God and Time 

 

As we meditate on the implications of the basic doctrines of the Gospel of the Kingdom, a number of questions arise which, in my opinion, all have basically the same answer:

- Will the judgment seat involve us all queuing up, waiting to be judged? How will we all come before Jesus individually?

- Why does the NT often speak of "the resurrection" as if it means resurrection plus judgment plus immortalization, rather than just referring to the physical act of resurrection from the grave? Why do passages like Is. 26:16 speak of the resurrection as if it is the reward, with no mention of the judgment?

- Why do so many of the prophets, Isaiah especially, appear to 'jump around' in their prophecies, from (e.g.) prophecies concerning their own time to the Kingdom to the first coming of Jesus etc. These breaks in context often seem to make the prophecies appear disjointed. The well known prophecy of Christ’s birth in Mic. 5:2 is prefaced by a statement that Messiah would be smitten upon the cheek with a rod (Mic. 5:1). In our linear way of thinking, we’d expect this to be the other way around- Messiah is born, grows up, suffers, dies… but God doesn’t think and write like that!

- Why does the Bible text keep changing tenses so quickly (e.g. Isaiah 53)?

My comment on all of these questions is that God is beyond the limitation of time, and therefore He expresses Himself in a time-less way. The Hebrew language reflects something of God’s character; and it has no word for ‘time’ in the sense of duration- thus phrases like ‘the days of x’ are used to describe a lifetime, reign or period of activity. God existed 'before eternal times', i.e. before time began to be reckoned by aeons (Tit. 1:2). This is very difficult for us to even begin to understand. There is no shadow caused by turning with God (James 1 :17 Gk.); He is beyond the concept of time as created by the revolving of our planet round the sun. "...They that are Christ's at his coming. Then cometh the end..." (1 Cor. 15:23,24) is an example of where 1000 years of human time is skipped over between two verses. God simply doesn't see time as we do. With Him, time can not only be compressed so that a thousand years is as a day, but also dilated so that one day becomes one thousand years (2 Pet. 3:8). What God plans and purposes is effectively done at that moment of planning, so certain is His will and power. Therefore He speaks of those things which do not exist physically as if they do (Rom. 4:17). What will be, is now, from God's perspective. The Angel commented that God’s words of future prophecy are “true and faithful…they are come to pass” (Rev. 21:6 RV). They are as good as done as soon as they are uttered, so certain are they of fulfillment. Thus 1 Kings 14:14: "The Lord shall raise him up a king…but what? Even now".  This is the way to understand those passages which appear to teach that both Jesus and ourselves existed physically before our birth. God doesn't completely express Himself in our terms and language (although of course to some degree He does). There is a degree to which God is God, and He expresses Himself as He is. We must bring ourselves to accept His perspective. Indeed, faith is the ability to believe that what God has said will actually happen physically, and that therefore we can live as if we see that future physical event as actually having happened. In other words, faith is about adopting God's time-less perspective. Israel were told to separate themselves from Babylon because God had purposed to destroy that nation; they were asked to believe that what God had planned, He would actually do (Jer. 51:12), and therefore they should treat Babylon accordingly in their attitudes. Appreciating that God is beyond time, not just an everlasting being but without time, helps us to understand a whole range of Biblical issues.

The Judgment

We are taught that we must each appear personally before the Lord Jesus at the judgment, and have some kind of two-way dialogue with him concerning events in our lives. He is our Lord, and He will be our judge; Christ, not Angels, has been appointed by the Father as our judge. It is hard to believe that He will delegate authority for judgment to the Angels. He will confess our name to them after our meeting with him, and in any case, he will be our judge on account of the fact that he was the son of man, that he had our nature, not that of Angels. It would seem inappropriate if He delegated our judgment to Angels. If we must each appear personally before the Lord Jesus, we have two options: either time is collapsed so that we all appear before Christ individually, or we appear before him in real time, in which case there must be some kind of queue for judgment, and a period of several months at least. This creates so many Biblical and practical problems (e.g. what will we wear or eat while waiting) that I would reject it in favour of the idea that the meaning of time will be collapsed at the Lord's coming. Indeed, it seems that the whole process of resurrection, judgment and immortalization may take place in a split second, although it will seem far longer.

