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.
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).
What is the purpose of a prophet?
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. The word “prophet” occurs over 300 times in the Hebrew Bible 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)
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)
The Context of the Passage (Deut. 18:15-22)
God, through Moses, warns Israel to remain separate from the evil practices of the surrounding nations (Deut. 18:9-12) and instructs Israel how to tell the difference between a “true prophet” and a “false prophet.” 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). 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.
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. The word “prophet” is in the singular, so it must refer to some individual prophet in the future. God would “put his words in the prophet’s mouth and the prophet will tell the people everything God commanded him” (v. 18). The wider context (Deut. Ch. 16-18) describes the offices of king and priest. Therefore, this would support the text (Deut. 18: 15-19) being about the Messiah because He is the head of both those offices.
Some critics like to point out that Deut. 34: 10-12 which says that “No prophet has arisen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” Does this prophecy mean the end of prophecy had come? Certainly by the time of the final completion of the Book of Deuteronomy and the Pentateuch as a whole, there had been no prophet who had arisen in Israel like Moses. But this does not mean there is not someone who will come in the future to fulfill the prophecy. After all, if prophecy had ended than why is it in the time of Jesus many Jewish people seem to be looking for the prophet of Deut. 18:15-22? For example:
The people said, “When they heard these words, some of the crowd began to say, “This really is the Prophet!” (John 7:40)
Now when the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus performed, they began to say to one another, “This is certainly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” (John 6:14)
John the Baptist began to preach, he was asked, “Are you the Prophet?” (John 1:19-23).
Also, Peter refers to Jesus as the prophet of Deut. 18:15-18:
And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.’ And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came after him, also proclaimed these days.—Acts 3: 17-24
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), 641.