Was Jesus Really a Failed Prophet?

Introduction

Anyone who has studied evidential apologetics will see that many apologists have laid a great emphasis on messianic prophecy as one of the keys to demonstrating Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. One thing that is left out of these discussions is that when it comes to prophecy, it is not always predictive. The Greek word for fulfill is πληρόω (pleroo) – which has a much broader usage than “the prediction of an event.”

For example, in Matthew 5:17- Jesus says he came to “fulfill” the Law and the Prophets. In this passage “fulfillment” has a sense of embodying, bringing to completion, or perfecting. Fulfillment is one of the main themes of the New Testament, which sees Jesus and his work bringing to fruition the significance of the Hebrew Bible. However, let’s look at a case of predictive prophecy. For a prophecy to be predictive it must meet the following criteria:

1. A biblical text clearly envisions the sort of event alleged to be the fulfillment.

2. The prophecy was made well in advance of the event that was predicted.

3. The prediction actually came true.

4. The event predicted could not have been staged but anyone but God.

5. Clear Prediction: Is the prophecy publicly available with a reliable text and evident interpretation?

6. Documented Outcome: Is the prophecy documented by publicly available facts?

7. Is there evidence for it in world history?

8. Proper Chronology: Is there empirical evidence that is available presently and publicly to document that indeed the prophecy does predate its fulfillment?

It must be remembered that the strength of this evidence is greatly enhanced if the event is so unusual that the apparent fulfillment cannot plausibly explained as a good guess.[1]

One of the most pivotal texts that speak about the first coming of the Messiah is Deuteronomy 18: 15-18:

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen— just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the Lord said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.” (Deuteronomy 18: 15-18).

I. What is the purpose of a prophet?

1. A prophet (Heb. nabi) was an individual who received a call from God to be God’s spokesperson, often connected with some crisis that was about to occur, and then announced God’s message of judgment and/or deliverance to Israel and the nations.

2. The office of prophet took place in Moses’ day ( Deut 18:15-22).

3. The word “prophet” occurs over 300 times in the Old Testament and almost 125 times in the New Testament. The term “prophetess” appears 6 times in the Hebrew Bible and 2 times in the New Testament.[2]

II. In Deuteronomy 18:15-22 and Deuteronomy 13:1-5 , God listed five certifying signs by which a true prophet of God could be recognized:

1. A prophet must be an Israelite, “from among [his] own brothers“ ( Deut 18:15 ) (Balaam is the exception that proves this rule).

2. He must speak in the name of the Lord, “If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name” (Deut. 18:19 ).

3. He must be able to predict the near as well as the distant future -”If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken” ( Deut. 18:22 ).

4. He must be able to predict signs and wonders (Deut. 13:2 ).

5. His words must conform to the previous revelation that God has given ( Duet .13:2-3 ).[3]

II. Let’s look at the context of the Passage (Deut 18:15-22)

1. God, through Moses, is warning Israel to remain separate from the evil practices of the surrounding nations (Deut. 18:9-12). God instructs Israel how to tell the difference between a “true prophet” and a “false prophet.”

2. After God had warned Israel about attempting to get supernatural information from bogus pagan sources ( Deut 18:9-14 ), he announced that he would “raise up for them a prophet like Moses from among their own brothers” (v. 15).

3. Any prophet who speaks in the name of the Lord and his words do not come true is a “false prophet.” God has not spoken through him.

4. In the same context God tells Israel He will send prophets who will truthfully speak for Him. What’s more, Israel can someday expect a prophet who will be “like Moses,” that God will specially raise up.

5. The word “prophet” is in the singular, so it must refer to some individual prophet in the future.

6. God would “put his words in the prophet’s mouth and the prophet will tell the people everything God commanded him” (v. 18).[4]

III. The wider context shows that:

1. (Deut. Ch, 16-18) describes the offices of king and priest.

2. This would support the text (Deut 18: 15-19) being about the Messiah because He is the head of both those offices.

3. The nearer context of Deut. 18: 9-14 prohibits pagan divination contrasted with Deut: 18: 15.

Did Jesus actually predict anything that came to pass? Let’s look at a few of them

1. Jesus predicted that he would be dead for three days and then be raised from the dead (Matthew 16:21; 20:18-19; cf. 12:39-40). See A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection.

2. Jesus gave a prophecy to his disciples, “… you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” They were baptized about ten days after he ascended up into Heaven (Acts 1:5)

3. Jesus said his church would grow rapidly (Matthew 13:30)

4. Jesus gave a prophecy that another Helper would be sent (the Holy Spirit) and we see that the Spirit of Truth, was sent about ten days after prophecy ascended up into Heaven (John 14:16-17)

5. Jesus also discussed that judgment would come to the unrepentant sinning people of the cities of Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Korazin because they rejected Jesus and his miracles. This came to pass when the cities were diminished and the people were afflicted by the Romans and these three cities were abandoned (Matthew 11:20-24).

