Usually a church would be a natural location in which to question someone about a biblical issue. But there was something different about sitting down with Pastor Louis Lapides in the sanctuary of his congregation on the morning after Sunday worship services. This setting of pews and stained glass was not where you would expect to find a nice Jewish boy from Newark, New Jersey.
Yet that’s Lapides’ background. For someone with his heritage, the question of whether Jesus is the long-anticipated Messiah goes beyond theory. It’s intensely personal, and I had sought out Lapides so I could hear the story of his own investigation of this critical issue.
Lapides earned a bachelor’s degree in theology from Dallas Baptist University, as well as a master of divinity and a master of theology degree in Old Testament and Semitics from Talbot Theological Seminary. He served for a decade with Chosen People Ministries, talking about Jesus to Jewish college students. He has taught in the Bible department of Biola University and is the former president of a national network of fifteen messianic congregations.
“If the prophecies were so obvious to you and pointed so unquestionably toward Jesus,” I asked, “then why don’t more Jews accept him as their Messiah?”
“In my case, I took the time to read them,” he replied. “Oddly enough, even though the Jewish people are known for having high intellects, in this area there’s a lot of ignorance. Plus you have countermissionary organizations that hold seminars in synagogues to try to disprove the messianic prophecies. Jewish people hear them and use them as an excuse for not exploring the prophecies personally. They’ll say, ?The rabbi told me there’s nothing to this.’
“I’ll ask them, ?Do you think the rabbi just brought up an objection that Christianity has never heard before? I mean, scholars have been working on this for hundreds of years! There’s great literature out there and powerful Christian answers to those challenges.’ If they’re interested, I help them go further.”
I wondered about the ostracism a Jewish person faces if he or she becomes a Christian. “That’s definitely a factor,” he said. “Some people won’t let the messianic prophecies grab them, because they’re afraid of the repercussions — potential rejection by their family and the Jewish community. That’s not easy to face. Believe me, I know.” Even so, some of the challenges to the prophecies sound pretty convincing when a person first hears them. So one by one I posed the most common objections to Lapides to see how he would respond. The Coincidence Argument
First, I asked Lapides whether it’s possible that Jesus merely fulfilled the prophecies by accident. Maybe he’s just one of many throughout history who have coincidentally fit the prophetic fingerprint.
“Not a chance,” came his response. “The odds are so astronomical that they rule that out. Someone estimated that the probability of just eight prophecies being fulfilled is one chance in one hundred million billion. That number is millions of times greater than the total number of people who’ve ever walked the planet!
“He calculated that if you took this number of silver dollars they would cover the state of Texas to a depth of two feet. If you marked one silver dollar among them and then had a blindfolded person wander the whole state and bend down to pick up one coin, what would be the odds he’d choose the one that had been marked?”
With that he answered his own question: “The same odds that anybody in history could have fulfilled just eight of the prophecies.” I had studied this same statistical analysis by mathematician Peter W. Stoner when I was investigating the messianic prophecies for myself. Stoner also estimated that the probability of fulfilling forty-eight prophecies was one chance in a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion!
Our minds can’t comprehend a number that big. This is a staggering statistic that’s equal to the number of minuscule atoms in a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, billion universes the size of our universe!
“The odds alone say it would be impossible for anyone to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies,” Lapides concluded. “Yet Jesus — and only Jesus throughout all of history — managed to do it.”
The words of the apostle Peter popped into my head: “But the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ should suffer, He has thus fulfilled.”
The Altered Gospel Argument
I painted another scenario for Lapides, asking, “Isn’t it possible that the gospel writers fabricated details to make it appear that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies?
“For example,” I said, “the prophecies say the Messiah’s bones would remain unbroken, so maybe John invented the story about the Romans breaking the legs of the two thieves being crucified with Jesus, and not breaking his legs. And the prophecies talk about betrayal for thirty pieces of silver, so maybe Matthew played fast and loose with the facts and said, yeah, Judas sold out Jesus for that same amount.”
But that objection didn’t fly any further than the previous one. “In God’s wisdom, he created checks and balances both inside and outside the Christian community,” Lapides explained. “When the Gospels were being circulated, there were people living who had been around when all these things happened. Someone would have said to Matthew, ?You know it didn’t happen that way. We’re trying to communicate a life of righteousness and truth, so don’t taint it with a lie.’
“Besides,” he added, “why would Matthew have fabricated fulfilled prophecies and then be willing to be put to death for following someone who he secretly knew was really not the Messiah? That wouldn’t make any sense.
“What’s more, the Jewish community would have jumped on any opportunity to discredit the Gospels by pointing out falsehoods. They would have said, ?I was there, and Jesus’ bones were broken by the Romans during the crucifixion,'” Lapides said. “But even though the Jewish Talmud refers to Jesus in derogatory ways, it never once makes the claim that the fulfillment of prophecies was falsified. Not one time.”
The Intentional Fulfillment Argument
Some skeptics have asserted that Jesus merely maneuvered his life in a way to fulfill the prophecies. “Couldn’t he have read in Zechariah that the Messiah would ride a donkey into Jerusalem, and then arrange to do exactly that?” I asked.
“For a few of the prophecies, yes, that’s certainly conceivable,” he said. “But there are many others for which this just wouldn’t have been possible.
“For instance, how would he control the fact that the Sanhedrin offered Judas thirty pieces of silver to betray him? How could he arrange for his ancestry, or the place of his birth, or his method of execution, or that soldiers gambled for his clothing, or that his legs remained unbroken on the cross? How would he arrange to perform miracles in front of skeptics? How would he arrange for his resurrection? And how would he arrange to be born when he was?”
That last comment piqued my curiosity. “What do you mean by when he was born?” I asked.
“When you interpret Daniel 9:24?26, it foretells that the Messiah would appear a certain length of time after King Artaxerxes I issued a decree for the Jewish people to go from Persia to rebuild the walls in Jerusalem,” Lapides replied.
He leaned forward to deliver the clincher: “That puts the anticipated appearance of the Messiah at the exact moment in history when Jesus showed up,” he said. “Certainly that’s nothing he could have prearranged.”
The Context Argument
One other objection needed to be addressed: Were the passages that Christians identify as messianic prophecies really intended to point to the coming of the Anointed One, or do Christians rip them out of context and misinterpret them?
Lapides sighed. “You know, I go through the books that people write to try to tear down what we believe. That’s not fun to do, but I spend the time to look at each objection individually and then to research the context and the wording in the original language,” he said. “And every single time, the prophecies have stood up and shown themselves to be true.
Prophecy of the Virgin Birth Hundreds of years before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Isaiah 7:14 foretold: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Critics, however, have said this is a mistranslation. They claim the Hebrew word used in this prophecy, almah, merely means “young woman,” and that bethulah would have been used if the idea of virginity were intended. But researcher Glenn Miller told me that the latest and most detailed linguistic studies show bethulah could refer to a widow or divorced woman who was not a virgin. Almah is never used of a non-virgin. Says Miller: “If any notion of virginity were intended — even as only an ?implication’ — almah was the best/only word to do that job.”
“So here’s my challenge to skeptics: Don’t accept my word for it, but don’t accept your rabbi’s either. Spend the time to research it yourself.Today nobody can say, ?There’s no information.’ There are plenty of books out there to help you.
“And one more thing: sincerely ask God to show you whether or not Jesus is the Messiah. That’s what I did — and without any coaching
Adapted from The Case for Christmas by Lee Strobel.
Copyright © 1998, 2005 by Lee Strobel, published by Zondervan, used with permission.