Christ in the Old Testament

Israel's true Messiah

THE Lord Jesus Christ is the central character of the New Testament scriptures. The opening words of the first gospel account, by Matthew, can be applied to the whole of the New Testament: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ” (Matthew 1:1). The four gospels are followed by the account of the preaching of Christ’s apostles, and by the letters they wrote to believers in him throughout the Roman world in the first century AD.

But information about Jesus Christ is not confined to the New Testament. His coming was anticipated by men and women who lived before the New Testament books were written: “The people were in expectation, and all reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not” (Luke 3:15).

A divine watermark

This simple statement conceals a miracle. Yes, a miracle: something altogether beyond human achievement. And the miracle is this: there is throughout the Old Testament, on every page, a divine watermark revealing in advance the nature of Israel’s coming Messiah. The Old Testament might appear to be just God’s message to the Jewish people and an account of their history. But it is much more than this. There is something which is part of the very texture of the Old Testament and which cannot be removed without destroying the book as a whole. Simply stated, it is the fact that we have the life history of Jesus written centuries before he was born. In other words, you can read all about Jesus in the Old Testament.

It must be a matter of regret that all this information about Christ, revealed by the inspiration of God to His servants the prophets right from the dawn of human history, is so neglected. For Jesus himself, these scriptures explained the reason for his birth, the work he was to accomplish, and the glory in store for him, and for all who come to God through him. Our understanding of Christ will be diminished if we do not take account of the information presented about him in the Old Testament scriptures.


The word Messiah is part of everyday speech. Nowadays, it is used about men who have a powerful personality and a message to go with it. But the impact usually dies when they die and pass off the scene. Such usage is a mere distortion, a poor copy, of what the word means. It is a Hebrew word taken right out of the Old Testament. Messiah means “anointed” which in Greek is kristos, our English word, Christ. In the Old Testament, Messiah was not an historical person. The word stood for the Promised One, the Coming King, the one “whose right it is” (see Ezekiel 21:25-27).

Messiah was the Great Deliverer for whom faithful Jews waited and longed. They and some of their neighbours talked about “when Messiah comes”. One of the earliest disciples, after he had met Jesus, told a friend, “We have found the Messiah”, and the gospel writer who recorded the incident added a word of explanation, “(which is translated, the Christ)” (John 1:41). They were exciting times. Faithful Jews had long hoped that they would glimpse Messiah’s time. They were constantly on the watch, yearning for the day of his appearing. Messiah was the kernel of all Jewish hopes, the very essence of the great promises made by God as set down in the Old Testament. Jesus was that Messiah.

The evidence

The Old Testament described Jesus before he was born. No one but God could have foretold in such detail so many different kinds of things about Jesus. The Jews themselves had identified many of these scriptures as foretelling Messiah. They were not brought to light until after Jesus came. They were plain for all to see. Some of them are so astonishing that we may feel they can only have been written after the events they speak about. Yet the evidence that they were written centuries before is altogether beyond doubt. Let us say it clearly: the birth, life, mission, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth were detailed in the old Jewish scriptures, the Old Testament, known and read in Jewish synagogues at home and abroad, and faithfully preserved right down to our own times.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 and scholars are now agreed that some of them pre-dated the birth of Jesus by over 200 years. One scroll contains an almost complete Book of the prophet Isaiah which contains exactly the same prophecies as are known to us from our English Bible. The same is true of the Greek translations of the Old Testament: they too were made two or three centuries before Christ and are known to us by various manuscripts now in museums in different parts of the world. Thus the prophecies were known in Hebrew and Greek long before Jesus came. So, it would simply be flying in the face of incontestable facts to say that these prophecies were ‘inserted’ after Jesus was born.

In any case, we must remember that the Jewish nation is not Christian, and they would never have allowed their Bible, the Old Testament, to be tampered with by Christian hands. To try to plead, as some have done, that the prophecies were added at a later date is only to admit how good they are! The only Bible available to Jesus was the one we know as the Old Testament. Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century AD, lists the books in the Jewish Bible in his day and they are exactly the ones we have in our Old Testament. There is no doubt that the Old Testament as we know it predates the time of Jesus.

What Jesus said

Jesus used the prophecies of the Old Testament as powerful evidences when he spoke to the apostles after he had risen from the dead. This is what he said: “‘These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning me.’ And he opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures” (Luke 24:44,45). Earlier, in the same chapter, we read: “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, he expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (24:27).

These are important and significant words. Jesus took the apostles back to the three constituent parts of the Old Testament – the books of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. He said that in those scriptures there were things about himself which were being fulfilled in his own life-story. “In all the Scriptures” is how Jesus summed up the evidence. Describing some of these prophecies, Jesus said: “Moses wrote about me” (John 5:46). Yet Moses lived about fifteen hundred years before Jesus!

After his resurrection, Jesus commanded the apostles to go out as his witnesses to preach the gospel everywhere. As part of their preaching of the gospel, they used as evidence those same Messianic prophecies: the history of Jesus written before it happened! And those same prophecies of the Old Testament were in use in the synagogues throughout the Mediterranean region.

What kind of prophecy?

The Bible is an account of redemption, how God rescues people from sin and from death. The Bible begins with a record of Creation and of how sin and death came into the world in the Garden of Eden. The Bible ends with a description of the culmination of God’s glorious plan, still in the future, by saying:

“I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying; and there shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away’.” (Revelation 21:3,4)

Jesus Christ is the bridge between Eden and the promised, glorious End. He is the means whereby God accomplishes His mission of mercy and salvation. The Old Testament prophecies about Jesus are part of that story about God’s Grand Plan of Redemption. The prophecies were revelations of how God would work out His saving will. Let us follow the steps in the Grand Plan, revealed long before Jesus was born.