Did Matthew Twist Scripture? Examining Matthew’s Use of the Old Testament

by | Dec 21, 2021 | Biblical Theology, Hermeneutics, New Testament, Old Testament


Every Christmas season a few questions come to the minds of some astute readers when the advent narratives are read—maybe you have had these questions: How is it that Jesus’ flight and return from Egypt recorded in Matthew 2:15 could be portrayed as a fulfillment of an event that already happened, which was spoken of the nation Israel, “out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1)? Why does Rachel weeping for her children (Jer. 31:15 cited in Matt. 2:18) even require a fulfillment? These are two of the difficult questions that arise when one begins to closely examine the gospel of Matthew. Did Matthew misuse the Old Testament in his gospel account?

Those who oppose the reliability of the NT often bring up Matthew as the chief example of one who introduced erroneous applications of OT texts into the accounts of Jesus. One scholar has even gone so far as to assert that “Matthew twists the Scripture.” This is a serious charge that, if true, would put Matthew in the category of “the ignorant and unstable” who twist the Scriptures (2 Pet. 3:16). According to this scholar, Matthew’s handling of Scripture “indicates how desperately early Christians searched the Scriptures to find proof for the things happening among them.”[1] Another scholar presents one of Matthew’s OT citations (Matt. 2:18) as a prime example of “violated Old Testament context” where the “historical Old Testament situation is thoroughly disregarded.”[2] Did Matthew, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, misuse the OT?

How would you answer this? I suspect that many who hold to a conservative view of Scripture would have difficulty answering these arguments. Perhaps they would simply be content to chalk them up to mystery. However, this is certainly not the best course. While simple trust in the divine author is admirable in difficult passages such as these, all Christians can greatly benefit from an understanding of Matthew’s hermeneutic that is at work. Matthew’s use of the OT is an important case study because an analysis of his method reveals a common thread with the other apostles’ use of OT Scripture – one which they learned from Jesus and which was utilized by the OT prophets themselves.

Did Matthew quote the OT out of context? Did he preach Christ from texts which did not speak about him? At central issue in this study is – should Matthew’s usage of the OT be a case study in how not to find Christ in the OT, or is it rather instructive for our own hermeneutics? In answering this question, this work will examine: 1) two important hermeneutical considerations, 2) their application in two difficult texts in Matthew’s gospel, and finally 3) should we or should we not utilize Matthew’s hermeneutic in our devotions or preaching?

The Implication of Divine Authorship

If one concludes that Matthew is disregarding context in his usage of the OT, this raises serious challenges to the claim that what he wrote was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Would the divine author condone the misuse of a text which he himself inspired at an earlier period? Would he stand behind the use of it as a sloppy proof text? Could the end of preaching a sermon about Christ ever justify the means of disregarding the context of the OT and misapplying it as a faulty citation? Is anyone satisfied with the conclusion that the Holy Spirit inspired a portion of text containing a hermeneutic method that we would cringe to find in a sincere but bungled term paper of a first-year Bible student?

At best, this seems to downplay the role of the Holy Spirit in authorship and elevate the human, and at worst to introduce human error into an “inspired” text. Worse yet it allows for methodology that should not be acceptable in any context – misusing the words of another without regard to what was originally intended. It would seem that such a methodology would even border on bearing false witness, which is, needless to say, quite inconsistent with the character of the Holy Spirit. Thus even by allowing for a non-contextual use of an OT passage by Matthew, there is an implicit disregard or disrespect for divine authorship of Matthew’s Gospel. This is not an acceptable course for those who believe that “the words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (Ps. 12:6).

Typology – The Key to Matthew’s Hermeneutic

In answering these questions, there is an important hermeneutical principle which should be more closely considered. As stated above, the Gospel of Matthew has not only a human author, but a divine author – the same divine author that inspired the writings of Hosea and Jeremiah. Could it be that Matthew, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is actually understanding the context of Hosea and Jeremiah more fully than is apparent at the surface level? That he is utilizing a hermeneutical method which, while strange to post-enlightenment readers, was perfectly legitimate to the aforementioned OT prophets themselves?

