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Theme: Atonement Announced

Leading Question: If the mission of the coming Messiah was clearly announced in the Old Testament, why did no one want to believe it from the lips of Jesus – until after the resurrection?

Looking back at the Old Testament through eyes that already know the story of Jesus gives quite a different picture than if one starts with the Old Testament and asks how much God’s people could see in advance from their day. A sobering quotation from C. S. Lewis provides a helpful backdrop for any study of the “announcement” of the Messiah’s arrival:

My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.” – C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 4:15

1.  Differences in the Old Testament expectations: The three aspects noted below all represent areas where the typical Old Testament person would have quite different expectations than those who know the story of Jesus and the history of the Christian church. How would each of these affect our expectations if we could see the world in the way they saw it?

A. Corporate instead of individual salvation. Many OT stories make more sense when we realize that their lives were much less individualistic than ours. For them, everything depended on the corporate existence of the tribe. Thus, for most of the Old Testament period, the people show little interest in individual salvation. The patriarchal stories set the tone for this perspective, telling of wistful parents who are longing for a male heir: their future lay with the tribe and the descendants that the heir would father.

B. Long life, not immortal life. Not until the end of the OT does the Bible reveal any real interest in life after death. The description of Abraham’s death in Genesis is typical of the Old Testament expectation: “Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people” (Gen 25:8). Even in the OT descriptions of the new earth, the expectation was simple: no young people would die: “No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime” (Isa 65:20).  In short, there would be death, but no premature death. 

C. Forgiveness without sacrifice. While the sacrificial system lay at the heart of Israel’s worship, it is not clear how much they understood about the ultimate fulfillment of these sacrifices in Jesus. But perhaps even more important is the recognition that for long periods in the Old Testament the temple and its sacrifices simply were not functioning. Even during the monarchy there is clear evidence that temple services were erratic. When Solomon became king, for example, David had already taken the ark to Jerusalem, but apparently left the rest of the sanctuary trappings  at Gibeon (2 Chron 2:3-6). Later, when Josiah became king, he had already been king for 18 years when a temple clean-up turned up a lost copy of the law of Moses. And when Babylon destroyed the Jerusalem temple in 586 BCE, taking a number of people into exile in Babylon, God’s people had to seek him without benefit of temple or sacrifice. Daniel still prayed toward Jerusalem, but for him and his fellow captives there was no temple service. Even after the return from Exile in 538, the temple was not rebuilt until 515, over twenty years later. But in spite of these erratic worship patterns, it is everywhere clear in the Old Testament that God freely granted forgiveness of sins to anyone who would ask. The new covenant promise in Jeremiah 31:34 clearly states God’s plan: “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”  That was a promise to God’s people in the Old Testament. They did not need to wait for Jesus to come to experience cleansing and renewal.

2. Key Passages, Key questions.  For each of the following passages, explore the question of how much an Old Testament person would know about the coming Messiah on the basis of the passage.

A.  Genesis 3:15: Seed and Serpent. Christians applied this passage to Jesus after the incarnation, but there is no hint in the Old Testament as to how the people really understood it.

B. Genesis 22: Sacrifice of Isaac. The most powerful truth in the story of Abraham’s trip to Moriah is that he could not sacrifice his son: God would provide the sacrifice, a wonderful image that would later be fully realized  in the story of Jesus. That humans felt the need for sacrifice, even the urge to sacrifice, is reflected in the recurring temptation to sacrifice one’s first born throughout much of the OT. Abraham himself did not object to God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. Why should he? Everyone else was sacrificing the first-born son to their gods. In Moses’ day, God provided a way to “redeem” the first born through an animal sacrifice (Exod 13:11-16), another powerful image that would be fulfilled in Jesus.

C. Exodus 32: A Mediator to the Rescue.  When Israel rebelled, Moses stepped forward to mediate between God and the people. Scripture says that as a result of Moses’ intervention, “God changed his mind” (Exod 32:14), a startling, albeit potentially misleading illustration of the value of a mediator between God and sinful beings.

