Jesus' Amazing Fulfillment of Prophecy
"But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets...He has thus fulfilled" (Acts 3:18).
To claim that you are God is one thing—but to convince people that you are indeed what you say you are is quite another. So how did Jesus' closest followers come to be so convinced that they would lay down their lives for that belief?
Many Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah were fulfilled in precise detail by Jesus of Nazareth. Neither the Jews nor the disciples of Jesus understood at the time that Jesus was fulfilling the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament—even though at times He told them this was the case (Luke 18:31; Matthew 26:56). They were looking for a far different Messiah than the One so many prophecies actually described.
One of Jesus' defenses to the Jews was to appeal to the Old Testament Scriptures themselves, which identified Him as the One to come. "You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me," He told them (John 5:39).
After Jesus was resurrected, He began to help His disciples understand the Scriptures, and the disciples were inspired to declare that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. The proof they offered was the very Scriptures they had not previously understood.
Putting together the prophetic puzzle
Shortly after His resurrection, Jesus met two of His disciples who were deep in discussion as they walked along the road to the town of Emmaus. Not recognizing Him, they openly reasoned how such events as the death of the Messiah could possibly happen. Jesus began to explain to them that His suffering and crucifixion were foretold in the Scriptures.
He gently chided them: "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" (Luke 24:25-26, NRSV). Then, "beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself" (verse 27).
Later that same day He appeared to nearly all of His apostles and clarified what He had been telling them before His death. "These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me" (verse 44).
"Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms" referred to the three major divisions of the Old Testament, something every believing Jew, as these apostles were, understood. "And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. Then He said to them, 'Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day'" (verses 45-46).
God's Spirit opens the Scriptures to understanding
Within days the apostles began quoting passages from Scripture, declaring that these prophecies had been fulfilled by Jesus Christ.
Peter speaks of the death of Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, in Acts 1:20, quoting from Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8: "Let his dwelling place be desolate, and let no one live in it," and "Let another take his office." Peter and the disciples had begun to understand that the Scriptures spoke in detail of many aspects of Jesus' life, death and resurrection.
After receiving the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, their understanding of the Scriptures would increase greatly (John 14:26). Speaking on that day, Peter quotes from Joel 2:28-29, telling us that the sending of the Holy Spirit was a fulfillment of that prophecy (Acts 2:14-18).
Peter continues his message to the crowds gathered in Jerusalem by explaining the resurrection of Jesus with a reference to Psalm 16:8-11: "For David says concerning Him [Jesus]: 'I foresaw the LORD always before my face, for He is at my right hand... For You will not leave my soul in Hades [the grave], nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption [decay after death]...You will make me full of joy in Your presence [through resurrection from the grave]'" (Acts 2:25-28). Peter asserts that David was a prophet and foresaw the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.
Even more astounding is David's picture of the resurrected Christ that Peter quotes: "The LORD said to my Lord, 'Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool'" (verses 34-36). Peter now sees clearly that the Old Testament pictured the coming of Jesus the Messiah—the Messiah whom he followed for more than three years. Now Peter is quoting Scripture to his countrymen to prove to them that Jesus is the Messiah.
Many years later we find Paul, who originally violently opposed those who accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah, reasoning with the Jews in synagogues that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the Christ (Acts 17:1-4). Likewise Apollos "refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ" (Acts 18:28). Some of the Jews they addressed were beginning to understand their own Scriptures in the light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.
Fulfilled prophecies in the Gospels
Those Jews who believed that Jesus fulfilled the messianic prophecies were in the minority. The Gospel writers, however, are relentless in their quotations from the Scriptures to demonstrate how Jesus fulfilled in detail the many messianic prophecies.
The apostle Matthew, for example, appears to have specifically written his Gospel to a first-century Jewish audience. Through a series of Old Testament quotations, Matthew documents Jesus Christ's claim to be the Messiah. Jesus' genealogy, baptism, messages and miracles all point to the same inescapable conclusion: He is the prophesied Messiah.
Matthew's Gospel cites 21 prophecies that were fulfilled in circumstances surrounding the life and death of Christ. Eleven passages point out these fulfillments using such introductions as "that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of by the prophet..." or "then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet..."
Accidental fulfillment of prophecies?
