Galatians 4:1-7

What does Paul mean by “…when the time had fully come God sent his Son born of a woman…”? To answer that question we must first consider the context of this remark. It is found in the book of Galatians, which Paul wrote to combat the error that a man who is saved through faith in Christ, must go on to perfect righteousness through obedience to the law (cf. Gal. 3:1-3). The Galatians were under some pressure to yield to some of the principles of the Old Testament, in order to perfect their righteousness before God, particularly to circumcision. The basic premise, that saved people should go on to perfect righteousness in holiness of disposition and life, Paul never disputes, but how that is to be accomplished he vigorously defends. His basic argument is that just as we are saved by grace, the disciple of Christ must go on to prefect righteousness through grace as well, so that it is grace from salvation to perfection, from first to last that gets the job done (Gal. 2:17-21). As it turns out, Paul argues that the work of salvation that comes out of grace is carried out by the Spirit, both to save and to perfect the saints in righteousness. The law has been replaced by the Spirit in the New Testament. The role of the law in the Old Testament was to safeguard and perfect holiness in the people of God, but because of the lack of transformation of the flesh, through the resurrection life of Christ, applied by the Spirit to a transformed life, the law failed (Rom. 8:1-4). Now the Spirit has taken over the law’s role, with a great deal more chance of success. So Paul chides his readers for going back to a failed system in an effort to perfect righteousness by a dead law, when the living power of the Spirit will produce righteousness in the an environment of life in Christ (cf. Gal 5:1, 16-26).

In this respect, Paul explains that the Jews were like under aged children, heirs of the promises of God, the covenants, grace, the Spirit, and salvation, but having not yet inherited it because they had not reached their majority (Gal. 4:1-2). It would have been a picture with which those in the Roman world would have been familiar (cf. George, T. (2001). Vol. 30: Galatians (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers). Under aged heirs (nepios literally infants) are not unlike slaves, Paul says in that they do not enjoy the full rights of their inheritance until they come of age, and they are under the strict authority of guardians and tutors (Gal. 4:2). When Christ came to bring the message of salvation by God’s grace, including the perfecting of righteousness through the power of the Spirit, God’s people came of age; they reached their majority, if they were willing to accept the truth! But of course many, even the majority, were not. They rejected the message, and in this case some Jews were even seeking to bring the Galatians, Gentile believers in Christ, into what Paul sees as bondage and slavery to the law that dominated God’s people in their minority and immaturity. The principles contained in the law were nothing more than tutors for children until they reached maturity whereby righteousness could be produced by the Power of the indwelling Spirit of God! Paul calls the law for the Jews and the elements of the flesh at work in Gentiles, which produces sin, together, the principles of this age, because both are rooted in the performance of the flesh (Gal. 4:3) (George, T. (2001). Vol. 30: Galatians (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers). That is the carnality and seeking to perfect righteousness under the law both operate under the momentum and impetus of the unaided flesh, and rely upon the human will to succeed. If Israel’s spiritual history taught them anything, it was that righteousness would never be produced through the law as a result of the operation of the human will, or flesh, of the law. Their failure to produce righteousness through the law was a matter of historical record and was legendary! It was because of this failure that God had promised a new covenant in the Old Testament, one that would lead to Israel’s success in terms of righteousness (Jer. 31:31-34). This covenant would rely upon the power of a transformed life, and on the Spirit, not a written code (cf. Ezek. 11:19; 18:31; 36:26-27; 37:13-15; 39:29).

To move from the attempting to produce righteousness by obeying a written code, to righteousness produced by a transformed heart was for Paul analogous to coming of age, to growing up! It was to come from one’s minority under the harsh tutelage of a pedagogue to ones majority, at which time righteousness is produced from and inwardly transformed character. Just as when a child grows to maturity and begins to act and behave naturally as he has been taught under a strict system of discipline, so Israel was invited to move from the immaturity of obedience to the law, to the genuine righteousness of maturity, arising from inward character; this character is in Paul’s teaching the overflow of God’s grace and the power of the Spirit, as a result of a spiritual transformation because of salvation. The coming of Christ was to bring Israel to their majority, and to make them heirs of the full plan and purpose of God. It was to introduce them to salvation and righteousness by grace through faith in Christ. Indeed we can go one step further and say that God sought to introduce Israel to the power of the Spirit for the perfection of righteousness, as God had promised in terms of a new covenant and the eschatological coming of his Spirit. This is exactly what he had promised in the Old Testament when he said that he would put a new spirit within them, and write his laws on their hearts, rather than stone tablets (cf. Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 11:19; 18:31; 36:26-27; 37:13-15; 39:29). To now accept the domination of the written law was to go backward in the plan and purpose of God, and Paul refused to accept such a thing.

