Do me a favor. Define the word time. Take a moment to think about it before you continue reading.
What did you come up with? When I first tried to define time, I had a hard time doing it without using the word itself: “Time is the time in which we do things.” “Time is the time in which events happen.” Eventually, I came up with the word period: “Time is the period in which we do things.” “Time is the period in which events happen.” Webster’s online dictionary agrees. It defines time as “the measured or measurable period during which an action, process, or condition exists or continues” (emphasis added). I like the definition of time that my wife, Lois, came up with: “Time is a way to measure how long it takes from one event to another.”
Time is such a basic part of our existence that it’s impossible for us finite humans to imagine a “time” when time didn’t exist. Throughout every day we’re aware of the passing of time. We have appointments to meet on time, jobs to complete on time, bedtime, daytime, and nighttime. Toward evening we’ll say, “Where on earth has the day gone?” And by the middle of June, we’re exclaiming, “The year’s barely started, and we’re already halfway through!”
Time and living are practically synonymous. Without time we’d never get anything done. Stop to think about it: we couldn’t even exist without time!
We humans have been fooling with time for thousands of years. Archaeologists have found evidence of timekeeping as far back as 10,000 years ago. However, this would have been very primitive compared to our methods of keeping track of time. We divide time into seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, and even millenniums. We have clocks and calendars that help us keep track of time. That way we can make appointments and keep them on time, and we can plan for our retirement at a future time.
However, watches and clocks are a fairly recent innovation. The ancients kept track of time by the movements of the heavenly bodies, which helped them to divide time by days, months, seasons, and years. The Jews of Bible times divided the light and dark parts of their days into twelve parts each. For example, Christ was crucified at “the third hour,” and He died “about the ninth hour,” which would have been about nine o’clock in the morning and three o’clock in the afternoon in our timekeeping system (see Mark 15:25; Matthew 27:46–50, NIV). But these were estimates. The length of the hour depended on the time of year. During the summer months the day would be longer, so the hour would also be longer than in the winter.
Calendars have been around for some five millenniums. Wikipedia lists more than 80 calendars that have been adopted by various cultures, from the Mayan calendar of the North and Central American Indians to the Hebrew calendar of the ancient Jews to our modern Gregorian calendar.
Coordinating months with years
I mentioned a moment ago that the three most obvious ways to divide the passing of time are to base it on the cycles of the heavenly bodies: the rotation of the earth on its axis to mark our days, the orbit of the moon around the earth to mark our months, and the orbit of the earth around the sun to mark our years. In addition, we divide the year into seasons, which are also based on the rotation of the earth around the sun. (We will discuss the division of time into weeks in a moment.)
A major problem that every culture has to grapple with is synchronizing lunar months with solar years. The earth orbits the sun about every 365.25 days, while the moon orbits the earth about every 29.53 days, which means that there are about 12.53 months in a year. Thus, the months don’t fit neatly into the years the way round pegs fit into round holes. Some cultures have solved this problem by using a strictly lunar calendar, others with a combination of lunar and solar calendars, and still others with a strictly solar calendar.
Lunar calendars. In a strictly lunar year, such as the one that’s still used by the Muslim religion, the months are about 11 days short of completing a year, which is why the date of the Muslim month of Ramadan varies so widely from solar year to year.
Lunar-solar calendars. To solve the problem presented by the difference in the lunar months and solar year, many ancient cultures tried to align the lunar calendar with the solar calendar. One of the most common ways to do this was to add a month every second or third year. The Hebrew religious calendar is an example of this form of synchronization. Of course, with this calendar system, the time for the seasons varies quite widely from year to year.
Solar calendars. The Roman Emperor Julius Caesar adopted a strictly solar calendar on January 1, 45 B.C., and it became the norm throughout the empire for more than 1,600 years. Its years had 365 days divided into 12 months, with a leap day added to February every four years. However, the Julian calendar was slightly longer than a full year. Thus, by the year 1500 A.D., the spring planting season had slipped about 10 days back into February.
