In my post the other day about how “The righteous shall live by faith” is really an anti-imperial text, I made a comment in passing that the New Testament plays fast and loose in its appropriation of biblical texts. This took at least one reader by surprise, prompting her to ask me to explain what I meant by it.
It’s a good question, and because it touches on the big question of how we are to understand and apply our Scriptures, I thought it was worth some conscious reflection.
In the second verse of Paul’s letter to the Romans, he makes a big claim about this Gospel that connects to this question. It’s a claim that has been central to Christian faith and proclamation from the beginning, but never without controversy: this is the claim that the gospel was “promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures.” Christianity has always claimed that its gospel is rooted in the Scriptures, that, in the words of Martin Luther, it is “completely prophetical.” But it’s fair and important to ask ourselves what we mean when we say this.
For much of our history, Christians have used this idea to treat what we traditionally call the ‘Old Testament’, but which was for Jesus and the apostles simply the Scriptures, like a mountain that contains veins of gold within it. We have mined it for proof texts and predictions of Jesus. In doing this, we have got a lot of gold for ourselves, but have also undermined both its integrity as a text and the integrity of its witness to God’s activities in the world. I believe we have to repent of this attitude. Not only is it disrespectful to these Scriptures and the people who have loved, cherished, and preserved them over the millennia, but it also treats Jesus like the solution to a mathematical problem or riddle, instead of the radical manifestation of God in the world.
To find our way out of this problem, I think it’s helpful to look at it from both directions: we have to think about how biblical prophecy worked and then how that relates to what the experience of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection meant for his first followers.
Biblical prophecy is the bold public interpretation in word or deed of the nation’s circumstances as divine action. The prophets weren’t primarily interested in predicting the future, but in offering messages of hope or judgment in the moment to the political and religious establishment. And so there is almost always a contemporary fulfillment of biblical prophecy in view.
And yet, those contemporary fulfillments also rarely lived up to expectation: Hezekiah — the immediate fulfillment of the famous Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah — was a good king, but certainly did not reign over a kingdom of eternal peace. The Exile ended as the prophets promised, but rebuilding the nation was contentious and demoralizing work and Judah never regained her independence. The Temple was rebuilt, but never lived up to the memory of the old one. And so on.
And so, there were loose threads in the weave of the prophetic story. Or, to use another analogy, it was like the prophets provided cups, which immediate circumstances filled well enough, but never to the brim, leaving the faithful wanting more.
By the time of Jesus, the prophetic well had long ago run dry, and the oppressed people of God grasped on to the loose threads of the old prophecies as a source of hope. There was little agreement about what God was going to do, but a pervasive hope that God was once again going to do a new thing. (God had to, for God’s faithfulness was on the line.)
For the first followers of Jesus, in the immediate aftermath of his resurrection and ascension, Jesus was this new thing. For the Jewish community of that time, the resurrection of the dead was the ultimate sign of God’s vindication of the righteous in a world full of suffering and oppression. For this symbol to be manifested in one man in the middle of time was unexpected and required a lot of interpretive creativity among the first Christians.
At the same time, this resurrection was accompanied by the longed-for return of the Holy Spirit, but not just on prophets and kings as in the old days, but on the whole community of faith. Something big and new had happened because of this man Jesus. As faithful Jews they naturally turned to their Scriptures and, with their new Christ-coloured glasses, came to see that those old prophetic loose threads — and indeed the whole story of their people — wove together to tell the story of Jesus, and that in Jesus those old prophetic cups were filled to overflowing. (Indeed, the word we translate as ‘fulfill’ simply means ‘fill’ — I think a helpful way of looking at it is to translate it as “fills up”: Jesus “fulfills” the old prophecies by filling them up.)
It wasn’t that Jesus replaced the immediate fulfillment of the prophecies, but that he embodied, repeated, and brought them to completion. The theological word for this is ‘recapitulation’. And it explains many of the complicated and curious ways the New Testament claims Jesus ‘fulfilled’ the Scriptures. For the early Christians, Jesus embodied the whole story of Israel; just as all Israel came from Abraham, so is it all brought together in Jesus.
How does this work? Take the infamous statement in Matthew 2: They “went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son'” (vv. 14-15, citing Hosea 11.1). In Hosea, the line clearly refers to something that happened to the people of Israel in the past and not to some future messianic figure: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” There is no prediction to fulfill here, so if predictive fulfillment is the only way we have of understanding how Jesus relates to the prophets, Matthew’s claim is preposterous. But as recapitulation, it’s a beautiful expression of God’s faithfulness to God’s children: Israel and the infant Jesus both sought safety in Egypt and yet both needed to be lovingly called out from Egypt to return home, into the Land of Promise.
Or, take the Christian appropriation of the Suffering Servant oracle (Isa 52). In Jewish readings of this oracle, the servant refers to the people themselves, and so it stands as a powerful witness to the suffering of the Jewish people over the millennia. It’s an important reading of the text that is lost if we simply see the oracle as a prediction about Jesus. But if we instead think of it as Jesus embodying the suffering of God’s people throughout all of time (including today) — and thereby also embodying God’s entering into that suffering in solidarity with those who suffer — the two readings enrich one another. This interpretive movement allows for an important both-and instead of insisting on an either-or that robs the text of too much of its historical meaning and potential power.
And so, I think this is a helpful way of understanding how the Gospel relates to the words spoken by the prophets.
But, there’s something else about Luther’s turn of phrase, that the Gospel is “completely prophetical,” that I love. Yes, it looks behind, “in accordance with the Scriptures;” but it also looks forward, to our present participation in the future that is coming. There can be no triumphalism about how Jesus fulfilled the prophets when so many of their words still speak to the brokenness and suffering of our world. By claiming the prophets as our own, we must also claim the fuller, more challenging parts of their vision. We must claim their radical and broad call for justice and their expansive understanding of salvation, which is nothing less than our full communion and reconciliation with God, each other, and the created world.
That is our gift and our vocation as people of the book, who understand that our gospel was first proclaimed in the words of the prophets.
Here are a few questions for further reflection:
- Is the idea of fulfillment as recapitulation new for you? Is there something about it that challenges your understanding of the Bible? In what ways?
- The end of this post suggests that, as much as having a ‘prophetic’ Gospel is a gift, it is also a challenge. How does that idea make you feel?
- What are some concrete ways you can live out the prophetic ideals?