Prophecy is an intercept from the mind of an all-knowing and all-seeing and all-powerful God.Joel C. Rosenberg
I am an historian, I am not a believer, but I must confess as an historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history.H. G. Wells
Since Jesus of Nazareth began preaching, over 350 Old Testament passages have been cited as prophetic anticipations of his life and death.1 In fact, on one day in the first century, about 3,000 people accepted Peter’s message about Jesus based on a discussion of the prophecies made in Psalm 16 and 110.2
Many Christians are dismayed that anyone who reads the Bible could remain unconvinced by so many miraculous predictions. Well, there are many reasons for this.
Part of the problem is that many people—Christians included—do not understand how most of these verses could be considered predictions. Frequently, the verses quoted as prophecy aren’t stated in the future tense or are clearly about someone in the near, not distant, future.3
The question, then, is this: Which Old Testament passages provide the most powerful prophetic proofs that Jesus—whose life story is told in the New Testament—was truly the promised Jewish Messiah?4
The Coming Messiah
“Messiah” is a word that means “anointed one.” Within Judaism, the Messiah is a king who will be sent by God to save the Jewish people. Jews still eagerly await the arrival of the Messiah, while Christians claim that the Messiah has already come in the person of Jesus Christ.
You may be surprised to learn that the Old Testament almost never uses the word “messiah” in a passage that the New Testament interprets as a reference to Jesus as the coming Messiah. Even the most conservative Old Testament translations say “anointed one” in only two passages: Psalm 2:2 and Daniel 9:25–26.5
The verb “anointed” is used in Isaiah 61:1, where the prophet writes, “the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” Much later in history, Jesus read this text in the synagogue and announced—to the astonishment of all those present—that this prophecy was being fulfilled before their eyes.6 On another occasion, Jesus hinted that Isaiah 61:1 was being enacted through his ministry.7
With these two probable exceptions, the “anointed one” of the Old Testament usually refers to an ordinary prophet, priest, or king (especially King David); someone used by God for an extraordinary purpose in history; or the whole of Israel.8 Most Old Testament passages thought to be predictions of Jesus use words like “servant,” “shepherd,” “savior,” “king,” “prophet,” “branch,” or “son.”9
How, then, do we understand Messianic prophecy in the Old Testament?
The Nature of Old Testament Messianic Prophecy
Often, Messianic prophecy is predictive in an indirect manner. A good example of this is Hosea 11:1, which Matthew says was fulfilled—meaning completed—by Jesus.10 Hosea 11:1 says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”11
This “son” is unmistakably Israel. Through the prophet, God reminds the Israelites that he had rescued them from slavery in Egypt. Yet Matthew quotes these words as something Jesus “fulfilled.”
We may think that Hosea should have said, “out of Egypt I will call my son” in order for his statement to qualify as a prediction. This, however, was not a mistake. Hosea was using a method that the Jews of his day understood and appreciated.
However, some Old Testament passages do make straightforward predictions. For example, Isaiah 52:13 looks to the future. Isaiah quotes God as saying that a time will come when his “servant” will cause people to gain new insight. He will be exalted although he was considered insignificant. He will surprise the nations, and world leaders will be left speechless.12
Christians interpret this servant to be Jesus. Jews interpret this servant to be Israel.13 Whether Isaiah referred to Jesus or Israel, the so-called “suffering servant” depicted in Isaiah 52:13–53:12 uniquely parallels the humiliation and pain suffered in the life and sacrificial death of Jesus of Nazareth, who claimed to be the Anointed One. In fact, the Apostle Philip used Isaiah 53:7–8 to explain the importance of Jesus to an Ethiopian who was studying Scripture.14
Messianic Prediction before the Time of King David
Some of perhaps the strongest predictive passages in the Old Testament that apply to Jesus come from ancient history—before even the time of King David. Indeed, the prophecies start in the very beginning of the Bible.
One well known but controversial example is Genesis 3:15. There, God proclaims that the descendants of the one tempted (woman) will be wounded by a descendant of the tempter (in the form of a snake).15 But the human will ultimately prevail and crush the head of God’s enemy. Some have called this the first expression of the Good News later preached by Jesus.
Another example is Peter’s citation of Deuteronomy 18:15 in Acts 3:22. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses reveals that God will one day raise up a prophet like himself, whom God’s people must obey. Centuries later, Peter addressed the Israelites after Jesus was killed by the Jewish and Roman leaders.
Peter acknowledges that their actions were “how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Messiah would suffer.”16 He then instructs them to repent of their sins, for Jesus will return when “the time comes for God to restore everything.”17 Peter continues with an impactful statement: “Indeed, beginning with Samuel, all the prophets who have spoken have foretold these days.”18
Messianic Prediction from the Time of King David
The prophecies continued during the life of King David. The expression of exaltation applied to Jesus in Matthew 21:9—“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”—was taken from Psalm 118:25–26.
In Psalm 118, the psalmist praises God for his faithfulness and for rescuing him from death. The psalmist says he was once rejected like a misfit building stone, but now he has become the cornerstone—the foundation.19
Jesus quoted this verse when he revealed to the Jewish authorities that they would have their role as spiritual leaders taken away from them.20 Why? Because they failed to build upon the “cornerstone” of God’s kingdom—meaning Jesus, God’s anointed one.
Messianic Prediction after the Time of King David
Perhaps the most significant future-tense Old Testament passage cited within the New Testament in relation to Jesus is Isaiah 9:1–2. Isaiah talks of a time when God will honor the nation of Galilee. Then Matthew 4:12 tells us, “When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee.”21 Specifically, Jesus went to the exact area Isaiah had mentioned. To clarify matters further, Matthew then quotes Isaiah 9:1–2, demonstrating to the reader that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy.
