This entry is part 87 of 102 in the series: Tough texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 3:16b – ‘Your desire shall be for your husband’
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Leviticus 19:18 “Love your neighbour as yourself”
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 1 Samuel 16:14 – ‘An evil spirit from the Lord’
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Daniel 7:13 – ‘Coming with the clouds of heaven’
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Mt 24:34/Mk 13:30 – ‘This generation will not pass away’
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10 – The unpardonable sin
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2 – Was Joseph from Nazareth, or Bethlehem?
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:40-44 – Did John know about Jesus’ birthplace?
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- John 21:11 – One hundred and fifty three fish
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Acts 5:34-37 – a (minor) historical inaccuracy?
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:28 – ‘The Son himself will be subjected to [God]’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Philippians 2:10 – ‘The name that is above every name’
- 1 Cor 11:3/Eph 5:23 – ‘Kephale’: ‘head’? ‘source’? ‘foremost’?
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:11f – ‘I do not allow woman to teach or exercise authority over a man’
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – ‘Saved through child-bearing’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 7:4 – The 144,000
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
In the New International Version (1984 ed.) Eph 1:9f reads:-
‘[God] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment – to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.’
There are several issues with this translation. Firstly, ‘to be put into effect’ rather obscures the important word οἰκονομίαν (economy, administration) in the original. Secondly, the word ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι (‘to bring together under one head’) is now generally thought by scholars to mean ‘to sum up’. And thirdly, it indicates a definite future orientation (‘to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment’) where no such orientation is explicit in the original.
It is the third of these issues which is the most important, and which will be the focus of the present discussion.
The NIV is not alone in its commitment to a future orientation in this text. A number of other translations do the same, including a number of modern paraphrases, including the New International Reader’s Version, J.B. Phillips, New Living Translation, God’s Word, and the Good News Version.
Of the translations I have reviewed, only the NEB, along with its update the REB, gives this text a past orientation:
‘[God] has made known to us his secret purpose, in accordance with the plan which he determined beforehand in Christ, to be put into effect when the time was ripe: namely that the universe, everything in heaven and on earth, might be brought into a unity in Christ.’ (REB)
Other translations, however – especially the more literal versions – retain the neutrality of the original text with regard to time. These include the AV, NASB, ISV, RSV, and ESV. They leave the interpreter to make up his or her own mind, based on contextual and other considerations.
In one of these more literal translations (NRSV) the passage reads:-
‘[God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.’
In fact, the most literal translation of the phrase under discussion (τὸ πλήρωμα τῶν καιρῶν) would be, ‘the fullness of the times’.
So the question before us is this: To what time-period does this plan for ‘the fullness of the times’ refer? Past, present or future? Does it teach a realised, an inaugurated, or a futurist eschatology? When did, or when will, God ‘gather up all things in [Christ]’?
Given that the original text itself does not explicitly answer the question ‘When?’, what are the main interpretative options, and what evidence and arguments are available for each?
‘This account of creation lays the foundation of Israel’s world view about God, human beings, creation, and the laws that pertain to mankind (e.g., to worship no other gods, to keep the Sabbath, and to take no innocent life).’ (New Geneva)
1. Past orientation
One option is to understand ‘the fullness of the times’ as referring to the past. Specifically, it would refer to the sending of God’s Son to this world in the incarnation. God has made known his will in the incarnation of his Son.
Although few of the translations have opted explicitly for a past orientation in Eph 1:10, a number of commentators have done so.
We can go back at least as far as Chrysostom for this understanding. ‘The “fullness of time”, he says emphatically, ‘was the Son’s appearing.’ (Homily on Ephesians 1:10, in ACCS)
In his commentary on Ephesians, Calvin makes it clear that he understands ‘the fullness of times’ here as equivalent to the similar expression in Gal 4:4, and as referring to ‘the fit and proper season’ when ‘Christ has been made known’, ‘the gospel preached to them’, and ‘the decree to adopt the Gentiles’ has been revealed. Calvin takes a similar approach in his sermon on the Ephesians passage.
Moving into the Puritan period, James Fergusson takes a similar view. He too sees the relevant expressions in Eph 1:10 and Gal 4:4 as equivalent, with both referring to ‘the time of Christ’s incarnation and sufferings.’
Dating from a slightly later period, Matthew Henry’s commentary has only a brief comment on this phrase, but also suggests a past orientation, referring to ‘[God’s] sending Christ in the fulness of time, at the exact time that God had prefixed and settled.’