If we could break this split second into real time, there would be the process of mortal emergence from the grave, judgment involving a period of time, then the righteous being grouped at Christ's right hand side, and then they would all be immortalised together. "Come...inherit the Kingdom" is spoken to the whole group of sheep; we will be immortalised together, at the same time. If we are all judged individually in real time, this is impossible. Some would be immortalised months or years after others. This collapsing of time at the Lord's return would explain why "the resurrection" is sometimes used as a description of the whole process of resurrection, judgment and immortality (even in the OT- Ps. 1:5 LXX; 24:3), and why 2 Thess. 1:7-9 speaks as if the judgment of the wicked and the coming of Christ from Heaven are simultaneous. We are the firstfruits (Rev. 14:14), and yet in some ways the Lord Jesus was the firstfruits (1 Cor. 15:20,23). Because we are in Him, and because God sees the gap between His exaltation and ours as irrelevant, we are called "the firstfruits" too. This is why Rom. 1:4 Gk. and 2 Cor. 5:14,15 RSV speaks as if ultimately there is only one resurrection: that of the Lord Jesus, in which we had a part as being in Him. The appearing of Christ is paralleled with our appearing with Him in glory (Col. 3:4)- because effectively, when He returns, we will appear with Him in the same moment. And the collapsing of time would explain difficulties such as how we can come before the judgment throne of glory when we ourselves are seated there (Mt. 19:28 cp. 25:31); and how the judgment of the world seems (from some Scriptures) to be simultaneous with the judgment of the household.

The collapsing of time would also mean that the place of judgment is irrelevant. There are practical problems with the idea of judgment in Jerusalem or Sinai. If it all happens in real time, Christ would come, raise the responsible dead, take us to (e.g.) Jerusalem, assemble us there for several months or years, and one by one grant us immortality. There seems no space for this in the Biblical description of events of the last days. Christ will sit on David's throne in glory; but this is where the judgment will occur.

If the judgment is in real time, we must be judged before Christ is enthroned, i.e. the Kingdom is established. But Mt. 25 teaches that we will come before Him already enthroned for judgment. The idea of "meeting" Christ at judgment employs a Greek phrase which distinctly means to go out to welcome a respected visitor (1). Its three Biblical occurrences are all in this context (Acts 28:14,15; 1 Thess. 4:16,17; Mt. 25:6,10). This would suggest that the faithful go out to meet the Lord and accompany Him to the judgment. But this is rather difficult to square with the idea of good and bad coming together before the judgment and being separated from each other there.  It is almost as if these descriptions are designed to push the thoughtful reader away from seeing the judgment as occurring in real time! Christ comes with the saints to save Israel from their enemies. Unless there is a secret coming of Christ to gather and judge the saints and then he is revealed to the world, this just isn't possible. And the idea of a secret coming of the Lord of glory just cannot be reconciled with the clear descriptions of his coming in the NT. The coming of Christ in glory with the saints with him to establish the Kingdom is the coming of Christ.

Therefore it would be fitting if the whole process of Christ coming, resurrecting and judging his people, all happens in a moment of real time. Depending how one reads the Hebrew text of Zech. 14:6,7, this idea of collapsed time at the Lord's return is Biblical: "It shall come to pass in that day, that it shall not be clear in some places, and dark in other places of the world; but the day shall be one, in the knowledge of the Lord, not day, nor night: but it shall come to pass, that at evening time it shall be light" (AV mg.). The RVmg. speaks of "the planets shall contract"- the times and seasons they control would somehow contract. Is. 21:12 RV has a similar idea, again in the context of a judgment day: “The morning is come and also the night”. This collapsing of time would also explain why it is impossible to construct a chronology of events in real time for the coming of Christ; the various prophecies of the last days just don't seem to fit together in chronological sequence. If indeed time is collapsed, this would enable all these prophecies to come true, but not in real time. Babylon is to be punished with famine in one day; yet famine is a process (Rev. 18:8). In one day her judgments come, and yet also in one hour (18:10). Surely  the lesson is that time is compressed. The events around Christ's return were prefigured by those at the time of Joshua's conquest of the land. Some of the records of his campaigns require a huge amount to have been achieved by his soldiers within around 36 hours. The comment that so much was achieved "at one time" (Josh. 10:42) may hint at a compression of time to enable it. "The sun stood still" may well be intended to teach that the meaning of time was collapsed by God, rather than that the sun literally stood still (Josh. 10:12,13). And the sun standing still over Gibeon is mentioned in Is. 28:21 as typical of the time when Yahweh will do "His strange work, and bring to pass his act, his strange act" in the last days. The same may be true when the shadow went back for Hezekiah. The movement of the planets need not have been altered; the meaning of time was simply suspended. Rev. 8:12, also speaking of the last days, says that “the day shone not for a third part of it, and the night likewise”. Could this mean that one day and one night last only two thirds of their usual length, whilst the judgments of the fourth Angel are poured out upon the land? I would suggest that the Lord had in mind the suspension of time when he asked that "the hour might pass from him" in Gethsemane (Mk. 14:35); rather than asking to escape the cross in this request, he was perhaps asking for it all to happen in only a moment of real time.

