Guests: Mathilde Frey and Jody Washburn
Relevant Bible Verses: Isaiah 9-12
Leading Question: Why do Old Testament passages give us such a bloody path as the way to
the Prince of Peace?
The section of Isaiah that our lesson this week covers is from Isaiah 9 to 12. These four chapters include some of the most precious passages for Christians. Chapter 9 includes the hymn “For a child is born” (9:6) and chapter 11 includes the vivid presentation of God’s vegetarian kingdom: “They will not shall hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” (11:9). Yet interspersed with these wonderful promises is a great deal of blood and warfare. Indeed, immediately following that vision of the peaceable kingdom, Isaiah describes the recovery of Israel’s remnant with force and bloodshed.
Question: What kind of explanation can we offer that would preserve the beauty of the ideal while preserving the integrity of Scripture, including those passages that speak of violence?
Questions about the coming “Child” of Isaiah 9:
1. The description of the rule of the “Child” sounds very much like a kingdom of this world, the very kind of messiah that the people of Jesus’ day seemed to crave. Yet when Jesus came, he pointed not to the conquering king of Isaiah 9, but to the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. And the people rejected the suffering servant model. Couldn’t they point to Scripture to justify their rejection of the suffering service idea?
2. Exalted language is used in Isaiah 11 to describe the person and mission of the coming deliverer: Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Yet the messianic prophecies in the narrow sense, did not see the “messiah” as a divine figure. He was the “anointed one,” but not understood as God incarnate – until after the resurrection?
A psalm of comfort. Isaiah 12 brings a psalm of comfort to the people: “for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away and you comforted me” (Isa. 12:1).
Question: From the standpoint of experience, can the believer feel free to claim the promises of God’s comfort, even though they may fall short of the ideal?
Following this lesson, is a chapter from Alden Thompson, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?, “The Best Story in the Old Testament: the Messiah.” It addresses several questions raised in this week’s lesson.
Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? Chapter 7
(Biblical quotations are from the Revised Standard Version )
The Best Story in the Old Testament: the Messiah
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light …
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given… (Isaiah 9:2, 6)
My choice of best story in the Old Testament is not a specific episode like the worst story, but rather a great theme which springs from deep roots in the Old Testament and finally bursts into bloom in the New. Certainly one of the most insistent and obvious claims of the New Testament is that Jesus of Nazareth came as the fulfillment of the Old Testament messianic hope, John has recorded how Jesus chided his Jewish hearers: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me” (John 5:46). And after the resurrection, Jesus expounded to the disciples on the Emmaus road the real meaning of the Old Testament: “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Not too long afterwards he appeared to the eleven disciples and said: “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:44-45).
So the claim of the New Testament seems to be clear enough, but having said that, a couple of interesting and potentially distressing observations must not be over-looked. First, the Jewish Community as a whole has not accepted Jesus of Nazareth as the fulfillment of the Old Testament hope. From the Jewish point of view, Christianity is a breakaway movement which has pinned its hopes on a messianic pretender. Never mind the fact that the Christian movement has been reasonably popular and successful; the point is that Judaism has rejected the claim of the New Testament that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament messianic hope.
The second observation that we must not neglect is that Jesus own disciples so radically misunderstood his mission. The synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, in particular, highlight the contrast between Jesus’ grasp of his mission and that of his disciples. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in Matthew 16 where Peter openly proclaims to Jesus: “You are the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Jesus was pleased with Simon’s confession, though he warned the disciples that the time was not yet ripe to share this conviction (Matt. 16:20). Then he opened to them the real nature of his mission: “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt. 16:21). Peter’s response? “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” To which Jesus replied: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Matt. 16:23).
Now one might think that conversations like that should have been clear enough, yet apparently the disciples either could not or would not believe. Returning to Luke’s description of the Emmaus Road conversation, we learn that the followers of Jesus were stunned and disheartened by Jesus’ death: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). To be sure, after Jesus had appeared several times to the disciples following the resurrection, they caught a fresh vision of their risen Lord, a vision both in the physical and spiritual sense, and the book of Acts records the powerful impact of that post-resurrection experience. So the disciples finally did believe, no question about that, but the point I want to make is, that during Jesus’ ministry they did not believe aright nor did they understand. Regardless of what later Christians may accept or believe, all the evidence suggests that even Jesus’ closest associates apparently did not grasp the true meaning of the messianic prophecies or the real meaning of the sacrificial system. In the light of this New Testament evidence, it is likely that even John the Baptist did not really understand what he was saying when he said of Jesus: “Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, 36). Later, John himself, languishing in prison and deeply torn by doubt, gives utterance to his uncertainty in a pathetic appeal to Jesus: “Are you he who is to come or shall we look for another?” (Matt. 11:3).
This agonizing question put by John is one which every Christian should seek to answer for himself, and not simply in a superficial way. Should Jesus’ messianic claims, rejected by the Jews and so thoroughly misunderstood during the years of Jesus’ earthly ministry, be so glibly and lightheartedly accepted by those of us who come many years later in the Christian tradition? Should we not also participate in the searching agony of our forefathers as we attempt to make that Christian message our very own?
Speaking now from my own experience, I can say that a little agonizing over Jesus’ messianic claims can result in a real blessing, to say nothing of solving a number of problems of interpretation along the way. But I must share with you the route of my pilgrimage so that you can better understand why this best story turns out the way it does.
As a young Christian in a conservative Christian environment I was exposed to a fair amount of traditional Christian material. I suspect that anyone who has been an active participant in a conservative Christian community is well aware of the manner in which messianic prophecies have been handled. I will not cite any specific sources, but will simply summarize the general impression that had become part of my own outlook. First, I learned of the hundreds of amazing prophecies which pointed forward to the true Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. The chances of anyone other than Jesus of Nazareth fulfilling these prophecies was said to be one in millions. Second, the Jewish people had every opportunity to accept Jesus. Not only were the prophecies explicit, leaving them without excuse, but also the sacrificial system pointed them directly to their promised Savior. Still, they rejected him.
