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Leading Questions: Why is it so hard today for some to see Jesus as God incarnate and why was it so hard for the Jews in Jesus’ day?

Why it is hard in our day

The bulk of this lesson will focus on the second question: Why was it so hard for the Jews of Jesus’ day to see him as God incarnate? But the personal experience of the author of the study guide calls for at least a brief glimpse at the similar question applied to our day. The author (Thompson), did not grasp the truth of the incarnate God until his second year at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He is a fourth-generation Adventist, a product of Adventist Schools and a graduate in Theology from Walla Walla College. But at seminary, he was driven by a haunting question: “If the Father loves me, why do I need a mediator?”

He designed a special two-hour seminar to explore that question and discovered John 14-17.  The joyous answer in its simplest form is stated in John 14:9: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” That is amplified in John 16:25-27 with the stunning statement that the time will come when Jesus will not speak on our behalf to the Father because we already know that the Father himself loves us.

Why had it taken me so long? I concluded that the mental picture of Jesus’ pleading his blood to the Father on my behalf had given my sensitive mind the impression that Jesus was on my side more than the Father was and somehow Jesus had to convince the Father – the “real” God – to let me into the kingdom. If Jesus pled hard enough and long enough, the Father would finally capitulate and let me in the back door! In short, I was tussling with the picture of a distant and hostile God. But when I discovered in the Gospel of John that God himself  – the incarnate God – had come to earth on our behalf, I was convinced that the Father really did want human beings in his kingdom after all.

It should also be noted here that our Jehovah’s Witnesses still do not accept the full divinity of Jesus and Seventh-day Adventists did not begin to grapple with that question until Ellen White’s The Desire of Ages was published in 1898, more than 50 years after the 1844 Disappointment. Many of the early Adventists had been members of the Christian Connection, an association of non-trinitarian Christians. James White had been particularly hostile toward the doctrine of the trinity, even speaking in print about “that old trinitarian absurdity.” In A Search for Identity, George Knight gives a glimpse of the tumult within Adventism when Ellen White wrote in The Desire of Ages: “In Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived” (p. 530).

Knight cites M. L. Andreasen’s reaction to that statement: “I remember how astonished we were when The Desire of Ages was first published, for it contained some things that we considered unbelievable, among others the doctrine of the Trinity which was not then generally accepted by the Adventists.”  Andreasen actually went to see Ellen White at her home at Elmshaven to see if she had actually written that statement. To him it seemed “revolutionary.” “We could hardly believe it…. I was sure Sister White had never written” the passage. “But now I found it in her own handwriting just as it had been published” – Search, 116-117.   

If accepting the truth of the incarnate God is difficult today, it was also difficult in Jesus’ own day. And that’s the question to which we now turn.

Why it was hard in Jesus’ day…

If one looks at the messianic expectations of the Jewish people at the time of Christ it is clear that everyone expected a messiah, but not the kind of messiah that Jesus was preaching and teaching. On at least two counts, Jesus’ Jewish audience took exception: 1) That the messiah was God incarnate; 2) That the messiah was to suffer and die. In that connection we will also want to look at the question of messianic prophecies.

1. Messiah as Son of David and Son of God? According to all four of the Gospels, Jesus considered himself to be the son of David. John the Baptist’s father Zechariah, announced a deliverer from “the house of his servant David” (Luke 2:69); the angels told the shepherds at Bethlehem, that a “savior,” “the Messiah,” “the Lord” was to be born in the city of David. But where in the Old Testament or New is there a clear indication that the Messiah was to be anything more than the human descendant of David?

Note: To take just one “messianic” prophecy pointing to the Son of David, Jeremiah 30:9 tells of a day when the people would serve “the LORD their God and David their king.” Furthermore, this king would deliver them from their enemies. In a well-known messianic passage, Isaiah 9:2-7, the “child” who would rule the kingdom is described by a number of honorific names: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6, NIV). But this was not enough to lead the Jewish people of Jesus’ day to see Jesus as the suffering God incarnate. Indeed, Isaiah 9 would have fueled the popular expectation of a ruler who would smash their enemies (cf. 9:4-5), and the picture would be further muddied by the fact that this deliverer would be called “Everlasting Father.” 

