Jesus Fulfills the Old Testament Story

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“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”—Matthew 5:17–20

Core Truth: The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus reenact and fulfill the Old Testament story.

Jesus is God’s agent to bring salvation to a lost humanity and heal a broken world. The New Testament seeks to announce the gospel of Jesus—his life, death, and resurrection—as the fullest expression of Israel’s story. The story line that began with creation, the fall, and Israel reaches its climax in Jesus the Messiah.

Jesus: Creation and the Fall

Jesus fulfills the potential of humanity. Jesus comes to model the ideal human life. He serves God’s mission by announcing God’s kingdom. He creates a new community and expands God’s people’s understanding of community. He embodies the character of God to the world. In other words, Jesus lives out the story that Adam and Eve and every subsequent human were supposed to live.

Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross makes it possible for us to be human again. Jesus dies to demonstrate decisively and definitively God’s power, desire, and ability to save. Jesus dies for our sins so that we can live. Jesus dies so that condemnation, death, injustice, fear, pain, suffering, shame, darkness, alienation, depression, deprivation, humiliation, brokenness, and all of the other challenges and afflictions that result from the effects of the fall of humanity will not have the final word. God’s final word to humanity and all creation is life. This is the good news.

Jesus and the New Israel

Jesus’ life retells Israel’s story. As we read the New Testament, we will find quotations and references to the Old Testament on virtually every page. The biblical authors make it clear that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus brings the Old Testament story and God’s promises to a climax. In the Gospels, Jesus’ ministry follows the preaching of John the Baptist. The Gospels present John as the last of the Old Testament prophets who arrives to prepare the way the coming of the Messiah. Jesus’ birth stories (Matthew 1–2 and Luke 1–2) present Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophetic expectations.

Jesus and the Kingdom

Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming God’s kingdom. This kingdom is the fulfillment of the promised new future (new covenant/new heart/new king) envisioned and proclaimed by Israel’s prophets. Jesus understands his words and actions as a declaration of the arrival of God’s future age of salvation into the present. In Luke 4:16–21, we encounter the remarkable story of Jesus standing up in his hometown synagogue and reading from Isaiah 61:1–2: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19). Kingdom language in Jesus’ day captures the expectations and hopes embedded in the words of the prophets.

Jesus also creates a new Israel by calling twelve disciples to himself. These twelve disciples mirror the twelve tribes of Old Testament Israel. The community Jesus launches becomes a new Israel, which exists to bless the nations by proclaiming and embodying the kingdom in imitation of Jesus the Messiah. Jesus leads this missional community and trains them to extend God’s blessings in/to/for the nations.

Jesus teaches the fullest meaning of the Mosaic covenant (Matt. 5:17–20). Jesus embraces love as the overarching theme for understanding the ethos of God’s people (Matt. 5:43–48). Jesus’ ethic involves holding together the twin commandments: love God and love neighbor. Jesus teaches and embodies an expanded vision of neighbor. He challenges our tendency to limit love to those closest and most like us. He lifts up the model of God the Father who “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). Jesus works to eliminate barriers that prevent outsiders from experiencing God’s salvation through the work of God’s people.

Jesus as Israel’s Messiah

Jesus fulfills the messianic expectations of the Old Testament. The New Testament refers to him as Jesus Christ or Messiah. Christ means Messiah. This is Jewish language for the return of God’s anointed king to deliver his people from oppression and lead them in his mission. The ideal Israelite king was the appointed agent through whom God administered his kingdom. The promises to David (2 Sam. 7) served to raise the expectation of a renewal of kingship. Thus, it is significant that Jesus is linked genealogically with the lineage of David (Matt. 1:1–17 and Luke 3:23). Moreover, the crowds often acknowledged Jesus as Son of David. The final week of Jesus’ life begins with his dramatic entry into Jerusalem riding a donkey. This act is bold and daring because through it Jesus symbolically announces his identity as Messiah. Israel’s Scriptures had foretold of the return of Messiah to Jerusalem upon a donkey (Zech. 9:9–10).

Jesus’ Death and Resurrection

The events of Jesus’ crucifixion unfold in fulfillment of the Old Testament. Jesus gathers with his disciples on the night of his betrayal to eat the Passover meal. Jesus’ death occurs precisely when God’s people were remembering the exodus. Jesus’ death and resurrection announce a new liberation for all the earth. On the cross, God defeats all sin, death, suffering, and shame. Jesus dies embodying the words of Psalm 22. Jesus quotes verse 1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” While Jesus suffers, other events from Psalm 22 unfold around him including the insults of those watching, soldiers gambling for his clothes, and water pouring out of his side. The psalm ends with the hope of vindication (22:22–31). By quoting Psalm 22, Jesus demonstrates his identification with the suffering psalmist, but also anticipates his deliverance in the resurrection. From birth to resurrection, Jesus’ life reenacts the Old Testament story.

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Dr. Brian Russell is Dean of the School of Urban Ministries and Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is also a consultant and speaker on the missional interpretation of Scripture and creating a missional ethos in communities of faith.

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