How Do We Know That Jesus Was the Messiah? A Look at Old Testament Prophecy and Jesus

How do we know that Jesus was the Messiah—the long-awaited Son of God who would reconcile humans to their Creator?

The basic tenets of Christianity are so well-known at this point that it’s easy to lose fact of the sheer audacity of their central premise: that a humble man born in a small town thousands of years ago was and is the savior promised by God. How are we to evaluate such a claim? Is there any proof for it?

It’s tempting to imagine that if we just could have seen Jesus, if we could have heard his parables and witnessed his miracles, that the truth of this claim would be obvious. But the truth is, Jesus’ contemporaries—even many of his own followers—struggled with this question just as we do today. Plenty of people who observed Jesus’ actions with their own eyes resisted the idea that he was the Messiah.

One of the most useful ways to test Christianity’s claims about Jesus is to look to the Jewish Scriptures that pre-dated Jesus’ birth. By examining the story of Israel, and by looking carefully at the different prophecies, hints, and foreshadowings that describe the promised Messiah, we can evaluate whether or not Jesus fits the picture of that Messiah.

Author and apologist Lee Strobel has written a great deal about the claims of Christianity, and specifically about the question of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah. In this question-and-answer from his devotional newsletter, Lee describes what the Old Testament says about the Messiah—and talks about how that informs our understanding of who Jesus was and is.

Q. I have been wondering about Old Testament prophecies. The New Testament seems to establish that Jesus is the Messiah, for example, but is this proven in the Old Testament?

A. Thanks for your question! The issue about how the Old Testament proves Jesus is the Messiah cannot be done “in and of itself” without the New Testament. Since the last Old Testament book written precedes the time of Jesus by several hundred years, it cannot “prove” what has not yet taken place.

Interestingly, however, some supernatural prophecies that are not Messianic occur entirely within the Old Testament. Perhaps the most remarkable is Isaiah, who prophesied no later than 680 BC many things that Cyrus the Great would accomplish, including decimating empires, allowing the Jewish people to return to their homeland, and a decree that the temple in Jerusalem be rebuilt (Isaiah 44:28-45:13). Isaiah prophesied this more than 80 years before the first exile of Jewish people were taken captive to Babylon (circa 597 BC). Cyrus ruled Persia and the kingdoms he subsequently conquered like Babylon from roughly 560 to 530 BC.

From our vantage point today, we can also see how the Old Testament corresponds to the New Testament through miraculous Messianic prophecy fulfillment. Distinct aspects of the ancestry, birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection of the Messiah were all prophesied in the Old Testament and their historical fulfillment was recorded in the New Testament, primarily the four Gospels. The Old Testament points toward “the anointed one,” which was translated Christos in Greek, the language of the inspired New Testament Scripture and much of the Roman world. Therefore, Christ was the term used by Christians to refer to the Messiah.

Prophecy fulfillment is powerful evidence that validates the credibility and supernatural inspiration of the Old Testament, where human beings are told specific predictions by God to be fulfilled many hundreds of years in the future. While Christian apologists do not arrive at the same number of messianic prophecies, most agree they are numerous. Jewish biblical scholar Alfred Edersheim (1825-1889), a convert to Christianity, wrote a classic work affirming there are 456 passages in the Old Testament that refer to the Messiah. His work The Life and Times of Jesus The Messiah is accessible for free online at CCEL. Edersheim also stated that there are 558 Messianic references in Jewish rabbinic writings. Popular apologist Josh McDowell inspired a generation of Christians to become interested in prophecy fulfillment by detailing numerous prophecies in his best-seller Evidence That Demands A Verdict (first printing 1972).

One of the better known prophecies is Micah 5:2, which says that “one whose origins are from the days of eternity” would be born in Bethlehem. In the New Testament, King Herod asked his chief priests and teachers of the law where the Messiah (or Christ) was to be born. They replied, “In Bethlehem of Judea,” specifically quoting Micah 5:2 (see Matthew 2:1-6).

