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Essays on the Centrality of Christ in the Church in Honor of Joseph M. Stowell
By Thomas H. L. Cornman, Allan Sholes, Jim Vincent
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2007 Moody Bible Institute
All rights reserved.
Proclaiming Jesus from the Hebrew Bible
The Virgin Birth as Predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures
by Michael Rydelnik
How important is the virgin birth of the Messiah Jesus to authentic biblical faith? When "modernism" in biblical and theological studies began to erode the rudiments of orthodox Christianity, some of the leading American Protestant thinkers articulated "the five fundamentals of the faith" in the early 1900s. In so doing, they established the five essentials of doctrine, namely, the inerrancy of the Scriptures, the virgin birth and deity of Jesus Christ, the substitutionary death of Christ and salvation by God's grace through faith, the physical resurrection of Jesus, and the personal and visible return of Christ. At that time, the virgin birth was included among the absolutes that Christians must believe.
The Virgin Birth in Question
It appears that postmodern Christianity has evolved to such an extent that affirming absolutes of faith is disconcerting. In his book Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell compares doctrine to springs on a trampoline. Doctrines are not God, merely a means of "fuller, deeper, richer understanding of the mysterious being who is God." While Bell sees the value of these "springs," he does not view them as essential. According to him, when we view certain doctrines as essential we are treating them like bricks and not springs. Here's how he illustrates this point:
Somebody recently gave me a videotape of a lecture given by a man who travels around speaking about the creation of the world. At one point in his lecture he said if you deny that God created the world in six literal twenty-four-hour days, then you are denying that Jesus ever died on the cross. It's a bizarre leap of logic to make, I would say.
But he was serious.
It hit me while I was watching that, for him, faith isn't a trampo-line; it's a wall of bricks. Each of the core doctrines for him is like an individual brick that stacks on top on the others. If you pull one out, the whole wall starts to crumble. It appears quite strong and rigid, but if you begin to rethink or discuss even one brick, the whole thing is in danger. Like he said, no six-day creation equals no cross. Remove one, and the whole wall wobbles.
What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archaeologists find Larry's tomb and DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of the Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births? But what if, as you study the origin of the word virgin, you discover that the word virgin in the gospel of Matthew actually comes from the book of Isaiah, and then you find out that in the Hebrew language at that time, the word virgin could mean several things. And what if you discover that in the first century being "born of a virgin" also referred to a child whose mother became pregnant the first time she had intercourse?
What if that spring was seriously questioned?
Could a person keep jumping? Could a person still love God? Could you still be a Christian?
Is the way of Jesus still the best possible way to live?
Or does the whole thing fall apart?
After this discussion, Bell does affirm the historic Christian faith, including the virgin birth. But then he asks, "But if the whole faith falls apart when we reexamine and rethink one spring, then it wasn't that strong in the first place, was it?"
While Bell rightly distinguishes between God Himself and the doctrines that teach us about Him, his illustration falls flat. The reason is that the two doctrines he uses in his illustration are really not comparable. While six-day creationism has its merits, most evangelicals would not consider it an essential of the faith. On the other hand, most would deem the virgin birth an absolute.
Bell's conjecture regarding "Larry, the human father of Jesus" is troublesome, not because he believes it, but rather because evangelicals have accepted some of the presuppositions involved in spinning it. For centuries Christians understood Isaiah 7 to be a prediction of the virgin birth. Now it is not uncommon for evangelicals to assert that the Hebrew word Isaiah used merely means "young woman" and does not contain the nuance of "virgin." Moreover, some view the passage not as a prediction of Messiah's birth but rather of a child born in Isaiah's day. These positions are taken not to deny a biblical essential but to affirm biblical scholarship. Furthermore, evangelicals are not only failing to see Isaiah 7 as a messianic prediction but also minimizing the significance of other traditional messianic prophecies.
Such positions can potentially lead to a spiritual disaster because so much of the identification of Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah relies on His being the fulfillment of messianic prophecy. For example, when the doubting John the Baptist sent his disciples from prison to ask Jesus, "Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?" (Matthew 11:3), Jesus replied by quoting from Isaiah 35 and 61 to show that He was the Messiah because He had fulfilled messianic prophecy.
Plainly, Jesus considered the messianic hope to be the central message of the Old Testament. Jesus revealed His view of Old Testament messianic prophecy in two post-resurrection encounters recorded in Luke 24:25–27 (teaching the two disciples on the Emmaus Road) and Luke 24:33, 44–46 (teaching in the gathering of the eleven). On those two occasions, Luke intended to demonstrate that Jesus understood the Old Testament to point to the Messiah.
