Survey of The Life and Teachings of Jesus
© L.D. Underwood 2010
The Fullness of Time
Galatians 4:4 reads: “When the time had fully come, God sent forth his son, born of a woman, born unto the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” When the time had fully come. My basic proposition is, that everything we have been looking at religiously, socially, economically, in every sphere of life, things were converging toward the coming of Christ to make it just the exact right time—in the fullness of time; at just the right moment in history Christ would come.
For example, one could say some of the Jewish elements of preparation were primarily in the realm of the religious which we’ve been talking about the last two days. For example, here is a chosen and divinely prepared people. The Jewish people as we have seen were a secluded people. A people whose genius was in the realm of the religious. A people who constituted a witness to Jehovah among the nations. And when one begins to see their spiritual preparation, how God reveals to them certain truths unknown to other nations. Truths let’s say about God for example the oneness of God, his unity in contrast to all the polytheistic beliefs of surrounding nations. The fact that God was a personal being, not an impersonal force, not an animal or a bird or a reptile; the fact that God was omnipotent having all power, there can only be one someone omnipotent being. There cannot exist several beings at the same time who have supreme power. The fact that he was holy; the pagan gods did not have moral beings as gods. But He is holy and aloof. Not only truths about God that were revealed to them but also truths about human beings; that humans were dependent upon God and they were created in God’s image and they have to obedient to their creator and they have because of the fall, sinned and they have become sinful creatures and therefore atonement for sin is necessary.
Truths about the coming Messiah, the coming Redeemer; and God revealed these truths to them through the law; and through the prophets and through divine redemptive acts. They were chosen, they were a divinely prepared people; and therefore, we have prophetic scripture which foretells the coming of the Messiah. Those scriptures later translated into Greek, so that the whole world might know of this Good News. If we look within the Jews we can see Messianic expectations; that is there was an expectation which was deepened by their experience in the Babylonian exile. And this expectation of a coming messiah was fanned with new intensity by the persecution under men like Antiochus Epiphanes the Assyrian ruler.
It might of interest to know that in the generation just before the birth of Christ, the Jews, as a whole, came to look for the immanent advent of Messiah—he is about to come. That Jewish expectation even influenced gentile thinkers. And those gentiles in turn began to look to the Jews to usher in a golden age of the world. In writings of Suetonius or Tacitus the Roman historians and one will find among the gentiles there was this same eager expectation that something is about to happen.
Still thinking of the Jews, we can think of the dispersion of the Jews, the diaspora—where these Jews were scattered throughout the Ancient world everywhere, and they became a leavening influence of preparation. That is why later on when the apostles like Paul for example went forth preaching the good news, they found in almost every city, this prepared people ready to hear the message. Synagogues were being planted in vast numbers New Testament times. Synagogues—places where the scriptures were taught, where Paul would find a prepared place in which to preach the gospel. The Jews were very much engaged in proselytism; now to make a proselyte simply means to make a convert. The zeal of the Jews, to make converts and bringing many gentiles into Judaism around this period of time, which of course helped to bridge the gulf between Jew and gentile. So, these are all Jewish elements of preparation, God working through these various areas whether it’s the scriptures or whether its messianic expectations or whether it was their divine preparation beforehand or whether it was the synagogue or proselytism. There was this sense of preparation among the Jews.
If the Jewish preparation was primarily in the realm of the religious, then the Greek elements of preparation were primarily cultural. That is to say, what is addressed here is Greek philosophy and its approach to monotheism. Its suggestion of life after death; its emphasis on human dignity, and human conscience; its broadening influence by which narrow, provincial, superstitions were broken down by being exposed to these broadening kinds of concepts which the philosophers talked about.
Consider also the Greek language, which became a universal language for the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament; and that universal language meant that there was a possibility of preaching the gospel to the whole world. And this created the possibility of this Greek New Testament that would ultimately come about. Adding to that, Hellenistic culture in general, where this Greek culture, this cosmopolitan spirit, could transcend any of the nationalistic boundaries. The function of these Hellenized Jews was as a bridge between Jew and Gentile. So, there was, perhaps unwittingly, cultural preparation by the Greeks.
The Roman elements of preparation, then, would be primarily the political. We had the Roman unification of the world. We see Greek unification was cultural; Roman unification was political. We had what is called the Pox Romana, the Roman Peace. And the advent of Christ came in one of those few periods in history when all the known world was at relative peace. And of course, that facilitated the spread of the Gospel. Not only Roman peace, but Roman law—a unique and very just system of law which guaranteed protection and fair trials. The importance of Roman citizenship, which is best illustrated by the apostle Paul. Even the Roman roads that spanned the Empire so that you could travel from one end of it to the other always on Roman roads, unless of course you were crossing water. Those roads would be marked by mile-stones and they would have motels placed at convenient locations. There was a postal system was in operation. Then perhaps in terms of just miscellaneous, general elements of preparation by which we include the mystery religions when we consider Mithraism and Isis and others. Because many of those mystery religions stressed some of the very same things found within Christianity. We find in some of those mystery religions stories about the death and resurrection of their god; about salvation and eternal life; about baptism a communion feast; of personal faith; scriptures; many of these same elements that we find within Christianity also found within the mystery religions.
