Thoughts on the Fulfillment of Scripture

Thanks to some encouragement from Alice, I’m back.

This morning, I was reading some of John’s account of Good Friday. Several times, John 19 points to scripture being fulfilled in the events around Jesus’ crucifixion (specifically, verse 24, 28-30, & 36-37). Except for verses 28-30, John quotes the OT passages he has in mind. What is he doing when he does this?

Most of the time, I think we take this to mean that Jesus fulfilled a specific passage; that is to say, Isaiah or the Psalms or some other OT writer made a promise, and Jesus came along and fulfilled it. As if to say: look at all the individual things written of in the OT that Jesus did, which proved he is the Son of God.

But does this approach go far enough? Jesus is the Messiah, not simply because he checked off a bunch of boxes. Instead, when he “fulfills” scripture, it is less about a checklist, and more about the completion of God’s plan. To see this, all you have to do is use a NT with footnotes that points you to the OT passages referenced in the words John writes and Jesus says.

For example, let’s look at the one reference in John that isn’t clearly a direct OT reference: John 19.28-30. In fact, it’s just three words (and just one word in Greek): I am thirsty. With this one Greek one (dipso), John points us back to Psalm 69.21 (“They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst”; all quotes from NIV.)

Pretty clear connection between that verse and Jesus on the cross? Yes. But oftentimes we stop there, when that should be just the beginning. Read all of Psalm 69, and you’ll see the bigger picture that I think John wants us to get when he gives us that one word, dipso. Go ahead, read it now. And if you want a musical take on it, listen to this.

Psalm 69 starts with a desperate cry for help: “Save me o God, for the waters have come up to my neck. …I am worn out calling for help.” In verse 5, he references his guilt, but then turns around and says, “Zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who insult you fall on me.”

Then there’s verses 16-17: “Answer me, Lord, out of the goodness of your love; in your great mercy turn to me. Do not hide your face from your servant; answer me quickly, for I am in trouble.” Overwhelmed, the writer begs God to pour out His wrath on his enemies (v24). The Psalm then closes with the confidence that the Lord hears the needy, and won’t forget His captive people (v33) – but will restore their dwelling.

Now, who’s talking here? Tradition says it’s David. But the fact that these words have been preserved among the 150 Psalms demonstrates that these aren’t just the words of one man, but are the words of faithful Israel – broken and sinful, but desperate and dependent on God showing up and doing what He has promised to do.

So, when John points us to Psalm 69 with one word – with just one word – he is saying: Jesus inhabits these words. Their pain and promise, their desperation and doubt, their hope and confidence that God will not forget his people, but will appear with justice and mercy. Well, that’s what Jesus does. And that, I think, is what fulfillment of scripture looks like – not just fulfilling the words of one verse, but fulfilling the hopes, needs, and longings of a people who needed someone to take on their condition.

That sounds a lot like Israel. It also sounds a lot like me and you.

Why the OT, part 2

In my last post, I discussed how important it is for the Church to read and learn from the Old Testament. This time, I want to say more about how we actually go about doing that.

First thing to keep in mind as you read the OT: it is first. As I described in the previous post, the OT is the first part of a multi-act drama. As with a two-act play, just as we can’t understand act 2 without act 1 — so it is with the Bible. At the same time, we no longer live in act 1.

If there is one key point to keep in mind as you read the OT — whether you are considering OT law or OT history; whether it’s wisdom literature or prophetic pronouncement — it is absolutely essential to remember that you are reading about a time you don’t inhabit.

The good news about this reality is that the work of God has now moved beyond a small patch of land in the Mediterranean world. It means that how they lived, and what they did, must be seen through the lens of what God has done in the New Testament, what God is doing now throughout the world, and what God intends to do for all eternity for all creation. In other words, Act 1 of God’s work must always be seen through the prism of Acts 2, 3, and 4. And living in Act 3 — as we are — we continue to learn from Act 1, while recognizing that much of it is no longer determinative of how we live.

Which leads me to the next thing to keep in mind: when reading the OT, keep in mind that there is a difference between principle and practice. Or, to say it another way: the OT is full of important truths that are still true today, but they are truths that we live out differently today.

This idea is especially seen in a chapter like Leviticus 19, which is full of commands and prescriptions. Some are clear, and clearly apply still today: Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not pervert justice (verses 11 & 15; all references are from NIV).

Others are less so: When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field… (verse 9). Or: Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight (verse 13). Do not … put tattoo marks on yourselves (verse 28).

I don’t have a field. No one is lying on my porch overnight, waiting for me to pay them. And I’m too much of a wimp, and too cheap, to get a tattoo (to say nothing of what that tattoo will one day look like when my skin is saggy, and seventy years old). But if I take seriously the view that all scripture is useful for instruction (and I do), how do passages like these instruct us?

This is where the “principle vs. practice” idea comes in. Simply put, there is a principle behind each of these commands that is bigger than the practice. To put it another way: the heart of God can be seen in the command, even if the call to action is not the same.

In regard to the field: clearly God is concerned about the poor and the needy. And I should be too, whether it’s with the extra from my field, or my pantry, or my bank account. As for the hired hand: clearly God cares that those who are dependent on their day-to-day wages are treated honestly and paid justly. And anywhere I can help with that — whether it’s in how I tip the single mom who waits on me at Cracker Barrel, or the babysitter who watches my kids, or refugees or immigrants I encounter — I am called to do what is right, following the principles outlined in Leviticus 19.

