Why Aren’t Unbelievers Amazed by the Many Prophecies Jesus Fulfilled?

There is an impressive list of Old Testament texts that Christians look upon, with good reason, as fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Norman L. Geisler in his book To Understand the Bible, Look for Jesus lists 25 Old Testament passages that were described as fulfilled in Luke and Acts.1 Consider these passages from Psalm 22 alone:

  • “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (v.1).2“All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: ‘He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him’ ” (v.7).3
  • “Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me. Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me” (vv.12-13).4 “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death” (vv.14-15).5
  • “A band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet” (v.16).6 “I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me” (v.17). 7
  • “They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing” (v.18).8
  • “But you, O Lord, be not far off; O my Strength, come quickly to help me. Deliver my life from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs. Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; save me from the horns of the wild oxen. I will declare your name to my brothers; in the congregation I will praise you. You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help” (vv.19-24). 9
  • “From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you will I fulfill my vows. The poor will eat and be satisfied; they who seek the Lord will praise him—may your hearts live forever! 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, for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations. 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. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn—for he has done it” (vv.25-31).10

While Christians are amazed at the predictive elements embedded in David’s beautiful psalm and see them both as evidence of the divine inspiration of Scripture and its essential unity, they would be mistaken to think that nonbelievers would be similarly impressed.

Matthew and the other gospel and New Testament writers were viewing Old Testament prophecy from the perspective of people who knew that Jesus had risen from the dead. They had been taken by surprise, largely because Messiah had come as a sacrificial lamb rather than a conquering hero. (Only in retrospect could the New Testament writers see that His dual role as a sacrificial lamb and as a conquering hero had been abundantly but mysteriously predicted by Scripture.)

The prophetic and symbolic passages embedded in the Old Testament often had more than one reference. Prophecies often referred both to events occurring at the time the prophet lived and to things that would occur in the more distant future. Further, some passages that are clearly fulfilled by Jesus in the light of New Testament revelation—such as Psalm 22—probably wouldn’t even be viewed as predictive prophecies prior to the events that brought their fulfillment.

Unbelievers, who deny that Jesus was resurrected as supernatural evidence that He was the promised Messiah, can’t be expected to appreciate these passages either as predictions or symbols. Because they don’t see Jesus as Messiah, they consider any association of these passages to Him as misguided or delusional. The inability or unwillingness of unbelievers to accept these things shouldn’t surprise or discourage us.

Consider, for example, Saul’s conversion and the experience of the disciples on the road to Emmaus As a highly trained Pharisee, Saul was familiar with the Old Testament. He knew what the Christians believed about Jesus. He was present when Stephen made the bold speech to hostile Jewish leaders that resulted in his murder by stoning (Acts 7). Only a personal encounter with the risen Christ was able to open Saul’s eyes, but then he accepted everything (Acts 9:17-28). The disciples on the road to Emmaus were equally unable to understand Old Testament messianic references until they viewed them in the light of the resurrected Messiah (Luke 24:13-32).

Jesus said, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables” (Mark 4:11).

Like Saul of Tarsus and the disciples on the road to Emmaus, those of us who have encountered the living Christ and believed can see how the Old Testament is replete with messianic testimony to the legitimacy of the gospel. However, to those who reject the story of Jesus and deny His resurrection, even the most dramatic fulfillments will be unconvincing.

When the astonishing event of Jesus’ resurrection brought His disillusioned, frightened followers to an awareness of His identity and understanding of His mission, they were able to read the entire Old Testament—including the messianic passages—with breathtaking clarity. Mart De Haan expressed it well: “No one but God could have orchestrated all of the patterns, principles, and predictions that were fulfilled in Jesus.”

Christian faith isn’t based on our ability to retrospectively see these patterns, principles, and predictions. It is founded, as all of the saints of all the ages have discovered, in the decisive actions of God Himself in history.

