Word Study #108 — Full,Fulfillment, Fullness

Treatment of plerophoria in the previous post, relating to “full” assurance, trust, or understanding, leads us to the family from which that compound word is derived. Although some of the uses of the adjective, pleres “full”, refer simply to the capacity of a container (Mt.14:20, 15:37, Mk.6:43, 8:19), or a fully developed (mature) head of grain (Mk.4:28), and most of the rest describe dominant features of someone’s personality, whether positive (Lk.4:1, Jn.1:14, Ac.6:3,5,8; 7:55, 9:36, 11:24) or negative (Ac.13:10, 19:28); and 35 of the 91 appearances of the verb pleroo mention the fulfilling or accomplishment of prophecy or obedience to the Law, 7 simply the passage of time, 7 the completion of an assignment, and 10 parallel to the uses of the adjective, there remains a considerable contingent that deserves more specific attention.

Classical uses of the words related to pleroo are as varied as the English associations with “filling” or “being full”. They include complete payment (“in full”), accomplishing / completing an assignment, duty, or task; the “fulfilling” of prophecy or purpose, the “full” phase of the moon, maturity, to gorge or to satiate one’s appetite, to consecrate, or even to impregnate!

As is the case with other words, however, New Testament usages also can deviate markedly from classical patterns. For example, although the many references to “fulfilling” the law and the prophets would have been readily understandable to first century audiences, I have been unable to find any classical parallel to Jesus’ expressed legacy to his confused and troubled disciples (Jn.15:11, 16:24) and his prayer to the Father on their behalf (17:13) that his (Jesus’) joy might “be fulfilled” in / among them. This legacy is referenced later as well (Ac.13:52, Rom.15:13, I Jn.1:4, II Jn.12), and also evident in interactions in the brotherhood (Phil.2:2, II Tim.1:4). In this regard please see also #92, “Rejoice”, and look for “joy” in a later study.

In this case, Jesus seems concerned that this aspect of his own life and personality – his joy – be transferred and/or reproduced in the lives of his disciples, and only so would it be “fulfilled” [made complete]! Try to get your head around THAT!

Paul writes of “being filled” with (Rom.15:14) all knowledge; (II Cor7:4)comfort / encouragement; (10:6) obedience; (Eph.3:19) the fullness of God; (5:18) the Spirit; (Phil.1:11) the fruits [harvest] of righteousness [justice]; (4:19) the supply of needs to enable generosity; (Col.1:19) certain knowledge of God’s will – all of which evidence one’s development toward maturity in Kingdom living. On the surface, all these ideas seem to parallel those treated in #13 – teleios, “mature”, [perfect] – but the reach of pleroo is much farther than that vision of maturity.

The idea of “completeness” becomes quite central to the understanding of the New Testament uses of these words, and particularly of the noun form , pleroma, almost exclusively rendered “fullness”.
Especially in Ephesians and Colossians, Paul has borrowed the vocabulary of incipient Gnosticism to highlight the unique completeness of Jesus. Please note that he has borrowed the VOCABULARY, NOT the ideology, as some critics would like to assume. In fact, he has re-defined virtually all of the terms that he uses.

Scholars differ on the dates they ascribe to this Eastern philosophy / mythology. Some see its beginnings in the first century BC, and others not until the second or third centuries AD. Like any philosophical system, it probably did not emerge full-blown or the scene in the eastern Mediterranean. We have noted before the syncretistic nature of many cultures there. Many and varied ideas had arrived, both with ardent proponents and with casual business people, along the trade routes that intersected in the region, where they merged and diverged in dizzying profusion. The idea was to keep one’s bases covered: a new idea, a new deity, could easily be added to the mix, (“just for good measure”), as in the Athenian altar “to an unknown god.” Across several centuries and cultures, Alexandrian, Persian, Jewish and other adaptations had emerged, with syncretistic manifestations appropriate to each. What follows is a grossly over-simplified summary.

The Gnostic system had strong intellectual appeal, being based on gnosis – “knowledge”. (#29). Adherents posited a remote supreme being, designated pleroma – much too “divine” to be able to interact with matter, which was viewed as “evil”. The creation and administration of the material universe was delegated to various levels of “emanations” known as “aeons” (yes, the same word as aion, noted in #55). These were thought to have “emerged” from the pleroma, in a sequence becoming gradually less “divine” until some of them eventually could interact with matter. Jesus was assigned a place, by these philosophers, somewhere among these lesser beings, or sometimes among the arche (called “principalities and powers” in the NT), who were thought to supervise earthly affairs. Also in the hierarchy of “emanations” were sophia “wisdom” and gnosis “knowledge” – sometimes personified, sometimes not – which were expected, by their skilled deployment, to “rescue” the “enlightened” from the evil bonds of the material universe. All these intermediaries had to be courted or placated by intricate systems of asceticism and legalism, in order for the requisite “wisdom and knowledge” to be revealed.
“Salvation” was defined as liberation from both matter and ignorance.
“Faith” (pistis) was acceptance of the concomitant dogma.
The “soul” (psuche) was a disembodied entity (which had been “rescued” from matter by this esoteric knowledge), rather than simple human life (#55).
Some of this bears a sobering resemblance to the ideas of people and groups today that focus on escaping from the “evil world” instead of following Jesus’ example of redeeming it! It is not difficult to see gnostic-inspired teaching as a possible source of the corruption of “pistis” (#1), either, and the increasing focus upon debates about fine points of “doctrine” rather than Kingdom living.

With this brief background, it is easy to appreciate Paul’s strategy in Eph.1:23, 3:19, 4:10,13; and Col.1:11-17 and 2:2-10. Holding up the Lord Jesus as himself the agent of creation (Col.1:16), as well as the chosen bodily dwelling (Col.2:9) of “all the fullness (pleroma) of deity”, the only way “everything holds together” (Col.1:17), and the repository of “ALL the treasures of wisdom (sophia) and knowledge (gnosis)” (Col.2:3), Paul neatly disposes of pretty much the entirety of the Gnostic or proto-gnostic hierarchy. “And you all,” he concludes, have been made complete (the perfect passive participle of pleroo) in him – who is the head of all arche and authorities.” (Col.2:10).

There is no need either to adopt or to refute as “evil” any or all of the intermediaries invented by proponents of these – or any other – complicated systems. You already have all that there is, in your identification with Jesus! This is the Lord Jesus whom we serve, and who has called us not only to populate his Kingdom, but even to function as members of his very own Body! The earthly, physical body could not possibly be evil, if Jesus chose to inhabit one! The definitive answer to the advocates of any sort of syncretism is simply Jesus. Don’t bother to waste time and energy defining or discrediting any system’s individual elements. As Creator, Sustainer, and reigning Lord of all that exists, Jesus is clearly superior to it ALL. His people need no supplements!

“In him, all God’s completeness [fullness] was pleased to make its permanent residence” (Col.1:19) … “and you all have been fulfilled [made complete] in him!” (Col.2:10)

Thanks be to God!

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