Kαιπερ (kaiper) Although
Kαιρος (kairos) Time, season
Καισαρ (kaisar) Caesar
Time plays a very important part in the cycle of human life, and the first question that most of us probably ask in the morning is ‘what is the time’? The rest of the day is similarly punctuated by the same or similar questions, and this reflects the way in which our lives are regulated and constrained by time. The writer of Ecclesiastes in chapter 3 verses 1 to 15 refers to the oppressiveness of times and seasons as if the whole of humanity is trapped in an endless round of cause and effect without any escape. As one commentator puts it, ‘Most direct biblical references to time are neutral in association, denoting simply when something happens. Contrary to a common misconception that the Bible does not deal with cyclic time, many of these references imply an awareness of human life lived in terms of its seasons or cyclic repetitions. We might profitably think of such time as natural time, rooted in the natural creation’.1 Yet, because God has placed eternity within our being, Eccles. 3. 11, we have the capacity to think beyond the fleeting things of time and sense, and embrace, through the grace of God in Christ, eternal realities, 2 Cor. 4. 18. We now understand that time is simply one measure of the present limitations of faith that will one day give place to sight, 1 Cor. 13. 12.
The Greek noun kairos occurs frequently in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint [LXX], as well as in Jewish apocryphal texts. It occurs as early as Genesis chapter 1 verse 14 of the set times, or the passage of days and years that are regulated by the luminaries in the sky. These celestial light carriers also provide illumination for the earth. Later, at the beginning of the first of four divine discourses relating to the Flood, the word is translated as ‘resolution’ in the sense that the earth has come into the purpose or time of God’s judgement, Gen. 6. 13 (14 LXX). It is also recorded in Exodus chapter 8 verse 28 that even after God had removed the swarms of flies from Egypt, Pharoah took the occasion to become even more stubborn. When Jonathan sought to intercede for David with Saul, the word is used in the sense that he would seek an opportune moment or occasion to sound out his father on David’s behalf, 1 Sam. 20. 12. In Proverbs chapter 15 verse 23, it refers to the merits of a word that is rightly timed or meets the need of a particular situation. We might compare this to Paul’s injunction in 2 Timothy chapter 4 verse 2, where the teacher should always be ready to proclaim a timely word, that is, a word appropriate for the occasion. There are many other references to the word kairos in the Septuagint [LXX], and even from the limited survey above, it is clear that the word has a multiplicity of meanings. This semantical range, i.e., its subtle shades of meaning, indicates the need to look at the context in which the word is found and not simply translate the word as ‘time’, because what is apparent is that the word kairos refers to a fixed and definite period, e.g., the time of the year when kings go out to battle, as in 2 Samuel chapter 11 verse 1, rather than time in the sense of duration, e.g., lifespan as in Job chapter 10 verse 20, where the synonymous Greek noun chronos is used.
This is an important distinction and can either be thought of in terms of the ‘chronological’ and the ‘realistic’ as argued by Marsh,2 or as Barr put the difference as, ‘between time as chronological and time as opportunity’.3 Robinson states the difference with even more clarity, ‘Kαιρος is time considered in relation to personal action, in reference to ends to be achieved in it. χρονος is time abstracted from such a relation, time, as it were, that ticks on objectively and impersonally, whether anything is happening or not; it is time measured by the chronometer, not by purpose, momentary rather than momentous’.4 Whilst Barr did not ultimately accept this distinction, the use of these synonyms in the Old and the New Testaments does show that the words for ‘time’ exhibit both ‘quantitative’ and ‘qualitative’ aspects to their meanings. The ‘quantitative’ aspect is mainly, but not exclusively translated by the noun chronos, and the ‘qualitative’ aspect is mainly, but again not exclusively translated by the noun kairos.5 This distinction in part can be seen where both words appear in the same text. For example, in Acts chapter 1 verse 7, we read our Lord’s words to His disciples during the forty days prior to His ascension, ‘And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times [chronos] or the seasons [kairos], which the Father hath put in his own power’ [my inserts]. Similarly, in 1 Thessalonians chapter 5 verse 1, both words appear in the same order. Bruce writes in respect of Acts chapter 1 verse 7 that ‘χρονους refers to the time that must elapse before the final establishment of the Kingdom; Kαιρους to the critical events accompanying its establishment’.6
While the distinction is fairly consistent throughout the Bible, the synonyms are often interchanged where we least expect them. A number of New Testament texts demonstrate this, where we would expect to find one noun, but the writer uses the other:
In Stephen’s apology before the Jewish authorities, he refers to the ‘time of the promise [drawing] nigh’ in respect of Israel. Here we would expect the writer, Luke, to have used the noun kairos because he is referring to the fulfilment of prophecy. In other words, using Bruce’s earlier definition, the critical events will have taken place for Israel’s deliverance. Instead, however, he uses the noun chronos.
Again, this text, ‘when the fulness of the time was come’ refers to the fulfilment of prophecy, namely the incarnation of Christ, yet Paul uses chronos not kairos to interpret this event. Eadie states that ‘it is the time regarded as having filled up the allotted space, or itself filled up with the inflow of all the periods contained in the pl?r?ma [“appointed time”, v.2 – (my insert)] of the father’.7 Contrast this, however, with Ephesians chapter 1 verse 10, where Paul uses a similar expression ‘the fulness of times’ but uses kairos not chronos.
In terms then, the noun kairos suggests more than simply a measurement of time, but of a specific age or epoch prescribed by God for the outworking of His sovereign purposes, especially relating to the redemptive work of Christ. In respect of divine judgment, kairos is used almost by way of shorthand as it refers to ‘the time’, Mark 13. 33, or ‘the time is come’, 1 Pet. 4. 17, or ‘the time is at hand’, Rev. 22. 10. As Renn concludes in his study on the word ‘time’, ‘God created the world in space and time. His own intimate personal involvement with the world culminated in the coming of Christ the Messiah at exactly the right time. God’s own son has identified with his fellow human beings in his unique way, thereby gaining salvation for his people that will ultimately transcend space and time in the new heaven and the new earth’.8
When our Lord began His Galilean ministry after John the Baptist was imprisoned, the theme of His preaching was, ‘The time [kairos] is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand’, Mark 1. 15. Some 2,000 years have elapsed since that declaration, so the actual realization of the kingdom is now much nearer. If, therefore, ‘time’ is short, may we redeem it, because the days in which we live are evil, Eph. 5. 16.
Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III (eds.), Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, IVP, 1998, pg. 870.
John Marsh, The Fulness of Time, Nisbet, 1952, pg. 19f.
James Barr, Biblical Words for Time, SCM, 2012, pg. 20.
John A. T. Robinson, In the End … God: A Study of Last Things, Fontana, 1968, pg. 45f.
Vine takes a slightly modified view in that whilst he accepts this distinction between the two words, he also recognizes that the distinction is not sharply defined as, e.g., in 2 Tim. 4. 6 (Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words – Season A2 – ‘Chronos’, pg. 333).
F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles – The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale, 1970,
John Eadie, Galatians, Greek Text Commentaries, Baker Books, 1979, pg. 296.
Stephen D. Renn, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, Hendrickson, 2005, pg. 976.
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