Three Ways the Old Testament Anticipates the Birth of Jesus

Thirty-nine books precede the story of Jesus in the Four Gospels, and these Old Testament books foreshadow and prepare for the coming of Jesus. The first advent doesn’t happen in a vacuum but amid a matrix of hopes and promises and patterns and shadows that interpreters can see in Scripture. I will point to three ways the Old Testament anticipates the birth of Jesus.

First, consider direct prophecies of a deliverer. In Genesis 3:15, God tells the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” A son will come, and he will come by birth. From Genesis 3:15 onward, readers are looking for the birth of the Promised One. He would come from Judah’s tribe (Gen 49:10), he would descend from David’s line (2 Sam 7:12-13), and he would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). When Jesus is born, he fulfills the age-old hope that first sounded in the garden.

Second, consider the power of God upon the womb. There are multiple stories in the Old Testament about God enabling conception by overcoming barrenness. Abraham’s wife Sarah was barren (Gen 16), as was Isaac’s wife Rebekah (Gen 25), Jacob’s wife Rachel (Gen 30), Samson’s mother (Judg 13), and Samuel’s mother (1 Sam 1). There were certainly more barren women than these in the centuries of Old Testament history, but these five are highlighted explicitly by the biblical authors. A pattern is established: when the text draws attention to a woman’s barrenness, God soon overcomes it. There is no obstacle that thwarts his plan. These stories anticipate God’s greatest display of power upon a womb. Mary was unmarried and a virgin. Yet the Spirit of God would move upon her womb and bring life.

Third, consider birth stories. In the case of most Bible characters, we hear about them while they’re already alive. But sometimes we learn about characters before they’re born or as they’re born. In Genesis 21, we read of Isaac’s birth, and his name was announced ahead of time (Gen 17:19). In Exodus 2, we read of Moses’s birth, and his significance unfolds as the one to deliver the Israelites. In Judges 13, we read of Samson’s birth, and it’s even preceded by angelic visitations and instructions. In Ruth 4, we read of Obed’s birth in Bethlehem, and he was the father of Jesse who begat David. These various birth stories showcase characters who fulfilled promises, achieved victories, or brought restoration. When Gabriel visits Mary in Luke 1, he prophesies that she’ll bear a son, and the name is announced ahead of time. The most important birth story occurred in Bethlehem during the days of Caesar Augustus.

The birth of Jesus fulfilled prophecies and patterns from the Old Testament. Stories of covenant faithfulness and divine power had prepared the way for the Lord.

For more on how the Old Testament relates to Jesus, see my new book 40 Questions About Typology and Allegory.

“See This Child”–An Advent Poem for 2016

“See This Child”
December 6, 2016

See this child for whom all things
Are made and by whom held.
This mighty one, begotten Son,
Has come with men to dwell.

See this child with undefiled
Nature now asleep.
This righteous one, beloved Son,
Will scorn and murder reap.

See this child with tiny hands,
Who cries and must be fed.
This lowly one, a virgin’s Son,
Is everlasting bread.

See this child with infant smile
Whom heavenly host proclaim.
This worthy one, the royal Son,
Shall be for sinners slain.

See this child in swaddling cloths
And in a manger laid.
This gentle one, the promised Son,
Has come to kill the grave.

Prophet, Priest, and King in Hebrews 1

The Letter to the Hebrews wants us to understand Jesus in light of the Old Testament. And in the letter’s opening chapter we find the well-known trifecta of prophet-priest-king.

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world (Heb. 1:1-2).

Jesus is God’s climactic revelation, the end of a line of prophets whose mouths declared the words of God. He is Prophet.

After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs (Heb. 1:3b-4).

Jesus is the mediator between sinners and his heavenly Father. He alone made purification for sins. He is Priest.

But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom” (Heb. 1:8).

Christ will reign forever. The “throne” and “scepter” and “kingdom” are all royal terms. He is King.

Christ is Prophet, Priest, and King. Hebrews 1 teaches us even more than that, but those ideas are a great start!

The Question for Two Miraculous Feedings: How Many Baskets Did You Gather?

In Matthew 14:13-21, Jesus fed five thousand people with a small collection of fish and bread. Then in 15:32-39, he fed four thousand people with another small collection of fish and bread. Matthew 16 references these two stories and draws important lessons about the two feedings. My suggestion is that in Matthew 16, Jesus asks questions in a way that shows the significance of the numbers of baskets leftover in Matthew 14 and 15. I think those real numbers have a symbolic meaning.

In Matthew 16, the disciples are in a boat with Jesus and they’ve forgotten to bring the leftover bread (Matt. 16:5). Jesus warned them of the leaven (or teaching) of the Pharisees and Sadducees (16:6, 12), but the disciples were too distracted by the lack of actual bread in the boat (16:7-8).

