Word of the Week
December 25, 2021
Plērōma: The Fulness of Time
But when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law.
Galatians 4:4 NASB
Have you noticed that pears are only ripe for about ten minutes?
When you bring home a bag of pears, they are like yellow, rounded rocks. You leave them on the counter for several days – still hard as rocks!
Finally, they ripen into juicy, refreshing fruit, ready to eat – for a few minutes. If you miss that tiny window of perfection, they quickly turn into a soggy, tasteless mess.
In cooking, timing is everything. When I make mac and cheese for my granddaughter, I have to wait until the water reaches a rolling boil. When my wife wants perfect hard-boiled eggs, she sets her Instant Pot for exactly eight minutes. Ignore the timing and you spoil the results.
The Bible teaches us that God has perfect timing, and nowhere is that more obvious than the birth of Jesus Christ. Galatians 4:4 states it clearly: “When the fulness of time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman.”
Today is Christmas, and there is no better time to inquire why we can say that He came “in the fulness of time.”
The Greek word “fulness” is plērōma (PLAY-roh-mah). When you fill a basket with leftover fragments of bread and fish, plērōma is the filling, the thing that fills it.
For example, “the earth is the Lord’s, and its plērōma – all that fills it” (1 Corinthians 10:26).
It is such an important word that the New Testament uses it to describe the fulness of Christ (John 1:16), the fulness of God (Ephesians 3:19), and the fulness of Christ’s deity (Colossians 2:9). Romans 11 mentions the fulness of salvation for Jews (verse 12) and for Gentiles (verse 25).
When we read Galatians 4, we can’t just look up the definition of the individual word “fulness.” We have to look at the whole phrase. “Fulness of time” is more than filling a basket with apples. It is an idiom, a phrase with meaning that goes beyond the individual words. In English, we say something very similar: “The time is ripe.” That doesn’t mean that time is getting soft and tasty, like a pear. We mean that we have reached the moment for something important to happen.
That’s the idea behind “the fulness of time.” Galatians 4:1-2 explains the imagery for us.
Imagine a wealthy Roman with a young son. The boy grows up under the supervision of guardians and tutors, who treat him like a child, even though he will one day be master of the whole estate. The father selects a date when the son will step into his adult privileges. To most young men, the wait must have seemed eternal – like waiting for the day you can get your learner’s permit! But there was no way to rush the process. You had to wait for the date set by the father.
The human race waited for long centuries for the moment designated by the Father for the arrival of the Son on that first Christmas. It had been 400 years since a prophet had pronounced God’s Word to His people. Four hundred years would take us back all the way to the Pilgrims! An unimaginably long time.
But God has perfect timing.
We could see some of the reasons why His timing was perfect for the first Christmas.
- The Roman empire had built roads to speed its armies to the ends of its domain, providing transportation for missionaries like Paul to spread the gospel.
- Greek was a nearly universal language, so that Christians could take the Word anywhere without pausing for two years of language study.
- The Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, provided a stability that enabled Christians to travel without being stalled at border crossings or waylaid by war zones.
The religious climate of the first century was also ripe for a message of hope.
The great philosophers like Plato and Aristotle had shaken the foundations of traditional Greek religion, exposing the gods as selfish, petty deities. But philosophy satisfied the intellect without meeting the needs of the whole man.
By the first century, people chose from options like (1) emperor worship, in which political affairs were the center of life; (2) mystery religions from the East offering mystic knowledge and rituals that promised eternal life; or (3) pop philosophies like Stoicism and Epicureanism that focused on methods of coping with life’s difficulties. In contemporary terms, you could seek salvation in a political platform, a New Age spiritualism, or Dr. Phil.
The gospel of Christ came to that arid landscape with the news that God is on the throne, eternal life is available through His Son, and the Spirit of God can fill you with the love and strength that you need for the worst circumstances. All the human routes to happiness were dead ends, but Jesus came as the Way, the Truth, and the Life!
You may be waiting for God now. It’s never easy! But Christmas serves as a reminder that God is never in a hurry, but He never misses the perfect moment to act. As Romans 15:13 reminds us, He is the “God of hope,” who fills us with joy and peace as we trust His Word. That can be excruciatingly hard, but the verse also reminds us that we can have the help of the Holy Spirit to produce hope in our hearts.
The word plērōma deserves a full article to explore the fulness of its meaning. But we chose to focus on one particular phrase that uses it: “fulness of the time.”
You can find this phrase twice in the New Testament, using two different words for “time.”
Galatians 4:4 – the fulness of the time (Greek chronos) – This word emphasizes the duration of a period of time, and pictures the Lord waiting for a certain number of years before He acted. It’s like watching the clock.
Ephesians 1:10 – the fulness of the times (Greek chairos) – This word points to a crucial moment or opportunity, the time when all the factors come together to produce the right situation. It’s like adding the macaroni when the water is boiling.
Whether you consider the time elapsed or the pieces falling into place, God has perfect timing. He acts at precisely the right moment.
Q – I love my little dog, but I hear preachers say that the Bible always uses dogs as a symbol of evil. Does God hate dogs?
A – It’s true that the Bible often uses dogs as a figurative description of something evil. Philippians 3:2, for instance, warns, “Beware of dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision.” However, I wouldn’t take this as evidence that God hates dogs. After all, He created them in the first place.
We need to remember that most people in the Middle East did not think of dogs as pets. They thought about the packs of wild dogs that infested the villages attacking sheep and endangering children. They viewed them as we would think of jackals or wolves.
There were exceptions, however. In Matthew 15:26-27, Jesus used a different Greek word for “dog,” one that suggests a small dog scrounging scraps under the table. His words made it clear that a child is more important than a pet, but He seems to have no objection to feeding a puppy.
I am teaching a class on Matthew this spring, so I plan to choose Greek words that go along with that study. Next week, we will begin at the beginning, with the Greek word genesis. It seems like a good way to start the year!
©Ezra Project 2021