The odds of Jesus fulfilling prophecy.

They sound impressive… till you realize we’re applying the entirely wrong discipline to prophecy.

Round Christmastime you’ll hear all sorts of sermons about Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem. I certainly have. Hear ’em every Christmas. Frequently more than one, ’cause I regularly go to live nativities ’n crap like that, where Christians are gonna preach about Jesus’s birth yet again, just in case anyone there doesn’t already know the story. (Nevermind the fact live nativities keep getting elements of the story wrong, like magi at the stable.)

The sermons are usually from the Luke point of view, which has his actual birth in it. But occasionally preachers will bring up Matthew’s story about the magi, because it makes reference to the prophecy Messiah’s to be born in Bethlehem:

Micah 5.2 KWL
You! Bethléhem-Efratá! Smallest of Judah’s thousands! Israel’s ruler comes from you, for my sake.
They bring him forth—he who’s from the beginning, from days beyond counting.

A previous Messiah, David ben Jesse, came from Bethlehem, 1Sa 17.12 and the great once-and-for-all Messiah, his descendant, was also expected to come from there.

And certain Christians love to bring up this prophecy. Because it reminds us this was all part of God’s plan to save the world, y’know. Jesus wasn’t an unplanned pregnancy, despite the clever-sounding prolife memes going round the internet. His birth had been in the works since the very beginning.

Certain other Christians love to bring up the prophecy, because Christian apologists love to point out the significance of Messianic prophecies in general. According to them, they’ve done the math: The chances of Jesus fulfilling every single prophecy about Messiah in the Old Testament comes out to a vast, astronomical number. Then they pitch some number with an unfathomable number of zeroes after it. One popular stat, based on Jesus fulfilling only eight prophecies, comes out to one in a sextillion. That’s 1021, meaning 21 zeroes in the number. A billion trillion.

Sounds impressive, but the problem is their math is based on a faulty premise: When you’re calculating odds, you’re talking about chance. And when we’re talking about God’s will, ain’t no chance involved.

These’d be the odds if Jesus had coincidentally fulfilled prophecy. In other words, if he’d absolutely no clue certain things had been said about the future Messiah, and stumbled into actions which just happened to coincide with every ancient prediction.

Thing is, Jesus not only knew about these predictions, he knowingly, intentionally, deliberately fulfilled them. As the gospels state.

Padding the stats.

First of all, I gotta remind you of what the verb fulfill means. Yes, it can mean “to achieve a promise or prediction,” as when I say I’ll send somebody an article by deadline, and I do—thus fulfilling my word. That’s its current meaning. Its ancient meaning was a little different. Malé in Hebrew, and pliróo simply meant “to fill.” In the prophecy you have a story which is partly told. In Jesus it’s completely told. It’s like a glass half-full, but now full.

But how these scriptures were completely filled, varies. Y’see, some of them aren’t even prophecies. They’re stories in the scriptures, which Jesus happens to retell in a more substantial way. Fr’instance the snake on the pole, which Moses used to cure the Hebrews of snakebite. Nu 21.4-9 It’s not a prophecy about Jesus. But it’s like Jesus. Jesus himself said so. Jesus’s story, about being lifted up to cure the world’s sin, is a fuller telling of this story. It’s more substantial, more applicable to our circumstances—it’s better. The apostles knew this, and that’s why the gospels quote various Old Testament scriptures where history obviously repeated itself in Jesus. But are all these scriptures predictions of Jesus? Nah. Some are; some aren’t.

Anyway, when Christians claim Jesus “fulfilled some 300 scriptures,” they’re not wrong. In fact their count’s a bit low. You can find analogies between Jesus and all sorts of scriptures.

But don’t get the idea this therefore means Jesus achieved the completion of 300 predictions. ’Cause some Christians do. “There were 300 prophecies about Jesus, and he fulfilled them all!” No, there are a few dozen prophecies about Jesus, and he only fulfilled most of them. (The rest’ll be done after his second coming, y’see.) The rest are bible passages which are analogous to Jesus. They’re not prophecies about him. Not even if they were actual prophecies. Jesus fulfilled ’em by being a better story, not by doing as they predicted.

And when we say such things as, “Jesus fulfilled 300 prophecies” to skeptics, you realize what some of ’em are gonna do: They’re gonna go looking for those 300 prophecies, find only a few dozen, highlight the ones he hasn’t fulfilled yet, and call us Christians dirty liars. Making naïve statements is just handing free ammunition to antichrists. Stop that.

Doing the Father’s will.

Secondly, when Jesus fulfilled prophecies, it wasn’t coincidence. Nor was it the result of the Father, in ages past, sovereignly pre-determining to move all these chess pieces into place, and now history was playing out the way he’d long-ago decided. Certain Christians love that idea, and feel awed by his power.

Well, snap out of it, kids. The warm fuzzy feelings are getting in the way of your brains. Because Jesus is no chess piece. He doesn’t deterministically go through the motions of what was decided for him. He decided. This was his plan. Pp 2.5-8 It was his will to do as the Father wanted. Jn 4.24, 5.30 It was he who decided his mission statement was, “Not my will, but yours,” Lk 22.42 and carried it out.

