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Each of our four gospel writers have a different flare. We can call Matthew Mr. Cross-Reference because he puts extra effort into showing us how Jesus fulfilled various prophecies in the Old Testament. Our other three gospel writers also toss in a verse now and then, but Matthew really goes for it. At first glance, his frequent quotations give us the impression that he’s a very scholarly fellow who really knows his Scriptures. Well, that impression is wrong. For like our teachers today who insert irrelevant Bible verses into the middle of their speeches, Matthew peppers us with many “Messianic” predictions that aren’t Messianic at all. Sure, he gets some of them right. But like lemonade with too much water in it, Matthew tries to stretch things a bit too far. In this post, we’ll check out some of his blunders.
So why pick on Matthew? Well, because he’s lying to us. Not out of evil intentions, but more out of ignorant blundering. When it comes to searching for truth, we can’t just nod and smile at deceptions, no matter how innocently they are presented to us. A lie is a lie. A false interpretation is a false interpretation. Yanking Scripture out of context isn’t acceptable for us today, nor is it okay just because a man happened to be one of Jesus’ twelve disciples.
In Scripture we find two things: original thoughts by people and God, and then other people who come along and try to interpret those thoughts for us. Matthew is going to spend a lot of time in his gospel teaching us how to apply various statements from the Old Testament. Are we just going to believe whatever he says? No, we’re going to be discerning Christians and look up the original context for ourselves. Whenever someone in the Bible tries to tell us what some other part of the Bible says (which the New Testament writers often do), we need to check for ourselves and see if we agree with their interpretation. John will tell us that no one has ever seen God, yet when we read through the Old Testament, we’ll find several people talking to God face to face. James will tell us that God never tempts people, yet when we read through Scripture, we’ll find many incidents of God tempting people. What was that forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden supposed to be if it wasn’t a big temptation to sin? Samuel will tell us that God never lies or changes His mind, yet in Jonah we’ll find God prophesying to destroy Nineveh in a specific number of days only to later change His mind. We can’t just believe other people’s interpretations of the things God says—we need to look for ourselves, think for ourselves, pray, and let the Holy Spirit show us the truth.
Now in this post we are only going to look at some of the times when Matthew misapplies Scripture. There are plenty of other times when he applies the Old Testament correctly. Just because a man isn’t perfect doesn’t mean he isn’t worth listening to. There’s great value in studying the book of Matthew. Just don’t turn your brain off first.
OUT OF EGYPT…
In Matthew 2:14-15 we read:
So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt. He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED MY SON.” [Hos 11:1]
Matthew is quoting the prophet Hosea here. So let’s now turn to Hosea and see if Matthew is applying this passage correctly. In Hosea 11, we find Yahweh saying the following through the mouth of His prophet:
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son. But the more they were called, the more they went away from Me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them.
Will they not return to Egypt and will not Assyria rule over them because they refuse to repent? A sword will flash in their cities; it will devour their false prophets and put an end to their plans. My people are determined to turn from Me. Though the prophets call them to the One who is on high, no one will exalt Him.” (Hos. 11:1-7)
In this passage, we find Yahweh reflecting back on His relationship with Israel (aka Ephraim). It’s been one long heartache. It started off with Him miraculously saving them from slavery in Egypt—we read about this in the book of Exodus. But even in those first wilderness years, the Israelites were far more devoted to their idol gods than they were to Yahweh. Now, centuries later, Israel is fractured into two warring kingdoms, north and south. Hosea is speaking to the people in the northern kingdom. Soon Yahweh will hand over this northern kingdom to the mighty Assyrian army as a form of punishment, and He predicts this here as well as in many other places. This is a somber, grieving passage. Yahweh is frustrated and angry because of His people’s constant rebellion.
So then, where is Jesus in this passage? Nowhere. The “son” that Yahweh mentions bringing out of Egypt is clearly referring to Israel. This whole passage doesn’t have anything to do with a coming Messiah. The specific line Matthew quotes isn’t looking ahead to the future, it’s looking backwards to events of the past. Matthew is just playing games by yanking a few words completely out of context and then trying to claim they were fulfilled by Joseph and Mary. The only thing waiting to be fulfilled in the above excerpt is Assyria’s attack on Israel. The son coming out of Egypt is very old news. Strike one for Matthew.
RACHEL WEEPING FOR HER CHILDREN
Just after this Egypt business, Matthew gives us a second quotation:
Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi. Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:
“A VOICE WAS HEARD IN RAMAH, WEEPING AND GREAT MOURNING, RACHEL WEEPING FOR HER CHILDREN; AND SHE REFUSED TO BE COMFORTED, BECAUSE THEY WERE NO MORE.” [Jer 31:15] (Mt. 2:16-18)
Okay, let’s check this one out. Flipping over to Jeremiah 31:15-20, we read the following:
This is what Yahweh says: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” This is what Yahweh says: “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded,” declares Yahweh. “They will return from the land of the enemy, so there is hope for your descendants,” declares Yahweh. “Your children will return to their own land.”
