The Fullness of the Time

The expression “fullness of time” occurs in scripture and is found at Gal. 4:4. The passage reads, “But when the fullness of time was come, God sent forth his Son . . .”

The surroundings of this text show that the fullness of time is the time appointed by God, which v as to elapse until the appearing of Christ. It is of this time that the apostle speaks in the preceding three verses, the time of the state of minority of the church. This period is conceived as a measure that had to be filled ere the Son of God could be sent. And the measure was filled, the “Fullness of time” was come, when that moment of time, through which the measure was filled, arrived. This then is the thought conveyed; (1) When the precise moment appointed by God had arrived, He sent forth His Son. (2) Christ had to be sent precisely at that moment, no sooner, no later. (3) The precise time, when He appeared, had a peculiar relation to His appearance. (4) The antecedent steps, through the previous development of the history of the church in particular and of the world at large in general, had been directed by God precisely to this point in order to admit of His appearing.

To bring out the truth of these statements, we must get before our eye these steps. That there were such steps means that both the church and the world had been brought into such a condition as to admit of Christ’s coming.

The gentile world. The prevalent view is that this world had been brought into a state of receptivity with respect to Christ, His gospel. So the historian Schaff. Though he sets out with defining heathenism as a religion in its wild growth on the soil of fallen human nature, a darkening of the original consciousness of God, a deification of the rational and irrational creature, and a corresponding corruption of the moral sense, giving ‘the sanction of religion to natural and unnatural vices, he nevertheless maintains that “there was a spiritual Israel scattered throughout the heathen world, that never received the circumcision of the flesh, but the unseen circumcision of the heart by the hand of the Spirit which bloweth where it listeth, and is not bound to any human laws and to ordinary means”. The notable representatives of this group were, according to this writer, such personages as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pindar, Sophecles, Cicero, Virgel, Seneca and Plutarch. They were personages whose beautiful and true sentences may be called “the testimonies of a soul constitutionally Christian, of a nature predestined to Christianity”.

The historian Walker declares that the world—the heathen world—at the coming of Christ largely demanded, was crying for, a religion that taught one righteous God; possessed a definite revelation of the will of God, held forth a future life with rewards and punishment,; promised a real forgiveness of sins; possessed a redeemer-God who could come into union with men by certain sacramental acts; a religion, finally that taught the brotherhood of man. Hence, Christianity must possess or take on all these traits if it was to conquer the Roman empire or to become a world religion.

The flower of this spiritual aptitude, of this receptivity, for the truth of God, for the Christ of the Gospels, constituted the sign, such is the view, that the fullness of time had come, that God therefore could send forth His Son into the world—a world ready to embrace Him and to take home to its heart His gospel of peace.

We come upon like sentiments in the work of dogmatics of Dr. H. Bavinck. The concluding statement of his delineation on this subject reads, “Daarom staat het Christendom niet uitsluitend antithetisch tegen het heidendom over; het is er ook de vervulling van . . . Wat ginds gezocht wordt is hier te vinden . . . Christus is de beloofde aan Israel en de wensch aller heidenen.”

Such is the view. All that we have to say about it is that if runs contrary to Scripture, to what the Scriptures tells us about this heathenism. The heathendom of the pro-Messianic period, i.e., the Graeco-Roman world of men, was indeed spiritually prepared for the advent of Christ. But the preparation had been purely negative, away from Christ. There had been growth indeed but in sin. The apostle passes in review its stages. (1) Because when they knew God they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools. And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like unto corruptible man, and to birds and fourfooted beasts . . . Wherefore God gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their bodies between themselves. (Rom. 1:21-24). A forsaking of God ending in gross idolatry accompanied by unnatural sexual vice—the first stage. (2) Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature, more than the Creator . . . For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature. And likewise also the men . . . (verses 25-27). Persistent idolatry accompanied by most revolting sexual immorality—the second stage. (3) And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do things which are not convenient: being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenant- breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful (verses 28-32). Persistent idolatry going hand in hand with the eruption of all manner of sins the final stage.

