A Look at Messianic Prophecy and the Promise of The New Covenant

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. I am thankful for Robert Newman’s work in this area.

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.

The Promise of the New Covenant

Most Christians are aware of the importance of the promise of the New Covenant. Almost all Christians recall that it was at his last Passover meal Jesus said of the cup of blessing that it was the blood of the covenant poured out for many (Mark 14:24); the blood of the covenant poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Matt 26:28).  But when it comes to messianic prophecy, Christians usually point to some of the passages in the Jewish Scriptures about the promise of the New Covenant.

 Here are a few of them:

“These are the words of the covenant that the Lord commanded Moses to make with the people of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant that he had made with them at Horeb.  And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: “You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land,the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders. But to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear. I have led you forty years in the wilderness. Your clothes have not worn out on you, and your sandals have not worn off your feet. You have not eaten bread, and you have not drunk wine or strong drink, that you may know that I am the Lord your God. And when you came to this place, Sihon the king of Heshbon and Og the king of Bashan came out against us to battle, but we defeated them. We took their land and gave it for an inheritance to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of the Manassites. Therefore keep the words of this covenant and do them, that you may prosperin all that you do.” (Deut. 29: 1-9)-ESV

“And  when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you,  and return to theLord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul,  then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you.  If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And  the Lordyour God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. And the Lordyour God will put all these curses on your foes and enemies who persecuted you.  And you shall again obey the voice of the Lord and keep all his commandments that I command you today.  The Lordyour God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, when you obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to theLord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deut. 30: 1-10).

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”-Jeremiah 31: 31-34-ESV

Another passage that is quoted is the following:

“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations. Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord God; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel.”- Ezekiel 36: 22-32:ESV

In Ezekiel and Jeremiah, we see the Promises of the New Covenant:

1. God promises regeneration (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:26).

2. God promises the forgiveness of sin (Jeremiah 31:34; Ezekiel 36:25)

3. God pledged the indwelling Holy Spirit (Ezekiel 36:27)

. 4. God promises the knowledge of God (Jeremiah 31:34).

5. God promises His people would obey Him (Ezekiel 36:27; 37:23-24; Jeremiah 32:39-40).

6. The fulfilling of this covenant was tied to Israel’s future restoration to the land (Jer. 32:36-41; Ezek. 36:24-25; 37:11-14).

Many Christians are  also familiar with the command of Jesus to be born again in John 3. In this passage, John makes reference to the Ezekiel passage.

“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again  he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again. ’The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”  Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”  John 3: 1-10: ESV

We see here that Jesus reminds Nicodemus that he should be familiar with the passages that promise the coming of the Spirit/The New Covenant.

As Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology says:

 “It is absolutely necessary for a person to be born again in order to enter the kingdom of God. In the central passage in the New Testament about the new birth ( John 3 ), Jesus tells Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council, that he will not enter the kingdom of God unless he is born anew. The alternation between singular and plural Greek pronouns in the passage shows that Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus both personally and representatively. The need for the new birth is not only true of Nicodemus, but of the entire Sanhedrin, all Jews, and, by extension, all people.”- Carl B. Hoch, Jr., “The New Birth”, featured in  Walter Elwell, Bakers Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1996).

Before Jesus rose from the dead, he made a promise that was related to the New Covenant passages. Just like the giving of the Torah (with Moses), the New Covenant needs someone to inaugurate it. As Jesus says:

“And I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, so that He may be with you forever, the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive because it does not see Him nor know Him. But you know Him, for He dwells with you and shall be in you.” –John 14:16,17

So we can conclude with following syllogism:

1. If Jesus rose from the dead, He can send the Spirit and inaugurate the New Covenant.

2. Jesus rose from the dead

3. Therefore, Jesus is the inaugurator of the New Covenant.

However, a close look at the passages in Jeremiah and Ezekiel brings some very specific questions to the surface:

How can Christians claim this New Covenant was inaugurated  if universal forgiveness for sins has not come to Israel? The context of these passages has to do with Israel. There is a regathering of the Jewish people to the land (Ezek: 36: 24-27). To dodge this question would betray solid exegesis.  In his Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus Vol 4,  Dr. Michael Brown discusses how a Christological reading provides a template for interpreting all the restoration from exile promises in Jeremiah which include:

