State, process, or act by which a situation comes to a complete end, whether ultimately good or bad. While fulfillment may be extended over an indefinite period of time, there are several occasions in Scripture in which a specific situation is being described, such as gestation and birth ( Gen 25:25 ; Job 39:1-2 ; Luke 1:57 ; 2:6 ), or the forty-day period of time announced by Jonah for the destruction of Nineveh (3:3), which was averted when the Ninevites repented.
The Old Testament. The concept of fulfillment is expressed chiefly by the Hebrew words mala [ael'm], "fulfill, accomplish, terminate, " and kala [a'l'K], "be finished, completed." The word qum [Wq], which has a wide range of meanings, also carries the sense of accomplishment in the causative form, "made to stand." The first of these terms is often used of God bringing to fruition something that he has promised, and is thus important in the context of prophetic utterances. Predictions of this kind could be fulfilled within a short period of time, as occurred when a godly man prophesied the end of the house of Eli the priest ( 1 Sam 2:27-36 ). This dire prediction was fulfilled when Solomon removed Abiathar from the high priesthood ( 1 Kings 2:27 ), a circumstance that did not escape the notice of the author of Kings.
By contrast, a longer interval of time elapsed between Jeremiah's prophecy that Judah would be enslaved by Babylon for seventy years ( 25:11 ) and the accomplishing of that act ( 52:12-15 ). Again, the fulfillment of the process was duly recorded, this time by the Chronicler ( 2 Chron 36:21 ). The prayer of Daniel for the restoration of the devastated Jerusalem temple was answered by the startling revelation of seventy weeks that would involve the Messiah ( 9:1-27 ).
The New Testament. The Greek vocabulary for fulfillment consists of the terms pleroo [plhrovw], "to fill, " which reflects the sense of the Hebrew mala [ael'm], and teleo [televw], "to complete, bring to an end, " along with their cognate forms. Because of the development of a messianic expectation over the centuries, the Jews of Jesus Christ's day were filled with the thought that the Messiah might appear at any moment to overthrow the oppressive Rome and lead the Jews to supremacy in the world. Peter, for example, espoused initially the belief that the Messiah was to be a national leader, bringing victory in battle for his enslaved people ( Mark 8:32-33 ). Only after the resurrection did Peter gain lasting insight into the true character of Christ's messiahship.
It was the custom in the early Christian church to interpret many Old Testament passages in a typological manner. This meant that some early events, personages, and religious traditions were understood to have been foreshadowings, predictions, or "types, " the significance of which would become clear when they were fulfilled in the larger context of the Christian gospel. The "type" was then contrasted with an "antitype" or counterpart, which constituted the reality of what had been prefigured. Thus the Passover lamb was the "type" or figure of Christ, our Passover sacrificed for us ( 1 Cor 5:7 ). Similarly the Hebrew holy places of human construction, such as the wilderness tabernacle, were the types and shadows of that true abode of spirituality into which Christ, our High Priest, entered with his own blood ( Heb 8:5-6 ; 9:11-12 ).
Jesus himself gave sanction to this form of interpreting Old Testament events by describing the elevation of the serpent in the wilderness ( Num 21:8-9 ) as a type of symbol of his own saving work on Calvary ( John 3:14-15 ). In the same manner Melchizedek, king of Salem, was a type of the eternal priesthood of Christ ( Heb 7:1-10 ). In his teachings, Jesus employed the typological approach to contrast the temporality of the wilderness manna with the permanent quality of the sustenance that he, as the living bread, could offer ( John 6:32-35 ).
Again, the manna ( Exod 16:14-16 ) and the water that gushed from the rock in the wilderness ( Exod 17:6 ; Num 20:11 ) were interpreted by Paul as depicting the sustaining Christ who was with the Lord's ancient people in their journey ( 1 Cor 10:3-4 ). John the Baptist was the one who fulfilled Malachi's prediction of a forerunner for the Messiah ( Mal 4:5 ) in his preaching and his life, while Jesus in his atoning death brought to fulfillment the new covenant promised by Jeremiah ( 31:31-34 ; cf. Heb 8:8-12 ; 10:16-17 ). In this connection it is important to notice that typology considers the various types in their historical framework and stresses their reliability accordingly.
Enough had been said to demonstrate the way in which early believers perceived a deeper level of spirituality in what could have been taken simply as ordinary historical occurrences in the Old Testament period. That they were able to do this satisfactorily, encouraged by the approach of the Master himself to typology, contrasted sharply with the attitude of most contemporary Jews toward Christ's teaching. The reason for this was that the Jews were looking for the fulfillment of messianic prophecies in terms of nationalistic and materialistic considerations. For them, the Messiah would appear as God's champion to expel the hated Roman occupation army and introduce the age when powerful nations would do homage to the Lord in Jerusalem ( Zec 8:20-23 ). But when Christians began to appreciate Christ's teaching that his kingdom was not of this world ( John 18:36 ), they also perceived that the fulfillment of the predictions concerning the coming of a new covenant relationship between the believer and God constituted the beginning of a new phase of spirituality in which some messianic promises were yet to be fulfilled.