Let us not think that the collapsing of time here suggested only means that what would otherwise take a long time actually takes a short time. It may be that what is in fact a very short time feels like much longer. Thus Mt. 25:10 describes the rejected as foolish virgins going to get oil, and it taking so long that the door was shut and they were eternally outside the marriage. In real time, this may just be a momentary desire to have been more filled with the Spirit in the day of opportunity. But the whole process of realising this will feel to them as if it takes a long time to work out.

One final point concerning the judgment. God being beyond time, He is also beyond space. In terms of metaphysics, if one dimension is collapsed (e.g. time), so is another (e.g. space). The whole judgment process could take place on the head of  a pin, or in a large desert. Space as well as time can be collapsed. Ezekiel in his visions and contact with God's people both in the land and in captivity moved at ease within both time and space. And this also needs to be remembered as we try to meditate upon what might actually happen at the day of judgment. These things must be borne in mind when we consider the references to the graves being opened and the dead coming forth, or the sea giving up the dead to be judged. This doesn't necessarily mean that dead bodies will come floating up through the oceans. We are not helped in our perception by orthodox pictures of sleepy saints coming out of their graves yawning and rubbing their eyes. The descriptions of graves opening and bodies floating up through the oceans are surely expressing the ultimate reality of literal resurrection and re-creation of our bodies in human terms. The Lord's promise that He would not break bread again until He did it with us in the Kingdom (Mk. 14:25) seems to require a literal fulfillment. In a non-literal sense He breaks bread with His people even now. Therefore His statement that He would not do it again until the Kingdom seems to refer to His literal taking of bread and wine. Likewise His promise that He would literally gird Himself and come forth and serve us at a future banquet has to be linked in with this (Lk. 12:37). If all the faithful are to be gathered together to a meal, and literally eat bread and drink wine with the Lord, this suggests all sorts of logistical and practical 'problems'. It is easier to understand that space and time will have different meanings at the judgment and after.

Light On Other Areas

God being beyond time sheds some light on a number of otherwise difficult issues:

- Grasping God's view of time means that we will see the Kingdom as immortality, not everlasting life. The eternity of our future existence is not the big theme of the Bible; it is "God manifestation, not human salvation", in the words of John Thomas. The process of eternity, the life and Kingdom of God, is already going on now; the tree of life is now (not 'will be'; Greek tenses are precise) in the midst of the paradise of God, at least from God's perspective (Rev. 2:7). We will have no need of the sun, for the light of God's glory will replace our concept of time (Rev. 21:23). Indeed, "the time of the end" can be read as "the end of time" (Dan. 12:4,9). There will be "time (Gk. chronos, the idea of time) no longer" (Rev. 10:6). The image of Dan. 2 is destroyed together by the Lord's return; each metal in some sense exists at his coming. Rather than meaning that each of those empires must have an end time revival, this may be teaching that the whole concept of human history and time will be ground to powder by the advent of the Kingdom. One day, when we are then with the Lord, will be like a thousand years (2 Pet. 3:8)- there will be no comparison between our present view of time and what will then be. Even in the Millennium, the plowman shall overtake the reaper (Am. 9:13)- which may refer to the collapsing of time, rather than just being a figure of fecundity. Before people pray, they will be heard (Is. 65:24- although this is our present prayer experience too, Mt. 6:8). Our focus should therefore be more on the quality and nature of the Kingdom life, rather than the mere eternity of it.

