A Funny Gaffe – fit for a Good Friday

The puzzle of Psalm 22

Jesus on crossA few years ago a friend and work colleague, J, wandered over to my desk. J was smart and educated – and definitely not a believer in the gospel. He was skeptical but somewhat curious which gave rise to some warm and open conversations between us. He had never really looked at the Bible so I encouraged him now and then to give it a go.

One day he came into my office with a Bible to show me that he was indeed taking a look. He had opened it randomly in the middle. I asked him what he was reading. I remember our conversation going something like this.

“I am reading in Psalm chapter 22”, he said (pronouncing the ‘P’ in Psalm).

“Really”, I said. “It is pronounced salm – without the ‘p’. Any idea what you are reading about?”

“I guess I am reading about the crucifixion of Jesus”, J replied.

“That’s a good guess”, I laughed. “But you are about one thousand years off. Psalm 22 was written by David around 1000 BC. Jesus’ crucifixion was in 30’s CE.”

J was not familiar with the books in the Bible and did not realize that the Psalms were not the accounts of Jesus’ life by his contemporaries. He had only heard some stories about Jesus, including his crucifixion, and randomly opening his Bible he stumbled on something that, from his perspective, seemed to describe the crucifixion, and not knowing any better, he just assumed it was the story of the crucifixion. He had made a little gaffe – an error- in his first Bible reading exercise. We had a chuckle over his first mis-step in Bible exegesis.

Then I asked J what he saw in Psalm 22 that made him think he was reading about the crucifixion of Jesus. Thus began our little on-the-spot investigative study. I invite you to consider some of the similarities we noticed by placing the passages side-by-side in a table. To help I have color matched the texts that are similar.

Comparison of Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion with the details in Psalm 22

Crucifixion details from the Gospels Psalm 22 – written 1000 BC
(Matthew 27: 31-48) ..Then they led him (Jesus) away to crucify him…. 39 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “… save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” 41 In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him,…About the ninth hour Jesus cried…“My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” …48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink.Mark 15: 16-2016 The soldiers led Jesus away… They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. 18 And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” 19 Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. 20 And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him…37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.(JOHN 19:34) they did not break his legs..., pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.…they crucified him… (JOHN 20:25) [Thomas] unless I see the nail marks in his hands ,…”…JOHN 20:23-24 When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining…Let’s not tear it”, they said,”Let’s decide by lot who gets it” My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest…All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
10 From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.12 Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.16 Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.

The fact that J, being astute but not familiar with the Bible, made the logical but wrong conclusion that Psalm 22 was an eye-witness account of the Good Friday crucifixion, should make us ask a question. How do we explain the similarity between these accounts? Can we write it off to chance coincidence that the details can match so precisely as to include that the clothes would BOTH be divided (the clothes with seams were split along the seams and passed out among the soldiers) AND have lots cast (the garment without the seam would be ruined by tearing it so they threw dice for it). Psalm 22 was written before crucifixion was invented but it uncannily describes its various details (piercing of hands and feet, bones being out of joint – by being stretched as the victim hangs). In addition, the Gospel of John states that blood and water flowed out when the spear was thrust in Jesus’ side, indicating a fluid buildup in the pericardium cavity around the heart. Jesus thus died of a heart attack.  This matches the Psalm 22 description of ‘my heart has turned to wax’. The Hebrew word in Psalm 22 which is translated ‘pierced’ literally means ‘like a lion’. In other words the hand and feet were mutilated and mauled as they were pierced. So, what to make of all this?

Jesus, through the pens of the Gospel writers, argued that these similarities were prophetic. God inspired Old Testament prophets hundreds of years prior to Jesus’ life to predict details of his life and death so that we can know that this was all in the plan of God. Prophetic fulfillment is like having a Divine signature on these events of Good Friday since no human can know the future like this.

Bart Ehrman’s explanation

Bart Ehrman, renowned Bible scholar and arch Gospel critic, counters that the prophetic credentials of Psalm 22 are suspect because the whole thrust of the Gospel story was that the ‘Messiah’ or Christ was the one that was supposed to be sacrificed and Psalm 22 says nothing of the victim being the ‘Messiah’. As he states it

“But what to do with the fact that there were no Jewish prophecies that the Messiah would suffer and die?” (Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted. p. 234)

But this raises another issue. It is not that there is just one prophecy (like Psalm 22) that Jesus was to fulfill, but there are scores of them. These are testable predictions by different authors in different time periods and social strata through the Old Testament. So, to take Ehrman at his challenge, Daniel, living in exile in Babylon around 550 BC had a vision in which he was told the following prophetic riddle:

“Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler comes, there will be seven ‘sevens’ and sixty-two ‘sevens’. It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the sixty-two ‘sevens’ the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing… ” (Daniel 9:25-26)

Hmm. My deepest respects to the New Testament scholar but he missed this in the Old Testament. Here, exactly as he challenged, is a prophecy that the ‘Anointed One’ (= Christ = Messiah) would be ‘cut off’. The timing of this and the details of ‘cut off’, which foresaw the meaning of Jesus’ death, flatly refutes Ehrman’s assertion that there is no Old Testament prophecy where the ‘Christ’ was to suffer and die.

Spong’s explanation

Others, like Shelby Spong (in That Hebrew Lord), argue that the similarity of Psalm 22 with the events of crucifixion of Good Friday are simply due to the fact that the Gospel writers made the events up to ‘fit’ the prophecy. His detailed verse-by-verse analysis showing the similarities between Psalm 22 and Jesus’ crucifixion in the Gospel accounts is data to support his theory that the Gospel writers made up the crucifixion events, taking the details from Psalm 22. At the very least, Spong’s theory means that he thinks the similarities demand an explanation. But his explanation totally ignores the testimony of historians from that time outside of the Bible. Josephus and Tacitus respectively tell us that:

“At this time there was a wise man … Jesus. … good, and … virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned Him to be crucified and to die.” (Josephus. 90AD. Antiquities xviii. 33   Josephus was a Jewish Historian)

“Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius” (Tacitus. 117 AD. Annals XV. 44.  Tacitus was a Roman Historian)

Their testimony agrees in broad-brush strokes with the gospels that Jesus was indeed crucified. This is important because many of the details in Psalm 22 are simply particulars of the act of being crucified. If the gospel writers were going to make up or grossly distort the actual events to make them ‘fit’ Psalm 22 then they would basically have had to make up the whole crucifixion, yet no one denies his crucifixion, and Josephus explicitly states that this is how he was executed.

Psalm 22 and Jesus’ legacy

But Psalm 22 does not end at v18 in the table above – it continues seamlessly on. Note here how triumphant the mood is at the end –after the person is dead!

26 The poor will eat and be satisfied; they who seek the LORD will praise him— may your hearts live forever!

27 All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD,
and all the families of the nations will bow down before him,

28 for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations.

29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him— those who cannot keep themselves alive.

30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord.

31 They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn— for he has done it. (Psalm 22:26-31)

Notice that this is not talking at all about details of the events of this person’s death. That was dealt with in the first section of the Psalm. The psalmist is now addressing the impact of that person’s death on ‘posterity’ and ‘future generations’ (v.30). That is us living 2000 years later.  He tells us that  ‘posterity’ which follows this ‘pierced’ man who died such a horrible death will ‘serve’ him and be ‘told about him’.  Verse 27 predicts the geographic scope of the impact – it will go to the ‘ends of the earth’ and among ‘all families of nations’ and cause them to ‘turn to the LORD’. Verse 29 indicates how ‘those who cannot keep themselves alive’ (since we all die would that not be all of us?) will one day kneel before him. The righteousness of this man will be proclaimed to people who were not yet alive (the ‘yet unborn’) at the time of his death.

One could not make a better prediction of the subsequent legacy of the death of Jesus than Psalm 22 does. Two thousand years after Jesus amid global Good Friday celebrations this week highlight the worldwide impact of Jesus’ death, fulfilling the conclusion of Psalm 22 as uncannily as the earlier verses predicted the details of his death. Who else in world history can even make a claim that details of his death as well as the legacy of his life into the distant future would be predicted 1000 years before he lived?

The conclusion in Psalm 22 has nothing to do with whether the gospel accounts borrowed from it or not because it is now dealing with much later events – those of our time. The gospel writers, in the 1st century could not make up the impact of the death of Jesus into our time. How does Spong incorporate this fact in his explanation? He doesn’t. He ignores this latter part of Psalm 22.

Perhaps, like my friend J, you will take the opportunity this Good Friday to consider Psalm 22 in light of Jesus’ crucifixion. It will take more mental effort than if you just coasted through Good Friday. And you may make some gaffes as you engage with the text like J did. But don’t let that stop you. As you can see, even the most well-known of scholars make gaffes over Psalm 22. The reward is worth the risk because the man whom I believe Psalm 22 is referring to promised:

I have come that they may have life and have it to the full

That would make this Easter fulfilling indeed.  Here is the full Psalm 22, and the crucifixion account according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  May you experience some of that not only this Good Friday but through the year as well.

