Messianic Prophecies:

Answering the Skeptics

by Gary C. Burger, MDiv

Note: click here for the background information on what the Messianic Prophecies were and how Jesus fulfilled them.

Answering the skeptics

What do the skeptics say about our Christian's claim that Jesus fulfilled the Messianic Prophecies about His First Coming and how do we respond? Here is a list of the most common skeptical concerns. We don't take these lightly. They are good questions they need to have satisfactory answers before we conclude Jesus was, indeed, the Jewish Messiah and the savior of the world. Following this list we will answer most of these in a Q & A style. If a question is not handled it does not mean there is no satisfactory answer. All the skeptics concerns have been addressed by competent scholars. It just means we just haven't gotten around to providing those answers on this web site yet.

  1. Didn't Jesus fulfill these prophecies by coincidence like when one of Jean Dixon's prophecies comes true?
  2. The Old Testament prophets just made up these prophecies.
  3. They didn't really come from God.
  4. Couldn't Jesus have learned the prophecies as a young school boy and then engineered His life to fulfill them?
  5. Didn't the writers of the Gospels just make up the details to make it look like Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophecies?
  6. Don't Christians simply find passages in the Old Testament and misinterpret them as being predictions about the coming Messiah?
  7. Did Jesus even think he was fulfilling Messianic prophecies?
  8. If the prophecies about Jesus Christ are supposedly so obvious, why didn't more Jews accept him as their Messiah?

Q. Could Jesus have fulfilled the prophecies by coincidence, that is, by accident?

A key point to remember is that each prophecy must be combined with the previous prophecies in the list which continually narrows the candidates. So not only did He have to be a descendent of Abraham, but also of Isaac, and then Jacob, then Judah, then Jesse and then King David. He also had to be born in Bethlehem and also crucified and so on.

Let's say we had a list the names of all the 60 million people living in the Roman Empire at that time in random order and we blindfolded you.1 What are the chances that you could reach out your hand and put your finger on Jesus' name? You would have 1 chance in 60 million. I suppose that would be similar to picking a winning lottery number. But we're not finished yet. We have other qualifications to meet, as well. More precisely what is the probability that you would pick the name of a person:

  1. who was male,
  2. who was living in the Palestine,
  3. who was also a Jew,
  4. I'll pause right here to remind you that each qualification makes the selection of the right name more and more improbable. Your chances don't increase; they decrease with each additional qualification. Let's continue.

    This man would also be one:

  5. who was also a direct descendant of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Jesse and King David,
  6. who was also born at Bethlehem,
  7. who was also presented with gifts by religious leaders from other countries,
  8. who was also called "Immanuel" by devout Jews meaning "God with us",
  9. who also began His ministry in Galilee,
  10. who also entered Jerusalem on a donkey,
  11. who also was betrayed by a friend,
  12. who, more precisely, was also betrayed by that friend for 30 pieces of silver,
  13. who was also crucified
  14. who, more precisely, was also crucified with thieves,
  15. whose clothes were gambled for
  16. whose bones were also not broken in the process (a rare exception),
  17. whose side was also pierced in the heart with a spear (another rare exception),
  18. who was also buried in a rich man's tomb,
  19. and who also was seen ascending into the clouds?

It should be obvious that the only way a man could fulfill even just a few of these prophecies would be if God brought it about in a miraculous way. The most reasonable explanation is that God gave the Old Testament prophets and others the predictions to utter and then inserted Himself into human history in the form of a man to fulfill them!

Q. The skeptic might respond, "But I am that unique, too. The probability of another person being born in my population, through my family's lineage and doing the specific things I have done are just as impossible for anyone else to have done."

That is true. But no one ever predicted all that about you, especially hundreds of years before you were born. And that's the whole point!

