In The Fullness of Time
This morning we are taking a break from our series in the Pastoral Epistles to meditate on the birth of Jesus.
We are having an event here on Christmas Eve, which will partially be a concert followed by some carol singing by candlelight, and you know that we’ve encouraged you to come and invite friends and neighbours. There’s still invitations available on the table in the foyer for you to pass out.
But there’s not going to be a sermon on Sunday night. The songs themselves will be the message. And so I wanted to take advantage of today to speak about Christmas and look at a passage of Scripture together which would remind us of what our celebration in these next few days is all about.
The book of Galatians might not immediately come to mind when we think about Christmas scriptures, and yet it has so much to say to us about why Jesus was born and what His birth means for us today.
In this message we’re going to be focusing on chapter 4 verses 4-7, but we began reading in chapter 3 on purpose, because it sets the stage. These verses we’ve read remind us of the story of the people of God before Christ. They were “held captive,” “imprisoned” under the guardianship of the law. They were no different than slaves, as chapter 4 verse 1 said.
“O Come O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,” we sing. These verses remind us of the long, dark centuries of waiting, waiting that we’ve been reading about in our advent readings this month.
“When the Fullness of Time Had Come”
And then verse 4 tells us that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son” (Galatians 4:4). God the Father sent Jesus when He did because that’s when the time had reached its fullness.
I love this phrase about the fullness of time. It’s not just that the time had to be right, but the time had to be full. It’s like that unit on the spray pad at the regional park. The water pours into it, and when it reaches its fullness, it tips over and dumps everyone below.
God waited for time to be full of all of the right events an experiences before He sent His son into the world. So we’ll begin this morning by asking: what does this actually refer to? What had to be “full” in time before Jesus came?
One answer to that question is that Israel’s story had to reach its fullness. All of those promises and all of those centuries of waiting we’ve just made mention of. And if you follow Israel’s story, like we did in the series last year, we see that after each time God promised a saviour, he allowed enough time to pass to confirm for us that no mere human could fulfill these promises.
Think of God’s promise that an offspring of Eve would crush the serpent (Genesis 3:15). As we read the story, any hope that Cain or Abel or Seth or even Noah would be this offspring is quickly dashed to pieces.
The same thing happened with God’s promise to David, and Solomon’s downfall.
And by the time we get to the end of the Old Testament, we have lost all hope that any mere human can keep these promises and save God’s people once and for all. If you’ve read through the whole Old Testament, you know it’s tough going, and that’s the point. We come to the end desperate for the Messiah.
And things got even worse for Israel in the 400 years after the last prophet, Malachi. It was in that time that Israel finally won their independence back after being occupied for centuries. But things quickly went downhill again. 60 years before Jesus was born, Israel descended into a civil war sparked by two brothers who were fighting over who would be the next high priest. And both brothers invited the Roman Empire to come and settle their dispute.
And that’s how Israel came under Roman occupation. By invitation.
It’s like hitting rock bottom and yet scraping your fingernails off trying to go even deeper still. And God let this all happen so that we would taste the relief when we hear the angel say to Joseph, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
This is one reason for the fullness of time. Sin reaching its fullness. God’s people unable to save themselves by any effort on their part despite being given every promise, every threat, every blessing, every curse, every opportunity. Everything God did for them just highlighted how desperate all of us are and how we can never save ourselves.
And that was actually the point. Romans 3:19-20 says, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:19–20).
If you think you can save yourself by your good efforts, just read the story of Israel. And your mouth will be stopped as you learn that the law can only show us our sin. We need a saviour to save us from it.
And if Jesus had come any sooner, we might not have been as fully convinced of this. So God sent forth His son in the fullness of time.
The fullness of time included more than this aspect of the story, though. God also waited until all the right conditions had come into place so that the news about Jesus’ birth could spread and take root all over the world.
