Would you have recognized Jesus?

Two thousand years ago the exciting new began to spread: "We have found the Messiah! -the very person Moses and the prophets told us about! His name is Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth!"     "Nazareth"?! came a skeptical reply "Can anything good come from there?"    "Just come and see for yourself..." -John 1:45 (Living Bible -Catholic Edition)

Have you heard, "We have found the Messiah"! He's finally come! Imagine the excitement as this news spread across the land. Imagine the hope that people would have felt. "Oh God, please let it be true." Skeptics may have wondered... how can a low-born, uneducated carpenter from Nazareth, of all places, be the Messiah?

Where would people back then have gone to try to find out whether this claim was true or not? They probably would have gone to their local clergyman. They no doubt would have asked their rabbi: "Rabbi, has the Messiah come?" Is "Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth" the Messiah?

How did the Jewish religious leaders respond to such questions? Most laughed at the very suggestion that a person like Jesus could possibly ever be the Messiah. You can imagine the questions that they would have scornfully asked in reply. "If Jesus is the Messiah... then explain to us why we haven't seen any of our Messianic prophecies fulfilled yet?"
"Our prophecies explicitly state that the real Messiah will be a king who sits upon the throne of David."
"Our Messiah will destroy the enemies of Israel."
"Our Messiah will abolish war forever."
"Our Messiah will restore prosperity to Israel."
"And even more explicitly, the rabbis knew that the appearance of the real Messiah will be heralded by the return of the Prophet Elijah from heaven.

The rabbis probably would have asked sarcastically... "has anyone here seen Elijah descend from heaven in a chariot of fire yet?" Nope! No one had. Jesus did not outwardly fulfill any of the rabbis' messianic expectations. That's why they would have had absolutely no doubt that Jesus of Nazareth could not possibly have been the Messiah.

There was only one problem with these conclusions. They were dead wrong. Jesus truly was the Messiah. Jesus truly was the one whose coming had been expected for centuries. But the Jewish religious experts couldn't see this. Why not? What had the rabbis missed? Was there something that they had overlooked? Let's take a closer look at what they were expecting. "Just come and see for yourself..."

Let's begin by taking a look at this story from the rabbi's perspective. Put yourself in their place. If you could have been there two thousand years ago... do you think that you would have recognized Jesus as the Messiah? Most Christians today like to think that somehow they would have. But how realistic is this? What were people back then actually expecting to see when their Messiah finally did appear? And then ask yourself this question... how closely did Jesus actually fit these expectations? To get a better understanding of what people back then would have been looking for... let's begin by taking a look at how the people of Jesus' own home town reacted when he first told them that he was the Messiah.

This great announcement was made in the same small synagogue that Jesus had attended year after year as he was growing up as a child in Nazareth. Jesus had come home to make this announcement. Jesus no doubt knew most of the people who were there that day. In fact, it's probable that many of these people were his oldest and closest friends.

The New Testament account tells us what happened that day. It begins, as "...he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him..." Jesus read a passage where Isaiah foretold the coming of the "anointed" one.  As Jesus sat down he turned to speak to the assembled crowd. The quote continues, "...The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened upon him, and he said to them 'Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.'"

Can you see what Jesus had just done? Jesus had just announced that he was the Messiah... the Christ! (In the original Greek, the word "anointed" is 'Christ'. In the original Hebrew, the same word "anointed" is 'Messiah'. Christ and Messiah are the same words in two different languages.)

Can you imagine the awe that the people there that day must have felt when they heard this stupendous proclamation? The Jewish people had been yearning for the coming of their Messiah for hundreds of years... and now, there he was, standing right in front of them! How did the people of Nazareth respond to this great announcement? Were there tears of joy? Were there shouts of thanksgiving? Did people fall to their knees in gratitude that they had lived to see the coming of the Messiah? The answer is NO. None of these things happened.

Instead, we are told that "All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff."-Luke 4:16-28 (CATHOLIC DOUAY BIBLE)

The people of Jesus' own home town didn't even consider the possibility that his claim might be true. Instead, they immediately sought to kill him. Why? What could have been the reason for their violent reaction?

To get a better understanding of why these people responded this way to Jesus' claim... try putting yourself in their place. Ask yourself, if you HAD been there, two thousand years ago, do you imagine that you would have reacted any differently? Would you have recognized Jesus as the Messiah? Or, like most of the people who actually did meet him, would you have rejected him too? What would you actually have been expecting to see when the Messiah finally did appear?

