The Time is Fulfilled

When Jesus began his earthly ministry, he announced, "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the gospel!" (Mark 1:15). But what did he mean by saying, "The time is fulfilled"?

Jesus was pointing to a timeline that had been revealed to the Prophet Daniel in the sixth century BC. Daniel was told, "From the issuing of the command to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until an anointed one, a prince arrives, there will be a period of seven weeks and sixty-two weeks. It will again be built, with plaza and moat, but in distressful times" (Daniel 9:25).

This is part of the prophecy known as 'Daniel's seventy weeks'. It was given in about 540 BC, at a time when the people of Israel were captives in Babylon, and Jerusalem was a burnt-out ruin. The word translated 'weeks' is literally 'sevens'. Although it most often referred to weeks of seven days, it could also refer to units of seven years, known correctly as heptads, as in Leviticus 25:8. So Daniel was told there would be a total of 69 heptads, or 483 years, until the coming of the Messiah, the anointed one. However the timeline would not start immediately. The starting point would be marked by the issuing of a decree to rebuild Jerusalem. The Jews would have to take note of such a decree when it was issued, and then start counting.

That sounds simple enough. So did the Jews not then know exactly when their Messiah would arrive? In practice such prophetic clues are not always as simple as they first appear. Over the next 100 years or so, there were in fact three decrees relating to the rebuilding of Jerusalem or its temple.

1) In 539 BC, Cyrus the Persian conquered the Babylonian Empire, and in the first year of his reign over Babylon he issued a decree allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple, if they wished to (2 Chronicles 36:23, Ezra 1:2-4). If this is the promised decree, then Messiah should have appeared 483 years after 539 BC, that is in 56 BC. But it is noteworthy that Cyrus' decree related to the rebuilding of the temple, not of the city. This same decree was later reaffirmed in 520 BC by Darius I (Ezra 6:1, 6-12). Darius did not change or add to it.

2) In 457 BC, in the seventh year of his reign, King Artaxerxes I (464-424 BC) issued a further decree (Ezra 7:12-26). This decree related to provisions for the temple and its system of sacrificial worship. He also authorised Ezra to appoint judges and civil authorities, implying that the city was to be self-governing under Ezra's authority. Ezra responded to the decreed in prayer saying, "Although we are slaves, our God has not abandoned us in our servitude. He has extended kindness to us in the sight of the kings of Persia, in that he has revived us to restore the temple of our God and to raise up its ruins and to give us a protective wall in Judah and Jerusalem" (Ezra 9:9). He understood the king's decree to extend beyond the rebuilding of the temple, and to include the rebuilding of a wall around the city of Jerusalem. If this is the awaited decree, the Messiah was due to appear 483 years after 457 BC, which was 27 BC (accounting for the transition from 1 BC to 1 AD without any year zero). In 28 AD, John the Baptist began his ministry (Luke 3:1), in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar (14-37 AD). John's opening message was, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matthew 2:2). This is the same message that Jesus proclaimed at the start of his own ministry (Mark 1:15) in about 29 AD when he was about 30 years old (Luke 3:23). He added the insight that "The time is fulfilled", pointing to the fact that Daniel's 69 heptads had been completed. The kingdom of heaven was near because its king was near or present. In Matthew 11:12, Jesus identified the start of his kingdom's advance with the ministry of John the Baptist, just as John himself had proclaimed. Therefore, if we understand that the public appearance of Jesus to Israel effectively began in 28 AD with the ministry of his herald, John the Baptist (Matthew 3:1-12, John 1:6-9, Luke 3:1-22), then Daniel's 69 weeks were fulfilled accurately, at least to within a year.

3) Although Ezra helped to re-establish the temple worship system, he made little if any progress in rebuilding the city wall. In his twentieth year (445-444 BC), Artaxerxes I issued a further decree to Nehemiah. This specifically related to the rebuilding of the city walls and gates (Nehemiah 2:1-8). 483 years after 444 BC takes us to 40 AD, ten years after Jesus began his ministry, and seven years after his death and resurrection. However, some scholars argue that a Jewish year should be accounted as 360 days. According to that accounting, 483 years is 173,880 days, which is 476 years of 365 days each. That would take us to 33 AD, the year that Jesus died. In reality, although the Jews may have accounted for years as twelve months of 30 days, they also added intercalary months at regular intervals to adjust for the difference between lunar and solar years. Otherwise their calendar would have progressed forwards through the solar calendar, and not stayed in sync with the seasons.

It is likely that the second decree, that of Artaxerxes I to Ezra in 457 BC, is the correct starting point for Daniel's 69 heptads, and what Jesus was referring to when he declared in about 29 AD, "The time is fulfilled".