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.
The first one illustrates the promise and fulfillment process.
Let’s imagine that I promise to give you a priceless gift of a diamond. Even though it is a free gift and I’m not bound to offer it to you, I write you a promissory note, which obligates me to fulfill my promise (note the word "promise" in "promissory"). A month later, I give you the diamond. My promise has been fulfilled, and the diamond is far better than the promise. You now enjoy the reality of the diamond without any fear that I will change my mind. It is finished. And you are grateful, not confused or insecure.
This is like the promise of salvation in Isaiah 53 and a New Covenant in Jeremiah 31. God promises (promissory note) to send the Messiah and a New Covenant (both represented as one priceless diamond). Around 700 to 500 years later, God fulfills his promise and gives us Christ as our salvation and our New Covenant. Now we can benefit from the original promise and its fulfillment. Everything has been paid in full. And the reality of God’s gift of salvation and a Covenant is much better than the promise. However good and sacred the promises and prophecies were, they were mere words by comparison to their reality. We are grateful for the "new thing" that God has brought about (Isaiah 42:9, 43:19, and 48:6).
A similar (but not identical) illustration explains the Quran’s abrogation process.
Let’s imagine that I give you a priceless gift of a diamond (a Quranic revelation). But then a week later I see you on the street wearing the diamond. Without advance notice I walk up to you, take the diamond away, and replace it with another diamond—maybe of a higher quality (though Sura 2:106 does not guarantee this). The second diamond may be merely "similar to" or "like" the first. My only explanation is that circumstances have changed, so the first diamond must be taken away. How does this make you feel secure? What if other circumstances arise later? Will I take the second diamond from you? Theoretically, the process could go on indefinitely. You are right to question my character and stability. I seem fickle because I am tied down to immediate circumstances that I am unable to anticipate.
This is like Quranic abrogation. A verse is sent down, but in a short time it is canceled and replaced with a similar or better verse after circumstances change. Anyone has a right to question the character and stability of this deity. He seems tied down to immediate circumstances that he is unable to anticipate.
The primary differences between the sequence of steps and the illustrations can be summarized in four ways.
(1) The New Testament fulfillment process has a clear and unified foundation and aim in Christ, whereas the Quran’s abrogation process does not have a clear and unified foundation and aim, but shifts according to circumstances.
The Bible is anchored in Jesus Christ, as it moves from the Old Covenant to the New. The person and work of the eternal Son of God ushers in the New Covenant by fulfilling the Old Covenant. He serves as the direction or the goal of the Old, in countless verses, like the ones in Isaiah 53 and Jeremiah 31. So the promises in the Old and their fulfillment in the New give significance to the progress of revelations. This means that the process has a completion and finality in the very being of Christ Jesus. He brings stability and security.
On the other hand, the Quran shifts in tone and revelations after the Hijrah (Emigration from Mecca to Medina in AD 622). The prophet dies of a fever in AD 632, and a number of abrogations happen in these ten years. It seems, then, that geography and the social environment from one city to the next explains, to a large degree, the many changes in revelations. The fluctuating circumstances after the Hijrah often determine the fluctuating revelations in a short time. To refer to our example again in Sura 9, everyone must fight, but then some are infirm, so not everyone must fight. What happens if the circumstances change after this? A new revelation may come down from on high and abrogate the second revelation, a process that potentially could be repeated over and over.
(2) Specific promises are found in the Bible, but not in the Quran before and during abrogation; therefore, human expectation and hope are found in the Bible, but not in the Quran in the same way.
The Old Testament specifies promises of good things for those who wait. It is our promissory note. Long ago, it promised the Messiah and the New Covenant. People expect God will act faithfully. He predicts, and it comes to pass. This is in fact what happened throughout Biblical history, as God oversaw and supervised the progress of revelation from the Old to the New. Now people’s expectations have been fulfilled.
In the Quran, a verse comes down and people receive it and live according to it. Allah commands everyone to fight without advanced notice. There is nothing wrong with not notifying a people of a revelation beforehand. But what happens if the verse is cancelled? Where is the specific promise so that people can expect its fulfillment? Most importantly, where is the fulfillment? Something different from expectation may take place in the human heart. They may be surprised at the change. Why would they not be surprised continually, as they move from one command and abrogation to the next?
This is why the person of Christ is so important in the New Testament promise and fulfillment process. The Old Testament testifies to him, and he fulfills it, so people’s expectations are answered and fulfilled in the New.
(3) God and Allah see into the future differently.
God sees ahead, and in the Old Testament he promises a diamond. The New Testament fulfills this promise. He gives us the diamond, and that is the end of the process. God is neither caught off guard nor surprised by a future event or changing circumstances. He will not abrogate the work of Christ on the cross. Fulfillment means completion and finality.
In contrast, Allah sends down a verse, but then he changes his mind, from one revelation to the next, according to the changing circumstances. Again, he says in Sura 9:41 that everyone should fight, but in 9:91 he says that some are exempt. He seems unable to see into the future clearly and to anticipate the circumstances. What does this say about his power?
(4) These differences in the process of promise and fulfillment in the Bible and abrogation in the Quran suggest that God’s and Allah’s character are different.
God’s clarity and ability to make specific promises well in advance and to fulfill them in detail means that his character is consistent and stable. He promises, gives us the ultimate diamond, and will not take it away. His gift is complete. In fact, the promise and fulfillment spring from his good character, as he speaks his revelations from one era to the next.
On the other hand, Allah may change his mind, immediately after he reveals a verse. He gives us a diamond, but a week later he takes it from us. True, he gives another diamond in its place, but the second one may not be superior, only similar. But even if the replacement were better, this process and change are still unstable and inconsistent. This means his character is needlessly unpredictable. If he was going to change his mind about the first diamond, then he should have given us the second one from the beginning. Sovereignty and testing humans is one thing, but this abrogation process is capricious, since he had not promised anything specific, which would produce the hope in us for a "new thing."
The most important difference between Quranic abrogation and Biblical promise and fulfillment is the person and work of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament points to him, and he fulfills our hopes and expectations. He anchors the fourteen hundred years of progress of revelations from the Old to the New Covenants in his own person, creating stability.
The Quran’s abrogation, on the other hand, is not anchored in the same way, but it depends on shifting sands of circumstances that are wind-blown in a short time. This creates instability and needless unpredictability and capriciousness.