What’s in a name? Consider these twelve weird American town names (I’ll not mention any towns in Maryland or in Pennsylvania; Maryland, because no one here will laugh at a town named Accident, and Pennsylvania, because this blog is rated PG-13). Here are my top twelve strange town names. We have Boring, Oregon; No Name, Colorado; Why, Arizona; and Why Not, North Carolina. There’s a Yum Yum, Tennessee; a Ding Dong, Texas; a Zig Zag, Oregon; and a Good Grief, Idaho. And let us not forget, Bugtussle, Tennessee; Fink, Nebraska; Nothing, Arizona; and last, but not least, my favorite, Bitter End, Tennessee!
Names are funny things. Our question today concerns the name, Immanuel. We are trying to figure out the identity of the Immanuel spoken of in Isaiah 7:14. I argued in the last post that it is Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (Isa. 8:3). Matthew seems to say it is Jesus (Mt. 1:23). How do we decide? Perhaps, we need to look at how people today view the relationship between Jesus and the Old Testament. There are at least five main ways.
First, some say there is no connection. Isaiah is speaking to Ahaz, and the whole passage relates only to that time period. If the New Testament claims that it fulfills the Old Testament, it is simply proof texting. Levine and Brettler seem to endorse this perspective. The New Testament authors are forcing Jesus upon the OT.
Second, others see connections everywhere. Ask them, and they will dogmatically tell you that Jesus fulfills over 300 Old Testament prophecies. This group reads Isaiah 7, and they can barely see Ahaz. All they can see is the virgin birth and Jesus. That may not sound so strange to you because that might have been the first thing that popped into your head, too.
Third, some would argue that, strictly speaking, Isaiah was only addressing Ahaz, but they would also affirm that God, the divine author, was using Isaiah to speak better than he knew. In this case, while Isaiah had no idea that he was prophesying Jesus’ birth, he most certainly was. Some call this “double fulfillment.” Think of it this way: You’re out hiking, and you see this huge mountain off into the distance. Now, you can see some of the features from your vantage point, but others are a bit hazy. But as you get closer, you realize (surprise!) you’ve not been looking at a mountain, but two mountains: one near and one far away; one small and one incredibly large. So it is with prophecy. The prophet speaks as if there was only one fulfillment (the small mountain), but with a little perspective we learn that he was also speaking to a day far removed (the large mountain). The first fulfillment is always partial and rather normal (the woman that Isaiah is pointing to, gets married, consummates the marriage, conceives and has a son), but the real fulfillment is spectacular (the virgin birth)!
Fourth, this group makes it easy. If the New Testament says Jesus fulfills a certain Old Testament passage or symbol or type, then he does. If the New Testament is silent, we also ought not to see Jesus there. Basically, this view says the apostles know best and we should just follow their lead. And even if we don’t see exactly how Jesus fulfills a particular prophecy, we should just trust the apostles and do what they say.
Fifth, and last. This group looks for theological connections that might hide just beneath the surface of the text. If the theology of the Old Testament seems to need to be completed by the theology of the New, then we have warrant to see if the two match. Here, for instance, they would point out that while Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz was a sign that God was with Ahaz and the people, Jesus was truly God with us in its fullest, most beautiful sense. In short, it is all about the theological connections, connections that the apostles have identified that are now being fulfilled by Jesus in a greater way than anyone ever imagined.
Now, maybe before we ask which one is right, we ought to ask which one of these views best represents your thinking. And maybe before we answer which one is right, we need to ask how the New Testament authors would have answered. Unfortunately, they would have shared another list with us.
First, they would have argued that Jesus fulfills direct prophecies. For instance, Micah 5:2 predicted that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Matthew tells us he was. Zechariah 9:9 predicted that the Messiah would enter Jerusalem on a donkey. All four gospels tell us that is exactly how it happened. Psalm 22:18 predicts that the guards would cast lots for Jesus’ clothes. John describes this very thing. Now, there are several other passages like these that we could examine, but not hundreds more. In fact, predictive prophecies are relatively rare. And so, while we often think that this is the most common way Jesus fulfills the Old Testament, we would be mistaken. And that means that if we want to see the complete picture of how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament, we need to look beyond a few direct prophecies.
Second, they would have argued that Jesus fulfills the Old Testament by recapitulating Israel’s story. Time and time again, Jesus reenacted critical moments in Israel’s history. But instead of being unfaithful and disobedient as Israel had been, Jesus was always found to be faithful and obedient. To say it another way, Jesus retraced the path Israel had taken; but where Israel had failed, Jesus succeeded. Why was Jesus tempted in the wilderness? Because Israel had been tempted in the wilderness. Why did the holy family escape to Egypt? Because Israel escaped to Egypt and was enslaved there. Why did Jesus break down the wall of separation that divided Jews from Gentiles? Because Israel had failed to be a light to the nations. In all these ways and more, Jesus recapitulated Israel’s history; but in every case where Israel failed, Jesus remained faithful. And by recapitulating the story of Israel perfectly, Jesus became true Israel. It is a theological connection that cannot be ignored.
Third, they would have argued that what God did in the Old Testament is rebroadcast in the life and ministry of Jesus in a greater, more profound and more brilliant way. The point that Isaiah 7 is making is that God will be with his people in this crisis. This point is picked up dramatically in the gospels because there we see “God with us” in a way about which the Old Testament could only dream. Matthew looks at Jesus–his birth, life, death and resurrection–and says, “truly, he is Immanuel, God with us.” But that is not all. Matthew also sees another connection. He sees a woman. Now remember, in Isaiah she is described by a Hebrew term that means simply, “a young woman of marriageable age.” Now, most young women of marriageable age were virgins in ancient Israel, but that idea is not essential to its meaning. But when we turn to Matthew, we see Mary, a young woman of marriageable age who is, in fact, a virgin, giving birth to a son who is not merely a sign that God is with us, but is in reality God with us. And he is not just a picture of God rescuing his people from the trials of their day, but has literally come to redeem us from our sin so that death and misery and heartache and pain will no longer have a grip on us. Ask Matthew and he would tell you, Jesus expands, makes greater, makes more glorious, everything that is in the Old Testament. In him, everything in the Old Testament is fulfilled in a far greater way. But how did the New Testament authors come to this conclusion? Did they read the Old Testament and realize that’s what the Old Testament authors were intending? No. They began with what they knew to be true: that Jesus was God’s promised Messiah. And they knew this because Jesus rose from the dead. And on that basis, they reread the Old Testament in a fresh, new way. They read it from the perspective of Jesus being the risen Lord and the one to whom the entire Old Testament pointed.
Now certainly, if Matthew was transported back to Isaiah’s day and announced to Isaiah that he was not really talking about Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz when he was prophesying about Immanuel, but rather Jesus who would come 700 years later, Isaiah would have thrown him out on his ear. But transport Isaiah to Matthew’s day and let him see Jesus; and within seconds, he would announce that Jesus was truly our Immanuel, because God, in becoming one of us, had become the greatest possible definition of what it means for God to be with us. In a stunning reversal, it is now Matthew who would show Isaiah how his words fit into God’s ultimate redemptive goal in Christ Jesus to whom the whole Old Testament pointed.
But doesn’t that mean the New Testament authors were taking the Old Testament out of context and squeezing Jesus into places where he never belonged and that Levine and Brettler were right?
I would love to answer that, but we’ve come to the Bitter End, even though we’re not in Tennessee! Next week, we will conclude this series and wrap up all the loose ends. In the meantime, think about what Isaiah did with Isaiah 7 because that will be the talk of the town next week. I just hope we are not in Boring, Oregon, when we wrap things up.