Updated: Nov 1, 2019
In the research for my book, I found early on that I needed to ask a tough question:
If the Jews, the people of God, did not believe in Jesus as their promised Messiah, why do Christians?
The simple answer: he didn't come as they expected, or do what they longed for, in the way they thought it should be done.
Why did the Jewish people long for a messiah?
They had been carried away to exile by Babylon because of their sin. They had been allowed to return home, but things were not right, and they knew it. Their sin kept them apart from God.
What did the Jews hope for in a messiah?
Well, not everybody thought the same way of course, but generally the hope was for a full and complete return from exile which meant forgiveness of their sins. When God was pleased with them once more, then there would be the restoration of the temple, with God's presence dwelling there. There would be freedom from oppressors, and an everlasting kingdom reigned over by a son of David, ushering in a time of everlasting peace, where all the nations would be blessed.
So why not Jesus?
Jesus lived and died (and in their mind, did not rise up again), and nothing had changed. They were in their promised land but things were still not right. They were still under the thumb of Rome, with no son of David on the throne. The Temple was not filled with the holy presence, and indeed not long afterward, it was torn to the ground and never rebuilt! And a time of peace? Ha! The streets of Jerusalem were thick with corpses and the people were carried away as slaves.
Yet, some Jews DID believe.
Jesus had many believers among the Jewish people, even highly educated men like Paul. Raised on scripture from a young age, how did these God-fearing Jews see Jesus as Messiah? They did not have what we call today “The New Testament” to prove it to them. Yet, they could hold the law and prophets in one hand, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in the other, and say, “Our Messiah has come!”
How? Are there hints of a messiah like Jesus and the kingdom of heaven he proclaimed in the books we call the Old Testament? Are their verses in the Old Testament that support Jesus' vision of what the Messiah should be?
The story of Jesus begins in the very first book of the Bible.
In Genesis we see the first, overarching, exile. Because of their disobedience, Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden where they had walked with God. God, however, had a plan to end that exile. Genesis 3:15 says that evil would strike Eve's offspring “seed” (a word for a descendant) on the heel, but he would crush the snake's head. This is the first promise of a messiah who would free them from exile.
Another promise goes to Abraham, where Abraham is told that through his “seed” all the nations of the earth would be blessed. (Exodus 22:19)
After Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt, God says if they keep His covenant they will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5-6)
King David gets another promise. He is told that after he has died, one of his descendants would be raised up, and God would establish his throne forever. (2 Samuel 7:12-16)
Daniel, in exile in Babylon, received the vision of a son of man, presented before God and given an everlasting kingdom. (Daniel 7)
Isaiah speaks to the exiled people of a son being born named mighty God, prince of peace, wonderful counselor, who will hold the throne of David with justice and righteousness forevermore. (Isaiah 9:6-7) Again in Isaiah, a shoot of Jesse (Jesse was David's dad) will have the Spirit of the Lord rest on him, and will have the spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, and fear of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:1-5) Isaiah also has a really challenging prophecy of a suffering servant who bore our griefs and sorrows, was afflicted, and who was told if he was to offer himself as a guilt offering, he would see his offspring and prolong his days. One servant, to justify the many. This prophecy was spoken about the nation of Israel, but Jesus took this role on himself. (Isaiah 53)
God will create a new heaven and a new Earth – which is a way of saying the whole universe. (Isaiah 65:17) There we will be glad and rejoice forever.
The dead will be resurrected to live in this new universe. (Daniel 12:22, Isaiah 26:19, Psalm 71:20)
This list is not exhaustive, but these are very strong verses that present the Jewish hope for a Messiah, and the kingdom he would usher in.
So how did Jesus fulfill Messianic expectations?
Forgiveness of sins was given at last. Jesus offered himself freely as an offering for the world, once for all. This is not an innocent man being punished by a wrathful God, but Jesus, one with God, choosing to give himself. At his obedient death, sins were forgiven. He allowed evil to do its worst, then crushed it on the head with a killing blow. There were sacrifices in the temple for forgiveness of sins, but the people still lived selfishly and sinned again and again, and so they were trapped in exile begun way back by Adam and Eve.
Jesus waded into the sinful world but didn't allow it to beat him. Where we were weak, he was strong. Where we are selfish, he was selfless. Where we failed to give all honor to God, Jesus gave God the life people were meant to live. The serpent's head was crushed under the heel of Jesus as he rose from the dead.
The Spirit of the Lord returned to the People. In the days of Moses, God was seen in a pillar of fire or cloud, leading the people. They would see the cloud descend on the mountain or the tabernacle and know God's presence was there. When Jesus ascended to heaven, the Spirit came in fire again, but this time, it went to the believers of Jesus who were in the upper room. (Acts 2:3) That Spirit is available to all who believe — not contained in a building, but in the body of believers. We believe the Spirit is with us today as we wait for Jesus to come back.
Jesus was born of the line of David and given authority by God to rule and judge. He claimed all authority at the end of Matthew. Like the Son of Man in Daniel, he was given dominion, glory, and a kingdom over all nations.
All the nations are blessed. Israel was supposed to show the rest of the world who God was by their actions and faith. They failed, but Jesus took on the whole role of Israel and did what they could not. He opened the way for all the nations to come to God. This blessing is ongoing, and growing, as more find their way to God.
There is one promise that we are still waiting on, the Time of Peace. This one makes most Jews today laugh at the idea of Jesus being the Messiah, they think Christians are all fools. We all know that millions and millions have died by violence, disease, and poverty since Jesus walked the earth. Jesus gave us a taste of God's desire for His people by healing, feeding and raising people from the dead, but we still wait for it to come in fullness. How can this be the Davidic kingdom—the kingdom of God—when there is no peace?
For this very deep and challenging question, the only answer we have is: Soon. Jesus said he is coming back. Every other prophecy he gave came true. He prophesied his resurrection, and he came back from the dead. He promised the Holy Spirit, and it came. God always keeps His promises, so Jesus will come back, the dead will be raised, and an era of peace will come. This is our hope, what we long for, our faith.
Want more? Lee Strobel's book, The Case for Christ is a clear, easy read that tackles the difficult questions on whether Jesus actually rose from the dead.
NT Wright's book, Simply Christian, pares down religion to the root of what Christianity is, and what it means for us, the church and the entire creation.
The classic Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis has been giving encouragement to want-to-believers for decades!
What do you think, is this Old Testament evidence strong enough to support Jesus as the Messiah?
Please share your thoughts in your comments!