“I have surely heard Ephraim’s moaning: ‘You disciplined me like an unruly calf, and I have been disciplined. Restore me, and I will return, because You are Yahweh my God. After I strayed, I repented; after I came to understand, I beat my breast. I was ashamed and humiliated because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’
“Is not Ephraim My dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore My heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him,” declares Yahweh.
Rachel was the favorite wife of Jacob, who God renamed Israel. She bore him only two sons before she died: Joseph and Benjamin. Benjamin’s name was used for one of the thirteen tribes of Israel, along with the names of Joseph’s two sons Ephraim and Manasseh. In this passage, Yahweh refers to a city named Ramah. This city is located within the territory that was assigned to the tribe of Benjamin—a tribe named after a son of Rachel. So when Ramah falls under attack by enemies and has its citizens dragged away as prisoners, it’s quite poetic to describe Rachel as mourning for “her children”—the descendants of her son Benjamin. This is very figurative language, for the people Yahweh is talking about in this passage live centuries after Rachel, and many of them are probably not her direct descendants. But the image of a mother weeping bitterly because she has been separated from her children is very powerful. Yahweh’s point in using such an image is to capture just how intense the grief of Israel will be when He shatters their land.
While Hosea spoke to the northern kingdom of Israel, Jeremiah preached to the southern kingdom of Judah. The Jews in the south were just as rebellious as the Jews in the north. Through the mouth of His prophet Jeremiah, Yahweh explains that His patience with Judah is exhausted and He will soon be bringing in the mighty Babylonian army to destroy her. By now the northern kingdom has already been destroyed. After the south falls, the whole of Israel will be nothing but conquered land. This is very grim news—especially for the few souls living in Judah at this time who really do care about pleasing God. Isn’t there any hope on the horizon? Yes, there is. Yahweh doesn’t minimize how horrible things will get—He describes Rachel weeping bitterly for her children and refusing to be comforted. But then He brings this reassurance: the exile of the Jews won’t be permanent. The grieving mother Rachel will one day be reunited with her children—in other words, some of the exiled Jews will eventually return to their homeland. We read about this return in Ezra and Nehemiah.
In this passage, Yahweh describes the Israelites finally coming to a point of repentance and Him responding by graciously bringing them back to their homeland. In reality, only a small minority of Jews would ever truly seek God again after He punishes them for their relentless defiance. Most of them would return home with major attitude and pick right up where they left on in defying Yahweh. We see evidence of this in Ezra and Nehemiah, and it is the rotten attitude of these returning Jews which Yahweh is addressing through the prophets Malachi, Zechariah and Haggai. If there’s one theme we find throughout the entire Bible, it’s God’s chosen people willfully defying Him.
So then, what does this passage have to do with Herod’s brutal slaughter of Jewish children? Nothing. Herod’s motivation for slaughtering Jewish children was his fear that some great ruler had just been born who would overthrow him. Yahweh’s reason for driving the Jews from their homeland was to discipline their willful defiance. Herod was murdering, whereas Yahweh is talking about live people being dragged off as prisoners to foreign lands. Herod was targeting children, whereas Yahweh’s disciplinary measures affected people of all ages. In Herod’s case, “Rachel” could never be consoled—her children were dead. But in the original passage, Yahweh assures the metaphorical Rachel that she will soon be reunited with the children she is missing. These two passages have nothing to do with each other. They are talking about completely different things. Yahweh’s passage doesn’t have anything to do with a Messiah. Strike two for Matthew.
In Matthew’s first chapter, we find the following description of an angel visiting Joseph in a dream.
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His Name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “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.” And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His Name Jesus. (Mt. 1:20-25)
Matthew is quoting Isaiah 7 here, so let’s start turning pages. In Isaiah 7:10-16, we find Yahweh speaking through the mouth of His prophet Isaiah to one very twerpy Israelite king named Ahaz. Ahaz is a punk. Ahaz does not respect God. Ahaz is also in big trouble because he’s currently being ganged up on by two enemies: the northern kingdom of Israel and the nation of Aram. Ahaz is king over Judah in the south. Ever since Solomon died and the northern Israelite tribes split away from the southern tribes, the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah haven’t been getting along very well. They fight a lot. And now that Israel has made a military alliance with the king of Aram, it looks like Judah is going to get badly defeated. Ahaz knows he is outnumbered and he’s freaking out. But although Yahweh finds this king and his irreverent subjects to be quite annoying, it isn’t His will to crush Judah just yet. In fact, He’s planning to glorify Himself by pulling off an impossible victory for Judah. He has just explained through Isaiah that Ahaz has nothing to worry about—these two bully kings that are headed his way aren’t going to get what they want. In fact, Yahweh is planning to spank both Israel and Aram using a third party: the mighty Assyrians. It all sounds a bit too good to be true to Ahaz, so now Yahweh generously offers to prove the validity of His promises by giving Ahaz a miraculous sign. Ahaz even gets to pick what the sign will be—anything he wants.
