[Editor's note: the following excerpt is taken from "Why the Cross?" by Dr. John Blanchard (EP Books, 2011). To read earlier portions of this series, see the end of this article.]
The Old Testament (the first part of the Bible) has thirty-nine books written by over twenty authors, some anonymous, but it is not a random collection of unrelated material. Instead, it has one unifying theme — God's dealings with mankind at large and with the Jewish nation in particular. Central to this was the promise that God would one day break into human history by sending a great deliverer to deal with humankind's greatest problem, its separation from God because of sin. This deliverer would eventually be known as ‘the Messiah' (which means ‘the anointed one'). Old Testament prophets, priests and kings were anointed with oil when they took office, symbolizing their authority to serve God, but none was called ‘the Messiah'. Many prophets wrote about the coming Messiah, and the last of them brought this assurance from God: ‘The messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come' (Malachi 3:1, NIV).
There were no further Messianic prophecies for 400 years — then Jesus came on the scene. Worshipping in his local synagogue in Nazareth when he was about thirty years old, he was handed a scroll containing part of the Old Testament and stood to read these words:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour
Those present would have heard these words many times, as they were part of a well-known passage written by the prophet Isaiah and promising the coming of the Messiah, but what happened next was electrifying. With ‘the eyes of all in the synagogue … fixed on him', Jesus declared, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing' (Luke 4:20,21).
The impact was stunning. Here was the son of a local tradesman claiming that Isaiah's prophecy was about him! The listeners' first impression was favourable, but as he developed the implications of his claim, they quickly turned against him and he narrowly escaped being thrown over a nearby cliff.
Over the next three years, Jesus continued to underline his amazing claim, regardless of any opposition. In doing so he quoted from twenty-four Old Testament books, drawing on all three major sections of the Old Testament, ‘the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms' (Luke 24:44). To give one remarkable example, Daniel prophesied in the Old Testament that the coming Messiah would be ‘one like a son of man' (Daniel 7:13) — and Jesus applied the title ‘Son of Man' to himself nearly eighty times.
Sceptics may argue that this proves nothing, as history is littered with stories of people making outrageous or bizarre claims. A school student with a reputation for embarrassing guest speakers once challenged me by saying that when Jesus discovered he had been born in Bethlehem and in a family descended from Israel's King David (both of which had been prophesied in the Old Testament) he simply made sure that he fulfilled the other Messianic prophecies. In reply I pointed out that he would have needed to fulfil about 300 in all — and that arranging to be born of a virgin (prophesied in the Old Testament and recorded in the New Testament) would have presented more than a little difficulty! The sceptic never said another word.
Even if we begin with the Old Testament patriarch Abraham, who lived about 2,000 years before Jesus was born, we would see that the Messiah's family tree followed God's precisely-drawn line. God promised Abraham, ‘In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed' (Genesis 12:3), which meant that the Messiah would come from Abraham's family. The line can then be traced through Abraham's son Isaac (not his other son Ishmael), then Isaac's son Jacob (not his other son Esau), then Jacob's fourth son, Judah (bypassing the other eleven). The same remarkable process went on for hundreds of years, always within Abraham's family line, until it reached Israel's King David.
The opening verse of Matthew's Gospel calls Jesus ‘the son of David, the son of Abraham' (Matthew 1:1), but as he was not born until about thirty generations after David (Matthew traces these) the word ‘son' obviously means ‘descendant'. What Matthew makes clear is that Jesus ticked all the right boxes as far as the Messianic line of descent was concerned.
Even his place of birth was pinpointed precisely. God had promised:
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel
(Micah 5:2, NIV).
There were two Bethlehems, one in the region of Ephrathah in Judea, and the other in Zebulun, seventy miles to the north. The prophecy made it clear that the first of these would be the birthplace of the Messiah — and the New Testament tells us that ‘Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea' (Matthew 2:1).
