One of the first things the Bible says about God is that He is concerned with keeping time. He is not bound by time, but He is also not detached from time or disinterested in it. From the very beginning of creation, He keeps time. He defines what constitutes a day (“evening and morning, one day”) and enumerates how many days it takes for Him to create the world. He creates light and darkness, and calls the light day and the darkness night, and then defines “one day” as “evening and morning.” And then throughout the remainder of Genesis 1, we are told not only about what God did but when He did it. We’re told about Days 1, 2, 3, and on up to the seventh day when He rested.
God’s interest in time doesn’t stop with creation. Scripture gives us a genealogy of the descendants of Cain, from Cain on up through Lamech and the generation before the flood. Cain has sons, and his sons have sons, but we don’t know how long they live. We can’t construct a chronology from the descendants of Cain. But with the descendants of Seth, there are dates, ages, and we can add them up and figure out that there are about 1600 years between the creation anmd the flood. The sons of Seth are the carriers of time, the times are with them; they are the family and nation that carries history. All other events are dated in relation to Seth. For the Bible, “sacred space” is measured space, space marked off by numbers and with specific boundaries. Sacred time is numbered time, dated time, chronology, and it’s holy time for the holy people.
Throughout the Bible, the clock at the center of history is the clock that tracks the history of Israel. That is mean time. After Seth, Abraham’s seed carries history, and then the emperors who rule Israel. And this continues into the new covenant: Virtually everyone in the world celebrated the year 2000 nearly a decade ago, but only Christian nations have any reason to. The time of Christ has become the time of the world.
Not only do we find that God keeps time, but He also teaches Israel – His image – to mark time, and to mark time according to His acts on their behalf. God gave Israel a new calendar after their deliverance from Egypt. The month of Passover (in the spring, March/April) was to be the first month of their calendar (Exodus 12:2). Other events shaped the remainder of the year: Pentecost, in the third month, celebrated the giving of the law, and the seventh-month Feast of Booths included a commemoration of the time Israel spent living in tents in the wilderness.
When Yahweh does something new, He inaugurates a new time, restarts the clock, and with this new phase of history comes a new calendar. Israel had a calendar before the exodus, and they continued to keep time according to that calendar. With the exodus, the “liturgical” calendar was added to the existing calendar. The logic of celebrating Advent and Christmas and Easter and Pentecost is the same: The time-keeping God sent Jesus at the right time. Jesus comes in the fullness of time, to fulfill time, as He says in Mark’s gospel.
Some Reformed liturgical thinkers object to the church calendar because there is no biblical command to observe it. God gave Israel specific instructions about time-keeping, but we don’t have any such instruction in the New Testament. Paul even teaches the contrary, condemning the observance of “days, months, seasons, years.”
If we pay attention to the trajectory of Israel’s calendar, we draw some other conclusions. When Israel first came from Egypt, Yahweh gave her specific instructions about time-keeping. He gave Israel an annual calendar to observe. Later in the Old Testament, though, leaders in Israel modify the calendar. Israel adds festivals that are not prescribed by direct revelation.
The most obvious one is the celebration of Purim in the book of Esther. Purim is a great new Passover. The Amalekite, Agagaite, Haman tries to kill all the Jews, as Pharaoh tried to wipe out the Hebrew children; Yahweh causes Haman to fall into the trap he set, and delivers Israel; Israel even embarks on a kind of conquest of the Persian empire, and many of the Persian subjects become so terrified of the power of Yahweh that they change sides and become Jews. And in celebration of this great new Passover and Exodus, Mordecai instructs the Jews to observe the month of Purim, the month of the Lot, the lot that Haman cast to decide when to kill the Jews (Esther 9:20-31). Mordecai does this on his authority, without any direct revelation from God. Similarly, Zechariah records temporary fast days established during the exile (8:18-19).
What we see in the Bible, then, is a progression from prescribed festivals to a situation where Israel has the freedom to establish festival days and fast days themselves. These new festivals are rooted in the same principle: God’s great acts of deliverance are to be commemorated and celebrated, but they are not directly commanded.
What we see, in fact, is the maturation of Israel. Under the Mosaic order, they were children, and as children their days had to be scheduled by their father, Yahweh. As they grew, they became more and more capable of setting their own schedule, of deciding when to do what, of making celebrations their father would approve but which He did not prescribe.
Israel grows up to be the lords of time. Yahweh created sun, moon, and stars as time-keepers, and they remain important time-keepers today. But the main thrust of biblical history is the gift of time-rule to the children of Adam and Eve. The sons of Seth, then the sons of Abraham, then Israel carry the history of the world, and then Yahweh hands over the times to Gentile rulers, who carry the times until the coming of the Messiah. He comes, in the fullness of time, to carry time as the true son of Abraham, as the true Israelite, as the greater Seth, as the God-man. In Him, time starts anew, and He is exalted as Lord of time, and by His Spirit makes us time lords.
We no longer keep time by sunrise and sunset. We keep time by clocks of our own creation, and with electric lights some cities are like daylight 24/7. We can organize time that violate the way God created us and wants us to live, but the evil is not that we are lords of time. That’s what the Lord created us to be, and that’s part of what He gives in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He comes to make His Son Lord of all times, of the fullness of times, and to exalt us to rule time with Him.