Many Christian books have been written in an attempt to explain what the Jews of two thousand years ago actually WOULD have been expecting to see when the Messiah appeared... and most try to show how Jesus fulfilled these expectations.

One of the most popular of these kind of commentaries is Josh McDowell's best selling books "Evidence That Demands a Verdict". Josh McDowell is a modern Christian scholar who is well respected as an expert on Bible prophecy. In "Evidence That Demands a Verdict" he lists a large number of Old Testament prophecies which, in his opinion, offer a clear picture of what the average Jewish person in first century Israel would have been expecting to see when the Messiah appeared.

In the introduction of this book Josh McDowell states: "The Old Testament, written over a 1,000 year period, contains several hundred references to the coming Messiah. All of these were fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and they establish a solid confirmation of His credentials as the Messiah." (p. 141)

Let's take a closer look at a few of these prophecies to see what they actually say.

One of the more famous Messianic prophecies that Josh McDowell cites is from the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah. Every Christmas we can hear this passage recited in churches all over the world:
"Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel."-Isaiah 7:14 (p.145)

For the sake of discussion, let's assume that Jesus' mother actually was a virgin when he was born. There's no way that anyone could ever verify whether she was or not... so, for now, let's just assume that she was. Still, this leaves us with the other part of this prophecy... "She will call His name Immanuel." Was Jesus' name Immanuel? No. How then is this prophecy a proof that Jesus was the Messiah? This prophecy continues by stating that Emmanuel will establish a "government" which will usher in an era of "Peace" in which people shall not "learn war any more." (see Isaiah 9:6 & 2:4)

Did Jesus do ANY of these things? He did not.

Don't get me wrong, I am NOT trying to prove that Jesus was not the Messiah. I'd be the first one to freely admit that he was. But, for a prophecy to be of value... shouldn't it be somewhat verifiable? Shouldn't people be able to recognize its fulfillment?

Mr. McDowell continues next by quoting several prophecies which share a common theme. He cites the Book of Numbers 24:17---
"A star shall come forth from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel, and crush Moab, and tear down all the sons of Sheth." (p. 147) Then he quotes Jeremiah 23:5---
"'Behold the days are coming.' declares the Lord, ' when I shall raise up for David a righteous Branch; and He will reign as king....' " (p. 149) Josh next quotes one of the other Christmas favorites:
"But as for you, Bethlehem... from you will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel."-Micah 5:2 (p. 149)

This is more like it. Can you see the kingly theme that connects these prophecies? The Messiah "will reign as king" and he will "be ruler in Israel."

Josh McDowell continues by quoting Isaiah again:
"The Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king."-Isaiah 33:22 (p. 153) He quotes Psalms 2:6---
"But as for me, I have installed my King upon Zion, My holy mountain." (p. 154) He quotes Zechariah 9:9---
"Shout in triumph, O daughter in Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming." (p. 156) And finally Mr. McDowell quotes Psalms 110:1:
"The Lord says to my Lord: 'sit at my right hand, until I make Thine enemies a footstool for thy feet.'" (p. 151)

These last seven prophecies are extremely specific. The Messiah will be named Immanuel. He will "reign as king", "judge" and "lawgiver" of Israel. He will be seated both in "Jerusalem" and in "Zion, My holy mountain". He will "crush Moab, and tear down all the sons of Sheth" and he will "make Thine enemies a footstool for thy feet."

Once again, ask yourself, did Jesus do any of these things? Not that anyone there could see. What's beginning to become apparent here, is that identifying Jesus as the Messiah from the description found in the Jewish prophecies was significantly more difficult than most people today seem to realize.

So, ask yourself again... if you had met the gentle carpenter from Galilee, two thousand years ago, would you have recognized him as the fulfillment of these prophecies? How could you? Jesus' name was not Immanuel. He never did "reign as king" from "Jerusalem". He never was the "ruler", "judge" or "lawgiver" of Israel. Jesus never had an earthly kingdom. Jesus did not "crush Moab, and tear down and the sons of Sheth" and he certainly never made "Thine enemies a footstool for thy feet."

Jesus never literally fulfilled any of these Messianic prophecies. In fact, when the Messianic prophecies are viewed literally.... it actually is easier to prove that Jesus could not have been the Messiah than it is to show that he was. And yet, despite all this apparent evidence to the contrary, Jesus truly was the Messiah.

