Christmas According to Paul
Christmas According to Paul
When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law.
The charge is occasionally and foolishly made both by religious liberals and by the irreligious, that there never was a birth of Christ, attended by the miraculous events as outlined in the Word of God. They may not necessarily deny that any such person as Jesus of Nazareth lived during that particular era, but they assume that Luke and Matthew invented and/or inscribed Christian myths in an attempt to enhance the stature of this Jesus of Nazareth, who while a teacher of some local repute, was no greater than any other religious teacher or leader. One of the strong arguments such deniers of the divine record imagine supports their infidelity, is that no other writer of Scripture is supposed to make mention of this miraculous birth. In this they error, showing their ignorance of Holy Writ while exposing their folly. Each Sunday morning during this current month, I am speaking from those texts which clearly speak of that birth, its purpose and the attendant phenomena. And while I cannot include every witness, there being insufficient Sundays, I have chosen prominent witnesses, including: Isaiah, the prophet of royal birth; John, the beloved disciple; John the Baptist; and Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles. And it is that latter testimony of Paul that we consider in the message this day, for he was certainly aware both of the birth of Jesus the Christ and of the significance of that birth as is evident from even a casual perusal of his writings.
Christ the Son of God was Born at a Definite Time. But when the time had fully come… These are glorious words, showing that the entry of the Christian message is at the same time the turning point of history, as even our dates demonstrate. It is now 2000 a.d.—anno domini, the year of our Lord. Apart from these words here penned, life offers no future, no hope; we are left without hope and without God in the world. But God has intervened in a way which brings effective and complete salvation, hope to the hopeless and help to the helpless. That is the Christmas message.
What is meant by that phrase, When the time had fully come? Older translations of the Bible render that phrase, the fullness of time. What can be meant by this phrase? The Greek word translated fullness or fully means exactly that, conveying the thought of fulfillment, especially as related to time. Two thoughts immediately suggest themselves to students of history and to students of the Word.
With respect to the historical factor, consider that even a casual acquaintance with the ancient world reveals something of the significance of the Spirit's Word through the apostle. Christ was born during the era known as Pax Romana—that period when the rule of one government insured world-wide peace. Peace imposed by conquering armies had extended over most of the civilized earth, making travel and commerce possible in a way previously unrealized. Great roads linked the empire of the Caesars, insuring free and uninterrupted communications with the furthest outposts of civilization and rapid access to all corners of the empire. An even greater linkage with the diverse regions was the all‑pervasive language and culture of the Greeks. Greek was the lingua franca of the empire, being readily understood and read throughout the whole Mediterranean world. Not only linguistically, but also culturally, the ancient world was dominated by the prior educational conquests of the Greeks. Therefore, politically, culturally and linguistically, the world was unified, conditions which insured a rapid spread of the Good News surrounding the salvation of Christ.
Religiously, that ancient world was sunk in a moral abyss so low that even the pagans cried out against it. Spiritual hunger was everywhere evident, as witnessed by the prevalent appeal within every social stratum for spiritual insight from religions introduced from the east. Those religions in apparent ascendancy within the empire were exactly those ancient religions which had once been confronted by the prophets of God when the Hebrew peoples had entered the Promised Land. The philosophers made a contribution in a negative sort of way, casting doubt on the old pagan systems of religion as they looked for some sort of unifying power behind all the polytheistic systems which had previously prevailed. The Jews themselves had made preparation for the coming of the Christ through the preaching of monotheism in some one hundred fifty synagogues located throughout the empire, and by their anticipation of a Messiah who would right the world's wrongs. That human longing for communion with God, that spiritual restlessness which pervaded all mankind, insured a receptive audience once Christ was come. These aspects of the historic factor insured that for all the world, "the time had fully come."
Theologically, several significant factors apply in our study of that phrase, "the time had fully come." Just as a father in that ancient culture would determine the time his child became a son, so that heavenly Father chose the time when the world was to pass from its childhood under legal supervision to a period of spiritual sonship. In other words, God chose the time of transition from one dispensation to the next. The events surrounding the earthly ministry of the Christ marked the transition from the dispensation of the law to the dispensation of grace. Daniel had clearly prophesied the exact time of Messiah's advent could be calculated from the issuing of the Persian decree to rebuild Jerusalem [Daniel 9:25]. The Messiah was to come during the era of the fourth Gentile empire [Daniel 2:31‑45; 7:1‑14]. First, Babylon, then Persia, Greece and finally, Rome, had successively ruled over little Israel. The Magi recognized the significance of their era, understanding that "the time had fully come," but the religious leaders were ignorant of the times in which they lived [cf. Matthew 16:1‑5; Luke 19:41‑44; and 1 Corinthians 2:6‑8].
