This past Sunday was the first Sunday in Advent. Advent is a time of preparation for the arrival of Jesus and Christmas is the celebration of his arrival. In some Christian traditions, they do not sing Christmas songs until Christmas, then they sing them for twelve days. Therefore, for these five weeks of Advent and Christmas, I decided to write about how the people of God from time immemorial until now have regarded God’s promise about Jesus coming to earth.
I want to ask two questions in this article. When was Jesus Christ promised to humanity for the first time? What have the ones who received the promise done with it? These promises about the Savior are primarily made in the Old Testament and revealed in the New Testament. God renews these promises at major junctions in the life of the people of Israel.
There are many prophecies about the Savior or the Anointed One, but we shall focus only on five.
1) The first promise is God’s promise to Eve about her offspring. After the sin of Adam and Eve, God promises, “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and hers: he will crush your head and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) Many biblical interpreters see the striking of the heel as a reference to the suffering and crucifixion of Christ. The crushing of the head is when God casts the Serpent, the Devil, into hell for all eternity.
2) After the flood, the book of Genesis recounts a new beginning for the people of God as God calls Abraham in chapter 11. The three introductory verses summarize the history of the people of Israel and the history of all humanity. “The Lord God has said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your father’s household and go to a land I will show you. I will make you a great nation and I will bless you: I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse; and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’” The uniqueness of the Judeo-Christian faith is not that humanity seeks God, but that God seeks us. This is true when God calls Abraham, and it is true when God sends His Son Jesus Christ to come into the world to save us. When God calls us, often he asks us to leave those things that we rely upon – country, family, or riches—and go to a place that he will show us. It is during the journey that God’s promises to protect us and make us blessings to the world come into being.
3) In the review of his leadership and the 40-year-trip through the wilderness before the Israelites entered the land of Canaan, Moses declared, “The Lord your God will raise up a prophet like me from among your brothers. You must listen to him.” (Deut. 18:15) Moses was known as a prophet and a lawgiver. When Jesus came into the world, one of the things he did was fulfill all the laws that God gave to the Israelites through Moses.
4) God promised King David that he would establish his throne forever. The prophet Nathan said, “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.” King David replied, “Do as you promised so that your name will be great forever. The men will say, The Lord Almighty is God over Israel! And the house of your servant David will be established before you.” (2 Samuel 7:25-27). By the time of Jesus Christ, the family of King David was no longer royalty. The ruling king was Herod, who was not related at all to David. Yet when the high priests were called to give an answer about the star over Bethlehem, they remembered that the Messiah would come from David’s city. Apostle Paul introduced his epistle to the Romans with these words: “regarding the Son who is as to his human nature a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 1:3-4)
5. The Old Testament prophet who received some of the most significant prophecies about Jesus Christ was Isaiah. Almost everyone who studied the Old Testament is familiar with the great prophecy about the Servant of God found in Isaiah chapter 53. A shorter but equally important verse is the one that tells readers that the virgin will give birth to a son and his name shall be Emmanuel – God with us.
One issue that has been raised is whether the promises of God from Genesis onward were strictly messianic. In past centuries, most interpreters leaned in this direction and claimed that the promise of God was that the Messiah would come to the Jewish people. But more recent scholars claim that God wanted the Israelites to be a nation that would bless other nations. The Israelites had provincialized a global blessing. They were told that they would bless the whole world, but they felt that they were the chosen people, and all the divine blessings should be strictly theirs. They forgot their pilgrimage heritage from Abraham and felt that anyone who wanted to find God could come to the Temple. When the Temple was destroyed, one of the saddest psalms was when the oppressors asked the Jewish captives to sing the songs of Zion. They responded that the songs of Zion could not be sung outside of the temple—the restrictions they had created kept both the Jewish people and anyone else away from God.
It is during the Babylonian captivity that the promise of God to Abraham becomes universal. Jeremiah, a great prophet who had never been in Babylonian captivity, wrote to them, “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says to all I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they may have sons and daughters. Increase in numbers there: do not decrease. Also seek the peace and the prosperity of the city to which I have carried you in exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jer. 29:4-7) This was shocking news to the captives in the same way that it was shocking to Jonah when he was sent to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh. When they did repent, he was sorry to see their deliverance. God used even the captivity of the Israelites and a reluctant prophet to bring the news of his power and promise to others.
God’s promise was also shared through the translation of the Bible. After it was translated into Greek, it became a part of the Greek culture and spread through the Greek/Roman Empire. If it had been strictly in Aramaic, it would have remained a local, provincial letter from God. By the time Apostle Paul wrote his letters, he was so familiar with the Aramaic Bible and the Septuagint Bible that it is hard for scholars to figure out which one he is quoting.
As a church historian, I find that Jews and the Christians have restricted the blessings and promises of God. We provincialize them in so many ways. The Hebrew people kept the promises of God in their own language until God forced them to translate it into the universal language of that time. Once the Bible was translated into Latin by Jerome, the Bible and the liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church were kept in Latin until Vatican II. Latin became a sacred language and, while some people were able to memorize the responses, most people had no idea what the Bible said or what the priest was saying. But there are some who heed the call to take God’s Word to everyone in their own language. One of the most beloved stories among the Wycliffe Bible Translators is of a man who received a Bible for the first time. He exclaimed, “Finally God speaks in our language!”