Writing at the beginning of the 20th century, B.F. Westcott did not see the relevant expressions in Gal 4:4 and Eph 1:10 as entirely equivalent. The word for ‘time’ in the Galatians passage is ‘chronos’, a word which (he says) expresses simple duration. The corresponding word in the Ephesians passage is ‘karios’, which expresses ‘a space of time defined with regard to its extent and character.’ The expression in Galatians, accordingly, indicates ‘the limit of an appointed term’, whereas that in Ephesians indicates ‘the close of a series of critical periods, each of which had its peculiar character and was naturally connected in some way with the final issue.’ Westcott does not appear explicitly to endorse either a realised, or a future, eschatology with reference to the phrase under consideration. However, his general discussion emphasises the already-fulfilled aspects of God’s work in Christ. He writes:
The Incarnate Son embodied the purpose of God. The end of Creation was reached in Him through Whom it had its origin (Heb 1:2)… All earlier ‘dispensations’ were crowned by that of Christ.
Lincoln, while rejecting any sharp distinction in meaning between ‘chronos’ (Gal) and ‘kairos’ (Eph), appears to adopt an essentially realised interpretation of Eph 1:10. This commentator emphasises the thought contained in some apocalypses, of a series of epochs under God’s direction, to which the expression ‘the fullness of the times’ indicates the climax. History has been crowned by the revelation of God in Christ. This, for Lincoln, is consistent with the thought of other NT passages, including Mk 1:15; Jn 7:8; Acts 1:7; Gal 4:4; 1 Thess 5:1, and 1 Tim 6:15.
Muddiman thinks that the expression in Eph 1:10 ‘for the fullness of time’ is ‘almost identical’ with Paul’s expression in Gal 4:4. Like Lincoln, he thinks that ‘fullness refers to the fulfilment of Jewish expectation for the coming of the Messiah after times and periods of oppression.’ He notes that this idea is familiar from Jewish apocalyptic writings, such as Dan 2:21; 2 Esd 4:37, and also draws attention ot Mk 1:15.
For R.P. Martin, the writer of Ephesians is seeking to counter certain Gnostic tendencies. Using the very language and concepts of the false teachers (‘mystery’, ‘wisdom’, and so on), the author asserts that God has made known to all believers (not just the elite) the ‘open secret’ of his purposes in Christ. And, in contrast to the dualism of the Gnostics, these purposes are for the whole of creation – both heaven and earth:-
The cosmic Lord who came from God to man is now exalted to the divine presence. In so doing, he has bound heaven and earth together into a unity. There is no aspect of human society or sentient life outside the scope of this reconciliation and no hostile forces, to be mentioned in 6:11-18, that can frustrate God’s eternal purpose.
Martin’s approach to this passage is, then, essentially that of a realised eschatology, although with an eye to a future consummation.
In considering further reasons why a past orientation might be preferred, Eph 3:2-11 is particularly relevant. This passage appears to be a return to and an expansion of some of the themes developed in chapter 1. Indeed, the expression in Eph 3:3 – ‘as I have already written briefly’ – is probably to be understood as an allusion to Eph 1:9f (rather than to an earlier letter). If so, then the passage in chapter 3 extends and clarifies the earlier and briefer statement in chapter 1. Now, the entire passage quoted from chapter 3 speaks of what God has already accomplished. And v10 explicitly states that it is ‘now, through the church, that the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms. (My emphasis)
Examining the wider NT context, there seems to be no shortage of support for a realised eschatology. The proclamation of Jesus recorded Mk 1:15 is of particular interest: “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near.” This has a close verbal affinity with Eph 1:10. Peter’s message on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:32-36) also expresses a strong sense that ‘the time has been fulfilled’, even if the exact terminology is not used there.
The close relationship between Colossians and Ephesians is widely recognised. In Col 1:19f we learn that ‘God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.’ This passage has clear similarities to Eph 1:10, and, since the first clause is clearly in the past tense (‘God was pleased…’), it is not unreasonable to suppose that the second (‘…and through him to reconcile…’) is also to be understood as referring to something that has happened in the past.
A past fulfilment is also emphasized in 1 Cor 10:11, according to which ‘we’ (and that must include at least Paul and his Corinthian contemporaries) are those ‘on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come.’
The 19th-century theologian and commentator Charles Hodge linked a number of similar expressions – “end of the ages,” 1 Corinthians 10:11; “end of days,” Hebrews 1:1; “fullness of the time,” Galatians 4:4; and here, “the fullness of times” – and saw all of them as designating ‘the time of Christ’s advent.’