Matthew, along with Hosea and Jeremiah, believed that Yahweh was the sovereign Lord of history. As such, they all believed that the God of history used real people, places, events and institutions to prepare a people to understand the significance of the redemptive acts of Jesus Christ. Theologians refer to this phenomenon as typology, so named after the designation of “type” explicitly given by Paul to Adam in Rom. 5:14 – a “type” of Christ. .

Many interpreters have dismissed the study of typology in the OT as being associated with “allegorical and improper interpretation”[3] However, unlike allegory, typology is not used in isolation from the historical and contextual significance of the people, places, events and institutions. The foundation of typology is that God is the Lord of history and that history has a specific end or goal (telos) toward which all things are moving. So history is ordered in an intentional way by God to prepare a people for spiritual truths, specifically for the redemptive work of the Lord Jesus Christ. So when the Holy Spirit refers to earlier events as types which point to a future, more significant event, it is not allegory. Typology does not disregard the meaning of the historical event for the original reader of the OT passage. On the contrary, it always considers the contextual meaning surrounding the person, place, event, or institution and extracts from it a theological seed which is escalated in significance by a future redemptive anti-type. “The truth represented by these symbols for contemporaries was the same as that which they pre-figured as types, though in its future realization that truth was raised to a higher level.”[4] It is crucial to note that the NT writers “do not think they are reading back into the OT things that are not already there germinally.”[5]

Moreover, it is critical to recognize that NT authors were not the first to utilize typology. This hermeneutic had long been employed in the OT use of prior revelation.  “The Old Testament prophets themselves treat earlier redemptive acts of God as typological, as providing a pattern or paradigm by which the believing remnant in Israel can grasp…God’s promise that he will intervene in salvation in the future.”[6] Two examples will help illustrate that this practice is no apostolic innovation.[7]

The prophet Isaiah utilizes the historical event of creation to describe the salvation to come: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create” (Is. 65:17). Note that Isaiah extracts symbolic meaning from the creation account and points his readers to the escalation of that first creation to a future hope – a new creation. In this case it is clear that Isaiah sees the original creation as a type of that eschatological new creation anti-type to come.

The prophets speak of David as a type of one that is to come after him. Ezekiel, in the midst of a rebuke of Israel’s bad shepherds (rulers), promises that God himself will “seek out his flock” (Ezek. 34:12) and “will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them…And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them” (Ezek. 34:23-24). The historical David is considered in his context as the great shepherd of Israel, the man after God’s own heart with whom God made a covenant of eternal royal descent. The theological significance of David is extracted and applied symbolically toward an eschatological hope for Israel – a future Davidic king, the Lord Jesus Christ. While David was an imperfect shepherd/king, the one that was to come would shepherd the people of God perfectly. Thus there is an escalation in theological significance, as Ezekiel contrasts the failure of Israel’s kings descended from David to a future Davidic king.

Thus typology was utilized by the Apostles in the same way that they had observed the prophets utilize earlier redemptive events, persons, institutions, etc. Recognition of the use of typology is key to unlocking the Christo-telic[8] intention of the divine author of the Old and the New Testaments. As we will see below in an examination of two difficult citations in Matthew, Christ was the end toward which the entire OT was moving. In redemptive history, God was preparing a people for the significance of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.

The prophets and apostles recognized that “God…[as] the Lord of history…can and does design historical persons, offices, institutions and events to function as “incarnate prophecies” of the full redemption to come”[9] This is the hermeneutic Matthew utilizes in his Gospel. There is an intimate connection between typology and Matthew’s key word “fulfill.” This word does not always signal an explicit predictive prophecy finding fulfillment (although it sometimes does). Matthew uses this formula to assert that “Christ fulfills the whole history of Israel.”[10] Christ recapitulates the history of Israel, redeems and fulfills it and thus the second Adam, the true David, the faithful son of Abraham is the obedient Israelite in whom Jew and Gentile may be reconciled to the Father.