The New Testament writers cite messianic prophecies from the Old Testament more than 130 times. By some estimates the Old Testament contains 300 prophetic passages that describe who the Messiah is and what He will do. Of these, 60 are major prophecies. What are the chances of these prophecies being fulfilled in one person?
Of course, as Dr. Geisler points out, God makes no mistakes. It is virtually inconceivable that God would allow either a total deception in His name or an accidental fulfillment in the life of the wrong person. Such things rule out a chance fulfillment (p. 343).
One might argue there is still that possibility—however remote. But the mathematical odds that all of these prophecies could have converged by chance in the events of the life of Jesus are staggeringly minute—to the point of eliminating any such possibility.
Astronomer and mathematician Peter Stoner, in his book Science Speaks, offers a mathematical analysis showing that it is impossible that the precise statements about the One to come could be fulfilled in a single person by mere coincidence.
The chance of only eight of these dozens of prophecies being fulfilled in the life of one man has been estimated at 1 in 10 to the 17th power. That would be 1 chance in 100,000,000,000,000,000.
How can we put this in terms we can comprehend? Dr. Stoner illustrates the odds with this scenario: "Take 1017 silver dollars and lay them on the face of Texas [with its approximate land area of 262,000 square miles]. They will cover all of the state two feet deep. Now mark one of these silver dollars and stir the whole mass thoroughly, all over the state. Blindfold a man and tell him that he can travel as far as he wishes, but he must pick up one silver dollar and say that this is the right one.
"What chance would he have of getting the right one? Just the same chance that the prophets would have had of writing these eight prophecies and having them all come true in any one man."
But that is only eight of the dozens of prophecies of the Messiah. Using the science of probability, the chance of as many as 48 of these prophecies coming to pass in one person is 1 in 10 to the 157th power—a 1 followed by 157 zeros (1963, pp. 100-109).
One or two fulfillments in Jesus' life could be dismissed as coincidental. But when the instances of fulfilled prophecies are counted up, the law of probability quickly reaches the point where mere probability becomes certainty. This is one of the proofs Jesus was the promised Messiah—the messianic prophecies were accurately and precisely fulfilled in Him.
Let's review some of these.
The Seed of Abraham and descendant of David
In Galatians 3:8 and 16, Paul explains that the promise made to Abraham, "In you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18), was a reference to the coming Messiah. This promise was later repeated to Abraham's son Isaac (Genesis 26:4) and then later passed on through Abraham's grandson Jacob (Genesis 28:14).
Several hundred years later the future Messiah was prophesied to come through Jesse, the father of King David, of the tribe of Judah—one of Jacob's 12 sons. "There shall come forth a Rod [Shoot] from the stem [stock] of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of His roots" (Isaiah 11:1).
David was the son of Jesse from whom the line would come that would produce Jesus of Nazareth some 30 generations later. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God foretold that He would "raise up to David a righteous Branch" (Jeremiah 23:5, New International Version).
In this amazing progression of prophecies, beginning some 1,500 years before the Messiah would come, we are told in precise terms what the human lineage of the Christ would be. Jesus fulfilled these promises, as the apostle Matthew shows us in recording the descent of Jesus through the line of King David. The number of people who potentially could have fulfilled the messianic prophecies narrows greatly when limited to this family.
Messiah to come from Bethlehem
The Jews of Jesus' day also knew that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem (Matthew 2:3-6). This was plainly understood from Micah 5:2: "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting."
There were two Bethlehems, one in the region of Ephrathah in Judea and the other to the north, in the region of the tribe of Zebulun. But Micah's prophecy is precise. The Messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Ephrathah. Jesus was born in this Bethlehem in Judea (Matthew 2:1).
The prophecies discussed so far strongly point to Jesus, but they are not conclusive. Other people could have qualified if you use only these three as the criteria. But these are only the beginning.
A virgin conceives
A remarkable prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, called "the Immanuel prophecy," foretells the unique birth of Jesus by a virgin: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel."
Before Jesus was born, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him that his betrothed, Mary, was expecting a child—conceived not by man, but by the Spirit of God. The angel referred to this prophecy from Isaiah (Matthew 1:18-23; compare Luke 1:26-35).
