IBRI Research Report #39 (1990)
JESUS: THE TESTIMONY OF PROPHECY AND HISTORY
Robert C. Newman
Biblical Theological Seminary
Copyright ©1990 by Robert C Newman. All rights reserved.
|Although the author is in agreement with the doctrinal statement of IBRI, it does not follow that all of the viewpoints espoused in this paper represent official positions of IBRI. Since one of the purposes of the IBRI report series is to serve as a preprint forum, it is possible that the author has revised some aspects of this work since it was first written.|
Among the predictions found in the Old Testament, those concerning Israel's promised Messiah are especially important. The Messiah, according to the Bible, will one day come and rescue his people from their oppressors. He will bring in a golden age. Israel will become the chief nation and Jerusalem the world's capital. Mankind will be ruled with justice, and oppression will cease. All will live in safety on their own property and enjoy the fruits of their own labors.
In spite of the appealing nature of these prophecies, reactions to them have been mixed. According to Christians, the Messiah has already come, though he will not inaugurate this golden age until he returns; he is Jesus of Nazareth. According to orthodox Jews, the Messiah has not yet come, but he will; he is certainly not Jesus. According to more secular persons -- whether irreligious or religiously liberal -- the Messiah was merely a vain hope of the ancient Bible writers; no such figure will ever appear, though we may occasionally expect great world leaders.
Who is right? Does the evidence of biblical text and human history
have anything to say about this question? We suggest that it does;
that the evidence is substantial; and that it supports two propositions:
(1) If the Messiah has come, he is Jesus of Nazareth; and (2) the Messiah
has come. Let's see.
IF THE MESSIAH HAS COME, HE IS JESUS
There are a number of features in the Old Testament about the Messiah
that fit very nicely with Jesus of Nazareth as he is pictured in the New
Testament. He is to be a light to the Gentiles, born yet pre-existent,
humble yet exalted, suffering yet reigning, and king yet priest.
A Light to the Gentiles
Let us begin with a line of evidence so obvious that many overlook it.
I refer to two predictive passages in Isaiah, namely 42:6-7 and 49:5-6.
In the former, God says to His servant the Messiah:1
I will appoint you as a covenant to the people [Israel], as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, and those who dwell in darkness from the prison.
We see here that not only will the promised Messiah have a ministry to his people Israel, but that he will also enlighten the nations, delivering them from blindness and bondage.
In the second passage, we see that this servant is not a personification
of the nation Israel, as some have suggested, but is distinguished from
Israel as being instrumental in bringing Israel itself back to God:2
And now says the LORD, who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant, to bring Jacob back to Him, in order that Israel might be gathered to Him. . . . He says, ``It is too small a thing that You should be my Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations, so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.''
This is just what Jesus of Nazareth has done! No other person ever claiming to be the Jewish Messiah has come anywhere near matching his achievement. Before the first century A.D., only the Jews and a few Greek philosophers were believers in one God. Only a small percentage of the world's population had ever read the Bible. Most worshiped a whole committee of gods, who set rather poor examples for their followers; the resulting level of morality was understandably quite low. But today those who believe in one God include not only the Jews (14.2 million in 1980), but also the predominantly Gentile Christians (1.4 billion). We could also include the Muslims (723 million), as the rise of Islam was at least an indirect result of Christianity. Thus about half the world's population now claims allegiance to the God of Abraham, most of these as a result of the work of Jesus.3
Even neglecting Islam, about a third of the earth's people accept Jesus as Messiah. These are found on every continent and in nearly every country: both in the more developed nations (790 million) and less developed (643 million); in the Western nations (547 million), the Third World (632 million), and even in Communist countries (254 million).4 Truly Jesus of Nazareth has become a light to the Gentiles, as news of him has spread throughout the world and brought spiritual enlightenment and deliverance from the bondage of sin to multiplied millions throughout the past two thousand years!
Jesus is the only Messianic claimant so far to have established a world
religion. He is also the only one whose claims solve a number of
puzzling paradoxes in the Old Testament Messianic prophecies.
Born yet Pre-existent
According to the prophet Micah, the Messiah will count Bethlehem as
his hometown even though he has existed for ages:5
But you, Bethlehem Ephratah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.
The term translated ``origins'' here is literally ``goings out,'' which may also be translated ``activities''; it is often used to picture the warfare of kings. The phrase ``from ancient times'' can be used either of a finite or infinite span of time.
