Summer’s going fast, nights growing colder
Children growing up, old friends growing older
Freeze this moment a little bit longer
Make each sensation a little bit stronger
– Rush, Time Stand Still
At this time of the year, we can only look back with longing on the summer that has passed,remembering those hot Sunday afternoons that we wished were cooler and thinking of how foolish we were! But all our protests against the coming winter seem to fall on deaf ears. Who can stop the progress of time? Even our own songbook proclaims, “Time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all its sons away; they fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.”1 Time passes inevitably, but does it pass hopelessly? Well, in order to answer this, we need to look at what time is and in particular, time in relation to God.
Well, what do we find in Scripture about God’s relation to time?
In Psalm 90, we read of God as the one who was “Before the mountains were born, or you gave birth to the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” Here God is described as one whose beginning predated the creation of the world. But it is more than that. Being ‘from everlasting to everlasting’ is a powerful descriptor meaning that as far as one can extend through time, God was there. There was no time you could point to where God was not present. God has no beginning or end.
This is also reflected in Psalm 102:26-27, “Even they will perish, but you endure; and all of them will wear out like a garment; like clothing you will change them and they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will not come to an end.” God without beginning and without end.
Likewise 1 Timothy 1:17 describes God as “eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God.” This introduces the concept of eternity, which gives us one of God’s attributes. He is eternal, but does eternity just mean that God had no beginning or end, or is there something else?
When we talk about the eternity of God, we do not only mean that he has no beginning or end, but that he does not experience time as we do as a succession of moments. In fact, God is not limited by time in any way. This is why Berkhof says that God “is elevated above all temporal limits and all succession of moments, and possesses the whole of His existence in one indivisible present.”2 In other words, God does not pass through time like us, with the only difference being that he is in time infinitely into the past and infinitely into the future; his relationship to time is different to ours.
When we experience time, we live in the present, and look back into the past, and forward into the future. We progress through time from present to present in a succession of moments. But God does not. As Turretin says, “We maintain that God is free from every difference of time, and no less from succession than from beginning and end.”3 If God is to be truly without limitation, then he must also be free from limitation to time. For God, there is no past or future but all of time appears to him as one present. As Bavinck says, “God transcends time and cannot be measured or defined by the standards of time.”4 To say that God transcends time means that he is outside of it and looks down on all of history as one unified whole.
This is why God identifies himself as I AM. He is the one whose eternity means that he is not subject to time, but is eternally present in time.“The marks of the concept of eternity are three: it excludes a beginning, an end, and the succession of moments.”5 For God, every point in history is always ‘now.’ To give an imperfect example, if all of history was written in a book, God’s relationship to history is being present with full attention to every word on every page at all times.6
Now, with that in perspective we can see that when we use the term ‘eternal’ with relation to us, it takes on a different meaning than when we use it in relation to God. We often talk about our ‘eternal state,’ or receiving ‘eternal life.’ But when we speak this way, we also recognize that we have a beginning, and that makes our eternity different from the eternity of God. As creatures, we will also need to continue to exist within time, even in the new heavens and the new earth. To dwell fully outside of time – to be eternal – is something that only belongs to God.
Well, this is a somewhat dense and philosophical discussion, but there are at least five things to learn from this understanding of God’s relationship to time.
1. Time is a creature
Different people have thought of time in different ways. Some theologians have argued that time will not always exist even though we do, as Turretin says, “time neither always was nor always will be, but will cease with the world.”7 While I find this unconvincing, it is possible. However, for creatures not to exist in a ‘succession of moments’ is difficult, if not impossible, to conceive.
Berkhof speaks of time as “one of the forms of all created existence.”8 This means that time did not exist separately or before the creation, but God created time at the same time as the rest of creation.
Bavinck speaks about time as a ‘mode of existence.’ What he means is that it is required if creatures are to exist. The other side of that is that “If there were no creatures, there would be no time.”9 For Bavinck, time exists because creatures exist, and so will continue to exist so long as we do.
However, the point of this section is simpler than this debate. The point is that there are ultimately two types of things in the universe, the creator and the creature. Time is not the creator, nor is it something superior to him, but is something created by him.
2. Time serves the purposes of God
What do we know about created things? There is nothing in all creation that is outside of the control of God. Time is not an unrelenting flow. Rather, like the streams, oceans, and mountains that seem immovable, even time exists according to the will of God and for his glory. It serves him, and he wields it according to his plan.
3. God’s control of time is for us
Finally, we know that we are promised, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28) Everything is under the control of God, and that includes time itself. As David says in Psalm 31:14-15, “But as for me, I trust in You, O Lord I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hand.” Time is serving God’s loving purpose for us, his people, and its passage, while it may seem unstoppable, is not hopeless.
This is because God has “made everything appropriate in its time.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11) God is not a victim to time or events. He has established what happens and when that will happen and he does so for our good.
4. The eternal God entered time
The miracle of Christmas is that God became man. That the creator humbled himself to become a creature. Becoming a creature, the eternal God made himself subject to time. Jesus had a beginning. Jesus experienced moments. He saw the effects of time, and the way that its passing can cause pain, suffering and sorrow. In becoming subject to time, Jesus was made even more in every way like us!
5. We look forward to the progression of time
Many in our culture today speak of time as a circle or wheel. They mean that things happen over and over and will continue to do so forever. However, we know the history of this heaven and earth is a line, with a definite beginning and a definite end, and time is progressing us toward that end. While time rolls on, it also rolls forward. Forward to the day when our faith will be sight, Jesus will return, and even the pain created by the passage of time will be a distant memory. This means that time is not an immovable unstoppable force, but progresses at the will of God to glory.
1 O God Our Help in Ages Past, STTL #175
2 Berkhof, L. (1938). Systematic theology (p. 60). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co.
3 Turretin, F. (1992–1997). Institutes of Elenctic Theology. (J. T. Dennison Jr., Ed., G. M. Giger, Trans.) (Vol. 1, p. 202). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
4 Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2004). Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation (Vol. 2, p. 161). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
5 Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., &Vriend, J. (2004). Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation (Vol. 2, p. 162). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
6 This develops an illustration given by C.S. Lewis in Book 4, Chapter 3 of Mere Christianity.
7 Turretin, F. (1992–1997). Institutes of Elenctic Theology. (J. T. Dennison Jr., Ed., G. M. Giger, Trans.) (Vol. 1, p. 204). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
8 Berkhof, L. (1938). Systematic theology (p. 130). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co.
9 Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2004). Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation (Vol. 2, p. 162). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
Mr David Stares is the minister of the Reformed Church in Masterton.
Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash