The name of a place in Scripture is often vital to understanding a prophecy.
But when he [Joseph] heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: “He shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:22-23)
You’d think that the name of Yeshua’s hometown would be one of those non-confrontational subjects, but the mythicists–the tiny, tiny minority of people who want to prove that not only was Yeshua not the Son of God, but that he never existed at all!–have proven that nothing is off the table for attack. As recently as 2008, mythicist Rene Salm wrote a book titled The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus claiming that no such village ever existed. Amusingly, almost exactly a year later, the Israeli Antiques Authority (IAA) announced that
they had discovered the remains of a stone house in Nazareth, just steps from the Basilica of the Annunciation, dating back to the time of Jesus. . . as amazing as it sounds, the cluster of ecclesiastical buildings in downtown Nazareth–the basilica, Saint Gabriel’s Church, Mary’s Well–almost certainly were built directly over where the village of Nazareth lay in Jesus’ day. (Robert J. Hutchinson, Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth–and How They Confirm the Gospel Accounts (Thomas Nelson, 2015), pp. 120, 121)
Not that there wasn’t already evidence for Nazareth, despite the mythicist’s stubborn refusal to admit the facts:
The first non-Christian reference to Nazareth was discovered in 1962 on a grey marble fragment in an ancient synagogue in Caesarea Maritima on Israel’s coast. It was dated by Israeli archaeologists to around AD 300. The writing on the fragment (and another like it) mentions various towns and villages in Galilee, including Nazareth (which allowed scholars to know, for the time, how Nazareth was spelled in Hebrew, with the Hebrew letter tzadik, נצרת) (ibid., p. 119)
It’s because of this discovery that we at long last understand Matthew’s prophecy. In older commentaries, it was common to assume that Matthew’s statement that Yeshua “would be called a Nazarene” had something to do with a Nazrite vow. However, the Hebrew nazir is spelled with a zayin, not a tzadik (נזיר), so that can’t be. Rather the name Nazareth, or Netzeret, comes from netzer (נצר), meaning “branch.”
This term for “branch” appears in Isaiah 11:1, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch (נצר) from his roots shall bear fruit.” A few verses later, we read that this same “root of Jesse . . . shall stand as a signal for the peoples–of him shall the nations inquire (or “seek”), and his resting place shall be glorious” (v 10).
The whole cluster of prophecies in Isaiah 7-12 is central to Matthew: He cites Isaiah 7:14 (Mat. 1:23), 9:1-2 (Mat. 4:15), and 11:2 (Mat. 3:16) and alludes to 8:15 (Mat. 21:44), 9:4 (Mat. 11:29) in addition to the allusion from Isaiah 11:1. (Other NT authors, particularly Peter and Paul, likewise repeatedly return to this section, but for now, let’s stick with Matthew.) When Matthew, reading Isaiah in the original Hebrew, comes across the prophecy of the branch from the root of Jesse, there would be an obvious connection in his mind: “The Messiah is called a netzer (branch), and here he comes from Netzeret (Branch-town)!”
The name of Yeshua’s hometown may not have been mere coincidence or Providence, as it turns out. Hutcherson notes that
There is a theory, common in some messianic Jewish circles, that both Mary and her betrothed, Joseph, were members of a Jewish sect that saw itself as descended from a “branch” of the House of David, a line that was not subject to the famous curse by the prophet Jeremiah. . . Supposedly another branch of the royal Davidic family had emerged through one of King David’s other sons, Nathan brother of King Solomon. This branch of the family, the theory goes, closely guarded its royal heritage for hundreds of years, through exile in Babylon and eventual resettlement in the land of Israel when the Judeans were permitted to return. . . The tiny, isolated community they founded, near a natural underground spring at the foot of rocky, pine-covered hills just south of the Beit Netofah Valley, was called Nazareth. (pp. 116, 117)
If it existed and Matthew was aware of it, his allusion to the connection between Yeshua’s home-town and the Messianic prophecy in Isaiah becomes even more intriguing. After all, it would make sense that this line of David would have carefully preserved the evidence of their lineage in such a way that it could be probed. However, to avoid bringing the Romans down on a potentially subversive and rebellious sect (as Rome would have seen it), he would have been careful to encode his message in a way that only those already somewhat “in the know” would have followed up on it.
Perhaps such a sect never existed, at least not in the sense of a self-organizing body, and Matthew simply saw the name of the town as Divine Providence in action. If so, the real takeaway here is that which we already alluded to in the previous post in this series: That the Holy One uses place-names as clues in prophecy, and that whenever we come to a place-name in prophecy, we would be wise to look up it’s original meaning.