The residual effect of that two-fold emphasis led imperceptibly to the conclusion that the first century Jews were simply stubborn and the disciples were at least blind, if not stupid. But the other side of the coin is even more dangerous from a spiritual point of view, for my suspicions about the Jews and disciples implied that “we Christians” were not stubborn like they were, and since we clearly understood the prophecies, we were certainly much brighter than the disciples. Now please pardon this rather too-vivid picture. I have probably over-stated the case, but I do think that something like the above scenario does lurk rather ominously in the background of those of us who have grown up with traditional Christianity.
When I first began to look seriously at these Christian claims, I had considerable difficulty in suppressing my uneasiness, for as I began looking at some of the New Testament “prophecies” I found them less than convincing. The thought crossed my mind more than once: “If this is what the Christian claim is based on, Christianity is in deep trouble.” Some of the “proofs” cited in support of Jesus’ claims seemed to be so very convincing to the New Testament writers, yet, quite frankly, they made very little sense to me. How could that be? Was Christianity built on a foundation of wood, hay, and stubble, after all? As I recall, I was enjoying a good Christian experience at the time, so there was no immediate danger of my world falling apart, yet I found it very uncomfortable to think that this good experience might possibly be built on sinking sand instead of on solid rock. I thought of the hundreds of years of Christian tradition and of the many noble and helpful Christians that I had known personally. But I also thought of those who had rejected the Christian tradition in favor of a skeptical or even atheistic position. All these thoughts went tumbling through my head.
But before we look at the solution which I have since found so helpful, let me give you a more specific glimpse of the kinds of difficulties that began to gnaw at my certainties. For sake of convenience, we may note several “prophecies” from the Gospel of John, all of which are cited from Psalm 69.
1. “Zeal for thy house will consume me” (John 2:17). This statement is one that the disciples “remembered” after they had watched Jesus’ cleansing the temple. The original reference is found in Ps. 69:9.
2. “They hated me without a cause” (John 15:25). Jesus applied this statement from Ps. 69:4 to himself as he described the hatred which the world has against him and his Father. The quotation from the psalm is prefaced with the following words: “It is to fulfill the word that is written in their law.” The relationship of this word “fulfill” to our word “prophecy” is one that we will discuss later in the chapter; it can be the source of considerable difficulty.
3. Jesus is given vinegar “to fulfill the scripture” (John 19:28). This comment by the gospel writer that the vinegar offered to Jesus was to “fulfill” scripture, seems to be a direct reference to Psalm 69:21. In contrast to the previous two examples, the Old Testament passage is not actually quoted, yet the inference is clear enough.
Now if you want to experience the same kind of difficulty that I did, go directly to Psalm 69, read it through in its entirety, noting how each of these quotations or allusions is used in the original psalm. Incidentally, you may have noted that the three quotations I have cited are of three slightly different types: the first is attributed to the disciples, the second directly to Jesus, while the third is a comment supplied by the gospel writer himself. Similar examples could be noted almost at random from throughout the New Testament, though it is in the Gospels and Acts where one finds the most interest in the “fulfillment” of prophecy.
Looking specifically at Psalm 69, we must ask what the likely conclusion of the Old Testament readers would have been if they were hearing or reading this psalm in the Old Testament context. Would they have seen this psalm and these phrases as “prophecies,” that is “predictions” of Jesus’ mission? Frankly, I do not see how they could possibly have done so. The psalm is simply a lament by an individual, who is not named in the psalm, although the title does identify it as a “Psalm of David.” That phrase could easily imply Davidic authorship (the traditional interpretation), but the original, Hebrew could just as easily mean a psalm “to” David, “for” David, “about” David, or “in honor of” David. Many scholars who would not hold to Davidic authorship in the strict sense do think that the speaker was at least one of Israel’s kings in the Davidic line.
For the purposes of our discussion, let us assume that this is a psalm written by David himself. Would the Old Testament reader have seen the true Messiah in this psalm? The New Testament writers obviously did, and we shall return to that in a moment. But for Old Testament readers, the matter would not have been at all clear. In the first instance, the psalm is written by someone who considered himself to be a sinner: “O God, thou knowest my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from thee” (Ps. 69:5). The New Testament claim for Jesus is that he was without sin (cf. Heb. 4:15), so on that point alone we have a definite cleavage between the Old Testament passage and the New Testament fulfillment; at least that is what it appears to be at first glance.
What is even more striking as we compare the content of this psalm with Jesus’ experience, is the remarkable contrast in attitudes towards one’s enemies. Certainly the Christian would accept the attitude of Jesus on the cross as the Christian ideal: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). But if you want to singe your polite Christian ears, read Psalm 69:22-28. Such venomous words are hard to imagine on the lips of our Lord. We shall approach the problem of violent language more directly in our next chapter. But for our purposes here, it is sufficient to note that there is a great gulf between the experience described in the psalm and that of our Lord. When the psalmist was given vinegar to drink (Ps. 69:21), he erupted into violent curses; when Jesus was given vinegar to drink, he prayed for his tormentors.
So there is the problem: the Old Testament psalm was written by a sinner who was still struggling with vengeful feelings towards his enemies. Furthermore, the psalm itself gives no clue that it was pointing forward to a future Messiah. Is this the kind of foundation on which Jesus’ messianic claim was based? It was at this point that I began a serious search to see if perhaps there might be other prophecies which were more worthy of the name. Of course, there is also the matter of the integrity of Jesus and the New Testament writers. When Jesus himself makes statements that I have difficulty in accepting, that is indeed a question I must face if I take my Christian experience seriously.
Rather than let the solution to the above problems emerge gradually in the course of the chapter, I think it would be helpful to outline briefly my suggested solution. Then we can look at the various parts in greater detail. In short, I believe God’s people have appealed to different reasons at different times to establish the same belief in the Messiah. Thus the “prophecies” of the Messiah can be divided into four basic categories:
1.Those prophecies that were evident to the reader of the Old Testament as pointing toward to one who was to come. These could be recognized as messianic prophecies by any honest reader.
