Few issues are more foundational to the Christian faith than the belief that Jesus is the Messiah predicted by Old Testament Jewish prophets. Yet many of the prophecies that are said to predict Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, when read in their Old Testament context, are not as clear as we might expect. In fact, it’s easy to see why unbelievers are often skeptical. Why aren’t the prophecies more obvious? And why in some cases does the New Testament claim a fulfillment where no prediction is even in view? Before answering these questions, let’s look at claims made by Christians, and the kind of questions thoughtful skeptics ask.
In Evidence That Demands A Verdict, Christian apologist Josh McDowell states, “The Old Testament contains over 300 references to the Messiah that were fulfilled in Jesus.” He believes this “establishes the fact of God, authenticates the deity of Jesus, and [proves] the inspiration of the Bible.” He lists 61 specific messianic prophecies and shows how they were fulfilled hundreds of years after they were spoken. Then he quotes from Peter Stoner’s book Science Speaks, which says that according to scientifically accepted laws of probability, the odds against just eight of the prophecies being fulfilled are one chance in 1017 (pp.150-175).
Are McDowell’s facts and logic sound? Those who already believe in Jesus will probably say his facts are unarguable. They know, for example, that Luke 24 describes two occasions when the resurrected Christ “opened the minds” of His followers to understand that Moses, the Prophets, and Psalms had spoken of His death, resurrection, and salvation He would provide through them (Lk. 24:25-27, 44-49). Believers in Jesus are convinced that He was telling the truth when He said that the Old Testament was speaking about Him (Jn. 5:39).
These claims, however, do not greatly impress skeptics. Many Jewish people, for instance, believe that the prophets foresaw a different kind of Messiah. They see prophets pointing to a coming Deliverer who would rescue Israel from her enemies and establish Jerusalem as the capital of a world government (Isa. 2:1- 3). Since Jesus did not do this, they wonder how He could be the Messiah.
Yet Christians believe that among the prophecies of a coming world leader are predictions with another view of Messiah.
• He will be despised and rejected (Isa. 53:3).
• He will die for our sin (Isa. 53:6).
• He will be “cut off” before the destruction of Jerusalem and her temple (Dan. 9:24-27).
• He will live after dying (Isa. 53:10).
• He will justify many (Isa. 53:11).
• He will be a light to the Gentiles (Isa. 49:6).
Christians believe that these prophecies present the Messiah as suffering, dying, and rising from death to provide salvation from sin’s penalty before restoring Israel and ruling the earth from Jerusalem. Is this claim supported by facts? Skeptical people have many questions.
THE SKEPTICS’ QUESTIONS
Many skeptics doubt that Jesus fulfilled even one prophecy. They argue that Christians either quote Old Testament passages out of context, mindlessly misinterpret them, or even dishonestly change them to fit their purposes. Here are some of the questions skeptics ask and the problems they raise:
Does Micah 5:2 really say that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem? Matthew 2:1-6 says that a group of Jewish teachers of the law told Herod that according to Micah 5:2 the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. “That can’t be true,” say skeptics. “No Hebrew scholar would have taken Micah 5:2 as a prophecy of Messiah’s birthplace. Micah declares only that Messiah’s ancestral origin will be Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David” (1 Sam. 17:58).
Does Isaiah 53 describe the sufferings of the Messiah or the sufferings of the Jewish people? Isaiah says, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). A common Jewish response to this verse is that the innocent sufferer here is not Jesus but the nation of Israel. They say that God Himself identifies Israel as this servant in the context when He declared, “You are My servant, Israel, in whom I will display My splendor” (Isa. 49:3).
Some skeptics accuse Christian translators of even mistranslating key verses in Isaiah to make them fit the New Testament portrayal of Jesus. As an example of deliberate deceit they cite Isaiah 53:8, pointing out that all versions produced by non-Jewish scholars use the singular pronoun in the expression, “For the transgression of My people He was stricken,” even though the pronoun is plural in the Hebrew text. Their contention is that the last clause in the verse should read, “they were stricken.” They insist, therefore, that Isaiah has the “people of the Holocaust” in view, not Jesus.
Did the New Testament writers misquote, mistranslate, and misapply Psalm 22? The writers of the New Testament quote and allude to Psalm 22 again and again as being fulfilled in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ (Mt. 27:35,39,43,46; Lk. 23:34; Jn. 19:23-24,28,34,37; Heb. 2:12). But skeptics point out that nothing in the original context would lead a reader to see this psalm as a predictive prophecy. They suggest that Psalm 22 is nothing more than King David’s poetic portrayal of the pain and anguish he experienced as a fugitive from either Saul or Absalom.
Unbelieving scholars also argue that the words “they have pierced My hands and My feet” (v.16) are misleading because the correct reading in most Hebrew manuscripts and in the Masoretic text is actually “like a lion my hands and my feet.”
