When the Fullness of the Time Came
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote a line quoted often around Christmastime.
Regarding the phrase “the fullness of the time”, there is both a general and specific way to understand it. Generally speaking, the commentary of John Calvin is helpful.
John is essentially saying “If God says it is the fullness of the time, then it is”. Now this is true – God is sovereign over all things and He directs the times and epochs of man. But there is perhaps a more specific understanding one can take from Paul’s words to Galatia. In addition to understanding Paul’s words as a general declaration of God’s sovereignty, we can specifically define “the fullness of the time” as the convergence of two Old Testament prophecies. In the ninth chapter of the book of Daniel, the angel Gabriel gives Daniel the rubric for calculating the time of the Messiah. In the fifth chapter of the book of Micah, God has the prophet declare where the Messiah would be born. We can in this way understand the fullness of the time to mean that Christ was born when His mother was in the right place at the right time.
To be a little more precise with Gabriel’s words, his prophecy is thought not to relate to the birth year of Christ but the year when He presented Himself as Messiah. Volumes have been written on this prophecy and how to perform the calculation, but the point for us now is to understand that this prophecy creates a window of time in which Jesus had to be born. Logically, if it can be precisely calculated when the Messiah presents Himself as King, we can then go backwards in time to estimate the year of His birth.
Returning to the aforementioned sovereignty of God, it is noteworthy that He brought about the fulfillment of Gabriel’s and Micah’s prophecies using the decrees of pagan rulers. Gabriel told Daniel that the start of the Messianic countdown was “from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem”. This decree occurred during the days of the Jewish exile, when they were subjected to foreign powers. First, God moved Cyrus to order a rebuild.
When the people returned under Cyrus’ decree, they began to rebuild the temple, but their work ceased for a time in the midst of opposition. Then, God caused another pagan ruler to make another decree.
This decree in Ezra is one of the leading candidates of the start of the Messianic timeline. There is another decree from the same king that is also a candidate, found in Nehemiah.
As earlier stated, there has been much written over the years about the calculation and which decree it is based on. But for us now we need to realize that it created a window of time for the Messiah to be born. Regarding that window, when it had arrived, the virgin Mary lived in Nazareth, which is not the town Micah spoke of. In order to fulfill Micah’s words, God caused Caesar to decree that a census should be taken, thus causing Mary to travel with Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
“While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth.” These words of Luke echo Paul’s words “when the fullness of the time came”. What a beautifully understated way to convey the birth of Christ. The simplicity of the statement ought not to be taken for granted – for the birth of Christ was not a simple event. It was highly orchestrated, developing over thousands of years, announced beforehand through the mouths of the Jewish prophets, and advanced by God through the decrees of Gentile kings.
What has been looked at here is but the tip of the tip of the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more contained within the annals of history regarding God’s ordering of history to bring about the birth (and death and resurrection) of Christ. For the Christian, to wonder and delight in such things is not merely a once-a-year event in December, but a life-long endeavor of joy, as we ponder the God who came into human history to love a people who hated Him and to save a people who rejected Him. Paul’s words to the Galatians are worth repeating.
1John Calvin, “Commentaries on the Epistle to the Galatians”, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XXI (Michigan: Baker Books, 2005), 118.