Jesus helps them focus by asking some questions in Matthew 16:9-10. In 16:9 he asks, “Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?” And in 16:10, “Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?”

Notice the information Jesus supplied. He refers to both feedings (which are reported in Matt. 14:13-21 and 15:32-39), the number of loaves in each case (“five” in the first feeding, “seven” in the second), and the number of people who were present for each miracle (“five thousand” and “four thousand,” respectively). However, there is also a number Jesus omits in each question: “how many baskets you gathered” (16:9 and 16:10). The reader has already learned that 12 baskets of leftovers were gathered after the first feeding, and 7 baskets after the second (see 14:20 and 15:37). When Jesus was on the boat with the disciples in Matthew 16, he surely knew the number of baskets that were leftover in each episode, so he didn’t ask for those figures for his own information. The phrasing of the questions in 16:9 and 16:10 highlights the number of leftovers because it was the only number Jesus didn’t explicitly give in each question. Jesus wanted the disciples to recall the number of the baskets when he fed the 5,000 and the number of the baskets when he fed the 4,000.

Notice that the numbers of baskets are not random numbers like 9 or 17 or 22. The numbers are 12 and 7, which are significant numbers in Scripture. Some interpreters may be reluctant to ascribe symbolic significance to the number of baskets in Matthew 14 and 15, but I think the phrasing of Jesus’ questions in 16:9 and 16:10 invites the reader to consider a meaning to the numbers. If the numbers didn’t matter, why omit those details in the questions? Jesus clearly wants the specific numbers to be remembered. Because of the geographical areas where the feedings in Matthew 14 and 15 took place, the former was probably a “Jewish” feeding, reinforced by the “12” baskets of leftover bread (for Israel had 12 tribes in the Old Testament), and the latter was probably a “Gentile” feeding, reinforced by the “7” baskets of leftover bread (for Deut. 7:1 names seven nations in Canaan; and note too that Jesus had just healed a Canaanite woman’s daughter in Matt. 15:21-28 before the second miraculous feeding).

In the miraculous feedings of Matthew 14 and 15, Jesus was forecasting the great messianic feast, where Jewish and Gentile believers would fellowship with their God forever. He himself was the Bread of Life (see John 6:22-41), the true and better Moses. The two feedings showed that Jesus was reconstituting the people of God around himself. He was the one who would provide what they needed, no matter if they were Jews or Gentiles. He not only gave them bread, he would be bread for them. In the fields, he gave them loaves. On the cross, he gave himself.

Did Jesus Do Miracles as a Child?

A second-century document known as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas claims Jesus did miracles as a child. In it, Jesus makes clay birds and brings them to life, he causes a child’s body to wither, he strikes some neighbors with blindness, he resurrects a friend who died, and he heals his brother from a snake bite.

But when we look into the Four Gospels of the New Testament, we see reports about Jesus’ birth, a later visit by Magi, an escape to Egypt, a move to Nazareth, and an episode of his teaching in the temple when he was twelve (Matt 1-2; Luke 1-2). No childhood miracles are reported at all. Not one healing, not one extraordinary feat.

At least two excerpts from the New Testament can be bolstered to argue that Jesus was not a wonder-working child.

  1. The miracle of turning water to wine. In Cana, Jesus attended a wedding where the wine ran out. After he made jars of water to become wine, the narrator said, “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory” (John 2:11). The miracle was called his first. A reasonable implication from this is that working miracles was not a part of Jesus’ childhood.
  2. The visit to his hometown synagogue. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, he made a visit to Nazareth and entered the town synagogue (see Matt 13:53-54). The response of the people included a reference to the miracles they’d heard about: “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” (Matt 13:54-56). Their response expressed surprise. Nazareth was a small town with a synagogue, and they all knew Joseph and Mary and Jesus and Jesus’ siblings. And when Jesus was growing up, apparently the attitude in the synagogue wasn’t “This kid who works miracles is really going to be someone someday. Let’s see what happens with him!” Jesus seemed like every other kid, with parents and siblings, and from a small town as well. The questions from those in the Nazarene synagogue suggests that Jesus’ miracles (“these mighty works”) were unexpected and unprecedented. When the Nazarenes thought of the Jesus they knew, there was nothing extraordinary to say at all.

The Four Gospels do not reveal much about Jesus’ childhood. Luke tells us that as Jesus grew up, he “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (2:52). Wisdom, yes. Jesus demonstrated it as a twelve-year-old in the temple, which he called “my Father’s house” (2:47, 49). He also displayed obedience to his parents (2:51). But was he known as a miracle-working child growing up in Nazareth? No.

