There is yet one more principle of interpretation that we can learn from the prophecies of Christ’s birth. In the application of the above passages, the other main point that emerges is that the fulfillments that were observed and recorded in the New Testament were literal. When we examine the account in Matthew 1 and we read the account of Mary becoming pregnant, we clearly understand that Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit, having never known a man before. This is clear because of the context in Matthew’s account.
Having now examined the original prophecy in Isaiah 7, we understand why many have tried to argue that the word for virgin just meant a young unmarried woman, rather than a woman who had never had intimate relations with a man. The reason would be to deny the deity of Christ—if Jesus had been born naturally from the union of a man and woman. The argument is that in Hebrew there is a specific word for a woman who has never had sexual relations with a man, bethulah (Strong’s H1330); but Isaiah didn’t use that word, therefore, that wasn’t what Isaiah meant. But now that we have seen that the same scripture can have multiple fulfillments in different ways, we know why God didn’t tell Isaiah to write bethulah instead of alma. Have you already guessed it? Because only one of the future fulfillments could be a bethulah, but they could both be an alma .
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had consid-ered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. – Matthew 1:18-25 (NIV)
These prophecies, and the rest of the Messianic prophecies regarding the birth and life of Jesus Christ in the first century, were all fulfilled literally. They weren’t metaphors. They weren’t clever allegories. They were literal signs and events that really happened. Since we have these examples, we should also expect that future prophecies will be fulfilled in the same way. Especially when we consider the words of the angels, at the ascension of Christ into heaven, telling us that Jesus would literally return in the same way that they had just watched Him leave.
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” – Acts 1:9-11 (NIV)
Furthermore, the plain meaning cannot be eclipsed by secondary interpretive inferences that rely on someone’s special insights to understand the true meaning. In other words, you cannot invent a figurative interpretation to the text that contradicts or denies its plain meaning. When people do that, they destroy the sensibility of the text, and it becomes open to every private interpretation. Peter affirmed that, “no scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20) and he said that the true author of any book of the Bible is the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the plain meaning of Scripture, that can be read by all, should always take precedent over arguments that rely on “fine sounding arguments” (Colossians 2:4), earthly wisdom (James 3:15), or inferences about what the author may have been thinking or feeling, would have known, etc. Of course, this principle does not apply to obviously figurative passages, where from within the text it is clearly defined, either explicitly or by context, to be only metaphorical. This would be like when Jesus told the people parables; or in Revelation 17:7 when the angel explains to John the image of the woman riding the Beast.
Additionally, even in obviously figurative instances, a proper metaphorical understanding cannot contradict the sense of the image that is being used to make the metaphor. For example, in Acts 10:9-17, we read about Peter seeing a vision of a sheet being let down from heaven filled with all kinds of animals, both clean and unclean. In the passage, we are specifically told that Peter was being shown a vision. So, we expect that it may be figurative. But in the vision, Peter is told to kill and eat. At first, he refuses, but God tells him not to call anything impure that he has made clean. We are also told that Peter wondered at the meaning of the vision. Next, we read that the vision was given to help Peter understand that the Gentiles were also made pure by faith in Christ and that they would receive the Holy Spirit, just as they had (Acts 10:34-35, 45).
Now, here’s the principle in action. Some argue that since we are specifically told that the vision applied to the Gentiles, we can exclude the literal interpretation that all animals are now clean and may be eaten. In other words, they want to say that the literal expression of the vision is not true (that all foods are now clean and can be eaten), but the figurative interpretation of the dream is true (that Gentiles are now clean along with believing Jews). This cannot be. Only if the analogy in the vision is true can the thing it represents also be true. Therefore, both are true. God has now made all foods clean, and he has accepted the Gentiles and made them clean, too. Mark also confirms this simple understanding of Peter’s vision of the sheet by explaining Jesus’ parable regarding what defiles us—by asking if it is caused by something that comes from outside the body or from what is already inside it.
“Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) – Mark 7:18-19 (NIV)
As one looks through the Gospel accounts, there are references to one literal fulfillment of prophecy after another. Again, besides the parables, every instance where we are told that the Scriptures were fulfilled occurs in a literal sense. Let’s examine a few of the more direct and obvious prophetic fulfillments. For instance, in Matthew 8:17 there is a direct quote from Isaiah 53:4, but it is from the Greek Septuagint translation, so it is worded a little differently, but it means the same thing .
This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases.” – Matthew 8:17 (NIV)
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering. – Isaiah 53:4 (NIV)
And here is another example. It is only a partial quote, but it was totally literal. There was no rational and legitimate reason for the Pharisees to hate Jesus. They hated Him because of their own sin and their pride.
“But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’” – John 15:25 (NIV)
Those who hate me without reason outnumber the hairs of my head; many are my enemies without cause, those who seek to destroy me. – Psalm 69:4 (NIV)
Another literal fulfillment of a prophecy is seen in a psalm that describes some people dividing the psalmists’ clothes and casting lots for his garment. The precise literal fulfillment was observed when Christ was crucified on the cross in John 19.
When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom. “Let’s not tear it,” they said to one another. “Let’s decide by lot who will get it.” This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled that said, “They divided my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.” So this is what the soldiers did. – John 19:23-24 (NIV)
They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment. – Psalm 22:18 (NIV)
The point is that, while these are just a few examples, every prophetic fulfillment recorded in the New Testament was a literal one. Consequently, any view of prophecy that rejects the literal fulfillment of the prophecies regarding Christ’s second coming at the end of the age—arguing that earlier prophecies were literal, but the last days ones will be figurative—should be rejected.