FULLNESS is one of the less attractive side effects of Christmas. Most of us eat too much; some of us drink too much. When we have eaten or drunk to the utmost, we declare that we are full. But, when the witnesses to Jesus talk about “fullness”, they have something very different in mind. This Gospel is the only example of John’s using an idea (v.16) that figures repeatedly in Paul: in Greek, it is pleroma. Like many a theological term, it has its roots in what is simple and familiar: in another ancient Greek text, you can eat your pleroma of cheese, for example. But in the New Testament, it has the sense of a number brought to completion: not just “filled”, then, but “full-filled”.
This idea of full-fill-ment is closely connected to another idea in Ephesians, one that Paul (if Paul is the author of that letter) states repeatedly. That is destiny. Now, destiny is a much more problematic concept. For us, it presses a big red button labelled “free will versus predestination” (you can see why the button needs to be big). That raises questions about how God’s guiding hand in human history can be compatible with the free exercise of human will by which we declare ourselves to be Christians.
I have said before here how important and seductive an idea it was in Bible days for the future to be predictable. Foreknowledge of the future is a characteristic of God, but in itself that is not problematic. The problems begin only when we start to think and act as if we are predestined by God to be inside or outside his Kingdom. That seems to strip us of free will, to make us pawns on a chessboard, and to condemn those who are not among the “elect” to a damnation that they have done nothing to deserve.
This is not, I think, a problem with a solution, though I realise that others will disagree with me about the matter. In the 21st century, we can see the logical difficulties that arise when we affirm this belief. Because it seems to be an exclusivist idea, we want to play it down. But the Christian belief in God’s providence (which, literally, means his “foresight”) is fundamental. We understand that God is, and the visions of him that occur in scripture — rare as they are — give us some idea of the gap between our reality and his reality. There is God as we see him in Isaiah 6, and 1 Timothy 6.16: “high and lifted up”, in “unapproachable light”. Then there is God-with-us, Emmanuel: the God we deal with every day in our prayers and sacraments, in our worship, and of course in our observance of the Christmas season. God-with-us is close beside us always. We see him in the faces of those whom we love, and even in the faces of people whom we do not know at all.
When we want to explore how God works within human history, and in human time, we can struggle to see the bigger picture. The Bible readings for today are a snapshot. But, instead of imagining them in an old-fashioned photograph album, we should picture something more like a hard drive, or cloud storage. Thousands and thousands of photos go everywhere with us, in our pockets and bags. A few are treasured; the majority (perhaps because they are very similar and repetitive) are usually scrolled past in the hunt for those special images that tug at our heartstrings and make us smile as we remember.
That store of images is like the whole story of the incarnation as we encounter it in the Bible. It reaches most obviously from Isaiah 7 into Revelation 12. In reality, it stretches from Genesis 1.26 to Revelation 22.20. In other words, it takes us from our first beginnings into God’s eternal future, that Judgement that we spent Advent trying to comprehend.
From divine fulfilment, we have all received grace upon grace. That suggests an ever growing heap of blessings. But we could translate it as “grace in place of grace”, suggesting the old covenant giving way to the new. This is one of those cases in which I want to say that the Evangelist has been deliberately ambiguous, and to good effect. If the text can mean either, it can also mean both.