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Jesus and Messianic Prophecy: Making a Mess of Messianic

January 27, 2014

I hope and suspect that my last few articles about Messianic prophecy have made what is often seen as a simple subject (God thoughtfully throws out a few divine predictions so that we can confirm His later actions and possibly His miracle-working status) a much more complex one.  What I want to do here is revisit both John’s avoidance of Messianic prophecy and Matthew’s interesting use of it and use these to discuss the general topic of the use of prophecy in the New Testament.

Let’s start with Matthew.  My proposal (which I will not recap here for reasons of space) differs from the “standard” evangelical version in part because it changes how Matthew the author approaches the use of prophecy in his gospel.  Now, Matthew the author (as opposed to Matthew the scribe taking God’s dictation) isn’t always very popular in evangelical circles but it’s pretty hard to deny his existence.  In my model one not only needs to acknowledge Matthew the author but also understand Matthew’s broad narrative aims.  Failure to do so lessens or distorts the impact of the prophecies he cites.

This is in contrast to a simpler (and common) reading in which Matthew may or may not be doing something with the birth narrative (in terms of laying groundwork for his larger narrative aims) but he is approaching prophecy in a much more straightforward fashion: whenever he hits a fulfilled prophecy he states it whether or not it fits with the surrounding material.  As I said in an earlier article I feel like this creates a real problem because sometimes this means that Matthew is citing prophecies as being fulfilled when the fulfillment doesn’t seem to match the prophecy.

Another way to state this would be to say that the simpler reading uses prophecy like an identification card: it exists to confirm that a particular action or person comes from God.  My reading holds that Matthew is using references to prophecy to show how Jesus fits within the larger story of Israel.  While a lot of Christians (especially Protestants) are willing to believe that Jesus is only barely part of the same story as the Old Testament and that he represents a rebooting of the salvific plan under new terms, this is almost certainly not acceptable to Matthew’s audience who wants to know the opposite – how is it that this strange preacher is actually a Messiah who is the proper capstone of Israel’s history?  Indeed, Matthew probably faces resistance on the grounds that claiming that Jesus is the Messiah does require a “rebooting” model of salvation and so he is interested in showing how this is not true.

What this assumes is that narrative is important.  Not only does Matthew expect his readers to be familiar with prophecy he expects them to be familiar with the arc of the story (their story) and to see Jesus (and their own belief and following of Jesus) as part of that arc.  For instance, my claims about his use of Jeremiah’s prophecy about women weeping in Ramah assumes that Matthew’s readers will hear not only the similarity between this passage and the women of Bethlehem weeping for their slaughtered children but also that these same readers will recognize this as a downturn in the story that is still waiting for the reversal in which God’s people are vindicated.  (And, from there, catch that this new child who escapes the Bethlehem slaughter is the instrument of that reversal.)

I believe that John is doing something similarly complex.  I referred to John’s/Jesus in John’s tactic in regards to Messianic prophecy as avoidance but this is only a surface level description.  Jesus is continuously engaging with Messianic prophecy in a deep way while avoiding it in a shallow one.  The key to this is understanding how the signs work in John.

Like prophecy, there are two ways of viewing the signs in John.  One of them is to see them as miracles that prove, through disruption of the natural order, that the miracle-worker must be in contact with a greater power.  The other is to see the signs as actual signs – references to other things (backed up with power to be sure) that lead the viewer to the conclusion that God (the correct god no less) is acting in specific ways.

This second reading is widely held by careful readers of John.  For instance, it has become commonplace for people to point out that when Jesus turns water into wine he turns water for ceremonial washing into wine for a party and that this is about the transformation of duty under the Law into celebration in the Kingdom of God.  Similarly, Jesus references manna from heaven when he refers to feeding the 5,000 and then miraculously crosses a body of water – these are probably both Moses-miracle.  (In which case we should remember that John has told us in Chapter 1 that “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ”.)

The key here is to link the signs to prophecy.  Does Jesus in John fulfill the specific prophecy about coming from Bethlehem?  If all we had was the gospel of John then we wouldn’t know.  However, we would know that here is a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:151), one who opens the eyes of the blind and releases the captives (Isaiah 42:7), and even (if we pay enough attention to Jesus’ interactions with Samaritans) the one who rejoins the scattered tribes (Jeremiah 3:18 and Ezekiel 37:19 among many, many others).  The last prophecy on my short list here illustrates the larger trend: there are many things that are not exceptionally specific that appear in the prophetic message that are part of the hope for the age to come.  Of course the God Who made called the nations that became Israel and Judah would have a plan to redeem all of His people.  While the prophets promise this specifically at times it would also be against the entire prophetic narrative, the whole story of things being set right, if this did not happen.

What Jesus engages with constantly is this sense of narrative.  The Law and the Prophets are not merely a grab-bag of supernatural predictions but are part of a story about God Whose character can be discerned by how He acts.  When, for instance, Jesus is accused of working on the Sabbath he defends himself by saying, rather cryptically, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.”  For those with ears to hear, the message is clear: God works good even on the day of rest and so when Jesus stops to heal a man on the Sabbath he is not violating God’s Law but rather doing God’s work (healing) as God Himself does.  Those who wish to see God’s will as their own but with more firepower were, of course, angry with Jesus.  Those who wanted God’s will found it hard to deny that Jesus was doing what God would even if he was doing so in a confusing manner.

In fact, this also makes clear one of Jesus’ responses to the direct question of whether he is the Messiah: “The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.”  In other words, “If you were paying any attention to how God acts you wouldn’t have this question.  What confuses you is that you had an agenda for God and here I am wielding God’s power but not in the way you wanted and so you’re unhappy.”

Obviously this requires a much more careful reading of prophecy than if Jesus had (in John) mostly spoken of birthplaces and specific actions to be fulfilled.  But that is probably the point – while it would be convenient if one needed merely to carry around a list if prophecies and check once every few years to see if they had been fulfilled, this would not connect you to God in any way.  Forcing you to understand what God intends to do does connect you to God though.  While I will expand upon this in the next article it’s worth bringing this up to conclude this article as well: the complex way of handling prophecy produces a stronger faith through better knowledge of God than the simple way.

[1] In context this verse appears to mostly mean “a prophet, like I am a prophet” but there is ample evidence that by the first century the verse was read with Messianic connotations.

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