Also notable is Isaiah 11, which predicts that a descendant from Jesse (King David’s father) will rule with righteousness and justice and will defeat wickedness. He will usher in a time of unprecedented peace and all nations will honor him. In New Testament times, the Messiah was expected to come from the line of David. Matthew provides a genealogy of Jesus, illustrating his connection to David.
Matthew 2:23 also mentions that the Old Testament prophets predicted that the Messiah would be called a nazar (often translated as “a Nazarene”). Jesus and his family lived in Nazareth, and “so was fulfilled what was said through the prophets.”22
But Isaiah was not the only one to make predictions that were to be fulfilled by Jesus. The prophet Zechariah called on Jerusalem to “rejoice greatly . . . [because] your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey.”23 All four gospels tell us that Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem, where a large crowd spread palm branches on the road before him and shouted, “Hosanna [Save us!] to the Son of David!”24
The connections between Old Testament prophecy and New Testament narrative continue to ring true even in the last days of Jesus’ life. Zechariah declared that if the shepherd is struck, the sheep would scatter.25 In Matthew 26:31, Jesus says to his disciples that on that night (the night of his arrest), “you will all fall away on account of me,” just as it was recorded in Scripture regarding the sheep. Indeed, after Jesus’ arrest “all the disciples deserted him and fled.”26
From birth to death, Jesus lived a life that paralleled an incredible number of Old Testament prophecies.
The bottom line in all of this is that predictions about Jesus in the Old Testament, in the purest form, are rare. However, this does not diminish the dramatic manner in which the Old Testament anticipates Jesus as the promised Messiah.
In various ways, the Old Testament points to Jesus of Nazareth because he lived a unique life as prophet, priest, and king. These parallels between Jesus’ life and biblical prophecy are too precise to be explained as mere coincidence. It’s this accumulated evidence that compels belief in Jesus as the Messiah of the Old and New Testaments.27
- For a comprehensive list, see “354 Prophecies Fulfilled in Jesus Christ,” According to the Scriptures, http://www.accordingtothescriptures.org/prophecy/353prophecies.html. Such lists usually include any conscious or unconscious allusions to or echoes of the Old Testament (OT) in the New Testament (NT), in addition to any direct or indirect quotations or citations of the OT within the NT. Some of the parallels are just cases of similar words or thoughts, regardless of context or authorial intent. Consequently, “prediction” in its normal sense does not apply to most.
- See The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Acts 2:22–41.
- Present and/or past tense are used in Psalm 2, Isaiah 53, and Isaiah 61, although God speaks in the future tense in Isaiah 53:12 in light of what his servant has done. The interpretation of verbal tense—especially in OT poetry—is highly debated. Philip the evangelist showed how Isaiah 53:7 relates to Jesus (in Acts 8:26–40), although it seems to speak about someone who was already killed. David’s agony at being forsaken by God (recorded in Psalm 22:1) was repeated by Jesus while on the cross (Matthew 27:46). Several other verses in Psalm 22 are viewed as being fulfilled by Jesus at the end of his life—specifically during his torture and ultimate crucifixion—although the words in the psalm are presented as David’s experiences (compare Psalm 22:7–8, 18 to Matthew 27:39, 43 and John 19:24).
- Both the OT Hebrew word meshiach (Messiah) and the NT Greek word christos (Christ) mean “anointed one.”
- For example, see the New International Version. Even the King James Version does not capitalize “anointed” in Psalm 2:2, but it does use “Messiah” in Daniel 9:25–26.
- See The Holy Bible, Luke 4:16–21.
- Ibid., Luke 7:17–23.
- Ibid., 1 Chronicles 16:22; Psalm 89:38, 105:15; Exodus 40:13–15; Ezekiel 28:14; and Habakkuk 3:13.
- Ibid., Deuteronomy 18:15; Psalm 2:12, 23:1; Isaiah 4:2, 9:6, 11:1, 53:12, 62:11; Jeremiah 23:5; and Zechariah 3:8, 9:9, 11:16, 13:7. Messianic prophecy as we know it developed among Jewish theologians in the centuries between the close of the OT and beginning of the NT.
- Ibid., Matthew 2:15.
- The Holy Bible, Hosea 11:1.
- Some translations have “sprinkle” the nations and others “startle.” The ancient Greek version known as the Septuagint (ca. 250 BCE) has the Greek word for “startle.” The context and the poetic parallel show that Isaiah meant that this servant would surprise or amaze people by being and doing the unexpected.
- Some earlier passages in Isaiah do call Israel God’s servant.
- See The Holy Bible, Acts 8:27–38.
- The name of the woman, Eve (Hebrew chavvah), is based on a word that means “life.” Genesis 3:20 says that Adam gave her that name because she was the source of all human life to follow. In the ancient world, serpents or dragons were common symbols of disorder, death, and destruction in the world.
- The Holy Bible, Acts 3:18.
- Ibid., Acts 3:21.
- Ibid., Acts 3:24.
- See The Holy Bible, Psalm 118:22.
- Ibid., Matthew 21:42–43.
- The Holy Bible, Matthew 4:12.
- Ibid., Matthew 2:23.
- Ibid., Zechariah 9:9.
- Ibid., Matthew 21:9.
- See The Holy Bible, Zechariah 13:7.
- The Holy Bible, Matthew 26:56.
- For more information, see “Messianic Prophecies,” Clarifying Christianity, http://www.clarifyingchristianity.com/m_prophecies.shtml.
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