The Mystery Hidden for Aeons Past
Considering Anomalies in Messianic Prophecy
Any careful reader of Old Testament messianic prophecy quickly becomes aware of the two portraits of Messiah found there. On the one hand, we have the picture of the reigning Messiah, who banishes his enemies and lives forever. On the other hand, we have the portrait of the suffering servant. This one "has no stately form or majesty," lives in obscurity, is rejected by the people, and dies badly. But his death is redemptive like a guilt offering, and he is raised from the dead to lead many to God and to glory.
Christians are well aware that these two portraits correspond to the two comings of Christ: the first to suffer and atone for sin, and the second to reclaim the world for God and banish evil. Regardless of our millennial views, these two comings satisfy the Old Testament predictions in a very similar way.
While Christians feel this is a settled issue, Jewish interpreters reject the argument, not without cause. Their problems fall into three very good objections:
- Passages on the suffering servant never say they refer to Messiah, and in some cases, seem to refer to someone else.
- The Old Testament never teaches that Messiah will come twice.
- The Christian understanding of messianic prophecy requires acceptance of the so-called "prophetic gap" which, they argue, is unprecedented in the Bible.
Most Christian commentators give little attention to these objections, and actually try to downplay their importance, because Christ and the apostles explained both. (Indeed, I have done this as well in my book on the subject.) Yet, I think they are very important, because once we admit these three facts, the prophetic material becomes not only difficult to understand at the time of Christ, but actually impossible to understand.
This in turn leads to other questions. What use is a prophetic message that can only be understood after the fact? Also, if God wanted to pre-authenticate Christ through prophecy, why would he fail to link the portrait of the suffering servant to the Messiah? Why would he fail to mention that there are two comings?
While these deficiencies have occupied little thought from Christian readers, I will argue that they were of much more interest to New Testament authors. In fact, I think that by failing to focus on these very problems, Christians are missing a key aspect of God's plan for the world. They also miss the point of a number of key New Testament passages that explain the obscurity in messianic prophecy as well as the reasons for it.
Let's begin by examining how the three objections mentioned above work out in several of the clearest messianic prophecies in the Old Testament.
Is the suffering servant the Messiah?
Isaiah's Servant Songs
Probably the best body of prophecy concerning Christ's first coming is found in the "Servant Songs" of Isaiah. The passages are Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-13; 50:4-11; and 52:13-53:12 Isaiah portrays the servant is as follows:
A savior will one day come who will be filled with the Spirit of God. He will begin his ministry in obscurity rather than with the majesty people would expect of such a savior. Indeed, his own people will reject him. He will suffer persecution and torture, his body marred horribly. Although he teaches the Word of God, his contemporaries will believe that he is against God. Finally, the servant will be killed, but in dying, he will pay the price that the human race should have to pay for sin. After a period of time he will be raised from the dead, and multitudes will be brought into close relationship with God because of his work. Eventually, he will be crowned as a king, and even the other kings of the earth will be subject to him.
This description conforms to Jesus' life to an amazing degree. The New Testament makes it clear that early Christians knew these passages referred to Christ (see Matthew 8:17; 12:17-21; Acts 8:32-33). However, a number of objections can be raised against this Christian reading.
The passages never call the servant Messiah.
The four passages are spread out in a section of Isaiah dealing with God's faithfulness to Israel and his future dealings with her. When cut out of the text and stacked next to each other, a remarkably consistent picture emerges. But when viewed in the original context, these passages are far less clear. Jewish readers argue that Christians are performing a cut and paste surgery of the text that ignores the context.
In the same section of Isaiah, Israel herself is called "my servant Jacob" and "my servant Israel." It seems natural to Jewish readers to see these passages as also referring to Israel as the servant of the Lord. Even within one of the servant songs, the term "my servant Jacob" is used, referring apparently to the "anonymous" servant. Christians reply that these passages can't be about Israel as the servant of the Lord, because the career of the servant is completely different from that of Israel. Also, in more than one case, Israel is contrasted over against the Servant of the Lord (Isaiah 53:2, 3, 4, 5, 6).
All of these problems result in considerable confusion, especially to anyone who doesn't already know the history of Jesus' life. Scholars declare that no Jewish reader before the time of Christ ever interpreted these passages as referring the Messiah. For instance, George Ladd says,
". . . it is of greatest importance to know that Judaism before Christ never interpreted this passage [Isaiah 53] as referring to the sufferings of the Messiah. An expert in Jewish literature [Joseph Klausner] says, 'In the whole Jewish Messianic literature of the Tannaitic period [before 200 AD] there is no trace of the 'suffering Messiah.'"