For more examples of Messianic prophecies fulfilled, see my books The Case for Christ and The Case for the Real Jesus, in which I interviewed two Jewish experts and converts to Christianity, Louis Lapides and Dr. Michael Brown. They both give specific and helpful background concerning the Old Testament predictions about the coming of the Messiah. I think you’ll find those discussions helpful. In fact, in The Case for the Real Jesus, Brown establishes that either the Old Testament points toward Jesus as the Messiah or there will never be one – in other words, Jesus fits the “fingerprint” of the prophecies in a manner that nobody else ever did or will be able to do in the future, given the necessary time frame for the appearance of the Messiah.

Keep in mind that Jesus himself claimed he was fulfilling prophecy. In the Sermon on the Mount, he said he has not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, a designation for the Old Testament Scriptures, but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17). After his resurrection Jesus expounded to the disciples that, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms (Luke 24:44)!”

While prophecy fulfillment is stunning, foreshadowing is a literary device that anticipates important future events. It demonstrates the beauty and drama of a sophisticated narrative. The world’s great writers use foreshadowing in their masterpieces. This is another captivating way that the Old Testament corresponds to the New Testament. Hebrews 10:1 states that the Old Testament “law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves.” The fulfillment of these “types” occurs in the “good things” of the person and work of Jesus Christ, the “antitype (corresponding to something prior)” (Hebrews 10:5-14).

One example an Old Testament “type” or shadow is Abraham, who initially was commanded to sacrifice his only legitimate son Isaac until God saw Abraham’s faithfulness and intervened with a substitutionary sacrifice (Genesis 22). The fulfillment or “antitype” is demonstrated when God the Father, who so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son as a sacrifice for the sins of the world (e.g. John 3:16; Romans 3:22-25).

Another “type” or foreshadowing of Christ is found in the Passover lamb (see Exodus 11-12). God was to deliver the tenth and final plague upon the land of Egypt, which was to strike the firstborn son of everyone in Egypt as well as livestock. However, God had a way of escape for the persecuted Israelites. They were to take the blood of a one-year-old lamb without defect and place it above and on both sides of the doorframe of their home. God was to bring judgment upon Egypt for their worship of false gods, but when the Lord saw the blood on the doorframe of the Israelites he would pass over and spare the lives of those inside.

We see the New Testament “antitype” in 1 Corinthians 5:7, which says that “Christ our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed” for our deliverance by his atoning blood shed for our sins.

This essay is taken from Lee Strobel’s Investigating Faith newsletter..

Posted by Andy

Palm Sunday: The King Arrives!

The days leading up to Easter often have an understandably somber feel to them, particularly as we contemplate Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution. It’s easy to forget that the week begins with a joyful event: the Triumphal Entry!

Today is Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, we commemorate Jesus’ celebrated entry into Jerusalem just a few days before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.

The “palm” in Palm Sunday refers to the palm branches waved by the adoring Jerusalem crowds who welcomed Jesus and proclaimed him King. The event is commonly referred to as the Triumphal Entry. Here’s the account from Matthew 21:1-11:

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

“Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

The Triumphal Entry is also described in the other three Gospels; see Mark 11:1-11, John 12:12-19, and Luke 19:28-44. While each account tells the same story, each provides a few unique details that, taken together, give us a complete picture of the event.

On the surface, the celebratory events of Palm Sunday make it an unusual starting point for the Easter story. Jesus’ arrival on a lowly donkey might seem almost as strange to us today as it did to the crowds who witnessed it. But Palm Sunday sets the stage for Easter in several important ways.

Most importantly, Jesus’ triumphant entry made abundantly clear Jesus’ claim to be the promised Messiah and Savior. The seemingly odd choice of a donkey as a mount was a specific fulfillment of a prophecy in the Old Testament book of Zechariah, as the account above notes:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Although Jesus’ contemporaries often struggled to make the connection, this was more evidence to anyone with “eyes to see and ears to hear” that He was the long-awaited Savior.

