Galatians 4:4 is one of the best known verses in the New Testament, yet the opening few words have been translated a variety of ways:
- But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son… (ESV)
- But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son… (NIV)
- But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son… (KJV)
- But when the right time came, God sent his Son… (NLT)
- But when the proper time came God sent his son… (JBP)
- When the time came to completion, God sent His Son… (HCB)
Though all slightly different, each one of these translates the same seven Greek words in such a way as to point to the fact that this was a unique moment in human history – God had been working out His purpose across the ages, bringing human history to just the right moment (until the date set by his father – Galatians 4:2) for the Son to come (making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time – Ephesians 1:9).
I doubt that we even realize all the things that God in his grace brought together at that time in human history at the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel… (2 Timothy 1:10). Each Christmas season we focus on the way prophecy was fulfilled in His coming, such things as:
- The birth took place in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2) – even the Chief Priests and scribes knew that the Messiah, the Christ, was to be born there and reported this to Herod when the Wise Men appeared (Matthew 2:1-6).
- There was the census decree of Caesar Augustus that brought Joseph and Mary up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David… (Luke 2:1-4).
- The fact that Mary was, at that time, a Virgin – All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us)… (Matthew 1:22-23).
- Joseph and Mary took the child and fled to Egypt where they remained until the death of Herod, This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:15).
- That after they fled Herod sent his troops to Bethlehem and killed all the male children two years old or under, Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:17-18).
In addition, most Bible scholars point to other facts about the first century that seemed to also be a fulfillment of God’s providence at work in history:
- It was a time of tremendous spiritual thirst and anticipation both among the Jews and other peoples. The Roman rule had made the Jews hungry for the Messiah’s coming and an overthrow of Roman domination, while the Roman expansion had led to the abandonment of many idols amongst other conquered peoples (because these gods had failed to bring victory over the Roman conquerors) creating a spiritual hunger and openness.
- The Roman world of the day was in a time of unprecedented peace – so much so that it came to be known by the term Pax Romana (Latin for “Roman Peace”) – a span of more than 200 years from roughly 27 B.C. to 180 A.D. and involving most of the territory that surrounded the Mediterranean Sea. This allowed for a freedom of safe travel which had been previously unknown – a condition essential for the rapid spread of the Gospel as seen in the Book of Acts and Paul’s letters.
- The world around the Mediterranean was able to flourish commercially not only because of the Pax Romana but also because previously the Greeks had conquered the area and had intentionally set out to share its culture, especially its language, with the conquered area. Though the formal language of the Roman Empire was Latin, a form of Greek was spoken throughout the empire and had become the “common” language of trade.
This latter historical fact is of particular note today. On October 1, 331 B.C. an event took place which allowed the Greek culture and language to become the singular influence that it was in New Testament times. God was already preparing the world for the coming of the Son and for the spread of the Gospel. On the day that Alexander the Great and his army of 47,000 men were greatly outnumbered by the Persian force of more than 250,000 men. Alexander had already won battle after battle in Europe, Asia and Africa. Egypt had yielded quickly to him and he paused only long enough to found the city of Alexandria. Then he turned east to face the Persians. The Persian king had even leveled and smoothed the plain of Arbela to make it easier on his chariots. Alexander for the first time had set out two reserve forces to protect his flanks and then led the charge that broke through the Persian line and allowed his army to attack the Persians both at the front and the rear. The Persians panicked and fled. Alexander had lost 500 men, while over 40,000 Persians had been killed on the battlefield.
The Greeks imposed their culture on their ever-widening empire and Koine Greek became the common language and the language used to write the New Testament and to preach the Gospel.
When the fullness of time had come…