We depend on probability for most of our knowledge. Will this plane make it to its destination? Most probably (or we don’t get on it). Will I have enough for retirement? Most probably (or we make some changes). Will this be the right job for me? Most probably (or we don’t take the job). Making decisions based on probabilities is so common we usually don’t even think twice about this approach to discovering truth.
Therefore, when it comes to deciding if Jesus is who he claimed to be, we must also ask whether this is more probable than not. In other words, does most of the evidence support his claim to be God? I think it does. First, the probability of someone fulfilling the prophecies about the coming Messiah (God incarnate) are so astronomical that it is most reasonable to conclude that someone fulfilling them is in fact the Messiah. And that is just what Jesus did. I will consider only eight of these prophecies in this short article. The odds of someone fulfilling just these eight prophecies are so small that anyone doing so must be the Messiah.
What Are Messianic Prophecies?
In the Hebrew Scriptures are many references to a coming Savior who will rescue those who trust in him. He will be a person born who is the almighty God: “ For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6 italics added)
He was called the “Messiah,” meaning the one sent to save his people. Many details of this coming Messiah’s life were recorded, so that people knew what to look for. They were told such things as his family lineage, where he would be born, and how he would die. 60 specific Messianic prophecies were recorded, along with another 270 ramifications and corollaries. They were recorded hundreds of years before Jesus was born. Thus him fulfilling these prophecies is clear proof that he is the Messiah—God in flesh.
Prophecies Concerning the Messiah’s Birth
1. The Messiah was to be a descendant of David, a famous king of the Israeli people: “‘The days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.’” (Jeremiah 23:5)
Therefore for hundreds of years Jews carefully watched King David’s lineage to see which of his descendants would be this King. Jesus was born in this lineage:
Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melki, the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph, the son of Mattathias, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Esli, the son of Naggai, the son of Maath, the son of Mattathias, the son of Semein, the son of Josech, the son of Joda, the son of Joanan, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, the son of Neri, the son of Melki, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam, the son of Elmadam, the son of Er, the son of Joshua, the son of Eliezer, the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Simeon, the son of Judah, the son of Joseph, the son of Jonam, the son of Eliakim, the son of Melea, the son of Menna, the son of Mattatha, the son of Nathan, the son of David, the son of Jesse (Luke 3:23-32).
2. The Messiah was to be born by a woman who had not slept with a man before: “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.” (Isaiah 7:14)
Matthew 1:18, 24-5 records this is true of Jesus (also recorded in Luke 1:26-35):
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. . . When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
3. We are told what town the Messiah would be born in—Bethlehem (a small bedroom community of Jerusalem):
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. (Micah 5:2)
Note also that this is one prophecy that makes it clear the Messiah will be God—he will be “from old, from ancient times”—understood by Jewish readers as meaning always existing.
This was exactly where Jesus was born: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem.” (Matt 2:1, also recorded in Matt 2:4-8, Luke 2:4-7, and John 7:42)
Prophecies Concerning the Messiah’s Death
4. The Messiah would suffer severe physical punishment: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
The fulfillment is recorded in Matthew 27:26: “Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.” Jesus had no way to control how the authorities would treat him. Furthermore, unless he was the Messiah, why would he even want to arrange fulfillment of this prophecy? By this time he was arrested and being tried of a capital crime. He had nothing to gain by continuing to try passing himself off as the Messiah.
5. The Jewish people watched for their Messiah having his hands and feet punctured: “Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.” (Psalm 22:16; see also Zechariah 12:10)
The fulfillment is recorded in Luke 23:33 (and also in John 20:25): “When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him . . .” Crucifixion involved piercing the feet and hands with nails (similar to modern-day railroad spikes). Note this prophecy was made hundreds of years before crucifixion was invented as a means of execution. It was only practiced in Palestine after Pompey’s armies overtook the Judean capital and Roman law was instituted — in 63 B. C. This is the fifth clear prophecy that Jesus could not have arranged fulfilling, yet did.
6. The Messiah would be rejected by others, rather than embraced as the Promised One: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (Isaiah 53:3, see also Psalm 69:8 and Psalm 118:22)
Of Jesus’ life we read, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:11; see also Matt. 21:42-3, 27:39, Jn. 15:25)
7. We are told hundreds of years before the fact that people would gamble to win Jesus’ clothes: “They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.” (Psalm 22:18) This is exactly what happened during Jesus’ crucifixion:
When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom. "Let's not tear it," they said to one another. "Let's decide by lot who will get it." This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled which said, "They divided my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing." So this is what the soldiers did. (John 19:23-24 (cf. Luke 23:34, Mark 15:24) (Note: casting lots was similar to rolling dice to make a decision.)
8. The Jewish nation awaited a Messiah who would never have a broken bone: “[H]e protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken.” (Psalm 34: 20) The fulfillment of this prophecy is recorded in John 19:33:
The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.
Jesus fulfilled each of these eight Messianic prophecies. It would be pretty near impossible to fulfill these eight if he were not who he claimed to be.
As with other decisions we make, what is most probable is what we have good reason to believe is true. With even this very limited data set, it is most probable that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Therefore, fulfilling just these eight prophecies gives us good reason to believe that Jesus is God.
“But wait!” Many object to this conclusion for three reasons. I’ll discuss these next week.
Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading see Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.