Monday 24 December 2012

Messianic Prophecy and the Birth of Christ

Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

There is a trend in modern theology to downplay the "foretelling" aspect of prophecy, which instead emphasises the importance of the "forth-telling" role of the biblical prophet. This particular approach tends to confine the significance of various prophecies solely to their contemporary audience and the cultural milieu in which they were made. In the process, this robs a great portion of biblical prophecy of any possible future or eschatological context, and excludes the possibility of recontextualising the words of the Bible to fit events outside the time in which they were written. This trend is a relic of the influences of philosophical movements such as logical positivism and existentialism, which have filtered into theology resulting in presuppositions based on processes such as demythologizing the Bible (as espoused by Rudolf Bultmann), which denies the possibility of the miraculous.
Yet the "foretelling" element of prophecy (as well the appearance of heavenly apparitions - which are similarly dismissed today) was instrumental to the recognition of Jesus as the Messiah by the early Christian movement, and was a major driving force behind the spread of Christianity in the 1st century AD. For example, an explanation of the Servant Songs of Isaiah as a prophecy of the Passion of Jesus, was key to the conversion of the Ethopian eunuch by St. Philip the Evangelist, who would then go on to take Christianity to Ethiopia and found the Ethiopian Church.

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:
 “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
  and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
  so he opens not his mouth.
 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
  Who can describe his generation?
 For his life is taken away from the earth.”
 And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.

(Acts 8:26-38)

When we look at the section of Isaiah which St. Philip interprets for the Ethopian eunuch more closely (which was written by the 6th century BC at the very latest), we can see that it is a very highly detailed prophecy which corresponds exactly to the Crucifixion of Jesus:

 Who has believed what he has heard from us?
  And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
  and like a root out of dry ground;
 he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
  and no beauty that we should desire him.
 He was despised and rejected by men;
  a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
 and as one from whom men hide their faces
  he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
 Surely he has borne our griefs
  and carried our sorrows;
 yet we esteemed him stricken,
  smitten by God, and afflicted.
 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
  he was crushed for our iniquities;
 upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
  and with his wounds we are healed.
 All we like sheep have gone astray;
  we have turned—every one—to his own way;
 and the LORD has laid on him
  the iniquity of us all.
 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
  yet he opened not his mouth;
 like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
  and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
  so he opened not his mouth.
 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
  and as for his generation, who considered
 that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
  stricken for the transgression of my people?
 And they made his grave with the wicked
  and with a rich man in his death,
 although he had done no violence,
  and there was no deceit in his mouth.
 Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;
  he has put him to grief;
 when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
  he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
 the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
 by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
  make many to be accounted righteous,
  and he shall bear their iniquities.
 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
  and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
 because he poured out his soul to death
  and was numbered with the transgressors;
 yet he bore the sin of many,
  and makes intercession for the transgressors.

(Isaiah 53)

It is the detail of this prophecy in relation to the ministry and Crucifixion of Jesus that convinced the Ethiopian eunuch that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah. And in their attempts to spread the Gospel as widely as possible, the Apostles consistently pointed to the prophetic witness of the Old Testament. With this in mind during the Christmas period, I thought it would be appropriate to focus on a select few prophecies relating to the birth of Christ, which helped to confirm to the early Christians that Jesus was not only the Messiah foretold in Scripture, but also God incarnate:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
(Isaiah 7:14)

  But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
  The people who walked in darkness
  have seen a great light;
 those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
  on them has light shone.
 You have multiplied the nation;
  you have increased its joy;
 they rejoice before you
  as with joy at the harvest,
  as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
 For the yoke of his burden,
  and the staff for his shoulder,
  the rod of his oppressor,
  you have broken as on the day of Midian.
 For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
  and every garment rolled in blood
  will be burned as fuel for the fire.
 For to us a child is born,
  to us a son is given;
 and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
  and his name shall be called
 Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
  Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
 Of the increase of his government and of peace
  there will be no end,
 on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
  to establish it and to uphold it
 with justice and with righteousness
  from this time forth and forevermore.
 The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

(Isaiah 9:1-7)

  But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
  who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
 from you shall come forth for me
  one who is to be ruler in Israel,
 whose coming forth is from of old,
  from ancient days.

(Micah 5:2)

 I see him, but not now;
  I behold him, but not near:
 a star shall come out of Jacob,
  and a scepter shall rise out of Israel...

(Numbers 24:17)

 Thus says the LORD:
 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
  lamentation and bitter weeping.
 Rachel is weeping for her children;
  she refuses to be comforted for her children,
  because they are no more.”

(Jeremiah 31:15)

 When Israel was a child, I loved him,
  and out of Egypt I called my son.

(Hosea 11:1)

In addition to the above prophecies of the birth of Christ is the apocalyptic retelling of the story of the Nativity by St. John in the Book of Revelation, which describes the birth of the Messiah after the appearance of a "great sign" in heaven, and the pursuit of the Woman and Child by the Dragon, who also represents King Herod:

And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.
(Revelation 12:1-6)

If the three and a half year period described above is (even partially) based on events which took place during the Nativity of Jesus, then it could be used to date Jesus' birth to three and a half years before the death of King Herod. We must remember that St. John was one of the closest people to the Virgin Mary, having promised to take care of her to Jesus whilst they both stood at the foot of the Cross. Our Lady then followed St. John to Ephesus, where she stayed in the house that would later be discovered as a result of the writings of Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich in 1881 (see here). So St. John was a unique authority on the events of the Nativity, having had direct access to a first-hand account of the events.
So given that the Book of Revelation states that the Woman Adorned with the Sun fled into the wilderness for a period of three and a half years after she was pursued by the Red Dragon, we can then go on to propose that this duration ended with the death of King Herod:

 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.
(Matthew 2:19-23)

If the dating of Herod's death to 4BC is correct (which is based on timing of a lunar eclipse in relation to this event described in the writings of Flavius Josephus), then this would place the year of Jesus' birth at around 7BC - which would further tie the Star of Bethlehem to the rare triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn which occurred during this year. However some scholars propose that Josephus may identified the lunar eclipse of the year 1BC in his writings, and not that of 4BC. This would put the date of death of Herod forward to 1BC, and the birth of Jesus to around 4BC - which would thus establish the Star of Bethlehem as a different set of astronomical events, such as the nova recorded by Chinese and Korean astronomers as appearing around the year 5BC, or the several conjunctions of Jupiter, Venus and Regulus which occured between 3-2BC. Either way, it is most likely that the "Star" of Bethlehem was an interconnected series of astronomical omens, rather than the appearance of just one single event.


Anne said...

Emmett, Thank you for writing such a beautiful piece, it truely brought tears to my eye.

It is quite simple, all who hear God's proclamation and obey it will find Him will (Luke 2:15-18). May it be so that we all choose to receive the LOVE of Almighty God which is His dear Son who is the greatest gift this Christmas season and every season! Let us place our trust in Him today, we will NEVER EVER be the same! He has the solution to all our problems, small and great.

Wishing you dear Emmett and distinguished readers continued Blessings, Comfort and Joy for this Christmas season and the coming year 2013!

Renewed thanks for your writings they have done more for my soul than 1000

In Joy,

Jamey said...

Merry Christmas and best wishes for 2013 y'All!

Emmett O'Regan said...

Thanks Jamey and Anne, and Merry Christmas to everyone!