Was Matthew dishonest in his use of various Old Testament passages to prophetically support certain particulars of Jesus’ early life? After telling the story of Jesus’ return to Israel from Egypt (Mt. 2:13- 15), Matthew wrote, “So was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called My Son.’” But when we turn to the Old Testament quote from Hosea 11:1, we look in vain for any indication that the original text was anything more than a historical description of the nation of Israel.
Skeptics point out that Matthew also declared that the slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem (2:16-18) fulfilled Jeremiah 31:15, another passage that does not make a specific reference to the Messiah. Matthew even said that it was a fulfillment of prophecy (2:23) for Jesus and His parents to live in the town of Nazareth. Yet, there’s no such prophecy in the Old Testament.
So, were the writers of the New Testament guilty of altering or misrepresenting the Old Testament text to create an illusion of fulfillment? These are serious questions deserving of honest answers. If the founders and leaders of the Christian faith lacked moral and intellectual integrity, their teachings are suspect and have no spiritual authority.
I’m convinced, however, that the New Testament writers were honest. I believe that the link between Jesus and the prophets of Israel is authentic, and that there are many reasons to believe that He can be found in the pages of the Old Testament. I also believe, however, that many of the questions skeptics raise deserve to be taken seriously, and that all of us need a clear understanding of how the New Testament writers saw Jesus in the prophecies of the Old Testament.
WHAT IT TAKES TO SEE JESUS IN PROPHECY
Before taking a look at the specific texts we’ve just identified, let’s consider some of the assumptions that Christians need to make to see Jesus in the Old Testament.
If Jesus is in the Old Testament, the prophecies of His suffering and glory are like a shuffled deck of cards. Prophecies of His suffering are intermingled with prophecies of His kingdom and glory. Nowhere do the prophets clearly explain two comings of Messiah—a first coming to die for the penalty of sin and a later return to deliver the earth from sin’s consequences. Instead, themes of suffering and glory are interwoven throughout the prophetic Scriptures.
If Jesus is in the Old Testament, His presence is like viewing a distant mountain range. The prophecies of Jesus’ suffering and glory are like viewing mountains on the horizon. From a distance, it’s impossible to see the valleys and gaps that separate peaks and ranges. Only when travelers get into the mountains and have a peak or two behind them do they get a sense of the space between peaks that was impossible to see from a distance. Thus it is only in retrospect that anyone can see how the Messiah first came to save His people from the penalty of sin, and that He will return to fulfill the kingdom prophecies.
If Jesus is in the Old Testament, He is there like the author of a novel. On the surface, the creator of a good story may not appear to be writing about himself. Yet students of literature know that authors often show up in their own work and in some way reflect their own experience in what they write. Sometimes those who know the author are able to find and describe this relationship. Sometimes it takes the author himself to show how a chapter or image emerged from his own experiences or relationships.
From a New Testament point of view, the Messiah expresses the Spirit of the Author of the Old Testament. In the unity of the Godhead, Messiah is one with the God behind the page and with the Spirit guiding the pen of Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. It was this conviction that gave the apostle John reason to speak of Jesus as the eternal Word made flesh through His birth in Bethlehem (Jn. 1:1-2,14).
If Jesus is in the Old Testament, He is there like a man in a house of mirrors. From a Jewish perspective, Messiah would be a deliverer greater than Moses, a priest greater than Aaron, a king greater than David, a prophet greater than Elijah, and a servant more faithful than Israel.
Once Jesus’ followers concluded that the carpenter from Nazareth was this Messiah, they believed they had a basis for seeing Jesus reflected everywhere in the Old Testament. Once they became witnesses of His resurrection, they believed they had a basis for seeing Him as the embodiment of the spirit of the law (Mt. 5:17; Lk. 24:44). They saw Him as the One who gave meaning to the sacrificial ritual, the One who provided a salvation from sin that extended without distinction to Jew or Gentile, male or female, rich or poor, and as the One through whom Israel would fulfill her calling.
If Jesus is in the Old Testament, He is there like shadows on a field. The New Testament says that the patterns of Old Testament religion are like shadows on the landscape of history (Col. 2:17). They reflect the form and image of the coming Messiah, but in and of themselves they have no real substance.
So the patterns of the Jewish house of worship, the sacrificial system, and the festival cycle of Israel are seen by Christians as anticipating a Messiah who would not only break the yoke of Gentile domination but would also offer Himself as a sacrifice for sin (1 Cor. 5:7).
If Jesus is in the Old Testament, He is there like a piece of an unsolved puzzle. As noted earlier, Christians believe that messianic allusions were intermingled in passages designed to instruct, correct, comfort, and challenge. The New Testament says that God prompted His prophets to say some things that would be understood only by later generations. As a result, those who believe in Jesus embrace ideas that were only mysteries to people of an earlier era.