From then on, Jesus' life fulfilled hundreds of prophecies about the Messiah, covering his family's social status, his lifestyle, his character and his amazing powers. His miracles of healing alone fulfilled a Messianic prophecy made over 700 years earlier:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy
The picture becomes even clearer when we discover that nearly thirty Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah were fulfilled by Jesus in the twenty-four hours leading up to his death. Here are ten, with the New Testament record of their fulfilment:
• One of the psalmists has the Messiah saying, ‘Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me' (Psalm 41:9). Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus' inner circle of disciples, betrayed him to the religious authorities.
• The same psalmist prophesies, ‘Malicious witnesses rise up' (Psalm 35:11). At Jesus' trial before Caiaphas ‘many false witnesses came forward' (Matthew 26:60).
• Isaiah movingly records the Messiah saying:
I gave my back to those who strike,
and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
I hid not my face
from disgrace and spitting
Matthew records that when the soldiers were humiliating the blindfolded Jesus, ‘they spat in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, saying, "Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?"' (Matthew 26:67-68).
• Isaiah writes:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth
Pilate tried to browbeat Jesus into convicting himself. ‘But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed' (Matthew 27:14).
• Isaiah also prophesies of the Messiah that he was to be ‘numbered with the transgressors' (Isaiah 53:12). Matthew records of Jesus that ‘two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left' (Matthew 27:38).
• In one of his psalms, David has the Messiah crying:
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'
(Psalm 22:7-8, NIV).
Matthew records the Jewish religious rulers mocking Jesus as he hung on the cross and crying, ‘Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him' (Matthew 27:42-43).
• In another psalm, David prophesies, ‘He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken' (Psalm 34:20). After the three men had been crucified, soldiers came to ensure that they were dead by breaking their legs. ‘But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs' (John 19:33).
• Zechariah sees the Messiah crying, ‘They look on me, on him whom they have pierced' (Zechariah 12:10). John tells us that to make sure Jesus was dead, a soldier ‘pierced his side with a spear' (John 19:34).
• Jeremiah prophesies about actions involving elders, priests, the blood of the innocent, a potter's field and a burial place (see Jeremiah 19:1-15) and Zechariah prophesies about someone being valued at ‘thirty pieces of silver' (Zechariah 11:13). Matthew records that after Judas Iscariot realized his appalling sin in betraying Jesus he threw the money into the temple, but that the priests and elders (calling it ‘blood money') took it and used it to buy ‘the potter's field as a burial place for strangers' (Matthew 27:6,7).
• David writes, ‘They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots' (Psalm 22:18). Matthew records that after they had crucified Jesus the Roman soldiers ‘divided his garments among them by casting lots' (Matthew 27:35).
Surely this evidence is a powerful pointer to his identity? It is hardly surprising that in the New Testament Jesus is identified as ‘Christ' (the Greek translation of the Old Testament ‘Messiah') about 600 times. Suggestions that Jesus ‘fixed' things to bolster his claim generate more heat than light, and for the British author and broadcaster Sir Ludovic Kennedy to dismiss all the Messianic prophecies as ‘bogus' says more about him than it does about them. Why the cross for the one person in all history whose birth, life and death pointed to his being God's promised Messiah?
Christianity is based on the identity of its founder rather than on his teaching, and Jesus' identity was constantly in the spotlight. When he went to Jerusalem, ‘The whole city was stirred up, saying, "Who is this?"' (Matthew 21:10). When he calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee, his friends asked, ‘Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?' (Mark 4:41). When he pardoned a repentant prostitute, people asked, ‘Who is this, who even forgives sins?' (Luke 7:49). Baffled as to the true identity of Jesus, Herod asked, ‘Who is this about whom I hear such things?' (Luke 9:9). Nothing is more important at this point than to find the right answer to that question.