Josh McDowell was correct. These prophecies probably were an accurate representation of first century Jewish Messianic expectations. But, if Jesus didn't literally fulfill the Messianic prophecies... that is, if he didn't fulfill the prophecies in a way that could be seen and objectively verified, then how could anyone be expected to recognize him as their fulfillment?

This certainly does seem to present a problem, especially when we consider these prophecies in conjunction with the Old Testament "return of Elijah" prophecy. Despite the fact that the "return of Elijah" prophecy was probably more important than all of the other prophecies combined... for some reason, Josh McDowell doesn't even mention it in his book.

Here's the story of the return of Elijah prophecy. The rabbis of two thousand years ago knew, without a doubt, that when they saw the fulfillment of this one prophecy... then and only then could they be absolutely certain that the Messianic era had begun. This one prophecy, more than any other, proved to be so significant that it actually became one of the primary reasons why the Jewish people rejected Jesus as their Messiah.

The story of how this prophecy was fulfilled can found in two separate places in the New Testament. We'll get to those in a moment, however, one of the other early, non-Biblical, Christian books provides us with what is probably the most graphic example illustrating the significance of this prophecy.

This account is found in the writings of Justin Martyr, who is recognized as one of the founding fathers of Christianity. In "Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity" Justin Martyr is described as "the most notable of the second century [Christian] apologists." (p. 108)

Justin Martyr, who lived in about 150 AD, wrote a book titled "The Dialogue with Trypho the Jew". This book is a record of a discussion between Justin and Trypho -a Jewish rabbi. This "dialogue" begins with Justin telling the rabbi that he believes that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah. The following excerpt contains this rabbi's reply.

It reads: "When I (Justin) had said this, [the students who were with the rabbi] laughed; but he smiling, says, 'I approve of your other remarks, and admire the eagerness with which you study divine things; but it were better for you abide in the philosophy of Plato... ."

Justin, before he became a Christian, was formerly a student of Plato and still wore the characteristic flowing robes of a Roman philosopher.

The quote continues: "...It were better for you abide in the philosophy of Plato rather than be deceived by false words, and follow the opinions of people of no reputation... for when you have forsaken God, and reposed confidence in man, what safety still awaits you?"

Now, here's the important part: "...But Christ- if he has indeed been born, and exists anywhere... has no power until Elijah comes to anoint him, and make him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake are inconsiderately perishing." -Ante Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 198.

In this one short passage, this rabbi reveals exactly what the Jewish religious leaders and the Jewish people of two thousand years ago were actually waiting to see before the Messiah appeared. Trypho argued that Jesus could not possibly have been the Messiah because he knew from the unmistakable text of the prophecy that anyone who claimed to be the Christ before Elijah the Prophet had visibly returned from heaven would have to be a false prophet.

This prophecy was one of the primary reasons why the Jewish people rejected Jesus' claims to be the Messiah. This prophecy very likely was the reason why the people of Jesus' own home town tried to kill him. How could Jesus have been the Messiah? Certainly, no one had seen Elijah return from heaven yet.

Two thousand years ago, the Jewish people were expecting to see Elijah physically descend from heaven announcing the appearance of God's Messiah. This expectation comes from explicit statements made in the Bible. And Jesus explains how this prophecy actually was fulfilled.

Here's the story. According to the Old Testament account, about 850 BC Elijah the Prophet ascended "into heaven". (see: II Kings 2) Then, about four hundred years later, in 450 BC, the Prophet Malachi promised that Elijah will return from heaven before the Christ appears.

This prophecy reads: "try me in this, says the Lord of Hosts: shall I not open for you the floodgates of heaven, to pour down a blessing upon you without measure... Lo, I will send you Elia (Elijah), the prophet before the day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day." -Malachi 3:10-24 (CATHOLIC DOUAY BIBLE)

The Jewish religious leaders were well aware of this prophecy. And they had asked the disciples to explain how Jesus could possibly have been the Messiah when it was obvious that Elijah had not yet returned from heaven.

The Apostles couldn't answer their questions, so they asked Jesus: "Why do the Jewish leaders insist Elijah must return before the Messiah comes?" Jesus answered by first affirming that this question was valid and that this prophecy indeed actually was true. He said: "They are right. Elijah must come and set everything in order... ."

