The New Testament frequently cites Old Testament prophecy about Jesus. A quick glance, even just through Matthew, shows just how much this was emphasized. Core to the Christian faith is the belief that Jesus fulfills the prophetic word of God in the Old Testament. The ancient Nicene Creed says Jesus “suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”1
Yet another quick glance can make this whole concept confusing. If you try to peek at the Old Testament references for these prophecies, you usually don’t see what they have to do with Jesus. Take, for example, Matthew 2:15. It says:
He stayed there until Herod’s death, so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled: Out of Egypt I called My Son.
The reference for this quote is Hosea 11:1. So you go back and take a look at Hosea 11:1, and what do you find?
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son.
The verse that was cited as a prophecy about Jesus was originally quite specifically about Israel. So how does that work? Was Matthew wrong? Did he misuse Hosea 11:1 and take it out of context?
I’ve heard a lot of people respond to this basically like this: “Well, maybe the verse was mainly talking about Israel, but it was also secretly a prophecy about Jesus. Then God revealed this to Matthew in the New Testament.” You get the impression from answers like this that the Old Testament is just sprinkled with random references to Jesus, almost like inspired Easter eggs, unnoticeable until the Holy Spirit points them out.
I don’t think this is the right way to understand these prophecies. There is no Easter egg hunt, nor are hidden meanings in play, at least in most cases. What we’re missing is that the prophecies for Christ aren’t a connect-the-dots game. People assume that these prophecies are a strict progression of prediction to fulfillment, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, they’re more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff. Oh, wait, that’s Doctor Who.2
What I mean to say is that these prophecies are a lot more about major themes in the relationship, covenant, and history of God and man than they are about checkboxes for Jesus’ life. The story of God, creation, mankind, and Israel all comes together in Christ’s own life, death, and resurrection. So Jesus fulfills, as it were, all of the destinies of election. The promises to David, Moses, Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, Noah, and even Adam all reach their goals in Jesus, the only human who could, being Himself God, work out the right relationship in covenant between God and man.3
What does this mean for Old Testament prophecies about Christ? Their main point is not to make a list of criteria for the Messiah to fulfill. In fact, they can’t really be used that way. (Some people who invented statistical apologetics may be unhappy, but ah, well.) Instead, the primary links are about ongoing themes in the God/world/Israel relationship. So applying that to Hosea 11:1, it’s clear what is going on. Israel was essentially born out of Egypt, before wandering in the wilderness and finally claiming the Promised Land. Jesus now stands to reinvent Israel’s history in His own life, representing His people and undoing all of their mistakes. So He too was called out of Egypt in His youth, and before long spent 40 days in the wilderness before invading the Promised Land with the kingdom of God.4
This same idea can apply to stuff in the Psalms. For example, today I was reading Psalm 34 and ran across verse 20, which was cited in the Gospels about Jesus’ bones not being broken on the cross. Yet in context, this hardly appears to be about the coming Messiah. Here is the last paragraph5 of the psalm, which includes verse 20:
Many adversities come to the one who is righteous,
but the Lord delivers him from them all.
He protects all his bones;
not one of them is broken.
Evil brings death to the wicked,
and those who hate the righteous will be punished.
The Lord redeems the life of His servants,
and all who take refuge in Him will not be punished.
This passage is talking about how God treats His righteous followers. He protects them, saves them, and vindicates them. This ideal of a righteous servant suffering for God is prominent both in the Psalms and in the prophets, and in both cases Israel is often treated as just such a servant. God’s people suffer unjustly as they try to follow Him, but He promises to protect them and ultimately save them from all harm and give them triumph and glory over their enemies.
Jesus, as we see, becomes the ultimate embodiment of this ideal. He fulfills by Himself perfectly the role of the suffering, righteous servant present in this psalm, and in other places like Isaiah 53. The role that Israel was meant to play, Jesus performed perfectly. He lived and died as the Righteous One, the true Israel, and so God fulfilled His promises. He protected His bones from being broken, and indeed raised Him back to life in glory and honor.
I hope by now you can start to see what I’m talking about. Very few of the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus are fulfilled in a straightforward, literal detail. But that doesn’t mean they’re random or hidden. The whole story of God and His people is wrapped up in Christ and His fulfillment of all God’s purposes. If you just study the Scriptures, you can see how His story shines brightly.