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Home » Controversy Series » Part 2d: What are the Terms? Fulfillment

Part 2d: What are the Terms? Fulfillment

Fulfillment. The idea of fulfillment traces back to the OT, where it conveys the end of a period of time during which something was expected, such as the completion of a pregnancy when a child is born (Gen 25:24) or the culmination of a contractual obligation when a wife is given (Gen 29:21). Fulfillment also marks the terminus of one’s life with the expectation of rest (2 Sam 7:12). The long anticipated ‘rest’ of death brings a far greater satisfaction than the days of toil and sweat (Lk 23:43; Phil 1:23). Finally, fulfillment is used to describe the coming to pass of God’s promises and making full His predictive word, such as the completion of the Temple by Solomon (1 Ki 8:20) or the return of the Jews to Jerusalem after the completion of their punishment (2 Chr 36:21; Ez 1:1). A promise or prophecy from God plants the seed of expectancy and hope; and those of faith will witness the realization of it in history, whether dead or alive (Lk 24:25-27; Jn 8:56; Heb 11:13-16).

The language of fulfillment is present even at the completion of the creation week. “Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished” (Gen 2:1).[i] God’s will in creating all that He created was fulfilled.[ii] As Jeremiah stated, “The Lord has done what He purposed; He has fulfilled His word Which He commanded in days of old” (Lam 2:17). Immediately after the fall of Adam, God’s promise of the Seed of a woman who will defeat the serpent initiates the hopes and expectations that the curse will be undone and peace will be restored. Because God is true to His word we can expect that He will surely accomplish what He has designed. And the final prophets to Israel assured them that the hopes of old were soon to be accomplished through the “Desire of all Nations”, the “Lowly King” and the “Sun of Righteousness” (Hag 2:7; Zech 9:10; Mal 4:1-6).  At the close of the OT, the Jews were still awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promise of the Messiah and the new covenant (Jer 31:31). “The new covenant in Christ, then, is far better because it fulfills the promises made in Jeremiah…”[iii]

Even though the first century Gospels and Epistles present Jesus as the fulfillment of OT Scriptures, the messianic expectations of the Jews was anything but a consensus. That being said, “Significant numbers of Jews… embraced hopes that God would ultimately intervene to judge, redeem, and rule the world… through some kind of eschatological agent, a messiah.”[iv] General beliefs appear to center on three characteristics: 1) the ideal ruler would be related to the house of David, 2) enemies of Israel would be defeated with the resurgence of nationalistic Israel, and 3) the kingdom of God would encompass the earth in a period of peace and prosperity. Edersheim affirms “that the main postulates of the New Testament concerning the Messiah are fully supported by rabbinic statements.”[v] He compiled a list of 456 verses and 558 commentary references to those verses outlining the wealth of Jewish thought regarding the forthcoming Messiah. Referring to the expectation of a superhuman Messiah, Edersheim concluded that the teachings within the synagogue were ultimately the door for Jewish believers to accept the divine nature of Jesus Christ. “And once that point reached, the mind, looking back through the teaching of the Synagogue, would, with increasing clearness, perceive that, however ill-understood in the past, this had been all along the sum of the whole Old Testament.”[vi]

In the NT, fulfillment is immediately and profoundly attributed to the first advent of Jesus Christ (Matt 1:22; Mk 1:15; Lk 1:1). “One does not have to read far in the New Testament Scriptures to discover the language of fulfillment.”[vii] The OT Scriptures that spoke of Him through prophecy and type, gave the Jewish people reason to expect that God would do what He had purposed through the chosen seed of Adam (Gen 3:15). “The word fulfill includes more than confirmation, since, when taken together with the total context, it implies that a later event brings to realization something that was anticipated or foreshadowed in earlier Scripture.”[viii] From the Greek πληρόω (plerōo)—which commonly means to fill up to the brim (Matt 13:48), to make complete (Acts 19:21), or to execute the duties of an office (Acts 12:25)—“fulfill” is used in the Gospels to declare the fulfillment of OT prophecies by Jesus of Nazareth in His incarnation and birth (Matt 1:22; Jn 5:39; Act 18:28), His escape to and return from Egypt (Matt 2:13-18), His baptism by John (Matt 3:15), His healing ministry (Matt 8:17), His teaching ministry (Matt 13:10-17, 35), the events of his death (Matt 26:52-56; 27:9, 35; Jn 19:24, 28, 36; Acts 3:18; 3:29), resurrection (Acts 13:33; Rom 1:1-4; 1 Cor 15:3-4), and ascension (Eph 4:8-10).

