The odds of Jesus fulfilling prophecy.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 December

Round Christmastime you’ll hear all sorts of sermons about Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem. I certainly have. Hear ’em every Christmas. Frequently way more than one sermon: I regularly go to the live nativities my city’s churches put together, and the Christians there are gonna preach about Jesus’s birth yet again, just in case anyone 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 frequently from the Luke point of view, which has his actual birth in it. But occasionally preachers will bring up Matthew’s bit about the magi, because it specifically refers to the prophecy Messiah’s to be born in Bethlehem:

Micah 5.2 NASB
“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will come forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.
His times of coming forth are from long ago,
From the days of eternity.”

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. They claim they’ve done the math, and the chances of Jesus fulfilling every single prophecy about Messiah in the Old Testament comes out to a crazy-big number. Astronomically huge. Got 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 Jesus, ain’t no chance involved.

These’d be the odds if Jesus had unintentionally, coincidentally fulfilled prophecy. In other words, if Jesus had never read a bible. Never encountered a biblically literate culture. Knew nothing about what was expected of a Messiah. Yet stumbled into actions which just happened to sync up with every ancient prediction.

Thing is, Jesus is more biblically literate than everybody. He knows these predictions. He knowingly, intentionally, deliberately fulfilled them. The gospels even say so. Like I said, ain’t no chance involved.

Padding the stats.

I should also remind you what the verb fulfill means. Yeah, it can mean “to achieve a promise or prediction,” as when I promise I’ll send an article by deadline, and once I do I fulfilled my word. That’s its common current meaning. The ancient meaning was a little different.

When we read the Hebrew word מָלֵא/malé or the Greek word πληρόω/pliróo, they both simply mean “to fill.” Like filling a glass with water. When we hear a statement about the future, we have a story partly told. When it happens as predicted, it’s fully told. In Jesus it’s a glass filled to the brim.

But how these scriptures get filled, varies. Y’see some of them aren’t even prophecies. They’re stories in the scriptures, and Jesus happens to retell them in a more substantial way. Fr’instance the snake on the pole, which Moses used to cure the Hebrews of snakebite:

Numbers 21.4-9 NASB
4 Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey. 5 So the people spoke against God and Moses: “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we are disgusted with this miserable food.” 6 Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and against you; intercede with the LORD, that He will remove the serpents from us.” And Moses interceded for the people. 8 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and put it on a flag pole; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, and looks at it, will live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and put it on the flag pole; and it came about, that if a serpent bit someone, and he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.

The story isn’t 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 in many ways a fuller telling of this story. It’s more substantial, more applicable to our circumstances—it’s better. The apostles knew this, which is why the gospels quote various Old Testament scriptures where history obviously repeats 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. We can find analogies between Jesus and tons of scriptures.

But don’t get the idea this therefore means Jesus completed 300 predictions. ’Cause some Christians totally claim this. “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. (He’ll fulfill the rest after his second coming. Be patient.) The rest are bible passages which are analogous to Jesus. They’re not prophecies about him. Not even when they’re actual prophecies. Jesus fulfilled ’em by being a better story, not by being specifically what they foretold.

And when we say such things as, “Jesus fulfilled 300 prophecies” to skeptics, you realize what many of ’em are gonna do: They’re gonna go looking for these 300 prophecies. They’ll only find a few dozen. So they’ll understandably call us Christians dirty liars. For bonus fun, they’ll highlight all the prophecies he’s not fulfilled yet, and mock us with ’em.

Making naïve statements is just handing free ammunition to antichrists. Stop that.

Doing the Father’s will.

When Jesus fulfilled prophecies in the gospels, 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, with history playing out the way he’d long-ago decided. Certain Christians love this 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.

Jesus is no chess piece; he’s the grandmaster. He doesn’t deterministically go through the motions of what was decided for him. He decided. This is his plan. Pp 2.5-8 It’s his will to do as the Father wants. Jn 4.24, 5.30 It’s he who decided his mission statement was, “Not my will, but yours,” Lk 22.42 then carried it out.

In doing the Father’s will, Jesus didn’t simply come to earth with everything prearranged for him, and all he had to do was passively let things happen to him. He’s an active participant in his own story. Yes he obeyed the Father; yes he followed the Holy Spirit’s leading; yes he knew his bible and knew what was expected of him.

Luke 18.31-33 NASB
31 Now He took the twelve aside and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all the things that have been written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished. 32 For He will be handed over to the Gentiles, and will be ridiculed, and abused, and spit upon, 33 and after they have flogged Him, they will kill Him; and on the third day He will rise.”
Luke 22.37 NASB
“For I tell you that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me: ‘AND HE WAS COUNTED WITH WRONGDOERS’; Is 53.12 for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment.”

Jesus has free will, and he used his free will… and chose to do as expected. He deliberately fulfilled scripture.

Matthew 26.53-54 NASB
53 “Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels? 54 “How then would the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must happen this way?”
John 19.28 NASB
After this, Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, in order that the Scripture would be fulfilled, said, “I am thirsty.”

Skeptics will call this behavior “self-fulfilling prophecies”: Jesus knew they were expected of Messiah, so he consciously made them happen. They weren’t fulfilled by outside forces, like a sovereign God irresistibly drawing Jesus to do as predicted: Jesus made them happen. 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 enjoy a feeling of mystery and awe whenever they hear about Jesus fulfilling prophecy… and I just took 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 it ain’t magic! It’s obedience. Don’t knock obedience! It’s far more important and necessary to us Christians than our feelings of awe and wonder.

These prophecies weren’t given so Christians could check out God’s foreknowledge and feel wowed by how God transcends spacetime. They were given so Jesus would have his instructions 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 would do our Father’s will. Fr’instance Jesus’s parents: They knew Messiah was meant to be born in Bethlehem. Most devout Jews did. Jn 7.42 Since they went to temple thrice 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 they’d incorporate one of their 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 till he could be born in Bethlehem. Conveniently, a Roman census required they stick around, Lk 2.1-6 and I doubt anyone made a fuss.

Like Jesus, his parents sought to do their 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 statistical 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’re 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 all 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.