How were details of Christ’s death prophesied?

Christ’s “cut off” Predicted in detail by the Old Testament Prophets

In our last post we saw that Daniel had predicted that the ‘Christ’ would be ‘cut off’ after a specified cycle of years. This prediction of Daniel’s was fulfilled in the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem – there presented as Israel’s Christ – exactly 173 880 days after the Persian Decree to restore Jerusalem was issued. The phrase ‘cut off’ alluded to Isaiah’s imagery of the Branch shooting up from the seemingly dead stump. But what did he mean by it?

Isaiah shown in historical timeline. He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings
Isaiah shown in historical timeline. He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings

Isaiah had also written other prophecies in his book, using other themes apart from that of the Branch. One such theme was that of the coming Servant. Who was this ‘Servant’? What was he going to do? We look at one long passage in detail. I reproduce it exactly and in full here below, only inserting some comments of my own.

The Coming Servant. The complete passage from Isaiah 52:13-53:12

See, my servant will act wisely;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
and his form marred beyond human likeness—
15 so he will sprinkle many nations,
and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand.

We know that this Servant will be a human man because Isaiah refers to the Servant as a ‘he’, ‘him’, ‘his’, and that this is specifically looking forward in time, (from the phrases ‘will act..’, ‘will be raised up…’ and so on) so that this is an explicit prophecy. But what was it a prophecy about?

When the Jewish priests offered sacrifices for the Israelites they would sprinkle them with blood from the sacrifice – symbolizing that their sins were covered and would not be held against them. But here it says that the Servant will sprinkle ‘many nations’, so Isaiah is saying that in a similar way this Servant will also provide non-Jews for their sins like the Old Testament priests did for the Jewish worshipers. This parallels the prediction of Zechariah that the Branch would be a priest, uniting the roles of King and Priest, since only the priests could sprinkle blood. This global scope of ‘many nations’ follows those historical and verifiable promises made centuries beforehand to Abraham of ‘all nations’ being blessed through his offspring.

But in sprinkling the many nations the very ‘appearance’ and ‘form’ of the Servant is predicted to be ‘disfigured’ and ‘marred’. And though it is not readily clear what the Servant will do, one day the nations ‘will understand’.

53 Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He [The Servant] grew up before him [The LORD] like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Though the Servant would sprinkle many nations, he would also be ‘despised’ and ‘rejected’, full of ‘suffering’ and ‘familiar with pain’.

Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,

yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

The Servant will take ‘our’ pain. This Servant will also be ‘pierced’ and ‘crushed’ in ‘punishment’. This punishment will bring us (those in the many nations) ‘peace’ and heal us.

I write this on Good Friday. Secular as well as biblical sources tell us that on this day about 2000 years ago (but still 700+ years after Isaiah wrote this prediction) that Jesus was crucified. In doing that he was literally pierced, as Isaiah predicted the Servant would be pierced, with the nails of the crucifixion.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

We saw in Corrupted … missing the target, that a biblical definition of sin is missing the intended target. Like a bent arrow we go our ‘own way’.  This Servant will carry that same sin (iniquity) that we have brought forth.

He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth

The Servant will be like a lamb going to the ‘slaughter’. But he will not protest or even ‘open his mouth’. We saw in the Sign of Abraham that a ram that substituted for Abraham’s son. That ram – a sheep – was slaughtered. And Jesus was slaughtered on the same spot (Mount Moriah = Jerusalem). We saw in the Passover that a lamb was slaughtered on Passover – as Jesus was also slaughtered on Passover.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.

This Servant is ‘cut off’ from the ‘land of the living’. This is exactly the term Daniel used when he predicted what would happen to the Christ after he was presented to Israel as their Messiah. Isaiah predicts in more detail that ‘cut off’ means ‘cut off from the land of the living’ – i.e. death!  So, on that fateful Good Friday Jesus died, being literally ‘cut off from the land of the living’, just a few days after being presented as the Messiah in his Triumphant entry.

He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Though Jesus was executed and died as a criminal (‘assigned a grave with the wicked’), the gospel writers tell us that a rich man of the ruling Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea, took the body of Jesus and buried him in his own tomb (Matthew 19:60). Jesus literally fulfilled both sides of the paradoxical prediction that though he would be ‘assigned a grace with the wicked’, he would also be ‘with the rich in his death’.

10 Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand

This whole cruel death was not some terrible accident or misfortune. It was explicitly “the LORD’s will” to crush him. But why? Just as lambs in the Mosaic sacrificial system were offerings for sin so that the person giving the sacrifice could be held blameless, here the ‘life’ of this Servant is also an ‘offering for sin’. For whose sin? Well considering that ‘many nations’ would be ‘sprinkled’ (above) it is the sin of the peoples in the ‘many nations’. Those ‘all’ who have ‘turned away’ and ‘gone astray’. Isaiah is talking about you and me.

11 After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.

Though the passage of the Servant is gruesome here it changes tone and becomes very optimistic and even triumphant. After this terrible suffering (of being ‘cut off from the land of the living’ and assigned ‘a grave’), this Servant will see ‘the light of life’. He will come back to life?! I have looked at the issue of the resurrection. But here it is predicted. It is a vanishingly diminishing probability that the same man whose resurrection one can make a case for is the same person for whom it is predicted – along with these other predictions we have reviewed.

And in so ‘seeing the light of life’ this Servant will ‘justify’ many. To ‘justify’ is the same as giving ‘righteousness’. Remember that Abraham was ‘credited’ or given ‘righteousness’. In a similar way this Servant will justify, or credit, righteousness to ‘many’.

12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

The passage of the Servant points so uncannily to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus that some critics argue that the gospel narratives were essentially made up to ‘fit’ this Servant passage. But in his conclusion Isaiah defies these critics. The conclusion is not a prediction of the crucifixion and resurrection per se, but of the impact of this death many years after it. And what does Isaiah predict? This Servant, though he will die as a criminal, will one day be among the ‘great’. The gospel writers could not make this part ‘fit’ the gospel narratives since the gospels were only written a few decades after Jesus’ crucifixion – when the impact of Jesus’ death was still in doubt.  Jesus was still the executed leader of a ‘pernicious superstition’ in the esteem of the world when the gospels were penned.  We sit now 2000 years later and see the impact of his death and realize how through the course of history this has made him ‘great’. The gospel writers could not have foreseen that. But Isaiah did. The Servant, also known as the Branch, through his voluntary sacrifice would begin to draw people to him – to worship him even – just as Jesus decreed would happen when he called unabashedly himself the ‘Son of Man’ at his trial before the Sanhedrin, and in so doing they would also find salvation.

The Branch: Sprouting Exactly in time to be … ‘cut off’

We have been exploring the Branch theme that extends through the writings of several of the Old Testament prophets. We saw that Jeremiah in 600 BC had picked up the theme begun by Isaiah 150 years earlier in declaring that this Branch would be a King. In our previous post we saw that Zechariah, following from Jeremiah predicted that this Branch would be named Jesus and that he would combine the roles of King and Priest into one – something that had never occurred previously in Israelite history.

Daniel’s riddle of the scheduled arrival of the Anointed One

But it did not end there. Daniel, sandwiched in time between Jeremiah and Zechariah, directly picked up the title of ‘Anointed One’ (which we saw here = ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah), at the same time alluding to the Branch theme in a fascinating riddle that predicted when the Messiah would be revealed. Around 538 BC he wrote the following:

“From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler comes, there will be seven ‘sevens’ and sixty-two ‘sevens’. … After the sixty-two ‘sevens’ the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing…” (Daniel 9:25-26)

Since Anointed One = Christ = Messiah, as we saw here, we know that Daniel was writing about the coming Christ. Daniel specifies a start time (“issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem”) and a specific time interval (“seven ‘sevens’ and sixty-two ‘sevens’”) which will culminate in the revealing of the Christ (= Anointed One) who will then mysteriously be ‘cut off’. The overall structure of this prediction seems clear enough. But can we understand the specifics so that we can actually track this revealing of the Christ? Let’s begin by looking at what triggered the ticking of this prophetic clock.

The Issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem

About 100 years after Daniel, Nehemiah was cupbearer to the Persian Emperor Artaxerxes. As such he was a man who had access to the very highest power in the Persian Empire. In that context he asks for and receives a royal decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem. Here is how he states it.

In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes… I answered the king, ‘If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favour in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.’…

7 I also said to him, ‘If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors …”. [And] the king granted my requests. So I went to the governors … and gave them the king’s letters. The king had also sent army officers and cavalry with me. (Nehemiah 2:1-9)

So here we see a royal decree, backed with letters and the military of the Persian Empire to rebuild and restore Jerusalem. Since the Persian Emperor Artaxerxes is known in secular history, and since this decree specifies the start of this period in terms of Artaxerxes’ reign (20th year of reign in the month of Nisan), we can determine when this was. Artaxerxes ascended to the Persian throne immediately after the death of his father Xerxes in December 465 BC. (1) and since this decree was issued in Nisan 1 (March/April) of his 20th year this would put the issuing of the decree at March 5, 444 BC (1).

