The Greek language, which is the language of the New Testament, can use more than one word to describe ideas and things.
As such, the concept of time has two separate words. The Greek terms for time are chronos and kairos, each of which is translated by our English word time. But there is a difference in these two Greek words.
Chronos is time that continually moves from the past, through the present and into the future. It is the time that we measure by our clocks and calendars. It is the time that dictates our lives. It is time on the move that cannot be slowed or stopped.
But kairos, the other Greek term for time, describes a present moment in time. It is the now. Kairos is a moment in which something special takes place.
Indeed, a major distinction between these two ideas about time is that, unlike chronos, kairos is not measured by quantity. In speaking of kairos, we are not speaking of the amount of time. Rather, we are speaking of the quality of time.
For example, if you tell me you went on vacation, I would not ask you how much time you had. I would ask you what kind of time you had.
Of course, you could answer the first question with a measurement of time, such as one week. But that is not what is important. What is important is the kind of time you had. That is what you will remember most, not the amount of time.
In Mark 1:14-15, the author gives us a summary of Jesus’ preaching. This is the succinct summary of Jesus’ entire message, and indeed his life and ministry. And, in that message Jesus announces that “the time is fulfilled.” What did Jesus mean by this?
Of the two Greek words the author of Mark could have chosen, he uses kairos, not chronos. While the statement certainly implies that time has moved forward to this appointed time, we cannot neglect the intentional use and meaning of kairos here.
In using kairos, Jesus is thinking not so much about the movement of time to this point, but rather he is speaking in terms of the now.
This particular time is the time. This is a special moment in time, and this moment carries with it a sense of urgency.
But, again, the question that concerns us is: What did Jesus mean by this statement, “The time is fulfilled”?
Part of our understanding may depend on what Jesus meant when he announced that “the kingdom of God has come near.”
In stating that God’s rule has come near, Jesus is saying that in his coming the kingdom is near, but it is not fully here; the kingdom remains somewhat elusive.
This is one reason why Jesus tells his listeners in Matthew 6:33 to “Keep seeking first the kingdom of God.”
It is not something that just happens or something that just comes to us. We do not just wake up some day and there it is. Yes, it is present, as Jesus proclaimed it to be. But it is near, and it must be sought with all of our being.
I think this understanding of the nearness of the kingdom of God helps us understand what Jesus meant by his statement that “the time is fulfilled.”
Jesus is indicating that the time is now. And though what is taking place in his coming has been promised in the past, the present is what matters. And, although the future is promised by God, the present is what matters.
The past is remembered, and the future is hoped for, both important concepts for faith.
But, it is the present, this moment, that is of utmost significance and urgency. This is why Jesus calls us to repent and believe. Now is the moment of salvation, and now is the opportune time to repent and believe.
But many of us live most of our lives in the chronos, the time that moves on. We move with time, or perhaps we allow time to move us, and we allow chronos to dictate how we live our lives. To a great extent, we allow chronos to devour us.
Jesus, however, calls us to live in the kairos of God’s rule, in this moment, seeking and searching for God with each breath we take and with each moment that passes.
Living in the kairos of God carries with it an emphasis on being in the present. In being in the present, we are fully present to God and to others, putting away the distractions that pull us away from God and that lead us to live insular and selfish lives.
Jesus models this very way of being present. In his healing of people, he was empowered by his sense of presence; a sense of God’s presence, for sure, but also a sense of the presence of those in need.
He did not view them as people who were longing just to be healed. He recognized their longing to know the presence of the divine, and he became that presence to them.
Those healed and restored experienced this sense of the divine in the presence of Jesus, while those standing around watching Jesus perform these healings asked, “Who is this?”
Jesus’ central message was that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near.
New Testament scholars coined a phrase many years ago to capture the idea of the rule of God being here, but not fully realized: “Already, but not yet.”
The idea is that the rule of God is here, but it is not fully here. We live, then, between the times; the time of Jesus’ advent as the earthly Son of God, and the time of Jesus’ advent as the coming Son of Man.
As God’s chronos moves on and as we live between these times, let us live in God’s kairos, modeling the life of Jesus by being fully present to God and those in need of the divine presence.
And, as God’s kairos is continually being fulfilled, and as God’s rule continually draws near, let us continually repent and evermore believe in the good news that God has come.
C. Drew Smith is the Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.