The often-mysterious symbols and rituals of the world of the Old Testament make more sense when we look at them through a ‘fulfilment’ lens. Rather than straining to find life illustrations, or perhaps puzzling over how a ‘then and there’ world could illustrate or direct our own, relevance becomes evident on every page when we understand the intent of the writers and the overarching theme encoded by God.
A significant key is in understanding the continuity in the story of God’s relationship with His people. Seeing the Church as the fulfilment of the journey of Old Testament Israel means the significance of its Old Covenant is unlocked by the New Testament, which is itself hidden in the Old.
Now some people advocate for the continuation of the practices of that Old Covenant today, even charging racism against those who overstate the priority of Christianity. The Bible simply shows, though, that the Christian Church has fulfilled the story and promises of Old Testament Israel and there is no second pathway to relationship with God for anyone. This is critical in interpreting the Bible’s overall message and mandate about finding salvation through Jesus.
This so-called ‘Replacement Theology,’ which is also called ‘Supersessionism,’ is often criticised if misunderstood. We might more appropriately refer to it as ‘Fulfilment Theology.’ The priority of the Church and its head, Jesus Christ, is the New Covenant’s (or New Testament’s) focus. It does not denigrate a particular ethnicity or religious system, even though some have misrepresented this distinction in racial terms over time.
Here’s why a fulfilment lens helpfully enables a better sense of the relevance of the Old Testament in pointing to the priority of the New.
1. The Bible Affirms Fulfilment through its Typology.
In 1 Corinthians 10, we see a typology presented by which the Red Sea Crossing is described in verse 11 as an example to those on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come. The idea here is that the Cross acts as a filter to make sense of the continuing provision of God for His people as the New Covenant builds on the Old (while also rendering it obsolete, according to Hebrews 8:13).
It mentions that the Red Sea is itself a symbol of Baptism and the striking of the Rock in the wilderness a prefiguring of the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ. Since Jesus referred to Himself also as the bread of Heaven (John 6:48-51) we start to see the links. Moses, the deliverer, also symbolises Christ. Pharaoh is the god of the ‘world’ of Egypt and symbolises Satan (and 2 Corinthians 4:4 is helpful here). Consider, too, the importance of 1 Corinthians 5:6-7 in showing how the unleavened bread represents Jesus’ sinless sacrifice, or how the second water crossing represents the second element of the new birth, the role of the Spirit as identified in Jesus’ John 3 conversation with Nicodemus.
Historical-grammatical principles are important for making sense of the ‘then and there’ world of the Old Testament, but typology additionally and importantly bridges it to the ‘here and now.’ That the sacrifice of Isaac so specifically signifies the atonement of Jesus, that the Ark of the Covenant represents God as Trinity, or that the stories of Ruth and Esther importantly use women to showcase redemption, all highlight the overwhelming importance of Typology in showcasing contemporary relevance by means of the Old Testament’s specific fulfilment.
2. The Bible Affirms Fulfilment through its Language.
In Exodus 19:6, Israel is referred to as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. The original Israel, Jacob, had his name changed after wrestling with God to symbolise our need of a personal encounter with God and not an inherited third-generation faith. The new name meant ‘Prince with God.’ God clearly had a high view of the people with whom He was in a covenant relationship sealed by blood (which also pointing to a future fulfilment in Jesus’ sacrifice). Old Testament symbolism clearly presents many shadows of later realities, as explained in Hebrews 10:1.
Interestingly, 1 Peter 2:9 uses almost the same language (“a royal priesthood and a holy nation”) for the Church. Called to a life of holiness and ministry for God, Christians are the new kings and queens who co-rule with Christ in this life by virtue of their delegated spiritual authority. (This is well depicted by C. S. Lewis in his elevation of the Pevensie children to royalty toward the end of his Christian allegory, ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.’) The link between these verses is clearly not accidental. Linkage to the Promised Land inheritance in the Exodus story is that this signifies a spiritual life in which spiritual battles can be fought and won.
In addition, Galatians 6:16 refers to the Church as “the Israel of God.” In context, Paul highlights the importance of the new creation (being made new by virtue of relationship with Christ), rather than circumcision. Craig Keener’s magisterial commentary on the book concurs with this interpretation, showing that Galatians regards Gentiles as no different to Jews before God in Christ (3:28), that they are the seed of Abraham and heirs of the covenant (3:29), and that the heavenly Jerusalem is identified with Jesus’ followers (4:26).
3. The Bible Affirms Fulfilment through its Prophecy.
In Daniel 9:24-27, we see a difficult passage often assumed to refer to a seven-year end-time peace treaty made between the Antichrist and Israel. Some see that it is broken half-way, triggering a rapture to rescue Christians who are then transferred to the presence of God (although some see this happening prior, yet no rapture is specifically spoken of in the Bible outside of the Second Coming). This interpretation comes from a particular reading that is not shared by those who see this prophecy logically as a single period of time that simply marks the end of God’s dealings with Israel under the Old Covenant. This aligns to many ‘Day of the Lord’ prophecies which have a more immediate relevance but then point forward to further fulfilment in Christ.
A decree to rebuild, as in Daniel 9:25 was issued in 458 B.C. by Artaxerxes in Ezra 7 (technically we might look for a later one, but this decree commenced the prophetic time-clock). The seventy weeks of Daniel’s prophecy are seventy continuous seven-year periods (e.g. in Leviticus 25:8). There were therefore 490 years marked out for the people of God “and their holy city.” The first 483 of these take us to the verge of the most significant period, the final seven, in which an “anointed one” comes.
After an initially unspecified period, he is cut-off, clearly here speaking of the death of Jesus. It is then shown that there is a covenant confirmed with Israel for seven years, interrupted half-way by an end to the sacrificial system. This speaks of the New Covenant building upon the Old where Israel’s remaining three-and-a-half years in this prophecy ends with the stoning of Stephen and the call of Paul to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. That the second half of verses 26 and 27 speak of a different figure is due to some literary parallelism and this is clear from Matthew 24:15 where Jesus clarifies their reference to the final destruction of the Jewish Temple in A.D. 70.
Even more remarkable here is that the timeline forecasts the commencement of Jesus’ ministry in A.D. 26 (with no year zero for the B.C. to A.D. changeover). This is because the date is verified by Luke 3:1 due to Tiberius commencing his co-regency in A.D. 12, by Luke 3:23 where Jesus’ birth was probably in 5 B.C. given the claim by Josephus that Herod the Great died in 4 B.C., and by John 2:20 where the construction of the temple for 46 years places the verse in A.D. 27 (just months after Jesus’ baptism).
The Daniel 9 passage clearly shows the diminished importance of Israelite worship beyond the first century. That Paul implies a future for Israel (e.g. Romans 11:26) is understood as yet another reference to the entire company of the people of God who, in context, are redeemed to God only through Christ. There is no alternative plan for Israel since all must now come to faith through Jesus (John 14:6).
When we are prepared to use a typological lens to make sense of the Old Testament, realising that the New Testament’s language underscores it, and realising that eschatology assumes it, the centrality of the Cross and the pre-eminence of the Church is upheld. This then ensures that we keep the main thing the main thing! Over-emphasis of secondary issues serve to distract us from the core messages of Scripture far too often. It is a fulfilment lens that can enhance our perspective and keep us centred on the priority of Christ who makes sense of everything the Old and New Testament teach us.