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The fullness of time: why did Jesus come when he did?

It’s the period of Advent, when we traditionally reflect on the “coming” of Jesus into the world, so let’s consider the question of why he came when he did. Why was Jesus born in 4 BC or thereabouts, and not two hundred years earlier, or a thousand years later?

I’m still making my way through Matthew Bates’ stimulating and frustrating book Gospel Allegiance: What Faith in Jesus Misses for Salvation in Christ, and the question of “timing” has come up—how fortuitous!—in the context of his discussion the relation of gospel allegiance to grace.

In chapter four Bates seeks to “head off the idea that the Bible mainly treats saving grace as an abstract idea to be believed within a salvation culture, as if the gospel were God’s system for how we get saved” (123). Biblically speaking, grace is not a component in a system of theological abstractions; it is “the gospel gift given at a particular time in history”; it is expressed “through the very specific gospel process by which Jesus became king and is now ruling” (125).

He then sets out his understanding of grace by means of six categories taken from John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift: merit, size, desire to benefit, timing, effectiveness and return-gifting. The aim, I think, is to understand grace in realistic and pragmatic terms, as distinct from the more idealistic and absolutising theologies that are a constant presence in the shadows of Bates’ argument. Grace is not always unmerited, for example; and while grace is freely given, “its special saving benefits are received only when the condition that attends the gift are met” (147). I haven’t read Barclay’s book, but I imagine that this chapter is quite a good summary of it.

The point about the timing of God’s grace, however, illustrates what I take to be the fundamental shortcoming of Bates’ thesis.

Not predetermined from eternity

First, Bates insists—rightly, I think—that generally speaking election applies not to individuals but to the church: “the Bible does not explicitly teach that the advance timing of God’s grace includes God’s predestining choice to either save or damn specific individuals” (139). There is perhaps the idea that God initiates the process of salvation (Jn. 6:44, 65; Acts 13:48), but human agency is, if anything, more important (cf. Jn. 1:12; 3:16; Acts 4:4; 8:12–13; Rom. 1:16; Eph. 1:13). When certain individuals are chosen, it is not for salvation or damnation but for vocation or purpose—for example, Pharaoh (Rom. 9:17), Judas (Jn. 13:18), or Paul (Gal. 1:15).

So yes, some passages highlight God’s sovereignty over personal salvation, but far more important is the challenge to give allegiance to Jesus as king.

This is how Bates refocuses the question about the timing of grace. The theological debate has been about whether the salvation of a person, as an outworking of the grace of God, is predetermined from eternity or merely determined at the moment of conversion. The brief discussion of election has suggested that the emphasis must be on the concrete response of the believer.

If Jesus’ enthronement as king was a matter of history, it has to be explained in properly historical terms. Theology as we know it is incapable of doing that. Theology cannot answer the question “Why then?”

But if pistis is to be understood as “allegiance” rather than as “faith”, Bates says, a “more grounded answer regarding the timing of God’s saving grace would be that it appeared for humanity collectively when the gospel events happened historically” (139). When Paul says that “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (Tit. 2:11), he has in mind the events that constitute the gospel, not grace as an abstract principle. “Saving allegiance was finally revealed only with the coming of the king” (139).

At first glance, that looks like an excellent statement. We’ve shifted away from both the big theological abstractions and the blinkered focus on the personal salvation of the individual to what “happened historically”.

Or have we?

History means history

If saving grace appeared “for humanity collectively”, if it was “actualized when we were in need as a universal human group” (140), this has little to do with history. Humanity as a whole is not a “group” with a corporate identity, acting in history; it is merely an aggregation of individuals over time.

This is Bates the theologian trying to embrace the concrete reality of Jesus becoming king without abandoning the theological model. If Jesus’ enthronement as king was a matter of history, it has to be explained in properly historical terms. Theology as we know it is incapable of doing that. Theology cannot answer the question “Why then?”

When Jesus begins his prophetic ministry with the declaration that “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mk. 1:15), he has in view critical future events in the history of Israel. The moment is “historical” because it is restricted in its scope: it would happen to this people, at this moment in their history, under these historical circumstances, with normal historical horizons operative. He was not making a general statement about the gracious intervention of God to meet a universal human need.

It is Israel’s need that is being addressed. We are fast approaching the end of the age of second temple Judaism. The axe is already laid to the root of the trees. Unrighteous Israel will soon be cut down and thrown into the fire (Matt. 3:10). But there is also good news, there is hope: God will take the vineyard from the wicked tenants—the wicked shepherds of his people—and let it out to other tenants “who will give him the fruits in their seasons” (Matt. 21:41). Jesus calls Jews to repent and believe in that outcome. This is what pistis is in the Synoptic Gospels: the active, committed, apocalyptically construed belief that what Jesus said would happen would happen. Allegiance to Jesus was grounded in that belief, but it was not equivalent to that belief.

Likewise Paul, who says: “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4–5). Bates quotes this and comments: “God supplied the gospel when he deemed the time ripe” (140). But that is hardly a historical interpretation. That is theology admitting that it cannot answer the question “Why then and not some other time?”

For a start, Jesus was not sent to redeem those who were not under the Law. Paul is in agreement with the Gospels here: Jesus was the Son sent to the mismanaged vineyard of Israel to do the work of a servant—to seek the fruit of righteousness. As such, he became the Son of Man who gave his life as a ransom for many in Israel (Mk. 10:45).

The time was right because it was just at this moment in its history that Israel needed saving.

The nation was on a broad road leading to destruction, and it seems that Jesus had little hope that anything could be done to avert the catastrophe. Despite his success in casting out the demons of Israel’s madness, he knew that they would return with a vengeance in years to come to wreak havoc on this generation of his people (Matt. 12:43-45).

Paul understood this. God sent his Son at this critical juncture in the history of his people so that some Jews at least would be redeemed and would rightfully share in the Son’s inheritance (Gal. 4:5; cf. Matt. 21:38).

Romans 5:6 needs to be read in the same way, as part of the same story: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”

Bates generalises the statement: ‘God gave the grace of the gospel to us at the optimal time with respect to our need. The Messiah died for us, the ungodly, “when we were still weak”’ (140).

But I think that the weak and ungodly for whom Christ died were Jews like Paul, who now were convinced that they were justified—and would be justified—on account of their belief that Jesus would inherit, and therefore that they would be saved from the “wrath” that would soon bring the second temple existence of the family of Abraham to a shocking end (Rom. 5:9).

Come what may…

The timing of grace was determined neither by some primordial lottery in the mind of God nor by a personal response to Jesus as saviour. Bates is right to stress that it is grounded in history by the events leading up to Jesus’ enthronement as king as the right hand of God. But the advent of Jesus was historical only because it constituted an intervention at a critical moment in Israel’s history.

In case anyone’s wondering, Gentiles get involved at a later stage when they too come to believe that Israel’s God has acted in Jesus to restore his people, and they find themselves gifted with the same Spirit of eschatological renewal. They too are saved by grace (cf. Eph. 2:8), but only by becoming part of the same historical process.

In the end, I think that Bates rather misses the key point about election. Grace is God acting to maintain the historical existence of his chosen people, come what may.

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