In this series, we read Scripture together with Blumhardt (1842–1919), a little-known but influential theologian who inspired Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Moltmann.
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
(Gal. 4:4-7), NRSV
“When the fullness of time had come” (verse 4)
For God to do anything, the fullness of time must first come. The promise always comes first, and with the promise we wait for the fullness of time. The coming of Christ required the longest time of waiting. It was necessary that the people concerned be prepared. They had to become inwardly poor and outwardly desperate for something new.
To be sure, we cannot see fully what was required for the fullness of time. That is God’s affair, and we cannot explain why, just then, the fullness of time had come for Christ, the Savior of all humankind. On the contrary, we could ask whether the time really was fulfilled for the Savior’s coming. Shouldn’t salvation have come to everyone already then? The fullness of time had only come for Christ’s salvation to begin, and still today we are living in the fullness of time in which God is beginning his work of salvation for the earth.
It was not one particular year, or the thirty years of Jesus’ life on earth, or the fifty years in which the apostles were active, nor the sixty years up until the destruction of Jerusalem. No, the time continues today. It is time for us to become part of the salvation on earth and to become active as soon as we hear the words of Jesus, the Savior of the world and Lord over all.
This must strike our hearts every time we hear the gospel. The fullness of time has come for you and for me. Wake up, it is time! Get up, so that the light of Christ can shine from you! (Eph. 5:14) His redemption has begun. We need to get to work so that at least some of the people on this earth can be drawn together and enter the history of God’s kingdom.
This will not mean that we immediately have peace from all struggle and temptation. On the contrary, just when we take the first steps toward salvation, when we are swept into the time of Jesus Christ’s fulfillment, our struggles will begin. Other people may be satisfied with their cozy way of life, or experience pleasurable, happy days after brief struggles – but that is not for us! We are bound to Jesus Christ as he begins his work in the world, which is full of struggle and fight. The whole world around us is in darkness and people are sunk in misery and ruin. Then it is a matter of fighting to the point of shedding your blood (Heb. 12:4) and being faithful until death, so that you may receive the crown ( Rev. 2:10) – that is, experience the fulfillment of what was begun, and win the treasure that God has in store for all people. May you someday experience the fulfillment of time, when the Father in heaven through Jesus Christ shall be king over all people on earth and all his promises for his creation will be fulfilled.
We must not lose sight of this goal or else we will cut ourselves off from the beginning of salvation. This happens to many Christians who believe in Christ but are not part of the historical development of the kingdom of God. It does not develop in their lives; sin and death surround them and they drown in an unredeemed morass of unhappiness, need and suffering, wondering why there is no redemption. They no longer know why they are Christians. They take no active part in the time of Jesus Christ. They believe in God, they believe in Christ, and they are satisfied. They forget the great goal to which they were called. They are not living in the time of Christ, the fullness of time. They have regressed to human time and slip back into old human ways which have been the same throughout the centuries as generations come and go.
But for those people who actively enter Christ’s time, things are constantly on the move. They themselves change with time. In the fullness of time, from day to day, or at least from year to year, some aspect of darkness, death and disaster is overcome in their lives. Though always struggling, always in conflict, yet they pass from victory to victory, from redemption to redemption, from life to new life. In spite of all their toil and labor they are able to exult and rejoice in this time of fulfillment.
The most wonderful thing we can experience today is development and change; the saddest which can befall a person is stagnation. In the present time the world stagnates, for although there are changes in outer circumstances, the inner development is at a standstill. But in Christ’s time there is progress and the development of the inner life along with the outer. There is growth in all situations and one can sense a movement toward fulfillment. We are filled with hope and faith: Yes, God’s will is being established, the will of Jesus Christ who drives out darkness and brings salvation on earth.
“Born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law” (verses 4-5)
We have become free; we are no longer under law. In Christ we are free. Any restraint imposed by society no longer applies to us. We have no specific rules that will bind us forever. To be sure, there are rules we have to accept from day to day, but they apply only for today. We must be free for tomorrow. God’s will for tomorrow may be different, and former restrictions will no longer hold. We are in a time of development, and if we want to remain with this development from start to finish, we must be free, completely free. Christians should of all people be the freest from customs and traditions, even if we do conform to certain practices. We must remain inwardly free – a husband from his wife, parents from their children, and children from their parents. All must be free! Peoples and nations must be free. In our development and in our social conditions we must be free. We are liberated because we have been placed into the development of God’s kingdom, which is not yet completed.
If the kingdom of God were already here, there would be something definite for us to submit to. But as yet there are no decisive orders to which we can commit ourselves today and forever. So it is quite meaningless to speak of a “Christian world order” which must be held to at all cost. It does not exist anywhere in the world, so I am often surprised that intelligent people can use such a delusional phrase. Even if I accept a certain church – whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant – can I say that it has a “Christian” order and does not need change? Isn’t everything still imperfect, sometimes very imperfect? Can we risk life and limb for what exists today? Oh no! We risk life and limb for God’s coming kingdom, for Jesus who brings a new order. Jesus is with us in the present imperfect time, but he places us where we can expect change and even help bring about change. So we are not bound under the law of the present time but live in the faith and strength of what is to come.