Q. What assurance do we have that the prophecies weren't just made up by the Old Testament prophets?

In other words, maybe the idea of a Messiah was invented by men and then developed like mythology over the centuries by still other men. You can relax. We have two assurances that this didn't happen. First, there was simple, strict and final punishment for falsely predicting a future event in the name of the Lord. If it didn't come true the prophet was stoned to death. It didn't matter if the other 99 out of the hundred predictions you made were from the Lord and came true. It only took one failure and your career as a prophet was over. That served as a powerful deterrent to just making up prophecies. If that punishment was still in effect today I dare say there would not be any living modern day prophets and a lot fewer who ever try to pull the wool over the public's eyes. The second assurance we have is that they were all fulfilled by Jesus. They actually came true. You can't just make up prophecies and they inexplicably come true in the future. Prophecies are based on the idea that Someone who stands outside of time and knows the future reveals something about the future to the prophet.

Q. Couldn't Jesus have learned the prophecies as a young school boy and then engineered His life to fulfill them?

While He might have been able to do this for a few, it would be impossible to do it for others. For example, Jesus could not pre-arrange to be visited by the Magi nor for Herod the Great to slaughter all the male babies hoping to kill Jesus (a prophecy not listed above). He could not arrange ahead of time for His executioners to gamble for His clothes or for his legs to not be broken by the executioners to make sure He died before the Sabbath began at 6:00 PM on Friday. Finally, why on earth would someone who knows he is a fake want to arrange to be crucified?

Q. Didn't the writers of the Gospels just make up the details to make it look like Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophecies?

There are four problems with this theory: First, there were literally thousands of eye-witnesses to various aspects of Jesus' life, ministry, death and post-resurrection appearances. Jesus appeared in His post-resurrection body to a crowd of over 500 people as well as to smaller groups and individuals. The gospel writers simply couldn't get away with making up parts of their stories. Second, the group of eye-witnesses who were His enemies was particularly interested in pointing out any inconsistencies with which to discredit Him and His followers. Although the Jewish Talmud refers to Jesus in derogatory ways, it never attempts to refute the claim that Jesus' fulfilled prophecies.

Third, one of the ethical foundations of Jesus' teaching and of early Christianity was telling the truth. These teachings and writings would not have made it very far if the writers were shown to have fabricated events to make it look like Jesus fulfilled prophecies. Fourth, Matthew and John (the two disciples that wrote gospels) would have allowed themselves to be martyred and tortured, respectively, for defending what they knew to be lie. Few people will die willingly for the truth let alone for what they know is a lie. Matthew and John could hardly be accused of insanity.

Q. Don't Christians simply find passages in the Old Testament and misinterpret them as being predictions about the coming Messiah?

First, while some of the prophecies have been identified as Messianic after Jesus died, many were already recognized to be Messianic centuries before Jesus was born. Second, non-Christians discovered some of the prophecies and interpreted them as referring to the Jewish Messiah. While we do not know specifically where the religious leaders called magi (Wise Men) came from we do know that they actively searched the scriptures of various religions for prophecies, because it was part of their job description to make predictions for their own kings. They studied the Jewish scriptures and found the prophecies themselves, without our help. If they were from Babylon as some scholars think, those Jewish scriptures and commentaries might have been left there by the prophet Daniel when he was held in captivity there five centuries earlier.

Third, serious Bible scholars follow strict rules to ensure a correct interpretation of a verse or passage of Scripture. Although these rules are often stated in the technical jargon of academia they are really based on the same common sense rules we use to make sure we understand a letter from a loved one, a legal contract, a textbook or a question on a final exam. The most important and basic rule is to examine a word, sentence, or passage in the light of all of its contexts. There is the immediate context of the passage and book. There is the context of the literary genre or form. Then there are the political, geographical, social, philosophical, religious and cultural contexts. Only after we do a thorough job of research in all these areas can we be the most certain about what the author meant rather than what we want it to mean.

Fourth, I have found over and over that the skeptics who accuse Christians of misinterpreting the prophecies have not done this kind of thorough research for themselves and are not honest about their own biases. These biases most often include a belief that miracles can not happen, for they know these fulfilled prophecies can only be a supernatural miracles. (See the Q & A above on the chances of the prophecies being fulfilled by mere accident.) Finally, many open-minded Jews have done this research for themselves and have discovered that the prophecies were, indeed, about the Messiah and that Jesus fulfilled every one of them. (See Resources below for more on this.)

