Throughout the gospels we see such and such event happened to fulfil what was said by such and such a prophet. However, the idea of prophetic fulfilment is not so straightforward.
Jesus did not simply follow a set of how-to instructions left behind centuries before. Neither was it a proof text situation where he acted out a bucket list of improbable things thereby “proving” he was divine. It was also not a set of self-fulfilling prophecies that Jesus casually performed. The prophetic schema is too complex for that even though many of his actions were deliberate. Some accuse the early Church of cherry picking and generally misinterpreting the scriptures for their own theological and even political agenda. Even if you have a positive view of the New Testament the individual fulfilment passages often prove very challenging. So what does it mean for prophecy to be fulfilled? There is a larger question that looms over this of how the Old Testament functions in the new?
In Reading Backwards, Prof Richard Hays of Duke Divinity School provides an excellent study of how the gospels ingenuously use Israel’s scriptures. I greatly draw on his ideas of what he calls a “figural reading” of the text.
To fulfil something in classic New Testament fashion means to bring into action what God had promised beforehand he would do. This fulfilment was accompanied by signs or symbols of some sort, to remind people of what he had previously said and also to indicate that it was actually happening. Signs of prophetic fulfilment therefore resembled the original indicators. Yet, they were different because they were dealing with the real thing and not its representation. Representations remain as representations. They are never exactly the same as the real thing. For instance on maps, landmarks and locations are represented in a particular way. Once you reach your destination you expect to see what the map was pointing to. However, it would be absurd to think that the destination is photo realistically represented on the map. You don’t expect to see a coloured two dimensional Cartesian figure in real life!
Now if we take the Old Testament as a map leading to the New Testament it is dotted with various figures and symbols that point to real destinations. As we follow the map we check our surroundings to see if they correspond. We move to and fro between the real environment and its representation. We recognize what the map is pointing and also why it represents the landmark in that particular way. The map and the landscape shed light on each other. This is what Prof Hays calls reading backwards or a figural reading of the biblical texts. The Old Testament helps us understand the New Testament and the new conversely helps us appreciate the old.
What Jesus did grounded the signs and symbols in real time fulfilment. They were very much what was predicted but not in the way they had been imagined because prophecy serves as a sign post. A sign post never points to itself but it indicates there is something real out there to be seen if we follow it faithfully. Paul writes that eye has not seen, ear has not heard, neither has it entered the hearts of men what God has in store for his people (1 Corinthians 2:9-10.) This is why it takes God’s spirit to reveal what he has done, since no one understands God better than himself (1 Corinthians 2:11.) Prophetic signs and symbols, though they are true, are not the same as the real events they point to.
Second Temple scholars point out that there were several “Judaisms” in that period. Armed with the symbols and metaphors they had seen in the scriptures and their national history, they engaged in the lively exercise of theological imagination. This resulted in different visions of what it meant to be God’s chosen people. Early Christianity was essentially one of the Judaisms, a messianic restoration movement following Jesus of Nazareth. The uniformity of early Christian teachings on issues like the resurrection, compared to the wide spectrum of Jewish beliefs at that time, points to the fact they strongly believed Israel’s scriptures had been decisively fulfilled in Jesus.
If we understand the scriptures overall as the story of God and his actions in the world, it comes as no surprise that Holy Writ is filled with figurative language. Many sincere Christians struggle with this challenge. Since we do not know how to figurally read the text we tend to unduly exchange the metaphorical for the literal and vice versa. This often has disastrous consequences for both doctrine and practice.
We need to abandon the old paradigms and take up the exciting task of understanding the scriptures on its own terms. The relative brevity of the New Testament and its overall agenda to help us think “Christianly” means there are many gems of prophetic fulfilment it has left us to discover and fulfil ourselves. Like the Messiah we need to be thoroughly cognizant of our scriptural vocation so that through the power of the Spirit we can fulfil the Kingdom on earth.
Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’ – Hebrews 10:7 ESV