1. The physical return of the exiles to the land.

2.Their blessed resettlement there

3. Their spiritual renewal and restoration

4. The glorious return of the Messianic king

Each of these promises has a historic, partial fulfillment beginning in the 530’s BC when the first wave of the exiles returned home and when Jerusalem was initially rebuilt and each of these promises has a future, ultimate fulfillment which waits the end of the age. At that time- at the eshcahton- there will be a final, supernatural regathering of Israel’s remaining exiles, a Jewish return to God of national proportions, the Messiah’s second coming, the establishing of God’s kingdom on the earth, and the final, glorious rebuilding of Jerusalem (pgs 286-292).

What About Gentiles?

Obviously, God’s plan for Israel was to be light to the nations and be a conduit for Gentiles to come to faith in the one true God.  We see the unique calling in the Abrahamic Covenant. The promise to Abraham in Gen 12:3 exhibit’s God’s plan to bless the nations. Therefore, the Messianic blessing is for all the world . All peoples on all the earth – 70 nations at the time- would be beneficiaries of the promise-(Gen. 12:2–3; cf. 22:18; 26:4; 28:14). So it could not be clearer that  God intended to use Abraham in such a way that he would be a channel of blessing to the entire world. The election of Israel was for a universal goal which is the redemption of humanity.

The challenge is how the Church comes to appropriate the blessings of the New Covenant. After all, as I just said, the context of both of these passages has to do with Israel. It is true that the Old Testament never mentions the “church” when discussing Gentiles as New Covenant beneficiaries.  In response,  this is because the church was an undisclosed mystery during the Old Testament period.  Harold W. Hoehner,  concluded:

The mystery mentioned in Ephesians was hidden in God in ages past (3:9). It was something that could not be understood by human ingenuity or study. God revealed it to the apostles and the prophets by the spirit (3:4). Now that it is revealed, it is open to everyone and it is simple to understand and thus not relegated to an intellectual minority. Ephesians views God’s sacred secret as believing Jews and Gentiles united into one body. In the OT Gentiles could be part of the company of God, but they had to become Jews in order to belong to it. In the NT Gentiles do not become Jews nor do Jews become Gentiles. Rather, both believing Jews and Gentiles become one new entity (Eph 2:15-16).–Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 433-34.

Also, just because the promises about the New Covenant are made to the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, we can’t  logically conclude that others are not able to participate just because they are not a part of Israel. There are Old Testament references to the New Covenant  that do foresee Gentile involvement and blessing (Isa 55:5; Ezek 36:36; 37:28). One passage that illustrates  that Gentiles will receive the “trickle down” blessings is the following:

Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD to be His servants, everyone who keeps from profaning the sabbath, And holds fast My covenant; even those I will bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar, for My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples (Isa 56:6-8).

Also, in Acts 2, we see the following:

 Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. They were amazed and astonished, saying,  Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own  language to which we were born?  Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,  Cretans and Arabs—we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.” And they all continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”  But others were mocking and saying, “They are full of sweet wine. ” But Peter,  taking his stand with the eleven, raised his voice and declared to them: “Men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you and give heed to my words. For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only the third hour of the day;  but this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel: ‘And it shall be in the last days,’ God says, That I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind; And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, And your old men shall dream dreams; Even on My bondslaves, both men and women, I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit and they shall prophesy.  And I will grant wonders in the sky above And signs on the earth below, Blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke The sun will be turned into darkness And the moon into blood,Before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come And it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

We can observe here that there are a large amount of Jews gathered here. And Peter quotes the Joel passage which speaks of the Spirit being poured out on all flesh (Gentiles included). See more on Peter’s use of the Joel text here.

 Furthermore, if God’s plan is to reach the nations, and Israel doesn’t fulfill their role in this process, there is no reason to think God won’t accomplish his purposes. I still think there is a future fulfillment with Israel (see Romans 11 as well). But I see no reason as to why God would not allow the inauguration of the New Covenant.