Seven ‘Sevens’ and Sixty-two ‘Sevens’

But what are these ‘sevens’ that Daniel was using to track the passing of time? In the Law of Moses there was a cycle of seven years whereby the land was to be rested from agricultural cultivation every seventh year. It was stated in the following way

When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the LORD. 3 For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. 4 But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the LORD. (Leviticus 25:2-3)

The context of Daniel’s statement is ‘years’, and using this line of reasoning, by ‘sevens’ he is writing along these cycles of seven years. In that case the Seven ‘Sevens’ and Sixty-two ‘Sevens’ can be stated arithmetically as (7+62) * 7 = 483 years.

A 360-Day year

Complicating things somewhat is the length of year used. Today we use the solar year (=365.24219879 days per year) because we can precisely measure the revolution of the earth around the sun. In those days it was common to base the year from revolutions of the moon (as the Islamic calendar does still today) giving 354 days/year or by using 12 30-day months giving 360 days per year. In all cases there is some adjusting done to ‘fix up’ the differences in revolutions. (In our Western calendar we use the leap year – 366 days – to adjust for the fractional day, with some leap years being skipped.) In ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian and Greek civilizations a 360 day calendar was common. This seems to be the basis for these years in Daniel. Further reasons for using a 360 day year are given here.

The Scheduled Arrival of the Christ

With this background information it is now fairly simple to calculate when the Christ was to arrive as per Daniel’s riddle. 483 years with 360 days/year will give us:

483 years * 360 days/year = 173 880 days

In terms of our Western calendar this would give us 476 solar years with 25 days left over. (173 880/365.24219879 = 476 with 25 as remainder)

The start point for this calculation was Artaxerxes’ decree which was issued on March 5, 444 BC. Adding 476 solar years to this date brings us to March 5, 33 AD. (There is no year 0, the calendar going from 1BC to 1 AD in one year so arithmetically it is -444 + 476 +1= 33).

If we now take the 25 remaining days and add them to March 5, 33 AD we come to March 30, 33 AD, illustrated in the timeline below. Or as Hoehner (whose calculations I have been following) states

“By adding 25 days to March 5 (444 BC) one comes to March 30 (33 AD), which was Nisan 10. This was the day of the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem…

Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ Part VI, pg. 16 1977

The Timeline of Daniel's prophecy of 'sevens' culminating in Jesus Triumphant entry
The Timeline of Daniel’s prophecy of ‘sevens’ culminating in Jesus Triumphant entry

 

Triumphant Entry of Jesus – That Day

Today as I write this post, it is Palm Sunday, the very day we remember the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Making the assumptions that we have done above and using some basic arithmetic we find that this is the day that Daniel’s riddle of the ‘sevens’ lands us on. This is the day that Jesus was presented as the King or Christ to the Jewish nation. We know this because Zechariah (who had predicted the name of the Christ) had also written that:

Rejoice greatly! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

The long awaited King would be revealed riding into Jerusalem on a colt with an attending crowed of shouting and rejoicing people. On the day of the Triumphant Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem – that very same day predicted by Daniel in his riddle of the ‘sevens’ – Jesus did ride into Jerusalem on a colt. Luke records the account.

When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:

‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’…

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. (Luke 19:37-42)

In this account Jesus weeps because the people did not recognize the very day predicted in tandem by Zechariah and Daniel. But because they did not recognize this day that the Christ was revealed something totally unexpected would happen. Daniel, in the very same passage where he laid out the riddle of the ‘sevens’, predicted that:

… After the sixty-two ‘sevens’ the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing…” (Daniel 9:26)

Instead of taking the throne to rule, the Christ would be ‘cut off’ and would have ‘nothing’. In using this phrase ‘cut off’ (some Bibles just translate it ‘will die’) Daniel alludes to that theme of the Branch, that shoot from the stump of Jesse, begun long before by Isaiah, elaborated by Jeremiah, the name predicted by Zechariah and now the time and signature foreseen by Daniel and Zechariah in tandem. This Branch would be ‘cut off’. But how would this Branch be ‘cut off’? We return to Isaiah in our next post to see a vivid description.

1) Reference used throughout is Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ
Part VI: Harold W. Hoehner

How was Jesus’ name prophesied long before his birth?

Sign of the Branch Part 2: The Branch named ‘Jesus’ hundreds of years beforehand

In Part 1 we saw how Isaiah started a theme using the image of The Branch. Someone coming from the fallen dynasty of David, possessing wisdom and power was predicted by Isaiah to come. Jeremiah followed on this theme by stating that this Branch would be known as the LORD (ie as in the Old Testament personal name for God) himself.

Zechariah continues The Branch

zechariah in historical old testament timelineZechariah lived 520 BC, just after the Jewish people returned to Jerusalem from their first expulsion into Babylon, but while they were being ruled by the Persians. At that time the Jewish people were working to rebuild their destroyed temple and re-institute the Mosaic religious system. Zechariah’s contemporary was a man named Joshua, who was High Priest at that time, and was working to re-start the whole priestly system. Zechariah the prophet was working in tandem with his colleague Joshua the High Priest to provide leadership for the Jewish people. Here is what the LORD – through Zechariah- in a prophetic riddle, said of this Joshua:

‘”Listen O High Priest Joshua and your associates seated before you, who are men symbolic of things to come: I am going to bring my servant the Branch. See the stone I have set in front of Joshua!” …, says the LORD Almighty, “and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day”.’ (Zechariah 3:8-9)

The Branch! Again! Building on the image started by Isaiah about 200 years before, and continued by Jeremiah 60 years earlier, Zechariah picks up this theme of ‘The Branch’. But this time the Branch is also called ‘my servant’.  In some way the High Priest Joshua in Jerusalem at 520BC, colleague of Zechariah, was symbolic of this coming Branch, but in what way? It says that in ‘a single day’ the sins will be removed by the LORD (“I will remove…”). This connects with obtaining ‘righteousness’ noted in the previous post. We will gain ‘righteousness’ by having the LORD remove our sins ‘in a single day’. How will that happen?

The Branch: Uniting Priest with King

We continue on three chapters in Zechariah and learn something astounding. To understand the following prophetic riddle, we need to know that the roles of Priest and King were strictly separated in the Old Testament. None of the Davidic Kings could be priests (some of them got into trouble by trying), and conversely, some of the priests got in trouble by dabbling in kingly intrigue. The job of the priest was to mediate between God and man by offering animal sacrifices to God for forgiveness of sins, and the job of the King was to rule with justice from the throne. Both were crucial; both were distinct. Yet Zechariah wrote that in the future:

‘The word of the LORD came to me: “…Take the silver and gold and make a crown, and set it on the head of the high priest Joshua. Tell him this is what the LORD Almighty says, ‘Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the LORD… and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two’’ (Zechariah 6:9-13)

Once again our Branch is here. But now, against all previous precedence, the high priest in Zechariah’s day (Joshua) is to (symbolically) put on the kingly crown. Remember that in Zechariah 3 (above) Joshua was ‘symbolic of things to come’. Could it be that Joshua, the High Priest, in putting on the crown was ‘symbolic’ of a coming merger of the Kingly and Priestly roles? Into one person? And notice that Joshua, his very name, is the name of the Branch. What did that mean?

The name ‘Joshua’ IS the name ‘Jesus’

To understand this we need to review how the Old Testament was translated through history. I have written how around 250 BC the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek. This translation is today still in use and is called the Septuagint (or LXX). We saw that the title ‘Christ’ was first used in this Greek translation, and that ‘Christ’=’Messiah’=’Anointed One’. (If you do not follow this please review here since this is crucial to what will follow).

'Joshua' = 'Jesus'. Both come from the Hebrew name 'Yhowshuwa'
‘Joshua’ = ‘Jesus’. Both come from the Hebrew name ‘Yhowshuwa’

In exactly the same way we can follow the derivations of the name ‘Joshua’. As you can see in the figure above Joshua is an English transliteration of the original Hebrew name ‘Yhowshuwa’ which was a common Hebrew name that meant ‘Jehovah saves’.  This (shown in Quadrant #1) is how Zechariah wrote his name in 520 BC.  This word was transliterated to ‘Joshua’ when the Old Testament was rendered into English (bottom half labelled #3). The translators of the LXX in 250 BC also transliterated that name when they translated the Old Testament into Greek. Their Greek transliteration was Iesous (Quadrant #2). Thus ‘Yhowshuwa’ of the Old Testament was called Iesous in the LXX. Jesus would have been called Yhowshuwa by his contemporaries but when the New Testament writers wrote his name in the Greek New Testament, they used the familiar ‘Iesous’ of the LXX. When the New Testament was rendered from the Greek to English ‘Iesous’ was transliterated (again) to our well-known ‘Jesus’ (bottom half labelled #3). Thus the name ‘Jesus’ = ‘Joshua’. Both Jesus of the New Testament, and Joshua the High Priest of 520BC were called ‘Yhowshuwa’ in their native Hebrew. In Greek, both names were ‘Iesous’. A Greek reader of the Old Testament LXX would recognize the name of Iesous (Jesus) as a familiar name in the Old Testament. We lose that ready connection since the name ‘Jesus’ appears out of the blue as it were.  But the name Jesus does have an Old Testament equivalent – Joshua.

