Matthew’s Use of the Term “Fulfilled”

When the apostle Matthew wrote that an Old Testament prophecy had been “fulfilled” by Christ, just what did he mean? Engage in this study with us.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

The general thrust of Matthew’s Gospel record is to establish, on behalf of the Hebrews, that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah of Old Testament Scripture. The Greek New Testament (Aland et al. 1983) lists approximately sixty-eight Old Testament references cited in the Gospel of Matthew.

In addition, the technical expression, “it is written,” in the perfect tense (gegraptai), is found nine times (2:5; 4:4, 6, 7, 10; 11:10; 21:13; 26:24, 31). It is employed in the sense of “it stands written,” and is used to express the authority and present validity of what was written (Balz 1990, 1.261).

Twelve times Matthew cites Old Testament prophecy in conjunction with the term “fulfilled,” together with such phrases as “that it might be fulfilled” or “was fulfilled,” “is fulfilled,” “should be fulfilled.” The following represents a sketch of these texts.

Matthew 1:22 – The apostle cited Isaiah 7:14 and declared that the supernatural conception of Mary, as a virgin with whom Joseph had not been intimate, was that which fulfilled what the Lord had spoken “through the prophet” in foretelling the nature of Jesus’ birth.

Matthew 2:15 – When Herod had ambitions to murder baby Jesus, Joseph was warned to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt until such a time as it was safe to return to Canaan. Joseph followed the instruction. He remained there until Herod’s death “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through his prophet, saying, ‘Out of Egypt did I call my son.’” The quotation was from Hosea 11:1.

Matthew 2:17 – When the vicious Herod murdered the male babies two years old and under in Bethlehem, a cry of anguish went up from from the hearts of the inhabitants of the region. Matthew says: “Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet.” Jeremiah 31:15 was cited.

Matthew 2:23 – Herod died. When Joseph heard that Archelaus was reigning in his father’s place, he was fearful. Being warned of God, he traveled into northern Palestine and settled in Galilee, in a city called Nazareth, “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophets, that he should be called a Nazarene.”

Matthew 4:14 – After Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been delivered up, he left Nazareth and went to Capernaum, near the region of Zebulun and Naphtali in order that a prophecy “might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet,” namely that Galilee of the Gentiles might see a great light (Isaiah 9:1-2).

Matthew 8:17 – While Jesus was in the vicinity of Capernaum, many who were possessed of demons were brought to him. He cast out the evil spirits and healed the sick, “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying, ‘Himself took our infirmities, and bare our diseases’” (53:4).

Matthew 12:17 – In one of the Jewish synagogues in which Jesus was visiting, the Jews taunted him by asking whether or not it was lawful for him to heal a certain man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. The Savior did heal the man and the Pharisees plotted as to how they might destroy him. Perceiving such, the Lord moved on, but continued to heal many, although urging the crowds not to publicize him. This was done “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet” (Isaiah 42:1ff).

Matthew 13:14 – As the antagonism against Jesus began to intensify, the Master began to teach in a more obscure manner by the use of parables. The disciples were mystified about the shift in teaching procedure, hence asked why he was teaching by means of these illustrations. Christ explained that such was due to the hardened nature of the people’s hearts, and that Isaiah’s prophecy of this stubbornness was being “fulfilled” (Isaiah 6:9-10).

Matthew 13:35 – In a subsequent context the Lord again emphasized that his parabolic teaching was that “it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophet, saying, ‘I will open my mouth in parables. I will utter things hidden from the foundation of the world’” (cf. Psalm 78:2).

Matthew 21:4 – On Sunday morning of the Passion week, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, thus demonstrating his humble station as a soon-to-be-inaugrated king over his spiritual kingdom. Matthew states that this happened “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophet” (Zechariah 9:9).

Matthew 26:54, 56 – When Judas led Jewish officials to the garden in order to apprehend Christ, Peter attempted to defend the Lord with a sword, even cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Jesus admonished his disciple to put up his sword. These events must transpire in order that the plan of redemption be consummated. In so doing, the Scriptures “should” and “must” be “fulfilled.” No specific Old Testament passages are cited; rather, the references are to general Messianic texts pertaining to his death.

Matthew 27:9 – Finally, Matthew alludes to a passage that depicts Christ’s betrayal for the price of thirty pieces of silver, which “fulfilled” an Old Testament prophecy (see Zechariah 11:12-13). For a discussion of its attribution to Jeremiah, see Did Matthew Blunder?.

Summarizing the Evidence

We have surveyed the twelve instances in which Matthew referenced the Old Testament, asserting, both generally and specifically, that various events in the ministry of Jesus were previewed in the Old Testament and fulfilled during the lifetime of the Savior. The question now is: how should these affirmations of fulfilled prophecy be viewed?

