One of the best ways to confirm the Christian faith is through prophecies in the Old Testament fulfilled in Christ. As I read through certain portions of the Old Testament I can’t help but be amazed at the evident hand of God in the composition of these Scriptures.
God tells the Israelites, who were continually toying in henotheism (i.e. one main God and many lesser gods), to bring these so-called gods into account by making them tell what would happen in the future. In this mocking of other gods, God called on them to prophesy.
“Bring your idols so that they might tell us what is going to happen. Tell us the former things, what they are, that we may consider them, that we may know their outcome; or declare to us the things to come.” (Isa 41:22)
The idea goes like this: God, by definition, is transcendent. God created all things, including time. Therefore, God, in his essence, does not reside in any part of his creation, including the parameters of time. Therefore, he alone has exhaustive knowledge of the future out of necessity. No other created thing has innate access to this kind of knowledge—not man, angels, demons, or Satan. God alone knows the future. Therefore, any consistently accurate prediction of future events must come from him. If the Bible accurately predicts future events in detail, we must pause and consider the implications.
Most evangelicals are well aware of this. We have some very popular defenses of the faith that consistently use prophecy to convince others that Christ is God’s son. I am certainly not against this at all. As I said, this is very convincing to me as well. There are certain passages about Christ that stand out more than any other. Isaiah 53 of course. The entire chapter looks as if it was written after Christ’s death, yet it was written 700 years before. We even have scrolls of Isaiah that date at least 150 years before Christ. As well, the book of Daniel. Specifically, I look at Daniel chapter 9. This is not an easy chapter to understand, but once grasped it very convincingly predicts when Christ would die over 400 years later. (The best book to pick up on this subject is Harold Hoehner’s Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ).
There are many others that stand out. However, I think that we Christians should be careful concerning which prophecies we include in our apologetic arsenal. While we look at the Old Testament and see Christ in prophecy, imagery, foreshadowing, and typology, we look at it though our beliefs that are already in place. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, for us Christians it is very exciting to begin to see Christ everywhere in the Old Testament.
However, there is a problem. There are certain “prophesies” about Christ in the Old Testament that need to be distinguished from those we use for evangelistic/apologetic purposes. In other words, there are certain prophecies that carry great and convincing weight, but others are of less apologetic value.
1. Isaiah 7:14: Born of a virgin.
I often hear people using Isaiah 7:14 as definitive proof that Christ was the Messiah.
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”
Why shouldn’t we use it? Matthew did (Matt. 1:22-23). The problem is that when we look at that passage in Isaiah, the original context does not look like a predictive prophecy about the Messiah, but an immediate prophecy (“sign”) given to Ahaz concerning his current national predicament. Read the entire chapter and you will see what I mean. The prophecy must have been fulfilled in Ahaz time in order for it to have any relevance or make any sense.
Besides all of this, in the original Hebrew, the word used here, almah, simply means “young woman.” It may be supposed that most young women were virgins, but in the original context, the miracle was not that Ahaz would see an actual virgin with a child, but that his enemies would be defeated by the time the child (maybe Isaiah’s child yet to be born) reached a certain age.
We Christians see a sort of “foreshadowing” or typological prophecy that extends on the nuance of the word “young woman” due to the circumstances of the Christ advent. Post-Christ, we see this as a reference to Christ’s virgin conception. However, for the skeptic, this can be easy dismissed due to the context and the meaning of almah.
2. Zech 12:10: Piercing of Christ’s side
Christians rightly see a reference to the piercing of Christ in the words of Zechariah.
“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.
However, outside of Christian circles, this does not look like a prediction of the piercing at the cross at all. It simply looks like God referring to his own “piercing” which could have any number of meanings, all of which point to Israel abandoning God and the ensuing pain. Isreal will recognize God whom they have hurt after he restores them in the future. Christians simply take the “piercing” literally since Christ (God) was pierced.
3. Psalm 22:16: Piercing of Christ’s hands and feet.
Another passage that we see some details of Christ’s death is Psalm 22:16.
“Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.”
Again, while Christians have a lens through which we interpret this passage, others do not. It is very hard to get Christ’s crucifixion out of the original context which is David’s situation. It is even harder to qualify this as a predictive prophecy as there is no indication that David is talking about anyone but himself. David is calling out to God for help as his enemies are overwhelming him. David’s hands and feet have been pierced (metaphorically or literally). We Christians see Christ in this, and rightly so. It is a foreshadowing typology of what Christ would endure on the cross. However, from the skeptics perspective, this is normally going to carry very little weight as the original context answers all their questions.
4. Psalm 34:20: No bones of Christ will be broken
In a proverbial statement about the righteous, the Psalmist says this:
“He [God] protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken.”
Once again, Christians see a reference to Christ’s crucifixion. Remember, the soldiers come to break his legs so that he will die before dark and find that he is already dead. John uniquely sees this as a fulfillment of the Psalm (Jn 19:36).
However, once again, the original context of the Psalm is not a predictive prophecy about Christ. While the Christian’s faith will cause them to see Christ in this section of the Old Testament, those outside have no obligation to see this as anything other than a proverbial reference to God’s protection of the righteous.
There are many others that I could cover here, but these will suffice. I pray that no one is misreading me here. I am not saying that these passages are not about Christ in a very real sense. I believe they are. All I am saying is that we need to be careful to distinguish between those prophecies that are truly predictive and apologetically more useful and those that are typological references that carry weight and significance only for those who are already believers.
It was Theodore of Mopsuestia (Theodore the Interpreter), on of the great Antiochians of the fourth-century, who first encouraged Christians to distinguish between predictive prophecy and typology. I am afraid that in our zeal to be good apologetic students, we often don’t think through these things as well as we should and end up looking rather naive.
Teach people about Christ from the Old Testament. Use the Old Testament to show the legitimacy of Christ. Let us just be careful to qualify what we say, understanding that unbelievers are not always going to see the same things. I think that this will make our defense of the faith more substantial.