The NT authors often quote an OT passage, and say it was fulfilled in Christ.  Many Christians use these fulfillments as evidence for the veracity of the Christian faith.  For example, I’ve heard it claimed that the probability of just one man fulfilling 48 different prophecies is something like 1:10157.  It is reasoned that no man could match those odds unless the Biblical prophecies were divine in origin, and thus Jesus must be who He claimed to be.  The problem with this apologetic is that the vast majority of these “messianic prophecies” are neither prophetic, nor messianic in their original context.

Consider, for example, Hosea 11:1 – “When Israel was a young man, I loved him like a son, and I summoned my son out of Egypt.”  Matthew quotes this passage in reference to Jesus’ return to Nazareth, saying, “In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled ‘I called my Son out of Egypt.’” (Matthew 2:14-15)  When one examines the original context of Hosea 11:1, however, they will quickly recognize that this passage is neither prophetic nor messianic.  It is a mere historical recounting of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt.

Why, then, would Matthew quote this passage and say it was fulfilled in Christ?  While Matthew clearly saw some sort of fulfillment of Hosea 11:1 in Jesus’ life, surely he did not see any explicit prophetic fulfillment because there was nothing predictive about it.  As Greg Boyd and Paul Rhodes Eddy noted in The Jesus Legend, the way the NT authors saw Jesus fulfilling many OT passages was not by his “experiencing something that was previously predicted, but in the sense that his experience brings out in a superlative way the significance of what” others had previously experienced.  In other words, the NT authors saw patterns in revelational history that pointed to a greater fulfillment in the Christ, that they recognized as being fulfilled in the life of Jesus.  This method of interpreting Scripture was common in their day, and generally accepted by their audience.  The same is not true of our audience, however.  They understand “fulfilled” only in a predictive sense, and interpret the OT text almost exclusively using a grammatical-historical hermeneutic, and thus will not find the claim that Jesus fulfilled Hosea 11:1 persuasive in the least.  Since Hosea 11:1 was not predictive in its original context, Jesus’ “fulfillment” (in the sense the NT authors understood “fulfillment”) of it doesn’t add much to the evidence for the divine authorship and authority of Scripture (unlike other clearly predictive prophecies such as naming Cyrus as the man who would end the Jewish exile), and thus it will not be particularly helpful to use such fulfillments in our apologetic as evidence of the Bible’s divine authorship, or Christ’s claim to be the Messiah.

I have found at least 14 instances in which a NT author claims some OT passage was fulfilled in Christ, when the original context is either not prophetic, not messianic, or both:

  1. Isa 7:14 in Mt 1:21-22 (virginal conception)
  2. Jer 31:15 in Mt 2:6-18 (slaughter of children)
  3. Hos 11:1 In Mt 2:14-15 (flight to Egypt)
  4. Ps 2:7 in Acts 13:3 (declared to be Son of God)
  5. Is 9:1-2 in Mt 4:13-16 (Galilean ministry)
  6. Ps 78:2-4 in Mt 13:34-35 (speaks in parables)
  7. Dt 18:15 in Acts 3:20 (prophet like Moses)
  8. Is 61:1-2 in Luke 4:18-19 (heal brokenhearted)
  9. Is 53:1 in Jn 12:37-38 (not believed on)
  10. Ps 41:19 in Jn 13:18 (betrayed by friend)
  11. Zech 13:17 in Mt 26:31 (scattering of disciples)
  12. Ps 35:19 and 69:4 in Jn 15:24-25 (hated without reason)
  13. Ps 34:20 in Jn 19:33-36 (no bones broken)
  14. Ps 16:10 and 49:15 in Acts 2:25-33 and 13:35-37 (resurrection)

I don’t want to be misunderstood.  Jesus surely fulfilled many OT passages, but not all of them were predictive in nature and/or messianic in their original context, and thus His fulfillment of them should not be construed as a fulfillment of prophecy.  He did, however, fulfill at least 12 predictive/messianic passages in the OT:

  1. Gen 3:15 (seed of woman will crush the head of the serpent)
  2. Num 24:17 (descendent of Jacob) [this one is not as clear as others]
  3. Gen 49:10 (descendent of Judah; scepter will not depart from Judah)
  4. Is 9:7 (in the line of David) – possible allusion in Luke 1:32-33 et al
  5. Mic 5:2 in Mt 2:4-6 (born in Bethlehem)
  6. Dan 9:25 (69 weeks Messiah cut off)
  7. Is 9:6 (everlasting father, mighty God)
  8. Is 53:7 (silent to accusations) – fulfilled in Mk 15:4-5
  9. Is 53:5 (substitutionary death)
  10. Isaiah 53:9 (buried with rich) – fulfilled in Mt 27:57-60
  11. Zech 12:10/Ps 22:16 (pierced through) – fulfilled in Jn 19:33-37
  12. Is 53:12 (crucified with criminals) – fulfilled in Mk 15:27-28[1]

In our apologetic we should capitalize on these.  Oddly enough, only two of these 12 predictive OT passages are quoted by, or alluded to by a NT author as being fulfilled in Christ: Is 53:12 in Mk 15:27-28 (crucified with criminals), and Zech 12:10/Ps 22:16 in John 19:33-37 (pierced through).  I find it interesting that some of the clearest messianic prophecies are not quoted, or spoken of as being fulfilled in Christ—prophecies such as the 69 weeks of Daniel 9:25, and the “mighty God and everlasting father” prophecy of Isaiah 9:6.

What is the takeaway of all this?  It’s not that the NT authors lied, or that they didn’t understand the OT.  They knew the meaning of the OT texts like the back of their hand, and knew there was nothing predictive or messianic about many of the passages they saw as being fulfilled in Christ (in their original context).  The problem is with our own restrictive use of the term “fulfilled” (to refer exclusively to prediction) as well as our modern insistence on a strict grammatical-historical hermeneutic.  While the NT authors employed such a hermeneutic, it was not the only hermeneutic they used.

The true takeaway is that it’s best to restrict our apologetic to those OT passages that are clearly prophetic and messianic in their original context given the dominant hermeneutic of our audience, and their narrow definition of fulfillment.  If we present more than this, we risk undermining the legitimacy and power of the argument for Christianity from fulfilled Biblical prophecies.

I do not know the odds of one man fulfilling the 12 prophecies named above, but I do know the odds of persuading an unbeliever to believe in Jesus are much better if we offer them examples of truly predictive and/or messianic prophecies fulfilled in Christ, instead of those that aren’t.

[1]Four of these were prophetic in its original context, but not clearly messianic (Is 7:14 in Mt 1:21-22 [virgin conceive); Dt 18:15 in Acts 3:20 [prophet raised up like Moses); Is 61:1-2 in Luke 4:18-19 [heal brokenhearted); Zech 13:17 in Mt 26:31 [strike shepherd and sheep will scatter)).  One was not prophetic, but was messianic (Is 53:1 in Jn 12:37-38 [not believed).