In summary, a strong case can be mounted for assuming a past (‘realised’) orientation in Eph 1:10, even though the text itself is not explicit in this regard. This case is supported by (a) the similarity with Gal 4:4, where the reference to the coming of the Son of God into the world is indisputable; (b) the ‘fit’ between the language of passage and that used previously of the Messianic hope (especially as expressed in the apocalyptic literature); (c) the likelihood that Eph 3, which does clearly refer to what God has already accomplished in Christ, is a conscious elaboration of the passage in chapter 3; and (d) the teaching of those other NT scriptures that assert that the ‘last days’ have already arrived, and that God is already renewing everything through Christ.[/su_divider]
2. Future orientation
A number of commentators, on the other hand, have detected (or, at least, assumed) a future orientation in Eph 1:10.
Some do so without offering any specific evidence or argumentation in favour of their preferred interpretation. For example, the 19th-century commentator Albert Barnes asserted that ‘the period referred to here is that when all things shall be gathered together in the Redeemer at the winding up of human affairs, or the consummation of all things.’
In his early 20th-century commentary on the Greek text of Ephesians J. A. Robinson asserted that Eph 1:10 refers to the final, and yet future, stage of the Christian hope, which will result in ‘the gathering up in one of all things in Christ, things in heaven, and things upon the earth’.’
More recently, F.F. Bruce has offered a paraphrase which is essentially in line with the NIV translation which is quoted at the beginning of this paper: ‘When all the times and seasons which the Father has fixed by His own authority have run their course, God’s age-long purpose which He planned in Christ will attain its full fruition.’ Foulkes is in essential agreement with this approach.
Similarly, Heil summarises this passage as teaching that
this profound mystery will attain its goal “as a plan for the fullness of the times” (Eph 1.10a), that is, when God has brought all time to its fulfillment within his eternal plan. At that time God will “unite under one head” all the things” – the entirety of creation – “in the Christ” (Eph 1:10b)…When times has been finally fulfilled everything in the cosmos will be joined together with us believers in our incorporation into the Christ (Eph 1:10b).
Thielman links the expression ‘the fullness of the times’ with the idea, found in Dan 2:19,22, of God’s unfolding of history in successive stages. This writer does not commit himself to any temporal orientation regarding this particular phrase. Nevertheless, he does find a future orientation in the passage as a whole. God, he says, has revealed that he
intends to sum up in Christ the disparate elements of the universe, both heavenly and earthly. Christ will emerge as the organizing principle of all creation… God is in the process of organizing the entire universe, both its heavenly dimension and its earthly dimension, around Christ.
Liefeld says that the ‘mystery’ which God is said to have revealed, in Eph 1:9f, refers to ‘something God is planning for a future climactic point in history, when the times will have reached their fulfillment (v. 10, literally “fullness of times”).’
Verhey & Howard do not attempt any analysis of the phrase in question. It is clear, however, that these authors read the verse as a whole in a futuristic sense. Remembering what God has already accomplished in Christ, the Christian community
hopes for the good future of of God, which is the good future for God’s creation, for “all things.” This good future is our “inheritance” in Christ (1:11), and the Spirit is the “pledge,” the earnest, of that inheritance (1:14), the firstfruits of God’s good future.
Of the arguments that might be adduced in support of a future orientation, possibly the most weighty comes from a consideration of the immediate context. God’s purpose, says the writer, was‘to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.’ This, for many expositors, cannot refer to anything that has already taken: it must point to some cosmic consummation that will be associated with the end times.
I have pointed out earlier that scholars who opt for a realised interpretation of Eph 1:10 emphasise the similarities between that text and Gal 4:4. However, those who see a future orientation in Eph 1:10 often explain this in terms of a contrast between these two texts. The word for ‘time’ in Gal 4:4 is chronos, in the singular. That word, it is maintained, indicates a point in time. Eph 1:10, in contrast, has kairos, in the plural, which is said to refer to a series of periods of time. But this consideration is not conclusive in the context of the present discussion: for whereas we can be confident that Gal 4:4 refers to the incarnation, the referent in Eph 1 is not so obvious: historicists will tend to see these ‘times’ as stages leading up to the incarnation, whereas futurists will tend to see them as the periods of time leading up to the consummation of all things.