Jesus of Nazareth is the Branch of Isaiah, Jeremiah & Zechariah

But now that we know this context, the prophecy of Zechariah should hit us like a bolt of lightning. Here we see a prediction, made in 520 BC, that the name of the coming Branch will be ‘Jesus’! When I saw this, I just had to sit up and take notice. This was just too ‘coincidental’ for me. Here was (and still is) a prophecy which named the coming Branch, and the name points directly to Jesus of Nazareth.

And this coming Jesus, according to Zechariah, would merge the roles of King and Priest. What was it again that the priests did? On behalf of the people they offered animal sacrifices to God for their forgiveness of sins. Just like Abraham did with his sacrifice on Mount Moriah, and Moses with the Passover lamb sacrifice, the priest covered the sins of the people through animal sacrifice. The coming ‘Jesus’ was going to perform a similar role so that the LORD could ‘remove the sin of this land in a single day’ – the day that this coming Priest Jesus would offer himself as a sacrifice, already pictured in the place of Mount Moriah and the time of year at the Passover. Sometime after fulfilling that role as Priest, this Branch Jesus would take up his throne (as per Psalm 2) and would thus be ‘a Priest on his throne’ – as stated exactly, precisely and verifiably by Zechariah about 500 years before Jesus walked this earth.

This interconnected degree of prophetic foretelling is nothing short of fantastic. Can you think of anyone else in all of history whose life was even as remotely foretold as Jesus of Nazareth’s was by the diverse Old Testament prophets? Zechariah’s naming of the Branch to be Jesus evades all the conspiracy theories of critics like Spong and Ehrman (who argue that the gospel writers made things up to fit the Old Testament) since the name of ‘Jesus’ of Nazareth is recorded outside the gospels. The Jewish Talmud, Josephus and all other writers about Jesus, both friend and foe, have always referred to him as ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ’. I think that the only option open to us, if we do not accept this as a bona fida prophetic sign, is to ignore it and hope others do too. I have read plenty of critics like Spong and Ehrman who try to rationalize away the Old Testament prophecies in one way or another. They all just ignore this set of Branch prophecies.

Now I suppose they could rationalize that ‘Jesus’ was a reasonably common Jewish name, there certainly were other Jesus’s in Jewish history, so the name coincidence could possibly be due to chance. But let us think through the career of this Jesus of Nazareth. He certainly, as we saw, claimed to be a king; The King in fact. But everything that he accomplished while on earth was in fact priestly. The job of the priest was to take a lamb on behalf of the worshiping Jewish person, offer it to God, kill it, and the death and blood of that lamb would atone for the sin and guilt of that Jewish person. Even a superficial knowledge of the significance of the death of Jesus was that, it also, was an offering to God, on our behalf. His death atones for the sin and guilt for any willing person. The sins of the land were literally removed ‘in a single day’ – the day Jesus died. In his life he alluded to his coming role as King while fulfilling all the requirements as Priest. He has brought harmony and unity to the two roles. The Branch, the one that David long ago called the ‘Messiah’, is in fact the Priest-King.

So exploring the theme of the Branch through the Old Testament should fill us with wonder. But it does not end there. Another Old Testament writer, sandwiched between Jeremiah and Zechariah in history predicted the time of his coming. We will look at that next time.

The Sign of the Branch (Part 1): The Dead Stump Reborn

One of the claims that Jesus put before the critics that he faced in his day was that:

… These are the very Scriptures that testify about me… (John 5:39)

In other words, Jesus claimed that his life and career was predicted and prophesied by the Old Testament books written by the Hebrew prophets that preceded him by hundreds of years. These prophets had claimed that God inspired their writings. Since no human mind can predict in such detail hundreds of years into the future, this became a line of evidence that Jesus said his contemporaries could use to verify if indeed Jesus came as part of a Divine Plan or if the whole gospel account was the product of some elaborate human scheme. Two thousand years later, the data that Jesus referred to is still available for us to examine and consider for ourselves.

We are now in the season of Lent with Easter fast approaching. The Easter season is certainly an opportune time to consider and assess how and if Jesus fulfills the gospel and if the Old Testament prophets did indeed testify about him. So I plan to take the next few posts to see if and how the Old Testament bears on Jesus and Easter.

First let’s do some review. We had seen that Psalm 2 was where the term ‘Christ’ as a title of a specific person who was to come was first given. Psalm 2 was written ca 1000 BC. We also saw that Daniel predicted a special coming person and these two passages together predict the coming of someone who will be alternatively called: Son of God, Son of Man, Anointed One, Messiah, and Christ. The whole tone and thrust of these scriptures was future-looking. They were anticipating someone. But it did not end there. Much more was written in a prophetic, future-looking direction. Other titles and themes were developed. Isaiah (750 BC) started an intriguing title that later Old Testament books picked up on and developed into a fully-fledged theme – that of the coming Branch.

Isaiah and The Branch

The figure below shows Isaiah in a historical timeline with some other Old Testament writers.

Isaiah shown in historical timeline. He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings
Isaiah shown in historical timeline. He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings

You will see from the color coding that Isaiah’s book was written in the period of the

The image Isaiah used of the Dynasty as a tree
The image Isaiah used of the Dynasty as a tree

Davidic Royal dynasty (1000 – 600 BC). [see here for overview of Israelite history].  When it was written (ca 750 BC) the dynasty and kingdom was corrupt. Isaiah was written as a plea to return back to God and the practice and spirit of the Mosaic Law. But Isaiah knew that this repentant return would not happen and thus he also predicted that the country would be destroyed and the royal dynasty would be shattered.

He used a specific metaphor, or image, for the royal dynasty where he pictured it like a great tree. This tree had at its root Jesse, the father of King David. Upon Jesse the Dynasty was started with David, and from his successor, Solomon, the tree continued to grow and develop.

First a Tree … then a Stump … then a Branch

But then Isaiah wrote that this dynastic ‘tree’ would soon be cut down, reducing it to a stump. But along with all this warning came this intriguing prophetic riddle:

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him–the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge.” (Isaiah 11:1-2)

The cutting down of this ‘tree’ happened about 150 years after Isaiah, around 600 BC, when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and dragged its people and king into exile to Babylon (the red period in the timeline above). Jesse was the father of King David, and thus the root of the Davidic Dynasty.Isaiah predicted the dynasty of david as a stump He would be the counterpart to the father of Elendil, the founder of the dynasty of Kings of Gondor in the Lord of the Rings. The ‘stump of Jesse’ was therefore an allusion to the (coming) shattered and broken dynasty of kings from David.

The Branch: A coming ‘him’ from David possessing wisdom

But this riddle simultaneously looked further into the future then the cutting down of the tree. Isaiah explicitly predicted that though the ‘stump’ (the line of David from Jesse) would to all appearances look dead, one day in the far future a shoot, known as the Branch, would emerge from that same stump, just like shoots can regenerate from real tree stumps. This Branch isaiah predicted that a one would come from the stump as a branchis referred to as a ‘him’ so Isaiah is talking about a coming man, coming from the line of David after the dynasty was cut down. This man would have such qualities of wisdom, power, and knowledge it would be as if the very Spirit of God would be resting on him.

Jesus … A ‘him’ from David possessing wisdom

We have seen how Jewish scholars, even though hostile witnesses, placed Jesus in the royal line of David, just as the Gospel writers did. Jesus fits the criterion of coming ‘from the stump of Jesse’. The very startling thing about the accounts of Jesus in the gospels is the wisdom and understanding he possessed. His shrewdness, poise and insight in dealing with opponents and followers alike in his day continue to impress both critics and followers ever since. And though he did not rule, his power in the gospels through miracles is undeniable. One may choose not to believe them; but one cannot ignore them. As well as in coming from the line of David, Jesus fits the criterion of possessing exceptional qualities of wisdom and power that Isaiah predicted would one day come from this Branch.

Jeremiah and The Branch

It is like a signpost laid down by Isaiah in history. But it did not end there. His signpost is but the first in a series of signs. Jeremiah, living about 150 years after Isaiah, when the jeremiah in timelineDavidic dynasty was actually being cut down before his very eyes wrote:

“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. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD our Righteousness“. (Jeremiah 23:5-6)

Jeremiah explicitly expands on the Branch theme of the Davidic dynasty started by Isaiah much earlier. The Branch will be a King who reigns. But this is exactly what the Psalm 2 and Daniel 7 prophecies said of the coming Son of God/Son of Man/Messiah. Could it be that the Branch and the Son of God are one and the same? Notice who is making the declaration about the Branch – it is the ‘LORD’ making this declaration.

