While the word "fullness" occurs several times in the Old Testament, only one occurrence Deuteronomy 33:16seems to have theological significance. In Deuteronomy 33:16-17, Moses blesses the tribe of Joseph. As he describes the various facets of God's blessing on Joseph, he moves from material blessing to the favor of God. Moses' reference to the "best gifts of the earth and its fullness" may anticipate spiritual blessings such as peace and joy, which come from God himself.
The New Testament uses the word "fullness" (pleroma [plhvrwma]) seventeen times. The four occurrences in Matthew and Mark ( Matt 9:16 ; Mark 2:21 ; 6:43 ; 8:20 ) are not theologically significant. The use of the term in John 1:16, however, is. There John the Baptist speaks of the One who comes after him as blessing "from the fullness of his grace."
The remaining twelve uses of the term all occur in Paul's writings (in 1 Corinthians, Romans, Colossians, and Ephesians). The statement in 1 Corinthians 10:26 is actually a quotation of Psalm 24:1. Like many Old Testament references, it remains on the material level. The four occurrences in Romans, however, are highly theological.
In Romans 11, Paul discusses the fate of the nation of Israel, which has rejected its Messiah. Beginning in verse 11, Paul explains God's purpose in Israel's unbelief. He says that God's plan is to use Israel's unbelief to bring about the salvation of the Gentiles, which in turn will provoke Israel to faith in their own Messiah. Then in verse 12, he contrasts the results of Israel's transgression/defeat for the world with the results of their "fullness" for the world. Paul does not spell out the results here, but verse 15 speaks of "life from the dead." This phrase has been interpreted to mean either an extensive turning to faith in Christ by the Gentiles or the actual resurrection in conjunction with the return of Christ. But it seems clear that in this context, "fullness" refers to an extensive acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah by the nation of Israel. The illustration of the olive tree in verses 17-24 makes the point that God is able to regraft the natural branches (unbelieving Israelites) back into their own olive tree (salvation brought about through Israel's Messiah).
The conclusion of Paul's treatment of Israel's unbelief is presented in 11:25-32. In verse 26 he clearly states that through God's plan the nation of Israel will be saved, brought to faith in Jesus. Israel's temporary unbelief will last only until the "fullness" of the Gentiles comes about (v. 25). Although the meaning of this entire passage is intensely debated, this verse seems to refer to the complete number of the elect among the Gentiles who must be saved before the conversion of Israel and the coming of Christ.
In Romans 13:10, Paul asserts that the "fullness" or complete purpose of the law is love. He speaks of himself in 15:29 as coming to the church at Rome in the "fullness of the blessing of Christ." Both are straightforward statements about the completeness of abundance that the word "fullness" implies.
To the church at Colossae, which was struggling against heretical teachings that detracted from the person of Christ, Paul stresses that all the fullness of God dwells in Christ (1:19; 2:9). This usage is also highly theological and intends to assert the deity of Christ.
In Ephesians, Paul speaks of the times reaching their fulfillment (lit. the "fullness of the times"). This eschatological statement affirms that human history will be brought to its God-ordained purpose in Christ the head. Ephesians 1:23 has been understood in two different ways. "Fullness" may be viewed as going with Christ's body, in which case it would speak of the importance of the church to Christ. It is his completeness, and in some way manifests Christ's presence on earth. "Fullness" might also be viewed as referring back to Christ. In this case it would affirm that Christ is the fullness or completeness of God who fills everything.
In Ephesians 3:19 Paul expresses his prayer for the Ephesian believers, that they may be strengthened and come to understand Christ's love for them. He then states that this love of Christ is to be filled with the "fullness" of God. Although Paul does not spell out his intent here, it seems that as the believer is controlled by Christ's love, that person is indwelt by God's presence or "fullness." Later in the letter, Paul describes the practical qualities that God desires in the body of Christ: unity and maturity. Christ causes the body to be built up until each believer attains to the "fullness" of the perfection that is found in Christ ( 4:13 ).
Hobert K. Farrell
Bibliography. F. Foulkes, Ephesians; L. Morris, The Epistle to the Romans; N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Fullness'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".