The Birth of Christ the Son of God was a Determined Act, according to Paul, for, God sent His Son… The verb Paul employed is significant, exaposte'llo, speaking of one who is sent out from. The word indicates one sent as an authoritative representative with a specific task. In fact, we would not be out of line to translate this clause, "God sent His Son on a mission." Throughout Scripture we read that God sent His Son, and that act was considered rather than capricious. What glorious verses John penned in his first epistle: 1 John 4:9,10,14. Jesus our Lord acknowledged repeatedly that He was sent into the world by the determined act of the Father [see JOHN 12:49; 14:24; 16:5; 17:3,8,18,21,23,25; 20:21]. I have frequently stated that our Lord's advent was planned from before the creation of the world, an act which our finite minds cannot grasp. The teaching admits of no time before which God did not have in mind to send His Son for the sake of man. We have grasped the essence of the Good News if we can but approach the thrill of this truth: from eternity, God was committed to sending His Son.
It is definitely neither inconsequential nor an aside to note the submission demonstrated in this act. God the Father sent, and God the Son came. Never are we more like Christ than when we are obedient to His will demonstrating a submissive spirit. However odious that may seem in today's world, it is yet that which Christ modeled. Because we have failed to recognize this truth, we suffer in the church, in the home, in society at large. Churches suffer as some presume to act as dictators within God's heritage. Homes suffer as husbands abuse their positions of responsibility, and as wives rebel against the constituted authority, and as children reject parental responsibility for their welfare. Nations are in turmoil as the citizenry demonstrates rebellious attitudes, rejecting constituted authority and instituting new and novel forms of tyranny. What do you suppose would happen should each of us learn the repeated truths of the Word of God [see 1 CORINTHIANS 11:3; ROMANS 13:1; and JOHN 19:11a]? Would there not result in all the land harmony and peace on an unprecedented scale?
The Birth of Christ the Son of God was by Deliberate Means. Twice the apostle emphasizes this truth, first when he writes of Christ that He was born of a woman, and again when of Him he teaches that He was born under law. Two phrases are seen here, neither of which can be separated from the other if they are to make sense at all. Clearly, Paul refers to Christ's full humanity with this first term, "woman born," or "born out of woman." That this is included in the same sentence as His identification as the Son of God would indicate that Paul intended to speak of this Jesus as the unique God‑man, at once fully God and fully man. Surely it is no mere conjecture to conclude that Paul was fully cognizant of the virgin birth, and that this is his understood reference here. Having traveled for so long in Luke's company, we could not believe other than that he was aware of the birth narratives Luke included in chapters one and two of his Gospel. Paul's use of this particular phrase corresponds with the promised seed in Genesis 3:15, which seed was promised to crush the serpent's head. No doubt he had also in mind the promise found in Isaiah 7:14 concerning the birth of Immanuel. Whatever else was in his mind, Paul here makes explicit reference to the virgin birth of the Son of God. Of that we may be certain.
That second phrase is for some problematic. There is no article found in either of the phrases, and if the first points us automatically to the virgin birth of our Saviour, it should be no great surprise that the second points us just as quickly to His birth under the Law of Moses. Some may imagine that the term points only to His humanity, thus emphasizing His human nature, since all men are under no'mos of some kind. That is good thinking, but it is not excellent thinking as it ignores the verse following where we discover that that law in view is the same one which enslaved men necessitating redemption. Whether we accept it or not, all are under law, and therefore all alike condemned. Read those stunning words of Romans 3:10‑20, pausing to reflect on the application of the final two verses in this context. In this was fulfilled many prophecies throughout the Old Testament which pointed to the lineage of the Messiah. God was deliberate and repeatedly demonstrated the deliberate nature of His acts by becoming increasingly specific in prophecies pointing to Messiah's lineage.