In doing the Father’s will, Jesus didn’t simply come to earth with it already in mind. Nor did he follow it as the Holy Spirit revealed it to him day by day. He had a bible. You remember what’s in the Old Testament? Statements of what Messiah was meant to do. And Jesus definitely knew his scriptures—and therefore knew what was expected of him. And did it.

Luke 18.31-33 KWL
31 Taking the Twelve, Jesus told them, “Look, we’re going up to Jerusalem.
All the scriptures by the Prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled.
32 For he’ll be turned in to the gentiles, ridiculed, abused, spit upon, 33 flogged, and they’ll kill him.
The third day, he’ll rise again.”
Matthew 26.53-54 KWL
53 “You think I can’t call my Father, who’ll immediately give me more than 12 legions of angels?
54 But then how will the scriptures be fulfilled? So this has to happen.”
Luke 22.37 KWL
“For I tell you this scripture must be fulfilled by me: ‘He was figured among the lawless.’ Is 53.12
It’s about me; it has a purpose.”
John 19.28 KWL
After this Jesus, knowing everything was now finished, to fulfill the scripture, said, “I thirst.”

Skeptics will call this behavior “self-fulfilling prophecies”: Jesus only did ’em because he was foretold to do ’em. They weren’t fulfilled by outside forces, like a sovereign God irresistibly drawing Jesus to do as predicted: They were fulfilled by Jesus, knowing what was expected of him, doing as expected of him. This, they object, ain’t all that miraculous.

Y’know what? They’re right. It’s not.

Christians actually get outraged when I point this out. They think I’m debunking miracles. They used to get this feeling of mystery and awe whenever they heard about Jesus fulfilling prophecy… and now I’ve taken the magic away. It’s like I just told them the Easter Bunny isn’t real.

But the magic needs to be taken away, because Christians get far too distracted by it, and miss a really significant point: Jesus’s prophecies weren’t fulfilled by divine sovereignty. They were fulfilled by his obedience.

These prophecies weren’t given so that Christians could check out God’s foreknowledge and feel a sense of wonder. They were given so Jesus would have his marching orders well in advance of his first coming. They were also given so the people of Jesus’s day could identify their Messiah by them. The true Messiah would do his Father’s will, and obey the prophecies about him.

And all Messiah’s followers. Fr’instance Jesus’s parents: They knew Messiah was meant to be born in Bethlehem. Most devout Jews did. Jn 7.42 Since they had to go to temple three times a year, Ex 23.17 for the feasts of Passover, Weeks, and Tents, and their relatives in Bethlehem lived only 9 kilometers away, it makes sense that they’d have incorporated one of those temple visits into their plans. If Jesus didn’t get born during those festivals, they could’ve found some pretense (“She’s a little too pregnant to travel”) for sticking around. Conveniently, a Roman census required ’em to stick around, Lk 2.1-6 and I doubt anyone made a fuss.

Like Jesus, his parents sought to do the Father’s will. So… how’re we doing on that front? Are we reading the scriptures and doing as they instruct us? Or are we ignoring them in favor of lawlessness, loopholes, and cheap grace? Are we active participants in God’s plan of salvation, or are we lazily sitting back to let God do all the work?—figuring since our efforts are so small in comparison, it’s okay if we flake on him?

See, this is what happens when we emphasize God’s sovereign plan for history, and de-emphasize God’s sovereign will for us. We bask in the warm feelings of wonder, and we ignore the fact God has prophecies in the bible which apply to us—prophecies such as, “Love the LORD your God,” “Love your neighbor as yourself,” the Ten Commandments, and the Sermon on the Mount. And that these prophecies ain’t gonna fulfill themselves!

Using math to gain new believers? Really?

Finally… there’s the ridiculousness of trying to use the odds to win people to Jesus.

Because seriously, that’s what apologists try to do with this data. They show it to pagans and say, “Look! What were the chances all these prophecies could be accurately fulfilled by one man? You gotta believe now! ’Cause math!”

Apparently they’re not familiar with the United States. People here believe what we wanna believe. Not what we’re convinced to believe thanks to evidence, science, and data. Look at all the Americans who still dismiss climate change. And it’s not because they’re hardcore young-earth creationists either; it’s because they don’t wanna believe in it. They don’t wanna stop polluting. They don’t like the politicians who promote creation care, and wouldn’t mind opposing them out of sheer obnoxiousness. Their favorite websites don’t believe in it either. We’ve still got flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, and moon-landing-deniers for the same reasons.

I didn’t come to Jesus because I was given mathematical data. I was introduced to him ’cause Mom knew him. I got to know him myself. You wanna win people to Jesus? Show them Jesus, not your calculations. See what that does.

The odds? That only impresses Christians who slept through their statistics classes. But we were already won over… and it wasn’t by math.