Fulfillment of the Scriptures: Commentaries and Preaching
Every text has its own context. Whoever reads a part of Scripture must keep the whole gospel in mind. There are three overarching realities that lend essential perspectives for our reading of the Gospels. Everything Jesus said and did during his life on earth stood in the light of the work of John the Baptist. All things were already foretold by the prophets.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.Matthew 5:17
What was still lacking in the Law and the prophets is found in Jesus. But how can we understand Him rightly if we do not see the Law and the Prophets, of which He is the completion, as the framework within which He wants to be known? From time to time, the Gospels give us quotations from the Old Testament; when they do, their intention is always to portray Jesus against the background of Moses and the prophets.
Israel has fallen short
In this regard, Stephen’s defence in Acts 7 is a good lesson. Stephen talks mainly about the Old Testament, but he does so to place Jesus in the right perspective. Jesus needed to come, because without Him the history of the fathers was imperfect and incomplete. The coming of Jesus was necessary because Israel had fallen short (see also Paul’s address in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch: Acts 13:16-41).
The letter to the Hebrews, warning its readers against letting go of the gospel, continually portrays Jesus as the completion of Israel, of the temple, the priestly ministry and the sacrifices. Hebrews adds nothing; it simply places it all in its proper light.
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.Hebrews 1:1, 2
Jesus is God’s last Word, but so often He is preached as though He is God’s first Word.
Let me give an example: more than once, Jesus and the Jewish leaders clashed about the Sabbath. This might create the impression that Jesus did not regard the precise observance of the Sabbath as especially important. And that is what His opponents accused him of.
In reality, however, the point at issue is not Jesus’ view of the Sabbath, but what He is doing on that day (John 5:16). Whenever He is openly attacked in this matter, He consistently shows that the real question is not their view of the Sabbath, but their view of Him as the Son of God. As the Son of God, He partook in the institution of this day of rest. He therefore has the right to use it for His own lifesaving purposes. Hence, on one occasion, he says: “So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28). This is what Jesus says, the man whose set custom was to honour the Sabbath by going to the synagogue (Luke 4:16). Jesus did not abolish the Sabbath command; He fulfilled it.
This certainly has something to teach Christians about the respect they must pay to the day of rest, the day set aside for the Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus did not come to make all days the same, or to disparage the day of rest. On the contrary: He came to fill the day of rest with His rest, set aside to remember Him. Our day of rest is the Lord’s Day, a day of rest for man and beast, a day of assembly, praise and prayer.
Honouring the Old Testament tradition
Jesus’ resistance to the customs and traditions of the Pharisees ought not to be interpreted as opposition to tradition as such. After all, Jesus tells the crowds to “...obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practise what they preach” Matthew 23:3. In His teaching, Jesus sets aside a number of commandments, such as the regulations for ceremonial cleansing (Mark 7:19), the laws concerning the sacrifices (after all, He has instituted the new sacrifice of His body and blood) and the law of the certificate of divorce. The fulfillment of these commends does not, however, bring the good law to an end. In Romans 13, Paul explicitly repeats several of the Ten Commandments. Our Saviour regarded the Old Testament as a source of wisdom, of good laws and rules. They have now reached fulfilment. In part, this fulfilment brings them to an end; in part, it gives them greater depth.
In short, we may not play off Jesus’ teaching against the Old Testament. We must always remain actively conscious of this background, and take it into account. Not for nothing does the apostles’ decision in Acts 15 observe that “...Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath” (v. 21). For Christians, too, this forms the background. It is only through the law and the prophets that we fully learn to understand their completion in Christ.
Through other eyes
I now come to what is actually the most important. Jesus’ words and miraculous works must be understood as the self-revelation of Him who came from above. He speaks the Word made known to Him by the Father, and He does the works of His Father. Whoever would follow Him must look upwards. Jesus heals everyone, He drives out demons, He raises the dead, He teaches perfectly. He is God among us. The Jews’ greatest problem was that while they flocked to Jesus, and carefully observed all that He did, they never wanted to see Him in the light of His origin. That brought about tension, and in the end led them to accuse Him of blasphemy. Even today, many Christians read the Gospels as the accounts of a wise man, a kind leader, a great healer. But they pay too little attention to Jesus’ claim that he is the Son of God. One example of how we ought to read the Gospels can be found in John 13. Here we see Jesus washing His disciples’ feet. Some readers consider this to be a wonderful example of neighbourly love: just as Jesus did, you must have the courage to get your hands dirty. And such an example tends to make us feel good. John, however, sees this in an entirely different light. He considers Who it is that kneels there with the basin, and he writes: “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God...” (ch 13:3). Of course, Jesus is always an example of love for us, but He is much more than that. He is also our Master, our Lord and our God. This washing of feet is extraordinary; breathtakingly different from anything I would ever be able to do!
A better fellow believer?
I give two examples of how we must always see and listen to Jesus as the Son of the Father. In Western Christianity, there is a stream of thought that views Jesus’ miracles as proof of what believers are capable of doing. Jesus had perfect faith; that is why he was able to perform these miracles. We too can do such things, if only our faith is strong enough. Jesus, then, becomes a fellow-believer: try to attain to His faith, and try to perform the same acts of healing. Jesus’ faith overcomes!
This, of course, is a very superficial manner of reading the Gospels. To begin with, Jesus’ miracles are extraordinary, divine signs. They witness to Him as the Son of God. This is clear from the manner in which He heals. He does so with words and with commands. He speaks, and it happens. That is divine; it is not for us as human believers. In the second place, it is true that Jesus’ disciples also performed miracles. But they always did so in the name of Jesus, never through their own word, and only whenever and to the extent that He had given them authority. The disciples performed miracles by faith, but the power to heal always lay in the calling and the authority that Jesus had given them.
This implies that Jesus’ miracles are not models for believers, but demonstrations of His divine and all-encompassing power to heal. We will share with that at the resurrection of all things. Occasionally, the Lord may allow us to do something remarkable, but that is always subordinate.
Close to us
Modern theology reads the Gospels as the account of a remarkable human being. In many Protestant circles, a one-sided emphasis is placed on the human element in what Jesus’ does. He sleeps, eats and weeps. He is an ordinary human being. He is close to us.
That is true, of course, but it is only a half-truth. His becoming human is the incarnation of the Son of God. God is among us: take the shoes off your feet! His empathy and compassion for us are very human, but these traits are of value to us only because He experienced them as God from God. That is why, since His ascension, He has the power to lift us up, to sanctify and to glorify us. Lutheran theology has given much thought to whether Jesus, in coming into the world, set aside His divinity (kenoosis) or simply hid it from view (krupsis). I think we should see it differently: during all of His time on earth, Jesus the Man acted as God, but He only used His divine power for others, never for Himself. He saved others, he did not save Himself. What He gave to others, He kept from Himself.
Just one word
Standing around the cross, His enemies saw this, but misinterpreted it. They thought: He saved others, but he could not save Himself. The gospel has a difference of just one word: He who saved others would not save himself. The gospel makes us see that the Son of God came to earth with power, healing and raising from the dead. But this same Son allowed Himself to be crucified for the complete forgiveness of all our sins.
When we read the Gospels, we may not lose sight of this reality, even for a moment. It will help us not to think of His work in too human a manner, and to stand amazed at His own weakness and death.