The Fullness of Time: 4 Things That Contributed to the Rise of Christianity

"But 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, so that we might receive adoption as sons."
- Galatians 4:4-5

Paul uses a curious expression in Galatians 4:4-5, "When the fullness of time had come." It implies that the incarnation of the Messiah was an event waiting for something to happen, an event which was contingent on some state of human affairs.  

The consensus seems to be that the fullness of time has something to do with the Roman Empire, and the way it united the Ancient World for the first time in history. I basically agree with this consensus, but feel also it is also a bit dismissive and incomplete.  By taking a closer look at just what was going on in Jesus' day, I believe we can see how God made use of human events and innovations to advance His own program. This in turn, should make us more hopeful about our own day, and what God can do with the events and innovations that shape our lives.  Here are four things that I think characterize the 1st Century as the fullness of time,
  • Travel by Land and Sea
  • The Synogogue Network
  • Cities
  • Migration
Travel by Land and Sea
The land of Canaan was a strategic land route between Europe, Asia, and Africa, which is the reason why it was conquered so often.

The military ambition of Rome led to a burgeoning infrastructure of Roads and Seaports linking the major metropoli of the day. Because travel was easy cities flourished with the increase in trade, and cultures flourished, and clashed with the increase of ideas.

The book of Acts documents how the Apostle Paul made use of the great degree of connectivity in the Empire in his missionary activities.

The synagogue was an religious innovation that preserved the Jewish people during their time in the Babylonian exile. Without access to the Temple, Jewish people were in need of some other way to worship YHVH. In answer to this need, the Synagogue was created. Synagogues allowed the Jewish people to worship God even without access to the Temple. When the Jewish people returned from exile, they continued the practice of meeting in Synagogues, creating new ones wherever there was a community of Jewish people.  The distributed nature of this local place of worship, provided a point of first contact for Paul during his missionary journeys.
After they traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. Paul went to the Jews in the synagogue, as he customarily did, and on three Sabbath days he addressed them from the scriptures (Acts 17:1-2). 
Paul's commitment, to go to the Jew "first" was not simply a matter of giving God's people a chance to hear the good news first, it was also a wise strategy in that it allowed him to quickly establish a foundation in the city.

In the book of Acts we see that Paul focused his missionary activities on major cities. This makes sense, since his intent was to found many strong Christian communities across the Roman Empire. Cities are uniquely suited as repositories for innovation. In his book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, Steven Johnson calls cities sophisticated information storage and retrieval systems.

"There are manifest purposes to a city - reasons for being that it's citizens are usually aware of: they come for the protection of the walled city, or the open trade of the marketplace. But cities have a latent purpose as well: to function as information storage and retrieval devices. Cities were creating user-friendly interfaces thousands of years before anyone ever dreamed of digital computers. Cities bring minds together and put them into coherent slots. Cobbelrs gather near other cobblers, and button makers near other button makers. Ideas and goods flow readily within these clusters, leading to productive cross pollination, ensuring that good ideas don't die out in rural isolation." 
- Emergence 81-82

Traveling from one city to the next Paul was able to plant churches and move on to the next town with relative confidence that the new congregation, planted in urban soil, had just the amount of soil and circulation to take root and thrive in his absence.

Migration also played a large role in the expansion of the church.

The first migration is actually a pilgrimage. The feast of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13,) was a time when faithful. Jews from every nation, came to worship God in the Temple.  A careful look at the places these Jews came from reveals that they are the four places Jews had historically been taken in captivity too. Egypt (to the south), Assyria (to the north), Babylon (to the East), and Rome (To the West). Whenever the Israelites returned from captivity, they would invariably leave some people behind.  I believe God used these historic exiles to lay the groundwork for future spread of the Gospel. An interesting reversal of a negative into a positive. Acts says many people were converted at Pentecost that day. These people would have taken the Gospel home with them - to their own countries, to their own families. The gospel was already starting to move even before the Church got its act together.

The second migration: The second migration was the persecution in Jerusalem that caused the first believers to flee to Acts 11:19-13). After Stephen was executed, many believers fled to the city of Antioch, where there was strong Hellenized Jewish presence. It was the ideal location for Paul to launch his first missionary journey. It is also interesting to not that Paul had a hand in the persecution that resulted in the creation of this Christian community. Another interesting reversal.

The third migration: Christianity reached Rome long before Paul did. It also stirred up controversy. It is believed that conflicts arising among the Jews (Christians were still considered a Jewish sect at the time,) resulted in Claudius Edict of Expulsion.  The Roman historian Seutoniuos writes "Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus (believed to be referring to Christos), he [the Emperor Claudius] expelled them from Rome." -  Divus Claudius 25. Acts reports that expulsion was the reason Paul met Priscilla and Aquila in Corinth (Acts 18:1-4).

The forces that propelled the Gospel around the empire were probably the reason Paul saw himself as less of an driving force of its spread, and more of a participant. Paul writes in Col 1:6
All over the world this Gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you herd it and truly understood the grace of God.
These are just a few of the things that I have thought of that explain what made the 1st Century A.D. different from any prior moment in history. From what I have shown here I think we can conclude that God was both waiting and preparing for a certain point in human development where the Gospel message would have its greatest impact.  This list is not exhaustive. Further study along these lines could yield even more insights. And extrapolating to our day could help us to make better use of the time we live in.

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