During his earthly ministry, when Jesus began performing miracles, they served as kingdom signs and signals. Prior to his public ministry, Jesus did not perform these mighty deeds. He was no wonder-working child. And this isn’t bad news, for the purpose of his miracles was never for amusement, convenience, boredom, or shock.

At the appointed time, however, Jesus would do and say all that the Father gave him to do and say (see John 5:19-20). Lepers would be cleansed, the blind would see, the deaf would hear, the lame would leap, the mute would speak, and the dead would live. Demons would be overcome, stormy wind would be stilled, crashing waves would fall flat, fish and bread would be multiplied, and a fig tree would wither. And then, when the appointed Hour arrived, sin would be atoned for, justice would be satisfied, the earth would quake, the temple veil would split, and graves would send back their dead.

10 Parallels Between John the Baptist and Jesus

John the Baptist and Jesus have some fascinating parallels. Here are 10:

  • Both men were prophesied by the prophet Malachi
  • Both men had births which an angel foretold
  • Both men preached about repentance and the kingdom
  • Both men criticized the religious leaders of the day
  • Both men were opposed
  • Both men were accused of operating by demonic influence/power
  • Both men had disciples
  • Both men were arrested
  • Both men were killed
  • Both men had people who came and asked for their dead bodies

Do you know other parallels between them?

Six Reflections on John 3:16

John 3:16 is one of the most famous verses in the Bible. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Clear, concise, powerful. Gospel. News worth shouting and celebrating! Here are six reflections that I hope will help us love it more.

(1) John 3:16 explains a previous statement. The verse doesn’t begin with “God” but with “for.” John 3:16 doesn’t stand alone but explains 3:14-15, where Jesus said, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” If someone asks why looking with faith to Jesus will bring life, John 3:16 gives the answer: for God loved the world by giving his Son so that sinners might believe and live. John 3:16 is part of a chapter, part of an unfolding scene where Jesus had spoken to Nicodemus about being born again and entering the kingdom of God. So when we read John 3:16, it is helpful to keep in mind what comes before it.

(2) God is God the Father. The verse talks about “God” at the beginning and “the Son” later on. This separation doesn’t deny the deity of the Son. Rather, in the New Testament, whenever Jesus is distinguished from God in a verse, God should be understood as God the Father. This understanding of “God” in John 3:16 is confirmed by the later use of “Son,” for a son has a father. Most accurately, then, God the Father loved the world and gave his Son. This truth prevents any absurd notion of a sympathetic Savior who rescues sinners from an unloving Father. The Father loved the world.

(3) The “so” is about manner not degree. When I gush over something I love, I might say, “I love it soooooo much!” And when readers see that “God so loved the world,” they might imagine God’s gushing love. But “so” doesn’t mean that here. It means something like “thus” or “in this manner.” People use “so” this way too, like when they’re instructing someone to do a craft: “Take these strings and tie them like so.” The glorious news of John 3:16 is telling us how God loved the world. He loved the world like so, or in this manner, or thus: he gave his only Son. Paul wrote about the same idea: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).

(4) The Son must have preexisted the incarnation. The Father can’t give what he doesn’t have. If the Father sent the Son into the world (see John 3:17), then the Son already was. The Son, like the Father and Spirit, is eternal. The incarnation was not the beginning of the Son but was when the eternal Word became flesh. God the Father loved the world and gave his Son, the Son who existed before there ever was a world.

(5) The phrase “his only Son” may recall Genesis 22. In John 3:16, the Father “gave his only Son,” which may allude to Genesis 22:2, where God said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” Yet Isaac was spared from being sacrificed (22:11-13). His near-death experience and deliverance foreshadowed the one who would truly be sacrificed and resurrected. Jesus is the true and greater Isaac. He’s the Father’s Son who would not be spared.

(6) John 3:16 answers who, what, how, and why. One way to think about this famous verse is in four parts that each ask a question. Who? God. What? Loved the world. How? He gave his only Son. Why? That whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

In his new book Gospel Formed, Jeff Medders wrote this about John 3:16: “However many times you’ve read, heard, or said that verse, it’s safe for you to hear it again and again. Familiarity shouldn’t breed apathy: this verse sparks fire! Let your heart hang on each word; there is enough to chew on for fours, years, a lifetime–even eternity” (p. 66).

Praise be to God for the merciful gift of his Son, his only Son, that sinners might live forever.

The Strategy of Christology for Your Endurance

The author of Hebrews wrote to people who needed to endure, to run the race and not turn back. He employed multiple strategies toward this goal.