With the background of typology in mind, it must now be asked again whether or not Matthew twisted the OT Scriptures. Under consideration in this study will be two notoriously difficult citations by Matthew: Hosea 11:1 in Matt. 2:15 (“Out of Egypt I called my son”) and Jeremiah 31:15 in Matt. 2:18 (“Rachel weeping for her children”).  Each of these citations will be examined “as to (1) the context of the NT citation, (2) the context of the OT passage cited, and (3) the theological significance of the NT claim of fulfillment. Such a course should reveal whether or not Matthew is twisting these Scriptures in order to use them without regard to their original context, or if he is understanding them more clearly than many modern interpreters of his gospel.

The Use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15

In Matthew’s citation of Hosea 11:1 in Matt. 2:15, there are two difficulties which jump out to many readers who have familiarity with the OT narrative. The first is that specifically in 11:1, Hosea is not making a predictive prophecy, but is simply recording the completion of a historical event. A second difficulty is that Hosea was speaking about the nation Israel coming out of Egypt, so on the surface it seems problematic to apply this idea to an individual. The solution to the difficulties don’t seem obvious to many modern interpreters, which is why Matthew 2:15 is often a poster-child for those who wish to assert that the Apostles mishandled the OT Scriptures. However, if one delves deeper into the context of the citation within Matthew and the context of Hosea 11:1, they will begin to observe Matthew’s divinely-inspired hermeneutic at work.

The Context of Matthew 2:15

Matthew 2:15 is found in the midst of the section of “childhood narratives” which depict the geographical movement of the boy Jesus which provide the explanation for a Messiah from Nazareth who was supposed to have come from Bethlehem.

Matthew records Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (2:1), wise men from the east bringing troubling news to Herod (and “all Jerusalem”) about a star indicating the birth of a great king (1-2), Herod sending the wise men to go locate the king and to relate back to him his whereabouts for ominous purposes (3-8), the wise men’s visiting the boy Jesus and his family (9-11) and their returning home after a warning in a dream not to return to Herod (12). Matthew 2:13-15 describes the dream of Joseph in which he is instructed to flee to Egypt to avoid the murder of Jesus by jealous Herod. Joseph “rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod” (2:14-15). Although the departure from Egypt does not take place until 2:21, Matthew indicates that the eventual return from Egypt at the death of Herod would “fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (2:15).

Matthew’s citation of Hosea 11:1 is surrounded by allusions to other pertinent OT passages that are not indicated by “to fulfill” formulae. The deliverance from a massacre of infants ordered by an evil king will sound familiar to readers of the infancy narrative of Moses, who was also delivered from infanticide. In 2:20, when Joseph is visited again in a dream by an angel, he is told to “take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” That last phrase, “for those who sought the child’s life are dead” is the same word spoken to Moses in Midian, when the Lord tells him to “go back to Egypt, for all the men who were seeking your life are dead” (Ex. 4:19). The dream vision which instructs Joseph to go to Egypt for a time and then to come back again is reminiscent of the “visions of the night” of the Patriarch Jacob (Israel) in which God tells him “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again” (Gen. 46:3-4).

Furthermore, the instruction given to Moses to tell Pharaoh “Israel is my firstborn son” (Ex. 4:22) is the source for Hosea’s reference to Israel as God’s son in Hosea 11:1 (“out of Egypt I called my son”) which is directly cited by Matthew and applied to Jesus Christ. In light of these allusions surrounding Matthew 2:15, one could certainly make the case that Matthew is setting forth Christ as anti-type of Moses as the representative ruler of Israel – the one who will lead his people from captivity. In this way he is put forward as the very fulfillment of Israel’s history. Matthew indicates this by citation of Hosea 11:1 – Jesus Christ is Israel, God’s son.

The Context of Hosea 11:1

In order to understand how Matthew is utilizing Hosea 11:1, an understanding of the meaning of this verse in the context of Hosea’s prophesy is necessary.

In chapter 11, Hosea recounts the exodus of Israel (1), Israel’s disobedience in contrast to Yahweh’s faithfulness (2-4), the penalty of exile for their unrepentance (5-7)[11] and finally the compassion of Yahweh and a promise that He will again bring them from exile in Egypt/Assyria (8-11). Hosea’s prophecy is replete with references to the first exodus and to a future return and exodus from Egypt/Assyria. Ephraim is depicted as “calling to Egypt, going to Assyria” (7:11). “Their princes shall fall by the sword…this shall be their derision in the land of Egypt” (7:16). The Lord “will…punish their sins; they shall return to Egypt” (8:13). “Ephraim shall return to Egypt, and they shall eat unclean food in Assyria” (9:3). “Egypt shall gather them” (9:6).

