What is the gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ? If you had to present it to someone who did not already know, could you do it? What would you say? How would you express it?
John 3:16 is one such place. I’ve often wondered at what precise moment in history John 3:16 became the verse above all verses, the first one we teach our children to memorize. During medieval jousting tournaments, was there a guy at the end of the course holding a John 3:16 sign? John 3:16 is a wonderful verse, indeed a microcosm of the gospel. But are there others?
In Galatians 4:4-5, St. Paul presents what I call the Gospel according to Paul:
“But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.”
Here we find, in 6 memorable phrases, the gospel message.
As I began to meditate on these phrases, they appeared to me like a series of 6 stroboscopic images. You know the way that if someone is in motion under a strobe light, every so often one of their motions is illuminated, frozen for and instant, and gets easily fixed as in image on your retina. Well, these 6 phrases are like 6 images, 6 freeze frames of the gospel which we will find attach themselves to our memory if we make the effort.
The first phrase we hear, as Paul tells His gospel is,“When the fullness of time had come . . .”
The phrase is meant to conjure up the image of a vessel filled to the brim, of a cup at the point of overflowing its boundaries as God has prepared all things to act decisively in human history. Everything before this crucial moment builds up to this crescendo. The coming of Christ, the Son of God, into the world is an event unparalleled in history. It is at once both the culmination of things old and the initiation of things new. It is the crux of history. For this reason a monk named Dionysus in the 6th century revised the calendar to reflect the fact that Christ came when the fullness of time had come. We now speak of time B.C. – before Christ – and A.D. time – anno domini, in the year of our Lord.
But what was it exactly that made this the fullness of time?
When the fullness of time had come, the minds of men had already been prepared by the advent of Greek civilization, which used its God-given minds to observe and study God’s creation apart from the fearful influence of the gods. They were the first philosophers, and though their philosophy was but a shadow of the truth, they prepared minds to accept the full truth. Although the full blossom of Greek culture rose and set rapidly in Athens in its golden age, this new way of thinking and seeing spread over the whole civilized world due to the influence of Alexander the Great. It contributed, as well, the marvelous Greek language, the common language of the era and one eminently suitable to God’s purposes in inspiring the New Testament.
When the fullness of time had come, the worldly government had already been prepared to receive and propagate the gospel of Christ. Christ was born during a high point in the Roman Empire. The Roman system of government, law, and order, at which the Romans excelled as the Greeks excelled in things pertaining to the mind and its arts, united the world. Christ was born during the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, when the nations of the western world were kept from war by Rome. Roman law prevailed, and the Roman system of roads, made travel the easiest it had ever been. It was at precisely this time that God scattered his apostles and martyrs to proclaim the gospel to every creature under heaven.
When the fullness of time had come, the Jews, were expectantly waiting for
the coming of the Messiah, God’s Anointed One who would deliver and redeem them. But they and the rest of the world were subject to frustration because the world
was sinful and without the Messiah. Consider how many times God delivered His people, only to have them return to bondage and captivity. Consider how the whole Old Covenant seemed to end in futility and captivity. To the Jews, especially, the time must have seemed full, like a woman past her delivery date, crying and groaning for the time to come.
Suddenly, in the middle of this darkness of night, when the fullness of time had come . . .
“. . . God sent forth His Son . . .”
This is God’s answer to the futility to which creation had been subject since the Fall. God sent forth His Son, and this is what and why we celebrate in Christmas and every other season. In sending forth His Son, Gods shows the love He has always had toward His people. He also shows that Jesus was in fact God Himself, and only God could provide the necessary sacrifice because the price of redemption was too high for any mere man to pay.
God heard the prayers of His people, and in His time He answered them by sending His own Son. In its most basic formulation, this is the gospel: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son.”
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son . . . born of a woman . . .”
Now it’s important that God sent forth His Son because it demonstrates that Jesus was divine in His nature. But it’s equally important that Jesus be fully human. The one who redeems us must be like us in every way – except He must be without sin.
Jesus was born of a woman, but conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Though Paul’s purpose here isn’t to lay out a systematic theology or Christology or soteriology, the design and expression of his gospel message is exquisite. It stands almost as a creedal summary of the essentials of Christian belief.
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman” “. . . born under the law . . .”