A similar picture is given by the prophet Isaiah, who says:6
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.
That this one is the Messiah is obvious from the reference to his worldwide eternal rule. That he is born is explicitly stated, yet he is given the titles ``Everlasting Father'' and ``Mighty God,'' which point to his pre-existence and deity. Both religious liberals and Jews attempt to minimize these titles in order to avoid this conclusion.7 Yet the textual evidence favors this paradox, and it is neatly explained in the New Testament picture of Jesus: one who is eternal God and who yet became a human being in order to pay for the sins of those who will trust in him.
Humble yet Exalted
The manner of Messiah's coming had been a puzzle to interpreters of
the Old Testament even before the time of Jesus. In the prophecy
of Daniel he is pictured as coming in great glory:8
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
Notice again, as in the quotation before this, that this person is to rule over an eternal, universal kingdom. In addition he is to come with the clouds of heaven.
By contrast, the coming of the Messiah as pictured by the prophet Zechariah
is quite modest:9
Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
The passage goes on to explain how he will bring peace to Israel and the nations and how he will rule from ``sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.'' Yet this one comes riding a donkey, a very humble form of transportation, at least since the time horses have been tamed for riding.
Jewish explanations have tried to make the Zechariah coming more spectacular
(by invoking a miraculous donkey!),10 or have
claimed that the Daniel and Zechariah comings are merely alternative possibilities.11
Neither of these has any warrant in the biblical text. By contrast,
the New Testament view, where Jesus comes first in humility and then returns
in exaltation, fits both nicely. It even explains how the Messiah
could come both as a child and as an adult, as seems to be implied in the
passages we have already looked at.
Suffering yet Reigning
A number of Old Testament passages picture one who is to suffer, and whose suffering and deliverance by God become worldwide news.12 Some Jewish interpreters in the early Christian centuries sought to explain these passages by means of a second Messiah figure, the so-called Messiah ben-Joseph.13 This figure was postulated to be a general; he would gather the forces of Israel, fight the wicked Gentile armies of Gog and Magog in the end-time battle, but be killed by them before the coming of the king-Messiah, called Messiah ben-David.
Yet this suffering figure pictured in the Old Testament is apparently pierced by Israel rather than by the Gentiles.14 And although the lowly coming of Zech. 9:9 would most reasonably be assigned to him, he is not a king as required by Zechariah. In addition, the primary suffering passage in the Old Testament, Isa. 52:13-53:12, is the climax of the so-called Servant passages, two of which we looked at earlier (Isa. 42:6 and 49:6). These picture one who is to be a ``light to the Gentiles'' -- not exactly an appropriate term for one whose major activity toward the Gentiles is to be fighting them!
Indeed, Isa. 52:13-53:12 beautifully fits the New Testament picture
of Jesus: ``despised and rejected'' at his crucifixion by both Jew and
Gentile alike (53:3), treated in such a way that many considered him under
the wrath of God (53:4). He was strangely silent at his trial and
execution (53:7). Though scheduled to be thrown in a common grave
with criminals, he was actually buried in a rich man's tomb (53:9).
Yet his death was God's way of providing payment for our sins (53:4,5,6,8),
a fulfillment of the Old Testament picture of sin offering (53:10).
After his death for sin, he was to ``prolong his days ... see his offspring''
and ``justify many'' (53:10-11). In fact, using Levitical cleansing
terminology, ``he shall sprinkle many nations'' (52:15). Kings will
shut their mouths when they hear about him, and he will be highly exalted
King yet Priest
The offices of kingship and priesthood were kept strictly separate in the Old Testament. The priests were to be sons of Aaron from the tribe of Levi; the kings were to be sons of David from the tribe of Judah. When King Uzziah sought to take upon himself the priestly prerogative of offering incense in the temple, the high priest Azariah with eighty associates tried to stop him. Probably their efforts would have been unsuccessful had not God himself intervened and struck Uzziah with leprosy.15
Thus it is not surprising that when priestly features appear in Messianic
prophecy, some of the ancient Jewish interpreters postulated two Messiahs,
one a priest and another a king.16 Yet
a crucial Old Testament passage makes this priest and king a single individual.
