By Paul Copan
You are probably familiar with books such as All the Messianic Prophecies of the Bible.1 They list hundreds of Old Testament “prophecies” and their New Testament “fulfillments.” But when we look more closely, we are disappointed because many of them do not seem to predict that Jesus is the Messiah of Nazareth. No wonder many charge that New Testament writers unfairly mined or sloppily plundered the Old Testament for prooftexts to demonstrate Jesus is the Messiah. These critics believe New Testament authors make these texts say something Old Testament authors never intended; in fact, some charge that New Testament writers even fabricated stories such as the Virgin Birth.
So what is going on? Did New Testament writers really rip Old Testament texts out of their context just to suit some Jesus-is-Messiah campaign? As we will see, this just is not so.
First, Two Examples
Let’s look at two sample passages. First, Matthew 2:15 cites Hosea 11:1: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Anyone looking at the original context can see Hosea is referring to Israel’s Exodus out of Egypt. Indeed, “Israel is my firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22). The prophet was not making a future prediction of Jesus’ departure from Egypt once Herod was no longer a threat.2
The second is Isaiah 7:14, which Matthew cited in 1:23. Around Christmas, we hear the sounds of Handel’s Messiah about a virgin conceiving, bearing a son, and calling him “Immanuel.” Isaiah predicted Mary and Jesus here, right? Well, it does not seem so when we look at the context of Isaiah 7:14, which clearly refers to an eighth-century B.C. setting. The prophet Isaiah is addressing Ahaz, king of Judah, who fears an invasion from the northern kingdom of Israel and its partner, Syria. God’s message to Ahaz is this “sign”: “A maiden will be with child [i.e., conceive] and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (author’s translation). Yet the context indicates the child will be born in Ahaz’s day — not hundreds of years later. Moreover, Ahaz would recognize this sign-child: “before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken” (7:16, NASB3).
Who, then, is this young woman of marriageable age? Some scholars believe she might be Isaiah’s wife: “I went unto the prophetess; and she conceived and bare a son” (8:3, KJV) — which sounds a lot like 7:14. His name is Maher-shalal-hash-baz (“quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil”). This son is a sign of God’s protective presence with the people of Judah and Jerusalem and is called “Immanuel” (“God with us”).4 So, “before the boy knows how to cry out ‘My mother’ or ‘My father’… the wealth of Damascus [Syria] and the spoil of Samaria [Israel] will be carried away before the king of Assyria” (8:4, NASB). God will extinguish the threat of these two kings through the Assyrian army. Earlier in Isaiah 7:3, we come across Isaiah’s first son, Shear-jashub (“a remnant will return”) — a reminder that exile will not finish off God’s people. Both of Isaiah’s children are “for signs and wonders in Israel from the Lord of hosts” (8:18, NASB).