We do ourselves and others a disservice when we read the Bible out of context or with rigid interpretations that miss the overwhelming intricacies and rich patterns of God’s revelation to mankind. Particularly at Christmastime. ◊
When I was a new Christian in high school, I used to say that “I take the Bible literally.” But then I actually started reading it.
I began to realize that the Bible is loaded with literary devices like metaphors (analogies), similes (comparisons), many deep and rich symbols, imagery, Greek and Hebrew language usage, and extensive cross-references that help the reader/audience connect what went on in the Old Testament with what was going on in the New Testament.
Additionally, the Bible makes use of typology as a symbolic device where a person, event or thing prefigures a corresponding but greater reality. For example, Nehemiah is a type or symbol of the Holy Spirit that eventually gives way to the real Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Here’s another example – the writer of Hebrews refers to the greatness of the heavenly sanctuary of which the Jewish holy temple was merely a type or a shadow. It is replaced by something far greater – Jesus. Likewise, the Old Testament blood sacrifices of goats, lambs and calves were but a foreshadowing of the eternal redemptive blood sacrifice of Christ in the New Testament. Here’s another – the New Covenant is far greater than the Old Covenant – “a better covenant” (Hebrews 7:22) – rendering the old “obsolete” (Hebrews 8:13). The greater reality or counterpart is referred to as the antitype.
After many years of reading and rereading and studying the Bible, I realize that there is still so much to learn and absorb. Christianity is literally a life-long learning project. As for my opening statement about believing the Bible, today I would actually adjust that statement and say that:
“I believe literally every word of the Bible, but I don’t take it literally.”
No, this is not heresy.
This is simply recognizing the rich depth and nuanced dimensions of the Word of God that is to be studied and cherished. I do believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God delivered through the hand of man under the directed influence of the Spirit of God. But we do a disservice to ourselves and others when we read the Bible out of context or with rigid interpretations that miss the overwhelming intricacies and rich patterns of God’s revelation of Himself to mankind.
A Christmas Prophetic Case in Point
A case in point is one that many of us gloss over here at Christmas time while repeating the time-honored words we read every year in the Christmas story. In the New Testament book of Matthew, the author cites the “virgin birth” prophecy of Isaiah 7:14:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The Virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (which means God with us). – Matthew 1:23
In his book, Has God Spoken? Hank Hanegraaff outlines how some non-believers see this prophecy as one of the greatest weaknesses of the Christian worldview. The Hebrew word of almah used by Isaiah had nothing to do with virginity. He points out that one may say that he should have used the word betulah.1
Beyond that curveball, the context of Isaiah’s passage is a major problem. Isaiah prophesied that the birth of his own son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz was a sign guaranteeing God’s temporal salvation of Judah which was in danger of being destroyed by two superpowers to the north. What?
Read for yourself the entire 7th chapter of Isaiah and prepare to be dismayed. But do not lose heart!
Symbolic and Literal Prophecy
The prophetic words of Isaiah chapter 7 about the human birth of his own child was referenced by Matthew as a typological or symbolic prophetic fulfillment when citing the virgin birth of Jesus, the Messiah. While Isaiah’s wife was a type or symbol or shadow, the antitype of the “young woman” (i.e., the real thing) was the Virgin Mary herself, who miraculously gives birth to Immanuel, a name or title for Jesus, God manifest in the flesh. Yes, she literally was a virgin and remained so through this pregnancy as she was supernaturally impregnated by the Spirit of God.
Incidentally, the controversy arises again in Isaiah chapter 9 with the equally often quoted prophetic “Christmas” passage:
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” – Isaiah 9:6.
While some may claim this a prophecy of king Hezekiah’s birth, this is actually yet another typological marker for the future everlasting king: Jesus, the real Prince of Peace.2
Conversely you will note a literal prophetic fulfillment in Matthew 2 when he references the prophecy of Micah 5:2:
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled…and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.’ – Matthew 2:3-6
Then reading further in Matthew 2 you will find additional examples of typological or symbolic fulfillment when he cites the Old Testament prophet Hosea about the Lord being “called out of Egypt” and then the prophet Jeremiah when referring to Herod slaying all the male children in Bethlehem (“Ramah…Rachel weeping for the children”).
Taken literally, these passages do not align or make sense. At a minimum they seem like a stretch in context. But seen as they are. typological prophecy, they display amazingly coherent evidence of the mighty hand of God weaving a rich consistent tapestry of text, history and purpose.
Christmas: the Final Antitype
Indeed, the recognition and honoring of Christmas is serious business. All of the types, shadows and symbols of the Old Covenant (Old Testament), including the holy land of Israel, the holy city Jerusalem, and the holy temple of God, have been fulfilled in the baby we celebrate at Christmastime, the Holy Christ. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…”
Do you believe this literal Truth?
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” – Isaiah 9:6
1 Has God Spoken? by Hank Hanegraaff, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN, 2011, p. 129.
2 Ibid. p. 131.
Categories: Christmas, Faith, Holidays, Israel, Jesus, Old Testament, Prophecy
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