It is important to note that Hosea is prophesying about the imminent fulfillment of the covenant curses given to Moses in Deuteronomy where Israel is told explicitly that a final consequence of disobedience is exile and a return to Egypt – “the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt” (Deut. 28:68). Because of Israel’s covenant unfaithfulness they are headed for exile in Assyria which Hosea describes as a recapitulation of the first captivity in Egypt. But just as there was a marvelous deliverance from Egypt, so God is going to redeem his captive people once more. “And there I will give her her vineyards and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt” (2:15).

Hosea prophesies an eschatological deliverance from bondage, a new exodus of the people of God in the days to come – “they shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from Assyria, and I will return them to their homes” (11:11). It is clear that Hosea points to the first exodus as prefiguring a future return from Egypt, which Matthew understands to be fulfilled in the return of the boy Jesus from Egypt. Just as it happened at the first exodus, “out of Egypt I called my son,” so it would happen in the latter days. So “what Matthew sees was already something seen to some degree by Hosea himself…Matthew is interpreting Hos 11:1 in the light of its relation to the entire chapter in which it is found and in the light of the entire book.”[12] It is clear that Matthew in no way violated the context of Hosea 11:1.

Theological Significance of the Use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15

Matthew chooses Hosea 11:1 because it speaks of Israel corporate as God’s son, an allusion to Exodus 4:22-23, and applies this to Christ, who is both God’s true son and true representative of Israel. Matthew does this in a way that truly captures the theology and flow of thought in the book of Hosea. “Hosea, building on existing revelation, grasped the messianic nuances of the ‘son’ language already applied to Israel and David’s promised heir in previous revelation.”[13] He understood Israel would be delivered from captivity in Egypt/Assyria in the latter days by God himself. Matthew extracts this prophetic hope of Hosea and demonstrates that it has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ – true Israel has now returned from Egypt to the Promised Land to signal the end of exile.

This is just one of a plethora of examples of what Matthew is doing throughout his entire gospel, setting forth Christ as true Israel. “Jesus is the true Israel, delivered from infant death, brought out of Egypt, tested in the wilderness, and finally exalted as Son of Man, invested with all authority as representative head of the eschatological “saints of the Most High.” [14] Matthew does not simply hijack a historical description of Israel and credit it to Jesus, what he is doing is claiming that Jesus is “Israel’s fulfillment.[15] The greater exodus, of which the first exodus was a type, has come. In fact, it was the first exodus which was performed by God in history for the ultimate purpose that the people of Israel would be prepared for their Messiah, God’s Son.

Consideration of Hosea 11:1 in context demonstrates that there is great appreciation by Matthew for the context of Hosea’s prophecy. Matthew has certainly not twisted the Scriptures, nor shown disregard for the theology and thought contained in Hosea. In fact, Matthew and Hosea were both speaking about the same thing, redemption from exile for Israel. What Hosea saw in shadowy form, Matthew saw in the full light of day. Jesus Christ is Israel’s fulfillment and his return from Egypt signaled a new exodus has occurred which will redeem Jew and Gentile from the bondage of sin.

The Use of Jeremiah 31:15 in Matthew 2:18

Matthew’s use of Jeremiah 31:15 has also proved to be a difficult text for many interpreters of his gospel. The difficulty begins with the fact that “the text in Jeremiah is not a prediction, nor does it even use the future tense”[16] and many modern scholars have come to the conclusion that “Matthew made the story up, spinning it out of Jeremiah 31:15.”[17] However, it is the assumption of this writer that the story of the massacre of the infants is a faithful depiction of historical reality – thus it is only the application of Jeremiah 31:15 to the historical situation that is in view.

This is the second text under consideration that Matthew claims is fulfilled, yet the citation itself in its context is not explicitly a predictive prophesy. Thus our examination of Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 (above) will overlap with a consideration of his use of Jeremiah 31:15. As demonstrated above, Matthew’s “to fulfill” formula does not require a direct citation of a predictive prophesy, as what Matthew has in mind is that Jesus Christ is fulfilling a typological pattern of promise which the OT prophet spoke about in seed form.

