The coming of the New Year is always the signal for a rash of resolutions to break out, most of which, though well-intentioned, have a very short life-expectancy, as the insurance people might put it. But with the thought of the passage of time in mind, it may be well to give a little attention to the Christian view of time, a subject which is very much before the theologians in recent times, a number of important books having been written round the subject Oscar Cullman, in his important book “Christ and Time”- points out that Judaism employed a threefold division of all time, namely, time before Creation, between Creation, and the coming of the Messiah, and that in the age to come.
For them the critical point was the coming of the Messiah at some future moment, when this age would terminate and the new one be ushered in. Christianity took over the threefold division of time, but with the significant variant that the decisive point, the coming of the Messiah, was not understood as being in the unknown future, but as having taken place in Jesus Christ. It is true that the early Christians looked forward to the coming of the Christ to usher in the new age, but this is thought of as a second coming, and, while nobody endeavouring to be faithful to the message of the New Testament would wish to depreciate the importance of this second coming, yet the really decisive thing is the first coming upon which all time hinges, that coming when man’s salvation was wrought in the finished work of the Saviour. Our common division of time into years B.C, and A.D. is a recognition of this.
The whole of the history recorded in the Old Testament is history leading up to this point, and revealing to man God’s saving acts. We see this for example in the story of Abraham with its insistence that God called out the patriarch and directed his ways. From then on we never lose sight of the concept of election, the thought that God is calling people, or a nation, to Himself, to be His own, and to serve in the furtherance of His purposes. The whole idea of election presupposes a God who saves.
So it is with the history of Israel. This is not given to us from the point of view of the secular historian interested in great personalities or great movements or material progress or the like, but it is essentially religious history, the history of God’s dealings with His people. Again and again the historian sees events against the background of the Divine purpose, so that,
for example the Assyrian is nothing but the rod of God’s anger (Is 10:5), and the Babylonian captivity is understood as God’s judgment on the nation’s sin. God is ceaselessly active bringing His purposes to pass.
As with events, so with teaching. The sacrificial system with its solemn ritual, throughout the centuries was silently teaching that sin is serious, and that “without shedding of blood is no remission” (Heb 9:22). So with the prophets and their message, for again and again their “Thus saith the Lord” served to hammer home the truths that it is sin which separates man from God, and that repentance is necessary if sin is to be put away.
The New Testament.
In the Gospels everything leads up to the Cross. The accounts of the crucifixion and events associated with it occupy about one-third of the whole, which in itself illustrates the importance of the atonement, and in addition we should notice that the purpose of the coming of the Son of Man is explicitly given as the giving of His life as “a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45).
In harmony with this is the way in the Acts we see men going forth to proclaim this message, and in the epistles we see its implications being explored. Even when we have men looking forward to the second coming it is with a sense of eager anticipation based on the fact that they have been redeemed at the first.
The Cross is at the very centre of the Biblical revelation.
God’s Sovereign Purpose.
Thus the Bible depicts for us a view of history which sees it not as a meaningless succession of events, but as the sphere in which God is working out His purposes, and in particular His purpose to redeem His people. He is eternal seeing the end from the beginning, and cannot be thought of as being limited as we are to one point in the time process. But the Scripture dwells not so much on the fact that God can see the whole of time at once, so that events a thousand years hence are as clear to Him as those of the present moment and of a thousand years ago, but on the fact that God does what pleases Him. Men may leave Him out of their scheme of things and draw up a completely secular explanation of history, but the apostle still can say “Be not deceived, God is not mocked.“ God is Lord over time, and within time He works out His redemptive purposes.
The Christian and Time.
Recognition of the place time has in God’s scheme of things gives new meaning to life for the Christian. No longer is time simply a succession of events, but it is the sphere in which God is working, and God has called the believer to be active in His service. This gives a dignity to even the humblest piece of service, for the Christian has “the certainty that all his actions are connected with the advance of the redemptive history, with Christ’s present lordship” (Cullmann).
From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, January 20 1955.
Update (9/1/2018): “uncertainty” changed to “certainty” in the Cullman quote at the end of article.