O’Brien, while acknowledging that there is in Ephesians a strong emphasis on a realised eschatology, discerns a future eschatology in Eph 1:10. He suggests that the expression might be rendered, ‘for implementing in the fulness of times’. He sees Gal 4:4 as something of a contrast to the present passage. In the Galatians passage, the reference is to the time being ripe for God to send his Son into the world. In the Ephesians passage, the reference is to the time being being ripe for the consummation of God’s purpose. In a footnote, O’Brien quotes (apparently with approval) M. Turner as saying that
the fulness of the times’ includes, if not principally denotes, ‘the times which follow the end of “this evil age”’ (Eph 1:21; cf. 2:2; 5:16; 6:13). That fulness may commence with the Christ-event…, but ‘the author can hardly be suspected of believing the cosmic … [summing up] has been completed.
As O’Brien points out, a future eschatology is not entirely absent in Ephesians. In fact, it is not quite so much in the background as some expositors seem to think. According to Eph 1:13f ; 4:30, those who have believed have received the Holy Spirit, ‘who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession.’ A day is coming when God’s wrath will come on those who are disobedient, whereas Christ’s purpose is to present to himself a perfected church, holy and blameless (Eph 5:27). Eph 2:7 also refers to ‘the ages to come’, although the writer probably intends the meaning, ‘from the present time onwards, and for all eternity.’
Fowl notes that the phrase “the fulness of times” ‘is similar to Paul’s usage in Gal 4:4 where in “the fulness of time…[Christ is] born of a woman.” The difference is that in Galatians the birth of Christ signals the climactic moment in the world’s history. In Ephesians the plural “of times” indicates the end point, or telos, of God’s will, that toward which everything is moving.’ Fowl suggests that this is consistent with the plural use of ‘kairos’ in other texts. He adds that ‘one sees here a an image of history as a collection of “times.” The fullness of times, then, would refer to some point of consummation.’
Williamson takes a similar approach. Like others, he notes that ‘the fullness of [the] times’ in Eph 1:10 differs from ‘fullness of time’ (singular) in Gal 4:4. In Eph 1, he says, it has to do with ‘our ultimate future.’ He sees a further clue in the phrase “in heaven and on earth”, which ‘indicates God’s purpose to unit the whole cosmos under Christ’s headship.’ He agrees that ‘in principle, this has already been achieved through Jesus’ death and resurrection, as other texts indicate (Mt 28:18; Col 1:19f).’ But he concludes that here in Eph 1:10 ‘Paul probably speaks of the future, when everything will be under Christ’s direct control and will achieve the unity and harmony God intends (1 Cor 15:24-28; Heb 2:8).’
A futurist understanding of Eph 1:10 is taught in a number of standard reference works. ‘The fulness of time dawned at Bethlehem (Gal. 4:4), but the fulness of all the times awaits manifestation (Eph. 1:10).’ (ISBE, 2nd ed.). Or, more fully, ‘in Galatians 4:4 Paul refers to Christ’s first advent as “the completion of time (chronos).” This may be one (or the first) of the times (Gk kairos, cf. Lk 21:24; Acts 1:7) or ages (Gk aiōnes, cf. Gal 3:20–21; 1 Cor 10:11; Eph 2:7) which will all find their consummation in God’s ultimate objective of uniting all things in Christ (Eph 1:10). Christ is not only the source and sustainer, but also the goal of the history of the whole cosmos’ (Lim, DPL, art ‘Fullness’). And again: [God] ‘reveals himself in history according to the times and dates set by his own authority (Acts 1:7) and will bring about in his own time the consummation of world history in Jesus’ return (Eph 1:9-10; 1 Tim 6:15).’ (EDBT)
Wright (Surprised by Hope, p115f), links Eph 1:10 with the marriage scene of Revelation 21-22. In that scene, the new Jerusalem descends comes down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. This scenario, says Wright, is ‘drastically different’ from the story which many Christians have of the soul shuffling off to heaven to meet its maker. As in Phil 3, it is not we who go to heaven, but heaven which comes to us. In fact, it is the church itself which is the new Jerusalem, coming down to earth. This, says Wright,
is the ultimate rejection of all types of gnosticism, of every worldview that sees the final goal as the separation of the world from God, of the physical from the spiritual, of earth from heaven. It is the final answer to the Lord’s Prayer, that God’s kingdom would come and his will be done on earth as in heaven. It is what Paul is talking about in Ephesians 1:10, that God’s design and promise was to sum up all things in Christ, things both in heaven and on earth. It is the final fulfilment, in richly symbolic imagery, of the promise of Genesis 1, that the creation of male and female would together reflect God’s image into the world, to defeat and abolish death for ever – which can only mean the rescue of creation from its present plight of decay.
