It is debatable whether the Bible contains enough information to formulate a full-scale doctrine of time; nonetheless, the significance of the biblical concept of time is unmistakably the way it uniformly presents God at work in guiding the course of history according to his saving plan. The Hebrew et [te, moed, iddan [v'd', zeman ['mz], yom [/y] and Greek kairos [kairov"], chronos [crovno"], aion [aijwvn] are the main biblical time words depicting this divine work.
God as Lord over Time. Time is not fatalistic or capricious, but, according to Scripture, under God's personal direction and control. Time began at creation and becomes the agency through which God continues to unveil his divine purpose for it.
God is transcendent over time. He established the cycle of days and seasons by which time is known and reckoned ( Gen 1:14 ) and possesses the power to dissolve them according to his eternal purposes ( Isa 60:19-20 ); moreover, he controls world history, determining in advance the times set for all nations and bringing them to pass ( Dan 2:21 ; Acts 17:26 ). But God is not limited by time ( Psalm 90:4 ). It in no sense diminishes his person or work: the eternal God does not grow tired or weary ( Isa 40:28 ) and his purposes prevail ( Prov 16:4 ; Isa 46:10 ).
Furthermore, God imminently expresses concern for his creation. He 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 ).
God as "the First and Last" ( Isa 41:4 ; 44:6 ; 48:12 ), "the Beginning and End" ( Rev 21:6 ), "the one who is, was, and is to come" ( Revelation 1:4 Revelation 1:8 ), "King of the Ages" ( 1 Tim 1:17 ; Rev 15:3 ) further points out his lordship over time.
The New Testament presents Jesus as Lord over time. With the Father, he existed prior to the beginning of time, created all things, and sustains all things ( John 1:1-3 ; Col 1:16-17 ; Heb 1:2-3 ). He is neither limited by time, nor adversely affected by it: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" ( Heb 13:8 ). He too is properly called "the Alpha and Omega, the First and Last, the Beginning and End" ( Rev 22:13 ).
Humanity as Subject to Time. In contrast to God and Jesus, humanity is limited by time in the cycle of birth, life, and death. Every person bears the marks of time in the aging process and ultimately dies ( Job 14:5 ; Heb 9:27 ). The span of life is brief and passing ( Psalm 144:4 ; James 4:14 ). Even our time on earth the events/circumstances and length of life are in God's hands ( Psalm 31:15 ; 139:16 ).
All people, moreover, will experience the passage of time in life after death. Because of sin, all people face spiritual death, which involves eternal separation from God ( Rom 5:17-21 ; 6:23 ). Jesus' death and resurrection brings deliverance from sin and spiritual death, granting eternal life to all who believe ( John 3:14-17 John 3:36 ; 1 John 5:10-13 ).
Time as Redemptive History. Throughout history God has been carrying out his plan for redeeming a fallen world. The course of time, in effect, appears as redemptive history.
It is true that biblical writers perceive history as cyclical, in that various predictable, recurring sequence of events are inherent to it: the ordliness and seasonal regularity of nature ( Psalm 19:1-6 ; 104:19 ; Eccl 1:4-7 ), the cycle of life ( Eccl 3:1-15 ) and its wearisomeness ( Eccl 1:8-11 ), the rise and fall of kings and empires ( Dan 2:21 ), and the universal inclination toward evil ( Judges 2:6-23 ; 2 Chron 36:15-16 ; Neh 9:5-37 ; Rom 1:18-32 ).
But they do not perceive history as static. Chronological time is of greatest importance in both Testaments as a way of tracing God's redemptive interventions in history. The most outstanding Old Testament example of this is Israel's redemption from Egypt ( Neh 9:9-25 ; Psalm 78:12-55 ; Hosea 11:1 ); in the New Testament it is the coming of Jesus as Messiah, Savior, and Lord ( Acts 3:12-26 ; 10:34-43 ; 13:16-41 ). The revelatory nature of these divine in-breakings dispels any notion that time is merely cyclical, without purpose and value.
Time is meaningfully forward-moving. The covenants God made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jeremiah illustrate that history reveals a progressive unveiling of God's redemptive plan for humanity. Prophetic fulfillment, according to God's appointed times, does so as well. The incarnation supremely exemplifies this: "But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons" ( Gal 4:4-5 ; cf. Mark 1:15 ; Rom 16:25-26 ; Eph 1:10 ; 1 Tim 2:6 ; 1 Peter 1:10-12 ). Jesus' death was not accidental, but a once for all atoning sacrifice ( Rom 6:10 ; Heb 7:27 ; 9:26 ; 1 Peter 3:18 ), occurring exactly when God had intended ( Rom 5:6 ). In the same way, Jesus' second coming, the goal and end-point of redemptive history, will come to pass at God's appointed time ( Mark 13:32 ; Acts 1:7 ; 3:21 ; 1 Tim 6:14-15 ).