Add to that the heathen bankruptcy of the time. The loss of confidence in the old-line religions. The moral decay, where divorce becomes common place. We are told roughly in the first 500 years of the Roman republic there is not one recorded case of divorce. But by the time we come to New Testament times, divorce is as common and frequent as it is today. Suicide, idleness, reliance upon the dole system and welfare. Many, many elements of preparation of the world for Christ.
There is an article by Howard Snyder in Christianity Today titled “A World Come Full Circle.” Howard Snyder is the dean of the Free Methodist Theological Seminary in South Hollow Brazil. He wrote an article in which he sought to show the comparisons between the Roman world of the first century, and many of the elements that make up twentieth century life. And he said, quoting another author, of all the centuries that twentieth is more like the first. And this is true of many people, there is a whole list of names of people even futurists who are pagans, who suggest there is a very close similarity between our day and age with that of the first century. He gives seven signs of the times, seven parallels between the first century Roman Empire and conditions today—which I thought you might be interested to supplement what we’ve been talking about already this morning. For example, he said there is an essential urban world with cities playing the major cultural role. That is urban life; the urban flavor of the first century comes very clear in the book of Acts, and in the writings of Paul. That in contrast to most of the middle ages, in contrast to the first hundred and fifty years of our own history here in America, the Greco-Roman world was a cluster of cities, a world of Rome, Alexander, Corinth, Colossi, Thessalonica, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, these various cities, literally hundreds of cities. Rome of course was the largest. It had a first century population of about one million people and the population of Alexandria Egypt would have been perhaps 500,000. There were many cities that were apparently having a population in excess of 100,000 people. We know for example there was a stadium in the city of Ephesus that would has 25,000 people.
So approximately half the population lived in cities. A situation of course that later changed drastically. And the important fact was not so much the percentage (of roughly 50 percent) but the influence of what that urbanization brought about. It’s very clear that urban life and culture played a predominant role in the first century. The city was the place to be, as the book of Acts tells us. We are all aware of the fact that urbanization within, not only American, but also throughout the world today and we say that ours is an urban age, even though probably 25 percent of the world live in population centers that have over 100,000 people. But, the cultural influence of city life is certainly parallel.
Secondly, he talks about unparalleled peace, stability and political unity. He quotes Will and Ariel Durant in their book, Lessons of History by which they say, “War is one of the constants of history.” We always have war with us. In fact, the Durant’s state that in the last 3,421 years of recorded history, only 268 have seen no war. Yet the Christian faith burst into the Roman World during a time of unusual peace. Caesar Augustus had stabilized the entire empire, bringing about peace unparalleled in history through his military, through the roads; through many things mentioned before, he brought this about.
We may not think that our world is in peace today with many wars recently and with other conflicts and racial strife throughout the world. Yet by contrast with the past, considering all of the social revolutions today, we can say that within the last roughly forty years, the world has been remarkably peaceful. Despite local conflict and turbulence, there is tremendous stability. We have the equivalent of the Pox Romana today. Where even American military presence can be found all around the world, brining somewhat of a stable situation. Even the United Nations, whatever we might think of that organization with all of its pluses and minuses, has certainly been a stabilizing influence since World War II. A third factor that he talks about is the world wide spread of one predominant culture, and one predominant language. Greek culture we said predominated in the Roman World. And Greek was the common language of most people, or at least the second language learned by most people. Again, we can see the parallel today, where for good or for ill, American influence is found all around the world. We have school children in Russia and in China and other places studying English, and the world goes to American movies and they adopts American styles.
A fourth factor he talks about is international travel, communication, and interchange. He estimates there were 52,000 miles of Roman Roads and that they produce safety and maintenance in the first century, that you had business men, and government officials and military personnel, and all of these others have traveled extensively, and easily throughout the empire brining knowledge, bringing communication that mushroomed. Of course, we are well aware of the explosion of communication within our own day. We are businessmen and students and educators and tourists and government officials. We have traveled almost every part of the globe. Our world is mass communications and satellites and publications and mass media. A fifth sign he mentions is the pervasive social change with a tendency towards a humanizing universalist one world outlook. A feeling that mankind is essentially one and shares a common destiny. A pervasive social change with a tendency toward a one world outlook. We could quote from a litany of other people who are indicating that some of the same trends are happening throughout the world today.
Sixth, there was a widespread religious and philosophical ferment. Widespread religious turmoil and philosophical turmoil. With the rise of new religions, a practical atheism, couple with an existential mysticism. There was a practical atheist-ism; there was a religious ferment characterized by the rise of new more emotional religions like you saw among the mystery cults, and we find the same developments today with the resurgence of Buddhist sects and the popularity of Indian gurus and the spread of spiritism and new religions within Japan, and many things that are happening within our own lifetime, that really in many ways parallel. Take the rise of the popularity of astrology and its resurgence. Take the rise of irrational types of mysticism where you have an emphasis upon experience rather than just human reason.
Then the seventh of his parallels is moral degeneration. That is probably the most cited and the most overworked parallel between our world and the world of the early church; but certainly, another element that makes for this. What we are trying to say through all of this, is that what we have been looking at historically, economically, socially, politically, religiously, all of these factors that we have been observing made it perfectly ripe for Jesus Christ to come that first time. By way of anticipation, that if we study our own day, not just by reading Time magazine and our daily news; but if we will look through the eyes of faith, we will find some very distinct parallels, where the world is becoming ripe for the coming of Christ for the second time.