"This is the point: it was completely hidden from the disciples that the Son of Man must fill the role of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 before He comes in the power and glory of God's kingdom . . . a suffering and dying Messiah or Son of Man was unheard of and seemed to be a flat contradiction to the explicit word of God." (George Ladd, I Believe In The Resurrection Of Jesus, p. 66)
This, of course, is in contrast to clear predictions of the Messiah as reigning king. Such predictions, which, according to Christians, refer to the Second Coming, were universally recognized as referring to Messiah before the time of Christ.
Why would God break the servant prophecies into four pieces and intersperse them with passages about a different servant? If they were all together, the pattern would be so much clearer! Surely God would realize the confusion that had to arise as a result of this strange layout.
We can see that identifying the suffering servant with Messiah would be difficult, especially when we remember that the Old Testament never teaches that Messiah will come twice. Therefore, readers who knew that Messiah would live forever, that he would destroy his enemies, that he would have both stately form and majesty, were compelled to see some different person in these descriptions.
How odd it is that God would fail to mention that the servant is Messiah! How odd that he would leave out the crucial detail that Messiah will come twice! Without these two missing pieces of information, the whole section becomes difficult, if not impossible to understand for readers before and during the life of Christ.
This passage describes in detail Jesus' death by crucifixion centuries before crucifixion had been invented! The details include the fact that his hands and feet were pierced, that he was naked, that his bones were being pulled out of joint, that his thirst was so intense that his tongue stuck to his jaws, that he was encircled by taunting persecutors as he died, and that men gambled for his clothing while he watched. Note that Jesus quoted the first verse of this psalm while on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" No doubt he was calling people's attention to the fact that the well-known psalm was being fulfilled in their presence. Also, he literally was being forsaken by God at that moment as the judgment for human sin fell upon him.
We can only marvel at such a remarkable prediction today, especially in light of our knowledge of Christ's crucifixion. However, if we imagine ourselves reading this Psalm before, or during Jesus' life, we would get quite a different picture. The Psalm uses poetic language, and speaks in the first person. It seems to describe the miseries of the author in metaphorical terms. One would hardly conclude that this refers to the fate of King Messiah until after Jesus called attention to it on the cross. Messiah is never mentioned in this Psalm. Further, since it says the victim is laid in "the dust of death," a pre-Christian reader would hardly conclude that it refers to Messiah, since passages on Messiah make it clear that he lives forever (Isaiah 9:7, etc.) The missing point, that there are two comings of Messiah, compels any reader to conclude that this is about someone other than the Messiah.
The betrayal of Christ by Judas Iscariot is predicted in one passage where God is portrayed as a "foolish shepherd." For the purpose of communication, Zechariah the prophet enacted the betrayal and, remarkably, actually mentions the figure of "thirty pieces of silver." God remarked with sad irony that this "magnificent sum" (the price of a slave) was the value the people placed on him.
The New Testament teaches that this divine drama was referring to the betrayal of Christ by Judas (Matthew 26:15). Notice the passage also predicts that the money would finally be thrown into the temple and given to a potter. This was fulfilled when Judas's money was used to buy land from a local potter after Judas's death.
This is a remarkable prediction, but it is not without problems. First, the highly metaphorical nature of the foolish shepherd requires interpretation—a careful study of the context reveals that the shepherd is really God, and therefore in a way, Christ as God was sold for thirty pieces of silver. However, this would in no way be clear before the event actually occurred. Certainly, the passage mentions nothing about Messiah.
We all know this passage from Christmas readings:
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.
This passage was known to be referring to the Messiah in the time of Christ as witnessed by the fact that the scribes quoted it to Herod when arguing that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2). But have you ever wondered why we only focus on the first part of the verse (his birth in Bethlehem) and not on the fact that he is to be ruler in Israel? This passage is clearly referring to a reigning king whose throne lasts forever and is worldwide, as the context makes clear:
5:4 He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.
None of this fits Jesus' first coming, so it's not surprising that Jewish interpreters refuse to see this passage as referring to Jesus. This passage is also an example of what some call the "prophetic gap." Messiah's birth in Bethlehem occurred during his first coming, according to Christians, while the rest of the passage refers to his second coming. The problem is that nothing is said of the gap of time between the two parts of the prediction. We are expected to believe that the passage would skip over 2000+ years without a word. Skeptics would argue that this is nothing less than a clear break in historical context, which renders the interpretation suspect.
