In The Fullness Of Time

In The Fullness Of Time July 3, 2022

Theology is replete with questions that may never be answered on this side of the eschaton. One such question is why God chose first-century Israel to become incarnate. Additionally, what did Saint Paul mean when he wrote that God sent His Son in “the fullness of time”?

In this paper, I will examine the relationship God has with time. I will begin by reviewing how the Bible understands time. I will then discuss the timing of the Incarnation. Finally, I will suggest that first-century Israel was an ideal environment for Jesus to enter.

The Biblical Sense Of Time

The relationship between God and time is paradoxical. While God necessarily exists outside of time (that is what eternity means), God can and does act in time. Indeed, the Bible documents precisely this phenomenon of God acting in time. This extends to the concept of Revelation, the eternal God breaking in on the temporal.

So, while God exists outside of time, He is also the author of time. This is made clear when we read of the six days of creation. (Genesis 1-31).

The Biblical view of time breaks from the pagan and Stoic-Hellenist understanding that time loops in endless circularity, going nowhere, in an eternal recurrence. Instead, in the Judeo-Christian perspective, time is linear. This linear understanding of time corresponds to a canonical approach to the Bible. That is to say, viewing the Old Testament in light of Christ. 

Understood this way, time begins with “let there be light” and will end when the light of the world – Christ – returns.

Christ And The Fullness Of Time

A somewhat intriguing passage occurs in the fourth chapter of the book of Galatians. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption” (Galatians 4:4-5). For the most part, the verse is not difficult to understand. Saint Paul refers to Jesus (God sent His Son) and Mary (born of a woman). Paul also references Jesus’ Jewish lineage (under the law) and the process of justification that is part of the salvific work of Christ (ransom and adoption). What, however, are we to understand by “The fulness of time”? 

In his letter to the church in Galatia (present-day Turkey), Paul was partly writing to correct those who believed they remained under the Mosaic law. Paul sought to show that Jesus had fulfilled the Mosaic law, and to remain under its control was to denounce the justification and redemption won by Christ. Jesus is born under the law to redeem those who are under the law.

God’s sending of his Son ends the reign of the Mosaic law and inaugurates a new age, a new covenant. The Incarnation, therefore, is the time appointed by the Father, the completion of the designated period for the coming of the Messiah. 

The “fullness of time” can be understood, at least in part, as the fulfillment of various prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah (see Isaiah 7:14). 

The Messiah promised in the Old Testament (e.g., Isaiah 53:5) was to be a descendent of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David. In order to show that this prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke include genealogies showing precisely this lineage. The inference, of course, is to show that Jesus is the Savior who was promised throughout history. 

Furthermore, the environment and circumstances of the first century seemed to provide the necessary conditions for the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. 

When In Rome 

I should like to suggest that Christ was born “in the fullness of time” into a world suited for His birth. 

The Roman empire’s vastness meant one could travel millions of square miles without entering a foreign or enemy land. Rome had unified much of the known world under its government, giving a sense of unity to the various lands. Also, because the empire was relatively peaceful, travel was possible, allowing the early Christians to spread the gospel. Such freedom to travel would have been difficult, if not impossible, were it not for the Roman empire.

Among the Jews, there was much anticipation that the Messiah would come and free them from the Roman occupation. Additionally, the fact that the many false idols of paganism had failed to give them victory over the Roman conquerors caused many to abandon the worship of those idols. The disenchantment with the various pagan religions was also felt among many within the Roman empire. This disenchantment inclined many to be receptive to the Gospel message. 

Another favorable factor was the fact that many citizens of the Roman empire spoke either Greek or Latin. The commonality of language made the dissemination of the Gospel message a much easier task. A “common” form of the Greek language was the trade language, spoken throughout the empire. It made it possible to communicate the gospel to many different people and groups through one common language. At the same time, the Greek philosophy and science of the time left others spiritually empty in the same way that atheism leaves a spiritual void today.

All of these factors, taken in totality, made for a favorable environment for Christ to enter the world as well as for the spread of Christianity.

Conclusion

In the preceding paper, I have endeavored to examine the relationship between God and time. More specifically, I have sought to explain what Saint Paul meant when he wrote that God sent His Son in the fullness of time.

Throughout the Bible, God promises mankind a Savior who will redeem and reconcile God and human beings. This promise is fulfilled in God’s own time, in the fullness of time.


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