PROMISE, PREDICTION AND THE MESSIAH:

Two Testaments and One Lord

 

Scriptures:  "All the promises of God are affirmed in Jesus"  (II Cor 1.10) "Beginning with Moses and all the prophets. He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Him" (Luke 24.27)

 

Five Scenes From Jesus' Childhood:  Prediction and Promise

 

1.  Assurance to Joseph - Matt. 1.18-25; Isa. 7.14

2.  Jesus born at Bethlehem - Matt. 2.1-12; Micah 5.2

3.  Escape to Egypt, and then the return - Matt. 2.13-15; Hosea 1.1

4.  Murder by Herod of the boys in Bethlehem - Matt. 2. 16-18; Jer. 34.15

5.  Jesus' home, Nazareth - Matt. 2.19-23 (no O.T. reference)

 

Jesus was the only expected person in the Old Testament.  The Old Testament relates to Jesus by telling the story which Jesus completes; it also declares the promise which Jesus fulfills.  Are these invented stories to make the predictions come true?  Our answer must be a resounding, No! -for at least two reasons:

 

(1) Why would Matthew start from Messianic prophecies to create the stories?  (compare with texts regarding the coming of the Messiah in first century Judaism).

 

(2) It is a mistake to say that the narratives Matthew tells are fulfillments of Old Testament prediction, because only one of the texts he quotes is in fact a recognized Messianic prediction at all, and that is Micah 5.2 predicting that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.  The grammatical/linguistic polyvalence (prophecy to King Ahaz in Isaiah 7) makes the reference a Messianic possibility.  Hosea 11.1 was no prediction but a past reference to the exodus.  Jeremiah 31.15 is a picture of the mourning of Rachael at the time of the exile of her descendents in 587 B.C. after the fall of Jerusalem.  These factors make it very dubious that Matthew was making up stories to fulfill Messianic predictions.  What is the relation of promise and prediction?  While both entail the faithfulness of God to His word of promise and prediction, a promise is more than a prediction!

 

I.  Geography and History: What was Matthew's intention in the choice of scriptures to punctuate his narrative?  The quoted passages accompany Jesus in a geographical sense.  The scripture fulfillment motif in the infancy narratives serves the same purpose as the genealogy in chapter one to portray Jesus as the Messiah, the completion of a story and the fulfillment of a promise,  (cf. Matt. 4.13-16 quotes Isaiah 9.1-2 which introduces one of the outstanding Messianic and Davidic prophecies in that book.)  The history lesson in the genealogy of chapter one is corroborated by the geography lesson in chapters 2-4.  Great David and greater Son is claiming his kingdom.

 

The genealogy has a wider scope than David; there is the implicit universal scope connected with Abraham, and the explicit inclusion of the Gentiles (goyim/ethnics) among the female ancestors of Jesus.  The birth narratives assert the visit of Magi from the East; and the second is the visit of Jesus Himself to Egypt in the West.

 

The Old Testament fuses God's work of salvation (Isa. 19.23-25) in Israel and the Messiah for the blessing of all the nations (see my papers on Promise and Blessing and Promise and Goyim) The Biblical narrative swings between two poles of Egypt and Babylon (egs.) between the Exodus from oppression in Egypt and the exile to Babylon and the return.  Matthew's scripture quotation refers to the exodus from Egypt, and the other to the exile to Babylon (e.g. Hosea 11.1 - Matt. 2.15 looked back to the exodus - Jesus in Egypt or His return in Ex. 4.22, "out of Egypt").  Then Matthew records Herod's slaughter of boys under two years old in Bethlehem.  This he links to Jeremiah 31.15 about Rachael weeping for her children. The events of the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. and the exile in Babylon). The rest of Jeremiah 31 is in fact a message of hope, for out of tragedy and grief would come future blessing.

 

Both the exodus and exile were saturated with promise.  Matthew presents Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise.  (All the promises of God are affirmed in Jesus)  The prophecies of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Isaiah 40-55 spell the note of promise and became a symphony of expectation.  The events of both the exodus and the exile are fused in the life of Jesus (Joshua-Jesus-in Hebrew means "one who would deliver His people.")