It’s easy for us to forget that for much of Israel’s history, and for most of those 400 years of history in between the Old and New Testaments, the world was a dangerous place. There were constant wars, and basic conditions were such that it was difficult and dangerous for ordinary people to travel for any distance.
After the Romans conquered the Greek Empire, they could barely hold things together. Pirates made the seas dangerous, robbers made the roads dangerous, and angry revolutionaries meant the cities were often tottering on the brink of riot. History tells us that the Roman world has descended to a place of almost total lawlessness.
But around 30 BC, one of the Roman generals began to accumulate power for himself, uniting this group of provinces into an empire and becoming its very first emperor. He used his new powers to bring stability and peace to his empire, ushering in a period known as the Pax Romana (the “Peace of Rome.”) What he was able to accomplish has been referred to by some historians as a miracle.
This first emperor hired a professional army to stop riots and keep the peace. He established patrol squads to clear the seas of pirates, making shipping and sea travel safer. He built a huge network of roads that connected the whole empire together, and had them patrolled with soldiers, making distant travel easier and safer than it ever had been. And he established a courier service to deliver news and documents around the empire.
All of this took money, of course. And so this first emperor reengineered the taxation system to make it safer and more efficient, and he ordered empire-wide censuses so that he could accurately tax the provinces.
This first emperor’s name was Caesar Augustus. When we turn to the Christmas story in Luke chapter 2 and read, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered…” (Luke 2:1), that’s not just some Bible version of “once upon a time.” No, that’s telling us about the very first Roman emperor who had issued this decree as a part of his ambitious administration of the empire.
And it was into this Roman Empire that Jesus was born. And it was also into this Empire that Jesus sent His disciples, saying “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19)
And go they did. In an astoundingly short period of time—mere decades—the gospel spread and took root all over the Roman world. This rapid explosion of the church is yet another “miracle of history.”
If you’ve read through the book of Acts, you’ll be familiar with Paul and his missionary journeys. He travelled far and wide by land and sea. He wrote letters and sent them all over the Empire, and was able to send and receive money from a great distance.
What we might not realize is that none of this was possible at that scale before that point in human history. Caesar Augustus thought he was building an empire, but he didn’t realize he was really clearing ground for the King whose kingdom would never pass away.
And something I just realized this morning is that, without this global spread of the gospel, the whole issue of the Gentiles being saved by faith would never have been raised. The spread of the gospel forced the apostles to clarify the gospel and give us books like Galatians in the first place.
So God sent forth His son in the fullness of time—when history had reached its peak in convincing us that we needed a saviour, and in conditions being such that the news about this saviour could spread and take root all over the world.
Sending His Son
And in keeping with the promises, Jesus came, being born of woman, like verse 4 says. The is just what God had promised to the serpent: an offspring of the woman (Genesis 3:15).
Jesus was “born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Galatians 4:4–5), as verses 4 and 5 says. This follows up on what we read earlier in chapter 3—that the law was something that had imprisoned and held God’s people captive, like a guardian.
And Jesus came to lead His people out from under the guardianship of the law and into the freedom of sonship. He came, as verse 5 says, “to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Isn’t that incredible? Just put this together with verse 4: God sent forth His son. And the result of God sending HIs son is that we might receive adoption as sons.
I have known many people who have adopted children to be their own. But I’ve never known any parent who, having only one child of their own, sent that only child away to a foreign country, so that this one child could bring back many others with him who would be adopted and join the family as his siblings.
And I’ve certainly never known a parent who has done this, knowing that these children they wanted to adopt were criminals with a huge legal debt stacked against them, and that this only child of theirs would need to suffer and pay for their crimes in order to get them out and bring them home with him.
But that is exactly what the Father did for us at Christmas. He sent forth his son, to redeem those who were under the law—by dying and bearing the punishment of the law in their place—so that we could receive adoption as sons.
We were the criminals on death row. Jesus is the only son who was sent far away, who came and suffered our death penalty in our place, and rising from the dead has caused us to be adopted as sons of His father. That’s what Christmas is about.