In associating Eph 1:10 with Rev 21-22 in this way, Wright is clearly indicating that his is a futuristic vision of both texts. ‘There is a sign here, he says, ‘of the future project that awaits the redeemed, in God’s eventual new world.’
Stott, in his exposition of Ephesians, clearly regards ‘the fulness of time’ as belonging to the future. He talks about history ‘moving towards a glorious goal’, which will be reached ‘when time merges into eternity’. ‘Already,’ says Stott,
Christ is head of his body, the church, but one day ‘all things’ will acknowledge his headship. At present there is still discord in the universe, but in the fullness of time the discord will cease, and that unity for which we long will come into being under the headship of Jesus Christ… In the fullness of time, God’s two creations, his whole universe and his whole church, will be unified under the cosmic Christ who is the supreme head of both.
For Stott, this future orientation does not imply a passive waiting for some better world. He sees outcomes both in terms of duty and doxology. Paul, he writes
peered back ‘before the foundation of the world’ (verse 4) and on to ‘the fullness of time’ (verse 10), and grasped hold of what ‘we have’ now (verse 7) and ought to ‘be’ now (verse 4) in the light of those two eternities.
Interestingly, most of the more popular expository literature that I have reviewed favours a ‘not yet’ approach. These include Gaebelein (The Annotated Bible), Wiersbe, Kent Hughes, Barton (Life Application Bible Commentary), and F.B. Hole.
It seems likely that at least some of these popular writers have been influenced by the dispensationalism of C.I. Schofield and others. Curiously, the phrase ‘the dispensation of the fullness of times’ is the only expression between Eph 1:6 and 1:13 that Schofield actually comments on in his 1919 reference notes. He equates this expression to
the seventh and last of the ordered ages which condition human life on the earth.’ This is, he says, when ‘the time of oppression and misrule ends by Christ taking His kingdom,…The time of testimony and divine forbearance ends in judgment,…The time of toil ends in rest and reward,…The time of suffering ends in glory,…The time of Israel’s blindness and chastisement ends in restoration and conversion,…The times of the Gentiles end in the smiting of the image and the setting up of the kingdom of the heavens,…The time of creation’s thraldom ends in deliverance at the manifestation of the sons of God.
I would regard such a dispensational scheme as very much a false trail with regard to understanding God’s plan of redemption as taught in the Bible. Nevertheless, as with a ‘realised eschatology’ approach to Eph 1:10, so a ‘future eschatology’ can find support from the wider teaching of the New Testament. For example, when in Acts 3:21 Peter says that ‘[Jesus] must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets’, this clearly points to a ‘not yet’ fulfilment.
3. Past-present-future orientation
The discussion so far has confirmed that there is no scholarly consensus on whether the expression ‘the fullness of the times’ in Eph 1:10 has a past or a future orientation. Is there a third option? We do not look for one simply because ‘past-oriented’ and ‘future-oriented’ expositors cannot agree. But the very ambiguity of the text itself encourages us to consider a ‘now’/‘not yet’ interpretation. This would see ‘the fullness of the times’ as referring to the on-going work of God in Christ, accomplished in his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and exaltation, growing at the present time, and consummated at the time of the parousia and the establishment of the new heavens and the new earth.
A number of commentators have taken just such a view.
Writing in the middle of the 19th century, Jamieson, Fausset and Brown suggested that the expression in Eph 1:9 is
more comprehensive than “the fullness of the time” (Gal 4:4). The whole of the Gospel times (plural) is meant, with the benefits to the Church dispensed in them severally and successively. Compare “the ages to come” (Eph 2:7). “The ends of the ages” (Greek, 1 Cor 10:11); “the times (same Greek as here, ‘the seasons,’ or ‘fitly appointed times’) of the Gentiles” (Luk 21:24); “the seasons which the Father hath put in His own power” (Act 1:7); “the times of restitution of all things which God hath spoken by the prophets since the world began” (Act 3:20f). The coming of Jesus at the first advent, “in the fullness of time,” was one of these “times.” The descent of the Holy Ghost, “when Pentecost was fully come” (Act 2:1), was another. The testimony given by the apostles to Him “in due time” (“in its own seasons,” Greek) (1 Tim 2:6) was another. The conversion of the Jews “when the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled,” the second coming of Christ, the “restitution of all things,” the millennial kingdom, the new heaven and earth, shall be severally instances of “the dispensation of the fullness of the times,” that is, “the dispensation of” the Gospel events and benefits belonging to their respective “times,” when severally filled up or completed. God the Father, according to His own good pleasure and purpose, is the Dispenser both of the Gospel benefits and of their several fitting times (Act 1:7).
