by Doug Ward

During my freshman year in college, I began attending church regularly. That winter a new ministerial trainee, Mr. Ross Flynn, arrived at our congregation near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I was very impressed by this young man, newly-graduated from college himself and just a few years older than I, who knew so much about the Bible. One of his first sermons, given in March, 1976, was a message I will never forget. In it, Mr. Flynn showed that many aspects of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ had been foretold long in advance, in the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures. He gave example after example of Messianic prophecies, and the sermon time flew by as I sat mesmerized, hanging on every word and taking notes. "What an amazing book the Bible is!", I thought, "And what a wonderful plan God has!" I was baptized a little over a month later, expressing my commitment to Jesus the Messiah.


Mr. Flynn's sermon gave me a glimpse of what the resurrected Jesus may have explained to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, when "beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27). Over the years since, I have often wished that I could check out a recording from the local church tape library of what Jesus told those two disciples. I have never found such a tape, of course; but I was overjoyed to discover, a few years ago, a book that I consider to be the next best thing: Walter C. Kaiser's The Messiah in the Old Testament (Zondervan, 1995). In this book, Kaiser, a renowned Old Testament scholar and former president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary,1 gives an inspiring discussion of sixty-five Messianic prophecies, showing how God progressively revealed the truth about the coming Messiah. Following the announcement of the Gospel through history, from Genesis to Malachi, makes for an exciting journey, and Dr. Kaiser is an exceptional tour guide. In this series of articles in Grace and Knowledge, we will share with you some highlights of that journey.


Why Study Messianic Prophecy?

At the outset, I would like to emphasize that the study of the prophecies of the Messiah is much more than an intellectual exercise. As mentioned above, Jesus expounded the meanings of these prophecies to his disciples after His resurrection (Luke 24:27, 44-45), and they constituted an important part of the message of the first-century church (see, e.g., Peter's sermon recorded in Acts 3:12-26, especially verses 18-26). The messianic prophecies have been a source of hope and inspiration to believers for centuries; and they have brought many, like the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-38, to faith in Jesus Christ. Moreover, the promise of the Messiah and its fulfillment comprise a major theme of the Bible, a theme that binds the Bible together in one perfect whole. The study of the promise leads us to a deeper appreciation of the unity of God's revelation, and it increases our faith by showing us how God has acted to carry out His plan throughout history.


For Christians at this time in history, a study of the Messianic prophecies may have some additional benefits. In Christian popular culture there tends to be an emphasis on the more speculative aspects of end-time prophecy. Hardly a year goes by, it seems, without at least one would-be  prophet predicting the date of Christ's return. In such an atmosphere, some Christians---especially those who have been burned by “prediction addiction” in the past--- may be hesitant to make any firm claims about the interpretation of the prophetic word. Still, we should not overreact and allow avoidance of prophecy to become a permanent condition; prophecy does, after all, make up a significant portion of the Bible---some twenty seven per cent, according to one careful count.2 A consideration of the Messianic prophecies can provide us with a balanced approach to the subject of prophecy, revealing powerfully how the whole Bible points us to Jesus Christ. As we read in Rev. 19:10, "the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy."


Aftermath of the Fall: Genesis 3:15

Our story begins at the beginning, in the book of Genesis. Here, at three of the bleakest moments in human history, when our early ancestors faced the consequences of rebellion against their Creator, God announced the solution of the problem of sin and the source of future salvation.


The third chapter of Genesis records how Adam and Eve sinned in response to the trickery of one known as "the serpent." The New Testament identifies this tempter as none other than Satan the devil (Rom. 16:20; 2 Cor. 11:3, 14; Rev. 12:9), and we can see from the Genesis account that he was no ordinary snake. For one thing, he was more intelligent than an animal; he apparently knew more than Adam and Eve and seemed to have some knowledge of the supernatural realm. The serpent was also evil, whereas God had referred to the beasts and creeping things He had created as "good"(Gen. 1:24-25).


Finally, the figurative language in the punishment God pronounced on the serpent in Gen. 3:14 hints that this verse is something other than a description of the future dietary proclivities of reptiles. Literal snakes do not eat dirt, but such language is used in the Bible to picture how those defeated in battle bow down before a conquering monarch (Ps. 72:9; Isa. 49:23; Micah 7:17). Genesis 3:14 seems to be pronouncing the total defeat and subjugation of the serpent.


The sin of Adam and Eve had devastating consequences. They and their descendants would be subject to death, and they would have to leave behind the beauty and close fellowship with God of the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:19, 23-24). However, their separation from God would not be irreparable. After dealing decisively with the serpent in Gen. 3:14, God goes on to make in v. 15 what has long been considered to be the first recorded announcement of the Gospel. Still addressing the serpent, He proclaims:


"And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel" (KJV).


A key word in this passage is the Hebrew word for "seed". It is a collective singular word, a word like "team" or "church" that is singular but refers to a group of people. It is also masculine in gender. These features of the word "seed" open up the possibility that this word could stand simultaneously for Eve's descendants in general and for a special male individual who represents that group in particular.


