I am not going to return to review the entire story of Abraham and Sarah, but if you have been here the past few Sundays, or if you know the story from reading it, you know of the several ways in which Abraham’s actions in trying to achieve this promise by his own initiative actually hindered God from fulfilling his words.
And yet we read in the above verse that Isaac was born “at the very time God had promised.”
Probably the specific promise to which this verse is referring is the one given about a year previous to Isaac’s birth. At that time, as Abraham sat at the entrance to his tent, he was visited by three men, one of them clearly identified as the Lord. It was there, sitting in front of the tent, that the Lord told Abraham and Sarah that in about one year’s time, Sarah would have a son. This was the time that Sarah laughed at the idea, since she was already eighty-nine years old at that time.
Nevertheless, true to the word of the Lord, “at the very time God had promised,” Isaac was born, just as he had told them.
But the question is greater than simply that one promise at Abraham’s tent, for this is a promise that had also been made decades earlier. We have read how during all of these years, Abraham did not understand why God seemed to be delaying in fulfilling it. Why did God have to wait until Sarah was ninety years old and Abraham one hundred before he granted the birth of their son?
It is true that by Abraham’s actions of attempting to fulfill the promise of God by his own efforts, he may have actually delayed the birth of the promised son. However, one might also reason if Isaac had been born to him and Sarah when they were younger, even when God first made the promise, much of what Abraham did would not have happened. For instance, if he and Sarah had a child, Abraham would not be able to pass Sarah off as his sister to the foreign kings.
All of these points are matters of speculation, of course, but the fact that God did not immediately fulfill his promise to Abraham and Sarah brings up the subject of how God measures time in relation to how we measure it.
Our Concept of Time
Our concept of time is tied directly to the movement of the earth around the sun. One revolution of the earth around the sun is one year, and one rotation of the earth as it faces the sun is one day. From these two factors of planetary movements, we have divided these periods into segments of months, weeks, hours and minutes.
Our thinking about time is inextricably tied to this notion. It is almost impossible to separate ourselves from it. We hang calendars on our walls and wear watches on our wrists. As we sit in a quiet room, very often the only audible sound is the ticking of the clock hanging on the wall. For us, time moves steadily forward, never stopping, never varying in velocity, and ever present in our consciousness.
In the manner that God reckons time, all of these factors also enter into his thinking. After all, it was he who set the earth in motion around the sun. But God’s vision of time is much deeper than the simple ticking of a clock. There are indications in the Scriptures that show us that God’s concept of time includes other factors as well.
We will come back to the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and why it took so long, but first it may be helpful to look at some Scripture passages that relate to God’s view of time.
God’s Concept of Time
The first factor that we should notice about God’s concept of time is that because he is viewing time from the perspective of eternity, it makes little difference to him if we are talking about a few of our years, or a few thousand of our years. This is expressed by the Psalm:
Lord, You have been our dwelling place through all generations.
Before the mountains were born or You brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting You are God.
You return man to dust, saying, “Return, O sons of mortals.”
For in Your sight a thousand years are but a day that passes, or a watch of the night.
You whisk them away in their sleep; they are like the new grass of the morning—in the morning it springs up new, but by evening it fades and withers. (Psalm 90:1-6 BSB)
In God’s concept of time, what seems like a long time to us is to God but a moment. However, his understanding of time is more than simply viewing it from a broader historical perspective. For God, there is a sense that all time, past, present and future, is always present before Him. The Apostle Peter writes that is not only that a thousand years that are like a day to God, but that a day is also like a thousand years! (1 Peter 3:8).
There seems also to be a sense where the ticking of the clock is even irrelevant to God! Although he takes the movements of the planets into his thinking when considering time, he is not bound only to that.
God’s Timeline – The Half an Hour that Seems an Eternity
As far as my own understand of how God calculates time, there are basically two elements that enter into his thinking. Of the two aspects of God’s view of time, the manner in which he marks our years on earth is probably the less difficult for us to understand. It is less difficult because we can envision his eternal perspective as a super-long timeline.
Comparing God’s perspective to our own, if each one of us were to draw a timeline of our lives, noting such things our date of birth, graduations, marriage, various jobs, and so on, we would see the significant events in the entire span of our lives. When we view our years from this perspective of our entire lives, that half an hour where we had to wait for our doctor appointment may have seemed like an eternity while we sat in the waiting room, but when we graph it on the complete timeline of our lives, we see it is actually pretty insignificant.
If we were to think of God’s timeline, we can see that it must extend to eternity both to the left and to the right—into eternity past and eternity future. The entire scope of our lives here on earth may seem long to us, but from the eternal perspective, it is as the prophet Isaiah writes: “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flowers of the field” (40:6). And it is for this reason that Peter writes that to the Lord, a thousand years are like a day.
James asks us, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 5:14).
God’s Timeline –Pre-ordained Dates
In addition to this, if we were able to see our entire lives as it was displayed on a timeline, not only in the past that we have already experienced, but also into the future where our feet have not yet tread, we would see that God has specific dates for our lives that are already pre-ordained.
This what God’s eternal perspective gives to him. It is why the Psalmist writes: “My frame was not hidden from You when I was made in secret, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all my days were written in Your book and ordained for me before one of them came to be” (139:15-16).