E.K. Simpson takes a similar view:-
Christ is the summation of the temporal series which was create by him and for him (Col 1:16,20), and its consummation is bound up with his enthronement at its head…Today we now in part; we see through a glass obliquely. But when the perfect day dawns, our fractional judgment will be merged in comprehensive vision of a rounded whole. Of this much meantime we have assurance, that, in accordance with the divine programme of history, all things in heaven and earth shall be reconstituted “in Christ”.
Similarly, the contributor to the Expositor’s Bible Commentary (1st ed.) asserts that
Salvation history is regarded as unfolding in a series of “times” that reach their climax in the advent of Christ (Gal 4:4). The Christian era has still to run its course, however, and not until its close will God’s eternal purpose come to full fruition (Acts 1:6). Then universal reconciliation will be achieved; God will “bring … together under one head” everything in heaven and on earth under Christ (cf. 1 Cor 15:24–28; Php 2:10–11). This recognition of Christ’s preeminence will ensure that the original harmony of the universe is restored (Rom 8:18–21).
The Roman Catholic scholar Rudolf Schnackenburg says that:-
the expression “fullness of the times” brings to mind Gal 4:4, where Paul talks of the “fulness of times”…when God sent his Son; but Paul is contrasting the time before Christ (under the Law) with the time fulfilled with Christ (the time of freedom). The author of Eph. sees the times having passed according to God’s purpose and having now reached their “fullness”…The “fullness of the times” indicates the climax of all earthly times, the (eschatological) time of Christ, in which God’s mystery in Christ is revealed, realised and developed.
Reviewing the teaching of this verse more generally, Schnackenburg says:-
One thing is clear from 1:10: the unification of the universe in Christ, the restoration of the divine rule of the universe has already taken place…This is borne out in 1:20-22: the resurrected Christ is already enthroned “above all authority and power…”, God has already put all things under his feet, has already given him to the Church as her Head. But is this present eschatology “radically concluded, even pushed in the direction of an “aorist eschatology”? Other passages prohibit such a view: the Christian battle against the principalities and power still continues (6:12); the Church as the sphere of blessing, the fullness of Christ (1:23) is an entity which is still increasing (2:21; 4:16). We must interpret it thus: the universe has been unified in Christ and put under his rule finally and incontestably, and yet it will continue to be subjugated ever to a great degree, in the earthly historical space, to Christ’s rule which is already established…What is already reality in God’s world, which is beyond time, will be revealed and realised through the Church in the earthly-historical world which is bound by time. The curious idea that the goal of the divine salvation-event has been reached “in Christ” “in the heavenlies” and that we, too, insofar as we are “in Christ” have reached it (cf. 2:5f) brings us very close to the borders of an enthusiastic existentialism (cf. 1 Cor 4:8; 2 Tim 2:18), but ths is rectified when we look at the Christian existence in the world which still has to defend itself in moral struggle and in battle against the powers of evil (Ch. 4-6). For Eph,, too, fulfilment for Christians, the final redemption (Eph 1:14) is still to come.
Picirilli states that
[God’s] perfect plan was to head up all things in Christ and thus to bring “the times,” in his wise management, to a fulness that could not otherwise be reached or imagined. The ages reach their peak when Christ is made head of all things. By comparing Gal 4:4 we see that this ‘fulness of the times’ has already begun, marked by the coming of Christ into the world.
Ridderbos (Paul: an outline of his theology) is quoted
The time of the world has come to a conclusion with Christ’s advent. However much this fulfillment bear a provisional character…nevertheless the [fulness] of the time or of the times is here spoken of as a matter than has already taken effect and thus in principle has been settled.
Similarly, Arnold explains that
God began unfolding his plan of salvation with the coming of Messiah because that represented “the fullness of time” (τὸ πλήρωμα τῶν καιρῶν)…The church still lives in the fullness of times, but they will not be completely fulfilled until the day of redemption (Eph 4:30).
