us, everyone will know that you are the one and only real God." Tomorrow we'll see what happens in response to Hezekiah's prayer.

2 Kings 19:20-37, Much of prophecy is about the immediate future: recognize a real prophet is by checking outcomes. (08/30/18)

The LORD heard the prayer of King Hezekiah and sent Isaiah to him with a message. Isaiah told the king not to worry, because the LORD had said the Assyrian army wouldn't come into the city of Jerusalem. That night, the besieging army was hit by a massive plague, and they promptly left for home. Shortly after that, the king of Assyria was assassinated, as Isaiah had previously (2 Kings 19:7) foretold. Ancient Assyrian chroniclers, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, and the Jewish historian Josephus all agree that something terrible happened to the Assyrian army outside Jerusalem, causing the siege to be abandoned. Isaiah was a genuine prophet, and his short-term prophecies validate his long-term prophecies.

Isaiah 53:1-12, A relatively small portion of prophecy is about the distant future: Messiah. (08/24/18)

A relatively small portion of prophecy is about the distant future. The prophecy in Isaiah 53 actually begins at Isaiah 52:13. (Remember what we've learned before about chapter and verse numbers!) As near as I can figure out – because this is one of those hot buttons on the Internet, where essentially everything that is stated is refuted by someone else – Christians and Messianic Jews pretty uniformly take this to be about the Messiah, and they take the Messiah to be Jesus of Nazareth.

I can't figure out what the "Jewish" opinion is, because it seems to have changed over the centuries. There seems to be at least some modern agreement that it refers to the Messiah, and they take the Messiah to be the nation of Israel (not, I think, the political nation, but rather the people of God known as Jews).

Nevertheless – and as near as I can tell – everyone agrees that Isaiah was speaking about some person or some thing which belonged to his own distant future.

Zephaniah 1:1-18, A relatively small portion of prophecy is about the distant future: Day of the LORD. (08/31/18)

Another topic that got relatively little attention from the prophets but nevertheless gets HUGE attention from everybody else is the Day of the LORD, also known as the "end times." Eventually God will step into history, the prophets say, and put an end to it. There are really only three things we need to know about the Day of the LORD: So the next time somebody starts trying to get you excited about the end times, ask, "Are you ready for the world to end this afternoon? If not, maybe you'd better go and get ready for the end of the world, and let me get back to working for the kingdom of God here and now."

Matthew 5:13-20; Luke 4:16-21; John 19:23-37, Jesus and the NT writers saw his life as the fulfillment of OT prophecy. (09/03/18)

Jesus and every New Testament writer held that he was the fulfillment of the Jewish scripture, which Christians call the Old Testament. That was the only scripture that the people of God had, and Jesus and every New Testament writer held it to be sacred. Jesus and every New Testament writer quoted freely from the Old Testament, and even when they weren't quoting directly, they alluded frequently to the people, history, stories and songs, and prophecy to be found there. Some of the key words that you can look for are fulfill (God's Word has come true), Law, Prophets, and written or read, but you'll still miss a lot unless you have a photographic memory of the Old Testament. If you don't have a Bible with cross-references, you should probably get one.

Luke 24:13-27, 44-48; Acts 13:16-27, Jesus and the NT writers saw his life as the fulfillment of OT prophecy. (09/04/18)

How many plagues were there in Egypt? The standard answer is ten, but My point is this: the rabbis – and by the time the New Testament writers wrote, they could all be considered rabbis, or teachers – didn't just repeat scripture, they interpreted scripture. Many times our writers will say that some passage from the Law, the history, the Psalms or proverbs, or even intertestamental books, was "prophecy." Don't discount what they say just because Job isn't your idea of a prophetic book. Jesus and the NT writers saw his life as the fulfillment of OT prophecy, whatever book the prophecy happened to be in.

Matthew 1:1-17, The genealogy of Jesus of Nazareth (09/05/18)

One of Matthew's purposes in writing his Gospel is to show that Jesus of Nazareth is the rightful king of the Jews and the inheritor of God's promises to Abraham and David. Naturally enough, he begins with a genealogy showing Jesus' descent from Abraham and David. He points out (vs. 17) that there were 14 generations between Abraham and David, 14 between David and the deportation to Babylon, and 14 more between the deportation and Jesus. Count them for yourself, and you'll see.

Now, it has been noted numerous times that the only way to get 14 in all three places is to leave out three generations between Joram and Azariah (also known as Uzziah; vs. 8), and to count one ancestor, Jechoniah, twice between David and Jesus (vss. 11-12). This is not an "error" on Matthew's part: he knew perfectly well that you or I or anybody could go back to the Old Testament and figure out the "correct" genealogy. But remember the importance of the number seven; it is nearly always used to show that something is whole, complete, and perfect. Fourteen is two times seven. Matthew is using and interpreting the genealogies in the Old Testament to show that David's descent from Abraham was perfect, and Jesus' descent from Abraham and David was perfect.