All alike are under law, and therefore all alike are condemned. The significance of that statement is seen in verses preceding and following our text. Listen again to Galatians 3:10‑13; 4:4,5. If you contend that these verses have no immediate application to us as Gentiles, may I refer you to Paul's teaching in Romans 2:12‑16. Moral law, whether codified in textual form such as is found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, or whether resident in the conscience of man, condemns each of us as sinners. We know that we cannot live lives free of greed, free of lust, free of hatred, free of lies, and we know such attitudes to be against natural law. That knowledge, coupled to the certainty that there is a righteous judge to whom we must give an account, condemns us in our own minds.
The real reason Paul uses this last phrase, referring to Christ's birth under conditions of law, is related to the fact that the Birth of Christ the Son of God was for a Distinct Purpose as is revealed in verse five. When the time had fully come (as we have seen), God sent His Son (on a specific mission), born of a woman and born under law (as has been carefully explored), to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. You see, regardless of what law was discussed earlier, it is here included as we have revealed God's distinct purpose in all this divine activity.
In Galatians 3:13, we were said to have been redeemed "from the curse of the law." The figure here in verse five is bolder still, for we are said to be redeemed from the law itself, which is viewed as a system of self‑justification (hence, a system which can never attain its purported goal). Go back just a few short verses in this letter. Our position as "sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus" was affirmed [3:26‑29]. Then, shifting the imagery to our past universal, ubiquitous experience, he vividly reminds us of our past enslavement by the basic principles of the world [4:3]. Finally, this reminder led him to present the two verses which have served as our text. From those verses, we have learned that "the birth of Christ, at a definite time, was a determined act accomplished by deliberate means to effect a distinct purpose. That distinct purpose was that we might be redeemed, who are the believers Paul addressed, and that having been bought in the marketplace, we might receive the full rights of sons.
Several words may enrich our insight in apostolic theology. First, Paul spoke of the purpose of Christ's coming being to redeem. That word, exagora'zo, means quite literally, to purchase from the marketplace, the agora being the marketplace, and the preposition ex meaning from out of. There is at the least the suggestion of competitive bidding for the souls of men. In His death, Christ provided an infinite sacrifice which constitutes an infinite redemptive price. Therefore, we read the statement of the apostle that Christ is "the Savior of all men," though this is practically true only for those who believe [see 1 TIMOTHY 4:10 and the more chilling 2 PETER 2:1]. That concept of a successful competitive bid is strengthened perhaps by the apostle's choice of the word translated receive. That word may certainly mean to receive again, with the sense of get back. Whether that is the intention of the apostle cannot be stated with certainty, but it is an interesting possibility.
What is clearly the intention of the apostle is that we have, by Christ's redemption, been accorded the full rights of sons ‑ we have attained the status of sons. In that day in which Paul wrote, Roman families made a distinction between a child and a son. A child might live in the home, even being informally acknowledged by his father. But the child was under the tutelage of a schoolmaster who bore responsibility for the child's preparation to advance in familial status. At the father's discretion, the child, who had no rights whatsoever, was one day formally and legally acknowledged as heir to the father. The child was then said to be adopted, to have been accorded the full rights of a son, or to have attained the status of a son. That is the word used here, a legal term which is used in the New Testament only in a religious sense. Christ, by His redemption, insured that we are not merely children of God, but that we have been accorded full rights. This is a most significant development for each of us who share in this great family.
Very quickly, the evidence that all this has been accomplished is the residence of God's Holy Spirit, the Spirit of His Son, in our hearts. We come eagerly into the presence of God; we actually long to be in His presence. We are no longer comfortable with the accoutrements of this world alone; we confess our desire to know the Father. In short, that Spirit living within us prompts us to cry out, Abba, Father [verse six]. The summary statement is provided in verse seven, where we are said to have gone from slave to son, and from son to heir. What more can God do than this He has done?
This, then, is Christmas according to Paul. It is a time of joy and increasing confidence for us as Christians. It is a time of hope and renewed strength for us as members of the Family. And though the world celebrates in the only way the world can celebrate ‑ focusing on self, we who are heirs of Christ commemorate His advent through telling others of what He has done that they also might share in this great gift. Who have you told? Who knows because of your witness?
And that is our invitation to you who yet stand apart from us as believers in the Son of God. In standing apart from us, you identify yourself as arrayed against God. We invite you to cease from your rebellion, to believe the Good News of Christ, and to enter into the benefits of redemption—the full rights of sons.