We recently celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ. This year I found myself imagining what it would have been like to live in Nazareth when Jesus did and to see Him grow up. Would I have recognized Him as the Christ, the Messiah? I find this a troubling question, considering that when God became man and lived among us as Jesus only a few of those who met Him recognized Him for what He was—the Creator God in human form.

In the past, I have always facilely answered the question affirmatively, “Yes, I would have recognized who Jesus was,” my confidence bolstered by my assuming that I would have been an avid student of the Old Testament. Using my knowledge of the clues God had sprinkled throughout the Old Testament, surely I would have been able to identify the Messiah. In more recent years, however, the following observation has sobered me: familiarity with the Bible did not necessarily improve one’s ability to recognize the Christ. The Pharisees were devoted students of the Old Testament. They were familiar with its many references to and prophecies about the coming Messiah. They were expecting His advent. Nevertheless, they failed to identify Him when He was in their midst. Why?

First of all, we must recognize that while there are many prophecies in the Old Testament about the coming of the Messiah, they are not entirely clear. Many are presented in such a way that one could have reasonably concluded that the Messiah would be a charismatic political and military leader who would lead the people of Israel into victory over their enemies and establish a time of peace. Jesus did not fit this description. He came as the son of a poor carpenter. Rather than appearing as a larger-than-life leader, He appeared as an everyman. In this sense, the prophecies were misleading. Anyone looking to the prophecies for a detailed picture of the coming Messiah and all the unique circumstances and events in His life was focused on the wrong thing.

The prophecies did present a few specific details about which one could be confident. Clearly, for example, the Messiah would be of the tribe of Judah through David and Zerubbabul (Haggai 2:23). Clearly, the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Clearly, the Messiah would be somehow associated with the region of Galilee (Isaiah 9:1-2). The Old Testament also includes many other tantalizing details, but most are hard to understand with the same confidence. For example, Daniel specifies the time of the Messiah’s coming: “seven weeks and sixty-two weeks” after the issuing of a decree to rebuild Jerusalem (Daniel 9:25). The reference to the decree is specific and clear—Cyrus, king of Persia, issued the decree in 538 BC—but the length of time from then to the coming of the Messiah is expressed in less-than-straightforward terms. One cannot blame the Jews for not knowing exactly when to expect the Messiah.

Several psalms also give details about the life and death of the coming Messiah, but they are not truly “predictive.” For example, on the cross Jesus quotes the first words of Psalm 22, which King David wrote to express his suffering in the face of detractors who mocked him for trusting God. David describes his anguish in very graphic and poetic terms:

For dogs have surrounded me;

A band of evildoers has encompassed me;

They pierced my hands and my feet.

I can count all my bones.

They look, they stare at me;

They divide my garments among them,

And for my clothing, they cast lots.

(Psalm 22:16-18)

I do not know the exact experience David is describing, but to the best of my knowledge he did not experience the literal reality of what he described. Rather, David is trying to describe an experience that was essentially internal anguish, and to convey this idea he chose to describe a situation in which he suffers physically at the hands of his detractors. He believes his suffering can best be understood by others if they visualize him surrounded by a mob that wants to torment him. The exact nature of the torment is not clear, but it involves having his hands and feet pierced, being naked such that his bones can be seen, and having his clothes divided among the tormentors. God inspired David to use these particular images because, although David was using them poetically, they became literally true in the life of Jesus. God did this in order to make abundantly clear that the kind of anguish that gave rise to David’s psalm was the very same kind of anguish Jesus suffered when He was nailed to the cross. Understood this way, the psalm was not predicting Jesus’ crucifixion—someone reading the psalm before Christ’s death could not have been expected to understand the kind of death He would experience—but after Christ’s death, one can look at the crucifixion and know that the kind of anguish David described in Psalm 22 is the kind of anguish Jesus experienced. Jesus literally experienced the poetic image that David used to describe his internal anguish. This same phenomenon is observable in other psalms and other passages that are often thought to be predictive. If I am correct, however, no one could use these psalms to predict the details of Jesus’ life.

