When Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she got up and began to serve him. That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”
Matthew 8:14-17 (NRSV)
In this passage, we see elements that have been part of Matthew’s portrait of Jesus from very early on. Along with the spiritual restoration of Israel – the encouragement to repent, the forgiveness of sins, the commitment to holiness as defined by the Torah of love – this restoration also plays out in the physical realm. The conflation of spiritual and physical sickness is present in this passage where demons are cast out and the sick are cured.
In this way, Matthew displays for us a physical representation of Jesus’ deliverance from oppression and restoration of Israel. These deeds show us in seed form what Jesus is doing for the nation. The emphasis is not on the miraculous or the supernatural – Matthew mentions this in a one-liner that has all the narrative impact of, “And Jesus ordered waffles.” Rather, the emphasis is that Jesus is about the task of Messiah-work.
As is Matthew’s wont, he wants to portray this using the Old Testament and goes, again, to Isaiah.
Isaiah 53 is part of a much larger segment arguably starting all the way back in the 40s. In this section, the faithful remnant of Israel returns from the Babylonian exile, but they face many hardships. Isaiah portrays them as “Jacob” and “my servant.” They suffer and the whole world sees them, but the end result of their suffering will be the redemption of the entire nation and a renewal of God’s covenant with them – they who suffered under God’s wrath for a time but have now been restored because of His love.
This may be a good time to remind ourselves that when Matthew (or any New Testament author) uses the Old Testament in this way, they are not trying to draw a straight line from “prophecy” to “reference” as though Isaiah, when he wrote, was thinking of Jesus who would come centuries later but, for some reason, decided his present audience needed to hear about it in the middle of a long discourse about the experience of returning from Babylon. But rather, Matthew is using Isaiah’s situation to explain what Jesus is doing. He is, in effect, saying, “You remember Isaiah, right? You remember how he said the returning exiles would suffer before all the nations, but the end result would be the restoration of Israel? Well, buddy, this is happening RIGHT NOW with Jesus and it is bigger than Isaiah could have possibly imagined. Being delivered from Babylon is peanuts compared to this.”
It may seem strange to us to think of using the Old Testament in this way, but this way of reading the Old Testament has been a very common practice in Judaism going back to before the first century. For instance, I was recently going through some old midrashim on Isaiah 52 for reasons completely unrelated to this post, and I found a rabbi who had commented that Isaiah 52 was actually about six different people: Israel, Boaz, David, Solomon, the Messiah, and King Hezekiah. He had a little write up on how the passage was about all six of those people. It didn’t bother him at all that it is staggeringly unlikely that Isaiah intended to write something that captured all six of those people and their disparate situations or that Isaiah’s audience would have associated his words with all of those people. Was he insane? Was he being dishonest with the text?
Well, no, he was saying that what Isaiah was describing in chapter 52 could just as easily be used to understand those other references. They shared in common the thread that Isaiah 52 illuminated. This is just a very Jewish way of understanding and using the Old Testament, and whether you agree with it or not, if you can understand that’s what’s happening and acknowledge it, then a lot of difficulties with the New Testament use of the Old Testament become a lot less problematic.
So, when Matthew uses a passage from Jeremiah 31 about the weeping in Ramah over the exiles being taken to Babylon and says this passage is “about” Bethlehem and Herod’s edict to kill the male babies, this would be a crazy claim if we understand him to mean that Jeremiah’s prophecy about Ramah being comforted is literally about Bethlehem centuries later and not Ramah at all. But if we understand that the meaning packed into Jeremiah’s prophecy of Ramah is also demonstrated, perhaps in a new way, by Jesus escaping the edict in Bethlehem, then it makes sense.
But more than this, if we do not appreciate this way of using the Old Testament, we will miss out on a lot of meaning.
For instance, if we read the early 50s in Isaiah and go straight to Jesus, the best we’ve got is a cool example of prediction. Isaiah talks about a guy getting beat up for the sake of others, and then Jesus got beat up for the sake of others and fulfilled that prophecy, bada boom, bada bing, isn’t prophecy amazing?
Well, I suppose that would be amazing, but the whole reason to connect those two things is to be found in what Isaiah is actually talking about – a faithful remnant of Israel who is righteous, but they still suffer so that the whole nation will be restored to a loving covenant with their God whose wrath and curse come to an end. If we know that’s what Isaiah is talking about, then when Matthew throws out his casual one-liner, a whole world of meaning gets imported to the reader. We now see Jesus the way Matthew wants his readers to see Jesus – as the faithful remnant who will suffer so that the nation will be restored, their curse ended, their sins forgiven, brought back into a loving covenant with their God. This is what Jesus is doing! If you shine Isaiah’s light onto Jesus, all this bursts forth in full color!
But if you don’t bother to unpack the original meaning, then at best all we’ve got is a neat prediction of the future that tells us very little other than OT prophets had their game face on and most of what they said was completely irrelevant to the people they were talking to. And rather than learning from our Jewish forefathers, we find ourselves at odds with them, telling them that they misunderstood their own scriptures for literally centuries – that it never meant any of the things they thought – it was really all detailed predictions about Jesus and had nothing to do with Israel’s history or her situation.
As Christians who believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, we have been taught to read our New Testament, and then read backwards into the Old Testament. But this is not the way the Bible actually came about. Matthew’s readers have read the Old Testament. Matthew wants them to read -forward- into his Gospel the richness of the Old Testament testimony to Israel’s history and experience with her God. We import the meaning of the Old Testament into the New; we do not export the meaning of the New Testament into the Old. That is not how God worked.
If we can see both the Old Testament and Jesus in this way, then the Old Testament is not an obsolete collection of literature we can carve out of our Bibles, nor is it an elaborate allegory of the things taught in the New Testament. It is an indispensable repository of meaning that is intended to inform, shape, and fill our reading of the New Testament. And when we see the powerful, continuous flow of meaning through Israel’s history through the Old and into the New and even beyond, we discover that Jesus did not show up and turn Judaism on its head. Rather, he is the crescendo of a powerful wave that started with Abraham and is headed straight for new creation.
- What was the last Old Testament book you read? What did it tell you about Israel’s story and her relationship with God at that time? How does that help you understand how we get to Jesus’ story?
- However you can swing it, find a random New Testament quotation of or allusion to the Old Testament. Look up the Old Testament source. Forgetting about the New Testament for a minute, what’s going on in that passage? What’s the context? What was said before and after that passage? Now look at the New Testament quotation. How is the meaning you just saw applicable to what the New Testament author is saying?