Yahweh spoke to Ahaz, “Ask Yahweh your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”
But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put Yahweh to the test.”
Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore Yahweh Himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.” (Isa. 7:10-16)
So according to this passage, what is the Immanuel child supposed to be a sign of? He’s a sign that Yahweh will defeat the two kings that Ahaz is afraid of: Israel and Aram. Well, if Immanuel’s birth is supposed to prove something for Ahaz, he needs to hop to it and start being born. This whole conversation is happening over 700 years before the birth of Jesus. So where’s Immanuel? He’s born in the next chapter. Who’s his daddy? The prophet Isaiah. Who’s his mother? Isaiah’s prophetess wife. Was she a virgin? Not likely. But what is likely is that we’ve done a poor job of translating the Hebrew word for “virgin” in this passage. Like English words, Hebrew words have multiple meanings. To choose the right one, we have to look at context. The Hebrew word used here can mean virgin, or it can mean young woman, or a newly married woman. Given the context, it’s rather obvious we should have used “young woman” here instead of “virgin.” So why didn’t we? Because by the time we’ve all been brainwashed by Matthew’s poor applications into thinking this is supposed to be a Messianic prophecy, it’s only natural that we’re going to try and translate it to match the circumstances of Jesus’ unique conception. If you believe the Immanuel child is Jesus and you already know His mother was a virgin, then when deciding whether you should put “virgin” or “young woman” in the English text, you’re going to select virgin. But once you realize that Immanuel’s birth was a sign about events that would soon be taking place in Israel and Aram and that he doesn’t have anything to do with a future Messiah, and once you realize that Isaiah up and has the kid in the very next chapter—well then it’s pretty obvious that you should use “young woman” instead. So the prophecy should actually read “A young woman will conceive and bear a son”. See how far astray we’ve gotten by blindly trusting Matthew’s interpretations of Scripture?
It’s interesting to note that there isn’t any child in the Bible who is given the legal name of Immanuel, which means “God with us.” Jesus’ legal name was Yeshua, and we now know that He didn’t have anything to do with Immanuel because Jesus’ birth was not a sign of future military conquests in Israel and Aram. But Isaiah’s son who was conceived and born shortly after this conversation was the fulfillment of this Immanuel prophecy, even though his legal name was not Immanuel at all, but Maher-shalal-hash-baz (Isa. 8:3). The Maher name also has prophetic significance—it means “quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil”, which is a description of how swiftly the victorious Assyrians will rush to plunder the lands of Israel and Aram. So if Isaiah’s son is named Maher-something, how do we know that he fulfills the Immanuel prophecy? Because Yahweh Himself tells us so. In Isaiah 8:6-8, God says:
“Because these people have rejected the gently flowing waters of Shiloah and rejoice over Rezin and Pekah the son of Remaliah, therefore Yahweh is about to bring against them the mighty floodwaters of the Euphrates— the king of Assyria with all his pomp. It will overflow all its channels, run over all its banks and sweep on into Judah, swirling over it, passing through it and reaching up to the neck.”
Here God is repeating His prophecy that soon the Assyrians will come and stomp all over King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah of Israel. He now speaks directly to Isaiah’s newborn son:
“It’s outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land, Immanuel!” (Isa. 8:8)
With God Himself addressing the boy as Immanuel, we can hardly argue that this prophecy has been left unfulfilled. Yahweh now continues with:
“Be broken, O peoples, and be shattered; Listen, all you distant lands. Prepare for battle, yet be shattered! Prepare for battle, yet be shattered! Devise a plan, but it will be thwarted; state a proposal, but it will not stand, for God is with us.” (Isa. 8:9-10)
Immanuel means “God is with us.” This God-given nickname for the Maher boy is another reminder that God is going to be with the kingdom of Judah in this particular incident. It is Judah He will protect from harm while He crushes her two enemies. At the same time, Maher’s long legal name emphasizes the coming conquest of Assyria. So both of the boy’s names together serve as a reminder of the prophecy that God gave to King Ahaz. Doesn’t have anything whatsoever to do with a Messiah. And with little Immanuel already having lived and died over seven centuries ago, it is ridiculous for Matthew to suggest that Jesus was somehow a long awaited fulfillment of this prophecy. Why would anyone still be waiting for Immanuel to be born? Why would anyone think God was talking about a virgin when they all knew Isaiah’s non-virgin wife had conceived the child? How simple things could have been if Matthew hadn’t run amuck and swept our translators off with him. Strike three for Matthew, and at this point we’ll definitely have to strike him off of the “infallible” list.
As we said before, the point of this exercise is not to say that we should cut the book of Matthew out of the Bible. The man provides us with some priceless records of Jesus. But when it comes to his own theological ponderings and applications of the Old Testament, we need to be wary. Matthew is a mixed bag. Like many teachers in the Church today, he is trying to see a Messiah in passages where none exist. Read with caution.