“But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.” (Galatians 4:4-5)
Isn’t it interesting that Paul makes no reference to Christmas in his letters? So, quite clearly the first generation of Christians (Paul is writing in the early fifties) didn’t celebrate it. In fact, there’s no reference for centuries. In 336 A.D., the Western Church chose December 25 to celebrate the coming of Christ into the world. In English, this day was known as “Christ’s Mass” which became “Christmas.” The Eastern Church chose January 6. The day was named Epiphany, meaning “appearance.” Eventually the period from December 25 to January 6 became known as the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Most of what we call “Christmas” stems from Hollywood advertising campaigns in the late 1930s plus a few of Charles Dickens’ cheesier fantasies.
Consumerism and guilt-trips.
But there is a vitally important kernel of truth that they did pass on! This is it! So don’t “Bah Humbug” too quick. Paul refers to three essential ingredients that make Christmas important. Let’s go beneath the icing:
- The season is God’s GO. It’s the time of His sending. And He sends so that we can be sent…
- The sender is God. Chrismas is God’s YES. Someone said “Jesus is God’s way of refusing to give up his dream for the world.”
- The son is God’s BEST. Christmas declares it as a metaphor for how He wants us to be before Him. “God sent his Son…that we might receive …sonship.”
The word “season” is vital in the purposes of God. “When the set time had fully come” suggests a delicate precision, an orchestration of events. You just “know” when the time is right.
I remember an art teacher helping us to “know when to stop” in the application of paint to a canvas.
So how had the “set time fully come“?
Oh, in a hundred ways. David Jeremiah’s book Why The Nativity? marshals the evidence:
“What was it about the vast Roman Empire that was so ideal for the coming of Christ?
The Romans themselves were part of the answer. For the first time in history, the Mediterranean world—the cradle of civilization—was unified. Alexander the Great, a Greek, had been the first to bridge so many nations, but the Romans had built a foundation that would last longer. They had constructed the famous Roman roads (“All roads lead to Rome”) that would allow messengers to travel safely with news and ideas, as Paul and the first missionaries would do. Ships, too, had come of age. Egypt and Italy, Syria and Spain—so many nations shared the “highway” that the Mediterranean Sea had become. Here was yet another means for the message of Christ to spread far and wide.
There was also the Pax Romana—the “Roman peace” that endured from 27 BC until AD 180. Jesus was born in the same generation in which it began, and it meant a relatively calm environment for the lower regions of Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East, Egypt, and northern Africa. In a city such as Jerusalem, for example, the Jews were allowed to preserve their own faith and customs. The Romans were permissive about religions as long as there wasn’t any trouble and the Jews paid a punitive tax—fiscus Judaicus.
Stability and relative tolerance opened the world to the spread of a new idea; roads and shipping lanes made it happen quickly and efficiently. But there was another key factor: language.
The Romans had taken efficient control of much of the known world, but they were still overshadowed by their Greek predecessors in one respect: For many years, people almost everywhere continued to speak Greek. Hellenic Greek happened to be one of the most beautiful and articulate tongues the world has known. It seemed custom built for the ideas that distinguished Christian life and thought. Would the world have learned Hebrew in order to consider the claims of Christ? It’s hard to imagine. But the shared language, Greek, made it possible for Paul and others to travel to many countries and tell people the good news of the gospel without cumbersome translation.
We consider all these factors, and still we are left with an unlikelihood. After all, many other ideas were present in the world of the first century. All of them had Roman roads and peace at their disposal, along with the Greek language. But no other idea was capable of toppling the greatest empire in the history of humanity.
Consider this: An obscure teacher from a small town in a ruined country changed the world – after his death. On the Friday of his execution, his followers largely abandoned him. Yet within a generation, he was worshiped in many foreign countries. Within three centuries, his faith was the official doctrine of the empire. And today, 2.1 billion men, women, and children follow that same teacher who was put to death as a criminal.”
Truly, it was the perfect moment in history.
And if the time was right on a macro-scale of world politics, it was also right on a micro-scale in its human and Jewish context. Jesus was “born of a woman , born under the law.” In these bald terms, Paul says precisely what was necessary, and he tells us something vital about incarnation: that it means restriction. God “emptied himself.” “God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.”It means first a physical restriction (“born of a woman“) and second a social restriction (“born under law“).
It’s like a pattern of ever decreasing circles, until you arrive at the centre, where Jesus is.
And what for? Paul is explicit. God narrowed himself down into one precise prison cell, so that we might be freed from the law, and eventually freed from restraints of our humanity.
It’s that parabola. He comes down so that we can go up.