Clearly, God did not choose to reveal in advance a large number of details about the advent of the Messiah so that people could easily identify Him. God could have described distinctive physical features to look for. The Messiah could have been marked with a certain color of eyes, configuration of moles on the skin, birthmark, or even a scar on the forehead. But He was not. In fact, Jesus’ physical appearance was not of any significance, and the Gospels do not record any details of it.

The Gospels do, however, constitute a portrait of Jesus, but it does not focus on His physical appearance. Rather, it focuses on his moral character. This emphasis is significant. God intended that the Messiah be recognizable, but not by superficial signs. Jesus was a portrait, in human flesh, of the transcendent God.

Imagine an artist painting a self-portrait. He could not convey in a single picture his entire being. A living, breathing person with a constant flow of thoughts and feelings cannot possibly be translated to a static, two-dimensional form rendered with paints on canvas. Inevitably, something will be lost in such a translation. Therefore, the artist must decide what is most important to preserve in the translation, and it makes sense that he would try to preserve that which is most essentially “him.” The artist must decide what is most significant or distinctive about him as a person and then create the portrait in such a way that this essence is communicated to the viewer.

Jesus was just such a self-portrait. God could not convey all of who He is in the form of a man; He had to be selective. He had to decide what is most essentially Him. God could have decided that His most fundamental quality is His power. Were that the case, He would have appeared in the form of a powerful human, able to do endless wonders. He could have decided that His most essential quality is intelligence, appearing as the most brilliant man who has ever lived. Instead God incarnated Himself in the form of a man with a perfectly righteous moral character. He apparently deemed His moral character to be His most fundamental and distinctive quality—the quality of which He is most proud.

In this sense, the Old Testament was full of clues for identifying the coming Messiah. While the Old Testament did not make clear that the Messiah would be God himself, it did reveal that the Messiah would be uniquely representative of the Creator God, and therefore He could be expected to embody the character of God Himself. The character of God is the predominant theme of the Old Testament. As God interacts with mankind—from the creation of Adam to the Babylonian exile—the pages of the Old Testament show God’s many actions and proclamations to give us insight into His character. From the Old Testament, one could create a moral picture of God that would include details about what He values and how He responds to the various acts and attitudes of men.

This helps explain why the Pharisees, who were students of the Old Testament, could have had the Messiah walking in their midst and not recognize Him. They had surveyed the Old Testament looking only for clues as to the superficial details of the Messiah’s coming and were therefore ill-prepared to identify Him when He came. It was as if the Messiah were in disguise; He did not appear as the charismatic leader the people expected. Anyone, however, who had studied the Old Testament in order to better understand God would have been able to recognize the Messiah. Most people initially responded to Jesus being the Messiah with incredulity; He simply did not look like Messiah material. But anyone who had a profound understanding of God’s character would have observed something strangely familiar when looking at Jesus; underneath the “disguise,” God’s unique and unmistakable character was visible. Such people would eventually come to recognize Jesus like a long-lost friend.

This observation should be a sobering warning when we think about the end times. Many books have sought to describe the end times on the basis of biblical prophecy; some have become extremely popular. Typically such books are the result of a diligent search for clues regarding the details of coming events. However, given the extent to which the Pharisees’ diligent search of the prophecies concerning the Messiah’s first coming misled them, we must consider the possibility that such a search of end-time prophecies could also be misleading. God acts in mysterious and unexpected ways. Just as the coming of Jesus happened in an unexpected way, the end of the world will probably take some unexpected twists and turns. We would be wise to keep a flexible mind as to how the various prophecies will be fulfilled. The end times may be very different from what is generally anticipated.

God has revealed many things to us regarding the last days, and we ought to use this revelation, but it would be unwise to focus exclusively on such details. We must balance such a study with an even more important project: we must work hard to gain a comprehensive and accurate understanding of the character and the values of God. No matter what events are associated with the end of the world, God will act in history in a way that is consistent with His character and values. If we have become intimately familiar with who He is, we will be able to recognize the work of His hands readily and we will not be mislead by unexpected twists and turns on the way to the end.

Jesus, after telling his disciples a parable “to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1-8), asks them this poignant question: “However, when the Son of Man [the Messiah] comes, will He find faith on the earth?” I suspect that faith will only be kept by those who have taken seriously their responsibility to become familiar with the nature and character of God. I pray that this will be true of us.