"The prophecies are the strongest proof of Jesus Christ.
It is for them also that God has made most provision...."
~ Blaise Pascal (1660) in Pensees, XI: 706
Perhaps the predominant apologetic of the New Testament is "proving from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah" (as noted of Apollos in Acts 18:28). This is seen throughout the book of Acts (Peter: 2:22-31; Stephen: 7:52; Paul: 9:22; 17:2-3; 28:23). It is also seen as a central argument in the four gospels, which quote many of these messianic prophecies. Matthew constantly refers to messianic prophecies, often using some form of the explicit formula: "this happened to fulfill what was said through the prophet" (1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:56; 27:9). Likewise, John frequently uses variations of a similar formula: "so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled" (13:18; 17:12; 19:24, 28, 36). Furthermore, what is probably the oldest creed of the Church (1 Corinthians 15:3-8, probably formed by 33 A.D.) explicitly notes that Jesus' substitutionary death, burial and resurrection were in accordance with the Scriptures (meaning the prophecies of the Old Testament). And all of this has its roots in Jesus' own teaching. For example: "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, Jesus explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (Luke 24:27; also Matthew 26:54; John 5:39; etc.).
But applying these Old Testament prophecies to the Messiah was not a Christian invention. Messianic expectation (though not universal) was widespread among the Jews from the 1st Century B.C. until the 2nd Century A.D. This messianic expectation is seen not only in the gospel accounts (e.g., Matthew 2:1-6; Luke 2:25-32; John 1:41-45) but also in other Jewish writings. They are found in the writings that represent the Jewish traditions in the desert community of Qumran. They were a part of the popular Rabbinic/Pharisaic tradition of Judea as preserved in the Talmud and other rabbinic writings. They show up in the Alexandrian traditions far away in Egypt as seen in Philo and in interpretations in the Septuagint. And they are clearly expressed in the traditions represented by Psalms of Solomon, 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and the Sibylline Oracles. [Bird, Michael F. Are You the One Who Is to Come? (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), p.44-62; Newman, Robert C. The Evidence of Prophecy (Hatfield, Pennsylvania: Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute, 1988, 2012), Kindle Location 1834.]
When brought together, these Old Testament prophecies form a substantial profile of the Messiah. They tell where he would be born (Bethlehem: Micah 5:2), what ancestral line he would come from (David's: 2 Samuel 7:12-16; Isaiah 9:6-7; 11:1-4), and that he would be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14). They also tell when he would come: before Judah lost its "scepter" (i.e., its tribal identity and right to rule; Genesis 49:10) and before the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple (Daniel 9:26). They foretold that he would fulfill the roles of prophet, priest and king. He would be a prophet like Moses (who was a prophesying, wonder-working lawgiver who spoke to God directly; Deuteronomy 18:15-18). He would be a priest and substitutionary sacrifice who would reconcile people to God (Psalm 110:4 ; Zechariah 3:8; 6:12-13; Isaiah 53:4-12; etc.). And he would be a Davidic king who would rule the nations (Isaiah 9:6-7). And there are many more details revealed about the coming Messiah that are simply beyond the scope of this article. But most striking of all are the detailed prophecies of his death and his resurrection (Isaiah 53; Psalm 22; Genesis 22, etc.).
A common objection is that, if Jesus was the Messiah, the Jews would have recognized him and not rejected him. But even this is a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies (Isaiah 53; Zechariah 12:10; etc.). Ultimately, the Jews rejected Jesus because he claimed to be God, because he was crucified, and because he did not restore Israel and ascend the Davidic throne to rule the world. Yet the prophecies foretold that the Messiah would be God (Isaiah 9:6; Zechariah 11:13/Matthew 27:9; Zechariah 12:10/John 19:37; Micah 5:2/Matthew 2:6; etc.) and that he would suffer crucifixion before rising from the dead (Isaiah 53; Psalm 22; etc.). Afterwards (at an undetermined time), he would restore Israel and rule the nations.
When all of the messianic prophecies are considered, there is only one person in history who even comes close to fulfilling them: Jesus. These prophecies provide the context for understanding who Jesus is and reveal that he was not invented by people but was progressively revealed by God through his prophets over thousands of years, so that we would be able to recognize him unmistakably.
This is a powerful apologetic that has unfortunately been largely neglected in recent years. And many who have made use of these prophecies have done so carelessly. In using messianic prophecy as an apologetic, it is important to discern the difference between predictive prophecy and typology. Some prophecies clearly expect a future fulfillment (e.g., Micah 5:2; Deuteronomy 18:15-18) while others are simply types that were fulfilled by Christ (e.g., the Passover and the sacrificial system). To present these prophecies with integrity and with the ability to defend them requires a depth of understanding of the Scriptures and careful study. And to this we are called.
*For a ton of resources, see "Resources for the Study of Messianic Prophecy."
The "Great Isaiah Scroll" found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Image Soure: Wikimedia Commons