Answering Counterarguments about Jesus being a false prophet:

Skeptics like Bart Ehrman along with Jewish people attempt to say Jesus is a failed prophet. I will go ahead and list the common objections with a response. Note: some of these objections and responses are seen at Tony Pearce, “Response to Asher Norman’s Book: ‘26 Reasons Why Jews Don’t Believe In Jesus” http://messiahfactor.com/page71.html

Objection #1:

There were some stones left so Jesus was a false prophet. “And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Matt 24:2). The Western Wall is obviously still standing?

Response:

The Western Wall is a remnant of the ancient wall that surrounded the Temple’s courtyard, not a part of the actual Temple. The building which would have been in view when Jesus made this prophecy from the Mount of Olives in Matthew 24.2 and as He rode down the Mount of Olives from a point half way down it in Luke 19.41-44 would have been the Temple.

Objection #2:

Jesus prophesied that He would return during the lifetime of his disciples! He says:

‘Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.’ Mark 13.30 (also Matthew 24.34).

‘Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.’ (Matthew 16.28)

Response:

We have to look at these verses in context.. Both Mark 13 and Matthew 24 (along with Luke 21) are found in what is described as the ‘Olivet Discourse.’ Here Jesus, seated on the Mount of Olives, deals with two issues of prophecy: 1) The coming destruction of the Temple; 2)His second coming to the earth.

When he said ‘this generation’ will not pass away until all these things take place, there are two possibilities to consider:

As far as Mark 13.30 and Matthew 24.34, Jesus was speaking to both to His own generation which would see the destruction of the Temple and the final generation before His second coming. There would be people alive listening to Him who would see the destruction of the Temple (forty years later) but not the Second Coming. Or, the word used for generation which usually means generation can also mean ‘race.’ Therefore, Jesus could have been assuring the disciples that despite all the terrible events which would befall the Jewish people following the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion amongst the Gentiles, the people of Israel live on. There will be an identifiable Jewish people until His second coming. In fact He makes it clear that the Jewish people accepting Him as the Messiah is also a requirement of the Second Coming: ‘For I say to you (Jerusalem), you shall see Me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’ (see Matthew 23.39).

Let’s make sure we mention Matt 16:28: “Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” Matthew 16.28.

Response: Originally, there were no chapter divisions in the book of Matthew. So if we read Matthew 17 which is about The Transfiguration, they saw the kingdom coming in power a few days later.

Objection #3:

Even if Jesus did do miracles (like Moses) so did Elijah. Plus just because Jesus did miracles it doesn’t mean he is the Messiah because he didn’t 1) Build the Temple; 2) Regather the Jewish people to the land (Is.11:11-12; 43:5-6; Jer.23: 5-8; Mic.5:4-6)

The Temple Issue/Response: In Ezek.37, God says that “David” will rule His people, a reference that is supposed to mean the Messiah. But the description of building the physical Temple comes later on in the book does not really say anything about the Messiah building it. Therefore, this is a rabbinic expectation that has very little if any Scriptural backing.

Land Issue/Response: The gathering of the Jewish people back to the land issue: the passages that are usually used to support these are (Is.11:11-12; 43:5-6; Jer.23: 5-8). Two of them (Isa 11:11-12 and Jer. 23:5-8) use a name for the Messiah which is ‘Branch.’ Jer. 23:5-8 mentions the “righteous Branch” promised by Jeremiah was already promised by Isaiah 4:2 as the “Branch of the LORD.” As far as Jewish people are being regathered to the land, this is a prophecy that is being progressively fulfilled. Hence, there is no evidence that there is one permanent gathering of Jewish people to the land and then the Messiah will come.

Miracle Worker like Elijah/Response: Regarding Elijah, it is true he did miracles because it was another case where God was confirming a true prophet. But to be like Moses (Deut. 18:15-18), Elijah must fulfill all the requirements of the prophet like Moses which he does not. Also, Jesus did his signs in the context of the in- breaking reign of God. They were done more to confirm the messianic claim (not just the prophetic claim like Moses and Elijah). So if Jesus did rise from the dead (which he said would be a sign), that would make him rather different from Elijah.

Conclusion:

As far as the promise of a prophet to come like Moses, are there any other candidates that have come that fulfill this messianic prophecy?

Sources:


[1] Points 1-8 are pointed out in R. D. Geivett and G.R. Habermas, In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case For God’s Actions in Human History (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press. 1997), 221-223.

[2] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. “Prophet, Prophetess, Prophecy,” featured in Walter Elwell, Bakers Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1996).

[3] 3 Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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