Old Testament Prophecies Pointing to Christ’s Passion
“Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer.”
The great passion of Christ (His extreme suffering for our redemption) already stood as a written, divinely declared fact in the Old Testament Scriptures well before its actual occurrence in the course of time. Because of this, it “behooved” Christ to suffer, which simply means that it was fitting and even necessary that He endure such agony because Christ had been “delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23) to suffer and die for the sins of the world. This crucial part of His redemptive work is what is known as His passive obedience — His intense suffering and death in which He endured on the cross the punishment that we deserve on account of our sins, even the pains of hell itself (Matthew 27:46). So that the people in the time period of the Old Testament could know about the salvation prepared by God through the suffering and death of the Messiah and thus be saved through faith in Him, many prophecies and symbols pointing forward to Christ’s passion, or suffering, were provided for their instruction, edification, and comfort.
The first prophecy pertaining to the suffering of Christ also happens to be the very first Gospel prophecy ever given. Following the fall of Adam and Eve into sin, the Lord foretold the defeat of Satan through a special “Seed” of the woman. Speaking to the devil, God said: “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her Seed. It shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise His heel” (Genesis 3:15). Notice that in the prophesied conflict between Christ and Satan, Christ (the Seed of the woman) would be victorious (the bruising of the head causing more critical damage than the bruising of the heal); however, it is clear from this prophecy that the Messiah would also have pain inflicted upon Him. But how much did Christ need to suffer in order to redeem us from our sins? A tremendous amount, indeed; even more than we are able to imagine. Because our sins were imputed to Him, and the punishment that our sins merited was also laid upon Him, Christ endured the “curse of the Law” (Galatians 3:13) for us, that is, the most dreadful pains of hell, the agony of the damned. Two chapters in the Old Testament are particularly noteworthy for containing a number of very detailed prophecies foretelling what the Messiah would suffer and why He would thus suffer, namely, Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.
Though all the Psalms are entirely the inspired Word of God, some were written completely from the perspective of the individual psalmist (such as David in Psalm 51 or Asaph in Psalm 73), while others contain portions written from the perspective of the Lord God Himself, such as Psalm 46:10 and Psalm 50:7–23. In Psalm 22 the pre-incarnate Christ speaks from His own perspective about the agony connected with His crucifixion approximately 1,000 years before it would take place. In the first verse of the Psalm, we read: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Not only was this an exact quotation of what the Savior cried out from the cross (Matthew 27:46), but it also gives expression to the fact that Jesus was suffering the torments of hell, since only in hell is a person completely forsaken by God. While it could be argued that an imposter, a fake Christ, could have easily said those same words to make it appear as if he were fulfilling the prophecy, yet he would not be able to cause his enemies to say what was prophesied of them. And what the enemies of Christ would mockingly say to Him as He hung on the cross was also foretold in Psalm 22: “All they that see Me laugh Me to scorn. They shoot out the lip; they shake the head, saying, ‘He trusted on the Lord that He would deliver Him. Let Him deliver Him, seeing He delighted in Him” (vv. 7–8 compare with Matthew 27:39–43). It is interesting to note that this Psalm foretells that the hands and feet of the Messiah would be pierced (v. 16), even though crucifixion was unknown at that time and would not be used until much later in the future. Two verses later, it is foretold how the soldiers would divide His clothes and cast lots for His tunic (v. 18; cf. John 19:23–24). Psalm 22 even records more details about what Jesus would feel and experience in His crucifixion than the four Gospels of the New Testament: “I am poured out like water, and all My bones are out of joint. My heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of My bowels. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and My tongue cleaveth to My jaws; and Thou hast brought Me into the dust of death. … I may tell all My bones; they look and stare upon Me” (vv. 14–15, 17).
The reason why the Messiah would willingly allow Himself to suffer so much pain and the benefits of His passion for sinful mankind are clearly expressed in the book of the Prophet Isaiah, particularly in the fifty-third chapter: “The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (v. 6). “Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. … He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities. … He was cut off out of the land of the living; for the transgression of my people was He stricken” (vv. 4–5, 8). “The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and with His stripes we are healed” (v. 5). “By His knowledge shall My righteous servant justify many” (v. 11).