As free people, we must set higher goals for ourselves. Christianity should have taken this more seriously. Every generation of Christians should have kept their goal more clearly before their eyes, striding forward like fighters bent on victory, like runners never stopping until the prize is won (1 Cor. 9:24). Then we would have made progress. But most Christians have settled down quietly, completely satisfied. They even speak of an unalterable world order that prevails among the nations today, although it is so imperfect that even the blind can see it. Free yourselves! Whoever cannot or will not be free is not living in Christ’s time. He or she might be a part of Christendom without being a part of God’s kingdom in Christ. There is a huge difference between Christians and Christ! Anyone can settle down in the present world, build one’s own nest and say: “Now I am all set!” But such a person will not have what is eternal. “Here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14). The present world is not enough. We await the future world that God has set before our eyes through Jesus Christ, the Savior of humankind and King of all nations!
“So that we might receive adoption as children” (verse 5)
The second point which characterizes us if we are living in the fullness of time is our relationship as children of God. As his children we are bound to God’s will, down to the minutest details. This throws light on our task in the world, in which we have nothing to fear. We need not be troubled if the relationships are imperfect in our work or among the people we deal with. We have to learn to live like children. Whatever comes our way, even if we are forced into circumstances and situations which we know are not right, however incongruous, we are children and belong to God. The people who were slaves in the time of the apostles had to do many things that were not Christian, but they remained children of God. Many people today are in a similar position where they can only say: “This situation isn’t right and never will be, but I am a child. I will remain closely bound to my God in every turn of my life!” That gives us a great security, a peace in the midst of the discord of the world. We have the assurance that we belong to God as his children. The world may toss us about as it will; we may face life or death, trouble and affliction; we may be thrown into uncertainty, until we don’t know what to think. None of this can harm us. We are children who belong to God. The fog lifts, darkness is dispelled, and our anxiety disappears. In the face of my peace, discord comes to nothing, in my adoption as a child of God, death must yield.
This is the character of those who live in the fullness of time, who live with Christ in his time of fulfillment. This is something different from casually saying that we believe in Christ. If we have only the religious Christ created by our own imagination, our adoption as children means nothing. People complain that they no longer have peace and don’t know what to do, or they say they have lost their faith or that their sins are not forgiven. I say to all of them: “You have not entered the kingdom of God; you have not been part of the history of God’s kingdom, which will sweep you along with the daily assurance that you are a child of God!” Your adoption as God’s child is a historical fact that has indeed happened – this can never be taken away and will remain through all eternity. It’s just as when a baby is born: its birth is a historical fact, and it is impossible for there to be a time when it was not born. If we have been born in Jesus Christ and awakened for his work, it is quite impossible to become unborn. But we must remain in Christ's time. If a child does not grow, it remains a child but it dies. The same is true of Christianity. Christ came, and through the preaching of the gospel in good and bad times, Christianity was established. This cannot be undone. But if Christianity does not continue growing it will stagnate and die. So remain active and strive forward, and your adoption as God’s children can never be taken away.
“God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts” (verse 6)
The third factor which characterizes us is the Spirit of the Father in heaven. We receive his Spirit, without which our freedom would have no meaning and our adoption as his children would count for nothing. We have been given freedom and sonship for the work of the Lord. But how am I to work for him? Should I research in books? Should I inquire among the pastors? Should I get it from the Pope? Even if someone has wisdom and discernment, can I learn it from him? Dear friends, it is impossible in the kingdom of God for one person to learn from another. One person can encourage another or introduce him [to God’s work], but then each has to stand on his or her own feet. You must learn from God himself, for each person is quite different from another. For instance, you cannot live the way I do, so please don’t take my life as your example. You must live your own life, and the Spirit of God must tell you what to do. It is true that we are all directed to one goal – we have one faith, one God and Father, one Lord Jesus Christ and one goal in Christ. But we come from quite different situations and backgrounds and we need the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, so that from different walks of life we can work together for this one goal, one kingdom, one grace, and one life which will be revealed in the future of Jesus Christ. In our own spirit we are all very poor – we cannot put ourselves into the right frame of mind for the kingdom of God. Often people impetuously act in their own spirit – I’ve done this many times myself.
Then they fall into the trap that the apostle Paul reprimands us for: “Many are hard at work; some are building with straw, some with wood, and others with metal, gold or silver – but the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it” (1 Cor. 3:12-13). Whatever I have done in my own strength toward the kingdom of God is worthless; only what we do in the Spirit of God will flourish and will help toward the future of Jesus Christ and the fulfilling of his kingdom. Everything else will be consumed in eternal fire.
How many so-called Christian deeds come to nothing and are so to say “burned up”? All too often through the centuries, Christian deeds were done in a human spirit, and little remains of them. Yet through the centuries too, there have been many who acted in the spirit of God, and this is the work of God which has survived to this day from the time of the first apostles onward. There have always been people who were impelled by the Spirit of God, and there must still be such people today. Those who are in God's kingdom need not weigh up and consider but should simply say: “Abba, dear Father, tell me what to do today, then tell me what I should do tomorrow. I will listen to nothing but your word. I will obey you today and tomorrow. Thus I will be free and will be your child; I will depend on nothing but you. Send your Spirit so that I will know what to do from day to day, in all circumstances. Give me light through your Spirit!”
In this way we can share in the work of Jesus Christ. We will live in the fullness of time, free, as his children, armed with the Spirit that tells us all truth and what to do in our time, in our situation. May God grant that we remain firm and strong, and that all hesitations, uncertainties and lethargy in us are overcome! Then we can stride toward the goal with eagerness, enthusiasm and truth.
From Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, Ihr Menschen seid Gottes!: 1896 – 1900, (Zurich: Rotapfel Verlag, 1928), no. 52, trans. Jörg Barth and Renate Barth, © 2013 The Plough Publishing House.
Are you living in “Christ’s time,” working for his kingdom? Share your thoughts.