2. Those prophecies which Jesus applied to himself and his mission as a result of his own self-understanding and from his own study of Scripture. According to the evidence we have, application of these prophecies to the Messiah in the way that Jesus understood them was something fresh and original or, at least, his emphasis was different from that of known Jewish teachings about the Messiah.
3. “Prophecies” which were discovered and applied as the events themselves took place or shortly thereafter, a type of “prophecy” which was exceptionally popular in the New Testament era and is frequently found in the New Testament itself.
4.”Prophecies” that were applied to Jesus’ mission in later Christian centuries.
Before we look at each of these categories, it would be well to remind ourselves that, in the course of human experience, finding new reasons for old beliefs and practices is nothing unusual. To cite a rather mundane example, note all the various reasons one could give in support of vegetarianism: ascetic (meat tastes good, therefore should be avoided); health (a vegetable diet leads to better health); humanitarian (be kind to animals); ecological (it is wasteful to feed grain to animals and then eat the animals); religious (animals are sacred so should not be killed, much less eaten). It is unlikely that anyone would hold all those arguments at the same time, or with equal intensity. Furthermore, quite different emphases will be found at different eras in history and in different parts of the world. Applying this observation to the interpretation of Scripture, a similar process can be seen at work as God’s people find new reasons for supporting old beliefs. I think there is no place where that is more evident than in the promises and prophecies of the Messiah. This point will become clearer as we look at examples for each of the four categories.
1. Messianic Prophecies understandable to Old Testament believers
This category is the most basic one, for without a substantial foundation at this level, no one would have expected a Messiah at all. With our twentieth century orientation, we are inclined to think that if a prophecy is really a prophecy, it should be seen as such in advance of the event or person it foretells. That is so obvious to us that even to make the point seems unnecessary. Yet that is precisely the cause of the difficulty, for the New Testament uses the language of prophecy, foretelling, and foreseeing with reference to persons and events that can really be recognized only by hindsight. We shall return to that point below, but here we must look at some of those prophecies which, in Old Testament times, had the potential to kindle the messianic fires in the hearts of God’s people.
Just a comment first, however, on the more technical usage of the terms “Messiah” and “messianic.” In our discussion in the last chapter, we noted that the Hebrew word mashiah simply means “anointed one.” In the course of time, however, Israel applied it more specifically to the king as the anointed one. Finally, the people began to look to the future and the ideal anointed one. So, technically speaking, “messianic” refers to those prophecies which pointed to a coming royal figure, a descendant in the Davidic line. In traditional Christian interpretation, however, the word has taken on a much broader meaning so that almost anything in the Old Testament can fall under the heading “messianic” if it points forward in any way to the coming Redeemer. In this connection, it is interesting to note that the Norwegian scholar, Sigmund Mowinckel chose a neutral title for his basic scholarly study of the “messianic” prophecies of the Old Testament: He That Cometh. Thus he could legitimately discuss not just the “messianic” prophecies, but the full spectrum of Old Testament types which point forward to Christ: king, prophet, servant, and son of man. His title is simply the echo of John the Baptist’s searching question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to look for another?” (Matt. 11:3). The more technical meaning for “Messiah” and “messianic” will explain why I have sometimes used quotation marks to set off these terms: I am simply attempting to get the best of both worlds, the traditional and the technical.
Turning now to specific prophecies, we look first to the initial section of the Hebrew canon: the law of Moses, the Pentateuch. Here, Genesis 49:10 and Numbers 24:17 stand out as the most important verses pointing forward to one who is to come. Both are rather cryptic and their broader implications are not at all clear to us, but Jewish interpreters clearly accepted these as “messianic” even though they did not accept Jesus as the Messiah.
Genesis 49:10. The classic King James Version of Jacob’s blessing on his son Judah is quite familiar to Christian ears: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.” From Judah, someone was to come who would be the focal point of the people’s hope. The passage says very little more than that, but it is enough.
Numbers 24:17. In Balaam’s prophecy about Israel the KJV phraseology is again familiar: “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob I and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.” Here was someone who would one day smash Israel’s enemies. Although the term “Messiah” does not appear, this passage was “messianic” for the Jews, and is part of the reason why the Jews and Jesus’ own disciples were looking for a heavy-handed Messiah who would smash the enemies of the nation.
In connection with the evidence from the Pentateuch, we should touch on the question of the sacrificial system. Was not this a clear picture of the person and work of the Messiah? A picture, yes, but apparently not a clear one. Where in the Old Testament can you find an explicit interpretation of the sacrificial system as applying to the person of the Messiah? Nowhere. Our interpretations of the sacrificial system are from the New Testament. The book of Hebrews is, of course, a powerful exposition of the meaning of the sacrificial system in terms of the mission of Jesus the Messiah. But significantly, the book of Hebrews was written after the death of Jesus, not before. Likewise, the imagery of Jesus as our high priest is primarily the result of inspired reflection on the completed work of Jesus in the light of the sacrificial system. The idea of a royal priest is suggested by Psalm 110:4, but the development of that idea takes place after the cross.
As I have reflected on the way that conservative Christians have dealt with the sacrificial system, I have concluded that we have perhaps confused the type and the antitype, the shadow and the reality (cf. Heb. 10:1). I mean that we have treated the Old Testament sacrificial system almost as though it were clearer than the real event in Jesus Christ. No wonder that we are quite mystified by the Jewish rejection and the dullness of the disciples. If we assume that the sacrificial system was crystal clear, then it loses its value as shadow and becomes the real thing. That is most unfortunate, for the blood of goats and bulls can never be as meaningful as the death of our Lord on the cross.
As for my own view, I do believe the Old Testament believer could gain many of the essential principles of God’s plan of salvation from a study of the sacrificial system. Some of the great men of God may even have caught glimpses in the sacrifices of the death of the one who was to come. Yet interestingly enough, not even one of the Old Testament writers has seen fit to pass along those insights to us; our book of Hebrews is in the New Testament, not in the Old.