That Jesus believed the whole of the Old Testament predicted the Messiah is evident in His emphasis on the word "all" in both encounters. Jesus rebuked the men on the road to Emmaus for being slow to believe in all that the prophets spoke (Luke 24:25); He explained the Scriptures about the Messiah beginning with Moses and all the prophets (Luke 24:27); He interpreted the message about the Messiah in all the Scriptures (Luke 24:27); to the eleven remaining disciples He affirmed that He had to fulfill all that was written about Him in the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (cf. Luke 24:44). This emphasis on "all" shows that Jesus saw the Messiah not merely in occasional isolated texts, but in all the Scriptures. Ellison has correctly observed, based on this passage, "The whole Old Testament, and not merely an anthology of proof passages, was looked on as referring to Christ Jesus."
In reviewing these two encounters, it becomes evident that Jesus believed that the messianic prophecies were sufficiently clear that the two disciples on the Emmaus Road should have understood their meaning. He chided them for being "foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!" (Luke 24:25). The implication was that the disciples should have recognized the events of the crucifixion and the reports of the resurrection as fulfillments of Old Testament prophecy. The prophecies were not so unclear that the disciples could be excused for their failure to understand. (He did not say, "O poor men of faith, you could not understand what the prophets had spoken of Me because they had not yet been given their full sense of meaning [their sensus plenior] until this very moment as I am explaining them to you!") As A. T. Robertson remarked, "Jesus found himself in the Old Testament, a thing that some modern scholars do not seem to be able to do."
The book of Acts also demonstrates the evidential value of messianic prophecy. In that book, the central message of the apostles was that Jesus was both Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36). According to F. F. Bruce, the apostles substantiated their claim with two arguments, one from prophecy and the other from miracles. They proclaimed that "the prophetic Scriptures which foretold Messiah's coming have been fulfilled by the ministry, suffering and triumph of Jesus, and the mighty works which He performed were so many 'signs' that in Him the messianic age had arrived." Both of these arguments were brought together in their proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus, which was both a mighty work of God and a direct fulfillment of messianic prophecy.
Peter's second sermon is a prime example of the apostolic message as it relates to messianic prophecy. At Solomon's Colonnade, after the healing of the lame man (Acts 3:11–26), Peter proclaimed: "But the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets that His Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled" (Acts 3:18). Having called on the crowd to believe in Jesus as the eschatological Prophet like Moses foretold by Moses himself, Peter further claimed, "all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and his successors onward, also announced these days" (Acts 3:24).
For now, postmodern evangelicals can maintain their faith in Jesus even if they, in Rob Bell's words, question a spring or two. But ultimately, without this primary foundation of faith, the bricks will indeed collapse. Before too long, without messianic prophecy, how can we even affirm that Jesus is truly the promised Messiah? And when we can no longer maintain that, our faith will cease to be recognizably Christian.
Just as Rob Bell cited Isaiah 7 in his example, it seems that if we are to proclaim Jesus from the Old Testament, it will be necessary to address this seemingly troublesome passage. Is it possible to view Isaiah's prophecy as a direct messianic prediction while still practicing sound exegesis? In this next section, that is precisely what I propose to do.
The Virgin Birth in Prophecy
In my experience, Isaiah 7:14 is the most controversial of messianic prophecies. Disputes revolve around a variety of issues, chiefly, the meaning of the word almah, the relationship of Isaiah's "sign" to the context, the way the original readers of the prophecy would have understood it, and Matthew's citation of this verse in support of the virgin birth.
As a result, interpreters have divided into three primary views of the passage, and even among these views, expositors present their own unique perspectives. The first view, held by many traditional Christian interpreters, is to see the prophecy as a direct prediction of the virgin birth of the Messiah. Taking different approaches as to how the prophecy relates to the original context, they each conclude that the word almah means "virgin" and refers to the mother of Jesus. Another position, frequently held by critics and Jewish interpreters, is that of a purely historical interpretation. It takes the fulfillment of Isaiah's promise to be that a young woman in the eighth century BC would have sexual relations and then give birth to a child, and this event would serve as a sort of hourglass for Judah: Before that child reached a certain age, the two kings threatening Judah would be removed.
Third, a common approach by contemporary Christian scholars is to view the prophecy as having some sort of dual or multiple fulfillments. It would see Isaiah referring to the natural birth of a child in his own day to function as a sign to Judah. Nevertheless, these interpreters would contend that this does not exhaust the meaning. Rather, by double fulfillment (sensus plenior type), a later rereading, progressive fulfillment, or even by the use of first-century Jewish hermeneutics, the prophecy also refers to the virgin birth of Jesus.
