From Promise to Fulfillment (Or, Good News for Jews)

Abraham

Fresco of Abraham by Filipino Lippi (1502), in the vault of the Strozzi chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days He has spoken to us by a Son, whom He appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the ages.

So begins the Letter to the Hebrews. Compared to the knowledge of pagan religions, Judaism’s knowledge of God is sunlight compared to fog. And yet God’s final and complete utterance, so Christians believe, is His Incarnate Word, His eternally begotten Son born in time of the Virgin Mary. In Jesus of Nazareth, divine revelation reaches its unsurpassable fullness. The Jewish Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament, creates the climate of preparation, of longing for one who could give final meaning to God’s plan in history. Of course, there’s a big difference between preparation and fulfillment. The Old Testament opens perspectives and awakens hopes, but it tells a story in need of a last chapter.

With this post, I’ll attempt to explain how, from the standpoint of Christian faith, Jesus fulfills what was promised to Israel’s patriarchs and prophets. Not only that, but He gives those promises a new and deeper significance.

First, however, a caution. Christians will naturally want to highlight the individual Old Testament texts that give a kind of preview of Jesus. But these prophecies don’t describe Him so clearly and unmistakably that one need only read the prophecies to find Christ fully present there. God gradually prepared Israel for the overwhelming reality of the Savior. At no stage of the preparation did any Jew adequately understand or even suspect the full meaning of God’s plan: that God Himself, the Second Person of the undivided Trinity, would become man to die and rise for our salvation. Therefore, in our quest for neat mathematical equation between Old Testament prophecy and New Testament fulfillment, it’s important that we discern God’s slow task of educating His people by couching the hope of the future in forms that would be meaningful for the present. With that said, I’ll begin by taking up the question of the Messiah.

The Hebrew word mashiach, “messiah” (in Greek it is christos, “christ”), is used in the Old Testament to refer to those who received a ceremonial anointing with oil in the rite of assuming the offices of king and priest. Eventually the term came to be used in a technical sense to refer to Yahweh’s1 Yahweh, “I am who am,” is a causative form of the ancient Hebrew verb hah (to be) and is the revealed proper name of the one true God; see Exodus 3:13-15. anointed representative who would crush Israel’s oppressors and usher in God’s reign. Although the Messiah was assigned various powers and dignities, he was not thought of as divine. Salvation is the work of Yahweh alone, and Yahweh is free to save with or without the help of an anointed agent.

Because the title “Messiah” had political and nationalistic connotations, Jesus generally avoided using it of Himself, one exception being His conversation with the Samaritan woman in the Gospel of John. Being a Samaritan and antagonistic toward Jews, she would be unlikely to interpret the term in the popular sense. Her people would be more inclined to view the Messiah as a universal savior, and many Samaritans did in fact come to acknowledge Jesus as “the Savior of the world.”2 John 4:42

The Messiah as Son of David
God had promised that the Messiah would be a descendant of King David, strong with the power of Yahweh, and would reign over a kingdom of justice and peace, perfectly fulfilling the ideal that had been imperfectly realized in David and his successors.3 For some key samplings of this royal messianic hope, read 2 Samuel 12:7-16, Isaiah 9:1-6, and Jeremiah 23:5-6.

The New Testament offers its own witness to the hope of a Davidic Messiah. Saint Joseph, the legal and presumed father of Jesus, was a direct descendant of David,4 See the genealogy in Matthew 1:1-16. and his legal paternity conferred rights of inheritance. 5 It is less certain whether the Blessed Virgin Mary likewise came from the line of David, although Saint Paul hints at this in saying that Jesus was “descended from David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3), and certain Fathers of the Church maintained that Mary was of the house of David. Blind Bartimaeus addressed Jesus as “Son of David”6 Mark 10:47, as did the crowds who shouted their Hosannas as Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey in accord with Zechariah’s messianic prophecy.7 See Matthew 21:9, fulfilling Zechariah 9:9. A thousand years earlier, David’s son Solomon rode a mule at his presentation as king to the cheering crowds of Jerusalem.8 See 1 Kings 1. Jesus, on that first Palm Sunday, signified that He was the greater son of David.