2. Suffering Messiah. Jesus applied Isaiah 53, the suffering servant song, to himself, but no one accepted that label until after his death and resurrection. The dialogue between Jesus and Peter as recorded in Mark 8 and Matthew 16 is instructive. Responding to Jesus’ direct question, Peter confesses that Jesus was the Christ (= Messiah), the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16).  Jesus pronounces him blessed – but then proceeds to tell of his upcoming suffering. Peter begins to rebuke Jesus, but Jesus immediately rebukes Peter: “Get behind me Satan!”  A crucial question could be: Where in the Old Testament is the death of the Messiah predicted?  A related question could be: “Where in the Old Testament could one learn that the passover lamb was to be seen as a symbol of the dying messiah?”

3. Fulfilled Prophecies about the Messiah. Predictions of a coming deliverer can be found in each section of the Hebrew canon. These explain why everyone was expecting a Messiah or Deliverer at the time of Jesus. But the crucial question that Jesus asked in connection with all these predictions was: What kind of deliverer? In the tabulated analysis below, the primary predictions of a coming deliverer are noted along with their supporting texts: Shiloh, Star out of Jacob, Prophet like Moses, Child, Branch, Anointed One, and Son of Man. Most of these are technically not “messianic,” a label that properly belongs only to those that speak of the “Anointed One.” In the classic work analyzing these terms, however, Sigmund Mowinckel was deliberately inclusive, because all the titles contributed to the feverish expectation of a coming deliverer that pervaded Jesus’ world in Palestine. Thus he entitled his book, He That Cometh.

In addition to the passages that clearly point to a coming deliverer, another whole set of passages have often been misleadingly seen as “predictions.” Though applied to Jesus by New Testament writers, these passages are of no use as “predictions,” but were applied to Jesus’ mission after the resurrection. These passages would fall under the heading of “midrash,” a popular rabbinic method of interpreting and applying Scripture, a method that reads back into Scripture truths already known from other sources. Often, especially in Matthew, these passages are not explicitly labeled as “predictions” but are said to “fulfill” the words of the prophet.  Matthew 2:14-15 provides a good example: When Joseph and Mary took the baby Jesus to Egypt, Matthew says that this “fulfills” the words found in Hosea 11:1: “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” In this instance it would be easier for the modern reader to translate the Greek word pleroō as “fill full” rather than “fulfill.” This would follow the lead of Matthew 5:17 where Jesus is said to “fulfill” the law.  “Filling full” yields a different nuance to Jesus’ six antithetical comparisons which can be seen as “filling full” what the Old Testament had said. 

Thus Matthew’s reference to Jesus’ Egyptian sojourn could be said to “fill full” the prophet’s words from Hosea 11:1 that clearly refer to Israel’s sojourn in Egypt. No Old Testament reader could possibly guess in advance that this passage would apply to Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus as they went to Egypt. But in the world of midrash, it could readily be applied to that later event.

In light of all these variations, it is helpful to see the “prophecies” applied to Jesus under these four headings: 1) Those that clearly predict a coming deliverer as noted above; 2) Those developed and presented by Jesus himself that pointed to his suffering (e.g. Isaiah 53), a message no one wanted to accept until after the resurrection; 3) Those midrashic-style citations that were applied to Jesus after the resurrection, though such applications are rarely, if ever, clear in the Old Testament itself; and 4) Prophecies applied in later Christian centuries, primarily the time prophecy of Daniel 9.

Referring to the “predictions” of the incarnate Lord, C. S. Lewis offers this reflection:

“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, IV.15

What follows is an attempt to plot the “messianic” prophecies about Jesus into the four categories noted above. 


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. 18:15ff

  2. Prophets

    a. Child:  Isaiah 9:2-7

    b. Branch:  Isaiah 11:1-9;  Jer. 23:5ff;  33:14ff

    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 (Ps. 69:9); 15:25 (Ps. 69:4); 19:28-29 (Ps. 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; Energion 2011).

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