Today, perhaps even now, my neighbors will take down their Christmas tree and store it away. Christmas is over. It’s time to throw away boxes and bows, remove the holiday clutter, and move on.
Many Christians, nonetheless, will celebrate the Second Day of Christmas today. For centuries, churches around the world have observed the Twelve Days of Christmas, beginning on Christmas Day and running through Epiphany Eve (January 5). Maybe our only familiarity with this tradition is the exuberant eighteenth-century song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Much delight in singing this popular piece arises with the cumulative effect of each verse building upon the previous one, beginning with, “On the second day of Christmas/ my true love sent to me,/ Two turtle doves and,/ A partridge in a pear tree.” The song rises to a crescendo in the last verse with the twelfth gift—“twelve drummers drumming”—and the repetition of the previous eleven gifts. Just when the recipient thinks Christmas has ended, the “true love” appears the next day with another gift. Christmas isn’t over; it’s overflowing!
The story of Christmas hints at an overflow of “already and soon-to-be” gifts from God: “When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4). I tread cautiously and necessarily briefly here; lengthy commentaries have been written on Galatians 4:4-7 because it is a concise summary of the gospel. Let’s just consider the phrase, “When the time had fully come.” The text literally reads, “But when came the fullness of the time.” The word “fullness” (the Greek pleroma) has a range of meanings: something being filled; fulfillment; full measure; that which has been completed; abundance. “The picture is that of a vessel that is being poured full and at a given moment is brimful,” writes Herman Ridderbos. “The pleroma is not merely that last bit that fills the vessel but the whole brimful content of the container.”(1)
Paul uses “fullness of time” in Galatians 4 in reference to two significant occasions. First, he speaks in verse 2 of an underage heir who cannot receive the full rights of his inheritance “until the time set by his father”—when the father determines his child has matured. Second, here in verse 4, Paul uses the expression to capture the gracious, timely decree of God in the incarnation, when He “sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law.” Just as a father determines the right time to fully release his inheritance to his child so God the Father determined when the full measure of time had come to send forth his Son “to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship” (verse 5). When we were adopted through redemption, “God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father’” (verse 6). Through faith in God, we become his children, “heirs according to the promise,” and receive “every spiritual blessing in Christ”—both now and to come.(2)
A study of the seventeen occurrences of fullness in the New Testament is richly rewarding. Paul uses the phrase “fullness of time” once more, in Ephesians 1:10, to describe the period of Christ’s earthly ministry until “when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” Elsewhere “fullness” refers to the person of Christ (John 1:16) and his abundant blessings (Romans 15:29).
Interestingly, Jesus uses the word emphatically in Mark 8 (as does Mark in 6:43). He reminds his disciples of his miraculous feeding of the four and five thousand with just a few fish and loaves of bread and of what remained. The English text reads “basketfuls” in Mark 8:19-20 in reference to the leftovers. However, while Jesus says “full” in verse 19, he adds “fullness” in verse 20: “How many baskets of fullness of broken pieces did you take up?” In other words, he says, “If I used only a few fish and bread to feed thousands and there were overflowing baskets of food remaining, will I not abundantly provide for you also?”
Perhaps on this day after Christmas the letdown seems more acute. Maybe you are lying in a hospital bed or a prison cell. Perhaps the loved one you thought would never leave has walked out the door—or has departed this earth. Or perhaps today is simply a subtle reminder that Christmas cheer can’t last forever. How our heavenly Father longs for you “to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19). Christmas is overflowing—and is here with us even now!
Danielle DuRant is Director of Research and Writing and Editor of Just Thinking magazine.
(1) Herman N. Ridderbos, The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), 154, note 7.
(2) See Galatians 3:29 and Ephesians 1:3.
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