“To Him give all the prophets witness, that through His name whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins.” —Acts 10:43
The coming of the only-begotten Son of God into the world as a true human being in order to redeem fallen mankind is what is known as Christ’s first advent. (His second visible advent will be when He comes again on the Last Day to judge the world.) Because the redemption of all mankind is inseparably connected with Jesus’ first advent, the Advent/Christmas season is observed by Christians with much joy and gratitude to the Lord for His great love in thus securing our eternal salvation (John 3:16; I John 4:9–10). Likewise, the believers in the Old Testament eagerly awaited the advent of the Redeemer. And for thousands of years prior to Jesus’ birth, the Lord, in His great mercy, provided hope and comfort for penitent sinners by giving them promises through His prophets concerning the coming and work of the Savior, who was known as the Messiah (Hebrew) or the Christ (Greek). Such Messianic prophecies were vital for the faith and salvation of God’s children in the Old Testament. All the promises of God’s mercy and gracious forgiveness—the very foundation of saving faith—could only be extended to sinful human beings on the basis of what Christ would accomplish for the world in His first advent. Oh, how the believers in the Old Testament must have treasured the Gospel prophecies and foreshadows that heralded God’s grace in the coming Messiah!
That is not to say that they recognized and understood all of the Old Testament passages and symbols relating to Christ that we Christians do today; for we have the added revelation of the New Testament Scriptures that they did not have. For example, the people of Moses’ day would not have known that the mode of the Messiah’s execution was being foreshadowed by the serpent of brass being lifted up on the pole in the wilderness (Numbers 21:8–9). But Jesus draws this parallel in His conversation with Nicodemus in John 3:14–15 (see also John 12:32–33). Consider also the words of Hosea 11:1, where we read: “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.” Here God refers to the Children of Israel as His son, whom He called out of Egypt (see Exodus 1–14). But in the New Testament we learn that this was also a verse of prophecy that found fulfillment in Jesus’ own coming out of Egypt after Joseph had taken Him and Mary there at the direction of the Lord (Matthew 2:13–15). With the inspired Word of God in the New Testament, we are able to recognize more from the Old Testament as having Messianic significance. (The book of Hebrews provides a great deal of insight concerning the foreshadows of Christ in the Old Testament.)
Now it is true that every Word of God from the Old Testament foretelling anything about our Savior’s humanity (Genesis 3:15, Deuteronomy 18:15, etc.) could be regarded as a prophecy of Christ’s first advent, because that is when the eternal Son of God became a true man. Likewise, all prophecies concerning Christ’s work of redemption (Isaiah 53, Psalm 22, etc.) also presuppose His incarnation, since that redemptive work could not have taken place without Him having the true human nature that He received in His first advent (Galatians 4:4–5; Hebrews 2:14–15). This article, however, will focus specifically on only a few rectilinear prophecies in which God directly foretold certain details of Jesus’ first advent, such as when the Messiah would come (Genesis 49:10), where He would be born (Micah 5:2), who would give birth to Him (Isaiah 7:14), and what two natures would be possessed by that newborn Baby (Isaiah 9:6).
Though God did not reveal the exact date of the Messiah’s birth, yet a prophecy was given that tied Christ’s coming to a certain historical occurrence, namely, the end of political rule through the descendents of Judah. On his deathbed Jacob, Judah’s father, prophesied, saying: “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto Him shall the gathering of the people be” (Genesis 49:10). At the time when Jesus was born, there were no more descendants of Judah reigning as kings; but the scepter of political power still continued in a limited way through the line of Judah in the Sanhedrin (the Jewish high-court). However, after the death of Herod the Great—the puppet-king installed by the Romans who ruled the Jewish state at the time of Jesus’ birth (Matthew 2:1)—the Jews lost a great deal of political power and independence. The Romans, who occupied Palestine as a colony since the overthrow of the Maccabees in 63 B.C., had limited what the Sanhedrin could do. It could no longer carry out capital punishment, for example (John 18:31), and had placed it under the direct authority and supervision of a Roman procurator, or governor, such as was Pontius Pilate from 26 to 36 A.D. Then in 70 A.D. Jerusalem was completely destroyed by the Roman general (and future emperor) Titus; and all of the genealogical records were lost, making it impossible to determine who were actually descendants of Judah, or Levi, or Benjamin. And though the descendants of Judah thus suffered the permanent loss of their political power, a truly wonderful thing had taken place in which they should have rejoiced greatly—Shiloh (the peace-bringer, the Messiah) had been born as was prophesied. Interestingly enough, the Jews of today who still wait for the Messiah to come regard Genesis 49:10 as pointing to His coming at some future time, even though political rule long ago already departed from Judah.