The Triumphal Entry also highlights important truths about both humanity and God. It illuminates the fickle nature of the human heart; the city that eagerly embraced Jesus one day would be calling for his death just a short while later. And it reminds us that God often fulfills His promises in ways we don’t expect: here was Israel’s promised king, but riding on a donkey, not the noble warhorse one might expect. He was a king, but not the one Jerusalem thought it needed—instead of liberating them from Roman oppression through military might, Jesus intended to liberate his people from the oppression of sin… by sacrificing himself. God fulfilled His promise but confounded human assumptions about how He would do so.

Finally, it’s important to remember that the “triumph” of Palm Sunday isn’t entirely overshadowed by grim irony. On the contrary, today is a day of genuine joy—a day when we get a brief glimpse of how things should have been. Here, Jesus is greeted with joy and celebration, praised as a king and welcomed by his people into their city and their lives. The warm welcome won’t last, but at this point in the Gospel story, it’s possible to imagine that it might.

Read the story of the Triumphal Entry and try to imagine what it would’ve been like to witness it in person. The darkness of the crucifixion looms on the horizon, but this is an occasion of celebration nonetheless—the promised king has revealed himself at last to his people! Hallelujah; praise the King!

Image: Palm Sunday fresco by Giotto di Bondone, 1266–1337.

Posted by Andy

Holy Week, Day By Day

The real drama of the Easter season is about to begin: Palm Sunday (that’s this coming Sunday) is the start of what is often called “Holy Week”—the final days leading up to Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection.

The account of Holy Week makes for a very exciting read—partly because of the spiritual importance behind its key events, but also because it’s simply a powerful, emotional story. As Holy Week unfolds, a large cast of characters play out a drama that touches on every extreme of human emotion: joy, hope, fear, betrayal, pain, and grief—and then back to joy with its incredible conclusion on Easter Sunday.

But the story’s depth makes it somewhat complex. To help you track the people, places, and events of Holy Week, here’s a chart that visualizes each of the different strands of the Easter story as they lead up to Easter Sunday:

(Click the image above for a full-size version. It’s also available in PDF.)

Each line in the chart represents a different person or faction that played a major role in the Easter story. Follow the lines to see how these individuals and groups interacted with each other during the events of Holy Week; read the Bible passages associated with each major event to learn about them. See this post for more information about how to read this timeline and what it does and doesn’t show. (And please note that this chart is an interpretation, drawn from the different Gospel accounts. There’s room for some interpretation in the timing of some of these events.)

This visualization was released under a Creative Commons license, which means that you should feel free to print copies (we recommend printing the PDF) and share them with people at your church.

Posted by Andy

Installation of The Divine Servant Statue

Bible Gateway recently moved into a new office building. In our previous location, a bronze statue titled The Divine Servant, depicting Jesus washing the feet of Peter, was featured in our lobby. It draws its inspiration from Mark 10:43-45 and John 13:4-17. That statue has now been relocated to outside of our new building. We thought you may like to see the installation process:

Posted by Jonathan

Is Easter Based on a Pagan Holiday?

Is the word “Easter” derived from the name of a pagan goddess? Is it appropriate to use that term to refer to the Resurrection day of Jesus Christ—and is the entire Lent season and Easter holiday tainted by association with ancient pagan religion?

We’re asked these questions each year during Lent. We’ve asked Mel Lawrenz, minister-at-large of Elmbrook Church and creative director of The Brook Network, to talk about this issue. His answer is below.

Question: Why do most Christians use the word “Easter” in reference to the Resurrection day of Jesus, when that word comes from a pagan goddess?

First, there never has been a direct association of the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus with the pagan deity. The celebration of the day of resurrection fell on the month of Eastre (West Saxon) or Eostre (Northumbrian). So it was a time of year that was the association, the name of a month. Now that month’s name was probably (not certainly) derived from a goddess of spring. But this association is remote and that is why if you use the word “Easter” in normal speech today, people make no association with ancient pagan religion. Hundreds of millions of Christians use “Easter,” and have done so for centuries, with the meaning of “the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.”