I think you will already begin to see the significance of this conclusion for the interpretation of the experience of the disciples and the Jews: they had not yet linked the “royal” prophecies with the “suffering” ones. That was something that God in the flesh must do in their presence. Even then it was very difficult to give up old cherished ideas. But is that not precisely the great danger that faces us every day? We all too easily fall into merely traditional ways of thinking and fail to agonize for the fresh and invigorating vision of truth which comes from a total commitment to our God.
The Pentateuch contains one more “messianic” prophecy that we should note, namely, the promise in Deuteronomy 18:15-19 of a great prophet like Moses who would come some day in the future. The promise was given by Moses to the people as he prepared them for his own departure. The passage does not say when or how such a prophet would come. The Lord had simply promised the people that the prophet would be like Moses and would come from among their brethren (Deut. 18:18).
It is instructive to note how the New Testament deals with this promise of the prophet. According to the record in the Gospel of John, the people did not necessarily identify “the prophet” with the “Christ” (Messiah), for they asked John the Baptist first if he were “the Christ,” then if he were “Elijah” and then if he were “the prophet” (John 1:21, 25). In other words, they had three distinct figures in mind. Yet John’s Gospel also suggests that when Jesus had fed the five thousand, the people were ready to accept him as “the prophet” while also being ready to proclaim him king (John 6:13-14). After the death of Christ, there is also at least a hint in Stephen’s speech that this prophecy of a prophet was applied to Jesus, though the identification is not explicit (Acts 7:37). But in any event, the promise of a prophet was clearly part of the fuel that kindled the people’s hopes for the future.
Turning to the prophetic books, we now find messianic prophecies in the precise sense of the word. The prophets were writing in the days of the kings, at a time when the people as well as the prophets had begun to realize that none of their kings had lived up to God’s great ideal. Through the prophets, God began to direct the hopes of the people to that ideal future king from the house of David. Here, then, are the true promises of the Messiah, the anointed one who would redeem his people. Let us note a sample of some of the more notable passages.
Isaiah 9:2-7. This prophecy speaks clearly of the throne of David (vs. 7), thus indicating its proper messianic character. But from the standpoint of the New Testament and its claims for Jesus, the most fascinating part of this prophecy is the list of titles given in verse 6: “For to us a child is born … Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day had great difficulty in accepting Jesus’ claims to divinity. They were thinking of a great leader in the Davidic succession, but tended to regard him as a human figure who would introduce the Kingdom of Yahweh. When Jesus claimed to be both this human Messiah and God, they were startled. Yet here in Isaiah is a key reference suggesting that the child who was to come would indeed be the mighty God.
Isaiah 11:1-9. This prophecy describes how the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” would introduce the great and peaceful kingdom of the future. The Spirit of God would be upon him (vs. 2) and he would judge the poor in righteousness (vs. 4). The climax? The earth would be full of the knowledge of Yahweh as the waters cover the sea (vs. 9). With a prophecy like that, who wouldn’t long for the coming of the Messiah?
Jeremiah 23:5-6. Jeremiah lived through the tragic demise of the southern kingdom of Judah and saw the last kings of Judah killed or deported to Babylon. He had every reason to be disheartened. Nevertheless, this man of God pointed to a great future king from the line of David; Yahweh will raise up for David a righteous Branch (vs. 5) and this is the name by which he will be called, “Yahweh is our righteousness.” The idea of a human king taking the name of Yahweh to himself must have been a troublesome thought for traditional Jews. Yet this passage is part of the evidence which lay behind Jesus’ claim that he and his Father were one (John 10:30). Or to paraphrase another famous saying: “If you have seen me, you have seen Yahweh” (John 14:9).
The emphasis on the royal figure who was to come, the proper messianic figure, may at least partially explain why the royal psalms (i.e. psalms which speak of the king) were such fertile ground for other “messianic” prophecies. The psalms repeatedly speak of the king as the anointed one, and often bring the anointed one into very close relationship with Yahweh himself (cf. Ps. 2:7). Psalm 110, a very popular New Testament “messianic” psalm, though apparently, not one that was so viewed by the Jews, also makes that famous declaration: “You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110:4). The Old Testament itself does not develop this idea of a priest-king, but the suggestion is there and was destined to be developed in great detail in the light of the cross of Christ.
From the third section of the Hebrew Bible, the Writings, one other passage should be mentioned in connection with the Old Testament “messianic”evidence, namely, Daniel 7:13. Here, the other-worldly figure of the “son of man” appears. “Son of man” was a title that the New Testament writers often used for Jesus. In fact, it was one of Jesus’ favorite titles for himself. The precise meaning of “son of man” in the New Testament has been much discussed and we shall not even touch on that discussion here, but we should note that the “son of man”in Daniel 7:13 is a celestial being who comes from heaven. Hence the imagery of Daniel 7 helps to prepare the way for the claims of Jesus that he was indeed of heavenly origin.
Now after this brief survey of Old Testament evidence, it should be clear enough that the messianic hope at the time of Christ rested on a solid basis. Indeed, the evidence from the New Testament itself testifies that everyone was looking for the Messiah. So in the first century AD, the question most certainly was not whether a Messiah was coming or not. That was a foregone conclusion; the Messiah was coming. Rather, it was quite a different question that Jesus brought to the attention of his listeners: “What kind of Messiah are you expecting?” The Gospel of John describes how the people were ready to take Jesus and make him king after he had fed the five thousand (John 6:14-15). But when Jesus revealed the spiritual nature of his kingdom, they turned away in droves (John 6:6).
