The existence of a spiritual metaphor does not necessarily negate a literal fulfillment.
Other principles discovered in this series:
- That which has been fulfilled in spirit may be fulfilled again in both spirit and letter in the Messiah.
- The context of a prophecy may be thematic rather than chronological.
- Prophecies which apply to Israel apply equally to Israel’s King, and vice-versa. Yeshua redeems Israel’s history.
- The name of a place in Scripture is often vital to understanding a prophecy.
- A prophecy may use physical descriptions to describe spiritual realities.
As we saw under the previous principle, the Bible does often use physical metaphors to describe spiritual/moral realities. This only makes sense, because how else can you explain a non-physical reality (the spiritual world) to physical beings except in terms of metaphor and symbolism? While some languages have developed specialized terms to describe spiritual realities, early Hebrew and Aramaic are not among them. This is actually to our advantage, because such terms often cannot be translated and lend themselves to misunderstanding as they cross cultural boundaries. Exhibit A: The persistant misuse of the Sanskrit word karma among Westerners.
The amillennialist, whose view requires him to explain away literally hundreds of prophecies of Israel’s restoration, redemption, and exaltation, points to such metaphors to support their position. So, for example, when Isaiah 51:3 says, “For the LORD comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD,” the amillennialist argues that this does not refer to the literal reversal of desertification in the land of Israel, but rather to the spiritual flourishing of the Church despite her many hardships. Thus equipped, the amillennialist is prepared to take any and all references to Israel’s destiny and even geography as merely being metaphors for the Church.
This is as much a reductio ad absurdum as when a premillennialist shows an example of a prophecy being taken literally and declares that therefore all prophecy must be taken absolutely literally. The truth, as we see in the New Testament, is more complicated.
Light and Land
After recounting Yeshua’s immersion in the Jordan and temptation in the wilderness, Matthew tells us that he returned to Galilee to begin his ministry, citing this as the fulfillment of Isaiah 9:1-2:
But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.
Very obviously, Isaiah is using “light” and “darkness” to refer to spiritual good and evil. However, just as obviously Matthew understand the geographical references to “the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali” to be perfectly literal, describing the region from Yeshua’s hometown Nazareth to the region northwest of the Sea of Galilee where Capernaum, which Yeshua used as his primary base of operations, lies. If not for Matthew’s direct quote of this passage, it would be easy for the amillennialist to assume “Galilee of the Gentiles” makes the whole prophecy a metaphorical reference to the Church’s Gentile mission–or for the premillennialist to assume that the “light” refers to the literal light of Yeshua’s glory post-second coming. Matthew’s use is more nuanced than either extreme.
He Bore Our Illnesses
Let’s look at another prophetic fulfillment cited by Matthew a little later (8:14-17):
And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever. He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and began to serve him. That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.” (citing Isa. 53:17)
It’s easy to see why Matthew might quote Isaiah’s “holy of holies,” his graphic description of Yeshua’s rejection and sacrifice, but why in the context of healing? In what sense did Yeshua “take” and “carry (bore)” Peter’s mother-in-law’s fever, or the demons that he cast out, or the other illnesses that he cured?
In one sense, Yeshua bore all those things at the cross. Physically, his body was in shock from the scourging and the nails and infection would already be setting in, leaving him feverish and sick. From John’s description of “blood and water” coming out when a soldier stabbed Yeshua’s body (John 19:34), we can infer that Yeshua’s pericardial sac was filling with fluid, leading to a heart attack. At the same time, on a spiritual level, the Holy One who had known no sin was made to become sin (2Co. 5:21). Psalm 22, providing an even more graphic description of the physical effects of crucifixion than Isaiah, refers to “many strong bulls of Bashan” surrounding the victim, a metaphor for the demonic servants of the Adversary–possibly the very same demons that Yeshua had been casting out through the course of his ministry coming back to seek revenge.
But there’s also another, very literal sense, in which Yeshua “bore our diseases.” Matthew 8:15 emphasizes that Yeshua “touched” Peter’s mother-in-law to heal her. A little earlier, he reports that Yeshua “stretched out his hand and touched” a leper to heal him (8:3). In the next chapter, a woman with “an issue of blood” touched the tzitzit of Yeshua’s cloak in order to be healed (9:20), which seems to have set off a frenzy of people begging just to touch his garment for healing (14:36). Yeshua also touched the eyes of the blind to open them (14:36, 20:34), and the ears and tongue of the deaf-mute to grant him hearing and speech (Mark 7:33). He even touched the ear of one of those who had come to arrest them to heal a disfiguring wound inflicted by one of his own disciples (Luke 22:51). In fact, Yeshua is so often mentioned touching those that he healed that we can safely assume that all who came to him for healing (save the few that he healed at a distance) felt his compassionate hand.
But here’s the thing: Physical contact with some of those afflicted rendered Yeshua ritually unclean, particularly in the case of the lepers (Lev. 13:45-46) and the woman with the issue of blood (Lev. 15:25-27). Unclean doesn’t mean that the person is sinful or cut off from God. It simply means that they had to undergo a purification ritual before they could enter the sacred space of the temple’s precincts. In some extreme cases, like leprosy and an issue of blood, the person became an actual source of contamination (an av hatumah) that could cause others to become unclean by either direct or indirect contact. Some have tried to argue that since the lepers were healed instantly, Yeshua was not made unclean. However, the lepers would not instantly be made ritually clean by their healing; they still had to undergo the purification ritual described in Leviticus 14 before they could re-enter society, so they were still unclean until then (cf. Mat. 8:4).
In a very real (though ritual) sense, then, the Pure One became temporarily unclean so that the ill could not only be healed, but could be purified so that they could rejoin their brethren and draw near to the Holy One in his temple again. This is an incredible picture of Yeshua’s purpose, and Matthew uses it quite deftly to telegraph the ultimate point of the cross.
So here’s the question: Is this a literal or metaphorical interpretation of Isaiah 53? Though the whole setup of degrees of ritual purity and impurity is in itself a metaphor for spiritual realities, you can make a very good case that Matthew takes Isaiah 53 almost hyper-literally in this case, recognizing from his priestly training just what it meant for Yeshua that he insisted on touching the afflicted–and for some of them, this would be the first human touch they had felt in years–when he healed them. And yet, through this physical and literal act, Yeshua is demonstrating a far greater spiritual cleansing to come.
This overlap of physical literalness and spiritual metaphors means that we need to approach the prophecies very carefully and understand the point of each. The existence of a spiritual metaphor in a given prophecy does not mean that physical details like geographic locations, natural disasters, wars, and rebuilding will not be fulfilled literally. But at the same time, we should try to “peek behind the veil” of the physical events to understand the spiritual reality behind them, or else we will miss the Author’s more important points.