FULFILL, FULFILLMENT. To deal fully with all that is involved in the idea of fulfillment would require a study of several broad theological themes, because it is a key concept of Christian thought. It will be possible here only (1) to indicate the various Heb. and Gr. words which represent the idea and to bring out their significance; (2) to show the relationship between promise and fulfillment and to bring into focus the relevance of the OT; (3) to analyze the various types of fulfillment illustrated in the Bible; and (4) to note the special NT ideas of fulfillment.
Discussion of the terms used.
The Gr. forms τελειόω, τελέω and συντελέω, G5334, are also associated with the idea of fulfillment, but with the special emphasis on the idea of completeness. Thus teleióō is used of the fulfillment of Scripture in John 19:28 (cf. Luke 2:43, where it is used in a temporal sense of the finishing of the period of days). Teléō is used of the fulfillment of prophecy in Acts 13:29 in the sense of “completing,” while sunteléō occurs in Mark 13:4, where it describes the accomplishment of what Jesus had predicted.
The relation of promise to fulfillment.
Fulfillment presupposes previous prediction, and it is essential to understand the nature of the prediction to appreciate the significance of the fulfillment. The OT concentrates the promises in the covenant relationship and in the Messianic hopes. The OT was in fact forward-pointing and takes on its true meaning only in the light of the consummation found in the NT. The OT is to the NT as promise is to fulfillment. The Apostle Paul makes much of the promises made to Abraham in his Roman epistle (ch. 4). These promises he clearly sees to have been fulfilled in Christ. It was the glory of Abraham’s faith that it staggered not at the difficulties inherent in the fulfillment, because he was convinced of the inviolability of the promise. This is typical of the OT revelation. It was never represented as being complete in itself. There was always something more glorious to follow.
The early Christian appeal to OT citations is a striking reminder of the importance of the idea of fulfillment for primitive Christian theology. The Acts speeches are full of such citations and so are the gospels. Moreover, in the epistles there are frequent appeals to the OT fulfillments, and various formulae of citation are employed to bring out the nature of fulfillment.
The essential link between the Testaments is never more clearly seen than under this concept. It is fundamental to the Scriptural presentation of God that He must keep His promises. The Scripture cannot be broken (cf. John 10:35), and for this reason fulfillment is certain. It was no more than might be expected. However, fulfillment did confirm the faith of those who either at the time or else later recognized that some former prediction of God had come to pass. It was this sense of thrilling fulfillment that gave to primitive Christianity a remarkable air of joyfulness. The age to come had arrived. Promise had merged into fulfillment. More will be said later about this under the fourth sub-section.
Various types of fulfillment.
Fulfillment in the NT.
The early Christians were deeply impressed with the fact that the salvation events centered in Jesus Christ were fulfillments of Scripture. “According to the Scriptures” was a fixed part of the primitive preaching and tradition (cf. 1 Cor 15:3ff.). The gospels contain many instances of events which are said to have happened in fulfillment of OT Testimonia. This is particularly true in Matthew’s gospel, where a group of twelve such testimonies are introduced with some such formula as “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken...” These formulae may at first give the impression that the people concerned with the action were acquainted with the fact that prophecy was being fulfilled, but the citations are for the most part the evangelist’s own commentary on the events. It was in retrospect that the details in the life of Jesus were fulfillments (cf. Matt 12:17ff.). But one of the key factors in the interpretation of fulfilled prophecy was the conviction that all things were planned, working toward a climax. This conviction undoubtedly came from Jesus Himself. When He appeared to the disciples after the resurrection, He said, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). This was the cue for their understanding of the OT.
There is ample evidence that Jesus was conscious of the processes of fulfillment both in His life and His death. When John the Baptist asked whether Jesus was the Coming One, Jesus in reply echoed the words of Isaiah 35:5, 6, and when Judas shared the same dish with him at the supper table Jesus stated that the Son of man goes as it is written of Him (Mark 14:21). At the commencement of the ministry in Luke’s story, Jesus read a passage of Scripture in the synagogue and then declared that Scripture had been fulfilled in their hearing. This consciousness stayed with Him throughout His public ministry. In John’s gospel this idea is most clearly expressed. Jesus was sent to fulfill a divine mission. He was moving toward a specific “hour” which would climax His work. All the evangelists are convinced that the death and resurrection of Jesus occurred in fulfillment of Scripture and this is equally apparent in the speeches in Acts. It is through the Scriptures that Jesus is revealed to be the long promised Messiah.
The NT makes clear that the present age will reach its consummation in the fulfillment of the promise of the eschaton (the last time). The return of Christ is predicted (Matt 25:31; Mark 8:38), and the details given show that the event is still future. The eschaton will be a time of judgment (John 12:48), but in the mercy of God judgment is delayed. Although the present period is a time of partial unfulfillment, the end is certain. It will be a time of great glory for the Son of man and for His people. His kingdom will be established and all the promises concerning it will be fulfilled.
W. J. Beecher, The Prophets and the Promise (1905); R. V. G. Tasker, The OT in the NT (1947); O. Cullmann, Christ and Time (1950); W. G. Küemmel, Promise and Fulfillment (1961); G. von Rad, OT Theology, II (1965), 319-387.