Second, there are many words we use that have long-passed connections in pagan culture or religion, but their meaning has been changed. When we talk about going to church on “Sunday” we don’t have much heartburn about the fact that this day in the Roman calendar was for the worship of the sun. The examples are everywhere. And when we pass into January we mark a new beginning with little concern that the word “January” comes from the Roman god Janus, the god of doorways. Many of the words we use have some peculiar etymology. What matters is what the words mean to us today in normal spoken language.

One last point. Christians have often intentionally placed their symbols and labels on top of pagan symbols and labels because they believe this represents the conquest of the Lordship of Christ. When Christians began celebrating the birth of Jesus at the time of the pagan festival of Saturnalia near the winter solstice they were intentionally saying: the Son of God trumps the sun god.— Mel Lawrenz

You can learn more about Mel’s ministry and follow his blog at The Brook Network. He’s the author of the Knowing Him Easter devotional (which runs through Easter Sunday—there’s still time to sign up!), and writes the Everything New email devotional here at Bible Gateway.

Posted by Mel Lawrenz

The Saint John’s Bible: A Work of Art

St Johns Bible illuminationIn 1998, Saint John’s Abbey and University (@CSBSJU) in Collegeville, Minnesota, commissioned calligrapher Donald Jackson in Wales to produce a hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible; the first such Bible commissioned by a Benedictine abbey in more than 500 years. Using ancient traditional materials such as hand-ground pigments, Chinese stick ink, goose and turkey quills, and calf-skin vellum, the work of sacred art was 13 years in the making. The result is described as the calligrapher’s Sistine Chapel.

The Saint John’s Bible (@SaintJohnsBible) is the critically-acclaimed $8 million modern/medieval creation by Jackson, one of the world’s foremost Western calligraphers to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Office at the House of Lords, and an international team of scribes and artists. The colorful artwork from precious minerals and stones such as lapis lazuli, vermilion, and malachite, and silver, platinum, and 24-karat gold leaf add light and brilliance to the pages, illuminating the Word of God for a new millennium.

Jackson’s process in preparing for each of the more than 160 passage illuminations was similar to the monastic practice of Lectio Divina: a careful mulling over the text, looking at the details, thinking, meditating, and letting it sink in.


Consisting of 1,127 two-foot by three-foot pages in seven volumes (Gospels and Acts completed in May 2002, Pentateuch – August 2003, Psalms – April 2004, Prophets – April 2005, Wisdom Books – July 2006, Historical Books – March 2010, Letters and Revelation – May 2011) with a total weight of more than 165 pounds, the translation used in The Saint John’s Bible is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).


A computer was used to size the text and define line breaks. The pages were laid out in full size spreads with sketches in position. Artists used these layouts to guide their work. Each page is 24 ½” x 15 7/8”, making a two-page spread approximately three feet wide.

Book headings — Each book of the Bible has an illuminated book heading Throughout the Bible, book titles appear on each two-page spread written in English on the left page and in its native translation root (most often Hebrew or in some cases Greek) on the right page.

Verses — Paragraph changes are marked by small colored “kites” alternating in 19th century vermilion water-color (red) and sky blue designer gouache as well as other colors; and the verse numbers appear in the margins. All other verse numbers appear in the line of text and are written with a smaller pen.

Chapter Capitals — The beginning of each chapter begins with a large decorative capital letter. Each decorative capital in the entire project is different.

Script — The calligraphic script was specially designed for The Saint John’s Bible by Donald Jackson. Letters are written in lamp black ink from 19th century Chinese stick inks made from carbon.

Script size — The “x” height describes the size of the script. The small letters are about two millimeters tall. The height of the script is directly proportionate to the size of the quill.

Columns — Each page has two 4 ¾” columns of script. Columns are justified on the left and the right. There are 54 lines per column, and an average of 10.5 words per line.

Marginalia — Small decorative illustrations, often created with gold leaf and other gilding, appear in the margins.

Notations — The official notes from the New Revised Standard Version appear in the lower left and right hand margins of each page.