The Present as the Time of Salvation. The Bible unanimously declares that now is the time of salvation. In the Old Testament, on the basis of Israel's redemption from Egypt, every succeeding generation was to respond in loving obedience to the laws issued at Sinai by God their Savior ( Deut 11 ; Psalm 95:7-8 ). The injunction "it is time to seek the Lord" ( Hosea 10:12 ) was to be Israel's perpetual desire.
In the New Testament, Jesus' coming as the Messiah inaugurated "the year of the Lord's favor" ( Luke 4:19 Luke 4:21 ). The time interval between the incarnation and the second coming appears symbolically as a jubilee year ( Luke 4:19 / Isa 61:1-2 ; cf. Lev 25:10 ), a time when salvation has been made available to all people through God's saving work in Jesus. Thus, "now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation" ( 2 Cor 6:2 ); now is the appointed season to declare this divine mystery hidden from ages past ( Col 1:26 ; Titus 1:3 ).
The present time holds a sense of urgency for unbelievers and believers. God now commands all people to repent for he has set a time when he will judge the world through Jesus ( Acts 17:30-31 ). The time for repentance, however, is growing shorter ( Rev 2:21 ; 10:6 ). Believers are encouraged to make the most of every opportunity in serving God ( Eph 5:16 ; Col 4:5 ) and to mature in faith "as long as it is called Today" to ward off encroaching apostasy ( Heb 3:13 ).
The End-Times. The end-time period surrounding Jesus' second coming is variously called the last times, last hour, last days, day of the Lord, day of judgment, day of Gods wrath, time of punishment, end of the ages, end of all things. The temporal finality of these expressions highlights the firm New Testament belief that the present course of history will come to an end when Jesus returns. The certainty of the first advent guarantees the certainty of the second ( Acts 1:7 ).
The start of the end-times takes two forms in the New Testament. On the one hand, the messianic age, inaugurated with Christ's first coming, appears as the beginning of the last days according to Peter's use of Joel 2:28 in explaining the charismatic phenomena accompanying the Spirit's outpouring at Pentecost ( Acts 2:17 ). Here the messianic age is equivalent to the end-times. It is a time of great salvation as well as of mounting evil growing to unprecedented proportions as the parousia nears. For this reason, the many antichrists, false teachers, and forms of ungodliness that have already appeared show without contradiction that it is the last hour ( 1 Tim 4:1 ; 2 Tim 3:1 ; 1 John 2:18 ).
On the other hand, although the end is near ( Heb 10:37 ; James 5:8 ; Revelation 22:7 Revelation 22:10 ), it has not yet arrived. Nor has the tumultuous period leading up to it. Because of the unique character of the end-times, it also has an identity not entirely the same as the messianic age. Its events include the fulfillment of the signs portending the end, Christ's return, the setting up of his eternal kingdom, and the last judgment. But even here the time periods partially overlap: the benefits derived from salvation in Christ promised to believers in the coming age (eternal life, perfect Christ-likeness, etc.), are, nonetheless, the property of believers to enjoy in part in this age.
Time and Eternity. The Bible does not specify if or in what sense time existed before creation or will exist after Jesus' return. Nor does it specify the relation between time and eternity either as unending time or timelessness.
But how God and humanity relate to time may parallel how time differs from eternity. On the one hand, God is eternal, having no beginning or end ( Psalm 102:25-27 ; Isa 40:28 ; Rom 1:20 ); he is Lord over time. He is timeless in the sense that as Creator and Lord he is non- or supratemporal, standing outside of or above time ( Psalms 90:2 Psalms 90:4 ). Time is real for God. It becomes the means through which he makes known his enduring love to humankind. On the other, time and humanity are immortal in the sense that both have a starting point and continue on indefinitely. God promises unending life with him to those who believe in Jesus' redeeming work ( John 3:16 ; 1 John 5:13 ) and unending separation from him to those who spurn it ( Matt 25:46 ; 2 Thess 1:6-8 ).
H. Douglas Buckwalter
Bibliography. J. Barr, Biblical Words for Time; O. Cullmann, Christ and Time; G. Delling, TDNT, 3:455-64; 9:581-93; J. Guhrt and H. -C. Hahn, NIDNTT, 3:826-50; C. F. H. Henry, EDT, pp. 1094-96; E. Jenni, IDB, 4:642-49; C. H. Pinnock, ISBE, 4:852-53; H. Sasse, TDNT, 1:197-209.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[T] indicates this entry was also found in Torrey's Topical Textbook
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Time'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".