The Old and New Testaments epitomize Jesus Christ as prophecy’s centralized theme. The apostles did not have the New Testament as a source to teach about Jesus during the early church’s formation. Instead, they used Hebrew Scripture that foretold of the coming Messiah to support their eye-witness accounts about His life, death, and resurrection. What does prophecy mean? Scripture explained that God’s Spirit moved the Old Testament prophets to foretell Christ’s kingdom and its triumph (2 Pet 1:21; Thayer, 2009). Therefore, prophecy originates from God Who inspired the prophets to convey it as His messengers. Thayer (2009) defined prophecy (Greek transliterated as prophēteia) as a divinely inspired communication that declares God’s purposes for future events. Thus, prophecy not only originated from God, but also suits His purposes.
Jan Paron, PhD with Ken Arcand/August 21, 2014
At the Hebrew Scripture’s core, it contains messianic prophecy (Segraves, 2008). Its redemptive language relates the nature of salvation from covenant to covenant. The New Covenant fulfills the messianic prophecies from the Old. How can today’s believer understand Christ in prophecy? By carefully examining prophecies with the Holy Spirit’s illumination, one can interpret God’s progressive revelation of the Messiah. This article presents the framework for understanding Christ in prophecy by providing the meaning of fulfill and foretell as well as basic explanations and examples of the three types of prophecy–Direct, typological, and symbolic.
Fulfillment in Prophecy
The word fulfill, (Greek: πληρόω; plēroō ) appears “twelve times in Matt, two in Mark, four in Luke, eight in John, two in Acts” (Blue Letter Bible, 2014, para. 1). Thayer’s Lexicon defines prophecy’s biblical meaning as “sayings, promises, prophecies of the Lord to bring to pass, ratify, or accomplish” (e.g., Matt 1:22; Mark 14:49; Luke 24:44 (Thayer, 2009, p. 517). The lexicon also gives another meaning, “universally and absolutely to fulfil, i.e. to cause God’s will (as made known in the law) to be obeyed as it should be, and God’s promises (given through the prophets) to receive fulfilment” (See Matt 5:17; Figure 1). Prophecies of Jesus’ first coming already occurred, while those of His second coming have not been fulfilled yet. Two New Testament key passages give insight to fulfillment’s meaning, Matt 5:17 and Luke 24:44. Jesus revealed God’s divine will for Israel in the former, while He projected His fulfillment as necessary to establishing His Church for all nations in the latter. Both verses showed believers in Christ must accept, obey, and follow Him in faith as the fulfilled Messiah.
Based on internal evidence from the Book of Matthew, many theologians argued that the gospel author wrote to a predominantly Jewish Christian audience (Beale & Carson, 2007; Harrington, 2007). Blomberg supported this argument reasoning that Matthew used a high amount of Hebrew scripture.–This gospel author quoted 55 Old Testament scriptures in Matthew, as opposed to the three other authors who quoted 65 in their combined three books (Cited in Beale & Carson, 2007). He also explained that of the 55 direct quotations from the Old Testament, 25 remain exclusive to Matthew and 12 refer to fulfilled Scripture. Further, the gospel author Matthew did not explain his quotations suggesting that a Jewish audience would have had the background to understand. Also consider that Matthew wrote this gospel after the second temple’s destruction in 70 A.D. during a conflict when Jews were trying to define their own identity. With this high emphasis on Jewish text, Matthew may have sought to counter their beliefs and convince them of Jesus’ fulfillment as the Messiah. This all comes on the heels of Matt 5:17. Prior to this passage, the gospel author heralds in the idea of fulfillment with five other Hebrew quotes, beginning each an opening like “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying” (Matt 1:22):
- “Behold, a virgin shall be with child and shall bring forth a son and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us” (Matt 1:23; cf. Isa 7:14);
- “And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a governor, that shall rule my people Israel” (Matt 2:6; cf. Gen 49:10);
- “Out of Egypt, have I called my son” (Matt 2:15c; cf. Hos 11:1);
- “In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentations, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not” (Matt 2:19; cf. Jer 31:15);
- “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”(Matt 3:3; cf. Mal 3:1); and
- “The land of Zabulon, and the Land of Nephthalim by the way of the sea; beyond Jordan Galilee of Gentiles; the people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is spring up” (Matt 4:15-16; cf. Isa 9:1-2).