 

Matthew is presenting the entire Old Testament in the embodiment of promise in the sense of God's faithfulness to His promise to save the lost, both Israel and the nations.

 

II. The Promise Declared: Jesus' appearance was the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. (1) A promise is between at least two people (I-Thou).  A promise is personal.  A prediction is impersonal.  The nations were totally unaware of God's predictions, while the promises were first made to Abraham.  We note the constant concern of God for Israel as His commitment to a particular man and his descendents.  God's universal goal was to bless all the nations through the descendents of Abraham (Genesis 18.9, Abraham and Sarah, bless all the nations).  God's promise to Abraham is in fact a commitment to humanity.  (2) Paul's entire theology of mission hinged on his understanding of the crucial importance of the promise to Abraham and its universal significance. Galatians 3.8ff. is a clear witness to this (see my Promise in Galatians and Romans).

 

III. Promise Requires a Response of Acceptance: A prediction needs no response.  It can be fulfilled without personal conviction.  But a promise requires personal acceptance (Rom. 1, Habakkuk, “The just shall live by faith”; Isaiah 45.4. Cyrus did not know God).  The Cyrus prediction was a part of the promise.  Cyrus was instrumental in realizing God's promise concerning Israel.  The providence of God used Cyrus to carry out His promise.  God's salvation is always grounded in His grace and promise.  The polarization between Old Testament law and New Testament grace is a false contrast.  God's promise and grace is clearly exposed in the Exodus account before the giving of the Law.

 

This fact entails that there is a conditional element to the promise, inasmuch as its fulfillment requires the response of faith and obedience from the recipients of the promise (Jer. 7.1-15 - Israel living in contempt for the demands of Mt. Zion; compare with John 8.31-41, "do as Abraham did;" Heb. 3.7-4.11, 10.19ft, on the dangers of not responding to the promise by faith and obedient action using Old Testament Israel as an object lesson.

 

IV. Promise Involves On-going Levels of Fulfillment: Predictions are right or wrong (cf. failure of the largest prediction industry, astrology, and its notoriously ambiguity).  A promise is relational.  Fulfillment of a promise entails capability and commitment! (see my The Faithfulness of God: Habakkuk quotation in Romans).  The promise remains, and the words do not need to be changed, but it is the relationship that dictates how the promise is fulfilled in any given situation.  The relationship behind the promise is crucial.  God's relationship to Israel through the centuries was contingent on His promise to Abraham.  The promise began to be fulfilled the moment Isaac was born.  Yet, Paul affirms that Jesus is the seed of Abraham (singular. Gal. 3.16, 19) and also the Gentile believers are "sons of Abraham."  (Note the levels of fulfillment of God's promise)  The promise fulfillment theme unfolds throughout the scriptures.  The historical flight path of the promise moves from Abraham, Exodus, Sinai, Conquest, David, Exile, Messiah (Missions/ Evangelism to "all the ethnics" to Christ's return).

 

V. Promise Guaranteed: Promise is at the heart of covenant.  In the Semitic world covenants were common in secular life.  The Old Testament covenant does not conform wholly or neatly to any of the existing secular models.  Features of the Old Testament model are: (1) God's initiative; (2) God's promises; (3) Human response.  The covenant of God is conditional and unconditional (covenant is conditional; promise is unconditional).  They are unconditional in that God's faithfulness to His promise will be fulfilled.  God promises will be fulfilled regardless of human response; it is not based or motivated by human response.  Yet they are conditional in that some clear stipulations are laid down for those who are to benefit from the covenant relationship (eg. Ex. 32-34, the golden calf, idolatry, repentance; see esp. Delbert R. Hiller, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Covenant (Johns Hopkins Press, 1966).

 

(1) Covenant with Noah:  Genesis 6.18-21; 8.21-9.17 - The scope of covenant is universal.  It is God's commitment to the whole of His creation (e.g. negative/positive factors).  The Noahic covenant is a broad view of God's providence.