A superficial reading of the “messianic” prophecies could indeed suggest the popular conception that the Messiah was to be a conquering king who would smash Israel’s enemies. But such a conclusion could come only from a superficial reading of Scripture. When we make a total commitment to righteousness, to truth, to God, the Scriptures come alive with a mysterious glory which quite eludes the casual reader. And that is precisely what happened in Jesus’ experience. As he grew in his knowledge of God, the radical nature of his mission was dawning ever more clearly upon him. At the age of twelve the depth of his understanding was already a cause of amazement to the learned rabbis (Luke 2:47). But the time was not yet right; Jesus returned to his home and was subject to his parents (Luke 2:51).
In that home in Nazareth many things must have happened which helped prepare Jesus for his mission. The biblical record is mysteriously silent about these years in Nazareth, but knowing what we do about men of spiritual power, we can be sure that Jesus was deeply immersed in a growing relationship with his heavenly father. The quality of his prayer life and the depth of his study must have been incredible, for when he finally stepped to the threshold of the world to announce his mission to the universe, the crowds “were astonished at his teaching for he taught them as one who had authority” (Matt. 7:29). What gave his words that ring of authority? His relationship to his Father, to be sure, but our question must now be not just how he taught, but what he taught, and that is the matter to which we now turn, for Jesus brought fresh insight and a new emphasis to the messianic prophecies which the disciples simply could not accept, even though they did believe that Jesus was the Messiah. It is this unbelievable aspect of Jesus’ ministry that we find developed in the second category of “messianic” prophecies, namely, those that Jesus himself brought to the attention of the people.
2. Messianic prophecies which became clear as a result of the teaching of Jesus
The outstanding example in this category of “messianic” prophecies is none other than Isaiah 53, the prophecy of the suffering servant. For those of us who have been steeped in the New Testament understanding of Jesus’ life and message, one of the most obvious and significant aspects of his experience is his suffering and death. Yet before his death this was just the point that virtually everyone around Jesus refused to accept, including those who accepted him as the promised redeemer.
In my own study of the “messianic” prophecies, it came as a real shock to realize that it was Jesus himself who brought the ministry of the suffering servant into focus as one of the “messianic” prophecies. Yet after the shock had worn away, I began to realize that this was the only logical conclusion that I could draw from the New Testament evidence. The Jews were inclined to reject Jesus completely; the disciples and the crowds (at least for a while) wanted to make him king; but no one wanted to accept him as the suffering servant.
Jesus must have realized the immense challenge that faced him in the form of the popular concept of the Messiah. To help the people realize that the Messiah must first suffer before he could rule was no easy task. In this connection it is fascinating to note how Jesus dealt with. some of the biblical data touching on his mission. In particular, his treatment of Isaiah 61 during the synagogue service of Nazareth is remarkable. As he read the familiar words of the prophet, the anticipation of the people must have been building towards the expected climax: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19). But then came a real surprise, for the assembled congregation must have been waiting for the next line: “The day of vengeance of our God” (Is. 61:2). That was what they all longed to see and hear. Instead, Jesus sat down, saying: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). The congregation’s reaction was at first favorable to his “gracious words” (cf. vs. 21), but then the true implications began to emerge and this congregation turned into a ferocious mob, intent on murder (vs. 29). Going against established tradition is hard work, and dangerous. But Jesus knew all about that and he carried on.
Before we move beyond Jesus’ mission and his own self-understanding, a further word about Isaiah 53 might be helpful. In the first instance, the passage itself nowhere links the servant with the royal “Messiah.” The servant is obviously close to Yahweh, but he is not identified as a royal figure. For this reason, scholars have debated endlessly as to the original intent of the prophecy. Again, we cannot go into detail here; for our purposes, it is simply important to know that Jesus himself was apparently the first to link publicly this famous passage with the role of the Messiah. But in this connection something remarkable emerges from Jewish sources, for there is clear evidence that the Jewish community did, in fact, interpret Isaiah 53 messianically, but their messianic interpretation bears almost no relationship to the biblical passage. In fact, they have taken this marvelous passage telling of the servant’s lamb-like willingness to suffer on behalf of his people, and have turned it completely on its head, rephrasing it so that it becomes a hymn praising a warrior Messiah who makes the other nations suffer. That was just the messianic view in Jesus’ day, When the community of God’s people could take the very passage which should have opened their eyes to a spiritual kingdom, transforming it to serve their own preconceived ideas, we can appreciate the tremendous challenge facing Jesus as he sought to break through to their hearts and share the good news of a Messiah who gently cares for the suffering sinner. The people wanted no part in such a Messiah, so they destroyed him as a threat to their established tradition. But in so doing, they unwittingly brought to fulfillment those very prophecies which Jesus had brought to light and which have become so central to the Christian understanding of the Messiah.
The fuller meaning of Jesus’ self-sacrifice began to emerge among Jesus’ followers after the resurrection. As the Christian community reflected on Jesus’ earthly experience, they began to see the Old Testament in a radically new light. They began to interpret the Old Testament with renewed enthusiasm. That is why our study of the post-resurrection development of the messianic theme is so crucial. For us the word “prophecy” always implies foresight, but the kinds of messianic prophecies I have included in the third category seem to involve a generous portion of hindsight. It is to these “prophecies” that we now turn.
3. Prophecies discovered and applied in light of the events themselves
This category of messianic prophecies is undoubtedly the most prominent and most popular with the New Testament writers, but it is probably the most difficult one for the modern reader to comprehend. In my own study of messianic prophecies I struggled to make sense out of this type of “prophecy” and to maintain the integrity of the New Testament writers. In the course of my education, even in connection with the Bible, perhaps especially in connection with the Bible, it had been deeply drilled into my head that I must read according to the author’s intent. I learned that I must never cite an author as proving the point that I am attempting to make if he himself obviously has something quite different in mind. My problem threatened to become acute when I tried to apply this rule to the New Testament writers and discovered that when they cited the Old Testament authors, they often departed far from the obvious meaning of the Old Testament passage. So I was faced with two alternatives, equally unattractive. First, I could force myself to believe that the Old Testament authors actually said what the New Testament writers claimed for them. In other words, the New Testament writers were always right and their interpretation would take precedence over what I thought the Old Testament writers originally meant. The other alternative seemed to be to admit that the New Testament writers were wrong in citing the Old Testament in the way they did. In such a case I seemed to be admitting that the New Testament writers were unreliable, and therefore the point that they were arguing, namely, that Jesus was the promised Messiah, was open to question.