In this chapter we also read concerning His quiet submission to all the abuse and injustice brought upon Him: “He was oppressed, and He was afflicted; yet He opened not His mouth. He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter; and, as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He openeth not His mouth” (v. 7; compare with Mark 14:60–61; Matthew 27:12–14; Luke 23:9). The way that the Messiah is here compared to “a lamb” and “a sheep” brings out yet another image through which God pointed the people of the Old Testament to the coming Redeemer’s passion. The various animal sacrifices that were commanded by God to be carried out daily in the tabernacle and temple through the ministrations of the priests were continuous reminders of the fact that “without shedding of blood is no remission” (Hebrews 9:22). As part of His ceremonial law, the Lord told Moses: “Now this is that which thou shalt offer upon the altar: Two lambs of the first year day by day continually. The one lamb thou shalt offer in the morning, and the other lamb thou shalt offer at even” (Exodus 29:38–39). Foreshadowing how the sins of the people would be laid upon Christ, as upon a scapegoat, and how He would die to make atonement and secure their forgiveness, Moses wrote by inspiration of God: “If his sin which he hath sinned come to his knowledge, then he shall bring his offering, a kid of the goats, a female without blemish, for his sin which he hath sinned. And he shall lay his hand upon the head of the sin offering and slay the sin offering in the place of the burnt offering. And the priest shall take of the blood thereof with his finger and put it upon the horns of the altar of burnt offering and shall pour out all the blood thereof at the bottom of the altar. And he shall take away all the fat thereof, as the fat is taken away from off the sacrifice of peace offerings; and the priest shall burn it upon the altar for a sweet savor unto the Lord; and the priest shall make an atonement for him, and it shall be forgiven him” (Leviticus 4:28–31). While those animal sacrifices did not atone for sin in and of themselves, “for it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4), they were still important pictures of the suffering and death of Christ to come (Hebrews 9–10), through faith in whom God’s people received forgiveness. Likewise, the Passover lamb also pointed forward to the passion of the Messiah, “our Passover,” and the grace of God through His redeeming blood (Compare Exodus 12:3–7, 21–23 with I Corinthians 5:7, I Peter 1:18–19, and Romans 5:9).
So when John the Baptist identified Jesus as “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), he clearly showed that he understood — as it was also important for his hearers to understand — that the foreordained work of the Messiah included suffering and death as the all-atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. Sadly, most of the people at that time did not accept what the Old Testament taught about the passion of the Messiah, because so many of them had been misled into thinking that Christ would be an earthly king (John 6:14–15) who would never die (John 12:32–34). His sovereign dominance did not seem to fit with the idea that His enemies could possibly kill Him. Even the closest disciples of Jesus, when they saw His enemies capture Him, were “offended,” “forsook Him and fled” (Matthew 26:31, 56) — which was also foretold in the Old Testament (Zechariah 13:7). Of course, Christ’s passion should not have surprised the disciples, especially after He had specifically told them: “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished. For He shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on; and they shall scourge Him and put Him to death” (Luke 18:31–33). Notice here that Jesus not only detailed what would happen in His great passion, but He also emphasized that His suffering and death would fulfill those things which were written of Him by the prophets.
Another proof that Christ’s passion had been foretold in the Old Testament Scriptures — even though such prophecies were not generally recognized by the people — can be found in Luke 24:13–27. Foolishly, the two disciples on their way to Emmaus expressed doubts about Jesus’ Messiahship specifically because of His passion (vv. 19–21). Understandably, Jesus responded: “O fools and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” (vv. 25–26). Then the Lord, still unrecognized by them as they walked together, proceeded to show them the prophecies of which they had lost sight and which could restore their confidence in Him: “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, He expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (v. 27). Even though the Old Testament prophecies concerning Jesus’ suffering and death were initially given for the instruction and edification of those living long before His passion took place, those prophecies were also vitally important after Christ’s passion (Romans 15:4) to help the people understand that Jesus suffering and death, and the way Jesus suffered and died, should not cause them to doubt His Messiahship. On the contrary, His passion was proof positive that He is, indeed, the Messiah, whose coming and work were foretold by “all the prophets” (Acts 10:43).
Yes, all that Jesus suffered at the hands of wicked men in order to redeem this sinful world had been accurately foretold by inspiration of the Holy Ghost in the Old Testament Scriptures. This does not, however, mean that those who sinfully betrayed Him, forsook Him, mocked Him, falsely accused Him, unjustly condemned Him, and inflicted great pain upon Him were serving the Lord by doing His will; nor does it mean that God was in any way responsible for their evil deeds against the Savior. God did not cause them to do what was prophesied about them; but because God’s foreknowledge of all things is perfect, He was able accurately to foretell what they would do to the Messiah. The Lord simply allowed Satan and the sinful flesh of men in his service to do those things that their contempt for Him would naturally move them to do; and God, in His unfathomable wisdom, power, and grace, caused those wicked actions to serve His good purpose for the redemption of lost and condemned mankind. This is similar to how the Lord’s over-ruling providence causes even the sinful deeds of our enemies, which they design for our harm, to serve the spiritual and eternal welfare of His believing children (Romans 8:28; Genesis 50:20). And that loving, fatherly care, just like every act of kindness from God toward us miserable, wretched sinners, is bestowed upon us by His pure grace and mercy on account of Christ Jesus’ work of redemption — His perfect life and His bitter passion as our Substitute under divine justice.
Our hearts should be filled with joy and gratitude for how the Lord guides and directs all things to serve His good and gracious will for us Christians, as we ponder for our edification the Gospel prophecies of the Old Testament together with the historical accounts of how those prophecies were fulfilled in the fullness of time. And may we ever grow in our appreciation of the fact that “thus it is [stands] written, and …thus it behooved Christ to suffer” (Luke 24:46) for our forgiveness and eternal salvation!
Lo, what the Word in times of old
of future days and deeds foretold
is all fulfilled while ages roll,
as traced on the prophetic scroll.
Abiding, steadfast, firm, and sure,
the teachings of the Word endure.
Blest he who trusts this steadfast Word;
his anchor holds in Christ, the Lord!
(TLH 290, vv. 3–4)
—P. E. B.