Context of Matthew 2:18

The preceding context to Matthew’s citation of Jeremiah 31:15 is the “childhood narratives” of Jesus (previously outlined above) which describe the geographical movements of the boy Jesus and his family. Especially significant for the context of 2:18 is the record of the reception by Herod of troubling news of a king born in Bethlehem (1-7), Herod’s sending the wise men to locate this king and relate back his whereabouts under the ominous pretense that he will “worship him” (8), the wise men’s visiting Jesus and their decision not to return to Herod because of a warning in a dream (9-12) and finally, frustrated Herod’s murderous intention revealed to Joseph in a dream and his subsequent removal of “the child and his mother” from Bethlehem to Egypt until the time of Herod’s death, at which point the word of Hosea would be fulfilled, “Out of Egypt I called my Son” (13-15). Furious Herod, upon realizing that he had been “tricked” by the wise men has “all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old and under” put to death (16), “then,” Matthew asserts “was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more”” (17-18).

The immediate context of 2:18 (and the Gospel as a whole) is replete with allusions to redemptive patterns in Israel’s history (Jesus preserved from infant death, commissioned to and delivered from Egypt, etc.)[18], which Matthew records in order to demonstrate that Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel. This is the clear purpose of the citation of Jeremiah 31:15 – to bolster this theme by citation of the prophet Jeremiah which further unfolds the person and redemptive acts of Jesus Christ within the pattern of the history of Israel.

But what can this have to do with a seemingly obscure citation about Rachel weeping for her children? Is this not just a means to illustrate the mourning of the mothers of Bethlehem? A greater understanding of the context of Jeremiah 31:15 will reveal abundant clues in our search for the intention of Matthew. This is more than adornment of the weeping women of Bethlehem with a sympathetic parallel passage. This is an announcement that while the weeping is bitter, it is now both fulfilled and ended – because Messiah, the executor of the new covenant has come.

Context of Jeremiah 31:15

Jeremiah 31:15 is found in the midst of a section of prophesies of redemption, restoration and a new covenant. In chapters 30-33, Jeremiah prophesies hope for the remnant of God’s people who submit to God’s judgment and await his salvation. It is a magnificent message of mercy sandwiched in between prophesies of doom which make up the central theme of the other sections of Jeremiah.

The central theme of Jeremiah as a whole is that the people of Israel are going to go into exile for their sins, and that Babylon is the vessel of God’s judgment. The people must repent and go willingly into exile, from which God will deliver a remnant after 70 years are completed after which the Lord will restore them to the land and execute a new covenant. Chapters 30-33 are the bright spot in an otherwise bleak collection of prophesies.

Chapter 31 in particular is full of hope for the people of God who are suffering captivity. In it is recorded precious promises, that because of the love of Yahweh the remnant of Israel will be restored to their land and worship their God (1-9), that they will be redeemed and comforted, their mourning turned into joy, their sorrow traded for gladness (10-14), that although Rachel weeps with bitter lament because her children are no more (15), Israel should weep no more because there is a hope for their future and they will return from captivity. Yahweh will have mercy on Ephraim/Israel, his “dear son” and they will return to their cities, their fortunes restored (16-25). The Lord will watch over the restored and humbled remnant, “to build and to plant” and in the days to come Yahweh “will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” in which he will “put [his] law within them, and…write it on their hearts. Yahweh will “forgive their iniquity, and…remember their sin no more” (26-34), and he will forever be faithful to his covenant (35-37).

Jeremiah 31:15, in its context clearly functions as a contrast to the hope that God is promising to Israel in the surrounding verses. This is indicated by the fact that in the sentence immediately following the mention of Rachel’s lament, the Lord explicitly instructs Israel to “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for…they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the Lord” (16-17). Jeremiah is making a point that although the weeping is bitter, the pain is immeasurable, the children “no more,” salvation has come. Yahweh is going to save the remnant, forgive their sin and restore them to his special presence and blessing.