In the light of this situation it appears necessary to look more closely at the dynamics of fulfillment. Unfortunately, no matter how or when it occurs, whether as the result of prediction or of naturally occurring cycles, a process is involved that in most instances is inscrutable or at best poorly understood. This process simply could not come to completion unless it was fostered and sustained by specific forces. Even if it is plain that God was acting as the causative agent, as in creation, for example, all that can be said with certainty is that there was a consistently high quality of power and planning that guided the process in all of its phases, and that quality controls ("and God saw that it was good") were being exercised at certain intervals. As the project became more complex the creative powers were able to sustain the growth schedule required so that the various phases came into interrelated operation on time ("third day, " "fourth day, " etc.). When the entire process had been assessed and the final stage had been completed satisfactorily, the fulfillment received God's seal of approval" very good" ( Gen 1:31 ).
To our embarrassment we know nothing about the mechanics of the creative process as such, and in any event it defies scientific definition since it is impossible to replicate it. What is apparent even to the casual observer, however, is that it was characterized by enormous power that functioned under strict control in fulfilling the purposes of God. By the time that the earth had been made ready for human habitation, God was ready to prepare Homo sapiens for the earth ( Gen 2:18-25 ). It is significant that human beings took absolutely no part whatever in this creative activity, and in the end were only passive participants in what had been fulfilled. Clearly God does not need human beings to fulfill his major creative plans, but has included them so that they will glorify him as Creator and Lord by their way of life and their personal commitment in obedience, faith, and holiness.
This relationship, however, not only draws human beings into the privileged position of participating in God's will for earth's inhabitants, but also in a more narrowly defined sense establishes them as individual messengers of God's purposes for his creation. Accordingly God chose a certain group to be his representatives, and entered into a covenant relationship with them in the expectation that they would be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation ( Exod 19:6 ). This group, the Israelites, was to glorify God at the level of local community living as well as in the area of international relationships.
Because they were the visible presence on earth of an invisible deity and a guarantee of his existence in human society, they functioned as his messengers, individually and corporately, to the ancient Near Eastern world. Those of God's servants who observed the covenant stipulations rigorously and obeyed God's leading were endued with his creative and sustaining power. Some of them, in fact, have gone down in history for their messages of weal or woe. In the main they were prophetic personages, although not necessarily of a major order.
The character of their activities has been much misrepresented by attempts to explain the nature and function of the title "prophet." This is actually a Greek term comprising the preposition pro [prov], meaning "before" in space or time, and a noun derived from the verb phemi [fhmiv], "to speak." An enormous amount of fruitless debate has arisen over the question of whether the prophet was a "foreteller, " involving prediction, or a "forthteller, " that is, the proclaimer of a message to his contemporaries without any necessarily futuristic content. What debaters should have done was to ignore the Greek term and concentrate on the meaning of the most commonly used Hebrew term, nabi [ayib"n].
This word, related to the Mesopotamian nabu ("announce"), actually means "one called." Having established that the prophet had in fact been called to his vocation by God, a simple perusal of prophetic messages would demonstrate that those who proclaimed them normally spoke not only to their own times but also to the future as they proclaimed God's tidings. The true prophetic call placed the recipient firmly within the stream of the Holy Spirit's power ( Numbers 11:17 Numbers 11:25 ), which used him to point in various ways to the fulfillment of God's purposes in society.
Visions, dreams, and direct communications were the principal means by which God conveyed his will ( Num 12:5-8 ) to his prophetic servants. As a result, their messages carried a special dynamism which, interestingly enough, makes their ethical and spiritual pronouncements relevant for modern times. That prophecies were no idle proclamations is evidenced by the number that were fulfilled. They included unheeded warnings about the impending destruction of Near Eastern peoples who disobeyed God's laws for society. Their outworking is now merely a matter of historical record.
The most dynamic of these utterances was one that linked the old and new covenants. Proclaimed at the fall of humanity ( Gen 3:15 ), the promise of deliverance from evil was continued in the Abrahamic covenant ( Gen 22:18 ), confirmed in David's succession ( 2 Sam 7:12-13 ), and announced as a messianic figure by Isaiah (7:14; 53:1-12), Jeremiah (23:5-6), and Malachi (3:1), among others. On the purely social level the messianic line was very nearly severed in the time of Athaliah, who usurped the throne of Judah and killed all the royal family except the young Joash ( 2 Kings 11:1-12 ). God's messianic plan was not to be thwarted, however, and in the fullness of time ( Gal 4:4 ) Christ, the Lord's Anointed One, was born, thus fulfilling the pledge made to Abraham. In the New Testament the fulfillment of prophecy by Christ validated the long-cherished messianic expectation, leading Paul to state that Jesus was the person in whom every one of God's promises was fulfilled with an emphatic "yes" ( 2 Cor 1:20 ).
Some Old Testament predictions are still firmly enshrined within the stream of human history and await future fulfillment. Prominent among these are the apocalyptic pronouncements of Zechariah ( 14:1-9 ) that describe the second coming of Christ. This situation is also true of the New Testament, where the atoning work of Jesus, while bringing one era to fulfillment, has actually opened a new and wider vision of God's power working through the fellowship of believers. With the coming of the Holy Spirit ( Acts 2:1-4 ) an unprecedented burst of divine power was unleashed upon the world, sustaining those who proclaimed the gospel initially ( Acts 1:8 ), and assuring their successors of grace and strength to bring the mission to its proper fruition. Christians are thus part of a dynamic prophetic process which, in the Lord's good time, will culminate in the return of Jesus in glory and all that such a fulfillment of divine promise implies. Sincere discipleship demands that believers should not merely expect this event but should work actively toward its realization.
R. K. Harrison
Bibliography. F. F. Bruce, This Is That; C. H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures; P. Fairbairn, Typology of Scripture; W. G. Scroggie, Prophecy and History.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Fulfillment'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".