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An announcement that isn’t clear is hardly an announcement. Why, then, if the Old Testament announced the Messiah and his mission, did no one want to believe it, even from the lips of Jesusuntil after the resurrection? Only one disciple, Thomas, seems to have been convinced that Jesus really was going to Jerusalem to die. But what a curious conviction: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16), said the apostle whose name is synonymous with doubt.
In short, Thomas didn’t actually believe Jesus’ “announcement.” When all the rest of the disciples were exuberantly hopeful in the light of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, Thomas resisted: “I have to see and feel the nail prints,” he declared.
Only when Jesus urged him to see, to touch, to put his hand in the wound, did Thomas utter his famous confession, “My Lord, and my God” (John 20:2428).
So, was the fault in the announcement or in the minds and hearts of those who heard it?
In my early years, I thought the Jews were simply stubborn and the disciples were at least blind, if not stupid. That’s because when Matthew and other New Testament authors wrote of prophetic words that had been “fulfilled,” I had unthinkingly accepted the popular meaning of “fulfill” as “completion,” rather than as “enrichment” and “filling full.”
We still use the words both ways. When students have “fulfilled” the requirements for a degree, for example, they have “completed” everythingfor some, at least, almost in the sense of “good riddance”now they can get on with life. But students can also be “fulfilled” by their education so that they see life with new eyes. Their education has enriched them and with eager joy they gratefully build on that foundation.
If we can see the New Testament references to “fulfilled” prophecy (especially in Matthew) as suggesting enrichment, and not just prediction, then we can go back to the Old Testament and try to see the “prophecies” through their eyes. And when we do that, we begin to understand why the “announcement” seems more tantalizing than clear. 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.1
In at least three respects, the typical Old Testament person would have had 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 as they saw it?
A. Corporate instead of individual salvation. Many Old Testament stories make more sense when we realize that the lives of their characters were much less individualistic than ours. For them, everything depended on the corporate existence of the tribe, not on individual salvation. The patriarchal stories set the tone, telling of wistful parents longing for a male heir so that their future would be assured.
B. Long life, not immortal life. Not until the end of the Old Testament 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 Old Testament 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. Although the sacrificial system lay at the heart of Israel’s worship, it is not clear how much God’s people understood about the ultimate fulfillment of these sacrifices. But 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. 2:36). Later, when Josiah became king, he had reigned for eighteen years before a temple cleanup 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, more than twenty years later.
In spite of these erratic worship patterns, however, it is everywhere evident in the Old Testament that God freely granted forgiveness of sins, even in the absence of sacrifices. 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 in order to experience cleansing and renewal.
Despite all the differences in perspective between the two testaments, the idea of “restoration” bonds them together and radically separates the Jewish-Christian mind from the surrounding culture. In both ancient and modern worlds, the dominant model for understanding history is repetition, not restoration. But the Bible portrays history as linear, goal-oriented, pointed toward the future. Ancient Canaanites saw history as cyclical and natural. So do modern evolutionists. In a “natural” system there is no hope of restoration. Next year is just like this year as long as the earth endures. Only those who accept the story of Jesus can live in hope of a kingdom where no one will hurt or destroy on all God’s holy mountain (Isa. 11:69).
Given that difference in perspective, important Old Testament passages begin to “announce” the coming redeemer in subtle and tantalizing ways. Do they “predict”? Yes, but often in a very cryptic form. Here are four tantalizing passages to consider in that respect:
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 earn God’s favor by sacrificing 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 firstborn throughout much of the Old Testament. Abraham himself did not object to God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. Why should he? Everyone else was sacrificing the firstborn son to their gods. In Moses’ day, God provided a way to “redeem” the firstborn through an animal sacrifice (Exod. 13:1116), another powerful image that would be fulfilled in Jesus.
C. Exodus 32: A Mediator to the Rescue. When Israel rebeled, 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 52:1353:12: 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.”2 Jesus’ ministry shattered the popular perceptions of the work of the Messiah.
Are there Old Testament passages that more clearly “announce” the promised Messiah? Yes, but they are often cryptic and do not clearly define the Deliverer’s mission. That’s why the concept of a conquering hero so easily overwhelmed Jesus' message of a Suffering Servant in the popular mind.
What is perfectly clear in the New Testament is that the cross had to come before the resurrection. Thus it becomes the symbol of a crucial truth, namely, that God took human flesh so that he could die for us.
Must we also die before we can live? That’s what Jesus said, speaking a higher and deeper truth that is a challenge for us all.3 As G. K. Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.”4
Put simply, following Jesus is simple, but not easy. And he shatters our ideas about him again and again. But we can still say with confidence, “Jesus loves me, this I know.”
Note: For a more complete discussion of the range of “messianic” prophecies, see chapter 7, “The Best Story in the Old TestamentThe Messiah,” in Alden Thompson, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? (Paternoster ; Zondervan ; Pacesetters/Energion ).
Notes and References
1. C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperCollins, 2001 ), 66.
2. Isa. 61:2, quoted by Jesus in Luke 4:18-19.
3. Matt. 10:38, 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23, 14:27; John 12:25.
4. G. K. Chesterton, “What’s Wrong with the World?” Christianity Today, Jan. 9, 1995, 36.
Alden Thompson is professor of biblical studies in the School of Theology at Walla Walla University, College Place, Washington.