The gospel of Matthew, like the other three canonical gospels, tells the good news about Jesus. They are not biographies in the modern sense. They tell us very little about his early life. Rather they focus on what he did and said over the last 3 years of his life. The primary emphasis for all four gospels was Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection, prophesied about in the Old Testament. And each of them spent a significant portion of their story on that last week.
But each of the gospels also has its own individual emphasis and target audience. For Matthew, his target audience seems to be Jewish. And his emphasis is on demonstrating that Jesus is the Messiah foretold in the Jewish Bible. Matthew repeatedly references Old Testament passages and identifies the fulfillment of these prophecies in Jesus’ life and ministry. The intent of this article is to look at Matthew’s use of the Old Testament in affirming Jesus as the Messiah.
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Table of contents
A Note about Old Testament Messianic Prophecy
Matthew, and other New Testament writers, reference many Old Testament passages and identify them as pointing to Jesus. And they do that under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. But the prophets who were inspired to write these referenced passages did not always realize that they were pointing to a messiah far in the future.
One of the most obvious of these comes from Isaiah. A passage we hear numerous times each Christmas. But one we seldom examine closely. In Matthew 1:22-23 we find Isaiah 7:14 quoted: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).”
Without a doubt, this passage finds fulfillment in the birth of Jesus. But when Isaiah uttered these words, he had something else in mind. Isaiah 7:1-17 provides the context for this quotation. The sign given was to the godless king Ahaz. And it was a sign that would find fulfillment within just a few short years. I suspect that Isaiah had no idea that it also pointed to a messiah who would come some 5-600 years later.
Another thing to note about these fulfilled prophecies is that we do not always know what passage Matthew is referring to. It would seem that sometimes, rather than referring to a specific passage, he is referring to a more general theme of the prophets. This happens a couple of times in Matthew 26:52-56 which refers to the method of Jesus’ capture and coming death.
And, finally, sometimes we have no idea what Matthew is referencing. In Matthew 2:23, Jesus’ family settles down in Nazareth. And this fulfills what was spoken through the prophets, that he would be a Nazarene. There is no reference to anything like this in the Old Testament. That is not to call into question Matthew’s inspiration. But it does indicate that Matthew was drawing from a larger collection of writings than what we have today.
Implicit Old Testament Allusions
Matthew makes about 20 specific references to Old Testament prophecy in relationship to Jesus. But he also seems to be making some implicit references as well.
A New Moses
In particular, Jesus is pictured as a new Moses who has come to establish God’s kingdom. Like Moses, who was rescued from the Pharaoh’s decree to kill baby boys, so Jesus was rescued from Herod’s killing of infants. Moses and Jesus both spend time in the wilderness in preparation for their primary ministry. And both of them are foundational in the establishment of God’s people; Israel for Moses and the church for Jesus. Both of them are teachers and miracle workers. Moses’ ministry ends at the Jordan River, while Jesus’ begins at the Jordan. Moses leads 12 tribes, while Jesus starts with 12 disciples.
The Son of David
In 2 Samuel 7:16, God promised David that “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.” There are messianic overtures to this passage that were especially relevant in the Israel of Jesus’ day. They chaffed under Roman rule and looked to the time when a son of David would rise to overthrow the Romans and reestablish David’s kingdom.
In Matthew 12:22-23, Jesus heals a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute. In response, the crowd began to wonder, “Could this be the Son of David?” They were not just wondering if Jesus was a descendant of David. Instead, their question pointed back to 1 Samuel 7:16. Is it possible that Jesus is the one who will reestablish the kingdom? Eight other times in Matthew, this title, Son of David, is applied to Jesus. And each time, it has messianic implications.
Explicit References to Fulfilled Prophecy
The table below provides a list of the explicit references Matthew makes. In each one of these, Matthew expressly says that something Jesus did, or that was done to him, was to fulfill what was written.
One of these (Matt. 3:1-3) is really about John the Baptist. But, by establishing him as the forerunner of the Messiah, it points to Jesus as that Messiah. And a second of them (Matt. 4:5-6) is quoted by Satan in his second temptation. Satan tempted Jesus to fulfill this in a dramatic way in order to impress the crowds, but Jesus declined.