Understanding the history behind geographic locations is often key to understanding a prophecy.
This post has been a bit delayed, in part because of the elections (which I’ve commented on elsewhere, but don’t intend to on this blog), and in part because it’s taken me a while to figure out how best to attack Matthew 2:16-18:
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted,
because they are no more.” (quoting Jer. 31:15)
There’s a bit of an incongruity in this passage: Ramah is about 5 miles north of Jerusalem, while Rachel’s tomb is in Bethlehem, about 6 miles south of Jerusalem. As a result, commentaries on Jeremiah generally assume that this passage refers to the Rachel weeping for the captives of Jerusalem as they were marched north, past Ramah, on their way to Babylon (see for example Longenecker’s Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, pp. 128). An alternative explanation is that Rachel’s voice, emanating from Benjamin, in the southern kingdom, spoke in mourning for the northern tribes that were taken away by the Assyrians (Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 14). It therefore seems odd that Matthew would take this as a Messianic prophecy.
Or perhaps not. Let’s look at this passage in light of the principles that we’ve already discovered.
First Principle: “That which has been fulfilled in spirit may be fulfilled again in both spirit and letter in the Messiah.” As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the Sinaic covenant as written in Deuteronomy is very specific that Israel would suffer not one, but two distinct exiles. Nearly all of the NT writers at least allude to this coming judgment. Matthew sees Herod’s slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem as a precursor to this second exile.
Second Principle: “The context of a prophecy may be thematic rather than chronological.” If we look just a few verses over, we come to Jeremiah 31:31-34, the key proclamation that there would be a New Covenant (and quoted as such in Hebrews 8). And the verses leading up to it speak of Israel’s restoration. Matthew undoubtedly had this in mind when he tied verse 15 into Yeshua’s life.
Third Principle: “Prophecies which apply to Israel apply equally to Israel’s King, and vice-versa. Yeshua redeems Israel’s history.” Longenecker combines our first and third principles together as follows:
For Matthew, however, who thought as a Jew in terms of corporate solidarity and typological correspondences in history–and who was convinced as a Christian concerning eschatological fulfillment and messianic presence in the person and work of Jesus Christ–the lament of God for his people of old finds its fullest expression and can be legitimately applied to Herod’s murder of the infant boys in Bethlehem at the time of of Jesus’ birth. (ibid., pp. 128f).
In short, Matthew 2:16-18 provides a confirmation and expansion on the principles discovered in his first three quotes.
Next, we’ll tackle the prophecies of John the Immerser all together. I’m not sure yet if that will be one post, or several. Until then,
So I’ve finally gone and done it. I’ve finally started a podcast. May God have mercy on my soul.
Basically, Johnny McMahon of the ever-goofy, ever-fun Iron Show, where I’ve been more or less a permanent guest for the last couple of years, needed a break. Also, to be wisked away to a secure location for his safety due to the anti-Trump riots in his area getting out of control. But mainly a break. I’d been thinking about starting my own show for some time, so jumping into his time-slot for the next couple of months to get it started seemed like a cool idea.
The Last Trump Podcast is about the intersection of faith, science, and politics. So, basically an excuse for me to babble about whatever I want (whereas I’ve generally avoided politics on this blog). Or, to quote the blurb:
Is there a battle between faith and science? Should religion be kept out of politics? Not here! Join Michael Bugg (affectionately known as Rabbi Mike to the Iron Show audience) as he looks at the intersection of the spiritual, the physical, and the cultural through the eyes of a Messianic Jewish science buff, sci-fi geek, political hack.
It’s being produced by the Fringe Radio Network, a network about which I should have some really cool things to share in the coming weeks and months. Stay tuned!
One of the great joys of having children is watching them learn. Preschoolers in particular always seem to be asking questions: “Why? Why? Why?” My four-year-old son’s favorite questions all start the same way, “How did God make ____ ?” He hasn’t yet figured out the difference between the natural and the artificial, so the questions range from, “How did God make trees?” to “How did God make cars?” Frankly, answering the questions about the natural world are a lot harder than answering those about man-made things, but both are difficult. My son doesn’t have a lot of background knowledge, so I’m always walking a line between answering truthfully but incomprehensibly and just making stuff up. (“Well, you see, babies are brought by a stork . . . “)
It was after a long series of questions one day that something clicked with me about the Biblical creation narratives. (Yes, there are more than one. No, they don’t contradict.) While the prophets of old weren’t children, and certainly weren’t stupid, they also weren’t very scientifically advanced. So how then could God explain creation to them in a way that was a) accurate, b) meaningful, and c) actionable?