Matthew repeatedly used Old Testament quotations (Matt 1:23; 2:6; 15; 19; 3:3; and 4:15-16) to support Jesus as the fulfilled Jewish Messiah directed at the original audience of this text. As the author continues, he reinforces Jesus’ fulfillment again with a quote from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus taught this sermon at Galilee to His disciples and a large crowd who had followed Him throughout this region (Matt 4:23-25). Jesus ended His teachings focused on fulfillment, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” (5:17 KJV). What significance does this verse hold? Jesus did not come to undo or eliminate the law of Moses and teachings of the prophets, rather to complete God’s promises and make them come to pass. He also stressed an even greater revelation about His fulfillment. The audience should obey and follow God’s will for them because His fulfillment was universal and absolute as the law’s Authoritative Interpreter (vv. 19-20). What astonishing revelations!
Fulfillment also acknowledged Christ’s completion for commission (Luke 24:44-48). After the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught again on fulfillment. This time He imparted its importance to His disciples just before His ascension, “These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the Law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me” (Luke 24:44 KJV). All Scriptures had to be fulfilled to bring salvation in all its fullness to all people. The next verse (v. 24:46) tells how Jesus thoroughly opened the disciples mind to reveal its meaning: The Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day. Then, Jesus in the following verse explained the prophecy’s significance (v. 46).–Beginning in Jerusalem, repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all nations. As witnesses of these foretold events, the disciples would complete its commission. Thus, in order for the disciples to carry out the commission, they first had to understand and accept the fulfillment of this prophecy in faith. Then, they lived it out by going to Jerusalem and remaining there for the Father’s promised Spirit, “until ye be endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).
After Apostle Peter healed the lame man at the gates called Beautiful, the apostle told an already amazed audience, “Yes, and all the prophets, from Samuel and those who follow, as many as have spoken, have also foretold these days” (Acts 3:24 NKJV). The Old Testament prophets held the role of “covenant enforcement mediators who delivered God’s Word” (Paron, 2014). God used these prophets to communicate His will, namely, to tell the future about Israel, the nations, and the first and second comings of the Messiah. They communicated God’s messianic message through symbols, types, and direct prophecies that foretold the coming Messiah, which Christ literally and completely fulfilled. Thus, Jesus fulfilled all messianic prophecy recorded in Scripture with absolute accuracy and authority in every detail.
Interpretation of Prophecy
Scripture interprets Scripture for a harmonious, united message that narrates God’s Big Story. Students of the Word interpret prophecy via the grammatical-historical approach by exegeting prophetic passages in their historic and literary context for a literal meaning. This approach brings literal meaning out from the text, but never adds to it. Exegesis answers the question, What did the biblical author mean? The historical aspect seeks to answer this question by examining words and expressions according to their intended meaning at the time written. In doing so, it considers prevailing biblical geographical, social, political, archeological, political, cultural, philosophical, and religious views and/or events (Bernard, 2005). The grammatical aspect of this interpretation approach looks to words, grammatical forms, and relationships for meaning.
Under the umbrella of the historical-grammatical approach of exegeting Scripture, the interpreter looks to direct, typological, and symbolic features of prophecy to exegete literal meaning. All three concern themselves with literal fulfillment of prophecy. The revelation from the Holy Spirit illuminates understanding during interpretation with these three features, but God’s Spirit will not contradict His own Word.
Direct (New Testament Use of the Old Testament)
The New Testament authors used Old Testament material for various reasons, among them literal fulfillment of prophecy. Their quotes came from Jesus’ direct instruction, the apostles’ witness of Him, and the Holy Spirit’s inspiration. Jesus Himself quoted the Old Testament for literal fulfillment of messianic prophecies, which made references to prophecy in Scripture authoritative. A direct prophecy presents an Old Testament predictive messianic event that foretells Jesus’ first coming or His second yet to come. With this type of prophecy, prophets clearly foretold of the future king in plain language, which in turn, Jesus literally fulfilled with His first coming or will fulfill with His second.