Jesus claimed to fulfill “all righteousness” through the baptism of John (Matt 3:15). “His identification with them [sinful Israelites] here anticipates His complete identification with sinners when He bears their sins on the cross.”[ix] At the beginning of His ministry, He asserted the present fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophetic word (Isa 61:1-3): “Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). “Jesus’ table fellowship with the outcasts was not accidental . . . He did so precisely because he consciously sought to fulfill such Old Testament prophecies as Isaiah 61:1-2.”[x] Additionally, Jesus claimed that He is the one who will completely fulfill the expectations of the law and the prophets (Matt 5:17). “Jesus does not conceive of his life and ministry in terms of opposition to the Old Testament, but in terms of bringing to fruition that toward which it points.”[xi] Lastly, prior to His ascension, Jesus reiterated that “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (Lk 24:44). To see Jesus is to see the fulfillment of every expectation of God’s good will toward His creation in what He has done and will do.

By the outset of His ministry, the expectations of Scripture were already fulfilled, were being fulfilled, and would continue to be fulfilled in His person, His life, His teachings, and His return in glory. He completely fills up to full measure and brings to complete realization all that was written before in the histories, poetry, prophecies, and laws of Israel. “[Jesus] borrows freely from various OT passages to prove that expectations found throughout the OT are fulfilled in his work.”[xii]

Matthew systematically presents Jesus as fulfilling the expectations of Scripture with direct and indirect prophetic utterances, historical references, correspondences and symbolism. Consequently, fulfillment must be the principal consideration in our analysis of the NT use of OT Scriptures, and it is best understood taking place in two phases. 1) Since the NT describes fulfillment taking place throughout Christ’s first advent, we must acknowledge the progressive unfolding of it in the context of Judaism under the law. “Jesus simply used an illustration [of sacrifices at the temple] that spoke to his contemporaries since he ministered in the period in which the Mosaic law was still in force.”[xiii] Jesus did not come to surgically alter the body of legal duties contained in the Mosaic covenant for the sake of bringing in Gentiles. His mission was more profound and far-reaching than that, in that He presented himself to Israel as the ultimate interpreter and actual substance of the Holy Scriptures. 2) Following His ascension, there is a transitional understanding of fulfillment in the context of the church which anticipates His second advent. “Jesus’ authoritative teaching anticipates the change, which does not actually come until the Resurrection.”[xiv] Thus, the consequences of fulfillment for the church are mapped out primarily by Paul who begins his epistles with truths about the person of Jesus Christ and ends them with a practical ethos for the church. Hence, the idea that specific laws are abrogated is a practical consequence of understanding the fulfillment of the law and the prophets by Jesus of Nazareth. “We clearly have an instance [in Mark’s gospel about unclean foods], then, in which the newness introduced by Jesus leads to the abolition of laws found in the Old Testament.”[xv] See Abrogation.