The arrival of the Messiah was hugely significant for the Jewish nation, but the Bible identifies Jesus in two even more amazing ways, both with universal importance. The first comes in John's Gospel, which begins by describing Jesus as ‘the only Son from the Father' (John 1:14) and ends by stating that ‘Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God' (John 20:31). To say that Jesus is the Son of God does not mean that God the Father produced a son, as a human father does. This would make Jesus the Father's offspring, which is not the case. Within the Godhead, the Father and the Son had a relationship that went far beyond any that exists within a human family. Jesus underlined this when he told people, ‘You are from below; I am from above' (John 8:23), and he made it even clearer by telling his disciples, ‘No one knows the Father except the Son' (Matthew 11:27). Jesus is not merely a son of God, but the Son of God, ‘the only Son from the Father' (John 1:14).
Jesus had a birth, but no beginning. His life did not begin at his conception, nor even at his birth, which merely marked his appearance on earth as a human being. Unlike all other human beings, he chose to be born, to add human nature to his divine nature, though without ever ceasing to be divine. There was a time when Jesus was not a man, but never a time when he was not God. He was eternally the Son of God; at a given point in time he chose to step into history, reveal himself as the Son of Man and combine two natures in one person. We can never understand this, but it is firmly embedded in the Bible.
Jesus pinned down this unique claim when Caiaphas the high priest asked him, ‘I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God', by replying, ‘Yes, it is as you say' (Matthew 26:63,64, NIV). Why the cross for the only person in history who demonstrated that his claim to be the Son of God was true?
For Jesus to be identified as the Son of God is amazing, but the Bible goes even further — it says he was God. Nor do we have to look for an obscure text that might be twisted to mean this. As C. S. Lewis wrote, ‘The doctrine of Christ's divinity seems to me not something stuck on which you can unstick … you would have to unravel the whole web to get rid of it.'2 Jesus said that to believe in him was to believe in God (see John 12:44), to receive him was to receive God (see Mark 9:37), to honour him was to honour God (see John 5:23), to hate him was to hate God (see John 15:23), to know him was to know God (see John 8:19) and to see him was to see God (see John 14:9).
The deity of Jesus is underlined by the fact that the Bible gives him the title ‘Lord'. Rather than risk blasphemy by using his sacred name (the Hebrew word Yahweh) lightly, Jews in Old Testament times created three special titles for God. In the first Greek translation of the Old Testament each of these was translated kyrios, which became the most commonly used word for God. Yet the apostle Paul uses kyrios about 200 times to refer to Jesus, calling the title ‘the name that is above every name' (see Philippians 2:9-11). The Bible is crystal clear —‘Jesus is Lord [kyrios]' (Romans 10:9) — and, as a biblical scholar has said, to declare these words is to acknowledge that Jesus ‘shares the name and the nature, the holiness, the authority, power, majesty and eternity of the one and only true God'.3
Looking for a visible appearance of God to reinforce their faith, one of Jesus' disciples asked him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us' (John 14:8). Jesus replied, ‘Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father' (John 14:9). He was not claiming to be the Father, but to be the visible manifestation of God, revealing all of God's character and nature that it was possible and necessary for anyone to see and know. In other words, he was claiming to be God.
I have written more fully about this elsewhere,4 but here are some of the ways in which the Bible confirms the deity of Jesus Christ. It says, ‘For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible' (Colossians 1:16); this can be said only of God. It says that ‘he upholds the universe by the word of his power' (Hebrews 1:3); this can be said only of God. It says that at the end of time he will ‘judge the living and the dead' (2 Timothy 4:1); this can be said only of God. The Bible could not be clearer: ‘He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature' (Hebrews 1:3); ‘In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily' (Colossians 2:9).
Some people accept that Jesus was a great teacher, a man of outstanding wisdom, or someone who set a unique moral example, yet refuse to accept that he was God in human form. C. S. Lewis easily shows that this will not do:
That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice… You can shut him up for a fool; you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.5
Why the cross for the man who was God?
[Editor's note: the following excerpt is taken from "Why the Cross?" by Dr. John Blanchard (EP Books, 2011). To read part 1 of this article series, please click here, for part 2 click here, part 3 here, part 4 here.] For a complete copy of this series now, click here.