Word Study:

Matthew’s Use of πληρόω


I.       Basic Definitions:

BAD (Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich): some possible meanings include “make full,” “fill,” “fulfill,” “complete,” “finish”


LS (Liddel-Scott’s Classical Greek Dictionary): some possible meanings include “to make full”


II.     Brainstorming

1.     “Fulfill” could mean that a prediction in the Old Testament comes to pass in the New Testament.

2.     “Fulfill” could mean that Matthew can “fill up” the meaning of the Old Testament words/images so that they take on a “fuller” meaning in terms of Christ.

3.     “Fulfill” could mean that the things to which Matthew refers complete the Old Testament imagery or words with their complete, full meaning (thus their meaning was only incomplete in the Old Testament?)


III.    Spade Work

A.    Occurrences in Matthew

1.     Matt 1:22—Jesus’s virgin birth fulfills Isaiah 7:14

Matthew does not interpret this verse in its original context (which was a promise to Ahaz about a child who would soon be born in his day).  It is unclear whether Matthew makes the distinction between the way he uses the verse and its original meaning.

Possibilities: a) He sees this fulfillment as straightforward prediction/ fulfillment; b) He sees a potentiality in the words of the OT that is actualized by Jesus’ birth (original meaning irrelevant).


2.     Matt 2:15—Jesus coming out of Egypt fulfills Hosea 11:1

Similar non-contextual interpretation (originally about the exodus).

Possibilities: a) straightforward prediction/fulfillment (but surely he sees that Hos 11:1 is about the past, about the exodus, and that the subject is Israel); b) Matthew sees Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel.


3.     Matt 2:17—Destruction of babies in Bethlehem by Herod fulfills Jeremiah 31:15

Similar non-contextual interpretation (originally about destruction of the northern kingdom).

Possibilities: a) straightforward prediction (some items in the chapter were understood to be about the new covenant); b) There is a potentiality in the words of the OT that are actualized by an event in the life of Jesus.


4.     Matt 2:23—Jesus being from Nazareth fulfills the promise of a righteous branch in Isaiah 11:1 or the word Nazareth is similar to the word Nazirite (maybe, the Hebrew word for branch is nezer, for Nazirite is nezir).  It is not entirely clear what verse Matthew has in mind).

Similar non-contextual interpretation (either Matthew relates a roughly messianic passage to the village where Jesus grew up [Is 11:1] or he relates words saying that Samson will be a Nazirite [which Jesus was not, Judges 13:5] to that village)


Time out: With this last example we have to conclude that Matthew varies widely in the amount of attention he plays to original contexts.  He is following a messianic star clearly enough.  He likely inherits some passages that others in his environment understood to be messianic (e.g. Micah 5:1,3). In other cases he may have seen something in the original text that connected to the messianic age (Isaiah 7:14; Jeremiah 31:15). 


However, in the case of Matt 2:23, the difference between the original meaning and the fulfillment is so significantly different that we must allow that in some cases Matthew’s interpretation has little or nothing to do with the original context.  Perhaps Matthew believes that most or all of the key events in the life and message of Jesus have a corresponding OT passage.  These he finds on the basis of some similarity, but the similarity varies widely in the degree of connection.


Perhaps Matthew believes that the Holy Spirit has planted the OT with verses relating to the life and message of Jesus.  Jesus “fulfills” these passages, as the Holy Spirit intended.  In this case it is a prediction/fulfillment, but the prediction is not a matter of context, but a matter of hidden meanings the Holy Spirit inspired and implanted in the text.


5.     Matt 3:15—Jesus’s baptism fulfills “all righteousness”

While Matthew does not give us an OT passage, we get the sense that Jesus’s baptism is all “part of the plan.”  In this sense fulfillment involves accomplishing God’s purposes.  It is the “right” thing for them to do.


6.     Matt 4:14—Jesus’s ministry in Galilee the fulfillment of Isaiah 9:1

It is easy to see how one could relate this verse to Jesus’s ministry (originally a promise of the restoration of lands taken by Assyria).


7.     Matt 5:17—Jesus did not come to abolish the Law, but to “fulfill” it.

As our particularization study indicated, Jesus’s fulfilled interpretations of the Law get to the heart of each matter.  Some fulfillments are in greater continuity with the OT than others.  In some cases, the heart of the matter requires Jesus to “countermand” parts of the Law that were concessions on God’s part.


8.     Matt 8:17—Jesus’s healing ministry fulfills Isaiah 53:4

While other NT books (e.g. 1 Peter) relate Isa 53 to Christ’s suffering, Matthew relates this particular verse to Jesus’s healing ministry.


9.     Matt 12:17—Jesus’ silence a part of the plan until he proclaims judgment to the Gentiles, who will hope on him, fulfills Isaiah 42:1-4.

This extended quotation is interesting, not least because it is not entirely clear what it refers to.  Since the preceding words relate to Jesus commanding silence and since Jesus directs his disciples at this point to go to the Jews only, it would seem that the verse relates to Jesus’s silence about his identity until he gives the Great Commission to go to all Gentiles after the resurrection.


10. Matt 13:35—Jesus speaking in parables fulfills Psalm 78:2

While Mark seems to emphasize parables as having a “clouding” effect on the listener without faith (Mark 4), Matthew seems to see them as the unveiling of hidden truths.  This may give us a key to his understanding of fulfillment.  Only those with the right spiritual eyes can see the “fulfilled” meanings of OT passages.