Jesus was a prophet
Moses, considered the greatest of the Hebrew prophets and teachers, wrote the messianic prophecy that God would raise up a Prophet like himself from among Israel, and He would directly represent God (Deuteronomy 18:15, 18).
Jesus was regarded as a prophet (Matthew 21:46; Luke 7:16; 24:19; John 4:19; 9:17). After He had miraculously multiplied fish and bread to feed the 5,000, Jesus was regarded specifically as the prophet of whom Moses had spoken (John 6:14; compare 7:40). Peter later explicitly referred to Jesus as this prophet (Acts 3:20-23).
A sacrifice for sins
The Old Testament prophecies of the details of the suffering and death of the Messiah were not at all well understood in Jesus' day. The Jews believed that the Messiah they were looking for would be a victorious king who would deliver them from the hated Romans and restore an Israelite kingdom—not a humble Teacher who would endure suffering and death for the sins of mankind.
Yet this is a major area of Old Testament prophecy and New Testament fulfillment. Virtually every aspect of Jesus' suffering and death was spelled out in considerable detail centuries before it actually happened.
The true picture revealed in these prophecies is that the Messiah would be "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). The people did not expect the promised Deliverer, the conquering King, to be One who would first give His life for others.
Hebrews 10:12 tells us that the death of Christ was the offering for sin once and for all: "But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God." Verses 5-7 quote Psalm 40:6-8 in describing the willingness of Christ to surrender Himself as a sacrifice to pay the price for the sins of everyone.
The sacrificial system God instituted in ancient Israel was a representation of Jesus' sacrifice that would pay this price once and for all. Shedding the blood of bulls, heifers, sheep and goats could not take away sin (Hebrews 10:4).
Only the shed blood of the Creator Himself could atone for their sins as well as the sins of every other human being. The sacrifices that were commanded under Moses pictured in a very graphic way the future sacrificial death of humanity's Savior for our sins. In this sense the sacrificial system itself was prophetic of the Messiah.
The Lamb of God
The Passover lambs that were slain on the 14th day of the first month by the Israelites (Exodus 12:3-6; Leviticus 23:5) were a powerful and poignant depiction of the sacrifice of the Messiah, though the Israelites never understood it at the time.
It was on this same day of the Hebrew calendar, the day the Passover lambs were slain, that Jesus was arrested, tried and executed. He truly was "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" as spoken of by John the Baptist (John 1:29).
For centuries the Israelites missed this prophetic picture, as did the Jews of Jesus' day, and only after the fact did the disciples understand that Jesus fulfilled whole sections of Scripture that no one suspected would be fulfilled by the Messiah.
Prophecies surrounding His betrayal, suffering and death
No fewer than 29 prophecies were fulfilled in the 24-hour period leading up to Jesus' death. Some of the more notable are:
• He would be crucified. "They pierced My hands and My feet" (Psalm 22:16). This statement was written some 1,000 years before the event that fulfilled it (see John 20:25, 27). Perhaps even more remarkable, this prophecy described a form of execution that would not come into practice for centuries—some 800 years would pass before the Romans adopted crucifixion as a form of punishment for condemned criminals.
• His body would be pierced. "They will look on Me whom they pierced" (Zechariah 12:10). John tells us what happened: "One of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out" (John 19:34). John tells us that he was an eyewitness to this event (verse 35) and verifies this was fulfillment of that prophecy: "And again another Scripture says, 'They shall look on Him whom they pierced'" (verse 37).
• None of His bones would be broken. "He guards all his bones; not one of them is broken" (Psalm 34:20). John tells us: "Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who was crucified with Him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs" (John 19:32-33).
John verifies that this is a prophecy that was fulfilled: "For these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, 'Not one of His bones shall be broken'" (verse 36).
• People would cast lots for His clothing. "They divide My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots" (Psalm 22:18). John testifies that this detail, too, was fulfilled.
"Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His garments and made four parts, to each soldier a part, and also the tunic. Now the tunic was without seam, woven from the top in one piece. They said therefore among themselves, 'Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be,' that the Scripture might be fulfilled" (John 19:23-24).
• He would pray for his executioners. "He... made intercession for the transgressors" (Isaiah 53:12). Jesus prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do" (Luke 23:34).
