Messianic Prophecies and Portraits in the Old Testament – Q&A with Jon Kehrer
In the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e., “Old Testament”), we read predictions and portraits of a coming king, often called “messianic prophecies.” Old Testament professor Jon Kehrer discusses ways that the New and Old Testaments connect in the person of Jesus the Messiah.
Q: We often use the term “messianic prophecy” to describe the passages which connect Jesus to the Old Testament. Is that always the best term?
In our hunt for messianic texts, we tend to look for passages that say, “In the future, X will happen.” But that’s actually a fairly rare way of how prophecy works. “Messianic prophecy” tends to covey the idea that there are hidden texts which are like nuggets for us to pick out. And while I appreciate the attempt to find Jesus in the Old Testament, the “nugget” approach can end up truncating the fuller message of how Jesus actually fulfills the Old Testament.
So, do we lose something if we end up finding fewer direct “X will happen” passages than we thought we might find? Actually, we end up with a broader story, a bigger picture—with all of it pointing forward to Jesus to come. So perhaps a more accurate way of describing “messianic prophecy” is simply “exploring the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament” or “finding Scripture in Scripture.” All of these verses are actually part of larger stories; none are isolated texts. And all these stories collectively make up a mosaic which is fulfilled in Jesus.
“All these stories collectively make up a mosaic which is fulfilled in Jesus.”
So, finding Jesus in the Old Testament is not a matter of checking a box (“Messianic prophecy? Check.”); it’s often an even more rewarding matter of discovering trajectories, themes, stories, images, etc. all of which lead to their culmination in Jesus.
Q: What passage from the Old Testament seemed to be the primary lens through which Jesus viewed his ministry?
It’s true that, in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus gives something of a “mission statement” by quoting Isaiah 61 (“to proclaim good news to the poor…freedom for the oppressed…”). But I’ve become more and more convinced that the single Old Testament passage that defines Jesus’ ministry more than any other is Isaiah 53, the suffering servant “pierced for our transgressions.” From the study I’ve done, I can’t find any other place where anyone interpreted their messiahship or messiahship in general through what Isaiah 53 teaches. Even though this text was considered to be messianic, it was pretty far removed from the conquering king they were anticipating. But Jesus staked this passage as definitive for his messiahship.
“Jesus staked Isaiah 53 as definitive for his messiahship.”
Again, this is not to say that people weren’t reading Isaiah 53 as a messianic text. The Targum, an interpretive understanding of the Old Testament written in Aramaic actually added in the word messiah to Isaiah 52:13 (“Behold my servant the messiah”). But the Targum then changes the wording so that it’s not the Messiah who suffers, but other people, while the Messiah is removed from the suffering and death described in Isaiah 53. As far as I can tell, Jesus was the first messiah figure to interpret Isaiah 53 as a description of his vocation. I can’t think any other messianic movements in the 1st century which were using Isaiah 53 as a definitive text.
This is the passage Jesus brings up over and over to redefine the people’s conception of his messiahship. I think that’s part of the heaviness, the sober-mindedness, of Jesus in the Gospels, as he realizes what is on the horizon for him.
Q: You’ve spent years studying the Old Testament. When you read the New Testament, what are the passages that most give you a déjà vu moment (“Hey! I’ve seen that before…”)?
Reading through the Old Testament narratives, I’ve realized more and more just how significant the Exodus was for Israel—how this event really did define them. They constantly looked back at how this liberation experience gave them their identity. Later, the Old Testament prophets would go on to use Exodus imagery and terminology not just for the past, but for what God would do in the future. I tell my classes that the Old Testament prophets frequently paint pictures of future hope using the colors of past deliverance.
“The Old Testament prophets frequently paint pictures of future hope using the colors of past deliverance.”
Then, in the Gospels, the writers often told the story of Jesus using Exodus imagery and language. For example, in the first chapters of Matthew, you have a woman who has a child which the king is out to kill, reminiscent of Exodus 1 and 2. When Jesus is born, he goes down into Egypt, reminding Matthew of Hosea 11:1 (“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son”). Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness for testing remind us of the Israelites’ 40-year wanderings in the wilderness. Interestingly, it was during those 40 years that they were tested because of their unbelief in God during the 40 days they scoped out the promised land. In Matthew, we find Jesus going through the waters of the Jordan River for his baptism, reminding us of how Israel crossed through the Jordan into the Promised Land.
Q: Let’s say you’re given an assignment to preach a sermon about Christmas—but you can’t use any verses from the New Testament. What Scripture(s) would you use?
I would probably preach on Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” The context of this story in Isaiah 7 is that King Ahaz is worried that armies from the north will invade, assassinate him, and wipe his people out. In the context of this national threat, a woman (Hebrew almah meaning “young maiden”; Greek parthenos in Septuagint meaning “virgin”) will have a child, and the child will be called “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” Zooming out, we can see the bigger picture: Jesus would come in the future, actually born of a virgin, and literally be God with us. But in the moment, what Ahaz needed to hear was the message that, even in the midst of national tragedy, God is with them.
“God hasn’t abandoned us. He hasn’t left us. He isn’t ignoring our pain or our difficulties. God is with us.”
When the Gospel of Matthew refers back to this verse, the virgin birth of Jesus is a fascinating sign and a theologically rich reality. But what’s even cooler is that God himself is with us. God hasn’t abandoned us. He hasn’t left us. He isn’t ignoring our pain or our difficulties. God is with us.