It’s been said that sound theology is important for suffering and trial, and that is true. More specifically, you need sound christology for your suffering. Christology is a strategy woven throughout the letter, and Hebrews 7 takes an interesting turn when the author spends time on Melchizedek.

Melchizedek?” you might say. “Really? Why not something a bit more relevant, someone a little more known, a subject a little easier to understand?”

To these saints who have already endured cost for their faith (cf. Heb 10:32-34), the writer waxes eloquently about a mysterious Old Testament figure who appears only twice before Hebrews (cf. Gen 14; Psalm 110), but he isn’t trying to be difficult for the sake of it. He knows that what he’s going to say “is hard to explain” (Heb 5:11). But does that mean it’s not worth saying?

Sometimes robust truth is what will hold you up. Hard times may need some hard teaching.

If you were writing a letter encouraging suffering saints to persevere, would Melchizedek be a topic you’d cover? The author of Hebrews doesn’t permeate his letter with paragraphs of this same caliber, but bringing up Melchizedek does serve his christological aim. The writer wants his readers to think great thoughts about Jesus, so from his arsenal he pulls out the four-syllable king of Salem, but he won’t stop there–he’s got something important to say about Jesus.

Don’t have a low estimation of what high christology can do for your soul during spiritual warfare. The writer wants the readers to take comfort and refuge in the truth about Jesus the Great High Priest, but how can Jesus be a high priest if he wasn’t from Levi’s tribe? Enter the purpose of Hebrews 7.

The subject of Melchizedek isn’t evoked to be impressive or heady. The author shows through typology how Jesus’ priesthood had an ancient precedent in someone who was both priest and king and held those roles without Levitical pedigree. Jesus was a priest like that. What he came to do surpassed, and was not vulnerable to, the inadequacies of the old system.

What’s the good news for sufferers about Jesus’ high priesthood? He’s “able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:25). Jesus is better than any previous high priest because he is “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (7:26). He doesn’t offer perpetual sacrifices but offered one, once for all, and the offering was himself (7:27).

For the Hebrews writer, Melchizedek was a means to an end; he was never the point. He was useful insofar as he pointed to what the readers needed to know (or to remember) about Jesus. The author wanted them to think great thoughts about Jesus, and his strategy was to bring up Melchizedek so that they would be awed by the glorious intercessory work of the Son who reigns as the permanent high priest with an indestructible life. Jesus is able to help people who are being tempted (2:18), and he has mercy and grace to give them in their time of need (4:16).

When your knees are buckling and your focus is blurring, Jesus is who you need and has what you need.

Those Four Old Testament Women in Matthew’s Genealogy

I’ve previously pondered about those four Old Testament women in Matthew 1:1-17. I’ve argued that their significance is primarily their Gentile background–which serves Matthew’s emphasis on Gentile mission–and that perhaps their inclusion has to do with where they appear in Israel’s biblical history.

I’m wondering, too, whether Matthew includes these particular women because of how they relate to David. Just hear me out. I’m wondering whether the Davidic design of the genealogy explains why these four women appear. I’m trying to be more specific, then, than only saying their Gentile background explains their inclusion. I’m suggesting that perhaps their Gentile background in relation to King David explains their inclusion.

Scholars widely acknowledge that the first section of Matthew’s genealogy (1:2-6) relies on names listed in 1 Chronicles 1-2. Significantly, 1 Chronicles 2 is a genealogy of David! In that Old Testament section, there are fourteen generations from Abraham to David (counting both men), and in that list “Tamar” is mentioned (1 Chron 2:4). Who is Tamar tied to in 1 Chronicles 2:4 and Matthew 1:3? To Judah. And what is Judah’s significance to David? Judah was told in Genesis 49:10, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,” and David is the first king from the tribe of Judah (Saul, remember, was from the tribe of Benjamin). Matthew may be intending readers to call to mind this Genesis 49:10 promise with the words “Judah and his brothers” (Matt 1:2), which may allude to “your brothers” in Genesis 49:8.

The second woman Matthew lists is “Rahab” (Matt 1:5). Her name isn’t in 1 Chronicles 2, so Matthew has added her here. The reason is understood when we look at her descendant: Boaz, who, as Ruth 4:18-22 shows us, is linked to David (more on that in the next paragraph). As Nolland rightly observes, “This is the only generation into which Rahab could be fitted in the scheme of the genealogy. This tightness of fit highlights a historical difficulty in this section of the genealogy: the period of the Conquest and the Judges is compressed into the period covered by the mature years of Salmon, the lifetimes of Boaz and Obed, and part of the life of Jesse (David’s father)” (Matthew, NIGTC, 78). Important for Matthew’s Davidic emphasis, then, is Rahab’s connection to Boaz who is connected in the book of Ruth to David.