As I have suggested earlier, it was at this point that I began to look for more substantial prophecies. The more important of these I have already noted in category one. That, at least, helped to buy a little time as I continued to struggle with the New Testament authors. I was so long in solving the problem for myself and yet the solution now seems so very simple, that I am sometimes perplexed as to how I can best share the good news. But the news is so good that I must at least attempt to share it.
The solution to this third category lies in two parts. First, in an understanding of how God has worked through his inspired writers, and second, in an understanding of some of the popular forms of argument employed by Jewish writers in and around the first century AD. Both of these aspects merit further discussion.
In the first instance, I discovered that I had fallen victim way of thinking about God and his word that had contributed to my difficulty. My thinking went something like this: God is perfect, the Bible is God’s word, therefore the Bible is perfect. Now I would hasten to add that the Bible is perfect for the purpose for which God intended it, but that is a far cry from being perfect in the same sense that God is perfect. God’s word must be compared with the incarnation: the perfection of divinity clothed with the imperfection and weakness of human flesh. I had tended to think that the logic and rhetoric of the human writers was in fact God’s logic and rhetoric. It is not. Scripture reflects the logic and rhetoric of human beings who are speaking God’s message under the guidance of his Spirit, but they are also very much under the influence of their own limitations of language, character, knowledge and ability. The Spirit controls the process to the extent that from the writings of these inspired men the sincere seeker for truth can indeed learn what he needs to know about God, but the bits and pieces, especially when taken in isolation and apart from God’s intention to communicate the truth, can be very misleading. If an inspired writer is a highly educated individual and has a good grasp of language, he will write accordingly. If, by contrast, a writer comes from an unsophisticated background, he will reveal this background by his homely language, his earthy illustrations and his rough logic. The Spirit does not obliterate these human elements.
How does this apply to our understanding of “messianic” prophecies? In just this way, that the New Testament writers were men of the first century, and since God chose to reveal his will in the first century, he inspired men to give his message in the accepted thought forms of the first century. Here is where the second part of the solution comes in, for when I began to realize the kind of thinking and the kind of logic that was prominent in Jewish sources of the early Christian era, I began to recognize something terribly familiar, namely, precisely those problem arguments that I had found in the New Testament. In short, the New Testament writers were using standard and accepted Jewish methods of treating Scripture when they seemingly departed into such flights of fancy. Remarkably, there is no evidence in the New Testament that the Jewish opponents of the Christian community argued against their methodology; they were quite accustomed to that. They argued, rather, with the Christian conclusion. They were not prepared to accept the suffering servant as their Messiah, even if the Christians used all the right methods in proving their point. But we need to illustrate this conclusion from the New Testament and from Jewish sources, something that I think we can do fairly quickly and briefly.
The one feature of Jewish methodology that is particularly pertinent for us is the tendency to read later events back into earlier narratives. Without the knowledge of these later events, no one would have dreamed of them on the basis of the earlier narratives. But once the events became known, Jewish rabbis loved to “discover” them in the earlier passages. In the rabbinic discussions, then, it became customary for the rabbis to debate among themselves just which events were “foretold” in which narratives. To illustrate this way of treating Scripture, we could turn almost at random to any of the ancient Jewish commentaries on Scripture, a type of commentary known as Midrash. Many of these commentaries are available in English translation and provide a fascinating insight into Jewish methods of interpreting Scripture.
For our purposes, a glimpse at the Midrash on Genesis 15:17-18 should serve quite well. [See Midrash Rabbah on Genesis, XLIV, 21-22 (English translation published by the Soncino Press, London)]. In interpreting the phrase, “Behold a smoking furnace and a flaming torch,” Simeon Ben Abba said in the name of a yet more famous rabbi, Rabbi Johanan, that in this vision God had revealed four things to Abraham: Gehenna (hell), the kingdoms that would oppress Israel (Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Media, Rome), Revelation, and the Temple. The Midrash then records the rabbinical discussions about the fuller implication of the suggested interpretation. Now if we look at the original Genesis context, none of these four things is at all explicit. The verses immediately preceding (Gen. 15:13-16) do speak of subjugation to a nation which turned out to be Egypt. But in the light of later Jewish history and theology, the rabbis went far beyond the biblical narrative, expanding on the “smoking furnace” to include the negative elements of hell and oppression, while interpreting a “flaming torch” as referring to the positive aspects of Revelation and the Temple. All of this was by way of hindsight, yet the rabbis commented on the passage in such a way as to suggest that Abraham could see this complete picture.
From this same section of the Midrash, a fascinating variation on this Jewish methodology can be illustrated, namely, the use of an individual word occurring in one passage to expand the content of another verse where the same word appears. For example, Rabbi Joshua claimed that this experience of Abraham indicates that God had revealed the dividing of the Red Sea to Abraham. How did he arrive at that remarkable interpretation? The key lies in the Hebrew word for “pieces” (gezarim) which appears in the phrase: ‘and a flaming torch passed between these pieces’ (Gen. 15:17). This is the same Hebrew word which appears in Ps. 136:13. The KJV translates it as “parts” (gezarim) in the phrase: (O give thanks) . . . “to him which divided the Red Sea into parts.” Rabbi Joshua assumed that the content of the verse in Psalm 136 (dividing of the Red Sea) must have been included in the earlier experience of Abraham since the biblical narrative uses the same word (gezarim) in both passages. He concluded, therefore, that God had revealed the dividing of the Red Sea to Abraham. Remarkable!
These examples are quite typical of rabbinical interpretation of Scripture. And since the New Testament writers were thoroughly immersed in this first-century Jewish culture, they could use these methods without hesitation. Whenever I read through early Jewish sources, I think I detect a certain excitement as the rabbis make fresh “discoveries” in what, to us, almost seems like a sacred game with words. But they were quite serious. So were the New Testament writers.
