One of the most striking features of the gospel accounts is that so many in Israel appeared to be actively awaiting the coming of Christ. There is good reason for this, for this coming of Christ is something clearly predicted by the Old Testament scriptures. In this way, perhaps the coming of Christ should be seen not so much as a ‘new development’ but rather as the final manifestation of something long awaited and much promised.
It is with this in mind that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, prophesies concerning the Christ saying:
68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
Using rich language taken from the Psalms and other parts of scripture, he expresses this coming of Christ most directly as a fulfilment of the promises of God; salvation as the prophets promised.
He goes on to explain what these promises stated as their end. He makes reference to the holy covenant that God made with Abraham, casting back his attention to events almost two thousand years beforehand1:
72 to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
74 that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
In order that we might more fully understand this, we’ll start by having a look at some of the promises to Abraham which are fulfilled in Christ, and then move our attention to later passages that again describe the promised work of Christ. First of all, let us look at the promise which God made to Abraham after he had not withheld his own Son from sacrifice. The promise here is not only for Abraham, but it is a promise of God’s blessing to all the nations of the earth – a blessing in Abraham’s offspring:
17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.
But who is this offspring? Well, Abraham’s son who was to inherit the covenant was Isaac, but yet that same Isaac was delivered a promise almost identical to that given Abraham, in Genesis 26:4, where God promised to Isaac “and in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed”! As the Holy Spirit explains by the hand of Paul, this ‘offspring’ refers to Christ (Galatians 3:16). It is in Christ, who is indeed a descendant of Abraham according to the flesh (Luke 3:34) in whom all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.
The next important period in which we see frequent direct reference to the work of Christ is at the time of King David2 and during the subsequent periods as Israel gets driven away into captivity. The intention of King David to build a house for God is the occasion of yet another prophecy, echoing the words of that to Abraham but now with the focus on an everlasting rule.
12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
II Samuel 7:12-13
Now, the line of kings descended from David did continue for some time – yet it too would fail, and not only would no descendant of David be on the throne, but the people driven out into exile there would not even be a throne. So how is it that God promises such a thing? What is the meaning of this prophecy?
This too, is to be fulfilled in Christ. Isaiah3 writes before the exile of a ‘stump of Jesse’ (Jesse was King David’s father, from whose line also Jesus is descended):
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
Again, at a later time when all seems lost and there seems to be no hope of a fulfilment of salvation – Zechariah4 prophesies:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Behold, the man whose name is the Branch: for he shall branch out from his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord.
Whilst these prophecies set out promises of Christ as the answer to the promises to Abraham, Isaac and David, yet there are others which are rooted in more general promises of salvation. Amongst these are detailed discussions of the coming of Christ. We see, for example, Isaiah’s prophecy that the Lord will give to his people a sign – a sign that “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel”, and again Micah5’s wonderful promise that from Bethlehem will come a ruler who originates “of old, from ancient days”:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
The motif of the coming saviour, one who will come with power is very common within Biblical literature as the prophets point forwards to Christ and the promised salvation. Thus, we read the words of Baalam declare that “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17), and from the Psalms “The Lord sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your enemies!” (Psalm 110:2).
As we continue our discussion of Christ and his work of salvation, we will see many more places where the Old Testament scriptures are fulfilled, and these will be discussed in their proper place.
1. Abraham, originally known as Abram, is the common ancestor of the Jewish people. He was given a series of promises by God, involving a promised land, many descendants and God’s blessing. His story is contained in Genesis 12-25, and he lived around 1800-2000 BC.
2. David was the second king of Israel, and lived around 1000BC. He is recorded as a particularly godly ruler, although he did fall into grievous sin. His story starts in I Samuel 16, and extends through II Samuel which focuses on him as King. His death is in I Kings 2.
3. Isaiah: Prophet in Judea, circa 700BC, who prophesied the coming judgement and exile, and looked forwards to God’s comfort.
4. Zechariah: Prophet who was active from around 520BC, following the first return of the people from exile in Babylon.
5. Micah: Prophet in Judea, circa 750-700 BC. Contemporary of Isaiah.