The hope Jesus proclaimed was deeply rooted in the promises of the prophets. Matthew keeps telling us that Jesus fulfilled the prophets, using phrases from Zechariah far more than we do today.
Many of us struggle to make sense of how the NT writers used the prophets. Read Zechariah in context, and it may not sound like predictions. For example, the blood of the covenant in Zechariah 9:11 seems to refer back to the Sinai covenant (Exodus 24:8), yet Jesus used the phrase for his Last Supper (Matthew 26:28).
Maybe our understanding of “context” is too narrow. You probably know to check a few verses either side of a quotation, so as not to take it out of context. In a limited sense, that’s true. But for Jesus and the New Testament writers, context was much broader — their place in the story of God.
When Jesus announced the good news of the kingdom, his context was the Jewish world that had not been a kingdom since the exile. Most of them lived in other countries, scattered like sheep without a shepherd. That’s how Zechariah had described them 500 years earlier (Zechariah 10:2; 13:7 etc), and it still described their context in Jesus’ day (Matthew 9:36; 10:6; 15:24).
Jesus fulfilled the prophets not merely by doing some particular thing they predicted. That happened, but it was far more: everything God promised to restore was finally fulfilled in his Anointed. That’s the scope of what Jesus fulfilled: All the promises of God find their Yes in him (2 Corinthians 1:20).
So, let’s take a chapter the NT writers never quoted. How is Zechariah 8 fulfilled in Christ?
- What was God saying to his people in Zechariah’s historical context?
- Was this already resolved before Jesus’ time?
- If not, how does Jesus resolve this, fulfilling what God promised?
What was God saying in Zechariah 8?
Read Zechariah 8.
God’s nation had been taken over by foreigners (Babylon, then Persia). The prophets insisted that this happened not just because the other kingdoms were stronger but because God’s people were unfaithful to the covenant, leaving them unprotected. Zechariah’s core message is that God is calling them back from exile, to restore them as his kingdom (1:3).
God’s passion for his people is so strong that he will not permit the empires to keep dominating them: I am very jealous for Zion; I am burning with jealousy for her (8:2).
God will restore them as his people, his kingdom under his reign: I will return to Zion and dwell in Jerusalem. Then Jerusalem will be called the Faithful City, and the mountain of the Lord Almighty will be called the Holy Mountain (8:3).
What a joyful image! The faithful sovereign reigns in the city that is faithful to his covenant, with peace enduring across the generations (8:4-5). For the people who’ve returned, this is a marvel; for the sovereign, it is merely the natural expression of his faithful character (8:6).
This is the heart of God’s promise:
Zechariah 8:7–8 (NIV)
7 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “I will save my people from the countries of the east and the west. 8 I will bring them back to live in Jerusalem; they will be my people, and I will be faithful and righteous to them as their God.”
That’s their sovereign’s character. But what about the character of his people? Will they cooperate with their king and live as he directs, or do they still want to go their own way? That’s what the rest of the chapter is about.
First, if they want God to dwell among them and lead them, they’ll express it by building him a house among them. Wasn’t that the first thing God asked for when he entered into covenant with them (Exodus 29:45-46)? The returning exiles know, and they’ve already laid the foundation. They need to complete it (8:9). God will respond to this invitation by moving in, leading them, and providing for his people as they live under his authority (8:10-15).
But there’s another visible sign that God is living in the capital. More significant than the temple they raise up for him is the community he raises up under his leadership — the kingdom that reflects the character of its king:
16 “These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts; 17 do not plot evil against each other, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all this,” declares the Lord.
God is faithful (8:8), so the people under his leadership become Faithful City (8:3). God rendered true and sound justice when he sent them into exile, so they must render true and sound justice, never hiding evil under false testimony. God expects his kingdom to love sincerely, to hate the evil that people use to take advantage of each other, to hold on to what is good even when it’s costly to do so (compare Romans 12:9). The kingdom is to be the visible embodiment of its king.
Such a community no longer needs the fasts they had (7:3). Instead of mourning for God’s presence, they can joyfully celebrate his presence in the community that loves truth and peace (8:19).
And as they live as God’s kingdom, the effect is global transformation. The embodied presence of God among the nations was the reason God chose Israel to represent him in the first place. Like the king of the north (1 Kings 5:7) and the Queen of the South (1 Kings 10:8-9), the nations will see the justice and righteousness of God in the community he leads.
