Who says that this prophecy has two referents?

It is often argued that biblical prophecies may have two or more frames of reference. For example, Middleton allows that the language of cosmic dissolution in Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse (sun and moon darkened, stars falling from heaven) may refer to events leading up to the war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem. He even concedes the possibility that “all the signs of the Olivet discourse were fulfilled in AD 70”. But he argues, nevertheless, for a multivalent hermeneutic:

Without denying any of this, I would also note that it is possible for the language of celestial signs and (seeming) cosmic destruction to have a double referent, pointing to both sets of events simultaneously, much as some Old Testament prophecies clearly refer to events in the prophet’s own day and also have a later and more climactic fulfilment in New Testament times (for example, Isaiah’s prediction in 7:14 of a royal birth in Ahaz’s court, or possibly the prophet’s own son, later applied to the birth of Jesus in Matt. 1:23).1

So he is quite comfortable with the idea that Jesus was talking about both impending historical events and “his final coming in universal judgment and salvation”.

But who is to decide? There is nothing in Isaiah 7 to suggest that Isaiah himself believed that the birth of the boy Immanuel would have relevance for a second situation quite remote from his own historical context. It is Matthew who has decided that the birth of Jesus may be seen as some sort of “fulfilment” of the words spoken by Isaiah—the birth of Jesus is a sign that YHWH is again present with his people, at a time of great crisis, to judge and to save (Matt. 1:22-23).

But there is no comparable warrant in scripture for deciding that Jesus’ apocalyptic language has a second eschatological horizon in view. [pullquote]If Jesus chooses to use the language of Old Testament prophecy to speak of the impending destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, who is to decide that he is speaking “simultaneously” of a universal judgment and salvation?[/pullquote] No one later in the New Testament, writing about a final judgment, says that this is to fulfil the words of Jesus, that “the sun will be darkened…”, etc. The secondary application of the Immanuel prophecy has canonical authority. The secondary application of Jesus’ coming of the Son of Man prophecy does not.

There is another important difference between the two prophecies. Matthew recalls Isaiah’s prophecy in order to say something about the circumstances surrounding an actual event, something that has already happened. He uses the prophecy to explain why Jesus is given a significant name. He is not saying that something will happen in a remote future because Isaiah prophesied the birth of son in Ahaz’s court. Those who argue that Jesus’ words have a dual frame of reference are not using an old prophecy to explain a new state of affairs. They are concocting a whole new state of affairs out of a prophecy that already has its own historical frame of reference. This is just speculation.

So in terms of both canonical authority and prophetic reference the analogy breaks down. Matthew’s reapplication of Isaiah’s prophecy regarding the birth of the boy Immanuel does not justify the invention of a secondary frame of reference for Jesus’ apocalyptic language—certainly not in the interest of defending a dogmatic pre-commitment. I think Dale Allison quotes Ben Meyer to good effect here: “Neither Testament shows us prophets entertaining a compound, temporally disjoined perspective, both imminent and non-imminent.”2

  • 1J.R. Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 183.
  • 2D.C. Allison, Constructing Jesus: Memory, imagination, and history, 45.

I cannot tell you how many times in our Sunday School class on Revelation I heard, “Yes, but a lot of prophecies have an immediate fulfillment and a future fulfillment.”  Thanks for this.

So Andrew, possibly I’m missing something here… but doesn’t your position hold out its own “multivalent hermeneutic” given you apply different horizons (if I’ve read you right previously) relative to John’s ‘Revelation’? – which from what I can tell is but a more detailed and fuller version of the synoptics’ mini-apocalypse, i.e., what the synoptic writers note, John devotes an entire book in describing the very self-same event/s.

I don’t think so. My argument is that Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse has in view a first eschatological horizon—the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. I think the whole discourse is focused and coherent: this is what will happen; this is what it will mean.

I would argue that Revelation also probably has this horizon in view (though there are difficulties then with dating), but certainly has in view a second, wider eschatological horizon, which is the overthrow of pagan, imperial Rome and the confession of Christ as Lord by the nations.

There is then a third horizon, which is the final putting right of all things, but this is only on the outer fringe of John’s vision.

This differentiation, however, does not require the view that the same passage has two temporal frames of reference. Part of the book speaks of judgment on Jerusalem, part of the book speaks of judgment on Rome, and a very small part of the book speaks of a final judgment of all humanity.

I’m thinking Rome as an applicable secondary reference fits the AD.70 time frame in terms of “the beast” (Rome) underpinning the Jewish hierarchy it held in place (for its own ends) as viewed by John… being “the woman” (Jerusalem) carried by or seated upon the “seven mountains” (Rome), as per Rev 17:7, 9.

Hello Andrew,

Thanks as always for keeping up the work. A question I’ve wanted to ask for a while is this. And please excuse my lack of chapter verse here. I’m hoping you’ll provide that. Regarding hermeneutics, doesn’t Jesus do that for us in claiming that all the prophets and the law pointed to Him? That He was the one to fullfill all that was written? Even taking time with people to show them all that was written about him in the Torah. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. And second, what OT passages do you believe Jesus was exegeting about himself to people? 

I look forward to your response.