Sending the Spirit
I love this passage for where it goes next. Because what it does is connects the sending of Jesus to another sending, a sending that has massive meaning for our lives today.
Do you know that Jesus is not the only person that the Father has sent from heaven to earth? The Father has also sent the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity. We don’t often connect the sending of the Spirit with the sending of the Son at Christmas. But that’s exactly the connection our passage makes.
“And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His son into our hearts” (Galatians 4:6).
I love the way that the Holy Spirit is referred to here as “the Spirit of His son.” Jesus is God, and so the Holy Spirit is as much His Spirit as He is the Father’s Spirit. Just like Acts 16:7 refers to Him as “the Spirit of Jesus,” so here the Holy Spirit is called “the Spirit of His son.”
And just like God sent His son into the world, so He has sent the Spirit of His son into our hearts.
Your heart is not that much different from that manger which held Jesus. Rough and far from perfect, but housing God Himself.
And the Spirit in our hearts tells us and shows us that we are truly sons and daughters. He is the proof and the confirmation that we truly have been adopted by God.
And how does He do that? He cries “Abba! Father!” That’s what verse 6 says. He calls out for His father. “Abba,” after all, is just the Aramaic word for father. It’s how Hebrew people in that day would have addressed their father in ordinary conversation.
And maybe you hear this and think, “That’s it? I thought the Holy Spirit came to do things that were big and flashy and miraculous!” But how often do we miss that the most spectacular and miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts is this: Him crying “Abba! Father!”
Perhaps we’re so used to this. We think of all the times that Jesus prayed to His father, and we just assume that was normal. But it wasn’t. Nobody referred to God as their father in that day. Jesus’ words were radical.
And Jesus goes even further by teaching His disciples to pray to God as he tells them to refer to Him as “Father” (Matthew 6:9). And this is just incredible. It would have seemed scandalous for many of Jesus’ hearers.
And verse 6 here goes further because it tells us that “Abba! Father!” isn’t something we say because we’ve been taught to say it or we’re repeating after someone else. If you have been adopted by God, the Spirit of His son inside of you simply cries out “Abba! Father!”, and so that’s what you do.
If you have been saved by Jesus, there is something in you that very naturally talks to God as your father. When you’re in trouble, you call out to Him. When you’re happy or thankful, you express it to Him. You talk to Him as a Father.
And this is a miracle. Because before we were adopted by God, before the Holy Spirit was given to our hearts, we never could have nor would have talked to God in this way. Before Christ did His work in our hearts, all we knew was distance from God, separation from Him.
And more than this: whether we knew it or not, we were at odds with God. We were his enemies. We hated him. And God’s relationship to us that of a judge, ready to pass the just death sentence upon us.
But then God sent the Spirit of His son into our hearts. And He showed us that God’s own Son had suffered our death penalty for us, and by faith in Him we could be reconciled to God. And we tasted God’s love and God’s forgiveness and we began to relate to Him as a child relates to His father.
This is what it feels like to be adopted. We cry to our father because we know He is listening to us. We know we’re not alone. And this is a miracle.
I remember hearing a very moving story about a couple who travelled overseas to adopt two young boys out of an orphanage. And as they entered the doors of the orphanage, what struck them was how silent it was. It was full of babies but none of them were crying, because they had all learned that nobody was listening, nobody would answer them. And so it was dead silent.
And this couple met their two boys and spent time with them over that weekend, getting to know them and showing them care and growing familiar with them.
And when, at the end of that weekend, the couple said their goodbyes and told them they would soon come back for them and take them home to live with them, and began to walk for the doors of the orphanage, they heard a sound that they hadn’t heard all weekend. They heard crying.
Those two boys started to cry. Because they knew somebody loved them and they knew they weren’t alone and for maybe the first time in their life they felt the hope that somebody was actually listening to the sound of their crying.
