Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” (Matt. 1:23, NASB, 1977)
These are the words of Matthew immediately after he wrote, “Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying” (Matt. 1:22). The “prophet” here refers to Isaiah. In Matthew 1:23, Matthew references aspects of Isaiah 7:14, 8:10, and 9:6. Those texts read as follows:
"Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel" (Isa. 7:14).
"Devise a plan but it will be thwarted; state a proposal, but it will not stand, For God is with us" (Isa. 8:10).
For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. (Isa. 9:6)
Matthew’s words in verse 22, quoted above, are of interest, especially in our day. Some want to describe the relationship between the Old and New Testaments as the New reinterpreting the Old in light of our Lord’s incarnation, sufferings, and glory. This gives the impression that the coming of our Lord creates new meanings for ancient scriptural texts. Can this view be argued from Matthew 1:22-23? My answer is no and I will show you why in the brief discussion below.
Matthew 1:23 conflates aspects of the three Isaiah texts mentioned above. It does so right after Matthew says, “Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying” (Matt. 1:22). The “all this took place” refers us back to the words of an angel of the Lord revealed to Joseph. Consider Matthew 1:20-21:
"But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. “And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins.”
Immediately after the words of the angel, Matthew uses what some call a fulfillment formula, “Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying” (Matt. 1:22). This teaches us that Matthew viewed the event of the incarnation as a fulfillment of Old Testament teaching. As Matthew reflects upon what took place with reference to the infant Jesus, he interprets it in light of what the Lord already said through the prophet Isaiah. This leads me to assert that the New Testament does not re-interpret the Old Testament in light of the coming of Christ. Instead, Christ is interpreted in light of what the Lord said in the Old Testament. The New Testament is a written, divine announcement asserting that what the Lord in the Old Testament said would happen has happened (and will happen). The New Testament is not a re-interpretation of ancient texts; it is a selective record of the fulfillment of ancient texts. Subsequent redemptive acts of God (e.g., the incarnation, sufferings, and glory of Christ) are recorded for us in the New Testament in light of antecedent redemptive acts of God recorded for us in the Old Testament. Subsequent acts are interpreted in light of antecedent acts (which includes words through prophets), not the other way around.
The incarnation, sufferings, and glory of our Lord do not give us warrant to reinterpret the Old Testament. There’s no need for us to do so. These acts of God, in the Mediator, were predicted before the incarnation. The incarnation does not make ancient scriptural texts into something they were not prior to the incarnation.
In light of this brief discussion, what can we say about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments? First, let us consider what it is not. The relationship between the Old and New Testaments is not one where the New Testament casts new meanings on old texts. The divine intent of the old texts is there long before the New Testament was written. What the New Testament does is assert that what was promised has been (and is being) fulfilled. Second, let us consider what the relationship between the testaments is, in light of the discussion above. It is one of promise and fulfillment. What the Old Testament promised the New Testament assures us is being and will be fulfilled through what our Lord Jesus Christ does. Matthew (and other New Testament authors) does not reinterpret the Old Testament in light of Christ; he interprets Christ in light of the Old Testament. The New Testament does not create new meanings for old texts; it explicates what the Old Testament meant long ago.
May this brief discussion not only alert us to the relationship between the testaments of the Bible but, much more so, may we worship our Lord, our Immanuel.
Richard C. Barcellos, is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA, and Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at IRBS Theological Seminary, Mansfield, TX. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam’s Work and God’s Rest in Light of Christ, The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis, and God plus the World: Confessing the Doctrine of Trinitarian Creation (forthcoming).