Fullness of the Time

Excerpts from Paul: An Outline of His Theology, Chapter 2

The Apostle Paul

Herman Ridderbos taught New Testament at the Theological School of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands in Kampen.


The whole content of Paul's preaching can be summarized as the proclamation and explanation of the eschatological time [having to do with "last things"] of salvation inaugurated with Christ's advent, death, and resurrection. It is from this principal point of view and under this denominator that all the separate themes of Paul's preaching can be understood and penetrated in their unity and relation to each other.

The Fullness of the Time: The Revelation of the Mystery

The extent to which Paul saw the advent and work of Christ as revelation of the fulfilling activity of God in history and as the breaking through of the great time of salvation can immediately be demonstrated on the basis of a number of typical pronouncements from his epistles.

What is said in Galatians 4:4 of "the fulness of the time" and in Ephesians 1:10 of "the fulness of the times" is surely of special importance:

...but when the ful;ness of the time came, God sent forth his Son...

...the mystery of his [God's] will..., unto a dispensation of the fullness of the times, to sum up all things in Christ, the things in the heavens, and the things upon earth...

What is meant by this "fullness of the time" is not only the maturation of a specific matter in the great framework of redemptive history, but the fulfillment of the time in an absolute sense.The time of the world has come to a conclusion with Christ's advent. However much this fulfillment still bears a provisional character and the perfectum is followed yet again by a futurum, nevertheless the pleroma of the time or of the times is here spoken of as a matter that has already taken effect and thus in principle has been settled.

This commencement of the great time of salvation is no less clearly attested in 2 Corinthians 6:2, where the apostle as with finger extended points to its presence: "Behold, now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation!"

Here, too, what is to be understood by "the acceptable time" and "the day of salvation" is not merely a certain saving event or opportunity that one must embrace and which may perhaps presently disappear again. Nothing less is intended than that the decisive long-expected coming of God has dawned, the hour of hours, the day of salvation is the fulfilling, eschatological sense of the word.This is apparent as well from the preceding context where Paul writes of the great change that has entered with the death and resurrection of Christ as follows:

"Wherefore if any man is in Christ, he is new creation; the old things have passed away; behold, the new have come." (2 Cor. 5:17).

When he speaks here of "new creation," this is not meant merely in an individual sense ("a new creature"), but one is to think of the new world of the re-creation that God has made to dawn in Christ, and in which everyone who is in Christ is included.This is also evident from the neuter plural that follows: "the old things have passed away, the new have come," and from the full significance that must be ascribed here to "old" and "new."It is a matter of two worlds, not only in a spiritual, but in a redemptive-historical, eschatological sense. The "old things" stand for the unredeemed world in its distress and sin, the "new things" for the time of salvation and the re-creation that have dawned with Christ's resurrection.He who is in Christ, therefore, is new creation: he participates in, belongs to, this new world of God.

The qualification of this event as the "revelation of the mystery," or the "making known" of that which until now was "kept secret" or "hidden," for which the apostle has a predilection, is also indicative of this eschatological character of the redemptive dispensation that has dawned in Christ and of its proclamation by Paul.What a dominant place this expression occupies throughout all of Paul's epistles may appear from the following survey:

...the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages, but is now disclosed (Rom. 16:25,26).

...the mystery which has been hidden for ages and generations, but now has been revealed to his saints (Col. 1:26; cf. 2:2,3).

...making know unto us the mystery of his [God's] will, according to his good pleasure which he purposed in him unto a dispensation of the fulness of the times (Eph. 1:9,10).

...my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets...(Eph. 3:4, 5; cf. v.3).

...but we speak God's wisdom in a mystery, even the wisdom that has been hidden, which God foreordained before the ages...(I Cor. 2:7).

...the grace which was given us in Christ Jesus before times eternal, but has now been manifested by the appearing of our Saviour (2 Tim. 1:9; cf. also Tit. 1:2,3).

"Mystery," that which has been "hidden," is to be understood, as a few of the texts cited say in so many words, in connection with the hidden counsel of God in relation to his redemptive work in history. "Hiddenness," "mystery," etc., has, therefore, a plainly historical connotation: it is that which has not yet appeared, that which still exists in the counsel of God and has not yet been realized in history as fulfillment of that counsel.

Accordingly the corresponding word "reveal" not only means the divulging of a specific truth or the giving of information as to certain events or facts, but the appearance itself, the becoming historical reality of that which until now did not exist as such, but was kept by God, hidden, held back. As such, namely, as the realized redemptive plan of God, this mystery is consequently the object of Paul's proclamation and of the revelation of God to his saints, and so forth.

From the way in which this expression -- certainly very characteristic for Paul -- is used, the eschatological nature of the content of his preaching is apparent once again. For this mystery has reference to the purpose of God with a view to the fullness of the times (Eph. 1:9,10).Standing over against the "kept secret for long ages," "hidden for ages and generations," etc., is again and again the "now" of the revelation, the end of the waiting ages, the ultimate intervention of God according to his counsel and promise. What is here called in various nuances the revelation of the mystery is nothing other than that which the fullness of the time brings to view; it is the fulfillment of the eschatological promise of redemption in the times appointed for it, its "own times," that is denoted in this fashion.

This revelation of the mystery is the real content of Paul's gospel (Rom. 16:26), the object of "the ministry which was entrusted to him" (Col. 1:25, 26; cf. Eph. 3:2).Therefore Paul's preaching itself is taken up into the great eschatological event; it is right and in the full sense kerygma of the gospel, that is, announcement, proclamation of the coming of salvation. That Paul's epistles give what is no longer the first announcement of this gospel, but rather the further exposition and application of it, does not detract from the fact that this gospel is the sole and constant subject of his epistles also; and that therefore, if one has to characterize their general content not only as kerygma, but also as doctrine and paraenesis, yet this doctrine, too has no other object and this admonition no other starting point than the fulfilling and redeeming activity of God in the advent of Christ.


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