In the Fullness of Time
The Christmas season is filled with excitement and joy — and busyness. Retail stores have lengthened the season because successful sales and happy shoppers are critical for the economic success of many. In the church, the Advent season lasts four weeks. This is a time to remember God’s coming to us and to wait in hopes of His coming again. We must be careful lest our hectic schedules filled with shopping, parties, and other special events leave no time for the purpose of Advent. Advent is not about us filling our time full but rather about taking time to remember how God fills time full: “In the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son” (Gal. 4:4).
Christmas is important not for economic reasons, but because Jesus’ birth reveals that the fullness of time has arrived. What does “the fullness of time” mean? Long before Jesus’ birth God was preparing the way. The two genealogies of Jesus recorded in the gospels make us travel back in time either to the beginning of the human race in Adam (Luke 3:23–37) or to the beginnings of Israel in Abraham and David (Matt. 1:1–17). God was preparing the way centuries before the birth of His Son in Bethlehem.
How did God prepare the way? Since God rules over human history, He undoubtedly shaped the history of the nations, including the dominance of the Roman Empire that had an impact on Israel, on Jesus, and on the spread of the Gospel by the early Christian church. Certainly this was a part of God’s preparation, for God uses the history of the nations to achieve His purposes.
However, in Scripture “the fullness of time” points in a different direction. Here the fullness of time is determined by the unfulfilled promises God had given to Old Testament Israel, promises filled with hope for future blessing and peace. God had even set a time for the fulfillment of these promises (Hab. 2:3), although He had not revealed that time to anyone, not even to the prophets (1 Peter 1:10–12). Waiting for that fullness of time required centuries of patience because God works according to His own calendar and measures time differently than we: “With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8 NASB).
When the angels announced the birth of Christ with their tidings of peace (Luke 2:14), God declared that His promises were now being fulfilled. The apostle Paul interprets this fullness of time as the time when God’s people could at last claim their promised inheritance. Prior to this time they were like minor children but now in Christ as mature children they had received the full rights to their promised inheritance (Gal. 4:1–7). In a similar way, Jesus declared at the opening of His public ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mark 1:15 NASB).
The gospel of Matthew gives us a glimpse at God’s preparations centuries before the birth of Jesus in the fullness of time. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus divides the history of Israel into three periods: from Abraham to King David, from King David to the exile, and from the exile to the birth of Jesus (Matt. 1:2–16). Because God had given promises to Abraham and David that had not yet been fulfilled, the birth of Jesus reveals that the fullness of time had come. Jesus is the son of Abraham and the son of David in whom God’s covenant promises are fulfilled.
Why is Jesus’ descent from Abraham so important? Israel’s history began when God called Abraham and established His covenant with Abraham and his descendants. God promised not only to bless Abraham and make of him a great nation, but also that all the families of the earth would be blessed in Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3). God’s covenant blessings were intended not only for Abraham and his physical descendants but through them for the entire world. Because God is faithful, what He promises must and will occur (Isa. 55:11).
But how and when would all this happen? Matthew’s brief genealogical survey of Israel’s history reveals that it had not occurred within the recorded history of Israel in the Old Testament. Instead, that history was characterized by disobedience. Israel had failed to understand that God had chosen and blessed her to be a light to the nations (Isa. 42:6). Often she chose to keep God’s blessings to herself rather than share them with other nations (the lesson of Jonah). In addition, Israel had frequently forsaken the true God for other gods, and it had failed to do justice to the oppressed and to live as God’s obedient people. The disastrous consequence was God’s judgment of exile for His own chosen people.
Exile, however, was not God’s final answer. Matthew’s genealogy declares that Jesus is God’s answer to Israel’s history of disobedience, failure, and exile. Jesus comes as the true descendant (seed) of Abraham through whom Israel and all nations will be blessed. Now in this fullness of time all who believe in Jesus become the children of Abraham and share in the promised blessings (Gal. 3:16, 26–29). Similarly, Jesus declares: “many shall come from east and west and recline at the table with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 8:11). Through Jesus, people from every nation will share in the blessings promised to Abraham and his descendants. God is faithful. He does what He promised to do. With the coming of Jesus, God’s appointed time reached its fullness.
God’s covenant with David is equally important for understanding the birth of Jesus in the fullness of time. Almost one thousand years before Jesus’ birth, God promised David that his descendants would occupy his throne. Yet his descendants actually sat on David’s throne only until the exile to Babylon. Then the Davidic monarchy ceased because the kings had failed in their task to unite Israel in obedience to and worship of God. But God had promised David that his kingdom would endure forever (2 Sam. 7:11–16). For five long centuries from the exile to the birth of Jesus, Israel waited for God to fulfill His promise. Now in the fullness of time Jesus is born as the descendant of King David, as the promised Shepherd-King of Israel (Micah 5:2; Matt. 2:6). Jesus as son of David, Son of God, is the eternal King who establishes the kingdom of God, the throne that lasts forever.
Hidden in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus is an important covenant lesson about the identity of Israel as the people of God. Listen to John the Baptist’s warning to Israel: “Do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’, for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matt. 3:9 NASB). If God can raise up children from stones, then God’s blessings are not guaranteed to anyone simply by birthright or a proper genealogy. True Israel is neither created nor sustained simply by a pure gene pool nor by an impeccable family tree.
Note Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. It lists four women who are foreigners and not especially “holy”: Tamar and Rahab the Canaanites, Ruth the Moabite, and Bathsheba the wife of a Hittite. At the very least, Matthew is saying the true descendants of Abraham are not selected simply on the basis of a genetic connection to Abraham. True Israel is not restricted by racial lines. Instead, God chooses who belongs to Israel and incorporates foreigners into Israel, even into the royal lineage in which lies the hope of Israel. God had always intended that Israel become a universal people. Israel as God’s people depends for its origin and continuing existence on God’s gracious actions and selections. We see this especially in the “holy irregularity” in Jesus’ genealogy. Although Joseph is Jesus’ legal father, Jesus was conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:18, 20). This creates a striking discontinuity in Jesus’ genealogy. Even though Jesus is linked to the history of His people and, as we have seen, can be understood only within His connectedness to Abraham and David, Jesus is beyond history and its possibilities. He is more than His ancestry could produce. Israel could not produce its own Savior. Instead, Jesus is born of Mary as the result of God’s gracious intervention into Israel’s history through the creative action of the Holy Spirit. In the fullness of time God provided what human history by itself could not. In Jesus, God’s promises are fulfilled, Israel is blessed and becomes a people gathered from the nations of the world. Thus the horizons of Christmas reach deep into the past and extend far forward into the future. We have examined the past, what about the future? Matthew quotes a prophecy from Hosea 11 about a promised new exodus. The exile was not God’s last word to disobedient Israel; instead, He promised Israel restoration and redemption. Like the first exodus that liberated Israel from Egypt, there would be a second exodus event giving complete and final restoration and redemption. Matthew declares that the beginning of this new exodus occurs when God calls His Son, Jesus, out of Egypt (Matt. 3:15). This new event of redemption and liberation climaxes in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This blessing of redemption and freedom is still being showered upon the nations as God continues to gather His people from the nations of the world. We are still living in the fullness of time, the time of the fulfillment of God’s promises!
How long will it take for God’s promised blessings to be completely fulfilled? No one knows because God has His own calendar, which He reveals to no one. Only when Christ comes again will we know that God’s promises have attained their intended fullness. Until then we witness and wait patiently with confident hope.
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