Genesis 12:1-3, 17:1-22, God's promises to Abraham (09/06/18)

Matthew thought that Abraham was one of the two most important people in Jesus' genealogy. Why? Because God made his covenant with Abraham and promised that kings would come from him and Sarah his wife.

2 Samuel 7:1-29, God's promises to David (09/07/18)

The second person emphasized in Matthew's genealogy of Jesus is King David. There's an important play on words here, which might or might not be obvious in your paper Bible. In vss. 1-7, "house" means either David's dwelling or the temple that David proposes to build for God. In vss. 11-29, "house" means "dynasty." God promises to give David an everlasting royal dynasty. Matthew, like the prophets, took this to mean that the Messiah would come from the house of David (e.g., Isaiah 11).

Matthew 1:18-25; Isaiah 7:1-17a, Names: Jesus/God Saves, Emmanuel/God Is With Us (09/10/18)

We've seen that sometimes the prophets were talking about the immediate future, and sometimes they were talking about the distant future. We've also seen that the New Testament writers often applied scripture in new ways. When Isaiah told Ahaz that he would get a sign from God, he said, "A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel," and that by the time the child was three years old or so, the alliance of Israel and Aram would fail in their attack on Judah, and indeed the entire kingdom of Israel would be destroyed within 65 years (this happened, by the way). When Matthew considers the dream Joseph received from God and the name "God Saves," he links this event also to Isaiah's prophecy. God is with us, and God saves us.

Matthew 2:1-6; Micah 5:1-4, The importance of Bethlehem (09/11/18)

Many of the scriptural quotations in the New Testament are taken directly from the Greek translation of the Old Testament, made by a team of rabbis around 300 BC. Matthew tends not to quote from that Greek OT, and many scholars think he was probably doing his own translations from the Hebrew into Greek. When Matthew and Micah are each translated into English, typically by different teams even for a single version of the Bible, they don't match exactly. You can see this in Matthew 2:6 and Micah 5:2a and 5:4a. The meaning is the same in both places, however.

Herod's scholars knew that the Messiah would be a descendant of David, born in David's home town of Bethlehem, although by the first century lots of people thought that "when the Christ appears, no one will know where he comes from" (John 7:27).

Matthew 2:7-12; Psalms 72:1, 10-17, The worship and gifts of the magi (09/12/18)

I mentioned that one of Matthew's goals is to demonstrate that Jesus is the rightful king of Israel. In Ch. 1, he showed that Jesus was descended from King David, who received from God the promise of an everlasting dynasty. He began Ch. 2 by showing that Jesus was born in David's own city, Bethlehem. He continues by showing the kingly gifts and homage that are given to him by the magi, who come from distant countries.

The idea that foreign peoples will come and worship God in Jerusalem is often found in the prophets. The idea that foreign kings will pay tribute to the king of Judah is found in the stories of David's son Solomon, and it's also illustrated in Psalm 72. King Herod says he's going to worship the new king, but we know he's lying.

Matthew 2:13-18; Hosea 11:1-11; Jeremiah 31:15, The trip to Egypt and the Massacre of the Innocents (09/13/18)

Only Matthew tells us about the flight into Egypt, but we have no reason to doubt that it's true. Matthew quotes two prophets, Hosea and Jeremiah, both times saying, "This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet."

Matthew 20:28 tells us that Jesus came to "give his life as a ransom for many" – he bought us back from sin. The prophet Hosea, as you remember, married an adulterous wife, but he loved her so much that even after she left him and fell into slavery, he bought her back and restored her as his wife. Hosea knew that's exactly how God loves his adulterous people, and there are few parts of the Bible that show the love of God more clearly or more poignantly than the book of Hosea. Ephraim, by the way, is another name for the northern kingdom of Israel.

Matthew 2:19-23; Judges 13:2-7; Amos 2:9-11, Return from Egypt to Nazareth (09/14/18)

Nobody seems to know (although a lot of commentators have a lot of different ideas) what prophecy Matthew had in mind when he said, "And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a naziros/Nazarene." We know that Jesus was not a Nazirite, because he drank wine and touched dead bodies. Both of these would contradict the Law, and Jesus supported the Law. Naziros is commonly used in the New Testament in the phrase "Jesus of Nazareth," but it is never used in the Greek Old Testament. The Hebrew word for Nazirite is nazir.

Various prophecies have their supporters as Matthew's reference. I decided that my idea is as good as anybody's, so I suggest Amos 2:9-11. I like this because it links the idea of coming out of Egypt to nazirim/Nazirites, and Matthew links the idea of coming out of Egypt to being called a naziros.