It would be too much to discuss all the perspectives the Old Testament opens up in its preparation for the Messiah. We can, however, look briefly at some other forms taken by Israel’s messianic hope, besides the Davidic king. Becoming familiar with at least the main strands of “messianism” will help us better appreciate the divinely directed longing and expectation that Jesus Christ answers.

The Messiah as Son of Man and Suffering Servant
The messianic hope of the Jews expressed itself above all in the longing for a great king, a new David, who would save Israel from her enemies and inaugurate the reign of God. This form of Messianism took its rise from God’s promise to David to give his son an everlasting dynasty that would extend over all nations.9 See 2 Samuel 7:8-16. Thus, a royal descendant of David would fulfill God’s promise to make Abraham the father of many.10 See Genesis 15:5-6; 17:4-8. Just as God raised up Moses to deliver Israel, the nation born of Abraham’s son Isaac, from Egypt,11 See Exodus 2:25 and 6:5. so it was for “my people Israel” that God established His covenant with David. This covenant between Yahweh and the house of David did not annul but rather absorbed the ancient Mosaic covenant between Israel and Yahweh.

It makes an interesting exercise to examine the historical record and count the number of those who were judged worthy of their great ancestor, David. Yet Yahweh would not go back on His word. Although the Babylonian exile (587–539 BC) and the return to Judah under Persian rule had put an end to kingship in Israel, the people never lost hope in a future ruler who would establish Yahweh’s rule over the world. David’s eternal kingship becomes, in the New Testament, the glorious reign of the risen Christ, Son of David through Saint Joseph.

But there are other strands of Messianism to consider. When Caiaphas asked Jesus, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus answered unequivocally, “I am,” and immediately added that He, the Christ, would fulfill the glorious destiny of the “Son of Man.”12 See Mark 14:60-62. The title “Son of Man,” which Jesus preferred to use in speaking of Himself, had different meanings. It could signify human beings in general or, as in the mind of the prophet Daniel, an exalted heavenly figure who will appear in the end times.13 See Daniel 7:13-14. Jesus extended and enriched the Son of Man theme by associating it with His future passion, death, and resurrection.14 As in Mark 8:31; 9:9 and 14:21 A humiliated and suffering Son of Man evokes another mysterious figure, namely, the Suffering Servant of Yahweh, as described in Isaiah, chapters 52 and 53.

The fusion of these two themes — Son of Man and Suffering Servant — in the person of the Messiah is both novel and paradoxical. That this combination of ideas was hard to accept is shown by the reaction of the disciples, who were scandalized at the prospect of a dead Messiah. When we add to this new revelation Christ’s prediction that His disciples would have to share His suffering, is it any wonder that they found this a hard teaching or that they were slow to grasp its profound significance? As Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “The scandal of the Cross is harder for many to bear than the thunder of Sinai had been for the Israelites.”15 Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, trans. A. J. Walker (New York: Doubleday, 2007), pp. 67-68 Only the actual events themselves—Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, together with the sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost—would bring the light necessary to comprehend how the three main lines of messianic promise—Son of David, Son of Man, and Suffering Servant—were to be identified with Jesus of Nazareth.

Of course, not everyone came to believe in Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah of the Jews, never mind as God (the Son) incarnate. Ancient Jews and Christians eventually parted ways in their reading of Israel’s Scriptures. For Christians, Jesus is the great new fact that guides a massive re-reading of the Old Testament. The Romans crucified Him as “King of the Jews,” so that He might show Himself to be the messianic Son of David. Judaism condemned Him as a son of man, thus placing Him in the glorious light of the messianic fulfillment of the “Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.”16 Mark 14:62 And in the death of the Suffering Servant, who on Calvary gave His life as an offering for sin,17 As prophesied in Isaiah 53:10 divine justice and mercy unite in humanly inconceivable fashion.