Three general approaches are taken by biblical expositors, each depending upon the presuppositions entertained by the respective scholars.

  1. Predictive prophecy never existed, hence the apostolic claims of such must be dismissed.
  2. Some of the “fulfillments” were literal, but others were never intended to be Messianic predictions; rather, they were employed by New Testament writers as homiletic devices to make theological points, irrespective of the primary meanings in the Old Testament contexts.
  3. Each of these “fulfillments,” as pronounced by the inspired apostle, were factual realizations of the ultimate intent of the Holy Spirit, as presented in the Old Testament writings.

Let us consider each of these views.

No Prophecy

The modern skeptical approach to the Bible is that it is a book of myths. The theory of uniformity, namely that the present is the key to the past, is the guiding framework. Since miraculous events (e.g., prophecy) are not occurring today, presumably they never did. Hence the so-called supernatural events of the Bible must be explained in a naturalistic fashion.

If this view is correct, the Bible is a book of lies—for it claims the supernatural. Prophecy was a test of the credibility of Israel’s God. If prophecy was not valid, the God of Scripture was no better than the false gods of ancient paganism (see Isaiah 41:23; 44:7; 45:11; 46:9-10; 48:3). For those who have any respect for the claims of sacred Scripture, this ideology is not an option.

Alleged Prophetic “License”

A common view among a good number of Bible scholars who have been subtly influenced by the views of “higher criticism” (though perhaps unwittingly), is that the New Testament writers often would use the expression “fulfilled” in a loose sense. Allegedly, they frequently would not consider an event as an actual fulfillment of prophecy—even when employing the “fulfilled” expression. Rather, they would lift an Old Testament passage (in part or whole) from its original context, and give it an application that had nothing to do with its initial meaning.

This methodology, which would be chastised in any modern preacher, is regularly assigned to the New Testament writers. This sort of textual manipulation is described in a recent work.

Some [of Matthew’s references] depend on apparently superficial points of correspondence, some on a more far-reaching typology. In many cases it is possible to suggest several different levels of significance depending on the degree of scriptural erudition and of shared interpretive assumptions the reader is able to bring to the quotation. “Fulfillment” for Matthew seems to operate at many levels, embracing much more of the pattern of OT history and language than merely prophetic predictions. It is a matter of tracing lines of correspondence and continuity in God’s dealings with his people discerned in the incidental details of the biblical text as well as in its grand design. Those who have studied the interpretation of Scripture among other Jews at the time, particularly at Qumran and among the rabbis, recognize that they are on familiar ground in Matthew, sometimes in the actual interpretative methods he employs, but also more widely in the creative ways he goes about discovering patterns of fulfillment, ways which modern exegetical scholarship often finds surprising and unpersuasive (France 2007, 12).

How, then, is one to know when Matthew is referring to a genuine prophecy of the “foretelling” variety—especially if the student has not studied the writings from Qumran, or the ancient rabbis!? The answer seems apparent. One ignores Matthew’s “fulfilled” declarations, which seem to be but a “code” word for ambiguity; in the meantime, he brings his own subjective views to the texts. Is this a proper approach to biblical interpretation?

The “Fulfilled” Formula

Conservative Bible students take Matthew’s affirmations of “fulfilled” prophecy literally, recognizing the common principle that a word is to be viewed literally unless there is compelling evidence to interpret it figuratively. And the compelling evidence must be clear.

The Greek term for “fulfilled” is pleroo. The verb was used in the sense of “to fill” something, or “to be filled” (Acts 2:2; Romans 15:13). “Fulfill” was employed of bringing to completion something that had been pledged earlier (cf. Jeremiah 44:25). This is the sense of Old Testament prophecy. In the New Testament

certain events are said to have occurred in order to fulfill prophecy. The thought is that the thing spoken in prophecy has now been accomplished, and in such passages the word “fulfill” is the practical equivalent of “accomplish,” “complete” (Young 1960, 232).

J. H. Thayer identified the “fulfilled” texts in Matthew’s Gospel (as listed above)as “sayings, promises, prophecies, to bring to pass, ratify, accomplish” (1958, 518). Danker states it means “to bring to a designed end, fulfill a prophecy, an obligation, a promise . . . of the fulfillment of divine predictions or promises” (2000, 828-829), with the twelve Matthew passages listed. Donald Guthrie states that “fulfillment presupposes previous prediction” (1975, 611).

