But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman … Galatians 4.4.
With Christmas fewer than six weeks away, the image of Mary and Jesus, mother and child, can already be seen on cards and nativity sets that are for sale in the shops. [British readers of this post, please note that you can obtain Christmas postage stamps depicting Madonna and Child, rather than the “Panto” themed stamps that will generally be on sale, by going to this page of the Royal Mail website.] It is a reminder that, seen from this world’s perspective, Jesus was indeed “born of woman”. But (someone might say) since there is no other way for a human being to arrive in the world, why mention it?
“Because,” Paul might reply, “in the case of Jesus he could have arrived directly, without being formed in a woman’s womb and being expelled from there into the straw of the stable. He could have appeared on earth in whatever form, human or otherwise, he wished to adopt because he was and remains the pre-existing Son of God.” That is why he says in this morning’s verse that, in the fullness of time, God “sent forth” his son. The verb is exapostello and means literally to send (stello) away from (apo) out (ex), but in the sense of an emissary invested with all the authority of the sender, not someone just casually dismissed from the sender’s presence.
What is happening from the divine perspective is that the Father is saying to the one who created the universe alongside him (Colossians 1.16; John 1.3) and who belongs in the “us” and “our” of “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1.26): “The moment has arrived, Son. Go. Empty yourself of your divinity but fill yourself with my authority”; while what is happening from the human perspective is the moment Jesus responds to the Father’s “Go”, an ovum is fertilised in the body of a twelve-year-old Jewish girl in the village of Nazareth in around 6 BC and a human male child begins to form. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1.14). As Wesley put it: “Our God contracted to a span [ie, a hand’s width], incomprehensibly made man.”
And it happened, says Paul, “when the fullness of time had come”. The expression is found nowhere else in the New Testament and, literally translated, it would be “when the filling-up of the time came”. The picture it suggests to my mind is a measuring beaker into which the stream of history has been pouring like water. In 6 BC (or thereabouts — we do not know with certainty the year of Jesus’ birth), the mark that God had set on the beaker was reached and the time for the incarnation had arrived.
But why then? The only answer that we can give is that God knew it to be “the right time” (Good News Bible). Perhaps it was because then the world had become more or less one world under Rome. The Pax Romana meant a virtual absence of war at this point in history. The system of Roman roads and Roman colonies and Roman trade routes had made travel swift and relatively easy and safe. Greek had become an almost universal language thus facilitating world-wide communication. Jews had become dispersed throughout Europe and Asia, spreading a knowledge of the one true God and preparing a context for the Gospel. And paganism had proved itself bankrupt and degenerate and had led to widespread spiritual hunger. But that is all just “perhaps”. Only God knows why that particular moment of history and no other was the right time. But we can be glad that it was.
This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.
This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.
U A Fanthorpe. BC:AD