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..
- Do Old Testament Prophecies Prove That Jesus is the Messiah?
- Anticipating the Messiah: Five Questions About Jesus and Prophecy
- “Everything Must Be Fulfilled:” Prophecy and the Messiah
- Explore the Evidence for Jesus Christ in the “Investigating the Bible” Newsletter
- Why “Christ” instead of “messiah”? And other translation questions