The connect-the-dots puzzle is one of those simple things that has been around for a very long time but still fascinates modern kids. The appeal is the way an apparently meaningless pattern of dots creates a picture when they are connected appropriately. That’s kind of the way that Biblical prophecy works too.
Now, let’s be clear: the kind of Biblical prophecies we’re talking about here are NOT the “shape up or else” warnings spoken against the bad behaviors of ancient people or their leaders. There are lots of those in the Old Testament, and it was VERY easy to connect those dots!
No, the kind of prophecies we want to focus on are those where God gives a glimpse of His future redemptive and restorative work. ‘Exhibit A’ is all those Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament. That these pointed to the coming of a powerful emissary of God was apparent to the Jews studying their scriptures for many hundreds of years before Christ, yet the fulfillment of those prophecies in the person of Jesus wasn’t recognized when it occurred. Why was that? Similarly, there have been many Christians who have searched the Old Testament for explicit prophecies that describe Jesus in unmistakable detail – and they come away disappointed. Nowhere will you find something like this: “Here’s a prophecy of a future individual called the Messiah. He’ll be the Son of God and this is the way you’ll recognize Him, and this is what He’s going to do …” Nope – don’t look for it, because it doesn’t exist!
Which brings us back to follow-the-dot puzzles. The thing about ‘dots’ is that they don’t tell us much in isolation. It’s kind of like that with the individual prophecies sprinkled throughout the Old Testament – here’s a hint that the coming figure will be the descendant of David and restore God’s kingdom, there’s a place where he’s described as returning in almighty power to judge the people of the earth, and in yet another place he’s being depicted as suffering and rejected, and so on. Taken by itself each such ‘dot’ may seem insignificant, and in fact, might be missed entirely. And some of those dots don’t seem to belong to the picture a reader expected to see (maybe they’re just ‘fly specks’ on the page?)
Another thing about connect-the-dots puzzles is that if you don’t connect the dots correctly, you don’t get the right picture. You can’t ignore some dots, or add new ones, or connect them in the wrong order. Unlike the puzzles we enjoyed as kids, Messianic prophecies aren’t provided with a numbered recipe for connecting them. So when the Jewish teachers read their scriptures it was clear that God was giving them a whole bunch of significant ‘dots’ that begged to be connected, but the pattern they saw didn’t match up with what they saw in Jesus of Nazareth (and that’s still a true statement). So how do we know that we are doing it correctly?
Both before and after His resurrection, Jesus spent time with his disciples ‘connecting the dots’ for them, showing that He matches the picture. A great deal of the New Testament is devoted, in fact, to showing how Old Testament prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus. But how (a skeptic will ask) can you be sure that this is truly a valid picture? Maybe Jesus and His followers connected the dots per their own purposes? How can we be sure that Jesus really IS the Messiah that God promised?
It’s legitimate to ask such questions. It’s essentially the same one that doubters challenged Jesus with, but He refused to get caught up in a ‘prove it to our satisfaction’ scenario. (Matthew 16:1-4) Instead, He cryptically stated that the proof would be ‘the sign of Jonah.’ Did that make sense to them? It’s hard to say, but when Jesus was delivered from death on the third day (like Jonah) that was the most dramatic possible demonstration that He was who He said He was! After all, predicting your return from the dead isn’t something that can be faked! And that’s why St. Paul, and all of us who follow Jesus, stake our faith on this one enormous dot! (1 Corinthians 15: 14-19). In Jesus’ resurrection, we have assurance that all the rest of the dots are connected in Him in accordance with God’s plan.