To correct this problem, Pope Gregory III introduced a revised calendar that compensates for this slippage of time. The Gregorian calendar, as it is called, cut 10 days out of the October calendar in 1582 so that Monday, October 4 was followed by Tuesday, October 15. And to prevent continued slippage, the Gregorian calendar also cut out some of the leap February days. The leap day in years that are divisible by four is maintained except for years that are divisible by 100 (1800, 1900, etc.), which are not leap years. However, years that are divisible by 400 (such as 1600 and 2000) are leap years.
Gregory’s calendar was adopted by the Catholic countries of Europe immediately, but Protestant and Orthodox countries adopted it more slowly over the next three-plus centuries. The last European country to adopt it was Greece, in 1923, and by the end of the twentieth century, nearly every country in the world had adopted it at least for political and economic purposes. However, some Orthodox countries continue to use the Julian calendar for religious purposes; Orthodox Jews continue to use the Hebrew religious calendar, and, as mentioned previously, Muslims still use their religious lunar calendar.
The week is the only measure of time that isn’t based on the movement of the earth, moon, or sun. Today the seven-day week is almost universal. However, throughout world history, various cultures have used weeks that range from four to ten days. The ancient Romans observed an eight-day week, and during the French Revolution, the government ordered a ten-day week.
According to Genesis, the seven-day week began at Creation: “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Genesis 2:2, 3). Given the significance of the Creation account for both Judaism and Christianity, we need to ask, What is the theological and spiritual significance of the week and especially of the Sabbath?
Note that the Sabbath is a point in time. So at the very beginning of earth’s history, God did something special with time. Next, note the first words in the statement about the Sabbath: “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing.”
God is an extremely gifted artist, and the creation of the world—its plants and animals, and especially its two humans—is His masterpiece. We humans often acknowledge milestone events such as the completion of a university building with special celebrations, and we celebrate certain historical events every year, such as birthdays, anniversaries, and national declarations of independence.
Similarly, God set aside the seventh day as a special memorial—a weekly celebration—of Creation. And this aspect of the Sabbath is so important to God that He made the day holy. To make something holy means to set it apart for a special use. Just as God expected Moses to show special respect for the holy ground he was standing on at the burning bush by removing his shoes (Exodus 3:1–5), so He expects us to show special respect for the holy time on the Sabbath.
A special day for humans
Everything God made during the first six days of Creation week had to do with the physical world: a planet with its atmosphere, plants, animals, and humans. But on the seventh day, God created something that’s especially for intelligent human beings. To the animals, the seventh day of the week is like every other. Only intelligent humans can recognize the significance of the Sabbath as holy time. Thus, the Sabbath is God’s special creative act—a temple in time—that only human beings can understand and participate in.
And there’s a reason for this. The most fundamental aspect of the Sabbath is loving relationships. God created millions of angels (see Revelation 5:11; Daniel 7:10) because He wanted intelligent beings whom He could love and who could love Him in return, and He apparently created each one individually, one by one. However, He gave humans the ability to join with Him in creating more humans. Given enough time, there’s no limit to the number of people we humans are capable of creating. That’s how much God enjoys having relationships with other intelligent creatures!
And, of course, these relationships take time. That’s why God set aside the Sabbath at the very beginning of world history as a time He could relate with us and we with Him. And He embedded this principle in His law of Ten Commandments. It’s why He made the day holy—so that we would set it aside as time for enjoying a loving relationship with Him.
You may say, “I worship God every day.” Good! God is pleased. But He also set aside an entire day for us to fellowship with Him and each other in a special way.
Or you may say, “It doesn’t matter which day we keep so long as it’s one day in seven. God is pleased when we spend time with Him on other days, but there’s only one 24-hour period that He blessed and made holy. There’s only one day that He has asked us to observe in honor of His Creation of our world and us. There’s only one 24-hour period that He asks us to spend in a special relationship with Him and each other.
God longs for a special relationship with human beings so much that when we turned against Him, He gave His Son to die to save us from our sins (see John 3:16). He made that great sacrifice just so that He could love us and spend time with us! And the Sabbath is a special time for that relationship.
We can fool with time by organizing it in various ways to accommodate our need for order in our lives, and God approves of that because He too is a God of order. But there’s one day that He set aside at the very beginning of time as a special celebration of our Creation. There’s just one day that He set aside as a time for Him to have a special relationship with us and we with Him. And it’s very dangerous to fool with that!