Concerning the phrase, “that it might be fulfilled,” noted German scholar J. A. Bengel wrote:

Wherever this phrase occurs, we are bound to regard and recognize the character and dignity of the Evangelists, and (however dull our own perception may be in the matter) to believe that they mention an event, not merely corresponding [accidentally] with some ancient prophecy, but one which in consequence thereof, and agreement, therewith, could not have failed to occur at the commencement of the New Dispensation, on account of the Divine Truth which was pledged to its fulfillment (1877, 114; brackets in original).

Matthew’s Alleged Expanded Use of “Fulfilled”

Let us consider a few examples from the twelve passages listed.

The Virgin Birth

Did Matthew mean to say that Isaiah literally foretold the virgin birth of Jesus in Isaiah 7:14? Or did the prophet have a contemporary child in view, and Matthew merely appropriated the text to explain Jesus’ birth?

A number of writers subscribe to the latter view. Willis contended that the text “apparently specifies a definite young married woman known to Isaiah” (1984, 161); Blomberg thinks “the most probable interpretation is that Isaiah’s prophecy refers to his own son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz” (2007, 4). How could a natural conception be a prophetic foreshadowing of a supernatural conception? J. Barton Payne characterized such views as the “standard interpretation proposed by liberal criticism” (1973, 291). For a thorough study of Isaiah 7:14 and its New Testament fulfillment, see Hindson (1978).

Matthew 2

In a recent article, an admired Bible teacher calls attention to four citations from the Old Testament in Matthew 2. Only one of these, he claims, is “a specifically Messianic prediction” (Woods 2008, 22).

Oddly, the solitary example considered as a specific Messianic prophecy is Micah 5:2, which, in this case, is quoted by the chief priests and scribes, who certainly were not infallible interpreters of the Old Testament (though no respectable Bible student denies the Messianic thrust of Micah’s text). Matthew obviously puts his stamp of approval on the quotation.

By way of contrast, however, the other three (vv. 15, 17, 23), all of which are supported with Matthew’s affirmation of “fulfilled,” are dismissed as not having specific reference to Christ. To say that these Old Testament texts are not exclusively Messianic is a fair statement. To suggest that they have no prophetic Messianic intention is, we believe, a mistake.

With due respect to this teacher, let us reflect upon an important principle of interpretation.

The Old Testament prophets commonly uttered predictions which were far removed from their personal understanding. This is the point made by Peter when he affirmed that the prophets of antiquity longed to understand the meanings of the things they wrote concerning Christ, hence they “sought and searched diligently” about such matters (1 Peter 1:10-12).

When David spoke regarding his own trials in Psalm 69 (cf. v. 5), he certainly did not appreciate the fact that he also was prophesying concerning the treachery of Judas (v. 25); yet Peter declared that “the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas” (Acts 1:16). The omniscient Spirit of God could foresee what the ancient prophets never imagined. One does a serious injustice to the concept of inspiration if he fails to recognize this fundamental truth.

As one scholar has observed, there was

the deeper meaning intended by God but not clearly intended by the human author, that is seen to exist in the words of Scripture when they are studied in the light of further revelation or of development in the understanding of revelation (Brown 1968, 616).

Another writer says:

[T]he Holy Spirit knew beforehand the course of history with its consummation in Christ, and so in guiding the writers he intended a deeper meaning than they understood (Wenham 1972, 103).

Let us consider the three texts in dispute, and respectfully suggest a broader perspective.

“My Son”

In Matthew 2:15—“Out of Egypt did I call my son”—is a quote from Hosea 11:1. The key issue is this: did Matthew merely “sermonize,” extracting a text from its original context, assigning to it a “fulfillment” entirely alien to the ancient narrative (thus, in effect, providing a precedent for modern-day sermonizers)? To suggest that he did, in my judgment, would be presumptive and reckless. We must recall Peter’s admonition: “[N]o prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20 ESV). For an excellent discussion of this matter, see Theo Laetsch (1956, 88-89). Noted scholar E. B. Pusey called attention to the fact that it was only on account of the coming Christ that the nation of Israel was called out of Egypt. The former deliverance, he says, “had its completion in Christ” (1950, 110).

Hendriksen observed that

had Israel been destroyed in Egypt, the Messianic prophecies (Gen. 22:18; 26:4; 28:14; 49:10) would not have been fulfilled. It is therefore very true, indeed, that when Israel was effectually called out of Egypt, Christ, too, was called out (1973, 179).

In his classic work on hermeneutics, Patrick Fairbairn strongly argued for a typical relationship between Israel and the Messiah and “on this ground” Matthew’s use of the text is “vindicated” (1859, 467).

I would question, therefore, the suggestion that there was no specific Messianic perspective in Hosea 11:1, and that Matthew merely used the text to illustrate the fact that Jesus is the “ideal Israelite” and our “champion.” Lenski calls Hosea’s declaration “a divinely intended prophecy of ‘my Son’ the Messiah” (1964, 78).

