I’m onto your new book, A More Christlike Word. I am no longer stuck on all the Old Testament violence. My reaction is now, “How in the world did I not know ANY of this growing up in the church?”
But when I got to page 65 in your book, I paused and thought back to my childhood and Christmas Eve services when we would read aloud from Genesis, Isaiah, and then the NT birth of Christ. My new understanding is that Isaiah was not literally predicting the birth of Christ, but then how do these passages point to Christ? Do they still deserve a place in a Christmas Eve worship service in that they “point” to the birth of Christ? Or are we misplacing them into the Christmas service? If we separate them from Christmas, can we still read them in their context and intended audience and use them as a mirror for our own lives?
Nice to hear from you. I’d say keep reading. The section on Melito should clear this up.
I wouldn’t regard every passage that the apostles saw as fulfilled in Jesus as a literal prophecy by authorial intent. Authorial intent and the immediate referent in the original context are an important first step, but at that point, we are still just reading the literal sense of the text.
But what Jesus and his apostles and the early church recognized is how:
a. Christ was already present to the people of God,
b. The Spirit was already speaking through the people of God,
c. And the characters, events, objects, encounters, and words anticipate or prefigure a far greater reality, ultimately fulfilled in Christ.
That’s what Jesus means on the road to Emmaus.
So, Isaiah’s prophecy about a young woman (Isaiah 7:14) in his era whose son will be a sign for his readers anticipates and prefigures the virgin birth of Christ through the Virgin Mary. Isaiah may not personally foresee an actual virgin birth in the first century, but after the fact and in retrospect, the Evangelists make that connection (Matthew 1:18-25).
Matthew saw the Isaiah prophecy as a pattern (1 Cor. 10 – first paragraph) or a model or a type or a shadow in the Hebrew text that is unveiled after the Resurrection of Christ as he opens their eyes and opens the Scriptures, even to the point where Jesus says, Moses wrote about ME (John 5).
So it’s not that Jesus is superimposed over the story to change its meaning … rather, Jesus (and the Holy Spirit – 1 Corinthians 2) pulls back the veil of the literal meaning (Isaiah’s young woman) so that we perceive the spiritual meaning (the gospel sense) that awaited the incarnation. This kind of reading goes beyond “what Isaiah meant” to “reveal how Jesus fulfills what Isaiah said.”
Mileto (a grand-disciple of John) likens this dynamic to an architect’s or artist’s model of some great highrise or giant statue. The original is model is a draft–it’s smaller, made of plastic or clay, provisional–indicating something true to scale that illustrates the final product while also recognizing the differences, where the fulfillment will be much larger and constructed of sturdy iron or glistening gold.
But literalism keeps us obsessing over the first reading–the literal reading–the original context and the author’s primary intention. It reminds me of the silly movie, Zoolander, where the villain Mugato presents the witless Zoolander with a model of “The Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good.” Upon close examination, Derek snaps and smashes the model, exclaiming,
“What is this?! A center for ants?! How can we be expected to teach children to read if they can’t even fit inside the building?”
Mugato: “Derek, it’s just a mod…”
Derek: “I don’t want to hear your excuses! The center has to be at least … three times bigger than this!”
Mugato (stunned by the idiocy, turns to his assistant): “He’s absolutely right.”
Derek: “Thank you. I have a vision…”
I say with some embarrassment that this scene is no more inane than the literalism into which I was once squeezed. Like Derek, my tiny vision was stuck in a hermeneutical box, a mirror of my own arrested spiritual development.
While the literal sense of Scripture does reveal some important details, if we stop there, we have not yet begun to read the Bible as Christian Scripture. We aren’t yet reading it as Christ did or, for example, as John the Apostle did in his Gospel.
An obvious example is how John uses the Jewish Passover feast to communicate the gospel. While the Passover feast memorializes the Israelites’ Exodus out of Egypt, for John, the spiritual or gospel sense reveals MORE than a memorial. From the beginning, Passover anticipates the Passion of the Christ and becomes a framework for understanding the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
Mileto of Sardis will explain this in detail in his homily, On Pascha, which I recount in A More Christlike Word. So, to your question, is it a mistake to connect the prophecy of a young woman in Isaiah with the virgin birth of Christ in the Gospels? Absolutely not. The Gospels freely make these connections, establishing such texts as, at the very least, illustrations from their Jewish backstory of how that story does, in fact, point forward to a Messianic deliverer.
And in fact, the Jewish Patriarchs, Prophets, and Poets were not oblivious to this hope. By faith they too were conscious of a forthcoming “Prophet,” “Messiah,” and “Son of Man,” even amid their literal-historical concerns.