Matthew’s Use of the Old Testament
One of my favorite things to study in the Bible is the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament. I say USE because the New Testament writers do many things with the Old Testament, only one of which is to interpret it for us. They apply it, draw comparisons with it, use it to illustrate or prove, or simply shade our perceptions with the foreshadows cast by Israel’s sacred history.
As we enter the Christmas season, I’d like to give Matthew his due as a creative and brilliant handler of Old Testament materials by taking a walk through the biblical wonderland of his Christmas narrative in chapter 1:18-25. There, Old Testament references and allusions fall around us like snow, light up our perceptions of Jesus with the vibrant colors of the heroes of faith, and ring the bells of prophetic hope.
The Birth of Jesus
We open the scene with Joseph discovering that his bride-to-be is pregnant. Knowing that he himself is not the father, and being, like the great patriarch of faith, a righteous man, he thinks to divorce the girl quietly to spare her public shame. We hear the soft dinging of Genesis 15:6 as Joseph takes on the luminescence of Abraham.
Being the namesake of the great Old Testament dreamer, who was despised and rejected by his brothers, but sent ahead of them by God’s grace and providence to save many lives, this new Joseph has his own fateful dream. Joseph, the great dreamer, lends his own light for us here, as Genesis 37 chimes in the distance.
The New Testament Joseph
This new Joseph, like his forebear Jacob, beheld an angel of God in his own divine dream. Jacob beheld the angels ascending and descending heaven on the cusp of his first great adventure with God, and earned the name Israel upon his return as he wrestled a divine blessing from the very Angel of Yahweh. Jacob shines in Matthew as the knelling of Genesis 28:10-12 and 32:22-32 splits the air.
The angel greets Joseph with a messianic epitaph of hope from a host of prophetic cathedrals ringing in the coming angelic promise. He hails him, Joseph, Son of David. As David’s descendant, Joseph himself is a messianic hopeful for the fulfillment of the promises of eternal divine rule rising from the house of David. The valleys echo with the reminiscence of 2 Samuel 7; Psalm 2, 110, 132; Isaiah 11, 16, 22; Jeremiah 23, 30, 33, 34, 37; Hosea 3; Amos 9; Zechariah 12 and 13. The starlight of David’s grandeur glitters brightly over the scene.
Like his father Abraham, Joseph is met in this vision with the words, “fear not.” Indeed, here and now, the Lord is preparing Joseph to play his role in fulfilling the very promises given to Abraham on that fateful day. The ultimate inheritor of the promises to Abraham, the blessing poured out to the whole earth is coming into the world through Mary. And this one, born of woman, has been conceived through the Holy Spirit. Genesis 15:1 lends its voice to the chorus of bells.
A Miraculous Birth
Indeed, this is a miraculous birth, greater even than those of Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah. Their stories, as well as the great promise of Immanuel’s birth, are intoned at several points of Matthew’s tale. Mary is “found to be with child.” Joseph’s doubts are met with “Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared.” Of Mary, the angel says, “She will bear a son,” and, “you shall call his name Jesus.” The chime of Genesis 16, 17, and 30, 1 Samuel 1, and Isaiah 7-9 answer the rest.
As a true son of Abraham, Joseph too is commanded, “You shall call His name…” And what a promise attends that command! The Lord declares, “I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” Genesis 17:19 goes ding dong ding!
And what is Joseph commanded to name the child? He is Jesus, which is Greek for Joshua. Here, the Spirit-empowered, prophetic heir of Moses lights our path. This heir is prayed for in Numbers 27:16-17, promised in Deuteronomy 18:15ff, and typified in the first Joshua in Deuteronomy 34. He becomes part of the last days’ hope of Israel and is met in this new Joshua as referenced in several New Testament passages: Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35; Luke 7:16; John 1:21, 25, 6:14, 7:40. The hills go wild with the melodious tintinnabulations of hope no longer deferred.
A Promise Fulfilled
All this, says Matthew, is to fulfill the equally layered promise of the virgin born Immanuel from Isaiah 7:14… a sign as high as heaven and as deep as Sheol. Indeed, the earthly son from Isaiah 7 is a marker of hope for the house of David, born to Isaiah himself in Isaiah 8 as a sign of God’s deliverance. He morphs in Isaiah 9 to one who truly fulfills the name’s promise—Immanuel, God with us—a Divine King comes to rule an eternal kingdom, seated on the throne of David.
From town to town, from distant mountains and out across the fields where shepherds keep their flocks by night and Magi read the starry lights, Matthew lets the Old Testament flutter around us like feathered rain. He illuminates the scene with reflections of the heroes of faith. He rings in the meeting of prophetic hope with the chiming of a host of Christmas bells. And he does it all in only 161 Greek words. It is truly a biblical wonderland of joy.