One easily can recognize a direct prophecy because the New Testament authors quoted or rendered their own from the Old Testament in the New Testament. Sometimes passages contain a combination of one or more Old Testament foretellings. (See point three below.) However, a direct prophecy may contain signs and types within it. Nonetheless, Jesus literally fulfilled prophecy. The below show examples of different direct prophecies.
- Prophet Zechariah described the coming of Christ: “Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass” (Matt 21:5 KJV) and “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech 9:9; cf. Isa 62:11)
- Jesus came as a God of the living regarding the resurrection and future state to come. “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living: ye therefore do greatly err” (Mark 2:36) and “Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God (Exod 3:6).
- “Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him that was valued, whom they of the children of Israel did value; And gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord appointed me” (Matt 27:9-10; cf. Jer 32:6-9; Zech 11:12.
Typological (Foreshadow of Christ in the Old Testament as Identified in the New)
Typology prefigures or foreshadows an event, person, or institution from the Old Testament that serves as an example of another of the same in the New. Ramm further explained typology as the “interpretation of the Old Testament based on the fundamental theological unity of the two testaments whereby something in the Old will shadows, prefigures, adumbrates something in the New” (1981, p. 223). Adumbrates means foreshadows or something to come. A type has divine intention and purpose (Bernard, 2005). The type foreshadows things from the Old Testament to greater truths in the New. It predicts and looks ahead for the antitype. For every Old Testament type, a greater exists with a New Testament antitype. The antitype always is greater and superior than the type.
The type’s fulfillment occurs in the good things from the person and work of Jesus ;”Christ, the antitype which corresponds to something prior. One example of a type comes from Heb 10:1. It supports the Old Testament “law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves” (NIV). The law of Moses (type) foreshadows Jesus Christ, the Law fulfilled (antitype). The Old Testament type with the New Testament antitype divinely reveal Jesus throughout the covenants, bringing unity to the message of redemption.
Types come in the forms of persons, things, actions, events, institutions, and offices (Bernard, 2005). The below shows examples of each.
- Persons. All in Adam die, but those in Christ will be made alive (1 Cor 15:22).
- Things. The bronze serpent in the wilderness (Num 21:4-9) foreshadows the cross of Christ (John 3:14-21). The one promised deliverance from the venom of fiery serpents, while the other provides deliverance from the curse of sin.
- Actions. Noah and his family submerged in the ark during the Flood were the type from the Old Testament that prefigured those who submit to submersion through baptism as the antitype in the New Testament. God delivered the former from an evil and sinful world washed by the flood waters (Gen 6-9), while He saved the latter from the curse of sin through Jesus Christ by washing away their sins in baptism (Acts 2:38).
- Events. It rained 40 days during the Flood (Gen 7:4) and Israel wandered the wilderness for 40 years (Num 14:33), both a type for trials and testing for Jesus being tempted in the desert for 40 days (Matt 4:2).
- Institutions. Giving a sacrificial burnt offering of the herd, a male without blemish at the door of the tabernacle (Lev 1:3) foreshadows Christ, without blemish, as the sacrificial offering on the cross (John 1:29). Another example involves covenant. The type is the Mosaic Covenant in Jer 31:32. The New Covenant is the antitype because the former had been faultless (Heb 8:7), thus, the second is a better covenant with better promises established upon Jesus as its Mediator (8:6-8). The old is ready to vanish away (v.13).