The Branch: The LORD our Righteousness

But what is this Branch to be called? Why also none other than the ‘LORD’ (the same name) who will also be ‘our’ (that is – we humans) Righteousness. As we saw with Abraham, the overwhelming problem for humans is that we are ‘corrupt’, and thus in desperate need of ‘righteousness’. And here, in the describing of the Branch, we see a hint that people in Jeremiah’s future would obtain their needed ‘righteousness’ accredited by none other than LORD – YHWH himself (YHWH is the name for God in the Old Testament). But how would this be done? Zechariah fills in further details for us as he develops further on this theme of the Coming Branch, predicting even the name of Jesus – which we look at in our next post.

Where does the ‘Christ’ in Jesus Christ come from?

I sometimes ask people what they think Jesus’ last name was. Usually they reply along the lines of, “I guess his last name was ‘Christ’ but I am not sure”. Then I ask, “If that was the case then when Jesus was a little boy did Joseph Christ and Mary Christ take little Jesus Christ to the market?” Put that way, they realize that ‘Christ’ is not Jesus’ last name. So, what is ‘Christ’? Where does it come from? What does it mean? Since we are now in the Christmas season, I hope to sharpen your Christmas experience and embark on some 1st century controversies about Jesus – namely, was he ‘the Christ’?

Translation vs. Transliteration

We do need to first understand some very basic principles of translation. Translators try to capture the best meaning. Thus a word-for-word approach is not always used. For example, in my native Swedish if I was to ask about the time I would say “Hur mycket är klockan?” which translated word-for-word is “How much is the clock?” But we do not speak that way in English so translating that phrase by meaning rather than by literal words is preferred.  But translators sometimes choose to translate by similar sound rather than by meaning, especially when it comes to names or titles. This is known as transliteration. For example, our English name Peter is a transliteration from the Greek name Petros, which means ‘rock’ in Greek. The name was rendered to English by similar sound rather than by meaning. However, the same name in French is Pierre, which means ‘rock’ in French. So the name was rendered into French from Greek by translation (similar meaning) rather than by transliteration (similar sound). For the Bible, translators had to decide whether words (especially names and titles) would be better in the receiver language through translation (by meaning) or through transliteration (by sound).

The Septuagint

History of the MSSs that give us modern Bibles inc. LXX and Dead Sea Scrolls
Old Testament manuscript timeline: Septuagint (or LXX) was translated from Hebrew ca 250 BC

Now let’s layer these principles onto the history of Biblical translation. The first translation of the Bible was when the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek about 250BC. This translation is known as the Septuagint (or LXX) and it has exerted an enormous influence. I described the LXX in posts I and II on the Septuagint, and I encourage you to read them because they will help you better follow me from here.

Translation & Transliteration in the Septuagint

The figure below shows how all this impacts modern-day Bibles where translation stages are shown in quadrants.

translation steps in development of bible from Hebrew to Greek to Modern language
This shows the translation flow from original to modern-day Bible

The original Hebrew Old Testament is in quadrant #1 and is accessible today in the Masoretic text and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Greek New Testament is in quadrant #2. But because the Septuagint was a Hebrew –> Greek translation it is shown as an arrow going from quadrant #1 to #2 so that #2 contains both Old and New Testaments. In the bottom half (#3) is a modern language, like English, that the Bible is translated into. The translators had to decide whether words were better in the receiver language through transliteration or translation as explained above. This is illustrated with the green arrows labeled transliterate and translate on either side of them, showing that the translators could take either approach. Taken together, this figure shows the process of how the Biblical texts have gone from Hebrew and Greek to modern languages of today.

The Origin of ‘Christ’

In the next figure I again follow the process as above, but this time I am specifically focusing on the word ‘Christ’ that appears in our modern-day New Testaments.

where does 'Christ' come from in the old testament of the bible
Where does ‘Christ’ come from in the Bible

We can see that in the original Hebrew Old Testament the term was ‘mashiyach’ which the Hebrew dictionary defines as an ‘anointed or consecrated’ person. Hebrew priests and kings of the Old Testament period were anointed (ceremonially rubbed with oil) before they took up their office, thus they were anointed ones or mashiyach. But certain Old Testament prophetic passages also spoke of a specific mashiyach (with a definite article ’the’) who was prophesied to come. When the Septuagint was developed in 250 BC, the translators chose a word in the Greek with a similar meaning, Christos, which came from chrio, which meant to rub ceremonially with oil. Therefore the word Christos was translated by meaning (and not transliterated by sound) from the original Hebrew ‘mashiyach’ into the Greek Septuagint to refer to this specific person. The New Testament writers understood Jesus to be this very person that was spoken of in the Septuagint so they continued to use the word Christos in their writings to designate Jesus as this mashiyach.

But when we moved to modern-day English, there was no readily recognized word with a similar meaning so Christos was then transliterated from the Greek into English as ‘Christ’. Thus the English ‘Christ’ is a very specific title with Old Testament roots, derived by translation from Hebrew to Greek, and then transliteration from Greek to English. The Hebrew Old Testament is translated directly to English and translators have made different choices in rendering the original Hebrew ‘mashiyach’ into English. Some Translations (like King James Version) transliterated the Hebrew mashiyach to the English word Messiah. Other translations (like New International Version) translated mashiyach by its meaning and so have ‘Anointed One’ in these specific Old Testament passages. Because we do not see the word ‘Christ’ in the English Old Testament this connection to the Old Testament is not readily apparent to us. But from this analysis we know that the Biblical ‘Christ’=’Messiah’=’Anointed One’ and that it was a specific title. The original Greek readers of the New Testament would have directly seen the Christos from the Septuagint and would have seen the direct connection, while we have to dig around somewhat to see it.

The Christ anticipated in 1st Century

Armed with this insight, let’s make some observations from the Gospel accounts. Below is the reaction of King Herod when the Magi from the East came looking for the king of the Jews, a well-known part of the Christmas story. Notice, ‘the’ precedes Christ, even though it is not referring specifically about Jesus.

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. (Matthew 2:3-4)

You can see that the very idea of ‘the Christ’ was already commonly accepted between Herod and his religious advisors – even before Jesus was born – and it is used here without referring specifically to Jesus. This is because ‘Christ’ comes from the Old Testament, and it was commonly read by Jews of the 1st century (like Herod and the chief priests of his day) in the Greek Septuagint. ‘Christ’ was (and still is) a title, not a name. From this we can dismiss right away the ridiculous notions that ‘Christ’ was a Christian invention or an invention by someone like Emperor Constantine of 300 AD popularized by movies like Da Vinci Code. The term was in existence hundreds of years before there were any Christians or before Constantine came to power.

Old Testment prophecies of ‘The Christ’

In fact, the term takes on a definitively prophetic title already in the Psalms, written by David ca 1000 BC – far, far before the birth of Jesus. Let’s look at these first occurrences.

The kings of the earth take their stand … against the LORD and against his Anointed One … The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them… saying, “I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.” I will proclaim the decree of the LORD : He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father. …Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2:2-7)

The Greek Septuagint was far more widely read than the Hebrew in the first century (for both Jews and Gentiles). Psalm 2 in the Septuagint would read in the following way (I am putting it in English with a transliterated Christos so you can ‘see’ the Christ title like a reader of the Septuagint could)

The kings of the earth take their stand … against the LORD and against his Christ … The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them… saying …, (Psalm 2)

You can now ‘see’ Christ in this passage like a reader of the 1st century would have. But the Psalms continue with more references to this coming Christ. I put the standard passage side-by-side with a transliterated one with ‘Christ’ in it so you can see it.

Psalm 132- From Hebrew Psalm 132 – From Septuagint
O Lord, …10 For the sake of David your servant,
do not reject your anointed one.11 The Lord swore an oath to David,
a sure oath that he will not revoke:
“One of your own descendants
I will place on your throne—
17 “Here I will make a horn grow for David
and set up a lamp for my anointed one.
18 I will clothe his enemies with shame,
but the crown on his head will be resplendent.”
O Lord, …10 For the sake of David your servant,
do not reject your Christ.11 The Lord swore an oath to David,
a sure oath that he will not revoke:
“One of your own descendants
I will place on your throne—
17 “Here I will make a horn grow for David
and set up a lamp for my Christ.
18 I will clothe his enemies with shame,
but the crown on his head will be resplendent.”

