How the Birth of Jesus Fulfills the Old Testament

During the Christmas season, a few Old Testament passages are quoted regularly as prophecies concerning Christ’s birth: Isaiah 7:14 and Micah 5:2, among others. It is clear that Jesus fulfills these kinds of prophecies. However, is there a larger sense in which Jesus fulfills the Old Testament, not just single prophecies? What I hope to show is how Jesus fits into the larger message of the Old Testament in such a way that He fulfills it.

The overall picture of the Old Testament can be summarized in terms that the Old Testament itself uses: Provision-Exile-Return. From the beginning, provision and exile are highlighted. Genesis 1-2 outlines God’s provision for a land and a garden that is perfectly suited for people to live. It is a place of God’s presence, blessing and life. However, because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God’s commandment, they are exiled from the garden, remaining under a curse, and dead. At this point, there is only a glimmer of hope in the crushing of the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15). The promises to Abraham and his descendants expand this glimmer of hope into a bright shining light. They confirm that God will again provide a place for His people to live before God in blessing. God begins to move His people to that destination when he raises up Moses to lead the sons of Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.

Is there a larger sense in which Jesus fulfills the Old Testament, not just single prophecies?

As the sons of Israel stand ready to take the land that God has promised, Moses forecasts the fate of God’s people. The Lord will provide the land that He has promised. However, Israel will fail to obey what the Lord has commanded them. And so the Lord will exile them (Dt 29:28). The historical books of Joshua—2 Chronicles spell out how God provides the Land, how Israel fails to obey, and how He exiles them from the Land.

At the same time, Moses does not end his forecast with exile. He also says that the Lord will gather Israel up in a future day and bring them back. When He does, He will circumcise their hearts (Dt 30:6) and restore the conditions of blessing and life that were experienced in the Garden of Eden. The prophets further clarify what God will do when He brings Israel back. For instance, Ezk 36-37 connects the return with the indwelling of God’s Spirit so that Israel will obey God’s commandments. Nearly every prophet shows how the return of Israel to the Land will also result in the judgment of Israel’s enemies. Furthermore, Jeremiah (23:5; 33:14-18), Ezekiel (34:23-24; 37:20-27), Hosea (3:5), Amos (9:11), and others specifically connect the return with a son of David who will rule over Israel. Therefore, the return held the highest and most anticipated promises for God’s people.

Ezra and Nehemiah seem to deal directly with the return. They recount how the exiles returned to Jerusalem to build a temple and a wall. However, a closer look at Ezra and Nehemiah reveals that coming back to Jerusalem did not fulfill all that Moses and other prophets had seen accompanying the return. First and foremost, the heart of Israel was not changed to obey the Lord. Even though the people obeyed in many ways during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, Nehemiah ends with a serious, sad note. Despite the work of Ezra and Nehemiah, the people still disobeyed the commandments of the Lord (Neh 13). Therefore, Israel still needed the return and the fulfillment of the promises of God that accompany it.

Christ not only fulfills the Old Testament but fills out the entire fabric of the Bible.

This is the message that Jesus fulfilled. Jesus came as a descendant of Abraham and David. He came in order to experience exile Himself, exemplified in the curse he takes upon Himself (Gal 3:13) and His death, but then also to bring about the return, through His resurrection. Those who are in Christ, therefore, have received every spiritual blessing (Eph 1) and eternal life with God (John 17:3). As the prophets foretold, he rules over a people indwelled by the Spirit and with new hearts. This return has been inaugurated for all those who believe in Jesus as the Christ. Yet, it is not complete. There is still a final work of the return in which all the promises of God will be fully realized in time and space upon Christ’s coming and the establishment of His full and final Kingdom. In this way, Christ not only fulfills the Old Testament but fills out the entire fabric of the Bible, summing up all things in Himself (Eph 1:10).