In everyday life, “What time is it?” is an important question. Whether we are waiting for our shift to end, hurrying to file our tax returns before the post office closes, or sitting in the pew wondering when the wedding ceremony will begin, the time of day is relevant.
It is also important to know the time on the world-historical clock. Is postmodernity unstable? Is the time at hand when, under the weight of its own self-righteousness, the postmodern world will splinter it into cultural shards? Will nationalistic fervor degenerate into racial and ethnic hostility? The ancient historical book known as 2 Chronicles praised the “men of Issachar, who understood the times” and therefore knew what needed to be done. Do we?
It is also important to know the time on the theological clock. Where are we in the timetable of salvation history? Are we, as people frequently ask, in the “last times”? Is our shift as curators of the world about to end or has it not yet truly begun?
This last set of questions is more complicated than people sometimes think, since it is difficult, from where we now stand, to see the celestial clock. Besides that, when it comes to the spiritual side of things, we are living at the strange intersection of spiritual time zones.
My family recently spent five days in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We stayed on Lake Gogebic, which is about the same distance from Detroit as is Washington D.C. The lake is the largest in the U.P., and we rented a house at the half-way point between the lake’s north and south ends. The timeline between Eastern and Central time lay a few hundred feet from our rental property.
So when we went north in the boat, we were on Eastern Time. When we went south, we were on Central Time. If someone in another boat had come up to us on the lake and asked us the time, we might have replied: “We can’t tell you what time it is until we know which direction you’re headed.”
That would not be a bad answer to give someone who asked the time in reference to God’s program for humanity. “It depends,” we might answer, “on which direction you’re headed.” It would be an appropriate answer for much the same reason it would have been on Lake Gogebic. We are at a place where cosmic time zones meet, so what time it is depends on which direction one is headed.
Just as the hours on the clock are divided into a.m. and p.m. (from the Latin terms “ante meridiem” and “post meridiem,” meaning before and after mid-day, respectively), God’s program for humanity is divided into two ages. The biblical writers assumed the reality of these ages and referred to them frequently.
Jesus, for example, spoke often of “this age” and the “age to come.” St. Paul could differentiate between the two: this present age and the age about to burst on the scene. The author of Hebrews places humanity at “the end of the ages.”
In biblical thought, the present age is out of joint. The spiritual time zone humanity occupies is full of chaos. In the age to come, however, God will transform that chaos into a peace and justice that is maintained by love.
Telling the time is further complicated by the fact that the time zones representing this age and the next don’t just meet, as at our spot on the lake; they overlap. The future is not waiting for us to enter it; it has crossed over to us. This is the shared understanding of the New Testament writers: when Christ came into the world, he brought the new age with him. People aligned with him have already synchronized their watches to the age to come. They order their days by it.
When Christ comes again, which all the New Testament writers expected, the overlap of the ages will end, the old age will be past, and the new age will begin. Everyone will then synchronize their watches and order their days - or have them ordered for them - to the age to come.
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Michigan. Read more at shaynelooper.com.