Jesus quoted this passage during his first public sermon in Luke 4. The passage says:
1 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn,
3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty…
Unlike some earlier examples, this passage was well known as a messianic prediction long before the time of Jesus. When Jesus read the passage, he stopped reading in the middle of verse 2 where it refers to "the year of the Lord's favor." He left out the part about "the day of vengeance of our God." Rolling up the scroll, he said, "Today this passage has been fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:21)
How odd that he stopped reading in the middle of a rhyming couplet! The rest of the passage goes on to predict that Messiah will bring lasting peace and blessing to Israel. Today, we realize that he didn't read the rest, because that part hadn't been fulfilled yet. However, it will be fulfilled at the second coming.
The problem here is again, the prophetic gap. Why would God craft a prediction of Messiah in a way that suddenly skips from one coming to another without mention of the intervening millennia? (Even in the same rhyming couplet!) Even if he did inspire such a prophecy, why wouldn't he at least mention somewhere that there are two comings of Messiah? With all his omniscience, God would surely know that such omissions could only cause confusion. No wonder Jewish interpreters scoff at this reading, when it involves a break of context without any textual cue.
We should realize that these omissions were universal. Although the list of messianic predictions could go on and on, the pattern remains the same. In every single case, the passages either do not mention Messiah, are metaphorical and obscure, contain misleading prophetic gaps, or in other ways require two comings of Messiah in widely different roles. Yet, nowhere in the Old Testament do we find any teaching to the effect that Messiah should come twice. In every case, this missing information compels the reader to reach the wrong conclusion.
What are we to conclude?
Honest reading of the prophecies concerning Messiah reveals a very clear pattern of missing information, confusing contexts, and hard to interpret language. But this lack of clarity is not universal. Actually, many predictions of the Messiah are crystal clear. A closer look reveals that all the clear predictions refer to the second coming of Messiah as a ruling king. All the obscure or confusing predictions refer to the first coming. This is not just a generalization. In fact, all of the predictions of the second coming are clear. All of the predictions of the first coming contain one or more of the problems mentioned above, with the resulting difficulty in interpretation.
This pattern is so consistent, so lacking in any exception, it demands an explanation. Jewish interpretation (as well as other perspectives sharing their skepticism about Jesus) have a ready explanation. They feel this is clearly a case of Christians wanting to believe that the Old Testament predicted Jesus, even though it did not. In their desperation, the early Christians "read in" their interpretation, forcing the meaning into passages that were never intended to say what they claimed. The results were predictable: broken contexts, bizarre leaps in chronology, and assumed material that simply is not found in the text.
I was aware of this critique as an atheist raised in a Bible believing home, and became more aware of it as a young Christian. It lay in the back of my mind, a troublesome stumbling block. As a student of the Bible, I would look up from time to time in my reading, profoundly troubled by the realization that it would be all too easy to see these predictions as forced reading after-the-fact by Christians who needed a justification for their new faith. I could only wonder how Paul "proved from the scriptures that Jesus was the Christ." (Acts 17:2,3) I never had the time to resolve this hanging question when I was an undergraduate student.
When I went to seminary, I finally had the time to do lengthy research on messianic prophecy. Through my own reading, I became convinced that the predictions of Jesus' first coming were not mistaken readings. They are amazing confirmations of the authenticity of Christ. Passages like the servant songs in Isaiah must refer to Jesus, and to no one else. And while some predictions could be read in more than one way, they certainly can be seen in the Christian light without distortion.
But this conclusion leaves key questions unanswered. Why does God often present predictions in a confused context? Why does he omit any mention of Messiah? Why isn't there even a single reference to two comings?
I think there is one, and only one, answer to these questions: God created this situation deliberately. A large view of the complex of predictions of the first coming of Messiah crystallizes into a single picture: These predictions are written in such a way that they cannot be properly understood until after the life of Jesus. The author of these predictions was very purposeful in omitting the key information that would have made them easy to understand in advance. The passages never say anything untrue. It's what they don't say that makes them ambiguous.
If God wanted people to recognize Jesus' coming and mission, there's no way he would have left out the part about two comings. This omission makes one passage after another incomprehensible, while knowing that there are two comings makes them suddenly as clear as day. In fact, the conflation of the two comings into a single passage (the prophetic gap) seems to be calculated to lead to the impression that there is only one coming. At the same time, we notice it's always the first coming that is obscure, never the second coming.
Yes, this could be because the first coming is not really predicted, but is an invention of wishful early Christians. But I think there is another explanation that accords with the text in an incredibly convincing way. In fact this answer opens the door to understand not only Old Testament prophecy, but also New Testament teaching in a new and marvelous way, as I hope to show. I believe the resolution to this problem includes information Paul had that made it all too possible to demonstrate from the scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.