To suggest that the ancient Hebrews would have read into Genesis 1:1 the creation of a universe over 30 billion light-years across in a “big bang” almost 14 billion years ago is, of course, ludicrous. To the ancients, “the heavens” referred to that which they could see with the naked eye: Sky, clouds, the sun, moon, and stars (which included the “wandering” stars, or planets) in their constellations, etc. They did not, and could not, distinguish between the atmosphere and outer space, let alone interplanetary, interstellar, and intergalactic space. They also had no conception of, and no concern about, our current scientific debates about the ultimate origin of a universe that was largely invisible to them and which we have only begun to perceive through powerful telescopes in the last century. Nor would they have cared about the extent to which evolution played a role in the development of the earth’s life-forms. Atheism and materialism were not even on the table for discussion.
What was on the table for discussion was the means by which the visible world was created and by whom. All Ancient Near-East (ANE) pagan systems personified nature into their gods. These gods, in turn, were not eternal, but arose (evolved) spontaneously from a chaotic, primordial world which they proceeded to shape and vie over. For example, the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish (thought to have been composed around the 18th to 16th century BCE) tells us that Apsu and Tiamat, the personifications of fresh and salt water, mixed together and created the gods. Apsu wished to kill them, but Tiamat prevailed in keeping them alive. Ea, the chief of the gods, killed Apsu in his sleep, leading to Tiamat seeking revenge. Marduk in turn killed Tiamat in battle and divided her, using half of her corpse to form the earth and half to form the heavens. The Egyptians and Greeks had myths of a similar sort.
The chief point of Genesis, then, is to correct these pagan traditions of personified nature. In their place, Genesis asserts that in the beginning was one God, transcendent and separate from the visible world, and that he alone created the natural entities and forces that the pagans worshipped. God did not bring into being by strife, nor with the help of (or death of) other gods, by simply by the Word of his power. The deep (Heb. tehom) was not a god or a monster, but was simply the primordial ocean over which the Spirit of the Living God brooded before acting to create, and so forth. This is the plain-sense, historical interpretation.
Does this mean that Genesis has nothing to speak to today’s issues, or that it is ahistorical and simply a polemical device for countering paganism? Not at all. First of all, its polemical value is anchored on being a true, historical account by the One who created everything. And if that is the case, then we should expect that as our scientific knowledge of creation expands, we should find confirmation of God’s account. Secondly, the major difference between paganism and philosophical materialism is that paganism personifies the natural elements. (Though given how non-theists tend to personify “the Universe,” “the Cosmos,” and “Evolution” when speaking of the design in nature, that’s an even thinner line between the two than may be apparent at first glance.) The Bible’s response to paganism would therefore answer materialism as well–and such a response would have to be rooted in real, verifiable natural history in order to be effective. Moreover, if the God of the Bible is truly all-knowing and eternal (outside of the created dimension of time), we would expect that he would anticipate future attacks on his sovereignty over creation just as much as those in the past.
This is a long way of saying that I believe that my Father engaged humanity much like I try (however imperfectly) to engage my son: He is never untruthful, but by necessity he is often simplistic when the original human authors and readers would not be in a position to know the whole truth. Peter notes that the prophets did not always understand their own messages: “It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced” regarding the Messiah and the Good News (1Pt. 1:12). In the same way, I think the clues are there so that when we gained greater knowledge of the physical universe, we would be able to look back at Genesis and say, “Hey, that still fits!”
Those who think that only a Young Earth Creationist viewpoint is consistent with a normal or “literal” reading of the Word should read the Report of the Creation Study Committee organized by the PCA. For the record, I’m mostly in the Framework Hypothesis when it comes to the plain sense, but an Old Earth Creationist midrashically. Those interested in getting the Old Earth Creationist viewpoint can do far worse than to look into Reasons to Believe, Dr. Hugh Ross’s ministry. You might also enjoy his debate with Kent Hovind on the John Ankerberg Show a few years ago:
This post is getting a little long, so I’ll leave the question of why I consider this issue to be so important for another time.
Until then, Shalom!
Prophecies which apply to Israel apply equally to Israel’s King, and vice-versa. Yeshua redeems Israel’s history.