The restored kingdom will be the community that makes God visible on earth. The astounding promise Zechariah receives from God is that people of other languages and nations will recognize the God who reigns in his people, joining them to entreat the heavenly sovereign to resolve their issues too. Why would the nations do that? ‘Because we have heard that God is with you’ (8:20-23).
Was this fulfilled before Christ?
Some of it was. The admonition, Let your hands be strong so that the temple may be built (8:9) was fulfilled within 3 years. Those who returned to Jerusalem experienced the promise that they would grow old there watching their grandchildren grow up (8:4). Temple life resumed, including the joyous annual festivals (8:19).
What they did not see was their restoration as a kingdom, with God reigning over them through his anointed ruler (a son of David). Zechariah already warned them to expect only a partial restoration in his lifetime: Joshua (the high priest) was restored, but Zerubbabel (a son of David) was not. That’s why he put a crown on the high priest’s head, to act as the Davidic Branch for the interim (3:1-10).
Without being restored as God’s kingdom, his people were unable to fulfil the promises of drawing the nations to recognize the Lord of hosts as their ruler too (8:20-23). This promise could not really be fulfilled until God’s people were restored as his kingdom.
Is this fulfilled in Christ?
When Jesus came proclaiming the good news of the kingdom (Matthew 4:23; 9:35), this is what people were yearning for (e.g. Luke 1:33; 2:25, 38). The promise was still unfulfilled. God’s people were still ruled by foreigners. Only when they were restored into God’s reign could the nations see what Zechariah had declared: the Lord of hosts reigning among his people, for the benefit of the world.
Matthew’s opening volley proclaims Jesus as the anointed son of David (Matthew 1:1), the long-awaited answer to their captivity to foreign powers (1:17), the one who rescues his people from their failures (1:21), the restored presence of the heavenly sovereign among his people (1:23). The kingship that was not restored in Zerubbabel arrived eleven generations later in his descendant (1:13-16). This is the “context” for the New Testament claims that Jesus fulfills what the prophets promised.
We constantly see this context informing Jesus’ understanding of the kingdom. When John’s disciples ask, “Why aren’t you teaching your disciples to fast?” Jesus answers that the days of fasting for the kingdom to be restored are over: the king is with his people, the bridegroom they’ve been waiting for their whole life (Matthew 9:15). Jesus’ arrival signalled the fulfilment of Zechariah’s declaration that the restoration of God’s reign meant fasts turning into feasts (Zechariah 8:19).
Before Christ, the promise that God would save his people from the countries of the east and west (Zechariah 8:7) was not fulfilled. Jesus regularly alluded to this as his mission (e.g. Matthew 9:36 and 10:5-6). As their king, Jesus instructed his people to demonstrate God’s character so the nations could see God (e.g. Matthew 5:13-16, 43-48). He knew that the promises of Zechariah 8:20 that the nations would come into the kingdom would have to be fulfilled in himself, since many of his own people would not fulfil that role (Matthew 8:11-12).
And that was his big beef with the temple and its leaders. As passionate as God is for his people and his dwelling among them (John 2:17 reflecting Psalm 69:9 and Zechariah 8:2), Jesus declared that the people in charge of the temple represented not God’s power but their own. They were play-actors, pretending to be God’s servants, with no interest in the anointed king God sent them. The temple completed in Zechariah’s day was no longer God’s house; it was staffed by criminals (Matthew 21:13). Whereas Zechariah 8:11 had been a promise of restoration, in Jesus’ time the same words could be read as a threat of demolition (compare Matthew 23:35-38). That temple would fall. The Messiah himself would become the new temple where God lived among his people through his resurrection (John 2:17-22; Ephesians 2:20-21 etc).
The way Jesus fulfilled the promises of the prophets is more holistic than a simple, “This is that.”
All God’s promises find their fulfilment in his Messiah. The Christ and the people who are in him (his kingdom) are the visible expression of the heavenly sovereign doing right by his people, remaining faithful to a world that has not been faithful to him.
I will be faithful and righteous to them as their God (Zechariah 8:8).
God fulfilled that promise by raising up his anointed as our ruler:
Now the righteousness of God has become a visible reality, as witnessed through the Law and the Prophets — the righteousness of God, through the faithfulness of Jesus his anointed ruler, expressed in all who trust him with their allegiance (Romans 3:21-22).