“When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law” (Gal. 4:4). The Apostle Paul wrote this glorious statement in order to impress the idea that all of human history centers on the person and saving work of Christ. Time was made for Jesus Christ. “The fulness of time” also refers to the two ages–the present evil age of this fallen world (Gal. 1:4) and the new age of life in the Spirit (Gal. 3:14). This is most notably connected to the Old Covenant era of the law and the New Covenant era of the gospel. To be sure, the gospel runs throughout the Old Testament (Gal. 3:8) just as it shines in its full light in the New Testament; however, Paul explains that the Old Covenant law (specifically, the ceremonial law) was a provisional adaptation for redemptive history that is now tantamount to “weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” (Gal. 4:9-10). Jesus came into the world to usher in the eschatological world to come. This is certainly the theological rationale Paul had in mind when he spoke of Jesus being born “in the fullness of time.” However, there is another explanation regarding the timing and civil circumstances surrounding the birth of Christ to which we ought to give consideration. Luke gave the historical details about the political climate of Israel at the time of Christ’s birth, when he wrote,
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:1-7).
Three things surface when we meditate on this statement. First, Israel was under Roman rule on account of their former rebellion against God. When Christ was born, He submitted Himself to the consequences of Israel’s sin, in the same way that He–though He knew now sin–identified with Israel in undergoing a baptism of repentance for Israel’s sin. Craig Glickman observes,
“When he was born a citizen of Israel, He took all of the responsibilities of that citizenship. He observed its laws and ceremonies. He even submitted to the consequences of Israel’s sin. It’s easy to overlook this. But, for example, as a citizen of Israel, Jesus was under the rule of Rome. And yet the forfeiting of self-rule by the nation was a direct result of her disobedience to God in the past. So, in a very real way, Jesus had accepted the consequences of Israel’s sin in yielding to Romans rule…he had taken the consequences of their sin upon Himself in submitting to Roman rule.”1
Second, Jesus was born during a season of national taxation under the rule of the Roman emperor. Phil Ryken explains,
“All it took was a word from the emperor, and people thousands of miles away were set in motion. Every man in every province had to be registered—almost certainly for the purpose of levying taxes. According to Tacitus, Octavian kept the grand totals by hand, and according to Justin, writing in the second century, the census of Quirinius could still be viewed in Rome. No taxation without registration—this was a basic principle of Roman government.
In chapter 2 Luke shows the far reach of Caesar’s power, and also its undoing. As Kent Hughes describes it, Octavian’s “relentless arm stretched out to squeeze its tribute even in a tiny village at the far end of the Mediterranean. Thus it came about that a village carpenter and his expectant teenage bride were forced to travel to his hometown to be registered for taxation.”2
Surely we are meant to take note of the fact that God sent His Son into the world at a time when the most powerful political leader was levying a hefty taxation. The principle is clear, men take and take while God gives and gives. God gave His Son to the world, at a time when the greatest ruler in the world was taking as much as he possibly could from the people.
This, of course, reveals a third reason why Jesus was born at the zenith of Roman rule. He brought an everlasting kingdom that would be established at the time when the greatest world power ruled–and ruled over the people of God in the land of promise. Daniel had explained the meaning of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue and the stone cut out without hands. James Hamilton explains,
“The various visions are united in the revelation of a single basic message: a schematic sequence of four kingdoms will be followed by the kingdom of God.
Each of these four kingdoms will control the land of promise, three of the four are named, and though the fourth kingdom is not overtly identified as Rome, Rome is the kingdom in control in the land of promise between the third kingdom, identified as Greece, and the inauguration of God’s kingdom through Jesus of Nazareth…the four kingdoms are Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome…There are features of the visions that extend what is prophesied about these four kingdoms beyond their application to the named kingdoms, creating a typological sort of pattern of what can be expected from human governments. The features indicating a typological pattern are particularly evident in the statements made about the third and fourth kingdoms.”3
This is in view in Luke’s statement that Joseph took Mary to “the city of David” because “he was of the house and lineage of David.” Joseph had a legal right to the throne of David. The kingdom of God is denominated, throughout Scripture, by the title, “throne of David.” Jesus had a legal right to the throne of David, since He was the legally adopted son of Joseph. Jesus is both David’s son and David’s Lord–the King of the Kingdom of God.
All of this should cause us to wonder at the way in which the infinitely wise God perfectly displayed His wisdom in His Son. Ultimately, the wisdom of God is displayed in the crucifixion of the Son by the Romans and the Jews. It was a representation of the nations of the world–the Jews and the Gentiles–gathering together against the Lord’s anointed (Ps. 2:1-3). This is further signified by the title placed over Him when He hung on it: “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” That title was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, since He had come to be the King of the all spiritual Jews throughout the world–King of a worldwide Kingdom that would know no end. It was by Son’s work of redemption that He merited the right to ask His Father for the nations to be His inheritance (Ps. 2:7-9).
1. S. Craig Glickman Knowing Christ (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1980) pp. 17-18.
2. Philip Graham Ryken, Luke, ed. Richard D. Phillips, Philip Graham Ryken, and Daniel M. Doriani, vol. 1, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009), 66.
3. James M. Hamilton Jr., With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology, ed. D. A. Carson, vol. 32, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL; England: Apollos; InterVarsity Press, 2015), 86–87.