In Fulfillment of the Scriptures

The apostle Peter claims that the events of Pentecost fulfill the words of the Old Testament prophet Joel.

This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.

In fact, the New Testament frequently affirms that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection fulfill the scriptures of the Old Testament. There are many more indirect allusions to the Old Testament in the New, by the way, than there are direct statements like “according to the scriptures” and “to fulfill what was written.” Those kinds of statements are common enough. To eyes familiar with the Old Testament, the New Testament is brimming with affirmations that Jesus and his church fulfill what was written hundreds of years previously.

Proof of the Gospel

There are some Christians who see these fulfillments of scripture as objective proof that Jesus is the messiah and that the events of the New Testament are true. Yet contemporary unbelievers scoff at these “fulfillments” and even many Christians their heads at this. Some of the New Testament’s connections between New Testament events and Old Testament writings seem very tenuous to modern ears. Most of them can only be affirmed in retrospect even by people of faith. It’s not as if the Old Testament draws such a clear picture of Jesus that only an idiot could miss seeing his life in its pages.

Did Joel think of a small group of people miraculously speaking foreign languages? Would his original audience have recognized Pentecost as the event he was writing about?

The New Testament authors did offer their insights as a form of proof to their contemporaries in what is often called “Second Temple Judaism.” Typology and allegory, for example, were common approaches to using the Biblical texts. The New Testament’s use of the Old Testament is meant to be persuasive within the context of ancient Jewish rhetoric. For those of us who don’t live in that world, the “proof” is less than convincing.

God Fulfills His Promises

What do I see, then, in the Old Testament’s frequent affirmation that events in the New Testament fulfill Old Testament prophecy? I see these statements as an affirmation of faith in a God that fulfills his promises. The New Testament authors didn’t see Jesus in isolation, but understood him as the culmination of God’s actions in history, divinely portrayed in the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings of Scripture. Many of what Christians call “historical writings,” the Jewish scriptures identify as “prophets.” All of the writings of the Old Testament are a kind of promise, an extension of the covenant promises made through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses.

God fulfills his promises. There is a Christian theology that says, “If I can identify a promise of God in scripture, I can claim it and God, to honor his own name, will fulfill it.” There are a few problems with such an approach.

First, Christians tend to claim these promises in rather petty and individualistic ways. If all of scripture constitutes God’s promise, then it’s clear that the overarching promise has to do with the redemption of all creation and not just my own personal well-being or happiness. There are those who read John 16:23, “my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name,” and turn God into something like a magical genie who provides what my twisted heart desires. This dishonors God.

Second, there is the question of applying the promise. There is a pastor now who is “standing on the promises” by praying imprecatory prayers for the death of those he sees as God’s political enemies. Is this indeed how God intends the promise to be applied? Even with an infallible promise and an infallible promiser, the problem remains of the all-too-fallible recipient. My understanding is limited; worse, my will is corrupt. It is far too easy to mistake my own thoughts, desires and emotions for the will of God.

Finally, and as we have noted, how God fulfills his promises is not obvious in advance. Before it happened, it was not obvious to anyone that Isaiah 7:14 had anything to do with the birth of the messiah. This is only apparent to eyes of faith, and only in retrospect.

The New Testament’s claim that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection fulfill the scriptures is essentially a statement of faith.  Jesus did not appear in history as a de novo act of God. The early church believed – as do I – that the life of Jesus brought to a climax the particular story of Abraham and his descendants. If one believes that God superintended the writing of that story in the community’s holy book, it is easy then also to believe that one can see the life of Jesus presaged throughout its pages.

God Can Be Trusted

God fulfills his promises, yet it is not always obvious in advance how God will fulfill his promises. The attitude that we should take toward God, then, is one of trust and not one of demand.

The life of Jesus illustrates this perfectly in the temptation narrative. Satan tempts Jesus with the promise of Psalm 91:

For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
Psalm 91:11-12

Satan tempted Jesus to name it and claim it. Jesus rejects this kind of approach. Ultimately, this temptation had more to do with Jesus’ crucifixion than it did with jumping off towers. Can a God who makes the promises of Psalm 91 be trusted all the way to the cross? Can God keep the promise of Psalm 91 for one who is crucified? Jesus believed the Father’s promise enough to surrender his life. What Jesus did not do, however, was demand that Father fulfill the promise in any certain way. Jesus simply trusted the Father to keep his promises, even when it looked impossible for those promises to be true.

Paul captures this kind of faith in the great words of Romans 8:35-38:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

God keeps his promises, even when it looks impossible for him to do so. The Old Testament scriptures are filled with examples of God’s faithfulness to his promises in impossible circumstances. Eyes of faith see God fulfilling the overarching promise of scriptures in the life of Jesus. Mature faith in God’s promises leads us to trust in the Lord, not to make demands on him.