Promise and Fulfillment

The Scripture readings for Advent promote a promise-and-fulfillment approach to the Bible. Most Christians view the Old Testament readings as divine promises that have been fulfilled in Jesus. Almost every official Catholic document on biblical interpretation (including the Second Vatican Councils Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, No. 16) quotes Augustines observation that the New Testament is hidden in the Old, and the Old Testament is made manifest in the New. The two dangers associated with this approach are that we will not take the Old Testament seriously on its own merits and that we will imagine all its promises have been completely fulfilled in the Christ-event (and that we can therefore dispense with the Old Testament). Nevertheless, as the experience of Christians for two millennia has shown, the promise-and-fulfillment approach is almost irresistible for us.

One of the major Advent characters is Isaiah the prophet, who exercised his ministry in Jerusalem in the late eighth century B.C. Isaiah gave political and spiritual advice to kings and leaders as well to the people as a whole. Although much of his advice was rejected, Isaiah remained faithful to his prophetic task and was vindicated by the events of history. Todays reading from Isaiah 11 is a good example of why Isaiah is a great Advent character and his book is sometimes described as the fifth Gospel. In it Isaiah looks forward to a future ideal ruler in Israel. That ruler is to be a descendant of King David, whose reign around 1000 B.C. represented the high point of Israels experiment with monarchy.

Isaiah, however, hoped for an even better version of King David. Isaiah hoped for a wise ruler, one who would combine wisdom and fear of the Lord, who could teach others the ways of God and would exemplify proper reverence and respect toward God. He hoped for a just ruler who would judge not by external appearances only but according to the principles of equity and fairness. He hoped for a ruler who would inaugurate an era of peace and mutual understanding even among natural enemies. And he hoped for a ruler with significance and attractiveness both for his own people and for all the nations of the world. Isaiahs hopes are echoed in todays responsorial psalm (Psalm 72), which looks forward to an ideal king who will rule with perfect justice, protect the poor and needy in society and have universal significance.


Neither Isaiah nor the psalmist lived to see his hopes fulfilled. But early Christians were convinced that these hopes had come to at least partial fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth. A descendant of King David, Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit and so was endowed with great wisdom. He was just in his dealings and taught others to be just. He took the side of the poor and oppressed. He was a man of peace and declared peacemakers to be especially blessed. And he has had remarkable significance for Israel and for all the worlds nations. Jesus is arguably the most important person who ever lived on earth.

The dynamic of promise and fulfillment also appears in todays selection from Pauls Letter to the Romans. There Paul asserts that Israels Scriptures were written for our instruction thatwe might have hope. He goes on to state that Jesus took up his ministry of service for Israel to show Gods truthfulness, to confirm the promises to the patriarchs. Even when Gods people proved faithless, God remained faithful to his promises. As Christians we believe that Gods promises to Israel are fulfilled through Jesus life, death and resurrection. For us Jesus is the incarnation of Gods promises to Israel. As the Word of God, he is Gods promise made flesh. Through him Gods mercy and the benefits of Gods promises have been made available to all the peoples of the world.

John the Baptist, another great Advent figure, also illustrates the promise-and-fulfillment dynamic. On the one hand, his appearance in the desert fulfilled the prophecy of Is 40:3, his lifestyle evoked the figure of the prophet Elijah (2 Kgs 1:8) and his ministry raised hopes for Elijahs return before the day of the Lord (Mal 3:24). On the other hand, Matthews summary of Johns preaching (Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand) matches his summary of Jesus own preaching (Mt 4:17) and reminds us that absolute fullness of Gods kingdom is yet to come and that we must continue to pray, Thy kingdom come. The New Testament is hidden in the Old Testament; the Old Testament is manifest in the New Testament. And we continue to trust in Gods promises.

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