Q. Did Jesus even think he was fulfilling Messianic prophecies?

Yes, here are some of Jesus' statements as rendered in the New International Version:

"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them." (Matthew 5:17)

"Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: 'I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'" (Matthew 11:9-10)

The disciples came to him and asked, "Why do you speak to the people in parables?" He replied, "This is why I speak to them in parables: (quoting Isaiah) 'Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.' In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: 'You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people's heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.' But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it." (Matthew 13: 13-17)

"Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled." (Matthew 26:56)

(In a synagogue Jesus read a Messianic prophecy from the prophet Isaiah (c. 750 BC) and when finished said,) "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:16-21)

"And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself." (Luke 24:27)

"This is what I told you when 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)

"It is written: 'And he was numbered with the transgressors;' and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment." (Luke 22:37)

"You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?" (John 5: 39-40, 46-47)

"But now they have seen these miracles, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: 'They hated me without reason.'" (John 15:25)

Since He would have to go through hundreds of prophecies throughout the Old Testament this would have taken a long time. Perhaps that is one of the reasons He spent 40 days with His disciples before Ascending into Heaven.

Q. If the prophecies about Jesus Christ are supposedly so obvious, why don't Jews today accept him as their Messiah?

Since they expected a national deliverer their hope was kindled and then disappointed many times through many who claimed to be the Messiah. The Orthodox Jews still hold to the ancient expectation, but they are in the minority of Jews today. The rest of the Jews still look for a restoration of their national glory but disagree about how that will come about and if it will even be accomplished by a single deliverer. In addition, they say the Old Testament predicts the Messiah will come just once not twice as Christians claim. However, they are ignoring some key points about prophecy. First, many prophecies have been demonstrated to have a dual fulfillment, that is, fulfilled in part now and completely fulfilled in the future. Second, they ignore the progressive and cumulative nature of Old Testament prophecies. There is no one prophecy that sums up all that the Messiah must do. We must put them all together to get a complete picture.

Finally, most Jews have been taught that Jesus was not the Messiah and that the so called prophecies are just misinterpretations of the Scriptures. There is considerable pressure to not question the Rabbis' position on this. There are even Jewish organizations that specialize in trying to persuade young Jews to reject the Christian interpretation of the Messianic Prophecies. The fear of being ostracized by one's family and Jewish community is a strong deterrent to the Jew who even questions the authority of the rabbis on this. It is a considerable understatement to say that life is not easier when a Jew accepts the prophecies as being fulfilled in Jesus and accepts Jesus of Nazareth as their personal Messiah. In spite of the family and social pressures many Jews have looked at the evidence objectively and do accept Jesus as the Messiah. They call themselves "Completed Jews" or "Messianic Jews." One of the most well known organizations of these Jews is called Jews for Jesus.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we have verified the following:

  1. The apostles used two themes to persuade other Jews that Jesus was the promised Messiah: His fulfillment of Messianic Prophecies and His resurrection.
  2. Jesus fulfilled all the Messianic Prophecies that identified His first coming.
  3. We looked at just a few of these prophecies and how they were fulfilled by Jesus.
  4. It would be statistically impossible for a man to fulfill even a few of these prophecies apart from the supernatural work of God.
  5. All of this proves that Jesus was the Messiah, not only for the Jews but for the whole world, for all time.
  6. Finally, we responded to some of the more common questions put forth by skeptics and showed that we have every good reason to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, our Savior.

References and Resources

1 Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 6.

Fruchtenbaum, Arnold. Jesus Was a Jew. Tustin, Calif.: Ariel Ministries, 1981.

Frydland, Rachmiel. What the Rabbis Know about the Messiah. Cincinnati: Messianic, 1993.

Kaiser, Walter C., Jr. The Messiah in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.

McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith.

Rosen, Moishe. Y'shua, the Jewish Way to Say Jesus. Chicago: Moody Press, 1982.

Rosen, Ruth, (ed.) Jewish Doctors Meet the Great Physician. San Francisco: Purple Pomegranate, 1997.

Telchin, Stan. Betrayed! Grand Rapids: Chosen, 1982.


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