In addition to these messianic themes, there are other ways in which Jesus fulfills God’s promises, including the promise that Israel is to be “a light to the nations.”18 Isaiah 42:6

A New and Eternal Covenant
The ancient covenant between God and Israel was crystallized in the Law given to Moses and expressed by God’s dwelling with His people, first in the tabernacle of the desert, and later in the Jerusalem Temple. With Jesus Christ, a new covenant came into force. He is the anointed king, the messianic Son of David who, in a new “exodus,” freed people from captivity to Satan, sin, and death by being “pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins.”19 Isaiah 53:5 To the people gathered on the slopes of an open hillside He proclaimed: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them”20 Matthew 5:17 Everything He said and did was always related to the first assertion that His work was a fulfillment of God’s promises, especially since the days of Abraham.

It was no simple matter to see all that the Lord’s work entailed. His closest disciples failed to comprehend the inner logic of His teaching. They witnessed His miracles and they heard His words, yet the two disciples of Emmaus probably spoke for all when they said regretfully, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”21 Luke 20:21 They did not understand how a man, dying “accursed” on a cross, could be the long-expected Messiah. And so, the risen Jesus gave those puzzled followers a lesson in biblical interpretation, beginning with Moses and the prophets.

But of all the discussions Jesus had with some of the best minds in Judaism, His dialogue with Nicodemus the Pharisee perhaps captured His mission best. Jesus told Nicodemus, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”22 John 3:5 He came not to destroy but to make all things new, and He was asking people to be reborn “from above.” He could have cited God’s promise to Israel—“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you…”23 Ezekiel 36:26—but He had still greater truths for Nicodemus. In rapid order, He gave insights into His heavenly origin, His future death, His testimony of God’s love for all people, and the way of salvation that leads through faith in Him.24 See John 3:10-21.

The new spirit that our Lord held out to Nicodemus was shown in His interpretation of the Law of Moses. External compliance with the letter of the Law is not enough, Jesus taught: the Law must be observed interiorly. This was the original ideal set before every child of the covenant: “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”25 Leviticus 19:2 To accomplish this there was required a new spiritual law written, not on stone tablets, but in human hearts. In six different sections of his “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus contrasted His interpretation of the Torah and the usual form of observance: “You have heard it said… But I say to you…”26 Matthew 5:17-48 The Law of Moses prohibited homicide and adultery; Jesus forbade hatred and impure desires. The Law permitted a man to divorce his wife; Jesus commanded union until death. Far from making light of the Law, Jesus raised it to a dignity never before known.

Our Lord’s work was crowned by His death and resurrection, but not before He had formed a new “People of God” into one body to bear His revelation to all nations. Thus, twelve Apostles assembled on Mount Zion in imitation of the twelve tribes of Israel on Mount Sinai. It was the traditional Passover meal, wherein all the wonders of God were commemorated and made to live again. Jesus proclaimed to them His new Law of loving others as He had loved them. He reviewed all the manifestations of God’s love for Israel in bringing them forth from Egypt. Several times He referred to the “Kingdom of Heaven” and while doing so He gave them His Body and Blood under the appearances of bread and wine. “Do this in remembrance of me,”27 Luke 22:20 He instructed them, evoking the words of Yahweh at the first Passover: “This day shall be a memorial feast for you … a perpetual institution.”28 Exodus 12:14

The covenant constituting them the “New Israel” was established and sealed with Christ’s Blood, shared at the Last Supper and shed on Calvary. Thus was fulfilled the new and eternal covenant prophesied in Jeremiah 31:31-33 and renewed in every celebration of the Eucharist. Christ is the true Temple wherein dwells God’s glory. So too are the members of His body the Church: living stones joined to Christ the cornerstone, built up into God’s dwelling place.29 See 1 Peter 2:4-5; Ephesians 2:20-22.

To this new covenant people, Christ’s holy Church, come also the blessings of the covenant: not now merely land and length of days but eternal life. And instead of a plot of land to call their national home, they have a patria, a true Fatherland in the heavenly City, the New Jerusalem that is to come. In the meantime, the Church offers no new and easy cures for the despair that warps so many lives. Her strength doesn’t consist in ready-made solutions. Rather, faithful to the biblical tradition, she offers to the world the fulfilled hope of Israel.