But here's an important point. Your idea is, in this case, also as good as anybody's. Read the Bible for yourself, and don't take my word for anything.

Matthew 3:1-12; Isaiah 40:1-5, 41:11-16; 2 Kings 1:1-8; Jeremiah 15:6-7, John the Baptist (09/17/18)

Sometimes Matthew is helpful enough to tell us exactly what prophecy he's thinking about. When he starts talking about John the Baptist, he says, "This is who Isaiah the prophet was talking about," and he quotes a Bible verse.

Other times Matthew just expects you to know the story! He tells us that John wore camel's hair and a leather belt. Why? Is this some kind of biblical fashion statement? No. Matthew expects you to know that the great prophet Elijah, who has to come before the Messiah, wore camel's hair and leather. We have the saying, "If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it must be a duck." Matthew says that John acts like a prophet and dresses like the prophet Elijah, and he leaves you to draw the conclusion about who John is. Finally, Matthew tells us that John talked about the Messiah bringing his winnowing shovel, and that is another image straight out of the prophets, this time Isaiah and Jeremiah. (This is why you need a Bible with cross-references.)

Matthew 3:13-17; Isaiah 10:33 – 11:10, The baptism of Jesus (09/18/18)

The Old Testament prescribes some ritual cleansings, but not any sort of baptism for repentance. Where John came up with the idea of a baptism for repentance is unknown. The main point I want to talk about, though, is the Spirit that descends upon Jesus immediately after the baptism. This idea is well known in the OT. The Spirit of the Lord descends on judges, prophets, priests, kings, and even foreigners, when God has a job for them to do. Matthew was probably thinking specifically about the passage in Isaiah that talks about the Spirit of the Lord coming upon the shoot of Jesse, i.e., the Messiah, and what the Messiah will be like. Isaiah goes on to include another common prophetic theme, the restoration of paradise.

Matthew 4:1-11; Deuteronomy 8:1-3; Psalms 91:9-13; Deut. 6:16-17, 13-15, Jesus' answers to temptation (09/19/18)

Possibly Matthew picked up his habit of applying scripture to current events from the rabbis of the time, but more likely he picked it up from Jesus. When Jesus was just beginning his public ministry, he had to face a number of tempting ways to present himself. Should he feed himself and the masses without working? Should he be a showy miracle worker? Should he take over the world? As each temptation is presented to him by the Devil (correctly called the "tempter" in Matthew 4:3), Jesus counters with scripture.

By the way, each of us should read scripture thoroughly enough to do the same. Not that I'm tempted to take over the world, because I don't have the power that Jesus did. But I am tempted to do things that I can and shouldn't. Here scripture is my friend that can keep me out of trouble.

Matthew 4:12-25; Isaiah 9:1-7, Jesus withdraws to Galilee. (09/20/18)

God promised to give practically all of Palestine to the descendants of Abraham, and this was fulfilled during the reigns of David and Solomon. After the death of Solomon, however, the nation was divided into two pieces, the southern kingdom of Judah, and the northern kingdom of Israel, also called Samaria. (Map.) Eventually the Jews of Samaria were conquered, deported, and never heard from again ("the ten lost tribes of Israel"), and foreign peoples were imported. Galilee was in the northern part of Samaria. Isaiah prophesied that eventually Galilee would be restored – "the people who walk in darkness will see a great light."

After John was put into prison, Jesus withdrew to Galilee, where he had grown up and where he himself would be in less danger of arrest. The people of Galilee saw a great light and were drawn to it.

Matthew 5:1-6; Psalms 37:10-11, 126:4-6; Proverbs 2:1-6; Amos 8:11; Isaiah 61:1-3, The Beatitudes (09/21/18)

It has been said that everything Jesus taught was already in the Old Testament. That's not completely true, but there's certainly some truth in it. Matthew does not refer us to any particular scriptures for the Beatitudes; nevertheless, many of the blessings that Jesus talks about when he begins the Sermon on the Mount are also to be found in the psalms, proverbs, and prophets. As you compare them, notice how Jesus states the blessing and the nature of those who receive the blessing much more succinctly than the Old Testament writers do.

Matthew 5:21-48; Exodus 20:1-17, The Ten Commandments (09/22/18)

Jesus' discussion of the Ten Commandments was treated in the previous study, but if you'd like to read it again, here it is.

More of As It Is Written in the Prophets
Introduction; Matthew Chs. 1-4
First and Second Discourses, Narratives, Matthew Chs. 1-11
Third and Fourth Discourses, Narratives, Matthew Chs. 12-18
Narrative, Matthew Chs. 19-22
Fifth and Final Discourse, Narrative, Matthew Chs. 23-28

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