Rachel’s weeping is used by Jeremiah as a symbol of the mourning of Israel suffering under the pains of judgment. Ramah is the “traditional site of Rachel’s grave,” and it “would hardly escape Matthew that it was also the site of the gathering of the exiles in 586 for the march to Babylon.”[19] The point of Jeremiah’s reference to the mourning of Rachel at the sight of the deportation is to contrast this with the glorious announcement of the coming redemption of God. They ought now to stop mourning, and to hope in Yahweh, who will “turn their mourning into joy” and “give them gladness for sorrow” (31:13).

Yahweh says “I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days…I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (33:14-15). So 31:15 “stands out conspicuously as the one note of gloom in a chapter of joy, and…its function in context is to throw in relief the joy of the promised return of Rachel’s lost children…a pattern of exile and return, of loss and sorrow as a prelude to restoration and joy.”[20] Jeremiah asserts that this restoration will take place, and the new covenant will be executed, by the “righteous Branch,” the son of David.

Theological Significance of the Use of Jeremiah 31:15 in Matthew 2:18

Matthew extracts these theological gems from Jeremiah and imports them into his narrative via the citation of 31:15 to demonstrate that the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophesy has come – the son of David, Jesus the Christ has come as the restoration of Israel and he will execute the new covenant in his blood (Luke 22:20, 1 Cor. 11.25).  The tears of the mothers of Bethlehem are bringing to completion all the weeping of captivity, “the tears of the Exile are now being “fulfilled” – i.e., the tears begun in Jeremiah’s day are climaxed and ended by the tears of the mothers of Bethlehem.” [21] Yet Israel is now to stop weeping, as the fulfillment of exilic tears comes in the midst of the fulfillment of precious promises. The righteous Branch has been born and he will restore Israel – “the heir to David’s throne has come, the Exile is over, the true Son of God has arrived, and he will introduce the new covenant promised by Jeremiah.”[22] Although Rachel’s children are “no more,” there is hope in Jesus, the true Israel, who has fled to Egypt.

A closer reading of Jeremiah 31:15 within the context of Jeremiah 30-33 demonstrates that Matthew genuinely grasps the theological meaning of Jeremiah’s prophecy. Again, as in 2:15, Matthew has not twisted the Scriptures, nor has he shown disregard for the theology contained in Jeremiah’s prophecy. Matthew and Jeremiah were both speaking about the same redemptive pattern, the end of bitter lament at the coming of the righteous Branch who would restore Israel. What Jeremiah spoke about in seed form, Matthew recorded as the fully grown tree. The weeping of the mothers of Bethlehem fulfilled the symbolic mourning of Rachel for Israel’s sons going into Babylonian captivity. Now the suffering of captivity has come to completion. Now the son of David will execute the new covenant, a new hope and a future for the exiled people of God.

Matthew’s Central Theme: Christ the Fulfillment of Israel

The theme which emerges from the two citations above are not unique in Matthew’s gospel. It was argued above that central to Matthew’s gospel is the theme of Christ’s recapitulation of the history of Israel to the end that He thus redeems and fulfills it. He does this as a second Adam, true David, faithful son of Abraham and obedient Israelite in order that Jew and Gentile may be reconciled to the Father. Matthew develops this theme often with the formula “to fulfill,” however, he does not always use this formula to do this.

As one reads the gospel carefully, it is undeniable that many patterns begin to emerge in Jesus’ life and ministry which are familiar to those who are more intimately acquainted with the OT. These patterns are obvious when referred to directly as a citation, yet there are perhaps hundreds of similar allusions which are more implicit. It is hard to deny that the combined weight of these allusions are intended by Matthew to support what is the major theme of his gospel – Jesus Christ as fulfillment of “the whole history of Israel.”[23]

Consider the following examples.

