That’s Jesus,” he admitted, flashing me a ‘you-got-me-there’ kind of grin.
I had been studying Isaiah 53 with Uri, an Israeli now living in Manhattan’s trendy Upper West Side. He had just uttered the very words I had hoped to hear! Carefully, he reread the passage in Hebrew and confirmed, “There cannot be any doubt—Isaiah is writing about Jesus.”
I knew what would come next. We would talk a little more and Uri would accept Y’shua. But suddenly my bubble burst. “It’s interesting,” he shrugged, “but I’m Jewish. And besides, look how Christians have treated the Jewish people.”
“But … you just said …”
“I can’t. I made a promise to my father before he died that I will never forsake being Jewish.”
I have since encountered many other “Uri’s.” Even when messianic prophecy is presented appropriately and systematically, even when the facts are convincing, they remain unconvinced.
Messianic prophecy can make a powerful impression upon a reader under the right circumstances. But it does not serve as a one-size-fits-all case for the gospel.
THE TRADITIONAL APPROACH
As a new believer in Jesus, I pored through books that offered what I’ll call the traditional approach to messianic prophecy. There was Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties and C. S. Lewis’ popular Mere Christianity. They were powerful resources for me as I sought an impenetrable fortress of evidence that could deflect any objection.
What these authors all have in common is that their approach is systematic and logical, and depends upon facts to establish a case for Jesus as Messiah. It reflects the influence of the Enlightenment and modernism, whereby from about 1750 on, reason became the arbiter of truth. Religion was acknowledged only when proven reasonable. The “prove it” approach to prophecy that developed utilizes individual verses from the Old Testament to establish the messianic claims of the New Testament.
There is much to be said for this way of doing things. The traditional approach has brought the Tanach alive for Christians and has underscored the continuity between the Old and New Testaments. Along the way, it gives us a better understanding of the person of Jesus. Yet it has weaknesses that we should consider.
First, in the traditional approach we can lose sight of the questions and concerns of the person we are addressing. For many, unbelief is not merely a consequence of missing the facts. It is quite often a result of who and what they value, particularly their associations and relationships. Pat, “easy” answers don’t sit well with many of those processing spiritual questions. We may find ourselves spending time discussing the messianic claims of Jesus with people who are more interested in what Jesus said about war, or how the church has dealt with anti- Semitism. The traditional approach to understanding Messiah is sometimes applied to people as though they are blank slates wanting nothing more than to be presented with facts. But for many people, such “proof” may be tangential or even irrelevant to their concerns, which are often of a social or political nature.
A second weakness of the traditional approach is that it can sidetrack us with anti-missionary polemics. Our arguments have, on more than one occasion, given anti-missionaries ammunition to poke holes in our faith. I remember once getting bogged down in a discussion with a Jewish man over the mathematics of Daniel 9. He could not grasp the complex argument that the Messiah would be “cut off” during the 69th of Daniel’s 70 weeks (which is not the only interpretation of Daniel’s prophecy). Rather than drawing him closer to Y’shua, the detailed arguments and counter-arguments seemed to push him further away.
Third, we sometimes miss the context of the Old Testament passages. This is problematic on a number of levels. We can miss important theological implications of a passage if we only look at how it proves our messianic interpretation. In extreme cases, biblical texts can be boiled down beyond their natural meaning or simply taken out of context to make a case for Jesus. We need to be able to comment on the text without isolating it from its context. Jewish unbelievers, even those who are not well acquainted with the Bible, will be less likely to take our claims seriously if we are unable to interact critically and with some measure of understanding of the biblical text.
Is there a new alternative to the traditional approach? Actually, there is an old and very effective alternative. I believe there is much we can learn from the New Testament writers in this regard.
GETTING THE MOST OUT OF MESSIANIC PROPHECY
The New Testament writers were intimately familiar with the Tanach as well as with the literary forms and styles of first-century Jewish writings. Their use of messianic prophecy was culturally relevant to their audience. One aspect of this is the fact that their readers were more biblically informed than are many believers today, and they understood the larger context of the passage in which a messianic prophecy was found. We need to engage that context too in order to properly understand the New Testament.
Learning from Matthew: Matthew and Isaiah
The Gospel of Matthew contains more quotations from the Tanach than any other gospel, including some commonly disputed texts. One such citation is found in Matthew 1:18- 25, which relates the circumstances of the birth of Y’shua and his purpose in coming into the world. To anchor his account and bring it into perspective for his audience, the author quotes Isaiah 7:14.
We have often allowed Jewish skeptics to derail a discussion of this verse by focusing on the word almah, rendered “virgin” in most English translations. The argument over the virgin birth has become a prime example of how focusing on a single Hebrew term can obscure the rest of the discussion. There are good arguments that support the “virgin birth” interpretation. But focusing so narrowly complicates the conversation by leading to more questions than either Matthew or Isaiah is endeavoring to answer. Moreover, such an isolated discussion does not give an overall understanding of Isaiah’s text. A more fruitful approach would be an attempt to grasp the broader intent of this passage.
