An Important Principle in Reading the Old Testament as it Relates to the New – Fulfillment

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We teach a lot more Old Testament to our children than to our adults. At least that is my experience. The Old Testament is so full of great stories that work well with the imagination of our kids. We don’t ever need to graduate out of the Old Testament. Instead we need to understand just how vitally important it is to our understanding of the New Testament. The New Testament makes this point very clear but our ears have not been well attuned to listen.

Another thing that makes this difficult is Jesus’ own point that he has fulfilled the Law. To some that means we don’t need to pay attention to something that is done and over. What we miss out on taking that perspective is that we fail to understand the beauty and power of the fulfillment process. You cannot understand fulfillment unless you understand what was fulfilled. We want the fulfillment without understanding what was behind it.

Take Abraham. I don’t at all remember being taught the necessity of God’s covenant with Abraham actually being fulfilled through Christ. Matthew’s Gospel deals with this directly but that wasn’t brought to my attention that I can recall. Abraham and Jesus didn’t seem to have much connection at all. Moses and Jesus had as much connection as you find in the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus basically undoing the 10 commandments to “fulfill” that. We weren’t taught Jesus in the role of Moses or Israel or the new Adam. Paul and the Gospels teach that but because we didn’t assume the connection points we didn’t find the connections. Instead we assumed disconnection and distinctness between the covenants so much so that the first was irrelevant to the second when the reality is the second means nothing without the first.

Let’s look at what Jesus actually said about the Law in Matthew 5:17,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.” (NRSV)

The word for abolish is kataluo. It’s primary meaning has to do with detaching something from something else. The example BDAG gives is destroying a building by detaching one stone from another. So it can mean and usually means to destroy something. Here BDAG categorizes this usage with the third definition of the word, “to put an end to.” The fourth definition is to “cease what one is doing, halt.”

So first we have Jesus saying he didn’t come to destroy or end or halt the law. Before we go any further, how does our teaching and practice on this jive with that? Jesus continues that instead he came to fulfill the law. This word means “to make full, fill” (BDAG on πληροω). BDAG tells us that in Matt 5:17 it can mean to “bring to full expression = show it forth in its true meaning.”

Jesus says that in himself he is bring the law to its fullest meaning. When you see Jesus you see the Law at its fullest. You see it for what it was intended to do and be. Jesus fills the purpose of the Law in himself. This does mean that in Christ the Law fulfills it purpose. This also means that if you truly want to understand Jesus you need to understand the Law. This is not to say the Law still functions as it did in Jesus’ day because the Law has been brought to its ultimate and fullest expression in Christ by the institution of a new and better covenant.

Once you start seeing all that Christ fulfilled, the New Testament become richer and richer. Once you put yourself in line with the people who were expecting the messiah rather than someone who has already received the messiah, it makes it easier to understand things from their perspective before they got the answers to their questions through Jesus.

Jesus fulfilled so many things. It helps for us to understand those things first in their immediate context and second through the lens of how Christ actually fuflilled those things in himself. For example, once you connect Jesus and Abraham (as Matthew and many others including Paul do) you begin to appreciate Genesis more but more than that you begin to appreciate a God who does not let his covenant promises fall to the wayside. He makes good on them. The promise to Abraham is not made good by the end of the Old Testament. Only through Christ do we see what God had in mind.

So dive into your Old Testament and begin listening and looking for those same themes to resonate through the writings of those who wrote the New Testament who, aside from Luke, grew up knowing only the Old Testament as their scriptures.

One Response

  1. Thank you. We usually pull a bait and switch on Mt 5.17. We simply make Jesus talk out of both sides of his mouth by making the word “fulfill” mean “abrogate” or do away. It is a very disingenuous reading.

    There is not a person on the planet that would apply that meaning of “fulfill” to, say, a husband or wife. So on their 15th anniversary some one says,

    “He/she has fulfilled her/his vows.”

    Not a single person would understand that to mean that NOW the husband or wife is no longer bound to those vows. What the term means is to be “true” to the vows. Jesus is being “true” to God’s torah.

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