In relation to the kingdom of God theme, one of the most debated issues in biblical scholarship is whether Jesus actually offered the earthly, national, or political aspect of the kingdom of God.   A look at the content of Jesus and John the Baptist show the kingdom is the central theme of their message: (1)“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”(Matt.3:2);(2) “Repent, the kingdom of heaven has come near”(Matt. 4:17); (3) “The kingdom of heaven has come near”(Matt 10:7). One of the crucial issues in this debate is the meaning behind the Greek word “engizo” which can mean “has already arrived” or “has drawn near.”  According to New Testament scholar Scot McKnight, it is best taken to mean “has drawn very near but is not yet come.”   To support this view, McKnight says there are passages such as Matt. 21:1, where the travelers have drawn near to Jerusalem but are still in Bethphage (thus “have drawn very near”); in Matt. 21:34, the time for the harvest has drawn near but has not yet arrived; and in Matt. 26:45, the hour of Jesus’ death has drawn so near that its impact is now being felt, but it remains in the future. Therefore, while the kingdom is now operative in some regards, it still has a futuristic aspect in which Israel will be all that God has purposed it to be. — See Scot McKnight. A New Vision For Israel: The Teachings of Jesus in National Context(Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1999), 70-155.

 “Progressive fulfillment” or “Prophetic Telescoping”

Finally,  it seems that one of the keys to interpreting messianic prophecy is what is called “progressive fulfillment” or “prophetic telescoping.”  Remember,  Ezekiel who was living in the Babylon exile prophesized that his people would return from their captivity. Their fulfillment began in 538 B.C.E. when the first group of exiles returned to Judah; it has continued in the 20th century with the return of the Jewish people to the Land; and it will reach its fulfillment when Jesus comes back and gathers his scattered people from every corner of the globe (See Brown’s Answering Jewish Objections, Vol 3, pgs 189-194).

Another case of “prophetic telescoping” is seen in the promises of the Davidic Covenant. While God promised that Israel would have an earthly king (Gen. 17: 6; 49:6; Deut.17: 14-15), the Davidic covenant established David as the king over all of Israel. Under David’s rule, there was the defeat of Israel’s enemies, the Philistines. David also captured Jerusalem and established his capital there (2 Sam. 1-6). As seen in 2 Sam. 7:1-4, David wanted to build a “house” (or Temple) for the Lord in Jerusalem. God’s response to David was one of rejection. However, God did make an unconditional promise to raise up a line of descendants from the house of David that would rule forever as the kings of Israel (2 Sam. 7:5-16; 1 Chr.17:7-15; Ps.89:28-370. The desire for the restoration of the Davidic dynasty became even more fervent after the united kingdom of the Israelites split into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, at the time of King Rehoboam.

The Messiah was called to defeat the oppressive enemies of Israel and enable the Jewish people to help “set up an earthly kingdom that will never be destroyed” (Dan. 2:44). The prophets even spoke of a Davidic Messiah who would be unlike any past Davidic king (Is. 9:6-7; 11:1-5; Jer 23:5-6; Mic. 5:2-5). Both Hosea and Ezekiel spoke of the Davidic aspect of the Messiah. While Hosea spoke of a time when the northern tribes of Israel would seek out David, Israel’s king (Hos. 3:5), Ezekiel spoke of a new David who would be a shepherd as well as a prince and a king to Israel (Ezek: 34:23-24; 37:24-25). This king’s function would help restore the Davidic dynasty after the exile.

Remember, the New Testament authors unanimously declare Jesus as the one who is from the “seed of David,” sent by God to restore God’s kingship over mankind (Matt. 1:1; Acts 13:23; Rom. 1:3,4; 2 Tim:2:8; Rev. 22:16).  But there is another part that will be fulfilled in the future. In this sense, Jesus will return and establish the earthly, national aspect of the kingdom of God (Is. 9:6; Amos 9:11; Dan. 2:44; 7:13-14; 27; Is. 11:11-12; 24:23; Mic. 4:1-4; Zech.14:1-9; Matt. 26:63-64; Acts 1:6-11; 3:19-26). In other words, one day the Messiah will be King over His people (Matt. 19:28).

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