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The Fulfillment of the Old Testament

This is a revision of a previous reflection, adapted to fit with our series through John’s Gospel.


While the Lord Jesus has been fulfilling the hopes, dreams, promises, and patterns of the Old Testament since the beginning of John’s Gospel, there is a specific way in which his trial and crucifixion fulfill the patterns of the Old Testament. John will make a number of implicit and explicit references to the Old Testament in these final chapters of his gospel, so it’s worth stepping back to reflect more broadly on the New Testament fulfillment of the Old Testament.

We can begin with the general statement that Paul makes in his first letter to the Corinthian church, namely that many of the events of the Old Testament “took place as examples for us” and that “they were written down for our instruction” (1 Cor 10:6, 11 ESV). Picking up on the keyword “example,” the writer to the Hebrews describes some other "examples" of the Old Testament in Hebrews 8-10. He says that Moses built the tabernacle in the wilderness after the "example" or "pattern" that God showed him on Mt. Sinai. He also says that this same tabernacle is a "copy" and a "shadow" of the heavenly reality that we see in the life and work of Jesus Christ.

To get a feel for what Hebrews means, picture in your mind all of history laid out in a long line from creation to the crucifixion. Along this timeline of history, the cross looms large and casts a shadow backward in time. But, rather than looking like a cross, the shadow that is cast backwards looks like the Old Testament Tabernacle. When you stand in the shadow of the cross, you stand in the Tabernacle. Said another way, you stand in the midst of the Old Testament stories. However, when you stand on our side of the cross, you see both the cross and the shadow that it casts. This picture in your mind should help you to see that, when we read the Old Testament on this side of the cross, what we are reading are "examples" or "patterns" that find their true meaning in the life and work of Jesus Christ.

Having said that, it’s important to point out that as a shadow the Old Testament does not make everything clear. Just as your own shadow when it is cast on the ground doesn't capture anything more than an outline of your figure, so also the shadow of God's plan of redemption doesn't provide intricate details in the Old Testament. What we read in the Old Testament is only a partial glimpse of God's plan of redemption; it is only an anticipation of what we see more clearly in Jesus. This helps to explain why the Jewish authorities, who knew the Old Testament very well, still had trouble seeing Jesus as the fulfillment of it. The shadow itself gives room for our fallen imaginations to fill in the details according to our own opinions and preferences. Thus, when Jesus did not fit the expectations of a political messianism, those who looked at the shadow and saw a political messianism in it were unsatisfied with the ministry and message of Jesus of Nazareth.

And yet, while the shadow can be filled in by fallen imaginations in many ways, the actual outworking of God’s redemptive plan, i.e. his own filling in or fleshing out of the shadow, was thoroughly consistent with the outlines that had been sketched in the Old Testament. This helps us to be confident that when we look back to the Old Testament, through the revelation of Jesus Christ, we are able to discern the true outline. Therefore, while the tabernacle is only a shadow, it still describes in its own way many details about God and his plan of salvation that we see clearly fulfilled in Christ. The same teaching that is pictured in the tabernacle is found in the person and work of Jesus.

That being said, we are on solid ground when we understand the suffering servant of Isaiah’s prophecy to be Christ because we read about Christ’s suffering at the hands of the Roman and Jewish authorities, and how he is despised and rejected. We are on solid ground when we read Zechariah’s prophecy that God’s people would look on him whom they had pierced as a shadow of Christ’s substitutionary atonement because the gospels clearly present Christ as both God and man, who suffered and died in our place. We are, in general, on solid ground when we read the Old Testament as Christian Scripture.

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