What time is it?
Sooner or later, somewhere in a sermon, Christians are apt to hear that there are two Greek words for “time”: chronos and kairos. Chronos is the one from which we get the word “chronology” and its cousins, and represents the understanding of time that is most familiar to us: clock time, time in measurable quantities, the kind of time busy people are desperate to find more of.
Kairos, on the other hand, has more to do with quality than quantity, as when we say that we had a “good time.” In the Bible, it’s often used to convey a sense of opportunity and urgency. “Time is running out,” goes the advertising pitch–meaning not only that there’s little time left (quantity), but that the time is now (quality) to do something about it.
The conceptual distinction is a valid one–as long as we don’t try to make the two words do all the work themselves, pushing them to say more than they really do. Both Jesus and Paul, for example, can use chronos and kairos in the same sentence without making a hard and fast distinction between them.
Just before his Ascension, the disciples asked the resurrected Jesus (perhaps with some impatience!) if he was going to bring the kingdom to its completion now. His response was, “It is not for you to know the times (chronos) or dates (kairos) the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:8, NIV). Back off, boys: I didn’t give you a timetable before, and I’m not going to give you one now.
Similarly, Paul can write this:
We don’t need to write to you about the timing (chronos) and dates (kairos), brothers and sisters. You know very well that the day of the Lord is going to come like a thief in the night. When they are saying, “There is peace and security,” at that time sudden destruction will attack them, like labor pains start with a pregnant woman, and they definitely won’t escape. But you aren’t in darkness, brothers and sisters, so the day won’t catch you by surprise like a thief. All of you are children of light and children of the day. We don’t belong to night or darkness. So then, let’s not sleep like the others, but let’s stay awake and stay sober. (1 Thess 5:1-6, CEB)
There are echoes of Jesus throughout the passage: the teaching about time; the image of Jesus’ return coming suddenly, like a thief in the night (Matt 24:42-44); the call to be awake and sober–because we have rightly understood the time.
In his book Weird, Craig Groeschel muses about how Christians should properly relate to time. Are we defined by our to-do list? Are we so distracted by the work we do for God that we have no time to listen to him–or to be fully present to anyone else, for that matter? Are we so captive to frenetic notions of work and productivity that the very idea of Sabbath rest seems strange, unworthy of being listed among the Ten Commandments?
All of this has to do with our understanding of time, our relationship to it and to our work.
If sometime in the late afternoon or evening, you ask me how my day was, I’ll tell you what I did. I might tell you excitedly about something that went well, or complain about what came between me and my goals.
But do I also have the sense that today, and every day, is the Lord’s day? And if so, how might I answer the question differently?