When Paul arrived at Thessalonica on his second missionary journey, he spent three Sabbaths in the synagogue, developing a two-point sermon. The first point was pure exegesis. According to the divinely superintended notes of Dr. Luke, the apostle Paul alleged from the Scriptures “that [the] Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead” (Acts 17:3). (The Greek includes the definite article.)
To this point, the name Jesus of Nazareth had not entered the sermon. The Greek word for “Christ” was used here as a generic title. It is the Greek counterpart of the Hebrew term for “Messiah,” an important title of the Deliverer for whom Israel had been taught to wait for so many centuries (Ps. 2:2; Dan. 9:25–26). Paul’s argument here was preliminary: He contended that, according to the portrait drawn centuries earlier by God in the Scriptures, the Messiah — whoever He was — must suffer and die and rise again. Then, in his second and culminating point, the apostle argued from the drama that had recently unfolded in Judea: “This Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is [the] Christ” (Acts 17:3).
Paul’s polemic strategy was simple and basic. Long before Jesus of Nazareth was born, God “spoke . . . unto the fathers by the prophets” (Heb. 1:1). A recurring focus of that earlier revelation was the Messiah-Deliverer who was to come. Not only was He promised, He also was described in significant detail. The intent of that prophetic portrait clearly was that men might know Him when He arrived. Thus, when Jesus came claiming to be Messiah, men were able to test and confirm that claim by comparing Him to the picture the Hebrew Scriptures so carefully etched of the promised Redeemer.
Many people today deny the possibility of such a “theology of fulfillment.” They insist that the Old Testament is not sufficiently clear or specific to support the argument the apostle Paul made in Thessalonica. To be sure, the New Testament record proves otherwise. Appeal was made to a “theology of fulfillment” often and effectively — by Paul (not only in Thessalonica but also in Salamis, cf.Acts 13:32–33), by the resurrected Lord on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:25–27), by Stephen in his defense before a murderous throng (Acts 6—7), and by Peter in Caesarea (Acts 10:43), to cite but a few. But a further point begs to be made concerning not just the possibility but the absolute necessity of using specific, prophetic details of the coming Messiah to argue the validity of Jesus’ Messianic claims.
A Twofold Dilemma
It is a little appreciated fact that Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah of Israel was exceptionally difficult to believe for at least two reasons.
His Deity. The first (and more legitimate) reason relates to the fact that, throughout the first two and a half years of His ministry, Jesus made two startling claims concerning Himself. He declared Himself to be not only Israel’s Christ but also Israel’s God, come in the flesh (cf. Mt. 16:15–17; 26:63; Lk. 4:41; Jn. 6:69; 11:27; 20:31). Today’s world has had two millennia to get used to the concept of God becoming man. But it is worthwhile to ponder what it would have been like to have been confronted with that claim by the man Jesus of Nazareth. It is hard to appreciate how incredibly difficult it must have been to accept such an assertion, especially for Jewish people.
His Death. The second reason Jesus’ claim of Messianic identity must have been difficult to accept is that the portrait of Messiah drawn in the Hebrew Scriptures included a mystery. The apostle Peter said the prophets themselves pondered “what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ who was in them did signify [was indicating] when he testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow” (1 Pet. 1:11). In other words, how could Messiah, when He came, both suffer and reign?
That mystery, of course, is no longer a mystery because believers today understand that Messiah was to come twice: first to suffer and then, at a subsequent coming, to reign. But the concept of two comings, though not foreign to the Old Testament, certainly is not revealed clearly there, and for good reason. Messiah’s Second Coming was necessitated by the fact that He was rejected at His First Coming (Jn. 1:11).
That rejection did not take God by surprise. Indeed, the prophets anticipated it (Isa. 53:1; cf. Jn. 12:37–38). But Christ’s rejection — and the consequent necessity of two Messianic comings — could not be revealed clearly, or the people to whom Jesus came could have convinced themselves that they had a legitimate excuse for rejecting and scorning Him. (Note, for instance, Caiaphas’ attempt to appeal to the prophesied suffering of “one man” as an excuse for executing Jesus [Jn. 11:49–50].)
The mystery Peter articulated produced a dilemma with regard to Jesus’ Messianic claims. Much rabbinic discussion has focused on exactly how to interpret these two seemingly contradictory lines of prophetic truth. But again, the New Testament record is clear: Whatever the rationale, the generation to whom Jesus appeared had jettisoned the notion of a suffering Messiah and had fixed its hope entirely and exclusively on a conquering Warrior-Messiah who would bring to a dramatic end the “times of the Gentiles” (Lk. 21:24). They “yearned for the promised deliverer of the house of David, who would free them from the yoke of the hated foreign usurper, would put an end to the impious Roman rule, and would establish His own reign of peace and justice in its place.”
That this selectively diminished Messianic ideal was embraced not only by those who rejected Jesus but by His closest followers as well is demonstrated by the apostles’ reaction when Jesus first spoke explicitly about His imminent suffering (Mt. 16:21–22). By insisting that He was going to die, as well as in many other particulars, “Jesus was so unlike what all Jews expected the Son of David to be that His own disciples found it almost impossible to connect the idea of the Messiah with Him.” To a people cherishing an exclusively political-military hope, ever more feverishly anxious to throw off the yoke of Gentile dominion, Jesus came and offered Himself as Messiah. He led no army; He posed no obvious threat to the Roman Empire; and He called His people not to rebellion but to repentance. In short, His claim to be Messiah was as disappointing as His claim to be God was unbelievable.
The Twofold Solution
How did God arrange to convince men that Jesus’ claims concerning Himself were true? The divine strategy was basically twofold. First, Jesus performed miracles that demonstrated He was a genuine spokesman for God, verifying that His message was true — including His claims concerning His own person and work. This method was always and ever the divine means of authenticating a man’s claim to be a messenger of Yahweh (cf. Ex. 4:1–9; 1 Sam. 12:14–18; Heb. 2:3–4). Such miracles were certainly strategic in establishing the bona fides of Jesus (Jn. 3:1–2; Mk. 2:1–12; Acts 2:22).
But miracles alone were not enough (cf. Dt. 13:1-5). Even more basic was the requirement that every spokesman for God be consistent in word and deed with all God had revealed so far (Isa. 8:20; Gal. 1:8–9). Because Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, it was incumbent on those who heard Him to determine whether He did indeed fulfill the prophecies concerning the Messiah.
This is but a partial catalog. However, it begins to make the point that a scholar once summarized as follows:
The Messianic prophecies extend over a thousand years. They are interspersed throughout all the books of the Old Testament. They are found in the books of Moses, the oldest writer, and in the prophecy of Malachi, the last of the prophets. They are numerous; if all were to be collected from the sacred writings, and if the secondary and typical prophecies were to be included, it would be found to be no exaggeration to affirm that the Old Testament was pervaded with the Messianic idea. They are varied; they relate to minute particulars as well as to great events; some of them are seemingly contradictory; some represent the Messiah as a mighty king and others speak of Him as a man of sorrows. . . . But all these prophecies, when examined, will be found to have received their fulfillment in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and not one will be discovered that is inconsistent with the history of His life.
It was such a body of prophesied details that the Spirit of God used to confirm Jesus’ claims and, thus, to convince men of the truth that Jesus of Nazareth “is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world” (Jn. 4:42).