Recently a friend asked me why so many Christians don’t seem to know much about the role of Messianic prophecy in the Bible. They also seemed to be unaware as to how it was utilized as the main apologetic in the New Testament. I have been reflecting on what he said. So here are some of my thoughts:
There’s no doubt that when many people hear the word “prophecy,” it can conjure up thoughts of Nostradamus, Harold Camping, or apocalyptic best sellers that are sitting on the shelves of the local bookstore. But despite the cynical attitude by some towards prophecy, the reality is that prophecy is God’s preferred argument to demonstrate He is the one true God and that such a writing is from him (Deut. 18:15ff; Isa. 41:21-24; 42:8-9; 43:9-13; 44:6-8, 24-28; 45:11-13, 20-22; 46:8-11; 48:3-7, 12-16). Even Jesus Himself utilized Messianic prophecy in two post resurrection encounters (Luke 24:25-27; 24:44-46). Jesus even rebuked the men on the road to Emmaus for being slow to believe in all that the prophets spoke (Luke 24:25). Furthermore, the apostles approach to spreading the message about Jesus of Nazareth is accompanied by appealing to Messianic prophecy:
Acts 17:2-4 — “As his custom was, Paul went into the Synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ [Messiah] had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.’ He said. Some of the Jews were persuaded….”
Acts 17:10-12 — “[Paul and Silas] went to the Jewish Synagogue. Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonicans, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. [As a result] many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.
Acts 18:28 — “[Apollos] vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ [Messiah].”
Acts 26:22-23,27 — “But I [Paul] have had God’s help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen — that the Christ [Messiah] would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to His own people and to the Gentiles…. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.
Even when Peter made his defense before the Sanhedrin for healing the lame man, he cited Messianic prophecy to explain his position by charging the council with rejecting Jesus in fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures: “He is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the headstone.” (Acts 4:11).
Stephen also made mention of Messianic prophecy in his case before the Sanhedrin (Acts 7). Finally, Philip utilized Messianic prophecy when the Ethiopian official (Acts 8:26-40), who apparently was a proselyte to Judaism, asked of whom does Isaiah speak about. Philip answered that it was Jesus. whom Isaiah spoke about (Act 8:34-35).
So if Jesus and apostles used Messianic prophecy, why are so many Christians unaware of the importance of Messianic prophecy and it’s relationship to apologetics. I think the problem stems from a few issues:
1. The impact of pragmatism: Our culture is built on pragmatism. If something doesn’t work, you try something else that gets results. Thus, the idea that “if theological ideas prove to have a value for concrete life, they will be true” which we see in the writings by William James (1842–1910) and recently by neopragmatist Richard Rorty (1931–2007) are quite popular these days. People want to know if beliefs can be tried and tested out in the reality of life. This does have some merit. After all, if one’s faith is the one true path, it should make a radical difference in the reality of life.The lesson here is that the practical difference a belief makes in one’s life should be one aspect of our overall cumulative case for what we believe. Sadly, many Christians have punted to a pragmatic view of everything. Therefore, Messianic prophecy is not even on the table.
2.Biblical Illiteracy: Obviously, many Christians simply don’t know their Bibles. They may have read these texts I just mentioned. However, they don’t see it has having any apologetic value to them today.
3. Messianic prophecy was utilized with people who already believed in God: It is true that many of the Jewish people the apostles spoke to were already Jewish theists. However, as of today, many Jewish people are secular and don’t know much about their own Scriptures.
4. Messianic prophecy takes serious study: The proper starting place to learn about Messianic prophecy is in the Jewish Scriptures. We need to see what the writers had to say to their own audience and how prophecy spoke to their own circumstances. This leads me to my next point.
5. In many cases, Christians are Marcionte in their approach to the Bible: Just recently, I was having a discussion with a friend of mine about how Christians approach the Old Testament. He happened to pass this quote onto me by Richard B. Hays who says the following:
“Many “mainstream” Protestant churches today are in fact naively Marcionite in their theology and practice: in their worship services they have no OT reading, or if the OT is read it is rarely preached upon. Judaism is regarded as a legalistic foil from which [Jesus] has delivered us. I once had a student say to me in class: “Judaism was a harsh religion that taught people to fear God’s judgment, but Jesus came to teach us to love God with all of our heart and soul and strength.”) This unconscious Marcionite bias has had a disastrous effect on the theological imagination of many Protestant churches, at least in the United States….” – Richard B. Hays, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Waco: Baylor University, 2014), 5.
So in the end, many Christians simply don’t place much emphasis on the Jewish Scriptures. Never mind the Tanakh (the Old Testament) was all that Jesus and Paul read! Thus, there was no New Testament at the time of Jesus.
6. Some Christians were told there are over 365 Messianic prophecies in the Bible and they found out this isn’t true: When I was a new Christian, I read several Christian apologetic books that stated there are over 300 Messianic prophecies that are all fulfilled in Jesus. At the time I thought this was a convincing evidential apologetic for the truth claims of our faith. But as the years have gone by, I have realized this approach to Messianic prophecy is not as effective as one might think. Now please let me clarify: I do think there is Messianic prophecy. Prophecy was one of the primary ways the apostles spread the faith in the first century. However, I think we need to tweak our approach. I have taught on this subject on several occasions. Here are some tips in studying the Messianic prophecy issue.
Anyway, don’t underestimate the value of Messianic prophecy. See our reading list here.