Matthew records “the Genesis (or genealogy) of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1-17). Jesus, as Moses, was delivered from infant death and, as Israel, was brought out of Egypt (Matt. 2:13-15). Just as Israel had done, Jesus underwent baptism in the Jordan River because it was “fitting” to “fulfill all righteousness.”[24] Just as Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years, Christ was led into the wilderness for 40 days to be tempted by the devil. In triumphant contrast to Israel and to Adam, Jesus Christ overcame the temptation to disobey God (Matt. 4:1-11). Christ symbolically ascended a mountain (like Sinai) to explain the heart to the law of God with authority, stating that he in no way advocated for its abolition, but for its fulfillment which he would accomplish. The law, misinterpreted by Israel’s leaders needed to be explained again to the people (Matt. 5-7). Jesus performs miracles like those recorded in the ministry of Elijah and Elisha: healing a leper (Matt. 8:1-4; 2 Ki. 5:1-14), healing the servant of a gentile official (Matt. 8:5-13; 2 Ki. 5:1-14), a child restored from death (Matt. 9:18-26; 1 Ki. 17:23; 2 Ki. 4:36) and multiplies loaves (Matt. 14:13-21 and 2 Ki. 4:42-44).

As Joshua led the conquest of Canaan, Jesus cast out demons from Israel (Matt. 8:16).[25] The one greater than Jonah (Matt. 12:41) wakes up from sleep in the boat and has authority in himself to calm the raging sea (Matt. 8:23-27). The one greater than Solomon (Matt. 12:42), whose wisdom couldn’t be confounded (Matt. 21:27; 22:46), opened his mouth in proverbs (Matt. 13:35).[26] The one who, as the persecuted prophets, spoke woe to the religious leaders (Matt. 23). The one greater than Israel’s temple (Matt. 12:6) would raise up the temple again in three days (Matt. 27:40). The one who, as David, was betrayed by his close associate (Matt. 26:47-50). Even this one who bore the suffering of the people of God as the prophesied suffering servant to fulfill the “Scriptures of the prophets” (Matt. 26:56), yet who was raised to sit at “the right hand of Power” to fulfill Psalm 110 (Matt. 26:64).

Thus it is demonstrated that what Matthew does in 2:15 and 2:18 is not unique in his Gospel. Matthew is showing that Jesus is the fulfillment of the history of Israel. Now that the veil has been removed, one can understand the OT as having its end or goal fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. This Christo-telic lens is indeed what Christ himself revealed to the Apostles, when “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27).


In conclusion, Matthew’s hermeneutical method in his gospel has been vindicated from the charge of “twisting the Scriptures.” His use of the OT has been explained and verified as nothing innovative. Matthew is simply doing what he observed in the OT prophets and in the interpretive methods of his own Master and Lord.[27] Indeed, modern interpreters must take care that they do not remain under the rebuke of Jesus:

O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory? And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27).

If Matthew’s hermeneutic is legitimate, then should it be an example to be followed? Should Christians today seek to find Christ in the OT? The answer must be a cautious yes.[28] If Matthew finds Christ in genealogies, history, the law, the prophets, the psalms and the proverbs – then his readers should too. All Scripture moves toward the goal of Jesus Christ and the unfolding of this can be found on every page of the OT. It certainly helps to make more sense of the OT and ensure that it can be utilized devotionally as Christian Scripture and not only as disconnected narratives of exemplars, good, bad and ugly.

For example, one can read the Psalms with the veil removed, no longer settling for the emptiness of direct self-application of promises which never pan out or seem realistic in the first place. Prophetic passages that once seemed obscure can be read with great joy in light of the work of Christ that they anticipated. The acts of God in history can be more fully appreciated as patterned to point to the escalated redemptive works of Christ. Even genealogies can be devotional material with a Christo-telic lens.

Reading the OT with a view to where it is moving and to whom it points is the key to unlocking its beauty and greatest benefits. So it is the privilege of Christians to responsibly mine the OT for the gems of Christ that they might be enriched devotionally and to be filled with greater joy and praise to the glory of God. May the hearts of God’s people so burn within them as he opens his Scriptures to them!

“Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road,
while he opened to us the Scriptures?”

Luke 24:32

[1]             S.V. McCasland, “Matthew Twists the Scriptures” The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New, ed. G.K. Beale (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994), 149.

[2]             Richard T. Mead, “A Dissenting Opinion about Respect for Context in Old Testament Quotations,” The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New, ed. G.K. Beale (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994), 154-155.

[3]             Francis Foulkes, “The Acts of God: A Study of the Basis of Typology in the Old Testament,” The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New, ed. G.K. Beale (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994), 342.