Jesus and Predictive Prophecy
In Jesus' preaching and discussion, we see many comments that seem to perpetuate the confusion. For instance, when he appeared, Mark says
And after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:14,15)
Anyone familiar with Jewish theology of the time sees that this could mean only one thing to his audience. They would see this as Jesus proclaiming himself King Messiah, and the kingdom would be the one promised in messianic prophecies of the second coming. Although Jesus later qualified his proclamation of the kingdom as being different than the Old Testament picture of a world-wide compulsory rule of God, he did so in a veiled way.
The best known discussion on this is in Matthew 13. There, Jesus gave the parables of the kingdom—each one stressing the difference between what they were expecting, based on Old Testament prophecy, and what he was actually here to begin. Instead of a sudden takeover, there would be gradual growth from obscure beginnings (parable of the mustard seed, and the leaven). Instead of "ruling the nations with a rod of iron" and banishing all sinners, believers and non believers would live side by side (parable of the soils, dragnet, wheat and tares, etc.).
In his comments to the disciples on these parables, Jesus made it clear that he didn't expect his audience to understand them. In fact he indicates that he was deliberately speaking in a way that they could not understand:
And the disciples came and said to Him, "Why do You speak to them in parables?" And He answered and said to them, "To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted… Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. (Matthew 13:10,11,13)
We see here an ongoing effort to keep the nature of his mission veiled to the public. In other places, it seems like he wanted the disciples to understand the nature of his mission as the suffering servant:
Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again (Luke 18:31-33)
This was clear enough. However, we also read in verse 34,
The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.
Why didn't the disciples understand? Was it because they couldn't break out of the paradigm of the eternal Messiah who cannot die? Or was it God himself who "hid" the meaning from them? We don't know. But if we study all of the similar disclosures Jesus made, we see sixteen passages where Christ told his disciples what he was going to do (although some are referring to the same discussion). The list is as follows: Mark 8:31*; 10:45*; 9:9,10,12*; 10:32-34; 9:31-32; Matthew 20:17-19*; 17:22,23; 16:21; Luke 9:22*; 9:44,45; 18:31-34; John 3:14*; 10:15-18,20; 12:32-34; 16:17-18,25. In each of the starred passages, it records the disciples' reaction, and makes it plain that they did not understand what he was saying.
It seems they never did understand. Right up to the end of his ministry they were asking him, "So is this the time when you will reveal your kingdom?" Even the question they asked at the Mount of Olives, "What will be the sign of your coming?" may be misleading to modern readers. It sounds to us like they now knew he would leave and come back. But the term "coming" may have meant a triumphal entry, or presentation of himself as king. It's entirely possible that they were still thinking that the coming might happen any day.
Notice the paradigmatic thinking of the crowd in John 12:34. After Jesus mentioned being "lifted up" on the cross, "The multitude therefore answered Him, ‘We have heard out of the Law that the Christ is to remain forever; and how can You say, "The Son of Man must be lifted up"? Who is this Son of Man?'" Since they couldn't conceive of a Messiah that would die, they tended to shift the identity of the Son of Man in order to compensate. This must have been the norm throughout Jesus' life.
At the last supper, Jesus makes a series of significant statements. After dinner Jesus said, "33 "Little children, I am with you a little while longer. You shall seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, I now say to you also, `Where I am going, you cannot come.'" (John 13:33)
Then we read, "Simon Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, where are You going?'" (36) Clearly, Peter still didn't know what was about to happen. This confusion is echoed by Thomas as well. (14:5) Then, when Jesus promises that those who receive the Spirit after his departure will receive revelation of Christ, Judas Alpheus asks, "Lord, what then has happened that You are going to disclose Yourself to us, and not to the world?" (14:22) Clearly, they were incredulous that he was not going to reveal his true identity to the world. Remember, this conversation occurred the night before the cross. Even at this late date, none of his disciples realized that he intended to die, rise, leave, and come again.
