Apologetics and the Fulfillment of Prophecies

Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John. So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. And when he desired to cross to Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him; and when he arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace; for he vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ. – Acts 18:24-28

There’s a debate about apologetic methodology between evidentialists and presuppositionalists concerning the role of scripture in arguing for the faith. Although my proclivities run more in the direction of evidentialism, I concede there’s something of an important exception—a case where explicit appeal to scripture is altogether appropriate and not at all problematically circular. Normally the problem with this approach, in trying to convince someone that God exists, is that the person would obviously be skeptical of scripture as authoritative revelation. But the assumption this is always the case is largely because apologetics today is usually thought of in terms of convincing the skeptic, the unbeliever. Early Christians, however, were rarely confronted with that particular challenge. Atheists were rare. In fact, it was common that they themselves were called atheists because, in their exclusivism, they vociferously denied any and all of the state-sanctioned divinities in affirming the one true God. It would have been more than a little ironic if they were additionally tasked with taking on atheists!

Almost all of the earliest Christians were Jews, and initially their outreach was mainly to Jews. This would change in due course, but their audience early on was most often a Jewish one, and, for quite a while, they were wildly successful. Such outreach typically took the form of appealing to scripture—specifically, the Old Testament. (The New Testament hadn’t yet been written.) And quite often this took the form of early Christian witnesses, evangelists, and apologists trying to show that Jesus was the promised Messiah. The Jews had the expectation of a coming Messiah, and the Old Testament featured quite a number of prophecies about this figure. Steeped in the Old Testament themselves, the early apologists constructed their case for Christ by arguing that Jesus was the promised one, the expected Messiah.

After Saul’s conversion, for example, we’re told that he “increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is the very Christ” (Acts 9:22). Luke tells us that after his resurrection Jesus appeared to a few disciples on their way to Emmaus, saying, “’O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken, ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter his glory?’ And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:26-27). Note in the epigraph that Apollos vigorously “showed from the scriptures that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 18:28).

Those for whom the Old Testament little matters are usually and understandably unpersuaded by appealing to it, but the world contains billions of people from the Abrahamic faiths who claim to take the Old Testament seriously indeed. This may not exactly be an instance of presuppositionalist apologetics, but pointing to fulfillment of prophecies is an entirely legitimate and demonstrably effective apologetic, especially for those who claim to believe the Old Testament.

To this end, here’s just a smattering of examples for those who’d like to become better equipped to do just this.

Micah 5:2 says, “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.” The Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. According to the New Testament account of the apostle Matthew, Joseph and Mary were living in Bethlehem in the southern region of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth and later moved to Nazareth in the northern Galilee region.

Genesis 49:10 says, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.” The Messiah would be from the tribe of Judah. In Matthew 1:1–6 and Luke 3:31–34 of the New Testament, Jesus is described as a member of the tribe of Judah by lineage. Revelation 5:5 also mentions an apocalyptic vision of the Lion of the tribe of Judah.

Zechariah 9:9 says, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.” The Messiah would present himself by riding on an ass. Matthew 21:6-7, for one example, says the disciples did as Jesus commanded them, and “brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon,” as Jesus then entered Jerusalem.

Psalm 22 describes how the Messiah would be tortured. Numerous vivid passages are uncanny in their similarities to sufferings Christ endured. Among them, “they pierced my hands and my feet” (16b) and “they part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture” (18). John 19:23-24 relates what happened after the crucifixion of Christ: “Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments, and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also his coat: now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout. They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be: that the scripture might be fulfilled, which saith, They parted my raiment among them, and for my vesture they did cast lots. These things therefore the soldiers did.” Luke 24:39 features the resurrected Jesus saying, “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself. Touch me and see—for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have."

Daniel 9:24-27 says the Messiah would arrive before the destruction of the (Second) Temple. In 66 CE the Jewish population rebelled against the Roman Empire. Four years later, in 70 CE, Roman legions under Titus retook and destroyed much of Jerusalem and the Second Temple.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 says the Messiah’s life would include suffering, silence at his arrest and trial, and death and burial in a rich man’s tomb. Origen recounted using Isaiah 53 in a discussion with some rabbis, who responded that the prophecies referred to the whole people as though of a single individual, since they were scattered in the dispersion and smitten. So Origen asked which person could be referred to in the texts: “This man bears our sins and suffers pain for us,” and “but he was wounded for our transgressions and he was made sick for our iniquities,” and “by his stripe we were healed.”

This is just a small sample. Passages from Ezekiel (37:26-27), Haggai (2:6-9), and Hosea (11:1) could be adduced, not to mention other passages from Isaiah (7:14; 8:23-9:2; 9:5-6; 11:12), Jeremiah (31:15), and the Psalms (2, 16, 34, 69, 110), and more besides. In his book Choosing Your Faith, Mark Mittelberg writes that there’s no less than something on the order of 48 messianic prophecies that were fulfilled in the person of Jesus, some with terrific specificity that defies naturalistic explanation.

Michael Green, Anglican theologian and priest, prolific author, and Senior Research Fellow and Head of Evangelism and Apologetics at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, recalls talking to an intelligent Jewish woman interested in discussing Christianity. “I showed her from the Old Testament Scriptures how closely Jesus had fulfilled the varied hopes of the prophets. She believed, and was baptized. . . . the zeal of my friend to reach others with the good news she had come to recognize for herself was no less reminiscent of the Acts of the Apostles. She studied Greek and Hebrew, with the intention of working full time among Jews.”

Green quotes her as writing him, “You know, it is so blatantly clear that Jesus died for our sins on the cross and rose from the grave—I just long to get it across to others, especially to my own people. I am longing to work among them and show them their Messiah.” [Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 120.]