 

(2) Covenant with Abraham:  Genesis 12.1-3; 15.1-21; 17.1-27 - The scope of this covenant is also universal, but in a different sense from the Noahic covenant.  The Noahic covenant was based on God's providential preservation of all life throughout the span of human history (cf. God's common grace. Matt. 5:45).  The covenant with Abraham on the other hand, is the basis of God's redemptive work within history.  The universality of this covenant is expressed in God's redemptive blessing to all nations. God's redemptive purpose is global in its scope as the current sinfulness of the human race (cf. Babel).

 

The essence of the covenant is specially promised to Abraham and his descendents as they pursue the ultimate universal goal.  This goal entails at least 3 factors:  (1) Posterity (great nation); (2) Relationship ("I will be their God; they will be my people"); (3) Land:

Israel's inheritance of the land would prove God's faithfulness and their relationship to Him.  Israel's first response to this covenant was specified in circumcision (Genesis 17; 18.19) Abraham/Israel's response expressed God's righteousness and justice.  Circumcision was more than an outward ritual, but it involved the commitment of the heart to practical obedience (cf. Rom. 2.25-29, Moses had done so even before Israel reached the land of promise (cf. Dt. 10. 12-22).

 

(3) The Sinai Covenant:  Exodus 19.3-6, 21 - The scope of the covenant was national.  God initiated it between himself and the national community of Israel after their deliverance from Egypt.  It is simply the next step on the road to the ultimate purpose in history for all nations.  God gave Israel an identity (Ex. 19. 3-6) and role that was explicitly related to the rest of the nations (vs. 5). There is a missiological dimension to the Sinai covenant also, linked to the ultimate goal of the Abrahamic covenant.  The essence of the Sinai covenant was largely the ratification of the promise to Abraham for the sake of the nation as a whole.

 

God sets forth for accomplishments of His promise (Ex. 6.6-8).  (a) Redemption of Israel from oppression (vs. 6); (b) special relationship between God and Israel (vs. 7a); (c) Knowledge of Yahweh (vs. 7b); and (d) Gift of the promised land (vs. 8).  All these themes are developed in the rest of the Pentateuch.  (Blessing and curse sections in Lev/Dt. 4.32-9; 8) This covenant requires exclusive loyalty to Yahweh (Dt. 4-11; 6.5; Lev. 19.18).  There is a vertical line of loyalty and obedience to God alone.  And there is a horizontal line of love, compassion, justice and brotherhood to other human beings.  The two lines are inseparable (cf. the same line development appears in Jesus' life and message). There is an inseparable relationship between the Sinai and Abrahamic covenants.  Each contributes to God's universal purpose for humanity (cf. see egs. Jer. 4.1-2; Isa. 48.17-19).  In the Old Testament ethics is linked to mission as a means to an end.

 

(4) Covenant with David:  II Samuel 7; 23: 1-7; P3. 89; 132 - The scope of the covenant with David was primarily the House of David itself; there would be a House of David to continue on the Throne of Israel.  In God's oracle to David through the prophet Nathan, we likewise find that the substance of this promise was both for the House of David and also for Israel, to whom God promised continued 'security' and 'rest' (cf. peace from enemies, II Sam. 7.10ft.).  The book of Samuel wishes its readers to hear clear echoes of the exodus and Sinai theme (cf. compare II Sam. 7.22-24; Dt. 4.32-38).  The covenant with David is thus presented in the historical record, not as something utterly new or as a break with the past, but as an extension of God's covenant relationship with His people to the line of Davidic kings who reign over them.  The Davidic covenant linked the Sinai covenant, royal plans and also the Abrahamic covenant.  David's throne would rule over all the nations (cf. note Psalms 2.8ff; 72.8-11; 110-6 on the Davidic monarchy).  At no time did the Davidic kingdom reach the imagery expressed in the Old Testament geographically or historically.  They saw behind the Davidic throne Yahweh's throne (Pss 2; 72, echo of promise and Abraham could scarcely be clearer (II Sam. 7.44; Ps. 2.7; 89.26ff; Israel Yahweh's first born son, Ex. 4.22; King was not to be a super Israelite but a model Israelite).  The Davidic king is not above his fellows.  He is to be exemplary in attention to the law (Dt.  17.14-20).  The covenant was given to David's house to bless the nations through Israel by explicitly obeying moral conditions of obedience and practical, social justice, etc.

