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The Lord of Time and Time-Bound Man

Juhani Uljas | 2000 The Treasure Hidden In a Field --

At the Change of the Millennium

The change of millennia included suspense, and made people stop to think of the past and to ask about the future. It was an event, which only a small portion of mankind has been able to experience. After the change of the prior millennium, 30-40 generations have lived without coming even close to that milepost. Many certainly even gave thought to what is time and what is eternity, that dimension where time doesn't exist. A millennium is such a long period of time that when it changes, eternity touches man, who is shackled to time.

During the few weeks prior to the change of millennia, the newspaper in my hometown interviewed people of different ages and educational backgrounds. They were asked whom they considered the most remarkable persons of the concluding millennium and what, in their opinion, were the most important events and noteworthy inventions of that period of time. Naturally, the answers differed, but they had a common trait. Nearly everything important had happened, all noteworthy persons had lived, and the great inventions had been invented during the past fifty years. Only a few things of importance had taken place during the first half of the last century, in the previous century, or before that.

The sampling, which included over a hundred people, shows how we are tied to our own time. Although we might already be old, our memory does not cover more than a small fraction of the past millennium. We must take information from history to assist our memories to recall what happened during the past millennium. Even historical information becomes more meager the nearer we come to the beginning of another era.

In a similar manner, the newspaper asked people about their concept of the future at the change of millennia. The answers gave a picture of people's hopes and fears. Again, they had a common characteristic. The period of time, to which the expectations extended, was only a few years. We do not have the ability to see into the future. The speed of change makes it more difficult to evaluate the future. People are, indeed all of mankind is, bound to time.

Man Bound to Time and the Lord of Time

A healthy person can move. If he loses his ability to move about, or if it is limited because of illness or an injury, he experiences it as a trial. We can move north and south, east and west. We can climb and descend. We have these three dimensions at our disposal. The question is of something so natural that we seldom think of it.

The fourth dimension is time. It differs from the above-mentioned dimensions because it is not in our control. We cannot move freely through time, but we are bound to it. Time moves on, and we move with it. Sometimes time flies, and sometimes, it crawls. At other times, it feels that it has stopped for a moment. We cannot hasten the passage of time, or turn it back. We cannot jump forward or past a difficult period at hand. Time is part of our lives so fundamentally, that it is difficult to imagine a state of being in which time does not exist. Such is eternity. Luther illustrates this by describing a small bird, which flies to a mountain and scrapes its beak on it and flies away. After a millennium, it returns and does the same thing. Sometime, after an incomprehensible length of time, the mountain is worn down. But eternity never ends. A thousand years is not eternity, not even a fraction of it, even though, at its change, it makes us consider eternity.

To people born into and bound to time, Scripture speaks of God, Who is not bound to time. He, the Creator of heaven and earth, is also the Lord of time. He has set time to perform its function and has created man into this time. He has created man to be an eternal being also. He has intended man to live even after time no longer exists.

God's Time and Man's Time

God has always existed. He has neither beginning nor end, and time does not bind Him. Even the fourth dimension is freely in His use. He is also unchanging, for change belongs to time. God has His own time. It is not the same as man's time. It cannot be measured with our clocks or calendars.

Once, in eternity, there was the moment when God started His Creation. It was His time. With His Word, He created the earth and all that we see and comprehend. He also created all that which we do not see, understand, or comprehend. He established the laws and order of nature. He has not needed to correct or revise them. They are in force until God's time, which is the last day, comes. No one else knows that day but the Father alone.

God established the borders of time for the world. He created man into time, but differentiated him from the rest of creation. He made man an eternal being. God created man both for time and eternity. For that reason, that, which is outside the realm of time, is of interest to every person. On a clear autumn evening, many of us have looked at the starry sky and thought as did the psalmist, “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (Ps. 8:3,4).

The future has not been veiled to the Lord of Time as it is to us people. He even knew that man would fall into sin. The Son promised to redeem man, who would fall into the power of sin and death. God created everything dependent upon the promise given by the Son. Redemption existed from the beginning and brought the possibility of eternal life within reach of fallen man. The following words from Psalms convey to us a portion of the discussion between the Father and the Son. The Father turns to the Son and says, “Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession” (Ps. 2:7,8). To this the Son answers, “I delight to do thy will, O my God” (Ps. 40:8).

The Son, Christ, existed for a long time among men only as the Word of the Promise. They, who believed the Promise, awaited its fulfillment. They probably thought that God tarried long. However, He did not tarry, not even to try the faith of the children of God of the Old Covenant. His time had not yet come.