Best’s approach is a little different. He regards the expression ‘the fullness of times’ not referring so much to what God has accomplished in the past, or what he will accomplish in the future, but rather to an almost timeless present. For Best, ‘the fullness of times’ in Eph 1:10 does not mean the same as the similar expression in Gal 4:4 and does not refer to to the incarnation. In reflecting upon OT scriptures such as Isa 11:6-9; 65:17; 66:22, the early Christians
began to connect Christ both to creation (Jn 1:3; 1 Cor 8:6; Col 1:15-17; Heb 1:2) and to the end. Rom 8:19-23 does not make the latter connection explicit but it lies in its context; it becomes explicit in 1 Cor 15:20-28; Phil 2:9-11; Col 1:20; Eph 1:10, though in each case in different ways…In Eph 1:2-23 Christ already hold the powers in subjection; in Eph 2:6 believers already sit with him in the heavenlies. It is not out of keeping with these passages if then we say that the universe is and not will be, summed up in Christ. The consummation of the All is as much an event outside the normal parameters of time as are the choice and foreordination of believers (vv. 4f). (Shorter Commentary on Ephesians)
Among those expositors who take a ‘past/present/future’ view of Eph 1:1 there are some who stress one aspect more than another. Hendriksen, for example, emphasises the ‘already’ aspects:-
As is evident from Eph 1:20-23, in the present case the reference is to the entire New Testament era, particularly to the period which began with Christ’s resurrection and coronation. (My emphasis)
Similarly, the writer of the article on ‘Time’ in the New Bible Dictionary stresses the ‘realised’ aspects of the teaching of the NT, while also drawing attention to the future consummation:
The NT picks out one of the times appointed by God as decisive. The first note of Jesus’ preaching was ‘The time is fulfilled’ (Mk. 1:15). The life and work of Jesus mark the crisis of God’s purposes (Eph. 1:10). This is the great opportunity (2 Cor. 6:2) which Christians must fully seize (Eph. 5:16; Col. 4:5). Within the period of Jesus’ earthly ministry there is a further narrowing of attention to the time of his death and resurrection (cf. Mt. 26:18; Jn. 7:6).
It is the fact that this decisive time is in the past which makes the difference between the Jewish and Christian hopes for the future: the Jew looks for the decisive intervention of God in the future; the Christian can have an even keener expectation of the consummation of all things because he knows that the decisive moment is past ‘once for all’. The last times are with us already (Acts 2:17; Heb. 1:2; 1 Jn. 2:18; 1 Pet. 1:20).
The NT makes a striking modification of the contemporary Jewish division of time into the present age and the age to come. There is still a point of transition in the future between ‘this time’ and ‘the world to come’ (Mk. 10:30; Eph. 1:21; Tit. 2:12-13), but there is an anticipation of the consummation, because in Jesus God’s purpose has been decisively fulfilled. The gift of the Spirit is the mark of this anticipation, this tasting of the powers of the world to come (Eph. 1:14; Heb. 6:4-6; cf. Rom. 8:18-23; Gal. 1:4). Hence John consistently stresses that we now have eternal life, zoe aionios (e.g. Jn. 3:36). It is not simply that aionios has qualitative overtones; rather John is urging the fact that Christians now have the life into which they will fully enter by resurrection (Jn. 11:23-25). This ‘overlapping’ of the two ages is possibly what Paul has in mind in 1 Cor. 10:11.
For some others, however, maintain a past/present/future orientation while emphasising the future aspects. Max Turner (New Bible Commentary), for example, says that Paul is speaking of
a mystery concerning ‘the fulness of the times’ which first and foremost denotes the times which follow the end of this age (the kingdom of God, and the new creation). But Paul believes ‘the fulness of the times’ is already anticipated where Christ is enthroned in the heavenly realms, and that believers share in that in him. (My emphasis)
Returning again to Gal 4:4 – regarded by many as a close a close parallel with Eph 1:10 – this verse does, at first sight, seem to limit ‘the fullness of time’ to the incarnation and earthly ministry of Christ. But even that passage, in context, glances towards the future, in its expectation that ‘we might receive the full rights as sons’ (v5). This receiving ‘the full rights as sons’ implies some future consummation, an implication that is confirmed when we compare Paul’s teaching in Romans 8. In that chapter, while v16 does emphasise our present status as adopted children of God, v23 clearly anticipates a future dimension, as ‘we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons’.