Furthermore, fulfillment of our redemption is described as an “all ready-not yet” state. From the Reformed perspective, the first advent of Christ marks the “inauguration” of fulfillment. “The times in which we now live are the times of fulfilment, the times which mark out the beginning of the end of history, the times in which Christ has begun to establish and ultimately will fully usher in the glorious future of promise.”[xvi] As we live in the times awaiting the final consummation, the implications of the fulfillment of Mosaic laws continues to be the subject of discussion in eschatology and ethics. One such line of thinking with respect to the Sabbath is the claim that the Sabbath principle of resting one day in seven is still obligatory until the final state of rest is attained. These Sabbatarians acknowledge that the Sabbath is a fulfilled type, but it is only fulfilled in an inaugurated state. “While the present order of creation continues, and until the eschatological tension is finally resolved, the creation ordinance of the sabbath rest remains in effect.”[xvii]This tenet is pure nonsense, because several Mosaic laws typified the complete state of redemptive rest that will not be bodily realized until the consummation of all things; and these laws are no longer considered obligatory for the church. The Year of Jubilee—an intensification of the Sabbatic Year and the Sabbath itself—is a prime example of a fulfilled typical law in an already-not yet state. Fairbairn, the father of typology, acknowledges this eschatological tension with the Year of Jubilee. “A presage and earnest of its complete fulfillment was given in the work of Christ, when at the very outset He declared that He was anointed to preach good tidings to the poor…”[xviii] While all the conditions continue to exist that made the Jubilee a thing Israel should hope for, Fairbairn proposes no continuing obligation to this law. Regarding the Sabbatic Year, he states that the “graces of a pious, charitable, and beneficent life—these things conveyed to the Israelites, and they convey still to the Church of God,” yet he affirms that the outward ordinance has ceased.”[xix] Somehow, Christ’s fulfillment of these laws, by providing redemptive rest through His blood on the cross, invalidated the greatest legal visions of eschatological rest, peace, and charity, but it did nothing to the weekly Sabbath. The inconsistency is befuddling.

The risen Lord Jesus said He came to fulfill all things (Lk 24:44). “For the substance of those things which the ceremonies anciently prefigured is now presented before our eyes in Christ, inasmuch as he contains in himself everything that they marked out as future.”[xx]


[i] TDNT, πληρόω; “To complete… it means to finish” p.297
[ii] TDNT, πληρόω; “God fulfills His Word by fully actualising it” p.295
[iii] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology, p. 521. 
[iv] Pomykala, Kenneth E. “Messianism” in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, p. 939. [v] Edersheim, Alfred, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, p. 116.
[vi] Edersheim, Alfred, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, p. 126.
[vii] Venema, Cornelius P. The Promise of the Future. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000, p. 25.
[viii] Poythress, Vern S. The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, p. 365.
[ix] Poythress, Vern S. The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, p. 253.
[x] Stein, Robert H. Jesus the Messiah, p. 127.
[xi] Carson, D. A. The Sermon on the Mount: An Evangelical Exposition of Matthew 5-7 (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1978), p. 37.
[xii] Goppelt, Leonhard. Typos, p. 69.
[xiii] Schreiner, Thomas R. 40 Questions about Chistians and Biblical Law, p. 162.
[xiv] Carson, D. A. “Jesus and the Sabbath in the Four Gospels” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, D. A. Carson, ed., p. 79.
[xv] Schreiner, Thomas R. 40 Questions about Chistians and Biblical Law, p. 162.
[xvi] Venema, Cornelius P. The Promise of the Future. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000, p. 27.
[xvii] Chamblin, Knox. “The Law of Moses and the Law of Christ” in Continuity and Discontinuity, p. 196. This is repeated by G. K. Beale in A New Testament Biblical Theology, p. 798.
[xviii] Fairbairn, Patrick. Typology of Scripture, p. 404.
[xix] Fairbairn, Patrick. Typology of Scripture, p. 403.
[xx] Calvin, Commentaries, Vol 21, Col 2:16, p. 192.


1 Comment

  1. Manfred says:

    “Somehow, Christ’s fulfillment of these laws, by providing redemptive rest through His blood on the cross, invalidated the greatest legal visions of eschatological rest, peace, and charity, but it did nothing to the weekly Sabbath. The inconsistency is befuddling.” Indeed, it is puzzling.

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