In Galatians 4:4-5 the Apostle Paul writes, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” And in Romans 5:6 the Apostle adds that “at just the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.” The Bible is clear that Jesus came to earth at the exact right time.
Why was the time during the reign of Caesar Augustus and Herod the Great so perfect? Here are seven reasons from history demonstrating how the arrival of Jesus the Messiah was not a cosmic accident, but rather a perfectly timed answer by God for a world that was ready to hear the greatest news ever.
1. A unifying language.
The ancient Mediterranean world had a unifying language. Greek was the universal language in the Roman Empire, and it was known in regions beyond (such as Persia). Latin was the primary language of the Western Roman Empire, and Aramaic was the first language of Jesus and His apostles, but Greek was known at least as a second language throughout the empire.
Over three hundred years before Christ, Alexander the Great had spread the language of the Greeks from Athens to Egypt to the border of India. By the time Jesus was born, Greek literature, science, and art were widely known, and one could speak Greek anywhere in the empire and be understood. The New Testament was first written in this international language of the day, and then almost immediately translated into other languages (such as Latin and Syriac/Aramaic).
2. A unifying law and government.
The Greco-Roman world had a unifying law and government. Roman law had unified people from modern-day Britain to Egypt under one civil code. For the most part, Roman law was just and fair for all people groups, and many people wanted to be Romans in order to benefit from their just laws.
The New Testament shows the Apostle Paul, who was both a Jew and a Roman citizen, often appealing to Roman law whenever he believed he was being treated unjustly (Acts 16:35-40). When Paul appealed to Caesar for a fair trial, it is Roman law that allowed him to be sent to Rome to stand trial before the Emperor. The story of Acts shows that Roman law was the vehicle providentially used by a sovereign God to get the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome.
3. A unifying system of trade.
The Roman Empire had a unifying system of transportation. When I was in Rome a few years ago, I walked along the Appian Way — the same road, the same stones that Paul walked on along the way to prison.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph took the coastal road from Israel to Egypt to escape Herod. Peter used Roman roads to get to Caesarea to speak to Cornelius in Acts 10. Paul and his companions used Roman roads to take the gospel across Asia Minor and Greece. Soon, Christians were traveling Roman-built roads across Gaul and Hispania and North Africa. God used the network of roads that were built by Rome for His glory.
At the time of the birth of Jesus, the Roman military had also banished piracy on the high seas. Paul and his pals could take ships from Antioch to Cyprus and Asia Minor and Greece on their missionary journeys without fear of being attacked by pirates. The only major fear was of storms at sea, like the one Paul faced in Acts 27:13-44.
4. The “Pax Romana.”
The ancient world at that time enjoyed the “Pax Romana.” From the time of Caesar Augustus to Marcus Aurelius (27 B.C. to A.D. 180), the Mediterranean world enjoyed peace under Roman rule. Yes, there were a few outbreaks of local wars, such as the Jewish revolt in A.D. 66-73 and later the Bar Kokhba revolt of A.D. 133-135, but for the most part, the Roman Empire was free from invasions or major civil upheavals.
So the early Christian faith was born in a time of peace, and had time to expand across the empire without fear of invading armies. (Of course, the periodic persecutions, both local and empire-wide, were problems from time to time.)
5. Philosophical and religious exhaustion.
The pagan world at the time of Jesus’ birth was philosophically and religiously exhausted. As I read Greek and Roman stories about their gods and heroes such as “The Iliad” and “The Aeneid”, I am struck by the absolute insensitivity of the gods. They really don’t care about the human race. The gods do not love you. They have no covenants with mankind. They do not sacrifice themselves out of love to rescue or redeem sinful, fallen humans.
The gods cannot transform your life and offer no forgiveness or assurance of everlasting life. There is no promise of heaven for the faithful and certainly no resurrection. You can read more of my observations about contrasts between the pagan Greco-Roman world and the Christian revelation here.
But honestly, there was nothing in the Roman pantheon or in the philosophies of Plato or Aristotle that could give hope to either slave or centurion. The faith revealed in Jesus Christ, however, was like rain falling on cracked and parched earth. Here was a God who entered the human race to go on a rescue mission and actually secure the salvation of all who would repent and believe. Unlike pagan believers, followers of Christ could actually find redemption and freedom from their old debauched lives and enter into a new transformed life here and now. Paganism had nothing to offer in comparison.
6. The Jewish world longed for a Messiah.
The Jewish world was eagerly expecting a Messiah, but was also deeply divided and legalistic. The Jewish world certainly expected a Messiah, and although the idea of a suffering Servant-Messiah is clearly in the Old Testament (Isaiah 52:13- 53:12), it seems that most simply wanted a conquering king who would drive out the hated Romans.
There were many sects in Israel at the time, such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, and Essenes. All believed they knew what was best for everyone. While the Pharisees probably had a pure motive in erecting their own traditions to prevent people from breaking the Law of Moses, they succeeding only in reducing living by faith to a man-made legalistic code that missed the whole point of loving God and loving one’s neighbor.
The Jewish world had simply exchanged their former worship of stone idols for man-made traditions that became new idols. In their apostasy, they were ready for a Messiah who really could set them free.
7. The Roman world needed a census.
Ordering the census may not have been the most important thing Caesar Augustus did that day, but it set in motion a series of events that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, the City of David, where the Messiah would be born (Micah 5:2). Caesar did not know he was actually the tool of God, working on just another day of activities — but ultimately He was fulfilling ancient prophecy from God’s Word.
A Roman census was issued in 6 BC, and Herod died in 4 BC, so Jesus was born sometime between those two dates.
It was no accident that Jesus was born at that time. It was no accident that there was a universal language, a unifying system of law and transportation, military peace across the Mediterranean, a very barren religious world, and a census bringing a young couple unexpectedly to their ancestral hometown. It was no accident at all. It was instead … the fullness of time.