But then God's time came. The angels appeared to the shepherds and announced that a Savior had been born unto them. The angels and the whole heavenly host praised God, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14). John says at the beginning of his Gospel, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Gal. 4:4,5).

It was God's time when Jesus began His public ministry. Mark writes of it, “Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God's kingdom, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:14,15).

Luke tells of the turning point of Jesus' public ministry, “And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). It was time for Jesus to redeem His promise, which He had given to the Father before the beginning of time. God purposefully fulfilled His salvation plan, without delaying or hastening.

God's time is not only linked to the great events of salvation history; even we can observe in the happenings of God's kingdom when it is, or has been, God's time. Precisely this was in question when, to our surprise, new doors opened over a decade ago for the work of the gospel outside the boundaries of our nation [Finland]. Thirty years earlier, foreign mission work had risen as a topic of dissension. The question is not of the principle, for we had the clear word of Jesus, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). The disagreement regarded joining the activities of the Finnish Mission Society. Conservative Laestadians turned down the offer for mutual work, but agreed on the importance of mission work and remained waiting for the time when God would provide opportunity for their own mission work. This position was held in spite of accusations and criticism. God's time came thirty years later.

God's time also touches the individual. It is God's time when He awakens the conscience and allows His kingdom to approach. It is then possible to repent and to believe the gospel. “Behold, now is the accepted time; now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). A person cannot repent when it feels convenient for him, but only then when it is God's time. For that reason, it is a serious matter when a person hears the call from God's kingdom. The person who rejects the call doesn't know if God's time will come again. Neither does he know when his time of grace will end or when his day of departure will come. God, alone, knows this; He has known the number of our days already before our birth. “Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them” (Ps. 139:16).

Measuring Time

Man has an understanding of time. There exist at least two differing concepts of time. The cyclical concept has its origins in Greece's Hellenistic culture. According to this concept, time's movement is circular. According to the linear concept, time progresses as it were a straight line, it has a beginning as well as an end point. This concept originates in Judaism, and has moved from there into the realm of the Christian faith. The Christian concept of time is based on scriptural revelation that the time of man has a beginning and an end. The present moment divides time into two parts, the past and the future. It is like a fleet arrow, on which we move forward.

In order to live and function in time, where to God has bound him, man has developed methods to measure time. God gave the foundations for this already in Creation. When the earth revolved once around the sun, a year had passed. Nature's activity revealed the changes of the seasons. When the moon circled the earth once, a month had passed. Its passage could be followed by the shape of the moon. When the earth rotated once on its axis, a day had passed. At the same time the day's different parts were born: morning, afternoon, evening, and night. Man could follow the passage of the day by the height and direction of the sun. In the beginning, there were no clocks, but man learned early to measure the passage of time using the sun's shadow to his benefit.

Scripture describes the sundial of Ahaz. Prophet Isaiah revealed to King Hezekiah that God would heal him of a serious illness and that he did not have to die yet. Hezekiah asked for a sign to verify God's promise. Isaiah answered that the shadow on the sundial of Ahaz would move back ten degrees for a sign that he would be healed. Hezekiah easily understood that the shadow moves clockwise, but it was difficult to comprehend backward movement of the shadow (2 Kings 20:9-11). Hezekiah, himself, had experienced that time was not in man's control. It was just as difficult for him to understand, as it is for us, that time and the laws of nature are ruled by God. It is a blessed and marvelous thing that the Sun of Grace moves counterclockwise and wipes away previously committed sins.

When God had created the earth, He rested and sanctified the seventh day to be the day of rest. In this manner, the week was born. Its passage could not be followed like the day and the month from nature or the heavenly bodies. The week had another purpose. God knew that man, whom He had created, also needed a day of rest. The stressed people of our time would feel better if the sanctification of the day of rest were not so commonly forgotten. The weekly day of rest is not only for idleness or hobbies, but also for hearing God's Word. Luther explains the third commandment in the Small Catechism, “We should so fear and love God as not to despise preaching and His Word, but deem it holy, and willingly hear and learn it.” In the Large Catechism, Luther states his thought, “The emphasis of this commandment is not on resting, but on sanctifying.”

It was easy to follow the passage of time for one revolution of the sun, but memory and life extended further. A need to observe time, or the calendar, was born. At least two problems had to be resolved: Where would the observation of years be started, and, what would be done since one revolution of the sun was not exactly twelve months long? The differences were not remarkable during a period of a few years, but if longer periods were considered, the more problematic they became.