Some years ago, I had dinner with an Israeli friend of the family. He wasn’t Messianic. Heck, some days he wasn’t even sure if he believed in the God of Jacob. Nevertheless, he had a vast collection of rabbinic commentaries. As a kind of party game, he started doing off-the-cuff translations of both the commentaries and the Tanakh (OT) itself for us. My mother-in-law cheekily asked him to translate Isaiah 53 for us, and he readily agreed.
He got three verses in, looked up with a frown, and said, “That sounds positively Christian, doesn’t it?” Four more verses later he suddenly stopped, shaken, and said, “I don’t understand this–I-I have to look at the commentary.”
We didn’t have to tell him whom the passage referred to. He knew. The commentaries he pulled, however, said that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 was not the Messiah, but referred to the sufferings of the Jewish people as a whole instead. He latched onto that and ended the conversation, even though I could point him to passages from the Talmud and the Midrash that state in no uncertain terms that Isaiah 53 refers to the Messiah (e.g., Sanhedrin 98b, Ruth Rabba 5:6ff).
Actually, though, the anti-missionaries who claim that the “servant” of Isaiah 40-53 is Israel aren’t entirely wrong. There are several places in that passage where the servant must refer to Israel, like “But now hear, O Jacob my servant” (44:1, cf. 41:8, 42:19). There are also places where, apart from having a NT reading, we would consider the reference to be ambiguous, possibly referring to Israel, and possibly to a particular individual (42:1-4, sandwiched between 41:8 and 42:19). So how do we explain the apparent inconsistency in Isaiah’s use of the word “servant”?
This brings us to Matthew 2:13-15:
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.”
He arose and took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
The quote is from Hosea 11:1. However, when we look at Hosea, we find that the context makes it impossible to regard it as a Messianic prophecy:
When Israel was a child, then I loved him,
and called my son out of Egypt.
They called to them, so they went from them.
They sacrificed to the Baals,
and burned incense to engraved images.
Yet I taught Ephraim to walk.
I took them by his arms;
but they didn’t know that I healed them.
I drew them with cords of a man, with ties of love;
and I was to them like those who lift up the yoke on their necks;
and I bent down to him and I fed him. (Hos. 11:1-4)
Very obviously, just like Isaiah 44:1 uses the term “servant,” Hosea is using the singular term “my son” (beni) collectively for all Israel, a beloved child who had gone astray. So how can we explain Matthew’s use of this passage as Messianic?
History Becoming Biography
Here I’ll quote from Richard N. Longenecker’s Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (2nd Edition):
In applying the passage to Jesus, Matthew seems to be thinking along the lines of corporate solidarity and rereading his Old Testament from an eschatologically realized and messianic perspective. . . [H]e is making the point that what was vital in Israel’s corporate and redemptive experience finds its ultimate and intended focus in the person of Jesus the Messiah. (p. 128)
In other words, Matthew is setting up in his audiences mind that the King and his people are as one, that Yeshua’s life is a microcosm of Israel’s–only where Israel became tainted by idolatry and went astray, Yeshua remained pure and opened up the way back through his own sacrifice. Longenecker expands on this theme (p. 125):
Like Israel, Yeshua is
- a child of promise (Mat. 1:18ff; Gen. 15-21);
- delivered from the hand of Herod (Mat. 2:1ff), as Jacob was from Herod’s ancestor Esau (Gen. 27:41ff, 32:1ff);
- who came out of Egypt (Mat. 2:15, 19ff; Exo. 12:31ff);
- passing through the waters (Mat. 3:13ff; Exo. 14);
- entering the wilderness for testing (Mat. 4:18ff; Exo. 15:22ff);
- calling out the “twelve sons of Israel” (Mat. 4:18ff; Exo. 24:4, Num. 1-2);
- giving the Law from the mount (Mat. 5-7; Exo. 20:1ff);
- performing ten miracles (Mat. 8-9; Exo. 7-12 or the ten miracles that occurred after Israel left Egypt, starting at Exo. 15:22ff);
- sending out the Twelve to “conquer” the land (Mat. 10:1ff; Joshua 1:1ff);
- feeding the multitudes to with “manna” from heaven (Mat. 14:15ff, 15:32ff; Exo. 16:14ff);
- and being transfigured before his disciples (Mat. 17:1ff; Exo. 34:29ff).
I would add a few things to Longenecker’s list, but the point here is not to be absolutely completest. It is enough to demonstrate that Matthew see’s Israel’s history and Yeshua’s life as completely interconnected, and that he uses the passage from Hosea to highlight it.