[4]             Louis Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1950), 146. Berkhof goes on to stress that the “proper way to the understanding of a type lies through the study of the symbol. The question must be settled first of all of what moral or spiritual truth the Old Testament symbols conveyed to the Israelites. And only after this is answered satisfactorily should the expositor proceed to the further query as to how this truth was realized on a higher plane in the New Testament.” By symbol he means the original person, place or event which was revealed in the OT.

[5]             D.A. Carson, “Matthew,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 92.

[6]             Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), 223.

[7]             I am thankful for Dennis E. Johnson’s work on the OT use of the OT (cited above), from which I have drawn these examples.

[8]             That is, Christ is the end or goal of all the OT.

[9]             Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), 225.

[10]            Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton, Let the Reader Understand: A Guide to Understanding and Interpreting the Bible (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2002), 47-48.

[11]            The NASB and KJV render Hosea 11:5 with the negative clause “not” as does the ESV – “They shall not return to the land of Egypt.” However, negation of the return to Egypt is disputed as a faithful rendering of this text as it contradicts the immediate flow of thought in the chapter. Just 6 verses later (11) we read that Israel “shall come trembling like birds from Egypt.” The ESV footnotes an alternate reading “they shall surely return to the land of Egypt”, which would make more sense in light of Hosea’s numerous other references to a return to Egypt (see 7:16; 8:13; and 9:3 – “Ephraim shall return to Egypt”) which was a fulfillment of the covenant curse in Deuteronomy 28:68. The NIV renders with the negative clause but as a rhetorical question, “Will they not return to Egypt and will not Assyria rule over them because they refuse to repent?” (Hosea 11:5, NIV)

[12]            G.K. Beale, “The Use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15: One More Time,” JETS 55/4 (2012), 699-700.

[13]            D.A. Carson, “Matthew,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 92.

[14]            Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), 208.

[15]            Ibid.

[16]            Craig L. Blomberg, “Matthew,” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 10.

[17]            D.A. Carson, “Matthew,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 93.

[18]            See discussion above on the context of Matthew 2:15

[19]            R.T. France, “The Formula-Quotations of Matthew 2 and the Problem of Communication.” The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New, ed. G.K. Beale (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994), 127.

[20]            Ibid, 128.

[21]            D.A. Carson, “Matthew,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 95.

[22]            Ibid.

[23]            Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton, Let the Reader Understand: A Guide to Understanding and Interpreting the Bible (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2002), 47-48.

[24]            Baptism pointed back to creation and the flood narrative and indicated a new creation out of judgment. Jesus underwent baptism just as Noah was brought through the waters of the flood at the judgment of the wicked, and just as Israel went through the waters of the exodus at the judgment of Pharaoh’s army and again later the waters of the Jordan after the purging of the unbelieving generation. At Christ’s baptism, the Spirit of God descended as a dove upon the son of God (Mt. 3:16), just as he was “hovering over the face of the waters” at creation (Gen. 1:2). Here Christ is patterned as anti-type of Adam, Noah and Israel. What Lamech hoped was true of his offspring Noah, “this one will bring relief” from the curse (Gen. 5:29), was fulfilled in the person and work of God’s son, at whose baptism it was pronounced – “this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17).

[25]            The word for “cast out” in Matthew’s account of the driving out of demons is ekballo. In the LXX, ekballo is used in Ex. 33:2, Deut. 11:23 and elsewhere to describe God’s command to “cast out” the wicked idolatrous Canaanites.

[26]            Psalm 78:2 is quoted by Matthew, the ESV renders the Hebrew word mashal with “parable,” but this the same word is translated as “proverb” in the book of proverbs (see Prov. 1:1; 10:1; 25:1). A parable is thus synonymous as a type of proverb.

[27]            “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me” (John 5:46).

[28]            Berkhof gives three helpful guidelines for typology: “(1) There must be some notable real point of resemblance between a type and its antitype…(2) There must be some Scriptural evidence that it was so designed of God,” although he clarifies that it does not have to be “expressly so designated in the New Testament.” Lastly, “(3) A type always prefigures something future…this distinguishes it from a symbol.” Louis Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1950), 144.

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