Then he surprised them. Jesus explained: "In fact, he [Elijah] already has come, but he wasn't recognized, and was badly mistreated by many... Then the disciples realized he was speaking of John the Baptist." -Matthew 17:10-13 (LIVING BIBLE-CATHOLIC EDITION) (also see: Mark 9:11-13)

Clearly, Jesus taught that this was a true prophecy. But, to the surprise to everyone there, Jesus also claimed that John the Baptist was it's fulfillment. This explanation was not well received by the Jewish religious leaders. They wondered, how could John have possibly been the return of Elijah? They knew that Elijah was born eight hundred and fifty years before John. They believed that Elijah had physically ascended into heaven. And, they believed, that the same Elijah who had disappeared into heaven was, himself, going to return.

How, they argued, could John the Baptist possibly have been the return of Elijah from heaven? John was not named Elijah.  John had not descended from heaven, he had been born as a child just like everyone else. Nothing about John would indicate that he was Elijah.

The rabbis also might have pointed out that even John himself had said that he was not Elijah. At one point, early in his ministry, John the Baptist was asked whether he was Elijah. He answered that he was not. (see John 1:21) Jesus, however, said that he was. So, who was right?

In what way could John the Baptist have been the return of Elijah? This apparent contradiction can be resolved by a statement made at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke where it explains that John went "on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah." -Luke 1:17 (KJV)

 So, both John and Jesus were right. Elijah did return from heaven, but the fulfillment of this prophecy had nothing to do with Elijah's physical body. John was the return of "the spirit and power of Elijah." The same Voice that had spoken through Elijah over 800 years earlier had returned and had also spoken through John the Baptist.

This was not the way that the rabbis were expecting this prophecy to be fulfilled and this certainly was not an explanation that they were willing to accept.

The rabbis knew what their prophecies said and they certainly thought they knew what was going to happen when the Messiah finally did appear. As far as they could see none of these prophecies had been fulfilled, Elijah had not returned and there certainly was no visible evidence that the Messiah had come. Nothing had changed. Everything was just as it had always been.

The rabbis did not believe Jesus' explanation that John the Baptist was the return of Elijah. And why should they? They knew that Elijah was supposed to visibly return from heaven and, as the elect of Judaism, they very likely would have expected to be among the very first to welcome him when he finally did return. After all, how could they possibly miss anything as obvious as a Prophet of God floating down from out of the sky?

However, John the Baptist did not come floating down from heaven. Instead, he came into the world in the same way that everyone else had. John had a mother. He had a father. John had been born as a child and had grown up just like everyone else.

This was not what Malachi's prophecy had promised and this certainly was not what the rabbis had been led to expect. Malachi's prophecy explicitly says that Elijah himself was going to return... not some other guy. Instead of Elijah personally returning from heaven, what they actually got was John... a fellow who wore a leather loincloth, a camel's hair robe and who ate locusts for lunch. John the Baptist actually ate grasshoppers! John did not fit any picture that the rabbis might have had of what the spectacular second coming of Elijah was going to be like. Is it any wonder that these Jewish priests found it impossible to even seriously consider the possibility that John the Baptist was the return of Elijah?

Even today, two thousand years later, the Jewish religious experts still await the second coming of Elijah. And every year at the Passover meal, Jewish mothers, in a time honored tradition, still set an extra place at the table for Elijah hoping that this will be the year when he finally returns to join them.

According to Jesus, this prophecy concerning the return of Elijah from heaven was not fulfilled literally... in a way that most people could easily identify. Instead, it was fulfilled in a way that most people were not prepared to recognize. Elijah did return. But, it was his "spirit and power" which had returned... and not his fleshly body.

This is the hidden, true meaning of the return of the Prophets. In all of recorded history, not one of God's Messengers, has ever literally, visibly come down from heaven in the flesh.

