Where are the Prophecies?
I recently appeared on a show called Tanakh Talk, hosted by an ex-Christian preacher who left Jesus to embrace Judaism. They were kind enough to ask me on to share the Christian perspective on a fascinating question. (Here’s the full interview.) I thought sharing my answer here on my blog might be helpful because some of you might be wondering the same thing.
Here is the question that was put to me by my Jewish friends.
What Hebrew scriptures are Jesus and Paul quoting when they tell us that the prophets foretold that the Messiah would die, be dead for three days, and rise from the grave?
Abraham Lincoln famously said, “If I only had an hour to chop down a tree, I would spend the first 45 minutes sharpening my axe.” Because this question was asked by folks who do not believe Jesus is the Messiah and do not accept the New Testament (and I was answering it for an audience who held the same position), it was important to take a moment to sharpen the proverbial axe by establishing the proper framework for understanding the Christian answer.
Jews and Christians both believe that the Tanakh (aka Hebrew Bible, Old Testament) is the inspired Word of God and accept it as true. But there is a fundamental difference in how we read it. By way of analogy, consider the film The Sixth Sense. In this movie, a young boy is plagued by scary visions, so his mom hires a psychologist, played by Bruce Willis, to try and help him. Near the end of the film, director, M. Night Shyamalan unveils an astonishing revelation. You may remember it from the movie trailer. The young boy, played by Haley Joel Osment, looks at the camera with tears in his eyes and whispers, “I see dead people.” It turns out the psychologist had been dead the whole film and only the young boy could see him.
No one saw this coming! It was a revelation out of the blue that left audiences across the country dumbfounded and amazed. And if we rewatch the movie with that new knowledge, we notice numerous clues that were sitting in plain sight the whole time. We just didn’t realize what they meant. For example, when the psychologist’s wife acts cold and distant while standing beside him, we realize she wasn’t angry or ignoring him; she couldn’t see him because he was dead.
Notice that the revelation at the end of the movie doesn’t make the first part untrue or change its meaning. In a sense, it makes it more true. Knowing the psychologist is dead allows us to understand what is really happening. The same thing is true of Jesus. He is the revelation that enables us to understand what is happening in the Tanakh. He doesn’t change anything; He makes it more true. And when we re-read the Tanakh with the knowledge that Jesus was the promised Messiah, we notice a wealth of clues that have been sitting there for centuries.
Every book of the Bible connects with prior writings and revelation, echoing and building on what came before. This is the intertextuality that the rabbis taught us. A common theme in early rabbinic literature (ex., Shemote Rabbah) is that when God gave Moses the Torah, it implicitly contained every idea that would later be voiced by the prophets and sages, and—Christians believe—by Jesus and the apostles and NT authors. Thus, the book of Joshua not only follows Deuteronomy but also interprets it. And Isaiah interprets Joshua, and so on. This intertextuality continues all the way into the New Testament, which, in turn, echoes and interprets the Tanakh.
So with that framework in mind, let us directly address the question at hand. From the Christian perspective, in light of the revelation of Jesus, we see the death of the Messiah spoken of in Isaiah 53, which prophesied that He would be “cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people, and they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death” (Isa 53:8-9). This is precisely what happened in the New Testament. Jesus was stricken for our transgressions. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). He was the “propitiation (the atoning sacrifice) for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2, comment added). Moreover, He died on the cross “with the wicked,” between two thieves (Matt. 27:38), and was “with a rich man in his death,” being buried in a rich man’s tomb (Matt 27:57-60).
The parallels between Christ’s death and Isaiah’s prophecy are too direct to be easily written off as coincidence. (And they make far better sense of the text than ascribing these events to the nation of Israel, as our Jewish friends do.) When it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, the correlation becomes more enigmatic. Christians find His resurrection foretold in the next verse of Isaiah 53: “When his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days” (Isa 53:10). Indeed, the fact that this verse immediately follows the verses describing Jesus’ death provides key insight into what the prophet is speaking of. Verse 10 is not understood as referring to literal offspring but rather spiritual progeny. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).
When it comes to passages in the Tanakh that speak of the Messiah rising after three days, things get even more profound…and more beautiful. If one asks for a text that explicitly predicts that the Messiah will rise from the dead on the third day, there are none, as far as I know. However, as the rabbis and sages teach us, the Tanakh communicates truth in many ways other than explicit predictions. It also speaks and teaches through symbolism, typology, poetry, narrative patterns, thematic development, metaphors, personification, and so on. And in the Tanakh, there is a clear pattern of God doing redemptive and even resurrection things on the third day. Here are four examples.
First, God spared Isaac on the third day (Gen 22:1-14). And where God brought Isaac back from the dead on the third day in a figurative sense, He would later bring Jesus back from the dead on the third day in a literal way. Isaac prefigured the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus.
Second, in what is arguably the greatest manifestation of God’s presence in all of the Tanakh, the Lord descended on Mount Sinai on the third day to give Israel the Law (Ex. 19:9-15). “For on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people” (Ex 19:11).
Third, we see the metaphorical raising of Israel on the third day. In Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, he describes the regathering of God’s people from Babylon saying, “I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people” (Eze 37:12). That is resurrection language. Hosea 6:2 later describes the timeframe of that resurrection. “On the third day, he will raise us up, that we may live before him.”
Lastly, there is the connection that Jesus Himself explicitly made. “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt 12:40). Just as Jonah was figuratively released from his watery grave on the third day, Jesus literally walked out of the grave on the third day.
This is how Christians, who accept the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah, see the Tanakh’s teaching about the Messiah being fulfilled in Christ. And for those first-century Jewish disciples and the apostles who were steeped in the Tanakh, I believe these were the pearls that Rabbi Yeshua (Jesus) was stringing together when He “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” as it says in Luke 24:44-48.