When the fullness of time came, God sent his Son.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 December

Galatians 4.1-5.

There’s a verse in the bible about how “when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law.” Ga 4.5 KJV Christians like to quote it ’cause it references the birth of Christ Jesus, the first coming of Jesus. It’s an advent scripture.

In context there’s a lot more to unpack, so I’ll unpack it. First the passage:

Galatians 4.1-5 KWL
1 I say for as long as heirs are children,
all of them are nothing more than a master’s slaves.
2 Instead they’re placed under nannies and butlers
until the father’s appointed time.
3 Likewise us. When we’re children, learning the basics of the universe,
we’re like slaves.
4 When the fullness of time came, God sent forth his Son,
birthed by a woman, birthed under the Law,
5 so he might redeem the Law,
so we might receive God’s adoption.

It’s used as a proof text for the incarnation, but it’s not actually about incarnation. It’s part of Paul’s explanation about the Christian’s relationship to the Law of Moses. As Paul regularly taught, the Law is a schoolmaster: It teaches us the difference between following God, between rightness and righteousness, and sin.

But now that Christ Jesus has come, we follow him, not the Law.

Not that the Law’s irrelevant! Nor nullified. But our relationship is with Jesus, so we follow Jesus. We’re saved by Jesus’s self-sacrifice and God’s grace, not the Law.

Coming into one’s inheritance.

In this passage Paul compares the first coming, to when an heir finally grows up. Which is a little difficult to understand when we don’t understand Greco-Roman culture, and how inheritance worked among them.

In our culture an “inheritance” is something you get once somebody dies. Say your dad has a lot of money. It’s your dad’s money, so he can save, spend, or squander it as he pleases. Unless he jointly owns it with anyone—like his wife, or his siblings, or his business partners—it’s entirely his money, and he has every right to do with it as he pleases. You might think he’s wasting it; you might be really annoyed at what he’s buying with it. You might think, “Waitaminnit, that’s my inheritance! Once he dies, there’ll be nothing left!” But it’s his money—and if he likes, he can even disinherit you, write you out of his will, and give every last cent to PETA or something, just to bug you. It’s his money.

Didn’t work that way at all with the ancient Greco-Romans. This wasn’t his money; it was the family’s money. He might be the head of the family, and largely do as he pleases in the running of it… but it’s not entirely his to do with as he pleased. The rest of the family had some say in how the estate was administered. They owned it too.

Well… unless they hadn’t yet come of age. Children didn’t come into their inheritance till they were adults, which back then was around 13 or so. The father would appoint a day to hold a ceremony, in which he’d publicly, officially declare you his child and heir.

And he could do this with anyone he wished. Including people outside the immediate family, like nephews and grandchildren. Including people he wasn’t biologically related to, like stepkids and family friends. Even slaves, if he wanted them in his family. Once he declared you family, you were adopted, whether a blood relative or not: You were in the family. Permanently.

But till that ceremony, Paul pointed out heirs were children, and no better than slaves. They even answered to slaves. The people who worked in the family’s household were usually slaves—the nanny, one’s tutors, the housekeepers, the butler in charge of it all. They got to boss the kids around, and rightly so, because the kids were only kids. But the slaves were part of the inheritance. You know, like angels in God’s kingdom.

Once humanity was “old enough,” so to speak; once “the fullness of time came,” the time was right: God sent his Son to step in and take the Law’s place. We don’t have to obey the slaves anymore. We follow Jesus.

Incarnation?

As I said, Christians quote verse 4 in support of the incarnation. Where we hang our hat is that one word Paul used to state the Father sent us the Son. Where’d he send us the Son from? Well, we figure, heaven.

From here, commentators like to go nuts, listing all the historical factors which made it “the right time”—Greek becoming a common language, the stability of Roman rule, Jewish communities all over the Empire as a basis to spread Christianity, the good roads, and so forth. Yeah yeah yeah; we could make the case for why lots of periods in history would be practical places for Jesus to drop into. (Today, fr’instance. ’Cause there are lots of English-speakers, lots of freedom of speech, worldwide communications systems, and so forth.)

I don’t believe God considered the first century “when the time was complete” because of cultural factors, but spiritual ones. God can work with, or around, cultural factors. Just like he worked with the Persians during the Exile, and around the Egyptians during the Exodus. But spiritually, humanity was ready for a great spiritual leap forward. Previously it wasn’t ready to embrace God’s kingdom. Now it was. So Jesus came down from heaven, to make us daughters and sons of God.

Yeah, it implies Jesus left heaven and became human. And he did. It’s kind of a proof text for the idea. That idea wasn’t Paul’s purpose and point in writing it, but it’s validly in there. So… yeah, okay, why not.