Saturday, November 5, 2016

What Jesus’ First Coming Should Teach Us about His Second

This is an excerpt from Faith: In Your Own Handwriting.

As the name implies, we are waiting for Jesus’ Second Coming. Well, did you ever notice that when Jesus came the first time, no one was expecting Him, even though a) every Jew was hoping for Messiah to come soon, and b) they knew the Old Testament and its prophecies even better than we do? (It wouldn’t be uncommon for a rabbi to have the whole Old Testament memorized, and almost all would have memorized the first five books.)

Which should lead to a simple question: Why were they so surprised?

In trying to answer that question, I realized that Jesus’ First Coming fulfilled four different types of prophecies.

The first were Clear Prophecies. Micah 5:2 is one of these. It says the Messiah will come from Bethlehem. The scholars of Jesus’ day got this one right.[1] They expected the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem.

It gets more complicated from there, because the next type are Hidden Prophecies. Psalm 22 is an amazing example. If you read the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, then read Psalm 22, you will see that it describes the event in amazing detail. And it was written 500 or so years ahead of time.

But here’s the thing. Up until Jesus quoted the first line of it from the cross, no one knew it was about Him. And there were lots of hidden prophecies, verses that talked about Jesus’ First Coming without giving clear evidence in advance to help readers understand that they were prophetic.

Then we come to the Picture Prophecies, stories like Genesis 22 where Abraham is called to sacrifice his own son. (God stops him at the last second.) No Christian can read that story without seeing that it pictures God sending His own Son to die for us. And when God stops Abraham, and we remember that Abraham had already said, "God will provide a lamb,” we can’t help but be reminded that Jesus was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”[2]

It’s an amazing prophetic image, but once again, there are no clues in this or any other of these Old Testament pictures that let readers know ahead of time that they were prophecies.

And if you thought those were challenging, we’ll now look at Dual-Fulfillment Prophecies. These are predictions in the Old Testament that had already been fulfilled before Jesus came, and were then “re-fulfilled” in a deeper way by Jesus.

A great example of this is Isaiah 7. “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.[3] Super prediction about the Virgin Birth.

But here’s the thing. The prophecy in Isaiah 7 had already been fulfilled once, not in the sense of a literal virgin giving birth, but in the sense of a young maiden going through the normal process, as you can see if you read all of Isaiah 7:10-16.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.[4]

The prophecy specifically mentions the land of two kings[5] being laid waste, and the nation of Assyria invading instead (verse 17). All of this took place well before Jesus. Matter of fact, it happened within the time frame Isaiah mentions, the time necessary for a young woman to conceive, give birth to, and begin raising a child.

Matthew reapplied this prophecy and clearly taught that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born. But let’s say there was a scholar living prior to Jesus’ birth who compiled a list of all the prophecies found in the Old Testament. After finishing the list, he then split the list into prophecies that had already been fulfilled and those that had yet to be fulfilled. On which list would he have put this prophecy?

Yep, on the “fulfilled” list. And there is basically no way to tell from the prophecy itself that it was also talking about Jesus and Mary.

There are many, many more prophecies that fit into the “less-clear” categories. Jesus even spent much of His time after the Resurrection showing to His followers all the passages from the Old Testament they didn’t know were about Him.[6]

Which leaves us with four types of prophecy and a huge question. If Jesus’ Second Coming is like His first, how can we be confident that we have identified all the Clear Prophecies, Hidden Prophecies, Picture Prophecies, and Dual-Fulfillment Prophecies necessary to get everything right?

That question should lead us back to a closer examination of what Jesus actually said about His return, and the primary purpose of prophecy.

What Jesus Said about His Second Coming

Jesus had risen from the dead, and His disciples had lots of questions. Just before He went back to the Father, they asked one of their most pressing: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” [7]

Are you going to restore the Kingdom now, and if not, when? In other words, teach us about the end times.

Jesus’ response is telling. We’ll look at it in two sections. First, the direct answer: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.[8]

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like they asked when He was coming back, and He politely said, “It’s none of your business.”

And if you think that was pointed, look at the second part of His answer:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[9]

So, to put the whole thing together, the disciples asked Jesus to tell them the details about the end times. Jesus replied, “That’s none of your business. Instead of worrying about that, get to work telling people about me, which, by the way, is your business.”

Which fits very neatly into why God gives us prophecy in the Bible to begin with (and it’s probably not what you think).

The Purpose of Prophecy

A lot of people seem to think that God put prophecy in the Bible to tell us the future. But He didn’t. See, God’s just not that into giving people facts. If He was we might know how tall Jesus was, whether He was left or right handed, and which Tuesday in June Jesus is returning. But we don’t.

Obviously, God has other purposes in mind than giving us information so we can pass some sort of Bible trivia test.

So what is God looking for when He speaks?

Well, in the verses we just looked at, He wants us to spread the good news about Jesus. (The word Gospel, by the way, means “good news.”) The Old Testament prophetic book of Micah talks about how God isn’t that crazy about sacrifices, then says:

What does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.[10]

And in the New Testament book of James, we’re told:

“Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.[11]

Throughout the Bible, God’s desire is to draw us closer to Himself in relationship, and to change our attitudes and actions. This is especially true in the prophetic books (everything from Isaiah to the last book in the Old Testament, Malachi). God’s desire is to get people to live into His will. That is the primary purpose of prophecy.

The Book of Jonah is an excellent example. Jonah, the racist prophet,[12] is sent to Nineveh. There he preaches to a people whom he doesn’t like, gleefully telling them that God is going to annihilate them. He’s obviously predicting the future. But the thing is, even though it annoys Jonah, the people of Nineveh accept his teaching, reform their behavior, and turn to God. Because God’s goal for Jonah’s prophecy wasn’t the destruction of Nineveh, but rather the restoration of these people to Himself, God doesn’t destroy Nineveh,[13] much to Jonah’s disappointment.

Prophecy had two components: foretelling, predicting the future, and “forth-telling”, instructing the listeners to change their ways. And the foretelling was always just a tool for the forth-telling. So, when Jesus and the rest of the New Testament tell us that Jesus is coming, the point isn’t to get us to draw up charts and hold End-time conferences. 

The point is for us to get busy doing the things He told us to do, like telling others about Jesus, and living out God’s principles of love, mercy, and justice.

[1] Matthew 2:3-6
[2] John 1:29
[3] Isaiah 7:14 (ESV)
[4] Isaiah 7:14-16 (NIV)
[5] The Kingdom of Aram and the Northern Kingdom of Israel
[6] Luke 24:25-27
[7] Acts 1:6 (NIV)
[8] Acts 1:7 (NIV)
[9] Acts 1:8 (NIV)
[10] Micah 6:8 (NIV)
[11] James 1:27 (NLT)
[12] Seriously. Not a prophet to promote racism, but rather a racist who God used pretty much against his will.
[13] Yet. Their revival isn’t permanent, and they do eventually face a judgment of literally Biblical proportions.

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