As I sit here tonight, looking at the twinkling lights on our Christmas tree, I think of the wonder and fascination of all things Christmas that I had growing up, and let’s be honest, still have today. For the first time I shared the excitement of decorating our tree with my 3 year old, as she is now old enough to help and to know that putting the decorations on the tree means Christmas is coming. But as I truly reflect on what Christmas means, and that first Christmas over 2000 years ago, I imagine what it would have been like to peep through the stable cladding. In my mind, I see a young teenager cradling a fresh baby in her arms, a new husband by her side. As she breathes in deeply, relief fills her that labour is finished with and the scent of animals greet her. As she looks at the precious bundle, I am sure in her heart she would be marvelling at the wonder of God who gave his Son as a precious gift to the world.
In Galatians 4:4-7, we are told: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”
Since the beginning of time, God had planned for His Son to come forth from this teenage mother and then for centuries had been waiting for the “fullness of time” to arrive. As Justo L. Gonzalez says, “The early Christians did not believe that the time and place of the birth of Jesus has been left to chance. On the contrary, they saw the hand of God preparing the advent of Jesus in all events prior to the birth, and in all the historical circumstances around it.” (The Story of Christianity Vol. 1, 2010, p. 13).
Gonzalez (2010) then goes on to point out that this ‘fullness of time’ also applied to the spread of Jesus’ message- the Gospel. The birth of Jesus would eventually lead to the birth of the Church, and so the conditions needed to be just right for Jesus’ message of Salvation to spread and flourish. As we look at history, even just a brief glance, we can see God’s clever design in orchestrating all events surrounding the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the birth and growth of his church.
Below, I will summarise a few of the points of history that Gonzalez (2010) writes about, that can add to our wonder of just what this ‘fullness of time’ meant to Christianity. Hold on to your hats as we take a quick whirlwind tour of some of history….
- Alexander the Great (4th Century BCE) brought unity to the Eastern Mediterranean basin that allowed for Greek culture or Hellenism to spread. From this point, there was a tension between the polytheism (worship of many gods) of the Greeks and Jewish monotheism (worship of one God).
- When the Romans conquered this area, they saw the struggle of religion between the Jews and Greeks and after protests and uprisings, Rome intervened and gave the descendants of the Maccabees family (Jewish family who led the rebellions) some authority, setting them up as governors with titles, one of which was ‘high priest’ (Herod had some family ties with the Maccabees family).
- The governing Jews, in order to honour the particular Roman emperor of the day, went about trying to encourage the Jews to immigrate with the Gentiles. As the Jews suffered under often harsh measures to encourage assimilation, the group of Pharisees emerged. The Pharisees emphasised a faithfulness to Jewish Law, studying it, debating it and applying it to Jewish everyday life. The Pharisees were ‘of the people’ and developed the synagogue where Jewish tradition and Law could be studied outside of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Sadducees (another group we read about in the Bible) were mostly Jewish aristocracy who were focused on the Temple and had more conservative religious and political leanings.
- By the birth of Jesus, there were Jews living throughout the Roman Empire. This meant that most Jews spoke Greek, the common language of people in the Mediterranean at this time. These Jews living outside of Jerusalem, translated the Scriptures into Greek and so it was accessible and ready to be used by the early Christians as they spread the Gospel and spoke of how Jesus was the Messiah of the Old Testament they had been waiting for.
- The Roman Empire had also brought about a relative measure of political unity, and so travel was fairly safe. In the early church, the New Testament points to the major threat for missionaries, such as Paul, being bad weather. If Jesus had come a couple of decades earlier, pirates would have been a severe threat to travel. Due to ease of travel, trade was also flourishing, meaning much of the Gospel was spread by traders and slaves moving throughout the Empire.