- At the frontier of scientific investigation, modern physics has discovered that 'time' varies; time warps have been linked to the nature of matter in the material cosmos. Consider some of the conclusions of Paul Davies in his book God And The New Physics:

                "The revolution in our conception of time which has accompanied the theory of relativity is best summarised by saying that, previously, time was regarded as absolute, fixed and universal, independent  of material bodies or observers. Today time is seen to be dynamical. It can stretch and shrink, warp and even stop altogether at a  singularity. Clock rates are not absolute, but relative to the state of motion or gravitational situation of the observer...Modern instruments are so sensitive that even the Earth's  gravitational timewarp can be detected by clocks in rockets...Time really does run faster in space, where the Earth's gravity  is weaker. The stronger the gravity, the stronger the timewarp...There is no universal present moment...One inevitable victim of the fact that there is no universal present moment is the tidy division of time into past, present and future. These terms may have meaning in one's immediate locality, but they can't apply everywhere...time is not simply there, but is itself part of the physical universe. It is "elastic" and can stretch or shrink according to well-defined mathematical laws which depend on the behaviour of matter. Also, time is closely linked to space, and space and time together express the operation of the gravitational  field. In short, time is involved in all the grubby details of physical processes just as much as matter".  

To these ideas may be linked the discovery that the universe is expanding, growing outwards from a beginning of matter which we would understand as the creation of Gen. 1:1. This would suggest that the meaning of time has likewise changed; before creation as we now know it, time as we now experience it simply didn't exist. The connection between space and time also explains why if time is collapsed at the judgment, space likewise will be.

- William Barclay (New Testament Words) has a very interesting section on the word aionios. He cites examples in contemporary literature where it is used not of indefinite continuance, but simply of that which is beyond time. "To attach eternity to the created was impossible. So He (God) made time as a moving image of eternity...the essence of the word aionios is that it is the word of the eternal order as contrasted with the order of this world...the word can be properly applied to no one other than God...the life of God". This helps us understand how 'eternal punishment' is not in fact punishment of unending continuance. And yet eternal punishment is set as the antithesis to eternal life (Mt. 25:46); this itself shows that "eternal" is not to be understood as unending continuance. For the wicked will not be punished for ever- they will die and cease existing. The Lord Jesus is eternal life (1 Jn. 5:20); this alone points us to see "eternal life" as more a description, a quality of life, rather than indefinite continuance. Those who "seek for glory, and honour, and immortality" are granted eternal life, as though "eternal life" comprehends all these things for which they seek (Rom. 2:7).

- During the judgment upon Egypt, "at Tehaphnehes also the day shall withdraw itself" (Ez. 30:18). This will occur when Egypt comes to know the Lord through His judgments (Ez. 30:19)- and this can only refer to the last days. So again, it would seem that some sort of collapse of time will occur during the judgment period.

- The way in which we are seen by God as if we are already saved on account of our being in Christ is also explicable by appreciating His timelessness. Rom. 8:29 says that the whole process of our calling, justification and glorification all occurred at the foundation of the world. In God's eyes, those of us in Christ are already saved and glorified. The Lord spoke of "other sheep I have" (Jn. 10:16) when at that time we never existed. Likewise in God's eyes there was only one resurrection, that of the Lord Jesus. The resurrected Lord is compared to the sheaf of firstfruits (1 Cor. 15:20), as if those in him rose with him and were glorified together, in God's eyes. Perhaps Jesus had this in mind when he said : "I am the resurrection". Of course in real time there is a gap between the Lord's resurrection and our own. To God, this gap is unimportant, in some sense it doesn't even exist. And to the eye of faith at a believers' funeral too. This explains why Paul so often speaks of the resurrection as meaning the whole process of resurrection, judgment and glorification (e.g. Rom. 8:11), and why he speaks of the dead being resurrected incorruptible (1 Cor. 15:42-44,52), and writing as if they presently exist (e.g. Heb. 9:15 "are called" rather than 'were called'). Indeed, the NT speaks of the whole resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus as if it were one event- even though there was a gap between them (Acts 2:32,33; 5:30,31; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; 1 Pet. 3:21,22); and the Lord Himself speaks of how Messiah would suffer and enter into glory (Lk. 24:26), apparently skipping over the mechanics of the resurrection. And this is how our glorification is spoken of- there will be a resurrection and judgment, but the focus is not always upon them. It explains how Paul saw the trumpet blast as the signal of both the call to judgment (1 Thess. 4:17) and also the moment of glorification (1 Cor. 15:52). And yet God actually saw us as saved right from the beginning of the world; He purposed, and effectively it was done. Perhaps this is the hardest thing our faith has to grapple with. "Knowing the time, that for us, the hour already is to be aroused out of sleep" and be resurrected (Rom. 13:11 YLT) may mean (contrary to the implication of the AV) that for us who are with God now, the time of resurrection and salvation is now with us, and therefore we should live lives which answer to this fact. The day of salvation is in that sense today  (2 Cor. 6:2 Gk.). So sure is God's word that it is as if the concept of a delay between its utterance and the fulfillment is something not to be considered. Thus "the vision" is an ellipsis for 'the fulfillment of the vision' in Hab. 2:3. Although our day by day spirituality fluctuates, God is beyond time. He sees us either as an essentially good tree bringing forth good fruit, or as essentially bad (Mt. 7:23). Let's try to adopt this perspective in how we view the daily failures of our brethren, our partners, our children...

