5 Theses on Time

I suspect most of us give little thought to time. It’s simply something we move through, or exist in, or bemoan the passing of as the years slowly strip away the vigour of our youth.

The fact that what time is amounts to a philosophical question that is notoriously tricky and nevertheless vital to any sense of trying to live a good or harmonious or flourishing or blessed (delete as appropriate) life, is a fact that passes most of us happily by.

Afterall, philosophers are a notoriously unhappy bunch, so contemplating their tricky questions is unlikely to contribute to our sense of a good life, right?

That may be, and yet the Bible has a lot of things to say about time as a broad concept and as something to be inhabited well. Our theology, at least at the popular level within our churches, leaves these questions alone most of the time. It sounds esoteric, irrelevant, and impractical.

While I would want to mount a spirited defence of the relevance of the esoteric and impractical, today is not that day, and my introduction is already long and meandering enough to have lost you.

Here are five theses on time.

We are saved from time

In Galatians 1 we are described as being delivered from the ‘present evil age.’ We are saved from a time. We tend to think of salvation either psychologically (rescued from the guilt or shame of sin), ontologically (union with Christ), spatially (rescued from Hell or the earth for heaven), chthonically (rescued from the powers of evil and death), or in terms of dominion (transferred to the kingdom of light).

All of those are Biblical, though I would suggest that spatially is not the best way of describing that particular set of realities. Rarely do I hear anyone speak of salvation chronologically (or kairologically?). We are saved from time.

There are lots of things to bemoan in our age, and there have been in ages past too. The Bible would see these as a weave stretching back to Eden: not several ages but a succession of sin’s dark marring written across the face of the world. We are rescued from this age, so we do not have to face its consequences if we choose not to, we are free to call it evil where it is and should do so, and we do not have to live according to its rules or principles.

In other words, we’re free from the curse of this time.

We are saved for a time

Positively we are rescued for the age to come (Matthew 12, Ephesians 1, Hebrews 6)—that time after our stint in the presence of Christ in what we often call ‘heaven’ as shorthand. By the age to come we mean the time after the resurrection of the dead and the triumphant and everlasting victory of Jesus the Christ over all powers and authorities.

The age to come is the one which is breaking into ours, it’s the one where Christ’s kingdom rules and reigns triumphantly, the one where death is defeated by the hand of Life riding a white horse. We are saved for this glorious revisioning of the cosmos.

This time is breaking into our time because Christ came at the end of time (1 Peter 1, Galatians 4, Matthew 26, Mark 1, John 7). We now live in the collision of two epochs, the time between the times.

In other words, not only are we free from this time, but we belong to another. We live according to its rules and principles instead. We are from the future.

We live now in a different time

As best we are able, Christians inhabit the age to come before it arrives. In our inhabitation of it, the kingdom of God irrupts into this world—though more like the growing of a tree than the eruption of a volcano.

We inhabit a different view of time even though the vagaries of this age, like death and decay, still act their cruel work upon our minds and bodies.

We do this particularly in our observation of the Lord’s Day week by week. As we indulge in Sabbath rest together, worshipping God in song and word, water and wine, we declare that time is different. This day in particular is the eighth day of the week, the first day of the new creation, and we set that day aside to act as though that’s the case.

The demise of sabbath observance, and even to some extent the newly trendy Christian idea of ‘sabbathing’ as wisdom that you observe on your own, disrupts our sense of living in a different time. It’s supposed to be visibly obvious to us every seventh day.

It’s why it being a bank holiday or a football match or a secular observance of some kind should not change our worship. If you move your church meeting because England are playing someone somewhere (the World Cup is going on as I write), you have to ask yourself who you’re actually worshipping.

Jesus is Lord of time

Which means that we claim time for him. We establish rhythms and patterns and liturgies which help us to inhabit time and claim the time we live in as his. By our practices of heart, the evil age is eroded into the age to come.

We claim the year with a year’s round of fasts and feasts, we shape our liturgy to reflect his life and dominion. This is hard for us to capture, living in nations so formed by the life of Christ that many keep the dates without using them to shape time according to his life and work.

All years have liturgical patterns, whether the commercial pattern of this strange week in November I’m writing in: Black Friday followed by Cyber Monday followed by Giving Tuesday (which is particularly weird in the UK since they’re based on the date of Thanksgiving, which we do not observe). Or the grand national-liturgical high days, here in the UK: Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Remembrance Sunday, Bonfire Night, Pancake Day.

In the church we deliberately choose to not celebrate them but instead the events and cycle of Christ’s life. We don’t observe the pattern of years given to us by our cultures.

We claim the week with Sunday-by-Sunday worship of the Lord. We claim the day with prayer and song and the reading of scripture.

It’s important to be clear that any particular pattern of observance is not required of us (Galatians 4), but to bring time under the rule and reign of Christ is required of us. We must have ways of doing this, I think the wisdom of the church tradition is ours to appropriate, though we have to do so in ways which continue to make sense in our own networks and denominations.

Jesus’ Lordship has changed the nature of time

We think time is flat, linear, and the progression of events one after another. Perhaps it once was, though I sort of doubt it, but it is not now.

I’ve written before on what we might call sacramental ontology, but put more simply is the idea that everything you see is purposed and purposeful. The cosmos sings of the glories of God if we have but ears to hear it. No tree is ‘just a tree’ and each speaks of the wonders of Eden, the darkness of Calvary, the hope of the New Jerusalem—as well as reaching to the heavens, arms out in prayer to protect those who gather under them. Everything tells a story, creation is a gift designed to make you wonder at the majesty of God and then teach you his ways.

Time works the same way. As we follow Jesus in the 6-and-1 pattern he laid down for us, as we learn slowly how to settle into stopping in order to learn how to rest, as we gather around tables to feast we encounter time that is rich, thick, and mediates to us something of the age to come.

More broadly, we do not fear for the future. The glory of the Lord will cover the earth like the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2). The nations will acknowledge his Kingdom (Psalm 22). He will reign. It seems like the kingdom goes through patterns of retreat and success, like the waves on the seashore. We are seeing real patterns, but they are not retreat, but the cruciform pattern of death and resurrection. We do not seek death, but if we die then resurrection will come. The fields are as white for the harvest (John 4). The day of the Lord is coming (Isaiah 13).

Photo by Valerie Blanchett on Unsplash

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