How should we go about finding the Messiah in the OT? I would agree with many others who have noted that it doesn’t take a class in hermeneutical gymnastics to see that the OT anticipated the coming of the Messiah. I would suggest that first and foremost we begin with what the text actually says and means historically. At a basic level this is called grammatical-historical hermeneutics. There is good evidence that even Jesus Himself understood the OT in a literal way. So with that I offer the following thoughts and observations:
In regards to the disciples we see that when they were called in John chapter 1 that Philip reported to Nathanael that “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote–Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (Jhn 1:45). The way they identified the Messiah was by the OT Scriptures. They knew the expectations of the Law and Prophets and recognized Jesus accordingly. This does not mean that they grasped all the implications of such belief which time would show they did not. Nevertheless, in John 6:69 Peter would later confess on their behalf that they had “believed and come to know” that Jesus was “the Holy One of God” (an allusion to Isaiah 54:5).
Later when Peter stood on Solomon’s Porch and preached his second sermon (Acts 3:11-26) he noted that many of them were ignorant (3:17). However he reminds them that “the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets that His Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled” (3:18). He tells them that even Moses spoke of a final prophet (3:22) and that “likewise all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and his successors onward, also announced these days” (3:24). It was not for a lack of information that many would not believe.
Stephen’s last sermon caused him to be murdered (Acts 7). The reason is that he retraces OT history and shows that the Jewish leadership and nation as a whole had hardened their hearts, closed their ears and resisted what the Spirit had so clearly taught in the Word through the prophets (7:51-52). In some ways this reminds us of what Jesus concluded in John 5:46-47 “For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?”
A key texts on this issue is Luke 24 where Jesus meets the two men on the road to Emmaus. They are having a conversation with the resurrected Jesus but fail to realize who he is. Luke alludes to the fact that it might be because they had unrealized expectations (cf. 24:21). When Jesus corrects them, calling them “foolish,” he says their lack of understanding is because they didn’t believe what the prophets had already spoken (24:25). So Jesus goes back through the OT and shows them that the Messiah had always been anticipated (24:27). Jesus did not need to insert Himself into the OT in order to show that the Messiah was there. Jesus did not chastise them for failing to spiritualize the OT but for not believing what it so clearly taught.
The NT begins with the assumption that the OT informs the message of the NT (Matt. 1:1). The failure on the part of the people to see the Messiah in the OT was not a hermeneutical problem. Their problem was not that they failed to spiritualize the OT but that they would not take it at face value. So it wasn’t for a lack of information that people refused to believe, it was hardness of heart against God’s testimony of Himself in the Scriptures. Time and again it is noted that they rejected the message of the OT and therefore they missed what the OT anticipated.
We see this today with modern Jews who have the same Hebrew Scriptures yet reject its message in favor of a liberation-styled interpretation whereby the Scripture is nothing more than the story of Israel’s struggle. However, if they really believed Moses they would believe in what Moses hoped for which has now been fulfilled in Jesus (John 5:46-47). I see a similar issue with some Protestants who reject the inerrancy of the OT and as a result have no basis for their many man-made conceptions of who Jesus is. This is why in many respects the Jesus of modern tradition looks different than the Jesus of Scripture. This is also why understanding the OT in its original context and preaching the OT is crucial in order for us to develop a foundational and robust understanding of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.