In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul laments that the Jews of his day suffered ignorance regarding the identity of Christ because “their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed” (2 Cor 3:14-16). One can imagine the Christians in Corinth struggling to understand how the Jewish people, steeped as they were in the Sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament, failed to see how all the prophecies find their fulfillment in Jesus. The Corinthians are not alone in this, many of us often wonder how the Jews could miss this.
In his writings on the Antichrist, Blessed John Henry Newman has an extensive discussion on biblical prophecy in which he articulates an important principle: “It is not ordinarily the course of Divine Providence to interpret prophecy before the event.” Newman is referring specifically to what the role of prophecy is in God’s plan. Although prophecy is often (but not always) directed towards some future contingency, this does not mean that it is akin to being able to clearly predict what is going to happen. If it were simply to tell everyone what is going to happen in the future, then it would seem that it should be marked by clarity. Instead we find that prophecies are often obscure. Prophecy, rather than being primarily for prediction, instead has the purpose of building up the body of believers (c.f 1Cor 12:10). Its obscurity makes it impossible for those who lack the illumination from the same Spirit that inspired the prophecy to understand it. With the gift of hindsight and illumination, it seems to us that the Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah are very clear. But we need only see how much help the first Christians needed (the road to Emmaus and Matthew’s explicit mentioning of which actions fulfilled which prophecies) to see just how difficult this was. It is only when Our Lord comes to sweep away the clouds of obscurity by opening their minds to the Scriptures that they understood it (Lk 24:45).
There is another practical reason as well that made it particularly difficult and it has to do with the nature of the Messiah. All too often we over-generalize and say “the Jews were expecting a political Messiah and Jesus came to usher in a different kind of kingdom.” In an age where we make everything political this offers a clean explanation. Most of the Jews were expecting that the Messianic Age would follow right on the heels of the Messiah (c.f. Acts 1:6) and when that didn’t happen it shattered many people’s expectations. But to label their expectations as “political” does not quite capture what they meant.
The difficulty and the obscurity came in trying to somehow reconcile these different views. We know that they are all true, but one can imagine how difficult it would be to wed them together yourself. What often happened is that different schools opened up in which one chose only one of them at the expense of the others. We are often very jealous of our ideas so that once they are challenged we reject everything that doesn’t agree.
Broadly speaking there were six different sets of prophecies concerning the future Messiah:
- New Adam—based upon the promise in Gn 3:15 of the Seed of the Woman who would crush the head of the Serpent and a promise of a restoration of Eden (Is 11:1-10, Ezekiel 36:33-38)
- New Moses—based upon Moses’ prophecy that God will raise up a “prophet like me” (Dt 18:1-17). In this way the Jews were awaiting a New Exodus into a New Promised Land, a theme I have written about previously.
- Son of David, “Son of God”—this is most clearly laid out in Jesus’ discussion with the Pharisees about their understanding of the opening verses of Ps 110 when Our Lord asks them about the nature of the Messiah as David’s offspring(c.f. Mt 22:41-46).
- Son of Man—the Messiah is described by Daniel as “one like a son of man” who comes not from the earth but “with the clouds of heaven” (Daniel 7:13-15).
- Suffering Servant—Daniel prophesies that the Messiah will be “cut off” or put to death as an atonement for sin, reconciling it with Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. Jesus reconciles this with the previous one by saying “the Son of Man came to serve, not be served and give Himself as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28).
- Priest of the Order of Melchizedek—this Priest will be a “priest forever of the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 110:1-4), offering the same sacrifice as the Davidic kings did (2Sam 6:13-17).
Although we might easily reconcile these different views of the Messiah now, it was a tremendous challenge for the early Christians and their Jewish counterparts. It was especially difficult to The Book of Hebrews, written around 65 AD was composed mainly as a reference for tying all of these strains together.
The final obstacle for the Jews was the Crucifixion. Although there are some very obvious parallels between the Passover Lamb and Our Lord (e.g. timing, “not a bone shall be broken”, etc), the Crucifixion itself could be an insurmountable obstacle. It was for the punishment of criminals and would have appeared to be nothing like a sacrifice. To all appearances, Jesus was a failure and a blasphemer. Except for one small thing. He actually called His shot this night before. What makes the Crucifixion recognizable as the Sacrifice is the Institution of the Eucharist the night before. It is God who institutes each of the covenantal sacrifices and gives them their meaning. He is the One who appoints the priest, the victim and the manner of sacrifice. It was God Incarnate Who did all those things prior to the event. Not only does the Crucifixion give meaning to the Eucharist, it is the Institution of the Eucharist by which Our Lord assigns meaning to His death on the Cross.