Rachael’s Tears

Matthew states that Herod had the infants of Bethlehem killed in an attempt to exterminate Jesus. He says:

Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet saying, “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she would not be comforted, because they are not” (2:17).

Some have suggested that Matthew’s use of the passage did not involve a “real fulfillment,” but only a “fulfillment of certain words spoken by the prophet” (McGarvey n.d., 30). Thus, supposedly, the apostle only borrowed words to make his point.

It is commonly contended that Matthew saw the episode mentioned in Jeremiah as a “type” of the Bethlehem incident. Be that as it may, that does not nullify prophetic specificity. A type is a form of prophecy; it is a prophetic visual aid. A typical interpretation does not strip the text of its Messianic extension. As Professor Franklin Johnson of the University of Chicago wrote a number of years ago, even typological prophecy involves a “recognition of divine intention,” i.e., a “real prediction, and not mere illustration” (1895, 280).

It is entirely correct to conclude, as did Professor J. A. Alexander of Princeton Theological Seminary, that it is not a mere “poetical conception” that is here embodied; rather, there is a “real affinity” between the two episodes that Matthew references.

The point of resemblance may be that in any case the temporary suffering was the precursor of a joyful future. As the Babylonish exile was soon followed by the Restoration (see Jer. 31, 16-40) so the massacre at Bethlehem was followed by the ministry of Christ and his salvation (1980, 40).

Is it not the case that the omniscient Spirit of God, who inspired both Jeremiah and Matthew, could have looked across the years and noted the circumstances that would transpire with reference to both cases? And that his divine words had a partial application in Jeremiah’s day, but a complete and final fulfillment in Matthew’s time? The fact that Jeremiah almost immediately spoke of the coming Messianic age (cf. “Behold, the days come,” [31:27, 31, 38]—sixteen times in Jeremiah of the Christian age [Harrison 1973, 119]) provides powerful credence to the legitimate use of Jeremiah 31:15 in a Messianic sense.

The Despised Nazarene

Matthew declares that Jesus “came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophets, that he should be called a Nazarene” (2:23).

While various explanations have been proposed for this statement (not specifically in the Old Testament), perhaps the most likely meaning for this puzzling declaration is to be found in the term “prophets.” The plural form would appear to suggest that no single Old Testament reference was in view, rather the point being made rests upon a general theme reflected in numerous prophecies of Hebrew literature.

First, it is readily acknowledged that the term “Nazareth” was used in a derogatory sense in the first century. When Nathanael heard that Jesus was from Nazareth, he asked: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Some have suggested that the question hints that the town had a bad reputation, while others contend that Nathanael probably viewed the community merely as insignificant.

The city is not mentioned in the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, the Talmud, or by Josephus. One scholar notes that the geographical location of the city, overlooking the plain of Esdraelon, generated a certain disposition of “aloofness” which invited the scorn of the neighboring communities (Charley 1995, 224).

Too, Nazareth was the community which housed the Roman garrison for the northern regions of Galilee, and that circumstance may have tainted the city (Barbieri 1983, 23). In the book of Acts, “Nazarenes” is used as a slur-expression for Christians (Acts 24:5). Aside from Matthew’s reference, Jesus is called a Nazarene six times in the ASV (Mark 1:24; 10:47; 14:67; 16:6; Luke 4:34; 24:19).

Second, there were a number of Old Testament prophecies that foretold that the Messiah would be a despised person, rejected by many of his contemporaries (see: Psalm 22:6-8, 13; 69:8, 20-21; Isaiah 11:1; 49:7; 53:2-3, 8; Daniel 9:26). It thus well may be the case that the epithet “Nazarene,” in addition to suggesting the place where Jesus grew up, takes on a pejorative, figurative sense (a specific term being used for the general theme), i.e., a person disdained by his peers (Balz 1991, 2.455). This sense would be entirely consistent with the Old Testament prophecies cited above. For further study see Was Matthew Mistaken in the Nazarene Prophecy?.


In view of the evidence assembled above, we believe that it reflects a misguided effort for scholars to suggest that Matthew employed Old Testament passages in his defense of Jesus as Messiah—that allegedly did not even have the Lord in view.

No one is suggesting that the texts reviewed above were exclusively Messianic; we are contending, however, that one must be careful not to suggest that these passages, in their Old Testament setting, had nothing to do with the Messianic hope. Again we cite Bengel, who aptly declared that the Gospel writers:

frequently quote prophecies, the context of which must, at the time they were first delivered, have been interpreted of things then present, and that, too, according to the Divine intention. But the same Divine intention, looking forward to remote futurity, so framed the language of prophecy, that it should apply with still greater specialty to the times of the Messiah (1877, 114-115).

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