This inner reality of return has been clearly explained many times in the Baha'i writings. For example, in one place it says: "a return is indeed referred to in the Holy Scriptures, but by this is meant the return of the qualities, conditions, effects, perfections, and inner realities of the lights which recur in every dispensation. The reference is not to specific, individual souls and identities." -Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Baha, page 183

Another place in the Baha'i Writings we can read: "In the Divine Scriptures and Holy Books "return" is spoken of, but the ignorant have not understood the meaning... For what the divine Prophets meant by "return" is not the return of the essence, but that of the qualities; it is not the return of the Manifestation, but that of the perfections. In the Gospel it says that John, the son of Zacharias, is Elias (Elijah). These words do not mean the return of the rational soul and personality of Elias in the body of John, but rather that the perfections and qualities of Elias were manifested and appeared in John." -Some Answered Questions by Abdu'l-Baha, page 288

Considering these facts, ask yourself again... if you had lived 2000 years ago do you imagine that you would have been one of the few who had the insight to correctly interpret these important promises and to recognize Jesus as the Messiah? Chances are, like the disciples of Jesus, you would not have understood how these prophecies had been fulfilled until after they had been explained to you.

Why is the example of this 'return of Elijah' prophecy important to us today? Do you understand how Jesus interpreted this prophecy? Have you noticed that all of the other prophecies were also fulfilled in non-literal, spiritual ways?

The same is true of the prophecies that Josh McDowell quotes in his book as proof that Jesus was the Messiah. The Messiah was supposed to be a king. Jesus truly was a king, but his kingdom was not of this world. His was a spiritual kingdom. The Messiah was supposed to be named Immanuel. Jesus was not named Immanuel, however he was the embodiment of the inner meaning of this name... "which means 'God with us'". (Matthew 1:23- NIV) The Messiah was supposed to subdue all the nations of the earth. Jesus did not literally conquer Rome or any other nations. However, over the last two thousand years, he has subdued the hearts of millions of people worldwide.

The appearance of the Messiah (the Christ) was supposed to have been heralded by the return of the Prophet Elijah from heaven. Why did Josh McDowell not even mention this prophecy in his book? After all, it was the reason why the Jewish religious leaders rejected Jesus' claim to be Messiah and ultimately it was the reason why they conspired to get him killed. 

These prophecies were fulfilled, but they were not fulfilled literally or in a way that was easy to identify. They all were fulfilled spiritually.

Christians today look back at the Jews who rejected Jesus and wonder how those people could have been so blind. Even Jesus commented on their lack of insight. He said: "This people draweth nigh unto me (the Messiah) with their mouth, and honoreth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me teaching for doctrines the commandments of men... they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind both shall fall into the ditch." -Matthew 15:14 (KJV) The Jewish clergy had totally misinterpreted the Messianic promises. The clear insight of these so-called experts had become blindness. These "blind leaders of the blind" had led their followers "into the ditch" of misunderstanding and rejection. Because they had denied Jesus as the Messiah... the faith of these people, which originally was true, now was pronounced by Jesus to be "in vain".

These incorrect interpretations carried a high price. They cost John the Baptist his head and they got Jesus nailed to a cross.

Jesus wanted his followers to understand what had happened in the past so they could avoid repeating these same mistakes. He cautioned Christians to "beware the leaven of the Pharisees". (see Mt 16: 6&11, Mk 8:15, Lk 12:1)

When questioned, Jesus explained that he wasn't talking about yeast or about bread. Instead, what he meant by this curious phrase was that the Jewish religious leaders had replaced the "doctrines" of God with the "commandments of men." And, that through the years, these false interpretations of men had gradually taken the rightful place of the true law of God.

What lessons can we learn from these mistakes of the past? Two thousand years ago the Jews were expecting Elijah to physically return from heaven. Today, we find that Christians are also expecting Jesus to physically descend from heaven. What's the difference between then and now? Are people today repeating the same mistakes of the past... right now?

Referring to this question, the Baha'i writings explain: "know that the return of Christ for a second time doth not mean what the people believe, but, rather, signifieth the One promised to come after Him..." -Tablets of Abdu'l-Baha, page 138

Members of the Baha'i Faith believe that this same "spirit and power" which, in the past, had animated Jesus and John the Baptist has once again descended from heaven... this time upon Baha'u'llah--- the Prophet founder of the Baha'i Faith. Is this claim true? Has Christ already returned in an unexpected way? Could it actually be possible that God has, again, spoken to humanity almost within our own lifetimes? Please continue to the other links in this "prophecy fulfilled" home page to hear more.

--- written by Joel Smith

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Disclaimer: Joel Smith is a member of the Baha'i Faith living in the United States. Much of the material on this homepage consists of extracts from existing Baha'i publications, but also included are a number of insights and comments about prophecies which are entirely the author's own understanding and, as such, do not necessarily represent the official position of the Baha'i Faith or its teachings.