  1. One of Geisler’s lists of fulfilled Old Testament passages is related to the gospel of Luke.
    • Messiah’s forerunner: Compare Luke 1:17 with the prophecy in Malachi 4:5-6.
    • His birthplace: Compare Luke 2:11 with the prophecy in Micah 5:2.
    • His endorsement by John the Baptist: Compare Luke 3:4-6 with the prophecy in Isaiah 40:3-5; Luke 7:27 with Malachi 3:1.
    • Christ’s claim in the synagogue at Nazareth: Compare Luke 4:18-19 with the prophecy in Isaiah 61:1-2.
    • The triumphal entry: Compare Luke 19:38 with Psalm 118:26.
    • The cleansing of the temple: Compare Luke 19:46 with Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11.
    • The rejected cornerstone: Compare Luke 20:17 with Psalm 118:22.
    • David’s Lord: Compare Luke 20:42-43 with Psalm 110:1.
    • Son of Man returning in glory: Compare Luke 21:27 with Daniel 7:13.
    • Christ being numbered with the transgressors: Compare Luke 22:37 with Isaiah 53:12.
    • Casting lots for His garments: Compare Luke 23:34 with Psalm 22:18.

    Geisler lists these fulfilled Old Testament passages relating to Acts:

    • The pouring out of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:17-21; from Joel 2:28-32).
    • The bodily resurrection of Christ (Acts 2:25-28 [cp. 13:35]; from Psalm 16:8-11).
    • David’s Lord (Acts 2:34-35; from Psalm 110:1).
    • Prophet like unto Moses (Acts 3:22-23 [cp. 7:37]; from Deuteronomy 18:15,18).
    • Blessing of Abraham’s seed (Acts 3:25; from Genesis 22:18).
    • Rejected cornerstone (Acts 4:11; from Psalm 118:22).
    • Royal rejection of the Messiah (Acts 4:25-26; from Psalm 2:1-2).
    • The sheep led to slaughter (Acts 8:32-33; from Isaiah 53:7-8).
    • The Son begotten from the dead (Acts 13:33; from Psalm 2:7).
    • The sure blessings of David (Acts 13:34; from Isaiah 55:3).
    • The light for the Gentiles (Acts 13:47; from Isaiah 49:6).
    • The tabernacle of David (Acts 15:16; from Amos 9:11).
    • Gentile salvation (Acts 15:17-18; from Amos 9:12).
    • Messianic blindness of the Jews (Acts 28:26-27; from Isaiah 6:9-10).

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  2. Jesus cried out these specific words as He was suffering on the cross (Matthew 27:46). Back To Article
  3. Jesus’ tormentors mocked Him and scoffed at His faith in God (Matthew 27:29,39; Mark 15:18-20). Back To Article
  4. “All the chief priests and elders of the people came to the decision to put Jesus to death” (Matthew 27:1). Back To Article
  5. “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44).
    “Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me’ ” (Matthew 26:38).

    “We know that the greatest and most intolerable pain that the body can endure, is that arising from a bone out of its place, or dislocated joint. Now when the Lord was raised up upon the cross, and his sacred body hung in the air from the nails, all the joints began to give, so that the bones were parted the one from the other so visibly that, in very truth (as David had prophesied) they might tell all his bones, and thus, throughout the whole body, he endured acute torture. Whilst our Lord suffered these torments, his enemies, who had so earnestly desired to see him crucified, far from pitying him, were filled with delight, as though celebrating a victory” (Fra Thome de Jesu, from Spurgeon Treasury). Back To Article

  6. Crucifixion involved the piercing of hands and feet (Luke 23:33). Back To Article
  7. Jesus was naked, exposed, and dying on the cross, a spectacle for all who were gathered there (Matthew 27:35-41). Back To Article
  8. “When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots” (Matthew 27:35). Back To Article
  9. Jesus’ life was preserved and His obedience vindicated in an unmistakably supernatural way that made it clear that He was, indeed, the promised Son of David. Back To Article
  10. The appearance of Messiah will usher in an age of universal salvation and hope.
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