Later in that same conversation, Jesus said, "These things I have spoken to you, that you may be kept from stumbling." 16:1 Later, he expanded, "But these things I have spoken to you, that when their hour comes, you may remember that I told you of them. And these things I did not say to you at the beginning, because I was with you." (4) and, "A little while, and you will no longer behold Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me." (16)
Again, dismay and confusion reigned: "Some of His disciples therefore said to one another, ‘What is this thing He is telling us, "A little while, and you will not behold Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me"; and, "because I go to the Father"?' And so they were saying, ‘What is this that He says, "A little while"? We do not know what He is talking about.'" (17,18)
Jesus' only response was "These things I have spoken to you in figurative language; an hour is coming when I will speak no more to you in figurative language, but will tell you plainly of the Father." (25)
As we read this exchange, we get the strong sense that Jesus was pursuing a course identical to what God earlier did in the Old Testament. He was telling them things they did not understand, but which they would remember after the events occurred. How similar to God's apparent strategy of predicting the first coming in a way people would miss until after it happened! Once the cross and the resurrection occurred, these statements all made perfect sense, but beforehand, Jesus himself acknowledges that they couldn't grasp what he was saying.
After the resurrection, Jesus met with the disciples again. In Luke 24, we read, "Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day; and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.'" (45-47)
What a Bible study this must have been! Notice that what he "opened their minds" to were the Old Testament predictions of the suffering servant. Now they understood that the suffering servant and King Messiah were one and the same, but revealed in two separate comings.
Why did Jesus wait until after his resurrection to tell them these things? Why couldn't he open their minds earlier? Why did he speak in "figurative language" earlier, but plainly now? It seems clear from these passages, and many others we don't have time to cover, that Jesus was intentionally veiling his mission up until a certain point in time. Like God in the Old Testament, Jesus seemed to want a situation where he could say, "I told you so," but at the same time, he didn't want people to know what he was doing until after he did it.
Satan's Strange Role
Nobody behaved more strangely during this time than God's enemy, Satan. We read in John 13:2 that at the last supper, "devil had already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him." What an odd thing for Satan to do! If Jesus had come to die for human sin, why would Satan actively cooperate in his death? Hadn't Jesus just warned that the cross would be the undoing of Satan? (John 12:31,32) Wasn't it the cross that made it possible for Paul to say, "When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him." (Colossians 2:15)?
This part of the story is like a poorly written novel where people's motivations don't line up with the action. Why would a creature as brilliant as Satan, not just acquiesce, but actually assist in doing the very thing that would be most destructive to himself?
Several answers have been advanced.
One suggestion is that Satan was compelled to do what he did, because God sovereignly made him. Since the cross was God's plan, Satan was made to play his part in that plan. This suggestion is certainly possible, although it is speculative. The Bible never claims Satan was acting under compulsion, only that the cross was part of the "predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God." (Acts 2:23) Certainly God knew Satan would do what he did, as he also knew the other players, like Pilate and Herod would do what they did. But unlike the human players, Satan had everything to lose from the cross.
Others have argued that Satan was so arrogant that he thought he could hold Jesus in death after the cross. Again, this is possible, although speculative. Certainly, Satan is arrogant, but would he be this stupid? He certainly knew who Jesus was. And we see him backing down from God's power in cases like that involving Job.
Others argue that Satan knew the cross would destroy him, but he couldn't resist the sadistic pleasure of watching Jesus suffer. Again, we can imagine this, and we do know that Satan is irrationally hateful at times. But it seems to me like quite a stretch to see the anointed cherub behaving in such a self-destructive way.
Maybe Paul offers us another explanation in 1 Corinthians 2:6,8,
Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God's wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom, which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
Could it be that Satan, the great adversary, didn't know that Jesus actually wanted to die? If so, it would perfectly explain why he helped orchestrate his death.
Many feel this passage is not referring to Satan, but to the human rulers who put Jesus to death. That's possible, although Paul uses the term "God of this world" to refer to Satan. (2 Corinthians 4:4) Also, the "world rulers of this darkness" refers to demons (Ephesians 6:12 the term here is kosmos, rather than aeon, but the sense is similar). Also, if he was referring to Pilate, Herod, and Caiaphas, why would he use the present tense "who are passing away" when all of them were now dead or at least no longer in power?
I will argue, based on this and other passages in the New Testament that this is exactly what happened: The brilliant, bitter, and arrogant enemy of God acted freely, thinking he was disrupting God's plan to take over and rule the world through Jesus. But instead he played directly into Jesus' hands, doing exactly what Jesus wanted him to do, and proving in the process, his own character as hate as well as God's character as true, self-giving love.
Did Satan Know Jesus Planned to Die?
Some readers find it difficult to believe that Satan would have made such a colossal blunder when all the information was right there in front of him for hundreds of years. But let's think about it. How would he have known what Jesus was doing? He would have had the same information everyone else had—the predictive scriptures. But we have seen that God crafted those in such a way that a reader before the time of Christ could not have discovered the plan for two comings. The missing information made it impossible to reach this conclusion. Why would Satan be any different than anyone else?