Beginning 10 minutes into the following video, Jackson demonstrates his calligraphy technique.

The Saint John’s Bible is housed at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (@visitHMML), but is often on tour to museums around the country offering educational and spiritual outreach programs.


A companion website is Seeing The Word (@SeeingTheWord), a program of guided reflection that makes it possible to pray with images from The Saint John’s Bible.


Posted by Jonathan

A Little Girl and Her Bible (Guest Post by Jennifer Dukes Lee)

Lydia is 11 years old now.

I’m guessing she must have been seven or eight when she went a little bit crazy with a green highlighter on the pages of her Bible. She marked up page after page, line after line, in her first “big people” Bible. It happened a few weeks after she got it.

She must have done her artwork under the covers, after we tucked her in and turned out the light. She could read by the glow of her night-light, I suppose, and maybe with the little numbers on her digital clock. Those numbers cast a soft, red glow from her night stand.

And while we thought she was sleeping, she had flipped pages of Scripture, marking thousands of words in green.

I asked Lydia later why she did that, why she marked all those words in green. And she said it was because of what I’d told her.

“I watched how you marked up your Bible with a green highlighter, and when I asked you why, you said it’s because you liked to mark your favorite parts.”

Her favorite part was … well, all of it, I guess.

I’ve marked my Bible plenty over the years. I’ve highlighted favorite passages, a psalmist’s beautiful turn-of-a-phrase, some bit of Scripture that pulled me out of a pit. God knows I’ve cried big, fat tears while streaking that green highlighter across the page.

But what Lydia had done? It was different. She had marked about half of Exodus, huge sections in Matthew, whole paragraphs in Genesis and a chunk of Scripture in Acts that she’s particularly fond of, seeing how her name is in the sixteenth chapter.

She marked the story. Not the perfect endings — but the painful middles. She marked the plagues, and the parts about Passover, and the wailing in Egypt.

She marked the hard parts, the scary stuff, … and also the celebrations and the promises.

It’s a wild story, and yeah, it’s a bit unruly. There are these huge gaps between the happy verses. Some of it’s deep valley-ish. Some of it’s highly mountainous.

But it’s still God. It’s His Story.

And now? It’s all green.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m overthinking, over-spiritualizing, over-sentimentalizing things. I’ve been known to do that. I mean, she could have been just another little kid who got a little bit crazy with a highlighter, a kid who wanted to see what it would feel like to mark page after page.

Except that she said it wasn’t like that at all.

She said she did it because of this –

Because of the story.

“The story is my favorite part. How it all goes together,” she told me. “And when I started marking words, I didn’t know how to stop.”

Jennifer Dukes LeeBIO: Jennifer Dukes Lee (@dukeslee) is an award-winning storyteller and a grace dweller, blogging about faith at She is author of the book, Love Idol: Letting Go of Your Need for Approval–and Seeing Yourself Through God’s Eyes (Tyndale House Publishers, 2014). Jennifer and her husband live on the Lee family farm near Inwood, Iowa, with their two daughters.

Posted by Jonathan

“Noah” Generates a Flood of Bible Readers Over the Weekend

noahposterChristian critics have given Noah mixed reviews, but one thing Darren Aronofsky’s epic did accomplish was to get people reading the original story of Noah in the Bible. Over the weekend, visits to the Noah story in Genesis 6-9 at Bible Gateway saw a 223% increase over the previous weekend! I imagine this represents a lot of Noah viewers looking to compare the film with the original story, or people just refreshing their memory of a classic Bible story that everybody’s suddenly talking about.

Predictably, the Noah film drew mixed reviews from Christian critics over the weekend: some reviewers appreciated the biblical themes and questions raised by the movie, while others sharply criticized its departures from the Genesis account. (I’ve not seen the film, but shared a few discussion questions here.)

