Christian Living

What does it mean to “redeem the time”?

Are you ever tempted to think that time efficiency is next to godliness?

If that belief is true, then I am one of the winners and my poor wife, Jenny, is one of the losers. I am naturally an efficient person and Jenny is naturally… um… less efficient.

It would be so easy to think my efficiency is more godly than Jenny’s less efficient approach to life. After all, resources are precious. But what about the struggling people that Jen has the patience to sit and chat with for hours? The discussions with the kids where I am always too quick to finish because I have other important things to do? They sound like fairly inefficient, but fairly godly things to do.

Paul’s famous instruction in Ephesians 5:16 to “redeem the time” seems to endorse our modern day obsession with time efficiency. Even the evangelical commentators I most respect explain the verse this way.

This word ‘redeem’ is literally about buying something back. It’s what you do when you’ve pawned your rings down at Cash Converters and then suddenly have the money to buy those rings back. Because of this, commentators say that this verse must be about buying back time, because time is short in the last days. They say it’s about trying to gain time, or make the most of the time, snapping up every opportunity that comes along.

But this interpretation doesn’t sit well with me. It just seems to fit so nicely into our modern Western view of life that so highly values efficient time management and finding ways to stuff more good things into our lives. I think there’s more to “redeeming the time”.

So how do we redeem the time?

Our little phrase in verse 16 actually hangs off the command given in verse 15: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise”. So redeeming the time is about walking wisely and carefully watching the way we live as God’s people in these evil days. But what does that actually mean?

Take just a cursory glance at Ephesians 5 in your Bible and your eye will probably be drawn towards the fascinating little poem in the middle of the chapter, which comes right before our verses, which is all about… resurrection. In a chapter all about how Christians are to live wisely in dark, evil days, we suddenly have a very stark reminder about resurrection and light. And this brings us to an important diagram called ‘The overlap of the ages’, which I think is key to understanding what it means to redeem the time.

Two time horizons

This diagram is really helpful as we think about evil days, resurrection and wise living. The horizontal line at the bottom represents the history of our world. Two thousand years ago, God entered our human timeline in the most extraordinary way when Jesus came in the flesh to live amongst us and to die for us at the cross—which is the first vertical line.

Then he was raised from he dead and he ascended into heaven where he began the new age of his eternal kingdom, which is marked here by the top horizontal line. The other vertical line marks the Jesus’ promise that he will come again, as Judge of all the world, to put an end to the old age of suffering, sin and death once for all.

You and I live sometime between the first and second comings of Jesus. It’s what the Bible calls the ‘last days’. It’s very easy to position ourselves along the horizontal axis… but where do we fit on the vertical axis?

Take a look at Ephesians 2:4-6. Those verses speak in the past tense about what God has already done for people who are united to Jesus by faith—he has raised us with Jesus to sit right now in the heavenly realms.

This is a past action that has real present consequences for people who are united with Jesus.

Clearly, we still live in this old age of suffering sin and death—an age of viruses, crime and toilet paper shortages. Yet… if you trust Jesus, you have also been raised with Christ and right now you are seated with him in the heavenly realms.

You are in the overlap of the ages—still physically stuck in this suffering, broken world but at the same time raised with Christ and secure in the new age of his eternal kingdom.

I think this vertical axis is actually key to understanding how to “redeem the time”.

This word, ‘redeem’, is not just about purchasing something back; it’s about purchasing something back out of a bad situation—see Galatians 3:13 and 4:5. The bad situation in our passage is very clear: “the days are evil” (v. 16).

So, redeeming the time is not about trying to stuff more into the horizontal axis. It’s all about moving our actions on the vertical axis. It’s about rescuing our time from the evil deeds of this present age, and replacing those evil deeds with the good works characteristic of the new age.

A revolution in our thinking

If we think redeeming the time is about efficiency and fitting more in, then we are stuck in the horizontal.

We can keep stuffing more activity into the horizontal, but are we sure all that activity will be good, new kingdom stuff?

I know the busier I get, the easier it is to slip into actions that characterise the old age and its evil days—anger, impatience, selfishness, envy, lust… the list could go on.

As Colossians 3 reminds us, we need to set our minds “on things above, not on things of the earth”. When our minds are being shaped by the Scripture’s teaching about the new age, as God does his good work in us by his Word and Spirit, our time can be redeemed from evil deeds to works of righteousness.

No more dead-end time

As my ministry trainee Ross reflected, we only need efficiency when time is limited.

As we see in the diagram, time is blessedly limited in the old age. God in his grace limits the damage of these evil days. So, if you live only in this age, your time is limited, and you probably should try to be time efficient so you can jam as much as you can into this fast-disappearing age before it hits the dead end.

But if you are raised with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly realms, you no longer live in just dead-end time. You literally have all the time in the world. Your time, just like your life, is now eternal. And you redeem the time every time you put the sin of the evil days to death, and live out the good works fitting of the new age.

So, let’s make the most of our time! Let’s use it for new age living, and make every effort to avoid slipping back into the old age living of the evil days.

Are you convinced by this reading of Ephesians 5:16-17? If we’ve listened to those verses well, we should expect coherence across this whole chapter in Ephesians. Look out for part 2 next week where we’ll go through all of Ephesians 5 under this idea of “redeeming the time”. There, Paul will show us what it looks like to live a citizen of the new age in the here and now.

This article is adapted from a talk given at the EQUIP Ministry Wives conference in 2020. You can find out more about EQUIP Women’s Ministry here.