In Psalm 110, which speaks of the Messiah sitting at God's right hand until
God subdues his enemies, the psalmist pictures the Messiah as king with
The LORD will extend your mighty scepter from Zion; you will rule in the midst of your enemies. Your troops will be willing on your day of battle.
Yet just two verses later, obviously speaking to the same individual, he says,18
The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: ``You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.''
Thus one person will be both priest and king, ``judging the nations'' and ``crushing the rulers of the whole earth.''19 In fact, because the priesthood and kingship of Israel had been kept so strictly separate, the psalmist must go back into Genesis, to a Gentile king, Melchizedek,20 to find any example of a righteous priest-king as a basis for comparison with the Messiah!
Yet the New Testament picture of Jesus fits this very nicely. He not only acted as priest, he also served as sacrifice in making atonement for the sins of his people.21 Yet at his return, he will come as king to rule forever.22
Thus Jesus of Nazareth has admittedly started a world religion which
has at least introduced the Gentiles to the light of monotheism, the God
of Abraham, and the ethics of the Bible. He has also made claims
which solve and fit certain Old Testament paradoxes concerning the Messiah:
how he would be born yet pre-existent, humble yet exalted, suffering yet
reigning, and king yet priest. If the Messiah has come, he is certainly
Jesus of Nazareth!
THE MESSIAH HAS COME
But maybe the Messiah hasn't come yet. Both Jews and theological liberals regularly reject the Messiahship of Jesus on the grounds that he has not yet come in any glorious way, nor physically put down all opposition to God and brought in a golden age of peace and righteousness. Therefore he has not yet accomplished the most obvious work which the Bible assigns to the Messiah. And if he has not yet returned, how do we know he will?
This is a good question. If Jesus is not the Messiah, we don't want to be believing in him, giving our lives for a delusion, and waiting in vain for a coming that will never happen. On the other hand, if Jesus is the Messiah, we cannot afford to wait until his second coming to do something about it, if for no other reason than that we may not live so long and he claims to be the only remedy for sin. How can we decide?
We suggest that the Messiah has come because certain time-oriented prophecies
concerning him have run out, and these have expired in such a way as to
point to Jesus as the Messiah.
The Messiah was to come
while Judah had its own rulers.
As the patriarch Jacob was about to die, he gave his twelve sons an
oral poetic testament, predicting something of the future for the tribes
which subsequently descended from them. Concerning Judah, he says:23
The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs, and the obedience of the nations is his.
Thus the world-ruler, to whom the scepter belongs, is to come before the scepter departs from Judah. It was not until some five hundred years after the death of Jacob that the kingship of the Jews first passed to the tribe of Judah in the person of David, having previously been held by Saul of the tribe of Benjamin. Thereafter, the kingship remained in David's family (though the northern tribes rebelled and formed their own nation) until the fall of the southern kingdom in 587 B.C. Thus the scepter remained in the tribe of Judah for some five hundred years until the Babylonian captivity. At that point, in one sense, the scepter departed from Judah, and has never returned. Following this line of interpretation, one might say the Messiah had to come before 587 B.C., that he didn't, and we should all become Buddhists or atheists.
Yet, in another sense, the scepter did not depart then, because at a later time kings of the Jews again ruled over Judah. There is an ambiguity here, just as the English phrase ``to leave school'' is ambiguous -- in one sense one may leave school every day, yet in another sense not leave school until graduation. So here. First there were the Hasmoneans, more popularly known as the Maccabees, who ruled with the title ``king of the Jews'' from 103 B.C. to 63 B.C. Then came Herod the Great, an Edomite said by his biographer to be part Jewish, who ruled as ``king of the Jews'' from 40 B.C. to 4 B.C. Finally there was his grandson Herod Agrippa I, a descendant of both the Hasmoneans and Herods, who ruled with the same title from A.D. 41 to 44. Thereafter, no one has ruled as king of the Jews to this day.
In this second sense, the scepter did not depart from Judah until Jesus
came. But no one coming after A.D. 44 can make this claim.
If Gen. 49:10 is understood in this sense, the Messiah must have come before
The Messiah was to come
while the 2nd Temple stood.