But what about tattoos? Leviticus 19.28 seems pretty clear: no tattoos. But, once again, it’s helpful to ask: What’s the principle at work here? We see that when we take a wider view — where verse 26 talks about sorcery and divination, verse 27 addresses interesting haircuts, and the first part of verse 28 deals with the cutting of the body on behalf of the dead. When we look at the broader context, it seems clear that in these verses God is forbidding actions that align with some of the pagan practices of the people around them. So, in that day, tattoos must have been a mark of pagan involvement and commitment — perhaps something similar to how circumcision marked a boy as Jewish.

And so, the principle seems clear: don’t mark your body in a way that aligns you with pagan religious practices. These practices also affected haircuts and body markings. The principle behind these practices continues to hold true today, and it should cause all of us to consider what our body, and what we put on our body, demonstrate about our beliefs and our commitments. And so, today, many folks mark their skin to indicate what matters to them. Some even get tattoos to show others their allegiance to Jesus (or, perhaps, Mom, or their wife, or, somewhat embarrassingly, their ex-girlfriend).

And so, if I’m serious about following the principle of Leviticus 19.28, it might mean that in practice I do have a tattoo, but I refuse to engrave myself with a symbol that can be construed to be opposed to the work of God in my life. For that matter, I will also refrain from wearing a certain piece of clothing or an article of jewelry that would indicate my commitment to any principle other than the redeeming work of Jesus.

But how do we know? How do we determine what is good, and what is harmful? How do we determine what practices demonstrate the principle of God’s leadership in our lives? A great guide is actually found in the words in verse 2, which frame the commands in Leviticus 19: Be holy, because I the Lord your God, am holy.

This is the key to understanding Leviticus 19, all of the OT — and, for that matter, the NT and the whole of the Christian life. Be holy. That is: Be set apart. Live like God. Let your life and your actions and every part of you show others that you belong to Jesus. Let his Spirit be your guide — leading you, shaping you, loving others through you.

Or: Love God, love others. For, as Jesus himself taught us, this is the whole point of the law. This is the principle that every practice should be built on.

Why the OT?

For some reason, when I was preaching regularly, I felt compelled to do a series on Leviticus. Why? It was due, in part, to include all of scripture in my teaching. But I’m sure there was also a part of me that wanted to rise to the challenge of making even Leviticus come alive.

But the reality is: nobody gets excited about Leviticus. That’s understandable. Just compare, say, Leviticus 15 to Luke 15. Go ahead, do it…. I mean, really: Luke 15 includes 3 stories that practically tell themselves. Leviticus 15 is about, well, bodily discharges.

So, it’s no surprise that a recent survey found that, of the top 100 verses cited in systematic theology books, only 9 were from the Old Testament. I’m no math genius, but that’s more than 9 out of 10 citations from the NT, vs. the OT. One of the top verses cited by theologians is John 1.14. Likewise, every verse in 1 Corinthians is referenced by at least one theologian. By my count, that’s 438 verses — each one deemed worthy of at least one mention by at least one writer in the attempt to describe what the Bible and God are all about.

I couldn’t agree more. John 1.14 is a key verse to understand God; 1 Corinthians might just be my favorite New Testament book. But is there something we miss when only 9% of our study, our focus, and our teaching comes from the OT?

Well, yes.

We miss the whole story. We miss the bigger picture of what God is doing. We miss out on how we got here. In short, we miss out on a part of our story.

The scholar N.T. Wright describes it something like this: imagine going to a 3-act play. If you arrive late, you’ll get a sense of the story: who the good guys are, who the bad guys are. You’ll pick up on the plot and theme. But what you won’t know are the details; the background; how we got here. Why, for example, Luke and Leia seem to have a connection that goes beyond the business at hand — and why Darth Vader is more than just a bad guy in a black mask. In other words, if you jump into the middle of the stream that is Star Wars, you’ll quickly be rooting for Luke & Leia, but you won’t know where they came from. You’ll only know the key ideas, the key players, the major plotline — but you won’t know the whole story.

Something similar happens when we open our Bibles and start in the New Testament. We jump into the middle of a multi-act play. If we turn to one of the gospels, then we’re in Act 2. If we start with Acts or one of Paul’s letters, we’re in Act 3. We even get glimpses of Act 5 throughout the Bible (e.g., Revelation, 1 Thessalonians 4; in fact, even parts of the OT point us to Act 5 — like Isaiah 65.17-25).

Now, there is nothing wrong with jumping in, midstream. In fact, that’s what I encourage new Bible readers to do: learn Jesus first, and then see how he leads to the Church. But don’t overlook the importance of going back and learning what led up to them. For all the acts of the story are needed to understand the whole story.

This is especially true because, as you may have noticed, I didn’t mention Act 4 of the drama. If Act 1 is the story of Israel, Act 2 is Jesus, Act 3 is the early church, and Act 5 is the return of Jesus and the completion of all things, what’s Act 4?

Us. You, me, the church that picks up the story where the Bible leaves off, and continues until the true Author of the Story, Jesus, returns.

We are Act 4. And to live our part faithfully, and well, we’ve got to know the acts that precede us — which includes, of course, the OT.

So, don’t be afraid of the OT. Even the hard parts. Read the script. Learn the back story. And play your part well.

Next time: more on how to read the OT.