Given this Jewish background, I can now appreciate the way in which some early Christians excitedly mined the Old Testament for fresh “prophecies” of this Messiah whom they had already accepted on quite other grounds. These “prophecies” were not the foundation of Jesus’ messianic mission; they were simply later confirmations of something his followers already believed. To be sure, the apostles used these methods in their evangelism, for they were working largely with Jews. Now if we can understand this early Judeo-Christian environment, we no longer need to fault the integrity of the New Testament writers, nor will we fault God for using men who employed such strange methods. God has always used men within their own environment to speak to their contemporaries. It is our responsibility to understand them so that we can understand God’s message to them and through them, a message which he has intended for us also.
When we recognize that the “messianic” prophecies of categories 1 and 2 formed the basis for the disciples’ convictions, then perhaps we can more readily grant them the privilege of using the category 3 prophecies, prophecies which carried a fair bit of weight in their own day, but which seem so strange from the standpoint of our way of reasoning. But let us look now at how the New Testament actually uses this Jewish methodology to establish the messianic claims of Jesus.
Peter’s speech on the day of Pentecost provides us with a good example of the apostolic method of dealing with the Old Testament messianic “prophecies.” In Acts 2:23 Peter refers to “the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” that the Jews would deliver up Jesus to be crucified. Then he refers to a Davidic psalm, Psalm 16, saying that David was speaking “of him,” that is, of Jesus (Acts 2:25). Turning back to Psalm 16, I find nothing at all that would indicate to Old Testament readers that this psalm was pointing forward to the Messiah. It appears simply to be a psalm of thanksgiving for the fact that God has preserved his own. True, the psalm is royal and Davidic, thus linking it loosely with the messianic tradition, but for us to accept that the psalmist wanted his readers to think of the Messiah is hardly a conclusion that we can draw on the basis of the Old Testament. Yet Peter makes the statement: “David says concerning him” – and by “him,” Peter clearly means Jesus the Messiah. Now judged by our way of thinking we might be inclined to say that Peter was wrong. But such a conclusion does not take in to account the accepted methods of Peter’s day. Peter was not wrong; he was simply, making use of the Jewish methodology described above which allows the inclusion of later events in earlier passages. Peter can actually go on to say that David was a prophet (Acts 2:30), and that he “foresaw” and “spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, and that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption” (Acts 2:31). He uses all the language of prophecy. And that can cause us great difficulty if we do not realize how earlier passages can be made to “prophesy” in the light of later events simply by the use of good Jewish methodology. In other words, it is essential that we recognize how the word “prophecy” could be very much expanded in the first century after Christ so that it could refer, not just to foresight, but to hindsight as well. Such an understanding of “prophecy” provides the clue for understanding the great number of messianic citations in the New Testament which simply do not seem to be predictions in their original Old Testament setting. I would include here the citations out of Psalm 69 in the Gospel of John which we noted earlier. The original passages were not predictions, but the first century methodology made it possible to turn them into such. New Testament writers “found” many such “prophecies” and obviously did not hesitate to use them for the New Testament is full of them.
In this connection it would be well to note how conservative Christians have often reacted against the conclusions of modern scholars who initially may have had nothing more sinister in mind than simply to call attention to the fact that the Old Testament passages do not say to us what the New Testament writers understood them to say to them. A modern scholar might say: “Psalm 16:10 does not really predict the resurrection of Christ.” To which the conservative response has often been: “Yet it must, for the New Testament says it does.” Without an understanding of the Jewish methods behind the New Testament quotations, the choice would appear to be between scholarship and piety: if we accept the scholarly point of view, we must reject the New Testament; to accept the New Testament point of view, we must reject the scholarly position. Such a stark dichotomy can be avoided if we understand, first, how God has worked in Scripture, and second, how first century Jews interpreted the Old Testament.
I should further emphasize that a belief in the resurrection of Christ does not at all depend on the use of a particular Old Testament text. The resurrection stands on the basis of the New Testament narrative just as we noted earlier that the Virgin Birth is established on the basis of Matthew, not Isaiah. To be sure, the New Testament writers constantly bring these additional passages into use, but they must be seen as additional proofs for a Jewish audience, not as primary evidence for twentieth century readers. We need not sacrifice a single cardinal point of faith; we simply need to be careful that we use the reasons that are most likely to be cogent for our day when we seek to establish those teachings that are important for the Christian faith. As noted earlier, at different times and in different places, different arguments have carried more weight. We must still recognize that these different arguments have been used by men of God, men who were under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Yet if we are truly guided by the Spirit today, we will not force someone to accept an argument as primary evidence when that argument could be effective only in a quite different culture. When I finally came to understand that point, I made my peace with the writers of the New Testament. They have been good friends of mine ever since.
Before we turn to the fourth and last category of prophecies, we should note how the understanding of a particular word in the New Testament can provide a more specific explanation for a number of passages that have been called “prophecies” by Christian interpreters, The key word is “fulfill,” one that is particularly prominent in the Gospels. We have already noted the use of this word in several contexts, most notably in connection with the Virgin Birth and Isaiah 7:14//Matt 1:2-23. But for purposes of illustrating the use of this word, I would like to suggest a comparison between Hosea 11:1 and Matthew 2:15.