Kaiser3 points out two considerations that lend support to such an interpretation of the word "seed." The first is the grammatical point that the word for "heel" in Gen. 3:15 has a singular suffix, indicating that this word refers to the heel of one individual.


The second is the historical point that the dual character of the word "seed" has been recognized for over 2000 years. We know, of course, that the early Church saw it this way. (See Gal. 3:16, which refers to the same word in Gen. 22:18.) There is also evidence that the translators of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures which dates from the second or third century B.C., viewed Gen. 3:15 as a Messianic reference.4 In the Septuagint, the word for "seed" is the neuter word sperma, but a masculine pronoun is used for "his" in "his heel." Since the translators of the Septuagint were generally careful about Greek gender agreement, their use of the masculine pronoun seems to reflect a Messianic understanding of this verse.


If we accept the venerable tradition that the "seed" of Eve has both collective and individual connotations, then the implications of Gen. 3:15 are far-reaching indeed. In its broadest sense, this verse gives a thumbnail sketch of all of human history. The "enmity" between Eve's seed and "the serpent's seed" can be seen to encompass a battle between good and evil that has been waged throughout history. For example, the conflicts between Moses and Pharaoh, David and Goliath, and Elijah and the prophets of Baal, along with the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness and our daily struggles against sin, are all parts of this momentous battle. Victory in the battle is accomplished by the particular male descendant of Eve who is to "bruise" (or as the NIV has it, "crush") the head of the serpent.


Christians have always seen the fulfillment of the last part of Gen. 3:15 in Jesus Christ, whose atoning sacrifice, resurrection, and future return bring about the utter defeat of Satan. Paul refers to the final fulfillment of this prophecy when he writes in Rom. 16:20, "And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly."


Note that in the preceding paragraphs, I have described the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15 as a process that began in Eve's time and has continued, as God works out His plan in each generation, through the first coming of Jesus and onward to the time of His second coming. Kaiser stresses that many of the Messianic prophecies are carried out as a process over a continuum of time, rather than as simply one or two discrete events at isolated moments. When we think about it, such a model of prophetic fulfillment is consistent with the way in which God acts in history. We have a God who is always with us, not a God who makes occasional appearances but ignores us most of the time. We fight today against self, Satan, and society, but our Messiah has given us the victory, He is with us today, and He will return to put away Satan forever.


Tabernacling with Shem: Genesis 9:27

As the centuries passed, mankind strayed further and further away from God, until God sent the Flood in judgment and started over again with the family of Noah. Here was another of the lowest points in history. Although it would have been a great relief for Noah and his family to walk again on dry land after the Deluge, it must have also been difficult for them to face the scene of devastation and loneliness that awaited them. Perhaps the magnitude of their task partially explains the drunken episode recorded in Gen. 9:21-23. At any rate, this incident is the backdrop for the next great announcement of the Gospel, which is found in Noah's blessing on his son Shem in Gen. 9:26-27:


"And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant."


I will not speculate here on the exact details of the sin of Noah's son Ham, or on the implications of Noah's curse on Ham's son Canaan. Suffice it to say that there is absolutely no foundation in these verses for any justification of slavery or racism.5 The key part of this passage for the present discussion is verse 27.


Historically, there have been two opinions on the identity of "he" in the clause, "he shall dwell in the tents of Shem." Some, like the translators of the NIV, are of the opinion that "he" refers to Japheth; while others, following Philo, Maimonides, and Rashi, believe that "he" is God. Kaiser belongs to the latter group, and he gives several persuasive arguments for his position. First, it is generally true in Hebrew that the subject of the previous clause (in this case, "God") will carry over to the following one if no other subject is interjected. Second, understanding "he" to be God gives verses 25-27 a very pleasing literary structure, with v. 25 introducing the curse on Canaan, v. 26 stating a blessing on Shem along with the curse on Canaan, and v. 27 blessing Japheth and Shem and repeating the curse on Canaan.


Third, it is difficult to find a satisfactory meaning for the idea of Japheth dwelling in the tents of Shem. The interpretations that have been suggested are unfavorable to either Shem or Japheth. However, Shem and Japheth together covered the nakedness of their father (v. 23), so one would expect that Noah would be predicting unmixed blessings for both of them.


Finally, v. 26 refers to God as "the Lord God of Shem," the first time in the Bible that God is designated as the God of a particular person. This phrase implies a special relationship between Shem and God, which is consistent with the idea of God's dwelling in the tents of Shem.


If "he" in Gen. 9:27 does refer to God, then this verse is nothing less than the first announcement of one of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity-the Incarnation. (Further discussion of this doctrine and its intimate connection with the Feast of Tabernacles can be found elsewhere in this issue.) As was the case with Gen. 3:15, we can trace the fulfillment of Gen. 9:27 as a process through history. When the Israelites, descendants of Shem, wandered in the wilderness, God "camped" with them. His presence was evidenced by a pillar of cloud in the daytime and a pillar of fire at night (Ex. 13:21). As God said in Num. 35:34, "I the Lord dwell among the children of Israel." Later, at the dedication of Solomon's temple, "the glory of the Lord filled the house" (2 Chron. 7:1). God had again come to "dwell in the tents of Shem."