How many lonely nights have you had where your heart has been full of sadness and you have been praying to your heavenly Father and have not been sure if He’s even listening or even cares?
And yet what does Galatians 4:6 tell us? It tells us that the very act of crying out to God as a Father is evidence that you are His. It is evidence of His Holy Spirit’s residence within your heart. It is evidence that you have been adopted as His child.
This is what Christmas accomplished for us. This is the result of God sending His son into the world to redeem us. The Spirit of that same Son is now dwelling in our hearts and we cry to our father.
No Longer a Slave
And so even though our conditions have not yet changed fully—even though we are not in the New Creation yet; even though we still suffer in this orphanage, this broken world with broken bodies and often broken hearts, our status has changed. We know someone is coming for us. The papers have been signed. And like verse 7 says, “So you are not longer a slave, but a son.”
“No longer a slave” points to the experience of God’s people under the law, like chapter 3 described. And because Christ has come and fulfilled the law, God’s people are no longer slaves. The time has come and we now are sons.
I wonder how many Christians still relate to God like they are slaves. Doing what they are told, but still feeling like they are working to earn their keep. They obeying, but only out of fear for what will happen if they don’t.
What a difference it makes when we realize that we serve and obey God as sons and daughters. We want to please him, but we do so as His children who have been loved and welcomed into His family.
And more than this—we’ve even become his heirs. “So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:7).
As God’s adopted children, we’re not second-rate. We’re not pretend children. As sons and daughters, we have become his very heirs, receivers of his inheritance.
It’s just like what we read in Romans 8: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:16–17).
That sounds bold and incredible, doesn’t it? You and I receiving what Jesus Himself is due to receive? That can’t be true—but it is.
So, what is Jesus’ inheritance? What is Jesus due to receive when He returns and makes all things right?
The answer is everything. Hebrews 1:2 says that Jesus was appointed the heir of all things. Psalm 2:8 speaks about Jesus as the son of David, and it says, “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (Psalm 2:8–9).
That is Jesus’ inheritance. The world. He will crush all opposition and rule as king over this planet.
And centuries after this promise was given, the son of David stood on a mountain and said to His followers, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).
This same Christ, risen from the dead, said in Revelation 3:21, “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Revelation 3:21).
And now listen to this, with Psalm 2 still ringing in your head: “The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father” (Revelation 2:26–27).
Did you hear all of that? The inheritance of Jesus, the promises made to Him, pass to His people because we are joint heirs with Him. This “heirs with Christ” thing is no second-rate experience. It’s not just a ceremonial title that doesn’t really mean anything.
No, it means standing beside Jesus as He receives His long-promised kingdom, and actually participating with Him as He judges and rules and sits down on the throne. “He rules the world with truth and grace.” And one day we are going to rule the world right alongside of Him.
Could you have dreamed this up or invented it? If someone had told you to ask anything you want, would you have dreamed big enough to say, “I want whatever Jesus is having”? But that is what we’ve been promised. If you’ve been saved by faith in Jesus, you will receive what has been promised to the Son of God, because you are also a son.
This is not too good to be true. This is what Christmas has been about, all along. Like we’re going to talk about on Christmas Eve, it’s like the greatest fairy tale we’ve ever heard, except that it’s really true.
So this Christmas, believe this. Don’t be too proud to accept it. Ask Jesus for the faith to make it your own.
And ask Him for the help to start living like true sons and daughters of the king. If we really believed that we’ve been adopted as His children, and if we really believed that our destiny is to rule with Him, would this not make a difference in how we approach things today? Would this not put our life into perspective, our priorities into place?
I encourage you to pray as we leave here today: “Lord, help me to understand how to live like a future king or queen. Show me what this looks like. And help me to worship you this Christmas for your incredible grace in my life.”
“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” (Galatians 4:4–7).
And all of this because of Christmas. Let’s pray now with thankfulness.