As the Noah conversation kicked into high gear last week, we ran a poll asking “Should Hollywood be making Bible-based movies?” The results are interesting in light of Noah‘s reception. A hefty majority—just over 60%—answered that Hollywood adaptations of Bible stories are acceptable only if they adhere strictly to the details of the original story. A smaller percentage of respondents (28%) feel that Bible stories are a good fit for the big screen and can withstand artistic license. And about 11% think that Bible stories should never be grist for the Hollywood mill.

All of the discussion surrounding Noah, and the extent to which so many people are publicly chatting about the details of an Old Testament story, have got us wondering how much the Bible actually comes up in everyday conversation. Let us know by voting in our new poll:

How often do you talk about the Bible in your normal course of conversation?

View Results

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Posted by Andy

Considering “Noah”: What Makes a Good (or Accurate) Bible Film?

Are you planning to watch the Noah movie? Unless you’ve managed to stay completely off the internet in recent weeks, you’ve witnessed some of the many ongoing discussions, reviews, and debates about the film’s merits, both as a work of art and as a dramatization of an important Bible story. The movie premieres today in U.S. theaters, so everybody can finally weigh it against their expectations.

Whether you’re going to see the film or not, we’d be remiss if we didn’t encourage you to read the Bible’s account of Noah and the Great Flood. It’s found in Genesis 6-9, and is a surprisingly quick read—particularly if you’ve never read this classic story, take five minutes to check it out.

And once you’ve read the original story, you can consider whether or not the movie looks promising:

I haven’t seen Noah, and beyond an appreciation for some of director Darren Aronofsky’s past films, I have no particular expectations about this new film. However, I think this Christianity Today interview with Darren Aronofsky is useful reading for anyone who is primarily concerned about the film’s fidelity to the biblical account. In it, the filmmakers describe Noah not as an attempt to reproduce the biblical Noah story, but as a sort of contribution to the midrash—the Jewish rabbinical tradition of stories and interpretations meant to explore and expand on the scripture narrative:

Christianity Today: In developing the script, you have the biblical text, obviously. What attention did you pay to other sources, such as the Book of Enoch [an extrabiblical Jewish source traditionally attributed to Noah's great-grandfather]?

[Filmmaker] Ari Handel: We read a lot. We read Enoch, we read the Jubilees, we read a lot of midrash [Jewish literature that explains Torah], we read a lot of different legends, and in midrashic tradition, there are tons of competing stories and legends and ideas circulating.

Which is to say, the Noah film is based on a lot more than just Genesis 6-9; it’s based on a slew of Jewish and other extra-biblical texts and legends, as well as the filmmakers’ own perspective. The discontinuity with the Genesis account here strikes me as subtly different from the changes that Bible-based films usually introduce into their stories for the sake of drama. Most such movies aim for faithfulness to the original text but make compromises; Noah, by contrast, doesn’t set strict faithfulness to the Genesis account as a top priority in the first place.

Does that affect our ability, as Christians, to enjoy or draw insight from Noah?

The answer, of course, will vary from person to person, Christian to Christian. Here are a few questions to consider in light of all this:

  • When reproducing a Bible story in film, is strict adherence to the biblical account’s details always the best goal? Could you imagine a scenario in which a non-literal adaptation might be more faithful to the heart of the story?
  • If you allow for some dramatic changes, are there nonetheless certain elements of the Noah story that must be present in an adaptation of it? What are those key elements in the Noah account?
  • Is there value in coming up with new interpretations and asking “what if?” questions about Bible stories, or is that spiritually dangerous? How do you draw the line (if any) between useful speculation about a Bible story, and harmful distraction?
  • Is there a “gold standard” for Bible story film adaptations—a film that you feel perfectly combined faithfulness to the source material with cinematic storytelling skill?
  • If you’ve seen Noah, do you think it captures the spirit of the Bible story? Why or why not?

Whether you watch Noah or not, whether you think it’s a great film or a travesty, hopefully its time in the pop culture spotlight will give you a chance to have some good conversations about the Bible this weekend!

Posted by Andy

“Forgive as the Lord Forgave You”: Desmond Tutu and Impossible Forgiveness

What’s the hardest act of forgiveness you’ve ever done?