Again, if we accept the premise that God was intentionally veiling his intentions in the first coming, the hanging question remains: Why would he do so? Here, we may have an answer. Perhaps in God's eternal plan of salvation, he was also putting the permanent smack-down on Satan and his accusations.
We know that the devil (diabolos = slanderer) gets much of his power from his ability to create suspicion about God. His accusations are not just directed to us and about us, but about God. From his first appearance in Genesis we see him implying that God can't be trusted—that he is self-serving and oppressive. This fallen angel, was so persuasive that not only the first humans, but much of the angelic host followed him into rebellion in spite of the fact that these creatures must have actually seen God.
This accusing of God is interesting to consider in light of the dilemma it creates for God. Each part of this carefully crafted lie contains self-validating implications that would seem to prevent God from opposing the lie effectively.
For instance, Satan claims that God is self-serving when he calls on his creatures to follow him. We know God's counter claim that he calls on the creation to follow him for their own good. But to fallen creatures, a God who enforces a rule to follow his will may indeed seem self-serving. Satan's picture of a God duping his creatures into thinking that he is self-giving, when he is actually self-serving has been very persuasive in the history of the universe. Millions have bought into this suspicion.
Secondly, Satan postures God as mean, oppressive, and unfair. We see this claim implied when he told Eve that the real reason God didn't want her to eat the forbidden fruit was because it would result in her gaining wisdom and becoming like God. This pictures God as willing to oppress people in order to keep them from attaining to all they could be. God declares that he is love, that he is compassionate, and that he is always perfectly fair. But how can he punish rebellious creatures (which is fair) without seeming to confirm the suspicion that he is mean? How can he spare any rebellious creature from punishment without becoming unfair?
Satan continually tries to play off God's love against his justice. Any God who would judge cannot be loving, he argues. A judging God is vindictive and hateful, according to Satan. Satan must advance a form of permissiveness as love. Again, if God destroyed Satan, wouldn't that suggest that Satan was right after all, and that God is vindictive and hateful?
This cosmic dilemma is the background for the Bible. Satan is a careful student of Scripture (Luke 4) and was well-aware that God was developing a plan of salvation. He has opposed that plan at every point, as he still does today.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that when Jesus came, Satan, like everyone else, concluded that he had come, not as a suffering servant, but as reigning king. King Messiah is said to destroy his enemies, and rule the world with a "rod of iron." This picture of dominance fits all too well with Satan's concept of God as the mean, vindictive destroyer of freedom. Aside from anything in prophecy, Satan would be inclined to see Messiah this way because of his prejudice against God.
I will argue that Satan did, in fact, make this mistake. He thought Jesus had come to rule, not to suffer. Jesus' self-effacing behavior must have been confusing, but most people thought he was going to unveil his power any day. Satan may have thought this as well. In one instance, some demons cried out to Jesus, "have you come to torment us before the time?" They were apparently surprised to see him there earlier than expected, but saw his mission only as one of torment. How typical this is of demonic thinking.
If Satan was mistaken about Jesus' intentions, he would naturally conclude that arranging to kill him would short-circuit the planned kingdom. Suddenly, his actions with Judas make sense. But what was the outcome? Too late, he would realize that he had actually facilitated not the destruction of the kingdom, but the salvation of humankind. At the same time, his greatest weapon, his accusations of God, were now useless. The cross demonstrated in an undeniable way the loving and sacrificial nature of God. Instead of God being vindictive and cruel, it was Satan who was unmasked as utterly vindictive and cruel.
Perhaps this is what Paul alludes to when he says in Colossians 2:15, "When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him." The cross forever disarmed Satan by striking down his main contention: that God is self-serving, mean, and unfair.
This would account for Jesus declaration that "now is the judgment of this world, now is the prince of this world cast out." (John 12:32) Paul seems to echo this explanation in several places:
Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations… (Romans 16:25,26)
In this remarkable passage, Paul reveals that God was, indeed, keeping something secret for aeons—something that had recently been revealed. This "mystery" or secret is tied up with Paul's gospel. I believe the cross and God's whole redemptive intent in the first coming of Messiah, are the mystery to which he refers. It was secret because, although predicted, it was predicted in a way that was undecipherable until too late, as we have seen. Only after Satan had made his violent and hateful move against Christ did the truth emerge.