The third woman in Matthew’s genealogy is “Ruth,” who appears in the same verse as Rahab (Matt 1:5). Mentioning Ruth and Boaz recalls the book of Ruth, in particular its final chapter with a genealogy, and that genealogy takes us to David (Ruth 4:18-22). The reason we know Matthew is wanting to evoke the book of Ruth and not simply 1 Chronicles 2 is because Ruth’s name doesn’t appear in 1 Chronicles 2:11 next to Boaz’s name. Still following the order of generations listed in 1 Chronicles 2, Matthew evokes the book of Ruth by naming its heroine as an ancestor of–you guessed it!–David. Again, the genealogies in 1 Chronicles 2 and Ruth 4 are both Davidic.

The fourth woman in Matthew 1 is not named explicitly, but we know who is meant. The “wife of Uriah” (Matt 1:6) can only be Bathsheba here, which recalls the tragedy of 2 Samuel 11 when David committed adultery with her. The name “Uriah” would bring to mind the fact that Uriah was “the Hittite” (cf. 2 Sam 11:3), and thus Bathsheba’s marriage to Uriah clarifies her Gentile contribution to Matthew’s genealogy. This Gentile contribution is something shared among Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth as well. But Bathsheba is also associated with David in a way the previous women were not: she became his wife, the wife of the first king of Israel from Judah’s tribe. Her name also appears in 1 Chronicles 3:5 when David’s descendants are listed. Matthew would have been aware of her name there but used a circumlocution (“the wife of Uriah,” Matt 1:6) to highlight her Gentile contribution to his list.

After the mention of David, there are no more Old Testament women mentioned. This further confirms that the four in the list (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba) are included because of their Gentile background in relation to King David. Tamar was the wife of Judah who was given a promise (cf. Gen 49:10), a promise which David fulfilled. Rahab and Ruth are placed tightly together in Matthew 1:5 in close proximity not only to one another but to their descendant David. Bathsheba is David’s wife.

In summary, and based on previous posts I’ve written on this topic, I think we can mention three truths about the four women in Matthew’s genealogy that are in keeping with its purposes and its Old Testament sources.

  1. The women are Gentiles, and this Gentile emphasis is important for Matthew’s Gospel (cf. Matt 28:19-20, as well as many stories along the way).
  2. The women appear at significant junctures of Israel’s history. Tamar is associated with the beginnings of Israel because Judah was one of the twelve tribes (sons) that came from Jacob the patriarch. Rahab evokes the conquest as the Israelites prepare to cross the Jordan and take possession of what God promised them. Ruth lived during the time of Israel’s judges, which followed the conquest. And Bathsheba was married to David who represented the inauguration of Israel’s kingship. Four women: Israel’s beginnings, conquest, judges, and kingship.
  3. The women matter because of their connection to King David. Judah received a royal promise which David would begin to fulfill, Rahab and Ruth are both listed in Matthew 1:5 as David’s immediate ancestors, and Bathsheba became King David’s wife. After David, no other Old Testament women are named.

Any thoughts about these four Old Testament women in Matthew 1:1-17?

Logical Importance of the Virginal Conception of Jesus

Al Mohler has a great article reflecting on A. T. Robertson’s arguments for the virginal conception of Jesus. According to Robertson, “The virgin birth is the only intelligible explanation of the Incarnation ever offered.”

This last Sunday morning at Kosmosdale Baptist Church, I preached from Matthew 1:18-25, and I opened the message with a string of seven points that show the logic of the virginal conception. In a series of “if” statements, we can see how the virginal conception is not expendable. It is connected to the primary doctrines of christology and soteriology.

  1. If Jesus had a human biological father in addition to his human mother, then Jesus would be merely human.
  2. If Jesus was merely human, then there was no deity joined to humanity and thus no incarnation.
  3. If Jesus was the product of two humans, then he had a sin nature because his biological parents would be sinners.
  4. If Jesus was a mere human with a sin nature, he could not bear the sins of others on the cross as their Savior–he himself would need a Savior!
  5. If Jesus was not an effective substitute for sinners, then there is no forgiveness granted when people believe in him.
  6. If there is no forgiveness for sinners when they bank their hope on Jesus, then the “Gospel about Jesus” is not Gospel at all, because Gospel means “good news,” and there would be no good news to share.
  7. If the essence of Christianity is the Gospel, then the insistence that Jesus had two biological parents guts the Christian faith.

Do you see the importance of the virginal conception? If there was no virginal conception, then there was no incarnation. And if you lose the incarnation, you lose it all.