At the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple about 515 B.C., the prophet
Haggai sought to encourage the people, their governor Zerubbabel and the
high priest Joshua. Remarking on the fact that the new building was
obviously not much compared to Solomon's temple, Haggai says:24
``Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? But now, be strong, O Zerubbabel,'' declares the LORD, ``and work. For I am with you,'' declares the LORD Almighty. ``This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.'' This is what the LORD Almighty says: ``In a little while I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,'' says the LORD Almighty. ``The silver is mine and the gold is mine,'' declares the LORD Almighty. ``The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,'' says the LORD Almighty. ``And in this place I will grant peace,'' declares the LORD Almighty.
Clearly Haggai predicts that the glory of the second temple will surpass that of the first, or Solomonic, temple. In this prophecy two terms are ambiguous, ``desired'' and ``glory.'' The former can be used to refer to persons25 or to wealth.26 The latter can mean God's presence27 or wealth.28 All of these make sense in the context. Solomon's temple was filled with wealth, and the glory of God's presence fell upon it at its dedication. With the restoration to the promised land, the Jews would doubtless be looking forward to the coming of the Messiah, who as a light to the Gentiles would be one ``desired by all nations.'' Haggai's colleague Zechariah, in fact, makes a number of Messianic predictions at this time.29
We do not know just how much wealth Solomon's temple had, so we cannot compare it with the second temple, but it was certainly considerable. Of the second temple we know that Herod the Great enlarged and greatly enriched it in the years following 20 B.C. until it became one of the architectural marvels of the ancient world. Certainly, the physical glory of the second temple finally became very great, as wealth came in to it from all over the ancient world during the century before its destruction in A.D. 70.
But for the Jews, the principal glory of Solomon's temple, as for the
tabernacle before it, was the presence of God manifested in the glory cloud
and in the ark of the covenant. The ark was apparently lost at the
destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. Whether it
was taken to Babylon, destroyed by fire when the temple burned, or hidden
away, is not known. In any case, there was no ark in the second temple.
The glory cloud of God's presence which came upon the tabernacle30
and the first temple31 when they were dedicated
was also lacking for the second temple, unless God came in the person of
Jesus, who according to the New Testament was God himself dwelling with
men.32 In this most important sense,
then, the glory of the second temple did not exceed that of the first unless
the Messiah came before its destruction in A.D. 70.
The Messiah was to come
after the 69th sabbath cycle.
In the ninth chapter of the book of Daniel, the prophet has just learned
from his study of Scripture that the Babylonian captivity is to last seventy
years. Realizing that this timespan is almost completed, Daniel prays
to God, confessing his sins and those of his people. While he is
praying the angel Gabriel appears to him and informs him that seventy sabbath
cycles yet remain to complete God's program for Israel. Part of this
prophecy gives a time sequence leading up to the coming of the Messiah:33
Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One [Messiah] comes, there will be seven ``sevens'' [sabbatical cycles] and sixty-two ``sevens.'' It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the sixty-two ``sevens,'' the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing.
The context of Daniel nine, regarding the length of the Babylonian captivity, sends us to Jeremiah, where the seventy-year length is specified.34 The covenant curses of Leviticus give us the general principle that lies behind this specific number:35
I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins. Then the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it.
According to Leviticus,36 the Jews were commanded to let the land enjoy a rest one year out of every seven by not planting it, something like our crop rotation except that all the land rested on the same year. Apparently, the Jews had not observed this required seventh year of rest for the land on some seventy occasions during their occupation of the promised land. Now God sends them into captivity and the land gets its seventy missed sabbaticals all in a row. Thus when Gabriel comes with his message about seventy ``sevens'' still to come, the ``seven'' is naturally to be read as referring to this seven year land-use cycle. The Messiah is to come and be cut off after 69 (7 + 62) such cycles.
Where does the calculation of this timespan begin? According to
the prophecy, ``from the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem.''
The most likely such decree is that issued by the Persian king Artaxerxes I, in the twentieth year of his reign,37 allowing Nehemiah his Jewish cupbearer to return to Jerusalem as governor with a commission to rebuild it. According to the best available information,38 this would be 445 B.C.
The calculation itself is to be carried out in units of sabbatical cycles rather than years. Recent archeological work has enabled us to locate the beginning and end of the sabbatical cycles in antiquity.39 We find that our starting point, 445, falls in the sabbatical cycle 449-442 B.C. By the usual Jewish inclusive counting method, this would be the first sabbatical cycle. The 69th cycle then turns out to be A.D. 28-35, and ``after'' this cycle means after it begins.40
Thus the Messiah is to come and be cut off in the period A.D. 28-35,
which exactly spans the public ministry of Jesus of Nazareth!