In another passage, Paul says,
By revelation there was made known to me the mystery, as I wrote before in brief. And by referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit… (Ephesians 3:3-5)
Apparently, Paul was given a special revelation about God's plan. He clearly states that this mystery was not revealed to people. The particular aspect of the mystery of interest in this passage has to do with the universality of the redemptive work of Christ, in that it included gentiles as well as Jews. But we know that Paul's mystery extends well beyond this point, as we shall see. But here in Ephesians, Paul goes on to draw out cosmic significance of the secret plan of God:
To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God, who created all things; in order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:8-11)
Several points are interesting here. For one thing, he says the mystery has for aeons been "hidden in God." Apparently, God alone knew what he was intending to do. Here is clear confirmation that God was actively veiling his intentions in Christ from the whole world, and even from the angelic hosts.
Also, he points out the result of the mystery: that the "rulers and authorities in the heavenly places" (angels and perhaps demons) will learn something about God. Is it that they now see God's character of love and self-sacrifice for what it is? Isn't it plausible that the cross, a unique event in the history of the universe, has laid to rest any possibility of suspicion about the character of God?
We see that the church plays a key role in this revelation to the heavenly hosts. As recipients of grace, we forgiven humans are in a unique position. We know what it is like to live apart from God, to harbor suspicions of God, and even to hate God. But we also know what it is like to experience his grace and love; an incredible gift that cost him everything and us nothing.
This mystery is central to what Paul calls God's "eternal purpose." God planned this whole thing out from eternity and for eternity. Never again will there be a revolution against God, even though free-will creatures populate the universe. That is because all will remember what happened last time. They will remember how God demonstrated his nature as good, loving, and fair, while his accusers revealed their character as evil, bitter and deceptive.
This idea of a demonstration appears also in Romans 3.
God displayed [Jesus] publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (25,26)
The cross was a public demonstration of God's goodness, according to this passage. What does the phrase ""the just and the justifier" mean? At the cross, God demonstrated his justice, because the sins of his favorite humans was not ignored, but punished fully. At the same time, he is the justifier, because he paid that penalty himself at incredible cost. How perfectly these stand as antitheses to Satan's lies mentioned earlier!
Paul brings the mystery up again in Colossians 1:
Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations; but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (25-27)
This passage is very similar to some cited earlier. Again we see that the mystery "has been hidden from the past ages and generations." Yes, it was there, right in front of them in the prophets, but because of the key omissions, no one could see it. Recently, he says, it has been manifested, or brought to light. The content of the mystery according to this passage is, "Christ in you, the hope of glory." Of course it is the cross that opens the door to the new intimacy between us and God; an intimacy so deep that he actually indwells us through the Holy Spirit.
Again, this passage makes it very clear that God was keeping a secret, a mystery, that has only recently been revealed. Unless my theory about Old Testament prophecy is right, what would that secret be, and why was he keeping it? I must confess, I have never heard an adequate explanation to this question.
I think the notion that God purposely veiled the Old Testament prophecies of the first coming is confirmed in an interesting passage in 1 Peter:
As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful search and inquiry, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look. (10-12)
According to this passage, the even the prophets who wrote the predictions didn't know who the predictions referred to. Notice it is the first coming of Christ ("the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow") that confused them. Even after careful search and inquiry, it never says God told them who the suffering servant was. Peter only says God revealed to them that a later generation would be served by these predictions, and therefore they didn't need to know who it was. That must be the case, since Paul says the mystery was a secret "hidden in God" in Ephesians 3.
The last phrase is interesting as well. We notice that the angels are astonished by what they see in this revealed mystery. Like the passage in Eph. 3, Peter seems to imply that the entire universe is learning a lesson they will never forget from the work of the cross and it's result in the church.
The Big Picture
As we ponder the mystery hidden for aeons past, the multitude of information begins to congeal into a marvelous picture.
I would suggest that God wanted to create personal beings, and personal beings by definition, must be un-programmed, free-choosing moral agents. Anything less is a machine, not a person. Yet, the creation of freedom inherently entails the possibility and indeed, the likelihood that eventually someone would use their freedom the wrong way.
We know this happened when Satan rebelled against God. And that rebellion has spread to our world, nearly ruining it. Of course God saw all of this coming, and he had a plan. He laid down a well-attested scriptural tradition that promised he would one day intervene to return the world to its proper state with him as its leader. But inserted into this same predictive material was another message—a message that was clear in one way, but hidden in another way, almost like it was in code.
Then, at the right time, Christ came, and basically laid a trap for the enemies of God. As they pitted their limited wisdom against his infinite wisdom, they were completely out-classed, and ended up proving how good God is, and how bankrupt was their own revolution.
