Christmas in October: The Meaning of “Fulfill”

Having admitted in an earlier post in this series that I tend to be a bit of a curmudgeon about Christmas in the US (and perhaps a bit of a contrarian about much of what we Christians say and do), I still think it is important to pay attention to how often we make things difficult for ourselves. One of the ways we do this is by continuing to insist that several quotations and allusions to the Old Testament in Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ birth are meant to be understood as predictions.

Certainly the New Testament writers use their experience of what God has done in Jesus as their new way of seeing the Old Testament. Sometimes, they seem to us to stretch it a bit—though not nearly as much as some scholars claim. I think one of the reasons they are often accused of stretching too far is due to a rather consistent misunderstanding of Matthew’s use of the term “fulfill.” It is not primarily a word that he used to speak of predictions, but rather a word he used to speak of repeating patterns much like the author of Hebrews used the word “type.” He was not stretching these Old Testament passages into fabricated predictions so much as claiming that God tends to work within patterns.

This would be consistent with the Old Testament writers’ claims that God worked within the same patterns over and over (for example, the many “impossible conception/birth” narratives in the Old Testament). Understanding this precedent gives Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives a very different twist. Of course, there is more than one way to understand the patterns. Some will think these patterns are a sign that the authors made up all of these narratives as fictional history, and others of us will think that this is a clue into one of the ways God chooses to work in human history—patterns with continuity and discontinuity. (If you read these posts regularly, you are aware that I fit into the latter of these two groups.)

Matthew 5:17 gives us a fairly straightforward example of how Matthew/Jesus sees the concept “fulfill:”

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

The basic idea here is not “fulfilling” a prediction made by the law/Torah, but rather “filling-full” of deeper meaning a pattern that has already been established by God’s actions in human history. It is this meaning “filling the pattern fuller” that makes sense of Matthew’s “fulfill” statements in the birth narrative.

Matthew 1:21-23

21“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:   23  “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

Rather than an arbitrary misuse of Isaiah 7:14 as though it were a prediction, Matthew is using an Old Testament prophetic encounter that was clearly stated to be happening within 35 years of Isaiah’s original pronouncement in Isaiah 7 as a “so much more” pattern. If the young woman back then showed such faith in the midst of national hard times, how much more is this true of Mary who also is responding to God faithfully?

Matthew 2:14-15  

14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’”

This quotation comes from Hosea 11:1-2 which clearly looks back to the liberation of the slaves from Egypt and their subsequent tendency to be disobedient children of God. Either Matthew is terribly misusing this quotation, or Matthew believes that Jesus is re-living a pattern in which God has acted before. Jesus is in some sense God’s Israel focused down into one person, and this time the son will not be disobedient as the rest of the Gospel indicates.

Matthew 2:16-18

16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the magi 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah (31):  18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Here, Rachel’s weeping at her own death during her son’s birth becomes the pattern for the ancestors of Israel weeping over the exile of the Jewish people into Assyria and Babylon until there can be rejoicing at their return to the land of promise. In Jeremiah, this pattern slips over into a prediction of a coming “new covenant” of a new kind of forgiveness, and finally into an “end of the age” type of return to God by the people of Israel. Though there are predictions in this passage, the Rachel passage in Jeremiah and in Matthew are pretty clearly poetic uses of a pattern of weeping over the plight and failures of God’s people.

Matthew 2:21-23

21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” 

This may be the closest to a prediction coupled with the word “fulfilled” in the birth narrative. The problem is no one knows what passage Matthew meant to be quoting—if any. Jesus was not a “Nazarene” in the Old Testament sense (no wine and never cutting the hair). And, though the prophets—especially Isaiah 9—sometimes predict God will do something big in Galilee (northern Israel), there is no quotation even close to Matthew’s wording here.  I honestly don’t know what Matthew was trying to do here; and most of the scholarly guesses admit to being just guesses.

Summary:

Matthew’s view of Jesus’ birth is that God is already working in familiar patterns even from Jesus’ conception. As the Gospels proceed, all four of them find ways to maintain that Jesus was called by God to re-live the patterns of Israel and Israel’s history with God. God has allowed God’s-self to be perceived in human history in many ways in the past. Now, in Jesus, God’s self-revelation is the clearest it has ever been. And, part of how God does this is by leading Jesus to a new and complete faithfulness that “fills these patterns full” of new meaning and new expressions of God’s presence and empowering.  It all begins with the faithful responses of Mary and Joseph even before Jesus is born. This gives us a powerful understanding of what we should expect in the rest of the Gospel narrative.

As always, if you have any questions or thoughts about this post, or if there is another topic you’d like me to explore in a future post, please leave a comment. I always enjoy hearing and responding to your questions and thoughts.

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