As we suggested in the first section above, the biblical prophecies about the Messiah indicate strongly that if the Messiah has come, he must be Jesus of Nazareth. The material just discussed indicate (1) that the Messiah was to have come while Judah still had its own rulers, a situation which ended in A.D. 44. The prophecy about the greater glory of the second temple at least suggests (2) that the Messiah was to have come while the second temple still stood, but this temple was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. Finally, the so-called seventy weeks prophecy of Daniel indicates (3) that the Messiah should come and be cut off in the sabbatical cycle A.D. 28-35. All of these conditions fit Jesus of Nazareth and hardly anyone else.
Of course, one may object that the Bible is just the guesswork of ancient man and only accidentally happens to fit Jesus in these points. I suggest that the historical information we have about Jesus indicates that he himself is no accident, that the evidence of his miraculous work and resurrection from the dead is strong,41 and that one would be a fool to keep appealing to accident when the evidence suggests one's worldview is faulty.
Of all the Messianic claimants that Judaism has ever had, the only one
ever considered an outstanding historical figure and ethical teacher (even
by atheists) is Jesus of Nazareth. And he ``just happened'' to conduct
his short public ministry and was ``cut off'' in the period A.D. 28-35!
The Messiah has come, and he is Jesus.
1. Isa. 42:6-7 (NASB). Scripture quotations in this paper are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB), copyright 1971 by the Lockman Foundation or from the New International Version (NIV), copyright 1978 by the International Bible Society. Used by permission.
2. Isa 49:5-6 (NASB).
3. Statistics from David B. Barrett, World Christian Encyclopedia (Nairobi, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 4, 6.
5. Micah 5:2 (NIV).
6. Isa. 9:6-7 (NIV).
7. The Jewish Publication Society's Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text (1971, 1945) transliterates the titles in the text as a gigantic proper name, relegating the translation to a footnote where it is handled as a sentence referring to God rather than the Messiah. The New English Bible (1970) translates the second title as ``in battle God-like,'' though elsewhere it always renders the phrase as ``God Almighty.''
8. Dan. 7:13-14 (NIV).
9. Zech. 9:9 (NIV).
10. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a.
12. See, e.g., Psalm 22.
13. See the Jewish Encyclopedia (1901-06), 8:511-512; Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971-72), 11:1411.
14. Zech. 12:10.
15. 2 Chron. 26:16-21.
16. Manual of Discipline 9.10; Testament of Levi 18:16; Testament of Judah 24:9.
17. Ps. 110:2 (NIV).
18. Ps. 110:4 (NIV).
19. Ps. 110:6 (NIV).
20. Gen. 14:18-20.
21. Heb. 4:14-5:10; 7:1-10:18.
22. Heb. 1:8; Rev. 19:11-16.
23. Gen. 49:10 (NIV). For further discussion of these OT paradoxes, see Robert C. Newman, ed., The Evidence of Prophecy (Hatfield, PA: IBRI, 1988), chap. 9.
24. Hag. 2:3-9 (NIV).
25. 1 Sam. 9:20; Dan. 9:23; 11:37.
26. 2 Chron. 20:25; 32:27.
27. Ex. 40:34-35; 1 Kings 8:10-11.
28. Ps. 49:16-20.
29. See, e.g., Zech. 6:12; 9:9; 12:10.
30. Ex. 40:34.
31. 1 Kings 8:10.
32. John 1:14, 17-18.
33. Dan. 9:25-26 (NIV). Bracketed material supplied by author.
34. Jer. 25:11-12; 29:10.
35. Lev. 26:33-35 (NIV).
36. Lev. 25:1-7.
37. Neh. 2:1-9.
38. Jack Finegan, Handboook of Biblical Chronology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964), sect. 336.
39. Ben Zion Wacholder, ``The Calendar of Sabbatical Cycles During the Second Temple and the Early Rabbinic Period,'' Hebrew Union College Annual 44 (1973), 153-196.
40. The Jewish inclusive counting method counts as
the first time unit the unit containing the starting point. The phrase
``after n units'' means after the nth unit has begun. Note this usage
also occurs in the Gospels, where ``on the third day'' and ``after three
days'' are equivalent. For further details, see Newman, Evidence
of Prophecy, chap. 10.