The outcome is clear. The Cross has silenced for all time the ravings of Satan and his ilk. In light of what has happened, the universe can feel an amazing level of confidence in God and his character, a confidence so complete that revolution will never again taint the course of eternity future.
Objections to This Theory
I hope this very brief explanation of the mystery has been persuasive, although the subject clearly deserves a lot more thought. Already a number of objections and questions have been raised, which I will share along with possible responses for interested readers.
It's one thing to see that the disciples didn't perceive or understand what Jesus was saying when he clearly announced his intention to die, but how could Satan have missed such clear declarations?
Response: We should remember that Satan is not omniscient like God. Even though he is probably far more intelligent than humans, he is limited in knowledge and understanding. There is no proof he can tell the future, or read people's minds. Neither is he omnipresent, even through the agency of his many demons. These limitations raise at least two possibilities:
First, Satan may have made the same mistakes, for the same reasons, everyone else did. What ever the reasons the disciples failed to comprehend what Jesus was saying, Satan may have failed for the same reasons. Whether it was God actively blocking his understanding, or simply paradigmatic thinking, he must not have grasped the meaning of Jesus' words.
Or, perhaps Jesus only gave these disclosures when he discerned that Satan was not around. When talking to the disciples in the upper room, Jesus says, "I will not speak much more with you, for the ruler of the world is coming, and he has nothing in Me." (John 14:30) It sounds like Jesus only talked about confidential information when no demons were listening.
If nobody knew what the predictions of the suffering servant meant, why does Simeon cite one of the servant songs when he sees Jesus as a baby? (Luke 2:25-32)
Response: It seems like Simeon is speaking a prophetic word, since he speaks in verse, similar to that found in the prophets. If so, he was inspired to say what he did, but perhaps without realizing the full implications. He would have been like the Old Testament prophets who predicted "the sufferings of Christ" without knowing who it referred to. (1 Peter 1:12) Prophets definitely utter things they, themselves, don't always understand. Daniel states this when he says after one of his prophetic visions, "As for me, I heard but could not understand…" (Daniel 12:8) and on another occasion, "I was astounded at the vision, and there was none to explain it." (Daniel 8:27) Our best evidence is that nobody, including Simeon, understood the mystery because it was "hidden in God." (Ephesians 3:9)
If nobody was able to know what the predictions of the first coming meant, why does Jesus chide the men on the road to Emmaus saying, "O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?" (Luke 24:25,26)
Response: Note that this incident occurred after the resurrection. Jesus apparently expected people to connect the dots once the cross and his resurrection occurred. It should have been obvious by this time that recent events conformed, not only to prophecy, but to the verbal warnings Jesus had given earlier. Notice how the angels reproved the women at his tomb with the words, "Why do you seek the living One among the dead? He is not here, but He has risen. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again." (Luke 24:5-7) They like Jesus seem to feel that after the cross the whole puzzle should have snapped into focus.
If Satan thought Jesus was here to begin his kingdom, why would he try to tempt him? Wasn't this done so he could disqualify Jesus from being a spotless lamb?
Response: Satan may have had this motive, although this is speculation. The text nowhere gives his motives. Clearly, committing sin would have disqualified Jesus from being King, just as it would from being sacrificial lamb. Many passages like this would have to be re-thought if we accept that nobody knew Jesus planned to die for sin.
If nobody knew Jesus was the suffering and atoning servant, why did John the Baptist declare, "Behold the lamb of God." (John 1:36)
Response: Again, John may have been speaking under prophetic inspiration, rather than from his own understanding. Jesus said John was a prophet, so the same argument would apply as that for Simeon above. We know John's understanding was not complete because he later even had to send messengers asking whether Jesus was the Messiah at all. (Matthew 11:2,3)
If we accept this theory, when do we suppose Satan and others finally grasped what Jesus had come to do?
Response: We don't know the answer to this question, but I imagine Satan may have realized his error while Jesus was still on the cross. Jesus cried "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" which comes from Psalms 22:1. This Psalm goes on to describe the crucifixion in considerable detail. Of course, like other predictions about the first coming, it was veiled, failing to mention who it referred to, and even given in the first person, making it seem like it refers to David in metaphorical terms. This was probably the first time people realized it actually referred to Christ. As Satan watched his handiwork and heard Jesus make this cry, he would have no doubt immediately drawn the connection, and, no doubt from memory recalled the rest of the Psalm. With a growing sense of horror, he would realize that he had unwittingly done exactly what God wanted! Instead of the excitement of winning, he would have quickly realized that he had been defeated by his own hand, but it was already too late to do anything about it.