 

(5) The New Covenant:  Jeremiah 31-34; Heb. 8: 9-13; 10.15-18. Ceremonies of covenant renewal are scattered through the history of Israel in the Old Testament (renewal themes in Ex. 34; Dt., Jos. 23,24; I Sam 12, by Hezekiah, II Chron. 29-31,and by Josiah, II Kgs 22-23).  The last of these, at the time of Josiah, was the greatest of them.

 

Israel had gone from exile to bondage (Amos 9.7).  In the time of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, Israel is again in bondage.  These aforementioned prophets speak of a new exodus.  But how can there be a new exodus?  David's house was replaced with an apostate tyrant king and he was soon to be a prisoner in Babylon.  The inviolability of Zion was eroding and crumbling.  With the decline of the ruling house the prophets look for a new king.  With Zion in ruins they plan for a new temple and a new Jerusalem (see my work. The Temple: Paul's Theology and The New Jerusalem in Revelation 21).

 

In the midst of a book of comfort for the exiles of Israel and Judah, Jeremiah prophecies a new covenant (31.31-34); note the reference to the new covenant in Isaiah 42.6 and 49.8, eg. berit an). For Jeremiah, the old covenant is a thing of the past.  He does not call for a return to it.  Jeremiah had, after all, experienced the reform of Josiah, which was an attempt to rally the people around Mosaic standards.  His results were a bitter disappointment.  Israel broke the covenant'!  The new covenant comes from Yaweh's initiative; it will not be a king's program of reform.  The new content will be "I will be their God and they will be my people."

 

The newness lies in the idea that the demands of the covenant will be written in their hearts.  Each person will implicitly know Yahweh, that is, recognize Him as Lord and not simply pay Him the token of lip service which society expected.  The new condition will be based on God's gracious act and in Jeremiah's new covenant the fundamental place is supplied by Yahweh's forgiveness.  This new vision of the new Jerusalem, historically begins to appear at Pentecost (Joel 2 and Acts 2).  The gift of the Holy Spirit was reserved for the final age (Joel 31: 2).  The upper room has become the Sinai of the final times, for the new covenant of the Spirit has been given Mt. Zion of Jerusalem was really successor to Mt. Sinai (Ps 68.16-19).

 

New Covenant of The Spirit

 

The grand message of  II Cor. 1: 21-22 declares that "The spirit as down payment" has arrived (cf. Greek pledge or down payment, arrabon - only O.T. occurrence is Gen. 38.17-20; Eph. 1.14; Romans 8.22 "first fruits" "a foretaste" Heb. 6.4-5 resurrection as "first fruits" I Cor 15.20).  The Jeremiah imagery is fused in II Cor. 3. 1-3, the committing work of the Spirit - vs. 2-3, "you are my letter, known and read by all men, written on your hearts."  Paul asserts in II 3.4-6 that the new covenant of the Spirit is the new order of salvation.

 

Before, Jeremiah, the pre-exilic prophets emphasized 'word.'  Now there is an emphasis on 'spirit' as the source of revelation.  During the exile the nation was dead.  Ezekiel renewed the nation by the prophetic spirit and renewal of the covenant.  Isaiah saw the return from exile as a new creation wrought by both Yahweh's Spirit and Word. The gift of the Holy Spirit was the mark of the new messianic age.