What we have described to us here is a process of development in sin over an extended period, a gradual sinking away into the morass of superstition, sin, and crime, so that, when the fullness of time was come the state of civilized heathendom was one of complete spiritual and moral dissolution. And it is God who gave them over through the lusts of their own hearts. Sin was continually being punished with sin. Without interruption the wrath, of God was revealed from heaven over all unrighteousness.

Yet, there seems to be some truth in the statement that in the pre-Messianic period the religious and moral development of heathendom was inclined toward Christ. The gentile Sergius Paulus, deputy of the isle of Paphas, desired to hear the Word of God and, under the constraint of this desire, called for Barnabas and Paul to preach to him the gospel. At Acts 17:4 it is reported that a great number of devout Greeks believed and consorted with Paul and Barnabas. In the Acts of the apostles, the gentile Cornelius in Caesarea stands before us as “a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway”. It was to meet the need of these gentiles for Christ that God sent to them His servants with His gospel. “Thy prayers,” said God to Cornelius, “are come up for a memorial before God. Send men to Joppa, and call for one Simon, whose surname is Peter and he shall tell thee what thou oughtest to do.” But Cornelius, devoutness and need of Christ was not certainly the flowering of a natural religion. This man was one of the several gentiles the soil of whose heart had been previously prepared by the scriptures, by the truth. The knowledge of the Scriptures had been spread far and wide by the dispersed Jews. It is estimated that at the time of Christ there were six times as many Jews outside of Palestine as within its borders. A notable part of the population of Alexandria were Jews. Jews had settled in Asia Minor and in Syria. They were to be found in Rome. Few were the cities of the empire were there were no Jews. This Judaism of the Dispersion had the sacred scriptures. It took with it everywhere the synagogue. These synagogues had about them a large number of proselytes and Judaized converts, the devout men made mention of in the Acts of the Apostles. In. fine, it is the scriptures mixed with true faith and not pagan religion and culture that had paved the. way for Christ, But, when the fullness of time was come, the great mass of men of the pagan civilized world were steeped in sin and prostrated before the shrine of their idols, were thus strangers to this faith, enemies of God and of the gospel of Christ. Such was the state of affairs in that world when the fullness of time was come. It was a world that bore all the marks of being hopelessly lost.

Of the outward condition of this world we present the following description. The lands surrounding the Mediterranean were in the possession of Rome. These territories embraced all that common men knew of civilized life. The Roman empire and the world of civilized men were co-extensive. All was held together by allegiance to a single emperor, and by a common military system subject to him. The Roman army preserved the Roman peace. Under that peace commerce flourished, communion was made easy by excellent roads and by sea. In the larger towns a common language was spoken—that of Greece. It was an empire whose officials secured a rough justice such as the world had never seen.

The condition in which the people of Israel—the church—had been brought deserves special attention. It is especially with a view to the church that the apostle declares, “When the fullness of time was come, God sent forth His Son . . . to redeem them that were under the law . . .” God had put the church under the law to school it unto Christ, until the time appointed—the fullness of time. Through the demands of the law and the working of its curse in the bosom of the nation through the centuries, the Lord trained His people to live by the promise and to wait for the consolation of Israel. So, when the fullness of time was finally come, yearning was deep, and hope lively and the expectation of the true Israel ran high. The aged Simeon took the Christ-child up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel”. And Anna, the widow, coming in at that instant “gave thanks likewise unto the Lord and spake of him to all that looked for the redemption in Jerusalem.” There were those who looked for redemption. The law with all that appertains thereto—the typical symbolical institutions which it prescribed, the judgments of God that overtook the nation on account of its repeated apostasies and that, when the old dispensation was drawing to a close, had worked the destruction of so much of Israel’s typical glory—the law had indeed done its work.