The verse in Matthew describes the flight of Jesus and his parents into Egypt. The passage concludes with the following statement: “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son’” (Matt. 2:15). At first glance the modern reader might suspect that Matthew is referring to an Old Testament prophecy of the first type, namely, one that clearly predicts the coming of the Messiah to the Old Testament reader. But when we turn to Hosea 11:1, we discover something quite different, for there the passage is clearly referring to the departure of Israel from Egypt at the time of the Exodus. How could that experience predict the coming of Christ to the reader? In the first instance, we must recognize that, at least in part, Matthew is again using typical Jewish methodology in reading later events back into earlier passages. Note, however, that in this instance Matthew does not use the term “prophecy,” though many later Christian interpreters have not hesitated to do so, contributing to the confusion that we have already discussed. But even though the background of Jewish methodology can be helpful in understanding Matthew’s general approach, the really significant clue to understanding this type of “prophecy” is found in the word “fulfill.” Behind this word lies a Greek word pleroo which means “to fill full” as well as “to fulfill.” Selecting the first meaning of the word instead of the second, we could roughly paraphrase what Matthew is saying as follows: “Those ancient words of the prophet describing how God brought his son out of Egypt have now been filled full of fresh new meaning in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.” Thus, instead of a prediction which is brought to pass and so “fulfilled,” this way of understanding Matthew sees rather an old stories whose words are filled full of fresh new meaning, meaning which, quite literally, had never been thought of before.
This usage of the word “fulfill” can be illustrated also from Matt. 5:17 where Jesus says that he has not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it. He then proceeds to show just how he has come to fill the law full of meaning. The law says, for example, “You shall not kill.” But when we fill the law full of its true meaning we learn that we should not even hate (Matt. 5:21-22). By understanding the word “fulfill” in this way, we can view many of the Old Testament passages, not as predictions which were fulfilled, but as words that have been filled full of a new and even quite different meaning in the new situation in Jesus Christ.
Briefly summarizing the implications of our discussion of this third category of messianic “prophecies,” we note the following points. First, we must recognize that God works with human beings within their own environment; his inspired spokespersons reflect their human background and training. Having recognized this, we can then move on to the second point, our understanding of the environment of the first century after Christ. It should be clear from our discussion that rabbinical interpretation of Scripture was often based on methods which seem quite foreign to us. This is particularly noticeable in the tendency to read later events back into earlier narratives. This Jewish background is the explanation for the remarkable “proofs” sometimes cited by New Testament writers. A third and more specific point, is the usage of the term “fulfill.” Against the general background of Jewish methodology, the New Testament writers often spoke of later experiences filling old words full of new meaning. Thus “fulfill”does not really refer to a prediction coming to pass, but to an old narrative coming to life in a new way.
With this look at the New Testament era, we are now prepared to move further afield and note the even later “discoveries” of additional messianic “prophecies.”
4. Prophecies understood as messianic in later Christian centuries
In this last category of “messianic” prophecies we will simply note a couple of “prophecies” that have been much used through several centuries of Christian interpretation. One such prophecy is the so-called Protevangelium (first gospel) of Genesis 3:15: “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, between thy seed and her seed. It shall bruise thy head, but thou shalt bruise his heel.” This classic KJV rendering is very familiar to Christian ears. In the light of the New Testament imagery of the “seed” (Christ) and the serpent (Satan), this passage has been taken as intimating the great cosmic struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, the conflict between Christ and Satan. The hints are there in the passage, but neither the Old Testament nor the New picked up this passage and applied it to Christ; the application was to come after the close of the canon to Scripture.
One other later discovery of significance is the prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27. Modern scholarship has tended to deny that Daniel was written in the sixth century, preferring a date close to the time of the Maccabean revolt (c. 165 BC). Such an approach tends to see Daniel not as genuine prophecy, but as history written as prophecy. Conservative Christians, however, have insisted that the book is indeed prophecy, though even so their interpretations have varied considerably. The arguments need not detain us here for our primary purpose is to look at the history of interpretation of Daniel. In this connection, we note that the prophecy of Daniel 9 came to be seen by many Christians as the most important of all messianic prophecies, a prophecy not just of the coming of the Messiah, but of the time of his coming as well. Sir Isaac Newton, for example, in his commentary on Daniel declared that this prophecy was the “cornerstone” of the Christian faith.
The basis for this interpretation and the considerable variation in dates adopted by different interpreters provide fertile ground for research, but for our purposes it is sufficient to note that the key phrase is found in Daniel 9:27, rendered by the KJV as follows: “And in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease.” When applied to Jesus Christ, this passage is taken to refer to the death of Christ on the cross and the end of the sacrificial system.
Now even though Christians have claimed that this prophecy is a chief “cornerstone”of the faith, the history of interpretation indicates that it only gradually took its place as a cornerstone, for certainly there is little evidence in Scripture or in the early Jewish writings to suggest that this prophecy was used to predict the time or the mission of Jesus. About two hundred years after the birth of Christ, Clement of Alexandria (d. 220) and Tertullian (d. 240), two fathers of the Christian church, did apply the prophecy to the incarnation and death of Christ, but these early interpreters tended to see the prophecy ending at or around AD 70, the time of Jerusalem’s destruction by the Romans. The history of the interpretation of Daniel 9:24-27 is a fascinating one, but for our purposes we simply need to emphasize the fact that here is a prophecy which the Christian community “discovered” many years after Jesus’ earthly ministry. Nevertheless, it has brought a great deal of comfort and encouragement to God’s people.
So at the end of our survey, we can affirm that the messianic hope is one that has remained constant through the ages, first in the Old Testament as God’s people looked forward with increasing eagerness to the one who was to come. Then, in the person of Jesus Christ, at least some of the Jewish community recognized the One who had come as their Redeemer. Many rejected this gentle man who said that he had come to die for their sins. But many found in him the source of life. These have carried the good news throughout the world, and the word is still being spread abroad today. We may not find equally convincing all the reasons that have been used through the ages to establish the conviction that Jesus of Nazareth was the embodiment of the Old Testament hope. But we should be able to see how God has used many and varied ways to build faith in the hearts of his people.
Recognizing that God has indeed used a great variety of ways in working with man has made it possible for me to build my house of faith on more solid rock. Now when the winds blow, I don’t have to be afraid. That has not only been a great relief, but a cause for great joy. Perhaps that is also one of the reasons why I like to think of the hope of the Messiah as the best story in the Old Testament as well as in the New, and indeed anywhere else you might care to look. It is good news that is worth sharing.