“Messianic prophecies” are those words of the Old Testament prophets that speak about God’s promised coming “Messiah,” or Anointed One. The word “messiah” comes from the Hebrew word for “anointed,” and the same word in the Greek language is “Christ.” The recognition that Jesus is, in fact, the Christ or Messiah promised of old is an important Christian understanding of how the Old Testament relates to the New.
While the Old Testament people Israel knew that God had saved them by grace and was present in their midst in His power and in His mercy, they also knew that God had promised something greater, even beyond what they had experienced in their lives. They knew of God’s promise to send a great prophet “like Moses,” who would lead them out of an even greater bondage than their slavery in Egypt or in Babylon and who would teach them about God’s grace and truth as Moses had done. Although they knew that God’s forgiveness was mediated to them through sacrifices, they looked forward to a temple “not made with human hands” and a great high priest who would offer the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of all. And while they had earthly kings “of the house and lineage of David” who would stand under God and provide leadership for the people of God, they realized that theirs was a kingdom of God and that God himself was their king. Thus most “messianic prophecies” spoke of one who would come to be the anointed son of David, but who would be more than just another earthly king.
For example, Isaiah (7:14) talks about a royal son who would be born of a virgin mother and whose very name would signify God’s presence with His people, Immanuel (which is the Hebrew word for “God is with us”). Just a few chapters later (Isaiah 9) Isaiah talks about a royal child who would sit on the throne of David but whose name would be Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. While these names are similar to royal titles of the ancient kings, they include divine characteristics that no earthly king could fill.
Then in Isaiah 11, the prophet talks about a son that would come from the root of Jesse (the father of David), who would be anointed with the very spirit of God and who would reign in perfect righteousness. His kingdom would be characterized by the perfect peace that existed in the Garden of Eden, where wolf and lamb, cow and bear would lie down with one another and even the forces of destruction in a fallen creation would be overcome by the power of God’s grace, forgiveness, and salvation.
Later in his book, Isaiah combines these promises of a wonderful son of David with the description of a servant who would bring forth perfect justice and righteousness, but would do so with quiet humility, even suffering abuse and death for the sake of His people (Isaiah 42:1-4, Isaiah 53).
While God’s Old Testament people Israel were waiting for God to fulfill the promise of this great messianic king, it was difficult for them to imagine a king who would come not to be served but to serve and even to give His life as a ransom for them. Yet the proclamation of John the Baptist, who himself fulfilled the words of Isaiah 40, and of Jesus himself were that ” the kingdom of God has come near!” And precisely in His suffering and death, even the Roman inscription proclaimed Jesus of Nazareth as “King of the Jews.” Already at Bethlehem, the promises given through Isaiah came true; as the hymn stanza says, “Isaiah hath foretold it words of promise sure, and Mary’s arms enfold it a virgin meek and pure.” And in His death, this same Jesus, now rightly called the Christ or Messiah, fulfilled the words of Isaiah 53:6, “God has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”
But the story of God’s Messiah was not yet over. Isaiah also spoke of a yet more glorious day, when the people “walking in darkness” would see a great light (Isaiah 9:2). When the darkness of Good Friday was completely overcome by the glorious Son-rise of Easter morning, God’s victory over sin and death was complete. Christ (the Messiah) is risen indeed, and with His death and resurrection God’s new age of peace on earth has begun. This is the Millennial Age, begun in Christ’s first coming and concluded when He comes again at the final judgment, when all dead shall rise and those who have received His grace, forgiveness, and peace through the word of forgiveness and the washing of regeneration in holy Baptism will be confirmed in the perfect peace of paradise forever.
Dr. Andrew Bartelt is professor of Exegetical Theology at Concordia Seminary-St. Louis.