In a section in his chapter on Luke in his book How New is the New Testament?, Hagner sets out an “interpretive dilemma” (41-45). He has gone through the opening chapters of Luke and noted that we find in the infancy stories both “strong motifs of continuity with the language of the OT and Second Temple Judaism” and a radical discontinuity caused by the announcement of the fulfilment of these promises in the birth of Jesus.
He then notes a “puzzling aspect to much of the material exhibiting this continuity”. A good part of it has to do with promises of a “specifically national-political kind, pertaining to the nation Israel per se”. Hagner asks: “In what sense are these expectations truly fulfilled in the coming of Christ?”
We could assume multiple fulfilments, pushing much of it into a remote future, but this would “enervate the prophetic dimension and raise the whole question of the truth of these statements”. Quite right.
We could differentiate between two levels of reference: literally to Israel, symbolically to the church. So the prophetic voices that we hear in these stories (Mary, Zechariah, Simeon and Anna) had national-political fulfilment in mind, but Luke writing 80 years later thought of these expectations being fulfilled in the church. But then why, Hagner asks, does Luke not have Jesus correct the disciples’ belief that he would “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6-7)?
The problem has to do with the “complex character of the future expectations articulated by the prophets” (42). Hagner introduces a hermeneutical distinction at this point between prophecy and apocalyptic. Prophecy is “realized through normal processes in history”, but when things don’t work out the way they are supposed to, the prophets begin to imagine more dramatic, transcendent outcomes.
So apocalyptic is born from frustration. It expects a new heaven and new earth, a “radical transformation of the age that can only be brought about by God’s direct intervention, involving the end of the present age and the beginning of a new age” (43).
But we are still left with the problem of how we relate the national-political and the transcendent elements. They are not neatly sorted and labelled in scripture. Hagner rather vaguely and unconvincingly argues that the New Testament is the fulfilment of the Old Testament, and that the church has inherited the promises made to Israel: “the church represents the new, reconstituted people of God, Jews and Gentiles together, returning to the bliss and perfection of Eden” (44).
This hardly solves the problem of Acts 1:6. The standard evangelical now-and-not-yet model does not accommodate the clear affirmation by Jesus that he will restore the kingdom to Israel, it’s just a question of when. Luke, writing in the 70s or 80s, tells a story that begins with prophecies regarding the reformation and restoration of national-political Israel (Lk. 1:16-17, 32-33, 54-55, 68-79), pivots around the assurance that YHWH would restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6), predicts a judgment of the Greek-Roman world (Acts 17:30-31), and ends with Paul testifying to the kingdom of God in Rome.
Hagner’s method is a long way from explaining this. The “now” is the resilient witness of the persecuted, Spirit-inspired churches to the coming of the kingdom of God. The “not yet” is the restoration of national Israel, the ending of the long ages of pagan ignorance, and the conversion of the nations to serve the one true living God of Israel, confessing his Son as King of kings and Lord of lords.
This can certainly be understood as a fulfilment of Old Testament expectations, but fulfilment surely has to be regarded as an expression of continuity. Hagner’s statement about “the discontinuity caused by the radical statement of the fulfilment of these promises in the birth of Jesus the Messiah” (41, italics removed) makes no sense. Lack of fulfilment would mean discontinuity, a breakdown in the narrative.
The failure of the schema is immediately apparent as Hagner works through Luke’s Gospel. He thinks that once we get beyond the national-political expectations of Luke 1-2, we quickly encounter a reassuringly “universal” perspective. For example, Luke has added “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Lk. 3:6) to his Markan source.
These words allude to apocalyptic judgment (see the immediate context, 3:3, 7-9), but also express the promise of a salvation that will include all humanity (“all flesh”), Gentiles and Jews alike. (45)
But what Isaiah adds to Mark’s quotation of Isaiah 40:3 only reinforces the national-political aspect of the story. The wilderness between Babylon and Israel will be levelled—figuratively—allowing the people to return from exile, and “all flesh” will see this extraordinary act of salvation by Israel’s God. Isaiah is not saying that all humanity will be saved. He is saying that the surrounding nations will see the national-political salvation of the people of YHWH.
To differentiate here between prophetic-historical and apocalyptic-transcendent language serves the interpretation neither of Isaiah nor of Luke. There is no interpretive dilemma. Isaiah and Luke are dealing with different moments in Israel’s history, but the hermeneutics remains the same. Let’s be consistent here and not enervate the prophetic dimension.