I just finished up N.T. Wright’s newest work, God and the Authority of Scripture: How to Read the Bible Today. I hope to soon post a book review, giving some overall thoughts on the book.
But, for now, I wanted to share one particular quote that I have really appreciated in the book, which makes two major points. The passage goes like this:
He [Jesus] was, in himself, the “true Israel,” formed by scripture, bringing the Kingdom to birth. When he spoke of the scripture needing to be fulfilled (e.g., Mark 14:49), he was not simply envisaging himself doing a few scattered and random acts which corresponded to various distant and detached prophetic sayings; he was thinking of the entire storyline at last coming to fruition, and of an entire world of hints and shadows now coming to plain statement and full light. This, I take it, is the deep meaning of sayings like Matthew 5:17-18, where Jesus insists that he has come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. (p42)
There are two points to note from these words above:
1) Christ is the true Israel.
This is absolutely important in understanding the full sweep and grand narrative of God’s revelation in Scripture. I believe one of the more dangerous approaches to Scripture (though there are many) is that of reading the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures as if Jesus, the Messiah, and the new covenant have not come. All Christians would claim to know and understand such. But too many people still read the Old Testament without the clarifying lens that Jesus and the new covenant have come.
What I mean is that plenty of people have built a theological system looking to argue that we are still awaiting the fulfilment of the promises of God to Israel in the Old Testament. But it is Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, who has come as the fulfilment of God’s promises and purposes and commands for Israel.
Therefore, this is a paramount statement to recognise from the full story in Scripture: Israel is not the fulfilment of God’s purposes for Israel. Jesus, the Messiah, is the fulfilment of God’s purposes for Israel.
It is Jesus and the establishing of the new covenant that brings forth the great goal of God in Israel, which are hinted at and foreshadowed in the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures. We no longer await a Jewish return from exile-dispersion to a plot of land in the middle-east. Christ has fulfilled this. We no longer await a temple to be built in Jerusalem. Christ is the new temple of God and now he has sent his Spirit to dwell in that new temple being established as a new Jerusalem around the earth. We no longer look to establish any kind of sacerdotal priesthood and sacrifices. Christ is the high priest and sacrifice, or which now we are a priesthood and offer ourselves as living sacrifices.
We must view the Old Testament – it’s story, it’s promises, it’s prophecies – as all being summed up in the life, death and resurrection of Israel’s Messiah. And now, all those in the Messiah, whether believing Jew or Gentile, are the new temple, the new priesthood, the new Jerusalem, the new Israel.
Messiah has done it!
And when the fulfilment comes, we are not called to hold on to that which pointed to the fulfilment. Rather we fully embrace and move forward in the fulfilment, which is Christ Jesus himself.
2) Fulfilment is not always tied to quoting a few verses, but rather fulfilling an entire story-account.
There are no doubt times when we are to quote specific passages to back up a theological point we desire to make. The writers of the New Testament did this themselves when showing that Jesus, God’s Messiah, had come to fulfil Israel’s role and story. Read the early chapters of Matthew’s Gospel and you will see this. So this is a good thing, not a bad thing.
But, it can be overdone and even miss the point of stepping back and viewing the larger picture of God’s redemptive and revelatory work described in Scripture.
Quoting a smattering verses here and there is not always the point. That is why I greatly appreciate this statement of Wright’s: ‘When he [Jesus] spoke of the scripture needing to be fulfilled (e.g., Mark 14:49), he was not simply envisaging himself doing a few scattered and random acts which corresponded to various distant and detached prophetic sayings; he was thinking of the entire storyline at last coming to fruition, and of an entire world of hints and shadows now coming to plain statement and full light.‘
There is a bigger story going on within the Scripture than merely quoting a verse or two….or more. Yes, when considering how Jesus is the fulfilment of God’s promises and purposes through Israel, I do believe we can quote verses to show such. I do not deny such and when I teach topics of biblical theology, I do such.
But the greater question is – What is the great narrative marching its way across Scripture and how do we understand this narrative being fulfilled?
So, with Paul sharing the evangel, or gospel, in 1 Cor 15:3-4, I like what Wright goes on to say about this:
When Paul says, quoting and earlier and widely used summary of the Christians message, “The Messiah died in accordance with the scriptures…and was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4), he does not mean that he and his friends can find one or two proof-texts to back up their claim, but rather that these events have come as the climax to the long and winding narrative of Israel’s scriptures. (p48)
Wright’s point, again, is that, to see in Jesus the fulfilment of Israel, this isn’t so much about quoting a verse here or there from the Old Testament to prove one’s point. For example, many have asked, ‘Where does the Old Testament teach that the Messiah would rise on the third day?’ To answer this, many have pointed to the somewhat obscure Hosea 6:1-2:
1 “Come, let us return to the LORD.
He has torn us to pieces
but he will heal us;
he has injured us
but he will bind up our wounds.
2 After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will restore us,
that we may live in his presence.
But to point to that one verse, and possibly that one verse alone, is to miss the grander narrative account of Scripture. As Wright remarks: ‘…these events [the death and resurrection of Jesus] have come as the climax to the long and winding narrative of Israel’s scriptures.’
And so, Christ’s fulfilment of God’s purposes in and promises to Israel are not simply found by quoting a handful of verses. It is a realisation that, through engaging with the sweeping story of Scripture, we see that Christ is the great fulfilment of all God’s great redemptive plans and purposes for all peoples in all the earth. It began in Abraham, moved forward into the people of Israel, but with Christ being the great capstone of God’s project for the whole cosmos.
These two points remain very important for me in understanding the grand story of Scripture: 1) Jesus, as Messiah, fulfils what Israel could not and cannot fulfil and 2) this fulfilment is not simply seen through quoting a few verses, but rather seeing the grand redemptive story of God accomplished ultimately in His Messiah.
I believe that, as we remember these two points, it will help us grasp the overall story of God’s redemptive work as found in the full Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.