- Bible students have long recognized a 'prophetic perfect' tense in Hebrew, whereby the future is spoken of as having already happened. This not only reflects the utter certainty of God's words coming true, it also reflects God's way of looking at issues without time, in the sense that God is beyond time. Thus when He told Abraham that He had made him  (not 'will make you') a great nation, this reflected the way that God already saw Abraham as a father of many. Things which don't yet exist for us do actually exist for God (Rom. 4:17). The Law was a shadow of Christ (Col. 2:17) even when Christ didn't physically exist. Yet a shadow implies the real existence of the object. The Law reflected God's knowledge of the Lord Jesus; to Him, the Lord did in that sense pre-exist, although we know that literally He didn't. Likewise Levi was seen by God as paying tithes whilst he was still as it were within Abraham's body (Heb. 7:9,10), and the dead believers are likened to spectators in a stadium, cheering us on as we race the race of this life (Heb. 12:1) (2).

- There are some passages which imply the Lord Jesus was somehow conscious during His three days in the grave. Evidently this was not the case. And yet the resurrection loosed the birth-pangs of death, Peter said (Acts 2:34). Those three days are likened to labour, in the Lord's case bringing forth life through death. Yet He was dead and unconscious. But to the Father, He saw things simply differently. Sometimes God speaks from His timeless perspective, at other times His words are accommodated to us. Likewise from the Father's perspective, the spirit of Christ went and preached to the people of Noah's day at the time of His death. Yet this didn't happen in real time in such a way.

- It is difficult to understand the Biblical descriptions of the pillars of fire and cloud that accompanied Israel. Ex. 13:21 says that there was a pillar of cloud in the day time and a pillar of fire by night. But at the time of the Exodus, there was a pillar of cloud for the Egyptians and a pillar of fire to give light in the night for the Israelites (Ex. 14:20,24). Could this mean that the meaning of time was collapsed at this time? It was night for the Israelites but daytime for the Egyptians? Is. 42:16, amidst many exodus / Red Sea allusions, speaks of how God makes the darkness light before His exiting people. The many Johanine references to the Lord Jesus being a light in the darkness for His followers would then be yet more elaborations of the idea that the Lord Jesus is the antitype of the Angel that led Israel out of Egypt (Jn. 8:12; 12:35,46). Num. 9:21 says that the pillar of cloud was with the Israelites at night, and sometimes it was taken up in the night and they therefore had to move on. Does this mean that there were times when the meaning of time was collapsed during their journey, and the night was made as the day (perhaps Ps. 139:12 alludes to this experience)? When Yahweh came down on Sinai, He was enveloped in a cloud of fire- suggesting that there was no day and night for Him (Ex. 24:15-17; Dt. 5:22). Yahweh's theophany to Ezekiel included a similar feature of cloud, glory and fire together (Ez. 1:4), as it will in the future (Is. 4:5)- perhaps another indicator that time will be collapsed around the time of the Lord's return.

- For the elects' sake, the days to the second coming will be shortened (Mt. 24:22); but the Lord also said, perhaps in the same sentence, that the days have already been shortened (Mk. 13:20). This alone shows that God conceives of time in a radically different way to how we do. The shortening of time in a sense hasn't take place, but in another sense it has. There can therefore be no trite explanation of how God can hasten the second coming in accordance with our prayers, and yet also have a set time to favour Zion.

- Greek (unlike Hebrew) uses tenses in a very precise way. There are some real problems in understanding exactly why the Lord changes tenses so often, e.g. in Jn. 7:33,34: "Yet a little while am I with you, and then I go unto him that sent me. Ye shall seek me, and shall not find me: and where I am [we would expect: 'Where I will go / be'], thither ye cannot [not 'will not be able to'] come". He saw Himself as both with the Father, already glorified, and yet also still in mortal life. Another example is in the way He speaks of how the faithful are equal to the Angels, being the children of the resurrection (Lk. 20:35,36- in the context of explaining how 'all live' unto God)- we would rather expect Him to speak of how the faithful will be  equal to Angels, will be resurrected etc. But He pointedly speaks in the present tense. It must have raised a few eyebrows amongst His more thoughtful hearers.