 

The Holy Spirit - Growth in Biblical Tradition

 

George T. Montague, Paulist Press, 1976, Holy Spirit and Jeremiah's New Covenant, esp. p. 366ff.  Israel declared that the Messiah was said to be bearer of the spirit.  It was nowhere said that he would bestow the Spirit on others like Joel 2; Acts 2.  The door of the Holy Spirit could only be opened by the cross and resurrection of Christ (compare my essays. The Paraclete in John, and The Holy Spirit and Corinth).  The coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost was a sign of Jeremiah's new covenant.

 

It worked a major religious, social and political reformation that radically reversed the direction of Judah's life.  Jeremiah witnessed it.  In fact, Jeremiah's call to be a prophet as a youth came when the reforms of Josiah had been going on about two years. About five years later, the Book of the Law (probably Deuteronomy) was discovered in the temple during repairs, and that led to an even more stringent reformation and the actual covenant renewal.

 

Jeremiah's New Covenant

 

But Jeremiah saw beneath the surface, and observed that the heart of the people was not really changed. The religious purges had not purged the deep-seated idolatry nor the rampant social corruption (see esp. Jer. 2 and 5, and Josiah's covenant renewal in Jer. 11). Something much more transforming was needed not so much a renewal of the covenant as a new covenant altogether.  For his own generation Jeremiah could see nothing but judgment - the fulfillment of the curses and threats inherent in the Sinai Covenant.  But beyond that judgment, he had a vision for the future of his people, part of which views his portrait of a new covenant (Jer. 31.31-34).  Because it is quoted twice in Hebrews (8.9-13 and 10.15-18), it is Jeremiah's picture of the new covenant that is commonly meant when the expression 'new covenant' is used.

 

However, this was unique to Jeremiah, though it may have originated with him.  Ezekiel was a prophet among those who suffered the exile Jeremiah had predicted, and he also held hope of a new covenant.  And the idea is also found in the powerful words of encouragement to the exiles of Isaiah 40-55.  Jeremiah's 'new covenant' is a visionary expectation, not precisely historical details.  Jeremiah's visionary hope draws on the earlier historical covenants in their rich and allusive portrayal of the new covenant of their future hope.

 

The scope of new covenant is clearly national.  In both Jeremiah and Ezekiel the major hope of the restoration is Israel itself. Jeremiah's new covenant saying comes in the midst of two chapters, 30 and 31» wholly taken up with this comforting hope (cf. these chps. are often called 'the Book of Consolation'), in contrast to the bulk of Jeremiah's oracles of doom and judgment.  The contour of Jeremiah's ministry are echoed in 31.27-28, when God says he plans 'to build and plant' his people.

 

Ezekiel's vision of the future restoration of Israel with a new covenant relationship between God and his people, is spread namely over chps 34, 36 and 37.  In chapter 36 the restoration of Israel will be a marvel in the sight of the nations (goyim. Matt 28. 10f "to the Ethnics), which will vindicate the reputation of Yahweh, their God. Between the reunification of the nation (Ezek 37:15-28) and the resurrection of the nation. God's new covenant will become a reality. Again 'David' will be king of the united nation (cf. in Ezekiel's vision the nations are spectators).  When God acts to restore Israel, then the nations will see and hear and know who really is God.  So there is a universal dimension, but it is not integrated into the covenant itself.  In Isaiah, however, the universal inclusion of the nations (goyim) is worked into the covenant idea from the start.  The scope of the new covenant in Isaiah 40-55 is as wide as the scope of salvation, "to the ends of the earth."  The Suffering servant is sometimes identified with Israel and sometimes distinct from Israel. In the 'servant songs' it appears an individual, called and anointed by God, will fulfill the role and mission of Israel. His mission, as it was Israel's mission via Abrahamic promise covenant, will be to bring God's salvation to all nations, and this idea is first expressed in Isa. 42-46, using covenant language; "I will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the nations."