Judaism and Christianity intertwined
Contrary to the expectations of the early Christians, Judaism didn’t come to an end after the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Romans in the year 70. Today, two thousand years after the coming of Christ, there exist Jewish communities that observe the ancient laws of Moses concerning the Sabbath, circumcision, diet, Passover, and so on. This fact raises questions to which Christians cannot be indifferent. Does the old covenant remain in force? Has God permanently willed the practice of Judaism?

The Second Vatican Council reiterated perennial Catholic teaching, based as it is on Scripture and the Church Fathers’ reading of Scripture. Through Abraham and the other patriarchs, and after them through Moses and the prophets, God taught Israel “to acknowledge Him as the one living and true God, provident father and just judge, and to wait for the Savior promised by Him, and in this manner prepared the way for the Gospel down through the centuries.”30 Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum (18 November 1965), no. 3 First, God “entered into a covenant with Abraham and, through Moses, with the people of Israel.”31 Ibid., no. 14 One and the same God “wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and that the Old be made manifest by the New.”32 Ibid., no. 16

Christians, then, have a special bond with the Jews. However differently Jews and Christians may understand God’s essence and actions, both profess faith in the one God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. The Church is conscious that she is a branch grafted onto the olive tree of Israel. On that basis she claims Abraham as her own patriarch or “father in faith.”33 From the prayer Supra quae of the Roman Canon of the Mass The second-century priest Marcion was condemned as a heretic for teaching that the Christian Gospel had nothing to do with the Old Testament. Had he won the day, the Christian Bible would include only the New Testament—and even that trimmed by Marcion’s scissors. Can any Christian read the prerogatives of Judaism enumerated in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans without lowering his head in awe?34 Romans 9:4-5: “They are the Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed for ever. Amen.”

Nevertheless, Judaism’s role after Christ is limited. The New Testament, in certain passages, indicates that the old covenant has been replaced. Saint Paul contrasts the old covenant, carved on stone, which has lost its previous splendor, and the new covenant, written on human hearts by the Holy Spirit, which is permanent and burns brightly.35 See 2 Corinthians 3:3. He speaks of Christ as “the end of the Law,”36 Romans 10:4 apparently meaning its goal. The Mosaic Law yields to the “law of Christ”37 1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2 or the “law of the Spirit.”38 Romans 8:2 Saint Thomas Aquinas, drawing on the Church Fathers and medieval authorities, sought to reconcile these passages with Christ’s assertion that He had come not to abolish but to fulfill the Law.39 See Matthew 5:17. Aquinas distinguished the moral and ceremonial precepts of the old covenant: only the moral law (as expressed, above all, in the Ten Commandments) endures, albeit in the fuller sense Christ gave it.

Fulfillment, then, is not abandonment. As Saint Paul makes clear in Romans, chapters 9 through 11, the mysterious connection between the old and new covenants engages a still-unfolding story. The mystery of Israel and the mystery of the Church are mysteriously intertwined.

While we should want to avoid Marcionism, we shouldn’t give the impression that there are two parallel covenants equally pleasing to God. As the late Cardinal Dulles asserted a decade ago,

Such a view is … irreconcilable with the New Testament and with the whole Catholic tradition. It is contrary to Vatican II (which expressed the hope that the whole world would recognize Jesus Christ as Savior), and incompatible likewise with current magisterial teaching, which is normative for Catholics.40 “Avery Cardinal Dulles Replies,” First Things 160 (February 2006), p. 6. Dulles was replying to a letter commenting on his essay, “The Covenant with Israel,” First Things 157 (November 2005), pp. 16-21.