- There are some real difficulties in understanding the record of creation. There can be no doubt that we are intended to understand the Genesis account as referring to literal 24 hour-days. But there are problems with this- e.g. there appears to be a longer period than a few hours required for Adam to name all the animals, find them unsuitable, long for a wife, be provided with Eve... One explanation may simply be that time felt different; it all took 24 hours of our time, but time then had a different meaning.

- "The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies" (Ps. 58:3) is not true in real time. But for timeless God, this is His perspective on them. Likewise in other cases He expresses His timelessness in ways which men can only understand as predestination.

- Ez. 32:30, Rev. 6:10 and some other passages give the impression that the dead are somehow alive. And yet we know from an impregnable array of Bible passages that the dead are unconscious. These 'difficult passages' are surely giving us a window on God's timeless perspective. Apart from the death state, there are other examples of where future things are spoken of as having already happened (e.g. Ez. 39:29). God's future actions are simply spoken of as having already happened (e.g. Ez. 32:18). Living believers are called "martyrs" even before they are killed, because God foresees that they will be killed (Rev. 11:7).

Prophecy

Because God is beyond time, His prophecies appear to jump around in time. They only appear disjointed to us who read them with a background insistence that everything must be chronological. Thus the tenses change freely throughout Isaiah 53. And throughout Isaiah, prophecies of the Kingdom are often introduced by the rubric "in that day"; and yet the preceding context is often quite different (e.g. Is. 3:7,18; 4:1; 5:30; 7:18,21; 10:20,22; 11:10; 12:1; 17:9; 19:6; 22:20,25; 25:9; 27:13; 28:5; 29:18). It makes an interesting exercise to go through Isaiah 9 and decide to which time each verse applies. Some of the verses are quoted in the NT and given specific fulfillments. They refer to Isaiah's day, the Assyrian invasion, the birth of Jesus, the beginning of His ministry at age 30, and to His future Kingdom. And yet the verses aren't presented in this order; they move from one to the other at ease, with no linking rubric or explanation. Likewise Daniel's prophecies seem to have a big hiatus in their fulfillment (Dan. 2:34; 8:23; 9:24; 11:39); and Zechariah is another good example. Many attempts to understand prophecy, not least the book of Revelation, have fallen into problems because of an insistent desire to see everything fulfilling in a chronological progression, whereas God's prophecies (Isaiah is the classic example) 'jump around' all over the place as far as chronological fulfillment is concerned. And this principle is not only seen in Bible prophecy. The historical records in the Old Testament tend to be thematically presented rather than chronologically (Joshua is a good example of this); and the Gospel records likewise. It especially needs to be recognized that in line with so much OT prophecy, neither the Olivet prophecy nor its extension in the Apocalypse can be read as strictly chronological. Thus Lk. 21:8-11 gives a catalogue of signs, and then v. 12 jumps back to the situation before them: "but before all these things..." (21:27,28; Mk. 13:10 are other examples).

These principles are all brought together in the way Peter interprets Joel 2. The comments in brackets reflect the interpretation which Peter offers later in his address. He gives each part of it a fulfillment not in chronological sequence with what has gone before: "This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel [i.e. you are seeing a fulfillment of this prophecy before your eyes]: I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy [fulfilled by the apostles after Christ's ascension]...and I will shew wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath [the miracles of the Lord Jesus during His ministry]...the sun shall be turned into darkness [the crucifixion], and the moon into blood [also referring to an unrecorded event at the crucifixion?], before that great and notable day of the Lord come [the second coming; or the resurrection?]: and it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved [fulfilled by the crowd accepting baptism on the day of Pentecost]" (Acts 2:16-21).