On the basis of another Old Testament prophecy, the Jews were able to know the location where the Messiah was to be born. Approximately 700 years before the birth of Christ, the prophet Micah wrote by inspiration of the Holy Ghost: “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto Me that is to be Ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2). It is noteworthy that both the divine and human natures of Christ are mentioned here. The words, “whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting,” clearly point to His eternal divinity; and the referenced birthplace of “Bethlehem Ephratah” clearly points to His true humanity. So the exact town where the Messiah would be born was pinpointed in this prophecy to the little town of “Bethlehem Ephratah”—“Ephrath” [lit., “the fruitful”] being the name of that location in old times (see Genesis 35:19; 48:7), distinguishing it from another Bethlehem in the north near the city of Nazareth in Galilee. The fact that this prophecy was understood by the Jews as setting forth the birthplace of the Messiah is clear from how the chief priests and scribes were able quickly to cite it in response to Herod’s inquiry. “When he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judaea; for thus it is written by the prophet: And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda; for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule My people Israel’” (Matthew 2:4–6).
In another prophecy, the Lord revealed who would give birth to the coming Messiah. Her name was not given; but something was foretold about this mother that set her apart from every other woman: She would give birth to a child that had no human father. She was a true virgin when she conceived and bore the Messiah. The details concerning how that miracle would take place were explained to Mary by the angel Gabriel as follows: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also that Holy Thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Now the prophet Isaiah had foretold that astounding pregnancy and birth, saying: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (7:14). And the context of this prophecy is quite interesting. Isaiah had been sent to assure King Ahaz of God’s gracious protection, and to tell him that the Lord would demonstrate His great power—the king merely needed to ask for a specific sign (7:11). But Ahaz despised God’s offer, and refused to ask for anything. The prophet Isaiah then rebuked Ahaz, and told him that the Lord would still provide a miraculous sign. However, it would be a sign that the wicked king would never see. Rather, it would be a sign for those who waited in faith for the coming Messiah, as it is also a sign for us Christians of the New Testament who can read how the prophecy was fulfilled in the first advent of Christ: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as His mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife; for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call His name Jesus; for He shall save His people from their sins.’ Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, ‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call His name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us’” (Matthew 1:18–23).
The lineage of the virgin mother of the Savior was also important, because, according to various other prophecies of the Old Testament, the Messiah needed to be a descendent of King David (II Samuel 7:12–16; Psalm 132:11; Jeremiah 23:5–6). Both Mary (Jesus’ biological human mother) and Joseph (Jesus’ assumed father and His legal father of record) were descendants of David. Indeed, the Lord God truly fulfilled that “which He had promised afore by His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:2–3). And, of course, being a descendent of David also means that Jesus’ ancestors included Abraham (Matthew 1:1), Isaac (Genesis 21:12; Romans 9:7; Hebrews 11:18), and Jacob (Genesis 28:14b), as had also been prophesied (compare Genesis 22:18; 26:4; and 28:14 with Galatians 3:16).
Most of the prophecies considered thus far focus mainly upon the humanity of the Messiah, which is not surprising because His first advent designates His coming into the world as a true human being. However, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the baby boy who was born of a virgin in the little town of Bethlehem and laid in a manger, is the eternal and almighty Lord God Himself! And this astounding fact was also foretold in the Old Testament. Consider the following advent prophecy: “Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder. And His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). The prophet here does, indeed, speak of the birth of a human child, a son; but the titles given to Him describe Him as being infinitely more than a mere human. Especially these names, “the mighty God” and “the everlasting Father,” can only accurately be given to one who is Himself God. Yes, He who is true God with the Father and the Holy Ghost (Matthew 28:19), having the same divine glory from eternity (John 17:5), the Creator of all things (John 1:1–3) became a true man in His first advent (John 1:14) in order to accomplish our redemption (Hebrews 2:14).
The many and various prophecies of His coming were graciously given by the Lord to His people of the Old Testament so that they could be comforted and edified thereby, and so that they could have their spiritual vision clearly focused to recognize the Messiah when He finally did come. For the people of today, comparing the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning Christ’s first advent with the New Testament’s inspired record of Jesus’ birth should cause all to see that He is, indeed, the promised Messiah. As we Christians meditate upon Jesus’ first advent, considering the perfect fulfillment of all the related prophecies, we should grow in our appreciation of God’s faithfulness to His promises, the accuracy and reliability of the Scriptures, and the fact that the long-awaited Messiah did most certainly come, at the exact time of God’s choosing, in order to redeem us from our sins and make us heirs of heaven. For “when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the Law, to redeem them that were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Galatians 4:4–5).
—P. E. B.