Forgiveness is central to the Christian story—both Jesus’ forgiveness of us, and our forgiveness of others. This promise of God’s forgiveness (so appropriate to contemplate during Lent!) is one of the most powerful, reassuring messages in the Bible:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. — 1 John 1:9 (NIV)

But the Bible’s emphasis on forgiveness is not always comfortable. Consider Matthew 6:14-15, in which Jesus declares that forgiveness is not an optional exercise of faith:

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. — Matthew 6:14-15 (NIV)

Forgiveness isn’t too hard to dispense when the offense is of the mild, everyday variety committed by people we like or love: a careless remark, a forgotten chore, a tardy arrival. But forgiveness becomes harder when the person we’re forgiving is an enemy, and harder yet when the offense is something truly serious. Yet the Bible doesn’t distinguish between different levels of forgiveness; it simply directs us to forgive as we have been forgiven.

History has given us many examples of incredible acts of forgiveness—acts of forgiveness so extreme that upon reading about them, we can only nervously wonder if Jesus truly expects us to display this level of grace. Consider Corrie Ten Boom’s forgiveness of a German guard who worked at the concentration camp where she and her sister had suffered horribly. Is it possible for an ordinary person to extend such grace?

desmondtutuOr consider this story about forgiveness in the aftermath of South African apartheid, as related by Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho in The Book of Forgiving, their new book. By a strange coincidence, when Tutu’s publisher sent this excerpt to Bible Gateway wondering if it was relevant to our ministry, I had just finished reading André Brink’s brutal novel A Dry White Season, about the injustice of apartheid, and had found myself wondering how such institutionalized evil could be confronted, let alone forgiven. Here’s Tutu’s account of superhuman forgiveness:

“He had many wounds.” She spoke with the precision of a coroner. “In the upper abdomen were five wounds. These wounds indicated that different weapons were used to stab him, or a group of people stabbed him.” Mrs. Mhlawuli continued her harrowing testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She spoke about the disappearance and murder of her husband, Sicelo. “In the lower part, he also had wounds. In total, there were forty-three. They poured acid on his face. They chopped off his right hand just below the wrist. I don’t know what they did with that hand.” A wave of horror and nausea rose in me.

Now it was nineteen-year-old Babalwa’s turn to speak. She was eight when her father died. Her brother was only three. She described the grief, police harassment, and hardship in the years since her father’s death. And then she said, “I would love to know who killed my father. So would my brother.” Her next words stunned me and left me breathless. “We want to forgive them. We want to forgive, but we don’t know who to forgive.”

As chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I have often been asked how the people of South Africa were able to forgive the atrocities and injustices they suffered under apartheid. Our journey in South Africa was quite long and treacherous. Today it is hard to believe that, up until our first democratic election in 1994, ours was a country that institutionalized racism, inequality, and oppression. In apartheid South Africa only white people could vote, earn a high-quality education, and expect advancement or opportunity.

There were decades of protest and violence. Much blood was shed during our long march to freedom. When, at last, our leaders were released from prison, it was feared that our transition to democracy would become a bloodbath of revenge and retaliation. Miraculously we chose another future. We chose forgiveness. At the time, we knew that telling the truth and healing our history was the only way to save our country from certain destruction. We did not know where this choice would lead us. The process we embarked on through the TRC was, as all real growth proves to be, astoundingly painful and profoundly beautiful.

What’s your reaction to this story? Could you imagine yourself extending this kind of grace to somebody else—somebody who wasn’t even asking for your forgiveness? Tutu uses the word “miraculous” to describe the decision to forgive rather than take revenge, and I think that’s a profound insight: I think true forgiveness on that level is possible only through the extension of God’s grace to us. I am thankful that we serve a God who can strengthen us in every good deed and word—and who can move our hard hearts to forgive even our worst enemies.

If you’re interested, you can learn more about The Book of Forgiving here. You might also enjoy this recent interview with Tutu—in which, among other things, he explains why the Bible is “dynamite” to injustice and human evil:

Posted by Andy