Born at Just the Right Time

Posted by R. Fowler White

One of the most beloved carols that Christians sing during the Christmas season is that of William C. Dix, “What Child is This.” As few other carols do, the lyrics of this selection prompt us to contemplate the identity, the person and work, of the Baby in the manger (i.e., the feeding trough). In fact, the carol politely but persistently presses us to answer the question: is this Child truly a holy infant or merely a holiday infant? When we think about that question, most of our reflections focus on the birth announcements in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. Those passages certainly have their place. For now, however, consider Christ’s birth according to the Apostle Paul. Yes, even the Apostle reflects on the wonders of the birth of Jesus, and he does so in Gal 4:4-5. 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. In that one sentence, the Apostle Paul tells us extraordinary things about Jesus, and in the process he gives us answers to the question that the carol poses. Though the lyrics of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” may have us singing, “late in time behold him come,” the first thing Paul tells us is that Jesus is the Child born at just the right time.

Paul’s words—when the fullness of time had come—prompt us to reflect on the timing of Christ’s appearance in the world. The time at which Jesus came is said to have been time at its fullest point, a unique occasion when all the parts of history that had to occur had, in fact, occurred. Each and every detail that had to take place was then in place. Clearly, Paul wants us to realize that the timing of the historical appearance of the Father’s Son was something agreed upon and fixed between the Father and the Son from all eternity. The Apostle Peter adds to this that the timing of the Son’s arrival was a date that the prophets of old diligently searched out, and it was revealed to them and predicted by them (1 Pet 1:10-12). Paul’s words, then, make us realize that the timing of Christ’s birth was according to the determination of God, the Lord of history. He, from all eternity, had, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass. Christ could not have been born either sooner or later.

If, then, the birth of Jesus took place in the fullness of time, what did that fullness look like? As the commentators have pointed out, it was a time of political preparation. The Roman Empire had brought the pax Romana to the then known world and so the world was united as never before (cf. Luke 2:1). It was a time of economic preparation. Of particular note, the Romans had constructed a superior transportation system, focused in five main highways facilitating travel and commerce from Rome to destinations throughout the ancient world (cf. Col 1:23). It was a time of cultural preparation. The Greek language had become the medium (i.e., the lingua franca) of commerce, culture, and philosophy, and so it was possible for the gospel and the gospel literature to reach an effectively worldwide audience. And, finally, it was a time of religious preparation. We might say that a famine of the soul, individual and social, had come upon the world. The failures of paganism and even Judaism, along with a revival of Messianic hopes, characterized much of the ancient world.

Thus, in his phrase when the fullness of time had come, the Apostle Paul points us to the truth that, politically, economically, culturally, and religiously speaking, history had been orchestrated by the one true God. In fact, by God’s own singular sovereignty and providence, the histories of Rome and Jerusalem, both of which figured so prominently in our Lord’s life on earth, had converged. The appointed date for the debut of the Son of the Father arrived right on schedule. In the fullness of time behold him come! What Child is this in the manger, then? He is the Child born at just the right time.