Added To, Not Replaced
There is an error that we need to avoid here. All too often Christians claim that the fact that Yeshua “fulfills” Israel’s history means that there is no more purpose for “Israel of the flesh.” The Gentiles of the Ekklesia are truly “grafted in” to Israel’s tree (Rom. 11:25ff), having become both fellow heirs and fellow citizens of Israel (Eph. 2:19, 3:6). But just as an adopted child does not replace the one born into the family, neither does “the Church” replace Israel.
The fact that the King and the people are as as one runs in both directions: As Yeshua was stripped, tortured and killed without cause by the Gentiles, so the Jewish people have been stripped, tortured and killed by the Gentiles. As Yeshua died and came back to life, so Israel as a nation has “died” only to be resurrected in these last days. And as Yeshua was glorified after his resurrection, so too shall be Israel.
The autumn season has always been the one in which I most feel the “pull” of prophecy, specifically end-times prophecy or eschatology. The slow fading of the year appeals to my default state of cheerful melancholia, putting me in the right mood for contemplating the end of history with a Messianic hope. In addition to the prophetic nature of the fall feastdays, there’s something about the final brilliant transformation of the leaves before they wither and fall, something about the sudden chill in the wind combined with grey and rainy skies that sets me in the mood to contemplate the End of All Things.
This is nowhere more true than on Sukkot:
On Sukkot I emphasize the “cheerful” part of my cheerful melancholia. It is, after all, the time when Yeshua will officially take office as King over the whole world, having reconciled with Israel and pouring out the waters of the Holy Spirit over them. It is the feast where Israel sacrificed seventy bulls for the seventy nations, acting fully in her capacity as a “nation of priests.” And, it is arguably Yeshua’s birthday today (though many would argue for Rosh Hashannah instead). There’s an optimism built into Sukkot that surpasses every other Feast, to the point that Hashem actually commands us to rejoice this week (Deu. 14:26, 16:14).
So this seems like the perfect time to talk about prophetic optimism. No, not the kind of optimism that the post-millennialists and Dominionists have, where they think that we will succeed in politically conquering the world, putting it under Christ’s feet so that he can return. The Scripture is pretty clear that we can expect the political systems of this world to always turn back to serving the prince of this world, the Adversary.
But that doesn’t mean that we have to consistently lose.
When most people read the Olivet Discourse (Mat. 24-25, Mark 13; cf. Luke 21), they focus on the wars and rumors of wars, the famines, the earthquakes, and the persecution of God’s people, the Great Tribulation. That must mean that everything has to go straight to hell for the Lord to return, right?
No, not at all. I mean really, the whole of human history is full of wars, famines, earthquakes, and persecution, so what kind of sign would that be? No, the real signs of the Lord’s immanent return are three very positive developments hidden in the text:
First, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations (ethnoi), and then the end will come” (Mat. 24:14). In other words, one of the signs of the Lord’s near return will be the completion of the Great Commission. It’s almost complete now, with only a handful of places in the world that yet need to be evangelized properly. Is not the spread of the Good News to every tribe and tongue and people and nation despite all of the Adversary’s attempts to block it something to look forward to–and more than that, to participate in?
Second, “let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. . . Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath” (vv. 16, 20). This warning presupposes two things: That Israel would be back in the land of ancient Judea and in control of its mountains (the West Bank), and that there would be disciples of Yeshua living there to whom the Sabbath matters. In other words, the return of both the Jews and of a considerable number of Jews who practice Judaism and yet are followers of Yeshua is predicted in this passage.
Third, “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place . . .” (v. 15) presupposes that there will be a holy place to stand in.
Christian critics of Israel will often point to its secular nature as “proof” that it isn’t the predicted state. However, the truth is more complicated than that. First, as we’ve noted before, the Jewish people as a whole did repent of the specific sins that led to the “curse of the law.” Second, while it is true that half of Israeli Jews identify themselves as secular, the general trend in Israel over time has been towards greater faith and devotion, with those born in the country being more likely to be religiously devoted than their parents. The same poll shows that when you actually start asking about specific religious practices, even many secular Jews practice elements of Judaism on a regular basis.
To rebuild the Temple would require an incredible upsurge in devotion to Hashem and his Torah in Israel–even before the Messiah’s return. I’d call that a pretty optimistic outlook for Israel’s future, as predicted in Scripture.
So as we enjoy this time of feasting, family, friends, and faith, let’s renew our vigor to see the Gospel spread “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile,” knowing that our Lord will not rest until the task is complete, and neither should we. We need to play to win, striving in excellence in all things so as to bring glory to our King.