This does not mean that when the fullness of time was come the true Israel had Christ directly before their eye. What it means is that through the law the Lord worked in the bosom of the church the necessary expectancy and yearning for salvation. But the church was still contemplating the promised deliverance largely as deliverance from foreign oppression. The true people of God were. This can be explained. In the past salvation had always assumed this form. When the people of Israel forsook the Lord, His anger would kindle against them. Then the adversary would prevail in their borders. When they repented, He forgave them and sent deliverance. Thus what was hoped for, when the fullness of time was come, is a savior, through whom Jehovah would again send salvation and so provide His people with fresh evidence that He loved them and in His love, pardoned their iniquities and delivered them from all their troubles. It was for a new token of this love that the true Israel yearned. The hope of this Israel, though mixed with much that is of this earth and of the flesh, was essentially pure. What the church lacked was insight into the mysteries of God, the reason being that the Spirit was not yet.

But the entering of the law had still another purpose, namely, that the offence might abound (Rom. 5:20). What motions of sin by the law! And through the centuries these motions worked to bring forth fruit unto death in the reprobate Jews, until, when the fullness of time was come, the measure of iniquity was full, the Israelitish nation was ripe for judgment and in its reprobated seed was spiritually capable of crucifying Christ, the Lord of glory.

Such then were the prevailing conditions when the precise moment arrived through which the measure of time became full. Christ had to be sent at that moment, at that time, when these conditions prevailed and no sooner. The Roman-Graeco world had to be sunk in all manner of debasing crimes, had to be giving itself up to all forms of idolatry. And in the Israelitish nation sin had to be abounding. So it had to be.

The reason is given by the apostle. Before God would send His Son, every mouth had to be stopped, and all the world had to become guilty before God. Before God could send His Son, it had to appear how absolutely true it is that by the deeds of the law no flesh shall be justified in His sight, that by the law is the knowledge of sin. (Rom. 3:19, 20).

Before God could send His Son, it had to appear that the world by wisdom knew not God (I Cor. 1:21). Indeed, the world had wisdom. It was an empire—was that world of Christ day—that, as was just said, had secured a justice such as the world had never before seen. And how proud it was if its wisdom! How proud of its intellectual achievements, of its wise men, scribes, disputers, of its culture and civilization. Indeed! But by its wisdom it knew not God. By Its wisdom it crucified the Christ. So did God show up this wisdom for what it is—foolishness, devilish. “Where then is the wise? Where is the scribe. Where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? (I Cor. 1:20) The question comes to us all. It thus comes to the exponents of common grace. Where is this wisdom? In the apostle’s day it was prostrated before the shrine of fourfooted beasts and of creeping things and was saying to these beasts and things, “Thou are my God”. And this wisdom is supposed to be springing from a principle of grace common to all men?

By the deeds of the law shall no man be justified in His sight. This, once more, had to appear. God so willed for the sake of His son whom He was to send. For this Son, and this Son alone is man’s righteousness sanctification wisdom and redemption. So, when the fullness of time was come God sent His Son. Let then every mouth be stopped! Consider that for centuries in that pre-Messianic period, God was giving over to a reprobate mind, through the lust of its own heart, mankind, to stop every mouth from boasting in man, in his goodness and wisdom. And every mouth is stopped. For God always gets His way in things. The mouth of His people is stopped through His saving grace. But the mouth of the wicked is stopped as well. For, said, Christ, “when he—the Spirit of truth—is come, he will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 16:8). The Spirit has come. Through the preaching of the Word, He hangs before every man, the apostle’s depiction of the moral dissolution of mankind of his day; and the testimony of that picture, He, the Spirit, puts into every man’s heart. In a word, He convicts every man of sin so that despite himself every man says in his heart: It is the truth. I am vile. If a man has grace in his heart, he turns to God a penitent sinner, and the voice of his conscience becomes the confession of his lips and the truth makes him free. But the wicked repress the truth, hold it under, boast in man’s inherent goodness and despise Him—the Son, Whom God sent when “the fullness of the time was come”. But he is without excuse. And his mouth is stopped.