You can see that Psalm 132 specifically speaks in the future tense (“…I will make a horn for David…”), like so many passages throughout the Old Testament. This is important to remember when assessing the prophecies. It is not just that the New Testament writers grab some ideas from the Old Testament and ‘make’ them fit. It is as clear as words can be that the Old Testament, without even considering the New Testament, makes future-looking claims and predictions. Herod was aware that the Old Testament prophets made predictions about the coming ‘Christ’ – which was why he was ready for this announcement. He just needed his advisers to fill him in on the specifics of these predictions. The Jews have always been known to be waiting for their Messiah (or Christ). The fact that they are waiting or looking for the coming of their Messiah has nothing to do with Jesus or the New Testament (since they ignore that) but rather has everything to do with the explicitly future-looking predictions and prophecies in the Old Testament.

The Old Testament prophecies: Specified like a lock of a lock-n-key system

The fact that the Old Testament writings are explicitly predictive of the future makes them stand in very small company across the vast sea of literature that has been produced through human history. It is like the lock of a door. A lock is designed in a certain shape specification so that only a specific ‘key’ that matches the specification can unlock it. In the same way the Old Testament is like a lock. We saw that the specifications are not just in these two Psalms I looked at here but already we have seen others in the posts on Abraham’s sacrifice, Adam’s beginning, Moses’ Passover, and Daniel’s coming Son of Man (please review if they are not familiar).  Psalm 132 adds the specification that ‘the Christ’ would be from the line of David.  So the ‘lock’ has specifications that can be seen to become more and more precise as we survey the prophetic passages across the Old Testament. Given that, here is a question worth asking:  Why is ‘Christ’ so anticipated and so central in both the Old and New Testaments?  In finding the answer you will also see why ‘Christ’ is relevant to you and me today.

 

The Eeriness of Moses’ Farewell Speech echoing in Global Headlines today

The Blessings & Curses in Deuteronomy through history and into our day

This past week has seen the attention of all major news websites and networks focus on a man who has just died. While many around the globe have been reading his obituary, and as I write this heads of state from around the world are traveling to attend his funeral, few are making the connection between this man’s life, and the final words of another man who made some sweeping pronouncements about 3500 years ago – who was about to die. From the perspective of deep history, the impact of the man’s life that has just passed, though resonating so powerfully around the world right now, can be seen as just one wave in a much stronger and deeper current that was unleashed by this other man who lived so long ago.

The man in question who just passed away is Ariel Sharon, the former Prime Minister of Israel and, according to many of these news outlets, was one of the fiercest and most brilliant military leaders in our generation. Reading through some of his military exploits sounds like the toughness of Rambo, the cunning of James Bond, and the ruthlessness of Genghis Khan – all rolled into one. But his bold political moves – sometimes towards confrontation and sometimes to peace – were equally as influential as his military exploits.

Though I have found these obituaries interesting reading, it is in the context of the last words of the earlier man – Moses – that the reading of the career of Ariel Sharon shifts gears to make me feel wonder, fascination, and even a little somewhat ‘eerie’. So permit me to unpack a part of the Bible seldom read so that you too can consider the impact of Moses’s parting words through lives like that of Ariel Sharon.

Moses’ final Farewll Speech

Moses lived about 1500 BC and he wrote the first five books of the Bible – known as the Pentateuch or the Torah. In the fifth book, Deuteronomy, were his final messages given months before he died. He concludes this final book, just before his passing, by issuing a set of sweeping Blessings and Curses to the people of Israel – the Jews. They can be viewed as his Farewell Speech. These Blessings and Curses were to be in effect down through history and were explicitly to be reflected on, not just by the Jews, but also by the surrounding nations. Any way you slice it that was meant to include you and me. You can read the complete Blessings and Curses here. I highlight the main points below.

The Blessings of Moses

Moses had previously issued the Ten Commandments and the Law which are detailed in the earlier books of the Pentateuch. Moses starts his Farewell Speech by describing blessings that the Israelites would receive if they obeyed The Law. These blessings were explicitly to be from the hand of God and would be in the sight of the other nations so that they would recognize His blessing. The outcome of these blessings would be that:

Then all the peoples on earth will see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they will fear you. (Deuteronomy 28:10)

… and the Curses

However, if the Israelites failed to obey the Commands then they would receive Curses that would match and mirror the Blessings. Again these Curses would be seen by the surrounding nations so that:

You will become a thing of horror, a byword and an object of ridicule among all the peoples where the LORD will drive you. (Deuteronomy 28:37)

And the Curses would be for the Israelites themselves and extend through history.

They will be a sign and a wonder to you and your descendants forever. (Deuteronomy 28:46)

But God warned that the worst part of the Curses would come from others.

The LORD will bring a nation against you from far away, from the ends of the earth, like an eagle swooping down, a nation whose language you will not understand, a fierce-looking nation without respect for the old or pity for the young. They will devour the young of your livestock and the crops of your land until you are destroyed … until you are ruined. They will lay siege to all the cities throughout your land until the high fortified walls in which you trust fall down. They will besiege all the cities throughout the land. (Deuteronomy 28:49-52)

It would go from bad to worse.

You will be uprooted from the land you are entering to possess. Then the LORD will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. … Among those nations you will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the LORD will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. (Deuteronomy 28:63-65)

These Blessings and Curses were then established by a covenant (an agreement) between God and the Israelites:

…to confirm you this day as his people, that he may be your God as he promised you and as he swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I am making this covenant, with its oath … also with those who are not here today. (Deuteronomy 29:12-15)

In other words this covenant would be binding on the children, or future generations. In fact this covenant was directed at future generations – both Israelites and foreigners.

Your children who follow you in later generations and foreigners who come from distant lands will see the calamities that have fallen on the land and the diseases with which the LORD has afflicted it. … nothing planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing on it. … All the nations will ask: “Why has the LORD done this to this land? Why this fierce, burning anger?”

And the answer will be:

“It is because this people abandoned the covenant of the LORD, the God of their ancestors, the covenant he made with them when he brought them out of Egypt….Therefore the LORD’s anger burned against this land, so that he brought on it all the curses written in this book. … the LORD uprooted them from their land and thrust them into another land, as it is now.” (Deuteronomy 29:21-27)

Did The Blessings and Curses come to pass?

Wow! Nothing middle-of-the-road here. The Blessings were delightful, but the Curses were utterly severe. However, the most important question we can ask is: ‘Did these things happen?’ The answer is not hard to find. Much of the Old Testament is the record of the history of the Israelites and from that we can see what happens in their history. Also we have records outside the Old Testament, from Jewish historians like Josephus, Graeco-Roman historians like Tacitus and we have found many archeological monuments. All of these sources agree and paint a consistent picture of the Israelite or Jewish history. A summary of this history, given through the building of a timeline is given here.  Read it and assess for yourself if the Curses of Moses came to pass.

The Conclusion to Moses’ Blessings and Curses

But this Farewell Speech of Moses did not end with the Curses. It continued. Here is how Moses made his final pronouncement.

When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come on you and you take them to heart wherever the LORD your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors (Deuteronomy 30:1-5)

After Moses, successive writers in the Old Testament built on this theme that he inaugurated – that there would be a restoration after the Curses. I looked at how Ezekiel used the image of dead zombies coming to life to paint one vivid picture of this for us. These later writers made bold, troubling and detailed predictions.  I look, in my next post,  at how Ezekiel, Moses and Jeremiah combine to make an astounding set of predictions that are happening today. Predictions that the late Ariel Sharon played a forceful part in fulfilling. But for me at least, the fact that journalists and Heads of State around the world are right now reflecting on the passing of a man who played an important part in bringing this conclusion to Moses’ Farewell Speech about, coupled with the fact that this Speech was explicitly written as a sign to future generations of Jew and Gentile alike (i.e. you and me), is just a little eerie.

What was the Passover Sign of Moses?

In the previous post I looked at how the trial of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac alluded to the sacrifice of Jesus. About 500 years have now passed since Abraham and it is about 1500 BC. After Abraham died, his descendants through Isaac, now called Israelites, are a vast number of people but also have become slaves in Egypt. This happened because Joseph, great-grandson of Abraham, was sold as a slave to Egypt and then his family followed as explained in Genesis 45-46 of the Bible.

The Exodus Passover Story

So we now come to a very curious drama centered around Moses and which is told in the book Exodus (so named because it is the account of Moses leading the Jewish Israelites out of Egypt). Moses had been commanded by God to confront the Pharaoh of Egypt and it results in a contest of wills between the two, producing nine plagues or disasters against Pharaoh thus far. But Pharaoh has not agreed to let the Israelites go so God is going to bring about a 10th and most fearsome plague. The full story of the 10th Plague in Exodus of the Bible is linked here and I urge you to read it because it will help you in better following the explanation below.

This 10th plague decreed by God was that every firstborn offspring would die that night except those who remained in houses where a lamb had been sacrificed and its blood painted on the doorposts of that house. Pharaoh’s loss, if he did not obey, would be that his son and heir to the throne would die. And every house in Egypt would lose the firstborn son – if they did not sacrifice a lamb and paint its blood on the doorposts. So Egypt faced a national disaster.

But in houses where a lamb had been sacrificed and its blood painted on the doorposts the promise was that everyone would be safe. Death would pass over that house. So this day was called Passover.

