You may be familiar with the countless prophecies of the Old Testament. Sometimes, prophets warned God’s people to repent and remember their covenant. Other times, a prophet would act as a literal “mouthpiece” of God, articulating what God’s heart looks like in a theological sense. And still other times, prophets spoke about events that might come in the future. This is probably the most common understanding of prophecy, and it is worth considering as I elaborate more on Sunday’s sermon.
Christians throughout the ages have argued that many of these Old Testament prophecies point towards the coming of Jesus in the gospels. When we read about a “suffering servant” in Isaiah, we make the connection with Christ suffering on the cross. When God speaks through a prophet about reconciling all creation, we understand that to mean God would bring about salvation through the church, instead of a political country like Israel back in the day. In this sense, one of the important purposes of prophecy is for God to proclaim a new reality that will come about in the future.
Jesus famously quoted Isaiah 61 in Luke 4 as he began his ministry:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus essentially claimed that prophecy in the temple that day long ago–and I’m sure the people were very excited. As we saw on Sunday, in Matthew 16 Peter talked about how many ancient folks assumed Jesus to be a prophet or a great leader. Such expectations were common during biblical times. Many were well aware of Isaiah’s words about God’s coming kingdom. But the problem many faced during the time of Jesus was that they had very narrow expectations for a messiah.
If you read more of Isaiah 61, it is possible to interpret this messianic prophecy as one where a “savior” would overthrow Caesar or some other leader. (Keep in mind that the Roman empire occupied the holy land at the time). So there were many devout Israelites who believed that the true messiah would be a strong military leader who would bring about liberation. We often overlook the other verses in Isaiah 61, but they do arguably support this political revolution:
- v. 2b “[to proclaim] the day of the Lord’s vengeance.” Surely a messiah would bring God’s punishment on Israel’s enemies!
- v. 5 “Strangers will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards.” In other words, Israel would enslave others for their enjoyment and prosperity.
- v. 6b “You will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast.” Many interpreted verses like these to mean that finally, Israel would rule over all other nations.
All this is preface to say that Jesus didn’t exactly meet the expectations of many people during his ministry on earth. Jesus announced that God’s day had come, but that it would be blessing instead of a day of vengeance. Many people assumed that Jesus would lead a violent revolt against Roman occupation. I imagine a lot of people were excited to see what this Jesus character would do, and if he would truly make Isaiah 61 a literal reality. Other “messiahs” had tried and failed, so would Jesus be different? I think this is why Jesus was ultimately sent to the cross during his public trial–people saw how different he was and that he wouldn’t physically bring freedom from Rome.
We still struggle with the same temptation today, too. We like to hoard God’s blessings to ourselves instead of sharing them with others. We are perfectly content with having enemies, instead of praying for them. And we like to think we are fine just the way we are, instead of repenting and asking God for forgiveness. We want prophecy according to our own standards, instead of God’s standards and plan.
But instead, Jesus is so much more than our human expectations. We might be tempted to define Jesus as a tool to suit our own ends, whether that be at the ballot box or in our bank account. We love to use God for our benefit instead of serving Christ alone.
We must always remember that Jesus’ lordship is much greater than our earthly expectations. Jesus is more than a man, teacher, tool, or get-out-of-hell-free-card. Jesus ought to be our savior, guiding us each and every day. We will still face adversities, tragedies, and challenges in life, but never forget that Christ is with us.