It is in this context that Paul says that Christ was born in the “fullness of time.” He was born under the law, in an era dominated by the law’s attempt to produce righteousness. Through Christ’s total obedience to the law’s demands, he was able to vicariously offer his own perfect righteousness as an endowment of grace to those who have no hope of producing it by themselves. Where humanity failed in Adam, through disobedience to God’s command, and where Israel had failed to live up to the law, Christ succeeded and then offered himself as the perfect sacrificial substitute for a lost humanity that could never measure up (cf. Rom. 5:12-21). Christ literally offered his righteousness up to God in behalf of a fallen race, so that through faith in God, he would be justified in offering pardon to those who believed (cf. Heb. 4:15; 9:11-15, 28; ). Christ who fulfilled the righteousness of God, offered himself as the sacrifice to suffer the punishment and consequences of sin on behalf of a fallen race. Christ’s death and resurrection shattered the law’s domination in the arena of righteousness, because Christ perfectly fulfilled its demands, and was able after his death to rise and endow those who believe with forgiveness and the righteousness of God through the power of the Spirit. So the fullness of time has to do with the right moment in history for righteousness by the law to be shattered and replaced by righteousness that comes by the Spirit.
In this way, Israel was given the full rights of heirs who had reached their majority, righteousness that came from the Spirit of God through grace. Up until now these under aged heirs, supervised by the law, had not yet attained the full rights of sons, which is righteousness perfected by grace in the power of the Spirit (Gal. 4:5)! Paul describes the law as a harsh paidagōgos, an austere and strong disciplinarian who supervises children in the rich households, to instill discipline and morality in them (cf. George, T. (2001). Vol. 30: Galatians (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers). They had to be coaxed, prodded even driven along by law, rules and principles of behavior inculcated into them. This was more like slavery than sonship! But now through Christ they were no longer under the tutor and guardian, the law, in order to produce righteousness or to provide supervision over their behavior and morality. Now righteousness was made possible through grace by the Spirit, operating in their hearts as fully redeemed people of God! They had come of age through Christ’s sacrifice and the offer of salvation through grace and faith. It was a new relationship, whereby they now called God “father” and were no longer under aged heirs, or slaves (Gal. 4:6-7)!

When Jesus was born to Mary it was a critical time, the most perfect time, for the liberation of Israel from the law and for the redemption of Gentiles from sin, to discover righteousness through grace, through the empowering Spirit of God. Christ was born at precisely the right moment to bring Israel to majority and to bring about righteousness by grace and the power of the Spirit. This moment included the right historical circumstances whereby the Old Testament promises to include Gentiles could be fulfilled.
With respect to the historical context, there were three major lines of convergence that led to this being the most opportune time for the gospel and the coming of Christ. The Roman Empire had spread through throughout the Mediterranean basin, bringing with it what has become known as the Roman Peace, Pax Romanus. There was relative stability in the world, politically and even militarily. The Romans had also constructed roads throughout the empire, making travel convenient, and relatively safe. In addition to this, the conquests of Alexander the Great, traversing much of the same territory earlier, spread Greek culture and language throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East. Rome adopted much of the Greek culture, with a neo-classical revival in art, architecture and many other aspects of society. The result was that while most people spoke their regional dialects, many if not a significant portion of the empire also spoke Greek. The dispersion of the Jews throughout the world by the earlier invasions of the Babylonians and Persians saw to it that knowledge of God had become widespread in the regions touched by the subsequent Roman empire. Jewish enclaves existed throughout the empire and especially in commercial centers. Synagogues were common, and the Jewish communities maintained their traditions and proselytized Gentiles. There were often God-fearing Gentiles affiliated with the Jewish communities, men who worshipped God, but who had not gone as far as circumcision. The Roman centurion who sent to Jesus for the healing of his servant was an example of this, as was Cornelius the centurion whose household received the Holy Spirit at the preaching of Peter (Luke 7:1-5; Acts 10).

The prodigious empire building of Rome produced a territory that could literally be travelled by Paul, with relative ease. There were roads, communications lines, shipping lanes, trade caravans, provincial and local governments that protected rights and kept law and order. Luke describes Roman life and culture in detail in Acts. After the resurrection of Christ the church spread all over the regions of Judea and Samaria. However, it was Paul who along with Barnabas at first, made use of the benefits of the empire to spread the gospel. Paul was able to address people in the far flung corner of the empire in a language nearly everyone would understand. He could later write to the churches and communicate with them in this language that had become common Greek, because of the way it had been modified in the context of the empire and its spread into so many cultures. God had chosen a moment in time to send his Son when the gospel could move rapidly and be understood easily.

Add to this was the knowledge of God, preached and spread throughout the world by the Jewish Diaspora. Many people in the various regions, towns and cities where strong Jewish populations lived, and as result of the trade and commerce, had heard about the Lord. There was a great deal of sympathy and interest in God as a result in some places. It was not uncommon to have, as Luke puts it, “God Fearers” attached to and worshipping at the synagogues. Paul often appealed to these groups when he preached the gospel and was rejected by the local Jewish leaders (cf. Acts 13-28). Often Gentiles who had worshipped with their Jewish neighbors were open to the message of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, preached by the early church (cf. Acts 10:2, 22; 11:19-24; 13:1-15, 26, 42-50; 17:17). As a result of the Jewish influence there was at the time of Christ a great deal of messianic expectation. Throughout the world an anticipation of eschatological happenings and the coming of a messianic was almost at a frenzied pitch.
When Paul said “…when the time was fully come, God sent his Son…” he meant that God had prepared the moment precisely. The woman, Mary was chosen and ready (cf. Gen. 3:15; 12:1-3; 2 Sam. 7:11-16; 1 Chron. 17:4-7-14; Isa. 7:14; 9:6-7; 11:1-10; Micah 5:2; Luke; 1:30-31). Israel was spiritually at the point of needing to come to maturity and was ready to receive the inheritance that God intended form the beginning. The world was ready because the infrastructure was in place for the spread of the gospel, and there was a foundation in almost every corner of the empire for people to hear and understanding the message of the gospel of salvation by grace through Christ.


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