The prophecy of Genesis 9:27 points ultimately to Jesus Christ, who "was made flesh, and dwelt among us"(John 1:14). Today He dwells in us through His Spirit (John 14:23; 2 Cor. 6:16), and one day He will return to dwell with us forever (Rev. 21:3). When we reach the lowest points in our lives and have to start over again, we can remember the promise God gave us through Noah.


A Blessing to All Nations: Gen. 12:1-3, etc.

As the earth began to be repopulated, the people hoped to gain unity and strength, apart from God, through the building of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:4). Once more, God intervened to save humankind from itself, this time by scattering the people and confusing their language (v. 7-8).


Following this third time of judgment for sin, God again did not leave the world without hope. He proceeded to call out Abram, a descendant of Shem, for a special purpose. God's initial words to Abram are recorded in Gen. 12:1-3:


"Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed."


God repeated His promise several times to Abram (Gen. 13:14-18; 15:4-5, 13-18; 17:1-8; 18:17-19; 22:15-18), and later to Isaac (26:4, 23-24) and Jacob (28:14-15; 35:9-12). Part of the promise involved physical blessings, including prosperity, many descendants, and possession of the Promised Land. These blessings are reflected in the change of Abram's name to Abraham, meaning "father of many nations." I will not discuss the material aspects of the promise in this article, except to express my confidence that their ultimate fulfillment will be realized during the millennial reign of the Messiah.


Here I will focus on the last phrase in the Gen. 12:1-3: "... in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed." This part of the promise is repeated in Gen. 22:18 with the words, "And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed...." We have already discussed the connotations of the word "seed," which refers simultaneously to Abraham's descendants as a group and to a particular descendant who represents the group.


As Paul mentions in Gal. 3:8, the Gospel is preached through this promise. By working through the family of Abraham, God did not intend to restrict His blessings to that particular family. All nations would be blessed through Abraham's seed, especially through the special descendant identified by Paul in Gal. 3:16 as Jesus Christ. Christ's death, resurrection, and return are a blessing for all mankind. Furthermore, the blessing is not, and never has been, the product of human efforts like the building of the Tower of Babel. On the contrary, it was and is entirely a gift of God's grace.


When we ponder God's words to Abraham in Gen. 12:2 ("... and thou shalt be a blessing") we can also see in God's promise a collective role and responsibility for Abraham's children. Indeed, the promise contains the roots of the Great Commission.


This evangelistic aspect of Abraham's calling is well expressed in an ancient Jewish midrash on Gen. 12:1-3.6 This midrash compares Abram, in his home city of Ur, to a bottle of fragrant perfume sealed with a stopper and hidden in one corner of a house. With the stopper in place, no one can enjoy the beautiful scent of the perfume. But when one opens the bottle and carries the perfume from room to room, the fragrance spreads throughout the house. Similarly, as long as Abram stayed at home, only a few would find out from him the truth of the one Creator God. However, once he left his homeland and became a wanderer, as God instructed in Gen. 12:1, that truth would become known over a much broader area.


The responsibility that accompanies the promise is described in God's instruction to Israel, "And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation"(Ex. 19:6). Today, as "Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise"(Gal. 3:29), we as Christians carry on that responsibility.



At three of the most dismal junctures in early human history, times of God's judgment on our first ancestors, God followed judgment with a message of hope. That hope rests especially in a male descendant of Eve, Shem, and Abraham, who would also somehow be God Himself dwelling with us. The special "seed" would defeat the serpent and bring blessing to all nations as a gift from God. Collectively, Abraham's offspring, who today also include those "grafted in" to the olive tree of Israel (Rom. 11), would play a role in helping to spread this blessing.


The first few Messianic prophecies in the Bible-with, admittedly, some hindsight and help from the rest of God's revelation-contain an amazing amount of information and inspiration, vividly demonstrating the unity and continuity of God's message and plan. In our greatest times of trouble, we can rely on the Gospel, which has truly been preached "from the foundation of the world"(Rev. 13:8).


1For more on  Dr. Kaiser, see his website.

2J. Barton Payne, Encyclopedia of Biblcial Prophecy, Harper and Row, New York, 1973.

3The Messiah in the Old Testament, pp. 39-40.

4See R.A. Martin, "The Earliest Messianic Interpretation of Gen. 3:15," Journal of Biblical Literature 84 (1965), pp. 425-427.

5Kaiser gives a good discussion of Gen.9:24-25 in Hard Sayings of the Bible, InterVarsity Press, 1996, pp.116-118.

6See Chaim Pearl's book, Theology in Rabbinic Stories, Hendrickson, 1997.

Issue 2



File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.66.
On 24 Dec 2005, 20:56.