D. Isaiah 52:13-53:12: Suffering Servant.  Again and again Jesus presented the Servant as the model for his ministry. But no one believed him until after the resurrection. No one. The people wanted a conquering king, not a suffering servant. In the Nazareth synagogue, Jesus read the description of his ministry from Isaiah 61 but stopped short of the lines that everyone wanted to hear: “the day of vengeance of our God” (Isa 61:2). Jesus’ ministry shattered the popular perceptions of the work of the Messiah.

3. Prophecies and Predictions of the Coming Messiah. Typically, Christians lump together a host of passages that have been used to point to the Messiah. Some are clearer than others; some are taken “out of context” and applied to Jesus. This method, known as “midrash,” was popular in Jewish circles. When Scripture is used in this way, it is not a prediction, but simply illustrates truths that are already known from other sources. To borrow words used so often in Matthew, the old “prophecies” were “filled full” (fulfilled) with new meaning. The outline that follows organizes the different kinds of “messianic” prophecies in a way that helps explain why no one understood or accepted Jesus’ mission until after the resurrection.


Four Categories of “Messianic” Prophecies   

A. Perceived by the Old Testament person (general in nature)
    1. Law of Moses:
        a.    Shiloh:  Gen 49:9-10
        b.    Star out of Jacob:  Numbers 24:17-19
        c.    Prophet like Moses:  Deut 18:15

    2. Prophets
        a.    Child:  Isaiah 9:2-7
        b.    Branch:  Isaiah 11:1-9;  Jer 23:5, 33:14
        c.    Anointed One:  Isaiah 61:1-4   

    3. Writings
        a.    Son of Man:  Daniel 7:13-14
        b.    Anointed one, Son of David:  Psalms 2, 45, 72, 89, 110 (Royal Psalms)

B. Presented with fresh impetus by Jesus:  Suffering Servant:  Isaiah 53
    1. Direct quotations in the NT (cf. Mowinckel, He That Cometh, 187):
        a.    Matthew about Jesus’ healing miracles: “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” (Matt 8:17 // Isa 53:4).
        b.    Jesus to Peter and the disciples about his coming passion: “And he was counted among the lawless” (Luke 22:37 // Isa 53:12).
        c.    John after Jesus’ prediction of his death: “Lord, who has believed our message, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (John 12:38 // Isa 53:1)
        d.    Ethiopian eunuch and Philip: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter… (Acts 8:32-33 // Isa 53:7-8).
        e.    Paul to the Romans: “Those who have never been told…” (Rom 8:21 //  Isa 52:15)
        f.     Peter to the Diaspora: “He committed no sin…” (1 Peter 2:22 // Isa 53:9)

    2. Allusions and applications in the NT: (cf. Mowinckel, He That Cometh, 187):
        a.    Jesus to Peter, James, John on the Son of Man: “He is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt” (Mark 9:12 // Isa 53:3, 7)
        b.    Peter at Pentecost: “Being therefore exalted…” (Luke 2:33 // Isa 52:13)
        c.    Paul to the Romans: “Many…made righteous” (Rom. 5:19 // Isa 53:11).
        d.    Paul to the Philippians: “He emptied himself…; God also highly exalted him…” (Phil 2:7, 9 // Isa 53:3, 11, 12; 52:13)
        e.    Peter to the Diaspora: “By his wounds…; you were going astray like sheep” (1 Peter 2:24-25 // Isa 53:5-6)

C. Discovered and applied by the disciples in the light of the event (midrashic method):


John 2:17 (Psalms 69:9); 15:25 (Psalms. 69:4); 19:28-29 (Psalms 69.21).

D. Discovered and applied in later Christian centuries: 70 weeks of Daniel 9.

See history of interpretation in Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary 4:65-70.

For further study:
Mowinckel, Sigmund. He That Cometh. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958; North, Christopher. The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah. London: Oxford University Press, 1948; Thompson, Alden.  “The Best Story in the Old Testament: The Messiah,” in Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? Paternoster 1988; Zondervan 1989; Pacesetters 2000, 2003.

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