In the Fullness of Time

ON THIS SUNDAY, April 23, our Church observes two feasts. The first, in the Paschal cycle, is Thomas Sunday, the remembrance of the risen Lord’s appearance to Thomas. The second, from the monthly calendar, is the Feast of the Great Martyr George. When two such observances coincide, the epistle from one and the Gospel from the second may be read at the Liturgy. Today’s epistle reading, Galatians 3:23- 4:5, is for St George.

In this passage St Paul uses a term that begs an explanation. “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law…” (Galatians 4:4). What is “the fullness of the time”? How are we to understand it?

This idea – the fullness of time – was not devised by St. Paul. The Lord Jesus had used it to describe His presence in the world. “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:15).


Time vs. Time

The first step in understanding these terms is to realize that, while our English translations use the same word in both passages, these Scriptures actually employ two different words meaning time. The Gospel phrase is “the kairos is fulfilled” while St Paul writes of the “pleroma of the chronos.” In Greek, the word chronos refers to chronological time: the days, hours and minutes by which we measure our earthly reality.

Kairos, on the other hand, has a different meaning in Greek. It refers to the right or opportune moment, a significant time for an action or a decision. Some translations of Scripture render the word kairos as “the appointed time in the purpose of God.” The same word is used at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy when the deacon says to the priest, “It is the time [kairos] for us to work for the Lord.” He does not mean, “It’s 10 AM, we’d better start” but “the moment has come for us” to fulfill our role as God’s priestly people.

While St Paul uses the term chronos, he uses it in a way that means a time fraught with meaning, in other words, like kairos. He speaks of the pleroma (fullness) of chronos. The word pleroma does not mean “full” as a quantity, but as a quality (completeness or perfection). We also use this word in our Liturgy when, after the Great Entrance, the deacon says, “Let us complete our prayer to the Lord. This does not mean, “Let’s finish up” but “Let us make our prayer complete or perfect” through the offering of the gifts we have brought forth.

Both terms “kairos” and “fullness of chronos” thus mean the same thing – it is the right time, the perfected time for God’s plan in the world to be accomplished.

What Makes This the Opportune Time?

Students of the Scriptures have long reflected on why the First Century of our era was the “right time” for the Incarnation of Christ to bring about our salvation. Many of them note that on a secular level:

  • Politically, the Roman Empire controlled the Mediterranean world and the civilized areas bordering it. The possibility of safe travel and improved communications brought peoples of the area closer together than ever before. Men from outlying areas were often conscripted, spreading the Roman worldview even beyond the Mediterranean. This also accounts for the number of soldiers, like St George, among the early martyrs.
  • Culturally, the influence of Greek philosophy and literature provided a more unified world view. The Greek language became the dominant language for trade over a large area, enabling communication with a wide range of peoples.
  • Religiously, belief in the numerous Greek and Roman gods and goddesses offered only local, familial and personal protection. Mystery religions emphasized sacrifices, often bloody, to attain blessings. The philosophically-minded disdained all these religions. The result was a religious void, such as St Paul encountered in Athens (see Acts 17: 16-33). To many the appeal of a universal monotheism was strong, even leading some to become proselytes, converts to Judaism, or at least sympathizers with their belief in only one God.

In the Jewish world the time was ripe as well. Many, resenting all foreign rule, were waiting for the Messiah’s immanent appearance to restore their independence. Others, like the Pharisees, were longing for a Messiah who would restore a purer observance of the Torah.

Jews of all types looked to the Old Testament for prophecies or indications of the coming Messiah, “searching what, or what manner of time [kairos], the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you… things which angels desire to look into” (1 Peter 1:10-12). The first Christians, the apostolic community, saw these signs as pointing to the Lord Jesus. The time of Christ was the kairos for the fulfillment of God’s plan.

The Ultimate Fullness of Time

In Ephesians 1 St Paul expands his understanding of the fullness of time to include the ultimate union of all creation in Christ. “In Him [Christ] we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself… that in the dispensation of the fullness of time He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him” (Ephesians 1: 7, 9, 10). Here St Paul describes the divine economy in superlatives – the pliromatos of the kairon – in order to point to its ultimate completion, the “absolute fulfillment of super-time,” when Christ will be all in all.

On the Fullness of Time

For St John Chrysostom the first century was not a time of increasing peace and unity, but of decline.

“The fullness of time was the Son’s appearing. Then, when God had done all things through angels, prophets and the Law yet nothing had improved, there was a danger that humanity had come into being for nothing. It was not going merely nowhere, but to the bad. All were perishing together, just like in the days of the flood but more so. Just then He offered this gracious dispensation to insure that creation had not come into being for nothing or in vain. The fullness of time is that divine wisdom by which, at the moment when all were most likely to perish, they were saved” (St John Chrysostom, Homily on Ephesians 1.1.10).