 

The universal context is affirmed in the preceding verse, Isa. 42.5. All peoples coining to Israel and to their God (55.3-6) that is a link between the Davidic and Abrahanic covenants.  God's universal promise is expressed in all four historical covenants: (1) Noah (Isa. 54.9f; Ezek. 34.25-27a; 36.30, 33-35; Jer. 31.35-37; 33. 19-26). (2) Abraham (his universalism of Isa. 40-55). (3) Sinai: Jeremiah's law written on their hearts. Isaiah's new exodus liberation from all kinds of bondage and administration of justice for the nations. (4) David:  Is also found in all three prophetic visions of the new covenant (Righteous Branch, Jer. 23.1-6, 33.15ft; Ezek. 24, true shepherd ruling united Israel and Isa. 55.3-4 - witness, leader and commander of the people).

The substance of the New Covenant is "you will be my people and I shall be your God."  Here the essence of the New Covenant relationship between God and Israel might be exposed by several theological themes:

 

(1) A New Relationship with God.  There is one God and one people forever (Jer. 31.33b; 32-38-40; Ezek 37.23-27; Isaiah expressed it in terms of a restored marriage in Isa. 55.5-10; compare with Hosea).

 

(2) A New Experience of Forgiveness: Israel's accumulated sins made God's judgment inevitable.  But God's gracious love made forgiveness possible.  He would remember it no more (priestly) (Jer. 31.34b). Ezekiel's imagery is complete cleansing (Ezek. 36.25, 37.23).  Isaiah invites the sinner to an abundant pardon that surpasses human reasoning (Isa. 55.6-9).

 

(3) A New Obedience to The Law; Josiah's revival brought little behavioral change.  Little visible obedience was available, so Jeremiah writes into his new covenant that God's intention is: "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts (31.33).  The result will be that knowledge of God will no longer need to be taught, because it will be an inner characteristic. They will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.  This imagery expands God to relationship from corporate or national to the individual responsibility.  The entire people of God will be characterized as a community who know him (cf. Jer. 22, your father, i.e., Josiah).  These things were the heart of the law, the law that would now, in the new covenant, be written in the heart.  All of these emphases continue to develop in the prophecies of the Messianic age under the future anointed Son of David, found in the earlier chapters of Josiah (cf. 9.7, 11.1-5).  It will be an age ruled by a new David but ruled according to the law and justice of God.

 

(4) A New Davidic House: Jeremiah's new covenant passage (23.5f; 33.15-26) is entirely Sinaitic in imagery.  Ezekiel looks to a future "David" as an agent of theocracy and of the unity of the people.  Is the David of Isaiah 55.3f actually an identity for the suffering servant figure?  If so, this is a link between the coming David with the mission of bringing God's law and justice to the nations (goyim/ethnics -missions/evangelism).  (5) A New Abundance of Nature: Abundance and fruitfulness were part of the promised blessing for obedience to the Sinai Covenant (Lev. 23.3-13; Genesis 2; Deut. 28.1-14) This does not support the health and wealth emphasis of Cho's message).  In the Messiah, God would lift the bondage in creation because of the fall (Gen 5.28ff, new heaven on earth. Rev. 21:1-3).  The new creation is the place of God's presence and unhindered blessing.

 

The Old Testament considered as Promise is like a great river. The impression that makes itself felt through all this study of promise and covenant is God's unwavering intention to bless "His covenant which Noah proclaims as blessing, through the promise to preserve the condition of life for all his creation.  His covenant with Abraham proclaims his purpose of blessing all humanity in and through the descendents of Abraham.  That fact remains the background to all of God's subsequent dealings and promises involving Israel." The same holds for the covenant with David and his house.  Jesus fuses all the promises of God for creation, Israel, Church (the people of God), the nations!  The Old Testament declared the Promise that Jesus fulfilled!

 

I propose that Promise Theology is the fusion of both the Old and New Testaments (one Bible but two testaments: Christ, the Center) and Apologetic fusion of Old/New Testaments and ground for the Unity of Scripture (Luke 24) for a pluralistic, relativistic, postmodern, multicultural era.

 

Dr. James Strauss

Lincoln Christian Seminary

Lincoln, IL 62656-2111