What does it mean for a Scripture to be “fulfilled”?

In my last post I explained why I believe there is enough evidence in the gospel narratives about Judas to conclude that he may have repented sincerely for betraying Jesus and been saved. But I also noted that many readers might wonder, “Didn’t Jesus and the apostles say it was predicted in Scripture that Judas would betray Jesus and be lost? Doesn’t that settle the question?”  I’d like to begin addressing that concern in this post.

When we look carefully at the New Testament passages that say certain Scriptures were fulfilled when Judas betrayed Jesus, it doesn’t take long to uncover a curious problem about them:  Those Scriptures are not actually predictions.  That is, they are not looking forward to the future, envisioning the career of the Messiah, and foretelling specific things about someone who would betray him. Instead, they are envisioning the Old Testament author’s own time and place, and talking about his contemporaries.

For example, the book of Acts tells us how Peter, citing the fulfillment of Scripture, led the fledgling community of Jesus’ followers to choose a replacement for Judas:

In those days Peter stood up among the believers . . . and said, “Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. . . . “For,” said Peter, “it is written in the Book of Psalms: ‘May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,’ and, ‘May another take his place of leadership.’

The problem is, when we investigate these two Scripture citations, which are from Psalm 69 and Psalm 109, respectively, we find that they occur not in Messianic predictions, but in “psalms of supplication” in which the psalmist (David, according to the inscriptions, though he does not identify himself within the psalms) prays for deliverance from his own personal enemies.  Both statements come in what are called “imprecations,” passages in which a psalmist calls for God’s judgment on enemies who are persecuting without just cause.

Now the imprecations in the psalms are a difficult problem in their own right.  (I discuss their character and purpose briefly in this post.)  But the problem they pose for us in light of our immediate concern is this: How can Peter say these two imprecations are to be “fulfilled” in the case of Judas when they were not envisioning the future at all?

To state the answer simply, “fulfillment” in the New Testament sense of the word does not mean that a future foreseen and predicted has come to pass.  Rather, it means that words spoken at an earlier time in redemptive history have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning in light of later, more developed redemptive-historical circumstances.  To explain this in more detail, let me quote at some length from Paradigms on Pilgrimage, the book I wrote with Stephen J. Godfrey, in which there is a general discussion of this issue.

* * * * *

The very first book of the New Testament, in its very first claim that a prophecy was fulfilled, rules out the understanding of “fulfillment” as a foreseen future coming to pass.  Matthew writes that when Mary had borne a son, and Joseph had called his name “Jesus,” the prophetic word was fulfilled that said, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” We would expect that if the passage quoted from Isaiah here really were a future foreseen and described, Mary would have actually named her son “Emmanuel,” not “Jesus.”  So something different is going on.

The early chapters of Matthew present several other problems along these lines.  This gospel also says that Jesus dwelt in Nazareth “to fulfill what was spoken by the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.”  Yet nowhere in the prophetic corpus, nor indeed anywhere in all of the Hebrew scriptures, is such a prediction recorded.  And when, after Jesus’ flight into Egypt and return to Israel after Herod’s death, Matthew concludes, “So was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son,’” the reader is puzzled indeed.  The prophet in this case is Hosea, and he was writing history, not predicting the future, when he made this statement.  Specifically, he was describing the Exodus.

The necessary conclusion is that when Matthew speaks of “fulfillment,” he does not mean that a foreseen future has come to pass.  Instead, he means that words spoken at an earlier time in redemptive history have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning in light of later, more developed redemptive-historical circumstances. This, to me, is actually a much more powerful concept:  not that humans were given an advance glimpse of what was going to happen in the future, but that the God who superintends and overrules human affairs has demonstrated His unchanging character consistently through time and has revealed more and more of his purposes while reaffirming the earlier-revealed ones.

We may appeal to American history for an illustration of this sense of “fulfillment.”  When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” he said this to dispute the premise that kings ruled by divine right and that their subjects therefore owed them the kind of unquestioning loyalty they would offer to God.  (That is, he said this to justify a revolutionary independence movement.) 

But when Abraham Lincoln observed in his Gettysburg Address of 1863 that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” he meant instead that slavery was incompatible with the fundamental premises of American society. 

And when Martin Luther King said, in his “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963 (appropriately delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial), that he longed for the day when our nation would “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed:  ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal,’” he explained that in such a nation, people would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  This is how the “true” or “fulfilled” (fullest and deepest) meaning of Jefferson’s words would be realized, according to King.

By this same analogy, when Matthew says that Isaiah’s words were “fulfilled” when Mary bore her son and named him Jesus, he means that those words have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning.  The Greek translation that Matthew quotes has helped this happen:  Isaiah uses a Hebrew term that arguably can best be translated “maiden,” while the Greek reads, more intensively, “virgin.”  Moreover, “Emmanuel” is no longer the boy’s name, but rather an explanation of his identity—“God with us.” These two intensified aspects of meaning are brought out when the original statement is heard in the light of later developments as the plan of God unfolds.

The case is similar with “out of Egypt have I called my son.”  “Son” is no longer a metaphorical description of the nation of Israel, but another accurate disclosure of Jesus’ identity. 

As for “he shall be called a Nazarene,” the best explanation seems to be that this was a geographic term of derision (as Nathanael suggests in the gospel of John when he asks, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”). This would be much like the way the term “Okie” was used during the Dust Bowl years. It was applied to people from Oklahoma and nearby areas that were affected by prolonged drought, who migrated West in search of work and food.  The term ceased to mean “someone from Oklahoma” and came to mean something closer to “gypsy.”  Matthew, in his appeal to the prophets, is summarizing their many statements that the servant of God would be “despised and rejected.”  (The quotation here is indirect, not direct like the preceding ones, and thus does not belong within quotation marks, although modern Bibles sometimes present it that way).

Other announcements of prophetic “fulfillment” may be understood similarly.

* * * * *

Indeed, this is how we should understand the statements in the New Testament that earlier Scriptures were “fulfilled” in various ways when Judas betrayed Jesus.  I’ll look specifically at each of these statements starting in my next post, explaining in what way they represent earlier sayings that have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning in light of later redemptive-historical circumstances.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the “true meaning” of the principle that “all men are created equal” would be lived out in a nation in which people were judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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