Matthew uses the rest of these fulfilled prophecies to demonstrate to his Jewish audience that Jesus is indeed their long-awaited Messiah. And in Matthew 5:17, he makes that clear, quoting Jesus as saying that he had come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets.
Old Testament Prophecies in Matthew
Below is a list of the explicit prophecies mentioned by Matthew. Along with each, if it is known, is the Old Testament reference along with a brief excerpt.
- Matthew 1:22-23 (Isaiah 7:14). The virgin will conceive and bear a child, named Immanuel.
- Matthew 2:5-6 (Micah 5:2). In response to the visit of the Magi, the religious leaders identify Bethlehem as the birthplace of the coming ‘King of the Jews’.
- Matthew 2:15 (Hosea 11:1). “Out of Egypt I called my Son.” This passage that originally referred to the exodus of Israel from Egypt is applied to Jesus when his family goes to Egypt to escape Herod.
- Matthew 2:16-18 (Jeremiah 31:15). Weeping over the dead children after Herod’s slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem.
- Matthew 2:23 Jesus would be called a Nazarene because he grew up in Nazareth.
- Matthew 3:1-3 (Isaiah 40:3). John the Baptist, the voice of one calling in the wilderness, announced the coming of the Messiah.
- Matthew 4:5-6 (Psalm 91:11-12). Satan tells Jesus that the angels will not allow Jesus to strike his foot against a stone.
- Matthew 4:13-16 (Isaiah 9:1-2). Jesus based his ministry out of Capernaum.
- Matthew 5:17. Jesus came to fulfill the Law and Prophets.
- Matthew 8:17 (Isaiah 53:4). He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases.
- Matthew 12:17-21 (Isaiah 42:1-4). Jesus was the chosen servant of God in whom the nations would put their hope.
- Matthew 13:34-35 (Psalm 78:2). Jesus would speak to the people in parables.
- Matthew 21:4-5 (Zechariah 9:9) Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey.
And His Rejection and Crucifixion
- Matthew 21:42 (Psalm 118:22-23). The stone the builders rejected, Jesus, has become the cornerstone.
- Matthew 26:31 (Zechariah 13:7). Jesus, in predicting his disciple’s response to his betrayal, tells them that the shepherd would be struck down and the sheep scattered.
- Matthew 26:52-54. Jesus’ betrayal and capture happened in fulfillment of the Scriptures.
- Matthew 26:55-56. Method of capture in accordance with the writings of the prophets.
- Matthew 26:64 (Psalm 110:1; Daniel 7:13-14). When Jesus is on trial before the religious leaders, he tells them that you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of God and coming in the clouds.
- Matthew 27:9-10 (Zechariah 11:12-13). The priests used the 30 pieces of silver, originally given to Judas to betray Jesus, to buy the potter’s field.
Why These References to Fulfilled Prophecy?
Why did Matthew choose these specific prophecies to prove that Jesus was the Messiah? There are many others that he could have used, some of which are referenced in the other gospels. I don’t believe there is any way that we can know the mind of Matthew, and why he chose these. But it is likely that he felt these would be convincing to the Jewish audience he wrote to. In the same way that John tailors his list of signs (John 20:30-31) to convince his audience that Jesus was the Christ, it is likely that Matthew does the same.
Matthew knew his audience well. He was not just telling a bunch of stories about Jesus. Instead, he put together a well-crafted account of Jesus’ life and ministry. An account that is focused on proving to his Jewish audience that Jesus is the Messiah promised in their Scriptures. And his use of the Old Testament prophets and psalms is an integral part of his proof.
Matthew, in this gospel, is doing what Jesus did on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:25-27), and Phillip did with the Ethiopian (Acts 8:34-35). He was proclaiming to them, from their Scriptures, who Jesus is. That Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecies made about the coming Messiah.
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
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This article was first published in BibleStudyTools.com on September 18, 2019