Different nations resolved the problems in different ways. History relates of many kinds of calendars, which have been made more accurate and changed. At present, one uniform calendar system is probably in use in nearly the entire world. The difficulties, that have been experienced in the observation of time, show that managing time is difficult for man.

Determining a time by the ruler in power was formerly common. Prophet Isaiah begins the story of his repentance in this manner, “In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (Isa. 6:1). This determination of time shows especially clearly when Luke at the beginning of his Gospel, ties the births and public ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus, to the Julian calendar: “There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zechariah, of the course of Abijah: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth” (Luke 1:5). “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)” (Luke 2:1,2). “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Itruraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene” (Luke 3:1).

The practice of keeping Christ's birth as the starting point for counting time became general in France and Germany in the 900s. This practice is presently common even in those countries where Christianity is the religion of only a small minority.

The Last Times

The end of the millennium stimulated some unsound speculation and expectations. People wanted to determine appointed times and draw conclusions from scriptural prophecies that had been taken out of context. They were found to be wrong. There is reason to stay away from such calculations. As historical and as serious a matter as the end of a millennium is, it still is only a brief moment, whose time is determined by the unsure human measure of time. God has not bound himself to our calendar.

The early congregation lived awaiting Christ's quick return. Had He not promised to come a second time in His glory? It is related in the Acts of the Apostles how the Christians sold their houses and possessions and everything was held in common. When Christ's coming was delayed, the people who waited for Him had problems. Is Christ even coming? The Christians of that period were just as bound to time as we are.

It appears that in Corinth and Thessalonica an understanding arose that they who had died before Christ's coming had believed in vain. Paul refuted this, “Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (1 Cor. 15:12). He wrote to the Thessalonians, “But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him” (1 Thess. 4:13,14). The gospel, which they who had slept in faith had heard, had made them partakers in Christ's Resurrection. When the last day dawns and the graves open, they shall rise to meet Christ together with all believers. The time of waiting will not have felt long to them. Time lost its hold on them when they closed their eyes to this world.

Peter wrote that a thousand years with the Lord is as one day (2 Pet. 3:8). He did not mean that we should take the phrase as a unit of measure by which we would observe God's time, and thereby try to fit His omnipotence into our limited comprehension. Peter's words teach us the very opposite that God's time is different from man's, and it is not for man to measure. That word was written for the people who awaited a quick coming of the Lord. They doubted when His coming was delayed. The doubts were increased when some gave up believing, waiting, and watching, and started to ridicule. Peter especially emphasized that the Lord will come unexpectedly, “as a thief in the night.” He says that the coming tarries because there are yet those who must come in.

The New Testament also speaks of the last times or days, as well as the events and signs of the times preceding the coming of Christ. In the revelation about the last times, two matters are intertwined. First of all, the children of God are warned about the dangers and errors of the last times, and the importance of watchfulness is emphasized, for the last day shall come unexpectedly. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Now all these things happened to them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come” (1 Cor. 10:11). The Epistle to the Hebrews starts, “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1,2).

The writers comprehended through faith that the last phase of God's salvation plan, which He had laid down before the beginning of the ages, had begun. Paul joins in this thought with his words to the Corinthians, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19). The Father created and the Son redeemed. When the Redemption had taken place, the congregation of the New Testament, having received the office of the Holy Spirit, set out to bear the sermon of reconciliation into all the world.

In his Gospel, Matthew preserved Jesus' own teachings about the last times (Matt. 24,25). The signs are evident in both the outward and spiritual worlds. They are also in God's kingdom. Nevertheless, Christ will come unexpectedly. Ordinary workday life will continue until the end. On the day that Christ will come, two persons will be sowing or harvesting in the field, one will be taken and the other left. Two persons will be grinding grain into flour, one will be taken and the other left. “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only” (Matt. 24:36). All of the scriptural teachings regarding the last times are dominated by the admonition to watch and the warning against being led astray. We want to believe so that we will be ready to receive Christ. Ahead of us is a journey on which we will depart unexpectedly.

God's kingdom is secure. When fatigue weighs heavily, the children of God admonish each other to watch. The apostle exhorted the Hebrews, who were also troubled by fatigue, “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Heb. 10:24,25). Caring love works to the end so that the weak and tired will reach the destination. The Lord Jesus is the throne of grace until He moves to the throne of glory. “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20).

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