Ridderbos declines to draw a sharp distinction between Eph 1:10 and Gal 4:4. He states that the ‘fulness of the time’ refers to the fact that ‘the time of the world has come to a conclusion with Christ’s advent.’ He adds: ‘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.’ (Paul: an outline of his theology, p44f)
Ridderbos writes of the ‘peculiar tension’ between the aspects of fulfillment and expectation in Paul’s teaching. On the one hand, Paul speaks of ‘the fullness of time’ as something that has already taken effect, and of the new creation as already begun. But, on the other hand, Paul is conscious of still living in the times of ‘this present world’, Rom 8:18; 11:5; 12:2. He can refer to the world to come in an exclusively future sense, Eph 1:21, and of the church as living in ‘the ends of the ages’, 1 Cor 10:11, and ‘the last times’, 1 Tim 4:1. Then again, he can refer to ‘the last days’ as still lying in the future, 2 Tim 3:1. Christ has rescued his people ‘from this present evil age’, Gal 1:4, and Paul can reproach the church for conducting itself ‘as if still living in the world’, Col 2:21.
‘The result,’ says Ridderbos,
is that in certain contexts he qualifies the unredeemed life prior to the redemptive time as a ‘once’, ‘in that time,’ etc., which has now been overcome (cf. Eph 2:2,12), in contrast with the present ‘now’ of the new creation, the time of redemption and fulfillment (2 Cor 6:2; Eph 2:13; Rom 3:21, et al.) Elsewhere, however, the ‘at present’ or ‘now’ indicates the continuance of the mode of existence defined by the world, over against the ‘then’ or ‘once’ of the perfection still to be expected (1 Cor 13:10,12, et al.).
In Paul, says Ridderbos, a ‘mingling of the two ages’ takes place, so that ‘the advent of Christ is to be viewed as the “breaking through of the future aeon in the present”. For him the future has become present time.’ Paul did not attempt to explain the tension, for his task was not to theorise about eschatological timescales, but to preach Christ, ‘who has come and is yet to come.’ This is why Paul’s eschatology is ambivalent, so that he can employ eschatological categories sometimes as present, and at other times as future. The matter is not determined by theoretical considerations, but is derived ‘from the unexpected and overwhelming manner in which God in Jesus Christ has given and will yet give the fulfillment of the redemptive promise.’
The noted preacher D.M. Lloyd-Jones expands on a past-present-future understanding of Eph 1:10. ‘Here,’ he says,
the Apostle tells us when this great plan of God is to be put into operation, when this great purpose which was in the mind of God from eternity is really going to be fulfilled. The Apostle uses the same expression in the Epistle to the Galatians in the fourth verse of the fourth chapter. Referring to our Lord’s coming into the world he says: “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.” The whole span of time has been divided by the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ into this world…The times in which we live are called “the last times”, “the last days”. Prophets in the Old Testament write about the “last days”, and “the last times”; and they all refer to the time that follows the coming of the Lord Jesus into this world. He came in “the fulness of the times”. Everything had been leading up to this, now the “fulness” has arrived, and everything beyond that is referred to as “the last times”.
Lloyd-Jones cites, as another other example of this usage, 1 Cor 10:11 – ‘[Us]…upon whom the ends of the word are come’. ‘The moment,’ says Lloyd-Jones, ‘the Lord Jesus Christ came into this world the “ends of the world” had started.’
The climax of the age happened at the Incarnation. Time has been divided once and for ever by that event. In the “fulness of the times” Christ came. So the Apostle teaches us here that God’s great plan began to come into operation at the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. What is happening at this present time is that this great plan of God is being worked out – in “the fulness of the times”, in these “last days”, “in the ends of the world” – and it will go on until it is finally completed…We can see that this great original plan of God has been put into operation in this world by the coming of Christ, that it is being carried on, and that it will continue until it is finally completed by His return again to this world.
To conclude: the fact that strong cases can be mounted for viewing the expression ‘the fullness of the times’ in Eph 1:10 as referring either to God’s accomplishment in the past, or in the future, suggests that this phrase is best understood not as referring exclusively to what God has achieved in the past (in the incarnation of Christ) or will accomplish in the future (in the final consummation), but rather to both these past and future events and also to what God is continuing to do at the present time. We have here, in other words, not a realised, nor a futurist, but an inaugurated eschatology. Or, better still, we have a work of God in Christ that is at once realised, future, and inaugurated.
Pastorally and theologically, a triumphalism that looks only the past, and a quietism that waits only for the future, are equally limited and limiting. Christian teachers will do well to seek ways of emphasising, as Paul does, all three aspects – past, present, and future – of God’s mighty work in Christ.