- Offices. Melchizedek (Gen 14:17-20) prefigures the kingship and priesthood of Jesus Christ (Heb 5:5-10; 6:19-20; 7:1-22)
Symbolic (Representation of One Thing in Scripture With Another)
Prophecy contains a symbolic feature that one can understand only through proper interpretation of a symbol. A symbol shows a thing that stands for something else. It differs from a type because a symbol might represent something past, present, and future. One finds two rules to follow when interpreting symbols that involve understanding multiple meanings and using biblical context to define the meanings. First, Ritenbaugh (1992) said that several different symbols may represent the same reality in the Bible. The church symbolizes as a woman, living stones represent Christians in a building, human body of which Christ is the Head, and family of which Christians are brothers. Bernard (2005) pointed out that a particular symbol may take on various meanings. The lion means Satan in 1 Pet 5:8 and Jesus in Rev 5:5. Let Scripture interpret itself to understand the symbol (Bernard, 2005; Ritenbaugh, 1992). Look to the context of the biblical passage, both parallel and surrounding, for interpretation. For example, Christ explains the meaning of different symbols, seven stars, and seven lampstands in Rev 1:20.
Symbolic prophecy uses eight categories of symbols that are objects, creatures, actions, numbers, names, colors, directions and places (Conner, 1980). See below for examples.
- Objects. The wind symbolizes the Holy Spirit (John 3:8; Acts 2:2).
- Creatures. A lamb of God shows Jesus Christ’s sacrifice to take away sin from the world (John 1:29).
- Actions. Baptism symbolizes salvation in Jesus Christ (Acts 22:16; Rom 6:3-4; 1 Pet 3:21).
- Numbers. Seven signifies perfection, completeness, or fullness (Gen 2:1-3; Josh 6:1-5; Luke 17:4).
- Furniture. The brazen altar suggests Jesus’ redemptive work for the atonement for sin on the cross (1 John 2:1-2).
- Names. Jesus symbolizes His function, “for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21b).
- Colors. Purple signifies royalty in Mark 15:17.
- Directions. The Promised Land means a person receiving the mind of Christ, the new earth–Abraham looked for a city, which has foundations whose builder & maker is God (Heb 11:9-10).
- Places. New Jerusalem symbolizes the holy city of heaven (Matt 5:25; Rev. 21:9-10).
Prophecy originates from God who inspired the prophets to convey it as His messengers to suit His purposes. Their fulfillment brings salvation in all its fullness to all people. Fulfilled prophecies come in different forms such as parables, double references, and figurative language. However, the basic framework for understanding Christ in prophecy fundamentally resides in three basic types: Direct, typological, and symbolic. Understanding these, with revelation from the Holy Spirit, brings greater understanding of the hidden things of God.
Inspired prophets clearly communicated what God intended to be understood, embraced, and acted upon to suit His purposes. The Old Testament contains 1,239 prophecies of different types. About 300 of these relate to Jesus (Barton, 1973; Fairchild, 2014). The volume of prophecy indicates the focal point of God’s revelation, the incarnation, life, and teachings of Christ–all fulfillments of prophecy in their own right. The force behind these messianic-prophecies lay within all their various forms, across so many periods, and funneled through such an eclectic array of personalities. When one examines messianic prophecy, with openness to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, the understanding becomes clear, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself” (2 Cor 5:19). He foretold it in great and varied detail and fulfilled it by dotting every i and crossing every t.
- Bernard, D. (2005). Understanding God’s Word: An Apostolic approach to interpreting the Bible. Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press.
- Conner, K. (1980). Interpreting types and symbols. Portland, OR: Bible Temple Publishing.
- Duvall, J. S. & Hays, J. D. (2005). Grasping God’s Word: A hands-on approach to reading, interpreting, and applying the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Fairchild, M. (2014). Prophecies Jesus fulfilled: 44 prophecies of the Messiah fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Retrieved from http://christianity.about.com/od/biblefactsandlists/a/Prophecies-Jesus.htm
- Harrington, D. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew: Sacra Pagina. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.
- Lloyd, Jones, D. (1976). Studies on Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
- Pentecost, D. W. (1958). Things to come: A study in biblical eschatology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Ramm, B. (1970). Protestant biblical interpretation. (3rd ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker House Book.
- Ritenbaugh, J. (1992). Biblical Symbolism. Bibletools.org. Retrieved from http://www.bibletools.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/Library.sr/CT/PERSONAL/k/678/Biblical-Symbolism.htm
- Thayer, J. (2009). Thayer’s Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.