Prophecy and Patterns: How Isaiah Prophesied about Jesus’ Religious Opponents

Biblical prophecy doesn’t necessarily function as a direct prediction that meets a single exhaustive fulfillment. The Bible’s authors also considered patterns to be prophetic. Such patterns could have multiple fulfillments as time marched on.

Consider Matthew 15:7-9. Jesus told the Pharisees, “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'”

In Matthew 15:7, Jesus introduced a quotation from Isaiah 29:13. Now if you dissect Isaiah 29:13 carefully, there is no indication that it is any direct prophecy. Isaiah didn’t mention Pharisees when he quoted Yahweh’s words for his eighth-century B.C. readers, yet Jesus told them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you.”

How exactly did Isaiah prophesy about the Pharisees? Jesus discerned Isaiah 29:13 to be a prophetic pattern. The Pharisees were a typological fulfillment of the kind of people Isaiah addressed, people who had fraudulent hearts. When Isaiah prophesied about those who worshiped in vain, his words applied to (or would be “fulfilled” in) anyone whose worship was also vain despite their lip-service and religious ritual. People in Isaiah’s day fit the pattern, people in Jesus’ day fit the pattern, and so do people in our day. This means we too should be warned, lest Isaiah’s words be “fulfilled” in us.

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