11. Matt 13:48—Here the word is used in its more ordinary sense.  When the net is full, it is drawn ashore.  The parallel with the phrase “the consummation of the age” in the next verse may give us a clue to what fulfillment is ultimately about.  Matthew believes that we have reached a critical mass in the history of the world.  Judgment is imminent and thus salvation for the righteous is at hand as well.  It is the time of fulfillment, completion—it is the time of the end.  Time is all filled up now.


12. Matt 21:4—Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem fulfills Zechariah 9:9 spliced to Isaiah 62:11

The splicing of Scriptures together by catchword (gezerah shewa is the name for the Hebrew rule of interpretation) indicates a dominantly non-contextual approach to the OT.  These passages were interpreted messianically at the time of Christ.


13. Matt 23:32—Sins of Pharisees “fill up” or “complete” the sins of their predecessors

This metaphor is based on the more literal sense of the word as was found in 13:48.  The image is of something filling up, reaching critical mass, completion.


14. Matt 26:54, 56—Scriptures indicate “it must happen in this way”

This verse indicates that Matthew does see the OT words as predictors of what will happen. 


15. Matt 27:9—Events involving Judas fulfill Jeremiah 18:1-3, 32:6-15; Zechariah 11:12-13.

More of the same.


Apparent Meanings of πληρόω in Matthew:

1.     For something to occur that the OT predicted (that is, the OT correctly understood).

2.     To fill something up literally, like a net or a measure.

3.     To bring out the “full” significance of something, the heart of the matter, to bring out the complete meaning or significance.

4.     To reach the appropriate time, the time of completion, the time when something is finished



B.    Other New Testament Occurrences

I feel like I have a good fix on Matthew’s meaning, so I will only record here some of the more significant other instances of the word in the NT.

·       Mark 14:49 indicates that the concept that Christ’s suffering was the fulfillment of prophecy predates Matthew.  Matthew however has taken fulfillment to the next level! 

·       Other NT verses show the same prophetic understanding (e.g. Luke 4:21; 24:44; John 13:18).  We could construct an entire hermeneutic from various passages.  In one place Paul indicates that the “Christ” meaning of the OT Scripture is spiritually discerned, unknown even to the demonic rulers of this age (1 Cor 2:6-13).  2 Peter 1:19-20 indicates that the correct meaning of Scripture derives from the Holy Spirit speaking through prophets.

·       Some show the same “consummation of the age” concept (e.g. Luke 21:24); closely related is the idea of completing time or reaching the appropriate time (e.g. John 7:8).

·       Some have the ordinary meaning of fill (e.g. John 12:3).

·       An additional nuance is to be “filled” with something (like joy, John 3:29, or encouragement, 2 Cor 7:4).  This is a metaphor for being really joyous or encouraged.  Acts uses this metaphor in terms of the Holy Spirit (although Acts may have viewed this more literally than we might think—the sense of being filled with God’s wind/breath).  The “critical mass” notion sometimes shows up here—having the appropriate amount of something (e.g. Phil 1:11; Rev 3:2).


C.    Septuagint Occurrences

A few instances will suffice:

·       Genesis 25:24—the days were fulfilled/completed/finished to give birth.

·       1 Kings 2:27—David had said that Solomon would be king after him.  This verse asks if David’s words had been “fulfilled.”  This fits in well with Matthew’s usage in terms of prediction/fulfillment.  Cf. 2 Chronicles 36:21-22—clearly a sense of prediction/fulfillment.


D.    Other Background Literature

I will note in passing the pesher method of interpretation used at Qumran and found in the commentaries among the Dead Sea Scrolls.  This method of interpretation applies prophecies directly to a contemporary situation, paying little or no attention to the original context.  Rabbinic method also used the kind of “catchword” interpretation so common in the NT as OT texts are strung together by way of common words or perceived themes.


IV.   Range of Meaning

I have already summarized the most relevant shades of meaning for our purposes.  The three most important for Matthew appear to be:


  1. Fulfillment as the accomplishment of a prediction/prophecy of the OT, albeit a prophecy understood spiritually rather than historically/contextually.
  2. Fulfillment as bringing out the “full” significance of something, the heart of the matter, to bring out the complete meaning or significance.
  3. Fulfillment as reaching of the appropriate time, critical time.


V.    Conclusion

In the background of Matthew’s use of πληρόω is his sense that with Christ history has reached a critical point, a point that will issue in the “consummation of the age.”  The time of Christ is thus a time of fulfillment, the completion of one phase of history (meaning 3).  As a part of this consummation, Christ’s message cuts to the heart of God’s will for the world.  Jesus provides his audience with the “full” significance of the OT, the authoritative interpretations of the Law (meaning 2).


It is important to realize that Matthew’s/Jesus’s interpretations both of the Law and of OT Scripture in general follow ancient Jewish hermeneutics, not modern sensibilities.  Matthew/Jesus does not always stick closely to the original meaning or the original contexts.  Matthew sees various events associated with Jesus as the fulfillment of OT prophesy/prediction, but these are not predictions of the sort we might expect (meaning 1).  They are spiritual interpretations hidden in the words. 


At times the fulfilled interpretation is drastically different from the original meaning (e.g. Matt 2:23 as the fulfillment of Isaiah 11:1 or Judges 13:5).  Jesus actually countermands some laws of the OT in order to get to the heart of true righteousness (e.g. oath taking or the law of retaliation).  The key is the realization that God had a plan.  Pleroo in Matthew frequently relates to that plan coming about in history.