Believers affirm seeing God at work in today’s world. And indeed, our God is active. Unfortunately, some think of God’s efforts as something almost magical, designed simply to reward or punish us, or rescue us from challenging circumstances. Granted, God is present in every element of life. We diminish God, however, if we talk as if God were basically a puppeteer manipulating life’s every aspect.
Biblically, the God who’s been revealed to us generally works on greater, more significant levels. Paul knew that when he wrote to the Ephesians that Christ came into the world in the “fullness of time.” The Old Testament is filled with God’s encounters with the people, but we dare not miss the creative, evolutionary development of those encounters – from the Bible’s earliest times to when God dramatically breaks into history in the birth of Jesus.
In the early pages, the emphasis was on legalism and nationalism. In those times, the commandments were the way to regiment people’s lives. Later, in the time of the prophets, God told the people that law was not written on stone, but something written in our hearts.
Initially the Hebrew people believed that as the “chosen people,” they were endowed with privilege and protection. Through the pages, however, “chosen” takes on new and deeper meaning. To be chosen called the people to a holy and subservient responsibility.
God kept sending prophets to help the people understand those holy responsibilities. Unfortunately, too often the prophets (and that inspiration) were rejected. Jesus refers to that in a parable of a land-owner sending messengers to see how the servants were doing – only to have the messengers killed. Ultimately the owner sent his son.
Finally, when all else failed, finally when some were beginning to understand the more substantive, the more demanding responsibilities, God came dramatically – in the fullness of time – into history in the form of Jesus.
Fullness of time, however, is more than God’s careful build-up to Christ’s coming. It also underscores that God continues to reveal and inspire in today’s world. Our understanding of God and God’s expectations of us always are growing. What people understood about God in the Bible’s early pages pales by comparison to what people came to understand since God came in the fullness of time.
God is a living God, ever at work in our world. God is never done with us. God is never done leading us, revealing new insights, inspiring us to know more and more. What God’s people knew of God in the Garden of Eden was nothing compared to what was known at the time of the prophets. And that was nothing compared to what the first-century Christians understood.
In like manner, we’re called to know even more than the first-century Christians. Jesus promised the gift of the Holy Spirit – so we would have God’s presence with us going forward through all time. Just as Jesus often “upgraded” some laws, gave new meaning to old laws, so God’s Spirit continues to guide us to newer and even deeper understandings of God – and God’s will for the people.
Jesus didn’t want our understanding to be arrested at some lesser level. Rather God wants us to continue asking questions, seeking new answers to old issues, discovering fresh ways to proclaim the Gospel and to serve others.
In one sense, the “fullness of time” marked the time when Christ became flesh to dwell among us. In another, even greater sense, God’s fullness of time is the exciting truth being born anew in us every day through the power and presence of God’s Holy Spirit.
William McCartney is a retired United Methodist clergy and an emeritus professor from The Methodist Theological School.