The Passover Sign – for who?

Many who are familiar with this account assume that the blood on the doors was a sign for the Angel of Death. But notice the curious detail in the account.

The LORD said to Moses … ” … I am the LORD. The blood [of the Passover lamb] will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. (Exodus 12:13)

So, though the LORD was looking for the blood on the door, and when He saw it He would pass over, the blood was not a sign for Him. It says quite clearly, that the blood was a ‘sign for you’ – i.e. the people. And by extension it is a Sign for all of us who read this account. But how is it a sign? After this event happened the LORD commanded them to:

Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for generations to come. When you enter the land … observe this ceremony… It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD’ (Exodus 12:27)

The Remarkable Passover Calendar

In fact we see at the beginning of this passage that this event inaugurates and launches the ancient Jewish calendar.

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt,  “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year… (Exodus 12:1-2)

So the Israelites were commanded to establish a calendar that celebrated this Passover on the same day every year. The Jewish calendar is a little different from the Western calendar, so the day in the year moves each year if you track it by the Western calendar.

Passover celebrated today as a result of Moses commands
This is a modern-day scene of Jewish people preparing to celebrate Passover in memory of that first Passover 3500 years ago.

But to this day, 3500 years later, they continue to celebrate the Jewish Passover Festival every year on the same day in their calendar and eat the seder meal in memory of this event in obedience to the command given then.

And in tracking this celebration through history we can note something quite extraordinary. You can notice this in the Gospel where it records the details of the arrest and trial of Jesus:

“Then the Jews led Jesus … to the palace of the Roman governor [Pilate]… to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover” … [Pilate] said [to Jewish leaders] “…But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?” They shouted back, “No not him…” (John 18:28, 39-40)

In other words, Jesus was arrested and executed right on the Passover day in the Jewish calendar. Now if you remember from Sign of Abraham’s Sacrifice, one of the titles of Jesus was:

The next day John (i.e. John the Baptist) saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world… ’”. (John 1:29)

And here we see the drama in this Sign. Jesus, the ‘Lamb of God’, was crucified (i.e. sacrificed) on the very same day that all the Jews alive then were sacrificing a lamb in memory of the first Passover that launched their calendar. This explains the annual timing of two holidays that occurs every year – a parallel that so few of us notice and even fewer ask ‘Why?’. The Jewish Passover Festival occurs most years in the same week that Easter does – check your calendar. (In some years, because of the Jewish leap month cycle they can be a month apart).

Signs, Signs, Everywhere are Signs

Back to that first Passover in Moses’ day where the blood was a ‘sign’, not for God, but for the people.  Now think for a minute about what signs do by considering these below.

What are the function of 'signs'
Signs are pointer in our minds to get us to think about the thing the sign points to

When we see the sign of the ‘skull and crossbones’ it is to make us think of death and danger. The sign of the ‘Golden Arches’ makes us think about McDonalds. The sign of the ‘√’ on tennis player Nadal’s bandana is the sign for Nike. Nike wants us to think of them when we see this sign on Nadal. In other words, Signs are pointers in our minds to direct our thinking not to the sign itself but to something else.

Now the Passover account explicitly said that the Sign was for the people, not for God, but it was established by Him – He was the author of it.  So like with any sign, what did He want our minds to think of?  With the remarkable timing of lambs being sacrificed on the same day as Jesus, and given his title ‘Lamb of God’, it must be a pointer to the sacrifice of Jesus.

It works in our minds like I have shown in the diagram here about me.

Passover is a sign to Jesus in that his death was on the day of that sacrifice
The Passover is a Sign in that it points to Jesus through the remarkable timing of Passover with Jesus’ crucifixion

The sign was there to point me to the death of Jesus. In that first Passover the lambs were sacrificed and the blood spread so the people could live. And thus, this Sign pointing to Jesus is to tell me that he, ‘The Lamb of God’, was also given to death and his blood spilt so I could find life.  The meaning of Passover is Jesus’ sacrifice that gives us life.

With Abraham’s sign the place where the ram died so Isaac could live was Mount Moriah – the very same place where Jesus was later sacrificed. That enables us to ‘see’ the meaning of his death by pointing to the place. Here in the Passover we find another pointer to the same event – by pointing to the same day in the calendar – the calendar initiated by this very event.  And a lamb sacrifice is once again used – showing that it is not just a coincidence of any event – to signify the death of Jesus.  In two different ways (through location and through timing) two of the most symbolic and important events in the Old Testament directly point to the death of Jesus. I cannot think of any other person in history whose death (or any important milestone) is so foreshadowed by two similar parallels in such dramatic fashion. Can you?  I do cover some objections in my article here.

We saw in the trial of Jesus that still another title (‘The Son of Man’) from another Old Testament book (Daniel) from another era (Daniel was ca 500 BC – a thousand years after Moses) is literally becoming fulfilled in still another age (the last 300 years or so) through a growing world-wide voluntary worship of him – in large part because of this same death.  We also saw in the background to Pentecost that the Old Testament Feast of Weeks – from that same calendar inaugurated by Moses with Passover falls on, while also pointing to, the day of Pentecost.

Taken together, these foresights should signal to us that there are reasonable grounds to consider that Jesus is the cornerstone of a Divine Plan signaled long ago when mere slaves in Egypt auspiciously inaugurated their new calendar by Signing lamb’s blood onto their doors.

[Click here for this Sign explained to those with an Islamic perspective and an interest in the Prophet Musa’s (PBUH) message.]

What was the Sign of Abraham’s Sacrifice?

Abraham is one of the most foundational characters of the Old Testament in helping us to understand the Gospel. He lived 4000 years ago traveling from what is modern-day Iraq to live as a wanderer in what is modern-day Israel. We saw in the Session on External Evidence that cities and names from his era are referenced in ancient tablets preserved for us today. So the setting of his account is entirely historical. There is no evidence from archaeology to dismiss his account and there is rather good reason to take this account seriously.

So I would like to look at a well-known part of the account of Abraham, the part where God asked him to sacrifice his one and only son, Isaac, for whom Abraham had waited many years, and on whom all his hopes for his future progeny rested.  This story is also known as the binding of Isaac.

So Abraham encounters his greatest test and it gives us a ‘peek’ into the Gospel.  I encourage you to read the full account in Genesis concerning the test of the sacrifice of his son here.

The sacrifice looking to the future

We can see from the account that this was a test for Abraham, yet it is also for us.  But to ‘see’ this we need to note a few observations from the account.  Here is the pertinent portion of the account:

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘The LORD Will Provide’. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.” (Genesis 22:13-14)

Notice the name that Abraham gave to that place where the test occurred. He named it ‘The LORD will provide’. The question we need to ask is: ‘Is that name in the past tense, present tense or future tense?’ It is clearly in the future tense. And to be even more clear the comment which follows (which Moses inserted when he compiled this account into the Jewish Torah about 500 years later) repeats “…it will be provided”. Again this is in the future tense and thus looking to the future.  But this naming occurs after the sacrifice of the ram (a male sheep) in place of Isaac. Many who read the account think that Abraham, when naming that place, is referring to the ram caught in the thicket and sacrificed in place of his son. But when Abraham names the place the ram is already dead, sacrificed and burnt. If Abraham is thinking of the ram – already dead, sacrificed and burnt – he would have named it ‘The LORD has provided’, i.e. in the past tense. And Moses, if he was thinking of the ram that took the place of Abraham’s son would have commented ‘And to this day it is said “On the mountain of the LORD it was provided”’. But both Abraham and Moses clearly give it a name in future tense and therefore are not thinking of that already dead and sacrificed ram.

Where the sacrifice happened

So what are they thinking about then? If we look for a clue we see that the place where God told Abraham to go at the beginning of this Sign was:

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” (v.2)

This happened in ‘Moriah’. But where is that? Though it was a wilderness area in Abraham’s day (2000 BC), a thousand years later (1000 BC) King David established the city of Jerusalem there, and his son Solomon built the First Jewish Temple there. We read later in the Old Testament historical books that:

Then Solomon began to build the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the LORD had appeared to his father David (2 Chronicles 3:1)

In other words, ‘Mount Moriah’ in the time of Abraham was an isolated mountain top in the wilderness but 1000 years later through David and Solomon it became the central and capital city of the Israelites where they built the Jewish Temple. And to this very day it is a holy place for the Jewish people.

Jesus and the Sacrifice of Abraham

And here we find a direct connection to Jesus and the Gospel. We see this connection when we consider one of the titles attributed to Jesus.  Now Jesus had many titles associated with him.  In the previous post I looked at the interplay of titles ‘Son of Man’ and ‘Son of God’ used at his trial.  And perhaps the most well-known title of his is ‘Christ’. But there is another title given to him that is not as well known, but hugely important. We see this in the Gospel of John when John the Baptist says:

The next day John (i.e. John the Baptist) saw Jesus (i.e. Jesus) coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. This is the one I meant when I said ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me’”. (John 1:29-30)

In other words, Jesus was also known as ‘The Lamb of God”. Now consider the end of Jesus’ life. Where was he arrested and crucified? It was in Jerusalem (which as we saw is the same as ‘Mount Moriah’). It is very clearly stated during his arrest that:

When he [Pilate] learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at the time.’ (Luke 23:7)

In other words, the arrest, trial and sentencing of Jesus happened in Jerusalem (= Mount Moriah).