Not only do the prophecies 'jump around' in time. Often Scripture alludes to or quotes other Scripture which may seem out of context, if we insist on seeing everything from our viewpoint of time. Thus Lk. 19:40 quotes Hab. 2:11 concerning the stones of apostate Israel crying out, and apparently applies it to the acclamation of faithful men. Matthew particularly seems to quote Scripture which is relevant to the Lord's second coming as applying to His first coming. Indeed, the way the NT quotes the OT apparently out of context is a sizeable problem. There are times when we may quote or allude to the words of a Bible passage quite out of context, just because the words seem appropriate. And it seems the NT sometimes does just the same. Search and try as we may, the context seems just inappropriate. This may be explicable by understanding God to have the ability to take words from one time-context and insert them into another, in a way which to us is not contextual. We have no authority to do this; but He can. He can speak as if "the resurrection is past already"; but for us to do so is to deny the Faith.

Our difficulty in accepting God's view of time is in my view reflected in the obsession some have with the continuous-historic view of the book of Revelation. It is insisted by some that prophecy be fulfilled in a linear way. Chapter 1 verse 1 of prophecy X has to be fulfilled on such a date; chapter 1 verse 2 ten years later; chapter 1 verse 3 has to be fulfilled five years after that. Not only is this view obviously unworkable when it comes to interpreting many Old Testament prophecies; but it assumes that God, the author of prophecy, thinks and writes with our view of time. Gerhard von Rad writes powerfully about this: "The question of the specific way in which Hebrew thought understood time and history brings us to an area of great importance for the correct understanding of the prophets. Earlier exposition was quite unaware that there was a problem here, and uncritically assumed that its own Western and Christian concept of time also held good for Israel...the attitude of Western man to linear time is, generally speaking, naive; time is seen as an infinitely long straight line on which the individual can mark such past and future events as he can ascertain. This time-span has a mid-point, which is our present day. From it the past stretches back and the future forwards. But...this concept of absolute time, independent of events, and, like the blanks on a questionnaire, only needing to be filled up with data which will give it content, was unknown to Israel" (3). God is outside of time as we know it, and so we shouldn't assume that His prophetic word is so neatly linear, or continuously historic, simply because this is how we tend to think of time. Because the Bible was written by God, it reflects God's view of time. Hence Jack Sasson notes: "Hebrew prose style allows nonsequential episodes to occur simultaneously" (4). Grasping this steers us away from trying to interpret God's prophetic word in a continuous historic sense.

God's patience with Israel (and us too) was partly because even in the midst of their perversions, He saw the day when they would be obedient. Thus He mixes criticism and judgment of them with visions of their future glory. Hos. 14:8 exemplifies this: "Ephraim shall say [in the time of her future repentance], What have I to do any more with idols? I have heard him and observed him [this is God's comment: He observed Ephraim as she would be, even at Hosea's time, while she was yet sinning]. I am like a green fir tree [these are the words of Ephraim]. From me is thy fruit found" [this is God's comment: He imputed fruit to the otherwise prickly and not very fruitful fir tree]. Our patience with each other, not least those we know well, will be enhanced by a bit more timelessness: not reacting to the words and immaturities of each other as they are uttered at this point in time, but looking ahead to what they (and we) will one day mature into.

Conclusions

Although God is outside time, this mustn't lead us to conclude that He is somehow static and unfeeling; He reveals Himself as accommodating Himself to men to the extent that He has feelings of joy at the moment of our repentance (consider the Father rushing out to the returning son) and sorrow and anguish at the times of our apostasy (consider the Almighty "rising early and sending" the prophets). Although He is outside time, yet He limits His omniscience (as He evidently limits His omnipotence). It could even be that although He could see every possible future and foresee our behaviour well before our birth, He somehow ignores this possibility. This is why He is described as being disappointed at Israel's level of response to His love, shocked at their sins, surprised at their perversions (e.g. Jer. 19:5; 32:35).

All this may sound rather philosophical. I'm sorry if it does. Because we are dealing here with an essentially practical issue, relating to the very essence of faith; the ability to see God's promises as He sees them, as already fulfilled, to see our prayers as He sees them, i.e. as already answered; and ourselves just waiting in faith for the day of physical realisation of them. This is what day-by-day faith is all about.


Notes

(1) See Alan Hayward, 'The Judgment Seat: An Unresolved Problem',  Watchman Vol. 5 No. 9, September 1995 and subsequent correspondence; also Alan Hayward, 'Be wise on words', Gospel News November / December 2000.

(2) These points are taken from A.P. Launchbury, Beyond Our Time: Metachronology In The Bible (Epsis, 1995).

(3) Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1965) pp. 99-102.

(4) Jack Sasson, Jonah (London: Doubleday, 1990) p. 137.