Down through the centuries people have been fascinated by time. Can you remember seeing sundials and clock faces with the inscription ‘tempus fugit’?
This Latin phrase (Virgil, 70-19 BC) means ‘time flies’,never to be recovered. Another is ‘carpe diem’ (Horace, 23 BC), often translated ‘seize the day’. These two Latin phrases encourage us to think carefully about time.
Young people vainly imagine they will live for ever. The hourglass of their lifetime is filled with sand in the top chamber and seems to trickle so slowly through the narrow hole into the lower bulb. In later years, however, it is frightening how rapidly the sand is flowing. The truth is that, for all of us, time is limited and we are moving inexorably towards eternity.
The hymnist Anne R. Cousin (1824–1906) saw beyond the sinking reservoir of sand to the approaching glory:
The sands of time are sinking, the dawn of Heaven breaks;
The summer morn I’ve sighed for — the fair, sweet morn awakes:
Dark, dark hath been the midnight, but dayspring is at hand,
And glory, glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land.
The traditional symbol of time is the figure of ‘Father Time’, with a long grey beard and a scythe over his shoulder, ready to cut us down from the land of the living to join the harvest of the dead (used for example in the weather vane at Lord’s cricket ground).
If only we could slow the progress of time, it would enable us to live longer. Fiction writers have been fascinated with the idea of manipulating time. The author H. G. Wells wrote his novel The time machine in 1895 — and we all know about Dr Who’s time-travelling machine The Tardis!
Time and eternity
There has been much speculation about the relationship between time and eternity.
We are entirely time bound. Time machines remain entirely in fiction. The beating of our hearts and the nervous impulses in our brains are time bound events. In contrast, God dwells in eternity: ‘The eternal God is your refuge’ (Deuteronomy 33:27).
At death or at the Second Coming, we must all cross over from the world of time into the eternal world. The eternal God is able to give eternal life to his adopted children: ‘The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 6:23).
The Bible also has instructions connected with time. Psalm 90, written by Moses, is all about the role time plays in our lives and how God is in control of our destinies. He is not affected by the passing of time as we are.
‘The days of our lives are seventy years — or eighty, if we have the strength’ (v.10). Moses asks God to ‘teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom’ (v.12). Verse 5 has been immortalised by Isaac Watts (1674–1748) in his hymn ‘Our God, our help in ages past’:
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
The New Testament points us to the future coming of the Lord Jesus Christ to claim his bride, the church, and to judge the world. In the light of this, we are all urged to ‘seek an out of court settlement’ with God before it is too late.
The first message Jesus declared in his earthly ministry was, ‘The time has come … the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news’ (Mark 1:15). Jesus later told us, ‘So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him’ (Matthew 24:44). Peter, in his older and wiser years, exhorts believers, ‘The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled, so that you can pray’ (1 Peter 4:7).
What is time?
Did time begin with the creation of the universe? Certainly, solar time of 24 hours per day could only begin after the sun was created on the fourth day (Genesis 1:14-19). Yet, even from the first day, there was a kind of light which God separated from darkness and controlled to provide an evening and a morning (Genesis 1:3-5).
The American theologian J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937), thought that ‘God created time when he created finite things’. St Augustine (A.D. 354–430) struggled to understand the nature of time and its relationship with eternity (pp. 155-172 of the eleventh book of his Confessions).
He saw how the past has gone for ever, apart from present memories, and the future has not yet come to pass, though there are signs as to what might occur. The only reality is present time.
Eternity does not suffer the loss of the past or the absence of the future, but stands still in a steady state: ‘Who will hold the heart of man that it may stand still and see how the eternity which always stands still is itself neither future nor past, but expresses itself in the times that are future and past?’
He says later: ‘But if the present were always present, and did not pass into past time, it obviously would not be time but eternity’ (book 14).
He then confessed: ‘My soul burns ardently to understand this most intricate enigma. O Lord … to whom shall I confess my ignorance of these things with greater profit than to thee, to whom these studies of mine (ardently longing to understand thy Scriptures) are not a bore?’ (book 22).
Augustine sought to base all his thinking on the Scriptures, and we should try to do the same.
The gift of eternity
The Scriptures give us hints of the nature of eternity. When Moses asked God his name, God replied: ‘I am who I am’ (Exodus 3:14). This is a God who is always present. He doesn’t change with circumstances, but sees all of history, together with the present and future, in an instant.
Not only that; he has shaped all events and works them all out to his glory. We are made in his image and it is his will to share eternity with us, so for all believers ‘the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 6:23b).
God the Father and God the Son both declare themselves ‘I am the Alpha and Omega … the beginning and the end’ (Revelation 1:8; 22:13). They are the ever-living ‘I am’, where past, present and future combine into an ever present divine consciousness, and over which the Godhead exercises sovereign determination and control. We mortals can discern past, present and future, but are unable to understand how they all combine in our God. A. W. Tozer (1897–1963) expressed the same thought when he said, ‘God dwells in eternity, but time dwells in God. He has already lived all our tomorrows, as he has lived all our yesterdays’.
Is eternity simply time which never ends, or is it the absence of time? We cannot know for certain, but perhaps it will reflect the continuous present in which God dwells, and incorporates all past earthly events and future heavenly events. This will only be fully understood when we have our resurrected bodies (1 Corinthians 15:44).
It is interesting that, as T. S. Eliot (1888–1965), in his Four Quartets, grappled with the idea of time, his natural reason led to a conclusion which is probably not so far from the truth:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable …
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Our view of time is that it is real, and has been created by the God, who also sovereignly controls the course of history. Our limited knowledge means there remains a subjective element to our understanding of time.
We are all aware of time ‘dragging’ by so slowly sometimes, and yet ‘flying by’ at others. Time, however, is not merely subjective; it is a wonderful gift of God.
John Calvin (1509–1564) commented on the subjective appearance of time when he said, ‘If we look around us, a moment can seem a long time, but when we lift our hearts heavenwards, a thousand years begins to be like a moment’.
The universe as we know it will one day come to an end, and will be replaced by a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1). J. C. Ryle said, ‘There is a time appointed by the Father when the whole machinery of creation shall stop, and the present dispensation shall be changed for another’.
The ending of the time in which we now live will also mean the ending of the opportunity God has given all people to repent of their sin and unbelief, to turn to him and accept the forgiveness and righteousness he freely offers, by his grace.
Whatever our views of time and eternity, God has left us in no doubt that the ‘now’ we experience each day is a moment of opportunity which can never be repeated. That is why Paul exhorts us: ‘I tell you, now is the time of God’s favour, now is the day of salvation’ (2 Corinthians 6:2).
The frightening thing is that those who refuse to accept God’s cleansing will be locked into their dirty condition for all eternity, whereas those who have confessed their sin to God will be kept safe and clean for ever (1 John 1:9; Revelation 22:11).
How will you spend eternity? Are you ready to welcome the return of the Lord Jesus Christ, like Josiah Conder (1789–1855) in his hymn ‘See the ransomed millions stand’?
Time has nearly reached its sum;
All things, with Thy bride, say ‘Come!’
Jesus, whom all worlds adore,
Come and reign for evermore!
Nigel Faithfull is a retired analytical chemist and member of St Mellons Baptist Church, Cardiff. In 2012, he published Thoughts fixed and affections flaming (Day One, concerning Matthew Henry.