Back to Abraham. Why did he name that place in the future tense ‘The LORD will provide’? How could he know that something would be ‘provided’ there in his future that would so precisely mirror the drama of the scene he enacted on Mount Moriah? Think about it – in that drama Isaac is saved from death at the last moment because a lamb dies in his place. Two thousand years later, Jesus is called ‘Lamb of God’ and is arrested and dies on the same spot!  Both Abraham and Moses claimed that it was revealed to them by God.

A Divine Mind Reveals Himself

And indeed it is as though there is a Mind that is connecting these two events separated by 2000 years of history.

The prophecy in the sacrifice of Abraham on mount moriah is a pointer to jesus
The sacrifice of Abraham was a Sign – pointing forward 2000 years – to make us think about the death of Jesus.

But what makes this unique is that the earlier event is pointing to the second event two thousand years later.  We know the earlier was configured to point to the later because the name given by Abraham and Moses was ‘The LORD will provide’ i.e. it looks to the future.  The figure illustrates how the earlier event alludes to the later one and was configured to remind us of the later event.  This is evidence that this Mind is revealing Himself to us by coordinating events though separated by thousands of years.  This is evidence that God has spoken.  Take a look here for a discussion on other possible explanations.

Good News for you and me

But this account is also pertinent to us for more personal reasons. At the end of the exchange God declares to Abraham that

“…and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed because you have obeyed me” (Genesis 22:18)

If you belong to one of the ‘nations on earth’ (and you do!) this has to concern you because the promise is that you then can get a ‘blessing’ from God himself!  Even only a possibility of a blessing from God should move us to investigate further.

But how is this ‘blessing’ given?  For starters, the word ‘offspring’ here is in the singular. It is not ‘offsprings’ as in many descendants or peoples, but in the singular as in a ‘he’, not through many people or a group of people as in ‘they’.   Again, this points to Jesus, the offspring of Abraham.  Just like the ram saved Isaac from death by dieing in his place, so the Lamb of God, by his death, saves us from the power of death.  The Good News of the gospel is foreshadowed beyond that of chance coincidences in the remarkable account of the sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah, the same spot where 2000 years later it ‘was provided’

[Click here for this Sign explained to those with an Islamic perspective and an interest in Eid al-Adha and Ibrahim (PBUH).]

 

 

The Belief of Abraham – the Model Calling for us to Follow

In my last post we saw that Abraham obtained that indispensable status of being righteous simply by believing. This was declared in the little sentence:

Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

Belief is not about the existence of God

I now want to unpack what it means that Abraham ‘believed’. Many people I talk to think that ‘believing’ means believing in the existence of God. How many times have I heard “Oh I believe in God” – meaning “I believe that God exists”. Somehow we seem to think that God is impressed and delighted when we affirm His existence. But in fact the Bible is far more muted on that. It states that:

You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. (James 2:19)

According to the Bible, simply believing that God exists puts us in the same league as the Devil. I will leave it to you to judge for yourself how much assurance you want to take from that. Now it is true that Abraham believed in God’s existence, but that is not at all the point in this encounter. The reality facing Abraham was that he had no son and he was in his 80’s. In this exchange, God, as he had done several times before, had just finished promising Abraham that He would give him one. It was that promise which thrust Abraham unto a Crossroads of Decision. His choice was not about believing in the existence of God or not, but whether he would believe that particular promise that this God had given him – or not. And in that decision Abraham chose to believe. He trusted that God would fulfill that promise to him. Belief, in this account, is synonymous with trust. Abraham chose to trust God in this matter that was very important to him – which solely by looking on the surface of things did not look very hopeful.

So Abraham chose to believe that promise of a son. In return God gave him something in addition to the promise. He gave him – the word used is ‘credited’ – righteousness. In the end Abraham got both the fulfilled promise (a son from whom a great nation would come) with righteousness almost seemingly thrown in as a side-thought.

Righteousness – not from our merit or effort

I have had the privilege to hear from people of many different religions and philosophies. What I find quite striking is that though their theologies can vary quite substantially, virtually everyone I talk to or read from operates on the assumption that righteousness is obtained through merit, or earned by some specific efforts, ascetic denials or ‘good’ behaviour. We reason that doing more good things than bad things, or doing a certain kind or amount of religious ‘goodness’ allows us to deserve, earn or merit righteousness. I have seen this logic expressed amongst Buddhist friends in Thailand, Hindus in India, Muslims across the Muslim world, in Catholics, Protestants, and even those who believe simply in ‘a Higher Power’ – all of us around the world naturally live by this credo. I remember once interviewing theology students leaving a seminary and being informed by them that it was the balance between our merits and sins that determined our righteousness.

But Abraham did not ‘earn’ righteousness; it was ‘credited’ to him. So what is the difference? Well, if something is ‘earned’ you worked for it – you deserve it. It is like receiving wages for the work you do. But when something is credited to you, it is given to you. Like any gift freely given it is not earned or merited, but simply received.

This account of Abraham overturns the common understanding that we have about righteousness either by thinking that it is a belief in God’s existence, or it is obtained by doing enough sufficiently good or religious activities. This is not the way Abraham took. He simply chose to believe the promise extended to him.

Abraham’s Belief: He bet his life on it

Choosing to believe in this promise of a son was perhaps simple but it definitely was not easy.  Abraham could easily have disregarded the promise by objecting that if God really had the desire as well as the power to grant him a son then He should have already done so. Because at this point in his life, Abraham and Sarah (his wife) were old – well past the age of getting children. Remember when he was first promised a ‘Great Nation’ that he was already 75 years old. In response to that he left his home country and went to Canaan.  Many years  passed since then so Abraham and Sarah  grew very old and they still did not even have one child – let alone a nation! “Why has  God not already given us a son if he could have done so”? he would have wondered. In other words, he believed the promise of a coming son even though he probably had unanswered questions about the promise. He believed the promise because he trusted God who gave the promise – even though he did not understand everything about the promise, nor had he figured out all that God had in mind with it.

Believing the promise demanded active waiting. His whole life was, in a sense, interrupted while he was living in tents in the Promised Land of Canaan waiting (still many years) for the coming of the promised son. It would have been much easier to rationalize away the promise and return home to civilization in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) that he had left many years earlier, and where his brother and family still lived. Abraham had to live with the difficulties of continuing to believe the promise – each and every day – for the many years while he waited for the promise to be realized. His trust in the promise was so great that it took priority over normal goals in life – security, comfort and well-being. In a real sense, living in anticipation of the promise meant dying to the normal goals of life. Believing the promise showed both his trust in, and love for, God. He could have chosen not to believe and returned back to the land he came from (modern-day Iraq). He could have disregarded the promise while still believing in the existence of God and still continuing in his prayers and helping other people. But then he would have only maintained his religion but not been credited ‘righteousness’.

Thus believing the promise went far beyond just mental assent to it. Abraham had to stake his life, reputation, safety, actions in the present and hopes for the future on this promise because he believed he was actively and obediently waiting. This was the Way of Abraham.

Abraham: The Pattern for us – to also believe Promises

The rest of the Bible treats this encounter as a Sign for us.  Abraham’s belief in the promise from God, and the ensuing credit of righteousness, is a pattern for us to follow. The whole of the Gospel is founded on promises that God gives to each and every one of us. These promises are not the same as the specific promise to Abraham of a son. But they are promises nonetheless, and like the promise to Abraham these promises bring us to the crossroads of a decision. Do we believe (i.e. trust) these promises, or not?

What promises are we talking about? Here are a few

Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (John 1:12-13)

 

“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. (John 5:24-25)

 

I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:9-10)

 

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

 

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

I could go on and list some more. But the point is that these are promises and they are given either by Jesus or in his name – to you and to me. Like Abraham we can choose to believe these promises – or not. Like Abraham, believing these promises will engage and require your entire life. You will have to make your normal life goals and aspirations subservient to these promises. Mental assent to these promises is not the offer that the Gospel is putting on your table. Neither is belief in the existence of God, or valiant and well-intentioned efforts to earn merit. If you believe these promises such that you trust your life with them you also will be credited righteousness. And they will start you on the same journey of faith that Abraham embarked on.  This journey has God paying the price, while you and I are credited life.  This was all foreseen in the subsequent Sacrifice of Abraham.

Though Abraham lived in a different era, with different customs and different rituals, he is a model to us. The promise to Abraham that was literally, historically and verifiably fulfilled stands as a beacon heralding that the same kind of offer is made to us in Jesus.