Promise and fulfillment in the Bible
James M. Arlandson
One of the most significant misunderstandings about the interrelation between the Old and New Testaments is the process of promise and fulfillment, as God supervised his revelations over a long span of fourteen hundred years, moving from the Old to the New.
Sometimes this process is equated with abrogation (cancellation) of a given verse in the Quran, which is replaced with another one, maybe shortly afterwards, according to changing circumstances. But the two processes differ widely.
What are the differences between the two? One big difference among many stands out: the person, life, and ministry of Christ.
As for the Biblical process of promise and fulfillment, we use two examples. Isaiah 53 speaks of the suffering of the Servant Messiah. Jeremiah 31:31-34 promises the New Covenant. Christ’s death fulfilled the suffering described in Isaiah 53. Jeremiah promises a New Covenant, and God fulfills it in Christ on the cross. The Old Testament points to Christ, and he fulfills its prophecies and promises. The Old is to the New what promise is to fulfillment.
The process works out like this:
- Long ago, God promises and prophesies a Servant-Messiah and a New Covenant (Isaiah 53 and Jeremiah 31:31-34).
- God fulfills his promises and prophecies in Jesus Christ.
- Now Christians live in a new era of Christ’s salvation and his New Covenant.
- Fulfillment entails completion, so the process cannot go on indefinitely.
This is straightforward and unambiguous: promise and fulfillment.
The Quran’s abrogation process is not so straightforward and stable. Allah sends down one verse, but when circumstances change, he then abrogates or cancels it, replacing it with another verse, which is either similar or better, maybe in the same sura, maybe elsewhere in the Quran. Sura 2:106 says: "Whatever communications [revelations] We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring one better than it or like it" (Shakir; addition in brackets is mine). This process is seen in Sura 9, one of the last chapters to be revealed, if not the last one. Allah commands in one verse that everyone should fight in holy wars, but then he says in a later verse that the weak and disabled are exempt. Classical Muslim commentator Ibn Kathir explains the process.
First, Ibn Kathir cites the verse that is about to be abrogated:
9:41 March forth whether you are light or heavy with your wealth and your lives in the cause of Allah.
Then he isolates a clause (in quotation marks) and explains the shifting circumstances:
"March forth whether you are light or heavy" whether you are rich, poor, strong, or weak. A man came forward, and he was fat, complained, and asked permission to stay behind [from Jihad], but the Prophet refused . . . and it [verse 41] became hard on the people.
Then Ibn Kathir quotes the new revelation that abrogates verse 41:
So Allah abrogated it with this [verse 9:91]:
9:91 There is no blame on those who are weak or ill or who find no resources to spend, if they are sincere and true (in duty) to Allah and His Messenger."
So this means, in short, that verse 41 is canceled by changing circumstances (the sick and infirm) and is replaced with verse 91 in the same sura.
Source: Tafsir Ibn Kathir, ed. Safiur-Rahman al-Mubarakpuri, Riyadh: Darussalam, 2000, vol. 4, pp. 432-43
The Quran’s abrogation process works out like this.
- Allah sends down a verse.
- Intervening circumstances emerge or develop.
- Allah cancels the first verse.
- He replaces it with another, which may be similar (or "like it") or better.
- Since the first four steps depend on circumstances, the steps could potentially go on indefinitely.
Therefore, Quranic abrogation is far different from Biblical promise and fulfillment. These differences can be seen in the following illustrations.