Sunday, August 9, 2009

Fulfilling Prophecy

OK, as we're examining the trustworthiness of the Bible, in conjunction with our Sunday worship series, "The Messiah," I think the first thing that we ought to look at is this whole issue of Jesus fulfilling prophecy. There are really four separate questions to be addressed:

  • How do we know the prophecies were written before Jesus' birth? Couldn't they have been created after the fact?
  • Could Jesus have fulfilled the prophecies about the Messiah by coincidence?
  • Could Jesus have arranged the circumstances of his life so that he fulfilled the prophecies about the Messiah on purpose?
  • Did Jesus' followers embellish his life story after his death, claiming that he fulfilled prophecies that he, in fact, never did?

1. Were the prophecies about the Messiah fabricated?

It might seem hard for us to know when something was written in ancient times. After all, we don't have the original documents. All we have are copies of copies of copies. But there are several things that help us know that the prophecies about the Messiah were not fabricated, or invented after the fact.

  • The Dead Sea Scrolls contain many of the prophecies about the Messiah. During the excavation of the caves, archaeologists discovered at least fragments of every single Old Testament book, including a nearly intact scroll containing the entire book of Isaiah, which has more prophecies about the Messiah than any other book in the Old Testament. And while the prophet Isaiah lived 700 years before the time of Jesus, and these are just copies, many of these scrolls still date to over 100 years before the birth of Jesus. The scrolls confirm that there has been very little corruption of the biblical text through the copying process over the centuries--and certainly the prophecies about Jesus date to well before his birth.
  • Non-biblical sources are all in agreement that during the time of Jesus there was widespread anticipation among the Jewish people that a Messiah figure would come. Josephus, a Jewish historian from the first century A.D., is probably the most significant source of information on this time. However, Roman government records also show that there were many insurrections, rebellions, and revolts led by individuals who claimed to be Messianic figures. In fact, Jerusalem was destroyed by Rome in 70 A.D. as a result of one of these rebellions, and the Jewish people were scattered around the world until the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1947.
  • The Gospels, written within 30-50 years of Jesus' death, clearly portray Jesus as the Messiah, the fulfiller of prophecy. If there weren't an expectation of a Messiah, the readers of those stories would have instantly rejected them as nonsense, or at the very least, works of fiction.

2. Is it just coincidence that Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophecies?

OK, so there are some predictions that were made before Jesus' birth that line up with the biblical accounts of Jesus' life. Isn't it possible that someone would have come along eventually who looked like the picture that was painted? Wasn't it just a matter of time? After all, lots of "prophecy fulfillments" are really in the eye of the beholder, since prophecies usually tend to be rather vague.

It's true that some of the biblical prophecies about the Messiah are a little fuzzy; in fact, some of them weren't even considered to be Messianic prophecies until after Jesus came, and his followers realized that more Old Testament passages referred to him than they first thought. However, many of the prophecies are very specific, and rather restrictive, eliminating any real chance that any one person would fulfill the prophecies coincidentally.

  • In many places, the Bible tells us that the Messiah will be a descendant of David (2 Sam. 7:12-16; Isa. 55:3-5; Jer. 23:5-6)
  • The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2)--a small town of about 500-700 residents at the time of Jesus' birth. Certainly very few people were born there in human history.
  • The Messiah would establish his kingdom approximately 490 years after the prophet Daniel (see Dan. 9:24-26)--Jesus died 483 years later.

A team of mathemeticians have calculated the odds of only eight Messianic prophecies being fulfilled in one person to be one chance in one hundred million billion--millions of times greater than the total number of people who've ever walked the planet! It would be approximately like putting a sticker on a silver dollar, and then covering the state of Texas with silver dollars two feet deep, and then asking a blindfolded person to wander around the state and bend over and pick up one coin. The odds that they would pick the marked coin are the same odds that any person would fulfill even eight Messianic prophecies by coincidence.

The odds that any person would fulfill 48 different Messianic prophecies was one chance in a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion! That's equal to the number of atoms in a trillion, trillion, trillino, trillion, billion universes the size of our universe! The prophecies are like a fingerprint--they're absolutely unique to only one life in all of history, the life of Jesus.

3. Did Jesus fulfill the Messianic prophecies on purpose?

Some people have wondered whether Jesus simply arranged his life so that he fulfilled the various prophecies about the Messiah. Growing up in that time period and knowing what the various prophecies were, perhaps he put himself in positions that could be construed as fulfillments of those prophecies.

For instance, in Zechariah 9:9, it says, "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a cold, the foal of a donkey." Jesus fulfilled that prophecy in Matthew 21:1-11. Surely, that scene could have been manufactured easily enough.

While some of the prophecies are of this type, many are far beyond Jesus' control:

  • As we've already seen, the Bible predicted where and when the Messiah would be born. Surely Jesus couldn't arrange that on purpose!
  • The Bible tells us who Jesus' ancestors would be.
  • One Messianic prophecy promises that his bones would never be broken (Ex. 12:46; Jn. 19:31-37)
  • The Messiah would be betrayed for 30 pieces of silver (Zech. 11:12; Matt. 26:15)
  • He was given wine vinegar to drink while on the cross (Ps. 69:21; Jn. 19:28-30)

These and many more show that Jesus couldn't have possibly fulfilled the Messianic prophecies intentionally through guile and smarts.

4. Was the story of Jesus' life altered by his followers after the fact?

So, we know the prophecies already existed at the time of Jesus' birth. We know he couldn't have fulfilled them by accident or on purpose. But maybe he didn't fulfill them at all. Maybe his followers "padded his resume" a bit, to bolster their religion that they had started. After all, it would help give them credibility if they could convince people that Jesus was in fact the Messiah. Maybe they just said that he was born in Bethlehem, from the line of David, and so forth, and none of it's true.

There are several insurmountable problems with this line of thinking:

  • There were many eyewitnesses to Jesus' life when the Gospels were written. Those within the Church accepted these accounts of the life of Jesus as scripture. But if the eyewitnesses had disagreed with the versions written down by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, they never would have risen to the status of scripture--they would have been discounted and ignored.
  • The Gospel writers didn't do their writing in isolation. Luke, for example, says that he thoroughly researched everything. They spoke with lots of people. If the Gospel writers had played fast and loose with the truth, someone in the Christian community would have gone to them and said, "Look, Matthew, we're trying to share a message of Jesus, which is all about righteousness and truth; don't taint it with these lies."
  • The Jewish community had even more motivation to discount the Gospel accounts. They were trying to put down this whole Jesus-movement. They would have jumped on any opportunity to discredit the Gospels by pointing out falsehoods, but there is no historical evidence that anyone of that time period made the claim that the fulfillment of prphecies was falsified. Not one example.
  • Most importantly, if the Gospel writers themselves had known that they were perpetrating a fraud, they wouldn't have given up their lives for it. Every single one of the twelve disciples were killed for their faith, with the exception of John, who spent his final years in exile on the island of Patmos. If they didn't believe that their story was true, none of them would have been willing to die.

As astonishing as it is, the only feasible conclusion is that God revealed his plan to prophets hundreds of years ahead of time. He arranged history so that we would be able to identify the one and only Messiah when he came, and Jesus is the only person in the history of the world who fulfilled the prophecies about the Messiah. Because of fulfilled prophecy, I know I can trust the rest of what the Bible has to say.

But this is only one reason I find the Bible to be trustworthy. I'll be sharing more reasons in the coming weeks. Because if we can truly believe what the Bible says, it makes all the difference in the world.

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