How could anyone who sincerely confesses Jesus as Christ and Lord not want to make Him known and loved by all, Jews included? To refuse to share with “our elder brothers in the faith of Abraham”41 St. John Paul II used this phrase when visiting the Great Synagogue of Rome on 13 April 1986. the treasures that the Messiah brought to the world is a sin against charity. It is one thing to affirm, as the Catholic Church affirms, the possibility (as distinct from the certainty or likelihood) of salvation for Jews and others who are outside the Catholic Church through no fault of their own—an affirmation that does not necessarily undermine the truth that Jesus Christ is the unique Savior of the world.42 See HERE and HERE, for example. It is quite another thing to discourage the evangelization of Jews, as if Christ intends His Church to be the spiritual home of the Gentiles only.43 A hot-off-the-press Vatican document on Catholic-Jewish relations acknowledges the vocation of individual Christians “to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to the Jews … in a humble and sensitive manner,” but rejects “any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews” (emphases mine). It lists as the important goals of official Catholic-Jewish dialogue: deepened reciprocal knowledge of Jews and Christians, joint engagement throughout the world for justice and peace, and combatting all forms of anti-Semitism.

The late Father Richard John Neuhaus once said that the old covenant is still in force in its most important aspect, namely, God’s gracious predilection for His chosen people. If that’s true (and I believe it is), then the real offense against the Jews is not to share with them the good news of the Jewish Jesus who, in ways often paradoxical, fulfills God’s promises and Israel’s hopes.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Yahweh, “I am who am,” is a causative form of the ancient Hebrew verb hah (to be) and is the revealed proper name of the one true God; see Exodus 3:13-15.
2. John 4:42
3. For some key samplings of this royal messianic hope, read 2 Samuel 12:7-16, Isaiah 9:1-6, and Jeremiah 23:5-6.
4. See the genealogy in Matthew 1:1-16.
5. It is less certain whether the Blessed Virgin Mary likewise came from the line of David, although Saint Paul hints at this in saying that Jesus was “descended from David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3), and certain Fathers of the Church maintained that Mary was of the house of David.
6. Mark 10:47
7. See Matthew 21:9, fulfilling Zechariah 9:9.
8. See 1 Kings 1.
9. See 2 Samuel 7:8-16.
10. See Genesis 15:5-6; 17:4-8.
11. See Exodus 2:25 and 6:5.
12. See Mark 14:60-62.
13. See Daniel 7:13-14.
14. As in Mark 8:31; 9:9 and 14:21
15. Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, trans. A. J. Walker (New York: Doubleday, 2007), pp. 67-68
16. Mark 14:62
17. As prophesied in Isaiah 53:10
18. Isaiah 42:6
19. Isaiah 53:5
20. Matthew 5:17
21. Luke 20:21
22. John 3:5
23. Ezekiel 36:26
24. See John 3:10-21.
25. Leviticus 19:2
26. Matthew 5:17-48
27. Luke 22:20
28. Exodus 12:14
29. See 1 Peter 2:4-5; Ephesians 2:20-22.
30. Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum (18 November 1965), no. 3
31. Ibid., no. 14
32. Ibid., no. 16
33. From the prayer Supra quae of the Roman Canon of the Mass
34. Romans 9:4-5: “They are the Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed for ever. Amen.”
35. See 2 Corinthians 3:3.
36. Romans 10:4
37. 1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2
38. Romans 8:2
39. See Matthew 5:17.
40. “Avery Cardinal Dulles Replies,” First Things 160 (February 2006), p. 6. Dulles was replying to a letter commenting on his essay, “The Covenant with Israel,” First Things 157 (November 2005), pp. 16-21.
41. St. John Paul II used this phrase when visiting the Great Synagogue of Rome on 13 April 1986.
42. See HERE and HERE, for example.
43. A hot-off-the-press Vatican document on Catholic-Jewish relations acknowledges the vocation of individual Christians “to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to the Jews … in a humble and sensitive manner,” but rejects “any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews” (emphases mine). It lists as the important goals of official Catholic-Jewish dialogue: deepened reciprocal knowledge of Jews and Christians, joint engagement throughout the world for justice and peace, and combatting all forms of anti-Semitism.