I believe that by placing the prophecy in context, through a careful reading of the text of Isaiah 7 and by relating it to inner biblical interpretations of the passage, a view that supports a direct prediction of the virgin birth makes the most sense. That would explain Matthew's reason for citing Isaiah 7:14 as a prediction of the virgin birth.
The Context of the Prophecy
The historical setting of the prophecy was a threat against Judah around the year 734 BC. At that time, Rezin, king of Syria (Aram) and Pekah, king of the northern kingdom of Israel, formed an anti-Assyrian alliance. They, in turn, wanted Ahaz, king of Judah, to join their alliance. When he refused, they decided to make war against Ahaz to force the issue (7:1). The northern alliance against Ahaz caused great fear (7:2) in the royal family of David because the goal was not just to conquer Judah but also to "set up the son of Tabeel as king" in the place of Ahaz (7:6). Their plan would place a more pliable king on the throne and also put an end to the Davidic house. This threat provides a significant detail in understanding the passage. While some have contended that there would be no reason to foretell the coming of the Messiah, the danger to the house of David explains the messianic concerns of the passage. It was the Davidic covenant (2 Sam. 7:12–16; 1 Chron. 17:11–14) that led to the expectation of a future Messiah who would be a descendant of David. Therefore, if Ahaz and the entire royal house were to be destroyed, it would bring an end to the messianic hope. A long-termprophecy of the birth of Messiah would assure the Davidic house and the readers of the scroll of Isaiah that the messianic hope was indeed secure.
With this threat looming, the Lord sent Isaiah to give assurance to Ahaz, telling the prophet to meet Ahaz at "the end of the conduit of the upper pool, on the highway to the fuller's field" and specifically to bring his son, Shearjashub (7:3). Frequently, commentators overlook this command to bring the boy as if it were an unnecessary detail. Nevertheless, it seems strange to think that Isaiah would include this precise requirement without it having any significance. As we will see, this seemingly minor detail plays a significant role in understanding the passage.
At the conduit of the upper pool, Isaiah gave Ahaz his God-directed message: "It shall not stand nor shall it come to pass" (7:7). The Lord, through Isaiah, promised that the attack would not succeed and the alliance would be broken. In fact, Isaiah predicted that within sixty-five years, the northern kingdom of Israel would no longer be recognized as a people (7:8). This prediction came true in three phases: First, when Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria, conquered Israel in 732 BC, sending many captives back to Assyria (2 Kings 15:29). Second, when Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom in 721, deporting much of the Israelite population to Assyria and settling the land of Israel with other peoples (2 Kings 17:24ff). It was completely fulfilled in 669 when Ashurbanapal enacted the final population transfers between Israel and Assyria (Ezra 4:2, 10). Thus in 669, sixty-five years from the date of the events described in Isaiah's prophecy, the northern kingdom was indeed shattered so that it was "no longer a people" (7:8), and the land was inhabited by Samaritans, a people of mixed ethnicity.
To confirm the promise that the attack on Judah would not succeed, the Lord offered a sign of to Ahaz of his own choosing. The king was told to make the sign as "deep as Sheol or high as heaven" (7:11). This is an obvious merism, calling Ahaz to ask God to provide a sign that would be stupendous enough to provide faith. Although the Hebrew word for "sign" does not necessarily require a miracle, it does include the supernatural within its range of meaning (cf. Deut. 6:22). In light of the nature of the offer, it appears that Ahaz was to ask for a miraculous sign.
Nevertheless, Ahaz, with false piety, refused to test God. The disingenuous nature of his response is plain in that this is a king who had so little regard for the Lord that he practiced idolatry, even offering his own son as a child sacrifice to Molech (2 Kings 16:3; 2 Chron. 28:3). While he might claim biblical justification (Deut. 6:16) for his refusal to ask or to test the Lord (7:12), this seems ridiculous because the Lord Himself had just called upon him to do so. So, when Ahaz was under his greatest threat, he refused the Lord's comfort and rejected the offer to ask for a sign. In response, Isaiah declared that nonetheless, the Lord would give a sign—one that would become a source of controversy for generations.
The Contents of the Prophecy
The most significant difficulty in interpreting the prophecy is that on a cursory reading, it appears that the sign would be fulfilled within just a couple of years of Isaiah's meeting with the king and not more than seven hundred years later with the birth of Jesus. The reason for this difficulty is the failure to read the prophecy carefully and pick up the clues the author has left. A close reading of the text will disclose that there is not one prophecy but two different prophecies—a long-term prediction addressed to the house of David (7:13–15) and a short-term prediction addressed to Ahaz (7:16ff).
Excerpted from Proclaiming Jesus by Thomas H. L. Cornman, Allan Sholes, Jim Vincent. Copyright © 2007 Moody Bible Institute. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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