In Isaiah 7:14, the prophet speaks of a child to be born named Immanuel. Some believe that the child refers to Ahaz’s son Hezekiah. Others think it is Isaiah’s own son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. A common interpretation is that there was a provisional fulfillment in Isaiah’s day as well as a later messianic fulfillment.
To bring Isaiah’s words about Immanuel into clearer focus, we must explore his overall depiction of this promised son. An examination of Isaiah 7:1-9:7 shows the full context to be the captivity and the redemption of Israel. The captivity is sealed with a sign, the birth of Immanuel. This child appears also in chapter 8, again in the context of judgment. Then in chapter 9 Isaiah gives us a third glimpse of this son (vv. 6-7), who sits upon David’s throne as the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace. It is within this broader context of one to come who will save Israel that Isaiah’s statement in 7:14 finds its full meaning.
Matthew certainly does not ignore the fact that Miriam was a virgin, but his focus is on the significance of the names Y’shua and Immanuel, and on what this son would accomplish. His introduction of Immanuel, God with us, carries all the meaning of Isaiah’s messianic son in 9:6, sent by none other than God Himself to save Israel. Like Isaiah’s Immanuel, Y’shua will be involved in judgment as well as salvation. Such a reading of Matthew and Isaiah not only presents a stronger messianic picture, but a more holistic one. Isaiah 7:14 does not say less than in the traditional approach, but it may well say more.
Matthew and Psalm 22
A second example comes from Psalm 22. Does this psalm depict the crucifixion of Y’shua? In Matthew 27:46, Jesus cries out in Aramaic, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Strikingly, these are the only words of Jesus recorded by Matthew during the hours of the crucifixion and they are an unmistakable citation of Psalm 22:1. That psalm depicts in dark and vivid strokes David’s fear for his life, his attackers and the destruction of his own body. The parallels to the crucifixion narrative in Matthew are easily recognized: the cry of abandonment (Psalm 22:1-2), the mockery (vv. 7-8) the physically violent experience (vv. 12-17), the marring of his hands and feet (v. 16), the casting of lots for his garments (v. 18).
As with the Isaiah passage, Jewish skeptics tend to focus on a single Hebrew term, ka’ari, in verse 16. Most Christian translations interpret the word as meaning pierced, while an ambiguity in the Hebrew allows for the standard Jewish translation like a lion. Though it is important to pursue the meaning of Hebrew terms—and a good case can be made for the rendering pierced—isolating this verse and the Hebrew word often proves to be needless, since either translation is sufficient to depict the suffering of this Davidic king.
Once we move beyond the focus on one term, we see that Psalm 22 seems to mirror the intense suffering described in Matthew 27. Many have also noted that verses 22-31, concluding the psalm and affirming God’s sovereign victory, are part of the backdrop to Jesus’ cry. Like the psalmist, Y’shua expected ultimate vindication. Jesus’ listeners and Matthew’s audience would have been familiar with this fuller context, hearing a note of ultimate hope in Jesus’ cry.
And yet Matthew does little to convey Jesus’ intentions about the meaning of Psalm 22. What ultimately stands out is Jesus’ humanity. As a human being, he can relate to suffering and despair. His discouragement and even frustration at God’s abandonment as he took on our sins is where this brutally honest and vulnerable depiction of our Lord’s crucifixion really grabs its readers.
Context is important. I lean toward a broader, contextual study of messianic prophecy as an approach that was culturally relevant to first-century readers and can be rewarding for us as well. Rather than presenting the prophecies as isolated verses that offer irrefutable proof of who Jesus is, I encourage unbelievers to examine them as “pictures within pictures” that show us something about God and His plans for us.
At the same time, the context of the person you are witnessing to is also important. No approach to messianic prophecy is going to move someone who is committed to unbelief for reasons that have little to do with Scripture. What can we do for the person who sees the Scriptures pointing to Y’shua, yet still walks away from him? If I were speaking to Uri today, I might ask him questions such as: Did he think his father wanted the best for him? Would his father want him to go on believing that Jewishness and Jesus are mutually exclusive if they really aren’t? Would his father want him to dismiss Y’shua if he knew that actually meant turning away from our promised Messiah? Sometimes the best thing we can do is to reflect back to a person their reasons for unbelief. While it is the Holy Spirit who creates a desire for God, we can help people to analyze their concerns honestly, and question the ultimate outcome of their choices.
Other Resources on Messianic Prophecy and the Use of the Old Testament in the New
- Beale, G. K. and D. A. Carson, eds. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007.
- Brown, Michael L. Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 3: Messianic Prophecy Objections. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003.
- Chirichigno, Gregory and Gleason L. Archer. Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament: A Complete Survey, reprint. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2005.
- Kaiser, Walter C., Jr. The Messiah in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.
- Kaiser, Walter C., Jr. The Uses of the Old Testament in the New. reprint. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2001.
- Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, rev. ed. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2006. See especially ch. 14, “The Old Testament in the New Testament.”