Now this seems like a curious phrase to make a part of the gospel message. So why is it here? If you look at the larger context of this morning’s passage, in fact the larger context of the entire book of Galatians, this phrase is crucial. And what is Paul’s broader message in Galatians? It’s that Christ has come and the Galatians should no longer be enslaved to the old system of things, of which the law is a symbol.
After Christ, man’s relationship to the Law is different. Before Christ, the Law was a guardian and a tutor to children. After Christ, however, we are adults with the Law written on our hearts. Just as Christ had to be born of a woman, that is, he had to be human to pay for the sins of humanity, He also had to be born under the Law to save those condemned by the Law.
Born under the Law, Jesus perfectly kept the law and bore its ultimate penalty for us.
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law”. . . to redeem those who were under the law . . .”
Unfortunately, when we think of redemption, the first thought that may enter our minds may be Green Stamps. I still remember my Mom redeeming them. But somehow, this isn’t weighty enough to do justice to what Christ was born for. The Greek word for redemption is a term which means “to buy back from the slave market.” This is why God sent His Son. By nature, we are born slaves and not heirs at all.
What is the immediate, unthinking, reflex answer you’d give to the following question? “Why did Christ come?” Most of us would answer “To save us from our sins.” And this is entirely true. But it isn’t the entire truth. Did Christ come only to remove the negative thing known as sin? Our language betrays our way of thinking. “Christ came to save us from our sins,” we say.
But is that all there is? Sin is gone, and then . . . .” Then what? We don’t think about the rest of the answer.
This is all better understood by the sixth and final phrase ” . . . that we might receive the adoption of sons.” “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the law . . .that we might receive the adoption of sons.”
Redemption negates the negative of death and sin; but adoption trumpets our positive placement in the family of God. This is the “What else?” of the gospel. Christ came to redeem those under the Law, that . . . we might receive the adoption of sons.
This answers the question, “So What?” about Christmas. “So what that God sent His Son.” Christ came not only to take away our sins but to give us something good: our adoption as the sons of God.
So that this doesn’t remain a theoretical theology, we must remember that Paul is speaking directly to you and to me. It’s as if he were alive with us today, saying I mean this for Christ Anglican Reformed Episcopal Church in Hot Springs, AR; St. Andrew’s Parish in Fort Worth, TX; Good Shepherd Reformed Episcopal Church in Tyler, TX; and I mean this for this family and that family, and for each of you.
What does this Good News mean? Let me explain it by explaining a story of adoption.
I’ll never forget a student I once had named Stephanie Deain. She was a chubby 10 year-old girl, outwardly smiling from ear to ear but inwardly a bundle of wiggling nerves. She had such a sunny disposition that we took to calling her “Moonbeam” – that and the fact that she thought she was a child of the 60s.
One day at recess, I noticed her walking around the perimeter of the school fence, with her sunny face setting and eclipsed by some inner darkness. When I asked her what the matter was she explained that she just found out that she was adopted. She was worried that she wasn’t really her parents’ daughter and that she didn’t really belong to them: every child’s worst fear.
Immediately, it occurred to me what the remedy was for her darkness. I told her that adoption was a wonderful thing and that far from meaning that she didn’t really belong to her family it meant that her father and mother loved her so much that they chose her to live with them and be their child.
I told Stephanie that this was the way God worked with us. We were not His
children; none of us were lovely or worthy of adoption. But He came to us and made us His children. And as His children, He has made us heirs of the richest kingdom ever known: the Kingdom of Heaven.
This is the meaning of Christmas and Epiphany and every season in Christ, for this is the gospel message. Rejoice, for:
“When the fullness of time had come . . . God sent forth His Son . . . born of a woman . . . born under the law . . . to redeem those who were under the law . . . that we might receive the adoption as sons.”
Prayer: Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men (you may insert particular thanksgivings here). We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives; by giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.
Point for Meditation:
- Slowly recite and meditate on each phrase of Galatians 4:4-5. You may find that if you continue long enough that you’ve memorized it!
- Choose one of these phrases in particular that resonates with your life today and meditate on it more deeply.
Resolution: I resolve to meditate on Galatians 4:4-5 and find an appropriate way to express the joy that the Good News of Jesus Christ bring me.
The Adoration of the Shepherds, Gerard van Honthorst– U.S. Public Domain