John the Baptist: Typology and Fulfillment

I  recently read an essay by James M. Hamilton which has refined my perception of typology in the Old Testament and which I would like to discuss in regards to John the Baptist and the gospel of Matthew. As we know, Matthew presents a series of at least 16 Old Testament prophecies which he declares are fulfilled in the events surrounding the birth, ministry, and death of Jesus of Nazareth. A representative few of these prophecies are as follows:

  • Isaiah 7:14-16 — a prophecy about a child who would be born during the life of King Ahaz and would still be very young when the threat from Syria and Israel would be resolved. Matthew 1:22-23 cites this as being fulfilled by Jesus being born of the virgin Mary.
  • Micah 5:2 — a prophecy which presents the idea of a coming Davidic ruler against the backdrop of the invasion of Judah by the Babylonians. Matt 2:5-7 says the prophecy is fulfilled by Jesus being born in Bethlehem.
  • Hosea 11:1 — a text relating to the story of God calling the Hebrews (known as God’s “first born” in Exodus 4:22) out of Egypt in the Exodus. Matthew 2:15 cites this passage as being fulfilled by Jesus and his parents leaving Egypt and living in Nazareth.
  • Jeremiah 31:15 — an image of Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, weeping from her tomb in Ramah over her slaughtered children; the text then has God telling the exiles not to weep as they would one day return.  Matthew 2:17-18 says this is a prophecy fulfilled by the slaughter of male infants, ordered by Herod.
  • Isaiah 40:3 — the voice of God speaks, exhorting his servant to prepare the way for the return of exiled Israel. Matthew 3:3 identifies John the Baptist as both the voice in the wilderness and the servant preparing the way for Jesus to take his place as Messiah.

As you can see, the context of the Old Testament texts seem to have no bearing on a future Messiah, and are obviously not intended to be predictive of events that far in the future. Christians might respond that the Old Testament events had a dual application. This is certainly the explanation I have preferred in the past when considering Matthew’s testimony. However, the thesis of Hamilton’s essay offers a more complete way to understand how it can be that Matthew both respects the OT contexts of the texts he cites and sees them being fulfilled in Jesus. Typological fulfillment, Hamilton says, refers to the fullest expression of a significant pattern of events. When, in the biblical narrative, we see a divinely intended pattern, we can look for events that take place at later points in salvation history which correspond and intensify their import. Two principles are important in this formula: historical correspondence and escalation.

“…the opening chapters of Matthew show the recapitulation of the history of Israel in the life of Jesus. Following Matthew 1:18–25, which will receive more attention shortly, Jesus is presented as in danger from an evil ruler, much as Moses was. Just as the nation found itself in Egypt, and just as Moses was to command Pharaoh to release God’s son Israel, so now God’s son Jesus is summoned from Egypt. Just as there was weeping when the nation went into exile, so there was weeping after Herod slaughtered the infants of Bethlehem. Just as a voice in the wilderness heralded the return from exile, so John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus. Just as the nation was tested in the wilderness before passing through the Jordan to possess the land, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan before being tested in the wilderness.”

Hamilton then further explains the escalation which occurs in each instance, culminating in the climax of Israel’s history: the Messiah.

R.E. Nixon explains that typology “is sometimes called ‘homology’ for it is based not on a superficial resemblance but on a sameness of divine action within the framework of revelation.”

Although Hamilton’s paper targets the prophecy of the virgin birth, I think it’s very fruitful to look at John the Baptist’s ministry in this way. In doing so, the correspondences between the Old Testament passage in Isaiah and John the Baptist’s ministry are more sharply focused. Too often, Isaiah’s prophecy in 40:3 is completely identified with John the Baptist’s role. We miss Isaiah’s emphasis on the nation of Israel coming out of exile. Baptism corresponds to the notion of bringing spiritual Israel out of their scattered condition. It also escalates this theme by illustrating the raising of the covenant people from the death of sin into a new life of freedom through the merits of the Messiah.

During John’s earthly ministry, he participated in “preparing the way” in ways that specifically recall the Exodus. He located himself in the wilderness of Judea, making it necessary for his listeners to physically remove themselves from the city and its apostate condition to hear his preaching. He then performed a sacramental representation of the historical Exodus of Israel, baptizing the New Israel as Moses had the Old when he let them across the Red Sea. Just as Moses brought the children of Israel to the borders of the Promised Land but could not himself enter, so John led his followers up to the verge of the new order initiated by Jesus, but could not himself enter.

The Baptist’s ministry certainly did nothing to supplant the grand notion of the Exodus in the history of the covenant people. By using the word “fulfilled” in the manner described, Old Testament passages are not diminished. The Gospel of Matthew simply compares prodigious events of the past with the event at hand. The reader is free to investigate the implications of the passage in its original context. Once this is done, there is a greater understanding of the new in light of past events.

As with many of these types of events, there is additional fulfillment which takes place in the last days concerning John the Baptist. But since I need to go and perform some of my feminine role duties such as laundry and getting ready for my daughter’s birthday party, I’m not going to write about them right now. Since I would absolutely love to hear a few comments and reactions from the esteemed readers, I’m going to leave it to you to discuss what these events are and whether or not they fit into Hamilton’s typology model.

I think the LDS understanding of types, especially as explained in the Book of Mormon, lends itself well to a model such as Hamilton’s. There might be some resistance, though, to entertaining the idea that many of the Old Testament “Messianic” prophecies had any other reference than to Jesus Christ himself. What do you think?

4 Replies to “John the Baptist: Typology and Fulfillment”

  1. While typological readings and interpretations are popular with some people, including many LDS, I believe it has fallen out of favor with scholars. When I see someone take this approach, it becomes difficult to take them seriously. I haven’t read the essay — maybe Mr. Hamilton defends his use of that approach.

  2. I like this reading of “fulfill.” It makes me think of Nephi and Jacob’s use of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon. The idea that these typologies have a kind of real archetypal influence and repeat over and over again in different settings. Thus to fulfill becomes to manifest this underlying motif. In that sense Nephi’s own exodus is also a fulfillment of prophecy.

    This is also an interesting way to read the problem of the fulfillment of the law of Moses in the Book of Mormon (say 2 Nephi 25:24)

    Obviously this can all be pushed way too far. But it lines up with certain rhetorical strategies out of type settings in OT literature as well. Exactly how to divide the question of what is merely imposing a narrative on events versus a more real fulfillment seems horribly problematic and ends up being a kind of theological question. And of course with the Book of Mormon we have several layers of that narrative imposition.

  3. My first idea was that why does the child have to be born in Ahaz’ lifetime? To him, by that time, Isaiah’s prophecy was as real as anything without seeing the child.

    Then, Why doesn’t the prophecy in the beginning of Michah 5 have a reference in verse 3 to the woman giving birth in Revelation? The giving birth figure is common to both Old and New Testaments, and in OT it’s found in several places, most notably Isaiah 53, “The redeeming of the desolate woman”.

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