• He would be executed with criminals. "And He was numbered with the transgressors" (Isaiah 53:12). Matthew 27:38 tells us that "two robbers were crucified with Him, one on the right and another on the left."
• He would not retaliate. "He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth" (Isaiah 53:7).
Matthew 27:12 tells us that "while He was being accused by the chief priests and elders, He answered nothing." Pilate, the Roman governor, also tried to get Him to answer, "but He answered him not one word, so that the governor marveled greatly" (verses 13-14).
• He would be forsaken by His followers. "Strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered" (Zechariah 13:7). When Jesus was arrested, all His disciples "forsook Him and fled" (Mark 14:50).
• He would be betrayed by a trusted friend. The betrayal of Jesus by Judas, one of His disciples, was prophesied in Psalm 41:9: "Even my own familiar friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted up his heel against me." Jesus proclaims this prophecy to be fulfilled when He gives Judas the piece of bread in John 13:18 and verse 26.
• The price of the betrayal would be 30 pieces of silver. The 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas for the betrayal of Jesus (Matthew 26:14-15) is understood to have been prophesied in Zechariah 11:12: "So they weighed out for my wages thirty pieces of silver."
• He would be offered vinegar and gall. Jesus being offered vinegar with gall to drink while being crucified (Matthew 27:34) is understood to be referred to in Psalm 69:21: "They also gave me gall for my food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink."
Once again, the sheer number of prophecies and their precision all point to their being fulfilled by one person, Jesus of Nazareth. Yet in spite of so much specific, eyewitness testimony to fulfilled prophecies, some people still raise various objections.
Was their fulfillment contrived?
A common objection some raise is that Jesus and His followers deliberately attempted to fulfill these prophecies. Several books have proposed variations of this theory, among them The Passover Plot. Advocates of this idea allege that Jesus manipulated events to make it look like He fulfilled the prophecies. Somehow Jesus managed to fake His own death, to be revived later.
There is no doubt that Jesus did take some steps to directly fulfill prophecy, such as securing the donkey on which to ride into Jerusalem and making sure that His disciples had swords to be reckoned as criminals (see Matthew 21:1-7; Luke 22:36-38). This was not, however, deceptive. After all, God explained in the Old Testament how He is able to foretell the future: "I am God... declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done... Indeed I have spoken it; I will also bring it to pass" (Isaiah 46:9-11).
Christ, as God made flesh, was simply bringing to pass what He had foretold. However, if only a typical human being, Jesus would not have been able to fulfill everything foretold about the Messiah.
While the idea might sound intriguing, it's impossible when you consider what Jesus would actually have had to do. To begin, He would have to have successfully manipulated His own place of birth and His human lineage. He would have to have arranged for His time to be born, so that as an adult He could begin His ministry and arrange for His death all according to the time frame of the prophecy of Daniel 9. On top of that, He would have to have engineered His own miraculous virgin birth.
If this theory had any sense of plausibility, it still would make no sense that Jesus would not fulfill the Jewish expectation of a Messiah who was to come as a king to rule the people at that time. Jesus certainly had that opportunity if He had wanted to become a physical king and leader of the Jewish nation. Many were willing to follow Him and make Him king (John 6:15; 12:12-19). Instead He took the route that led to His horrible suffering and death.
He accurately fulfilled the prophecies according to the intent of God, but contrary to the common understanding at the time. He became a servant and was willing to give His life as payment for the sins of all (Matthew 20:28). The character of such a person hardly qualifies Him to be a charlatan and a fake—one who manipulates events for His own benefit.
Fulfillment of prophecy is proof
God, who is able to control all events, caused these prophecies to be written hundreds of years before they were fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. As Peter proclaimed, "Those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He [Jesus] has thus fulfilled" (Acts 3:18).
Paul reaffirmed that "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures" and that "He was buried, and...He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
To accurately foretell these events 200 to 800 years in advance is nothing less than a miracle—one that required divine knowledge and power to bring them to pass as foretold. God doesn't do things by chance. He knew even from the foundation of the world that His Son would have to come to earth (1 Peter 1:20), and He foretold the events of His birth, death and life so we would have firm evidence on which to base our belief.
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