Hope and fulfilment in the gospels

men-greeting-sunBiblical eschatology is founded on three key assumptions. The first is that the God of Israel is the rightful ruler of the world (and not just of Israel alone), often described in terms of his kingship over the creation. The second is that, even though this is the situation in theory, in practice the world is not subject to his rule, but rather resists it and rebels against it. The third then flows from these first two: God’s authority will not, in the end, be frustrated, and his kingship will one day become a reality, and this will involve God’s intervention in the world in some form to establish his rule. Although the expression of this intervention changes, and the articulation of hope develops in different ways in the various parts of the Old Testament, the basic shape of these assumptions can be seen throughout. A key term in the gospels which expressed this sense of expectation is the phrase ‘the kingdom of God.’ This occurs nowhere in the canonical Old Testament (though does occur once in the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon 10.10), but the idea of God as king, first of Israel and secondly of the whole world, is found throughout.

It is hard to missing the all-pervading sense of anticipation and fulfillment in the gospels, not least in their opening chapters. Matthew’s very first words—‘the book of the generations of’ echoing the phrase in the Greek OT of Gen 5.1—hint at Jesus as beginning of a new humanity. The organization of the genealogy, into three selective groups of 14 generations each, points to the numerical value of David’s name in Hebrew (DVD making 14). Thus already Jesus represents both the renewal of creation and the renewal of covenant. Matthew continues with his ‘fulfil’ motif, not only the four occurrences within the nativity narrative (1.22, 2.15, 2.17, 2.23) but six further times, making 10 fulfilments in all (4.14, 8.17, 12.17, 13.35, 21.4, 27.19).

Mark is (characteristically) much briefer, but still manages to introduce the ministry of Jesus with a sense of multiple fulfillment:

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.

He is actually combining a quotation from Ex 23.20, where an angel (or ‘messenger’) guides the people through the desert to the promised land, with Mal 3.1, where the preparation is for the return of the Lord himself to his temple with a new covenant, and Is 40.3, the beginning of the second part of Isaiah announcing the return from exile now that her sins are paid for. Mark sees ‘the beginning’ of the good news in these multiple hopes and expectations, and Jesus fulfilling them all. Like the other Synoptics, Luke and Matthew, he records Jesus’ public ministry as commencing with the proclamation of the longed-for kingdom of God now that the ‘time is fulfilled’ (Mark 1.16).

Luke’s opening chapters are, like Matthew’s, saturated with the theme of fulfillment, not so much in the events of the narrative (which are rather mundane and homely compared with Matthew’s grand gestures) but in the responses of the participants. Mary rejoices in God, in close parallel to Samuel’s mother Hannah, since like her she has witnessed God’s gracious inversion, scattering the proud ‘in the imagination of their hearts’ (Luke 1.51) and exalting the lowly. This is the pattern of grace that has marked all his dealings with Israel, whom he chose not because of the nation’s greatness (Deut 7) but because of his faithful covenant promises to Abraham (Luke 1.54–55). Zechariah blesses God in praise because he has now come to fulfil the prophetic promise to set his people free from sin by means of a Davidic deliverer—free from fear of all who might oppress them so that true worship is restored (Luke 1.68–79). In the temple, Simeon sees in Jesus both the glory of Israel and revelation to all the nations of earth (Luke 2.32) and Anna anticipates the ‘redemption of Jerusalem’ (Luke 2.38).

John’s approach is entirely different. Perhaps because of its later date, it lacks any obvious sense of temporal fulfillment, but instead expresses this theologically and structurally. Jesus’ ministry and teaching is structured around the Jewish festivals (giving us the idea of Jesus’ ministry lasting up to three years, because of the three Passovers in 2.13, 6.4, 11.55) and both Jesus and John claim that Jesus’ body takes the place of a restored and purified temple. Whilst in the temple precincts, Jesus declares ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days…’ and John explains that ‘the temple he had spoken of was his body’ (John 2.19–21)—a claim recalled in the Synoptic accounts of Jesus’ trail and crucifixion (Matt 26.61, 27.40 and Mark 14.58, 15.29). And when Jesus promises that ‘streams of living water will flow from his [or the believer’s?] belly’ (John 7.38), John appears to see this fulfilled in the blood and water flowing from Jesus at his crucifixion (John 19.34). This makes most sense as a fulfillment of the eschatological promise of the water flowing from the restored temple in Ezekiel 47. In John, Jesus only mentions the kingdom of God on one occasion (John 3.3, 5), and instead makes the promise of ‘eternal life’ the focus of his good news—but this is a term less concerned with ‘everlasting life’, as is often thought, and instead should be read as ‘life of the age [to come]’. So John retains this sense of ‘fulfillment’, albeit in a revised form.

If Jesus is the fulfillment of Old Testament expectations, why do the New Testament writers still have a sense of expectation which continues to shape Christian theology? This is not a trivial question, since every part of the NT is emphatic that all God’s promises are fulfilled in Jesus. When Jesus teaches in the synagogue in Nazareth, Luke records him claiming (Luke 4.18–20) that the expectation of Isaiah 61.1–2 of the ‘year of the Lord’s favour’ is now fulfilled. When John the Baptist sends from prison to know if Jesus is ‘the one who was to come’, Jesus claims that he is by answering in similar terms (refs). Peter’s pivotal confession of Jesus recognizes him as the Anointed One (‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’) of God (Mark 8.29, Matt 16.16). Perhaps the most central aspect of Jesus’ fulfillment of OT hope comes in his resurrection. When he comes to the tomb of his friend Lazarus, Martha articulates this hope in universal resurrection and judgement: ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day’ (John 11.24). But Jesus claims that this ‘last day’ has now come, and resurrection life can be found in him. For any first century Jew, this would have been a puzzling proposal: the beginning of this new age of resurrection life could only be understood as bringing the old age to an end, and the resurrection of humanity was expected to be universal. But Jesus here claims that the life of the age to come breaks into the present age, rather then replacing it, and that his (sole) resurrection is an anticipation of the resurrection of all at some later date.

This sense of the fulfillment of eschatological hope is so strong that Matthew records the resurrection of others at the same time as the resurrection of Jesus (Matt 27.53), and Luke records the disciples as still expecting the ‘restoration of the kingdom to Israel’ (Acts 1.6). Yet it becomes clear that, whilst all the OT promises are fulfilled in Jesus, we do not yet see the completion of this fulfillment. In other words, eschatological hope in the NT consists of the surplus of hope, the difference between what we see already realized of the kingdom in Jesus, and what we do not yet see realized in the present age.

(This is an extract from a forthcoming Grove booklet on eschatology which I am just finishing.)

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4 thoughts on “Hope and fulfilment in the gospels”

  1. Do you think John, in asking the question of Jesus, is expecting a diferent sort of Kingdom?
    When the disciples ask their question of Jesus in Acts 1, he doesn’t say that’s the wrong question only that they are not to know God’s timing. How does that fit?


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