The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes struggled to understand this eternal perspective, and writes: “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die.” He then continues to speak of life events that have an appointed time.
It is also why the writer of Hebrews writes that “It is appointed unto man to die once, and after that, face the judgment” (9:27).
So this is one of the ways in which we can think of God viewing time. It is a super-long timeline with dates pre-ordained. Thinking again of the story of Abraham and Sarah, it is why as they sat in front of the tent the Lord told him, “At the appointed time next year, your wife Sarah shall bear a child.”
God’s timeline is one of the ways in which we can begin to understand the way in which he views our lives, but there is also another way that is perhaps even more important to understand.
God’s Concept of Time – The Filling of the Cup
This second concept of time is not like the timeline, in which we can see all the events of our lives laid out in an orderly fashion with pre-determined dates for each one, and each obediently occurring at their appointed time. Nor is it like a clock that ticks off the seconds and minutes, ever progressing forward. Instead of a timeline, this perspective is better envisioned as a cup that is slowly being filled.
Think of it in this way: Suppose you are filling your cup of coffee with a plan to drink it once the cup is full. However, then someone walks by and bumps your arm so that the cup gets upset and the coffee that you were pouring in gets spilled all over the counter. Your predetermined plan to sit down and drink the coffee is delayed. You still intend to drink coffee, but now your original time to be able to do that has been pushed a bit ahead on the timeline of your day.
When speaking of prophetic events, the Bible actually speaks of this perspective of time more than it does the timeline. Probably one of the clearest examples is that of Abraham himself with God’s promise to him of a son. If we were to put this promise on the timeline, it would seem that it took God and excessively long time to make good on his word. However, when viewed from the perspective of the filling of the cup, Isaac was born “at the very time God had promised.”
The reason that it took so many years was because Abraham continually bumped the arm of God. God’s plan was delayed. He still intended to fulfill it, but now it was moved further to the right on the timeline.
The filling of the cup not only concerns promises of blessings, but may also apply to promises of judgment. Do you remember when God was speaking to Abraham about some of the events that would happen to Abraham’s people in the future years? Do you recall that when Abraham learned that his people would not first be living in the Promised Land, but would first be slaves in Egypt for 400 years? The reason for this delay, according to the words of God, was that at that present time when God was speaking to Abraham, “The iniquity of the Amorite [was] not yet complete” (Genesis 15:13-16).
The Amorites, or the Canaanite people, were an increasingly evil society, drifting ever more away from righteousness. Surely they would be destined for condemnation. But God, in his completely righteous judgment, would not bring that sentence of conviction until, by the depth of iniquity to which they had descended, they demonstrated that they would never repent and turn their society around.
Even the wicked king of Nineveh, upon hearing from Jonah that in forty days God intended to destroy his city, got up from his throne, took off his royal robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. He then issued a proclamation calling for a fast and that every person “turn from his evil ways and from the violence in his hands.”
“Who knows?” he continued, “God may turn and relent; He may turn from His fierce anger, so that we will not perish” (Jonah 3:9).
It is exactly what God did. Nineveh was not destroyed. It is true that the city eventually was judged by God, but it was not until almost 150 later. As long as the people retained their commitment to turn from their evil ways, God allowed them to remain. It was only later, when they again fell into sin, that the judgment did come.
The prophet Joel said the same thing to his own people about the destruction that God was to send their way. “Rend your hearts,” he told them. “Return to the LORD your God. For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in loving devotion. And He relents from sending disaster. Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave a blessing behind Him” (Joel 2:13-14 BSB).
Similar stories are found throughout the narrative of the Bible.
Fullness in the New Testament
As we turn the pages of the Bible to the New Testament, this concept of the filling of the cup becomes especially clear.
Earlier we looked at Peter’s statement that to the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years a day. The reason for God’s seeming slowness in keeping his promise is because he is patient, “Not wanting anyone to perish but everyone to come to repentance.” (1 Peter 3:8-9)
We also see this perspective in the coming of Jesus Christ to be born on this earth. Paul writes that when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman (Galatians 4:4).
In saying this, we can see that God was not so much looking at the timeline as he was that the spiritual conditions of the people were at the point where it was the proper time for the Messiah to be born.
John the Baptist told this to the people. Referring to Jesus, John said, “This is He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because He was before me.’ From His fullness we have all received grace upon grace.”
It is with John’s words that we learn something of why God delayed what we think was a long time before Jesus was born, for John goes on to say that “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:16-17).
Jesus also said this about himself: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17 BSB).
Apparently, God’s people needed all of those hundreds of years to realize that they could not attain righteousness purely based on their own efforts—their efforts that were based only on their obedience to the Law. What was needed was grace. This was the grace and truth that came through Jesus Christ. It is the grace that Jesus preached when he was among us.
It is a lesson that we actually are still learning. It is still in our prideful nature that we are sufficient in ourselves.
The Fullness of Time for which We Await
As we can see, these two concepts of time do not act independently of one another. They in some ways are working in relation to one another. We also see both of these perspectives with the return of Christ in his prophesied second coming.
As Paul told the people of Athens, God has “set a day” when he will judge the world. Taking that statement alone, it would seem that there is a circled date on the calendar on God’s wall for the Day of Judgment.
But remember also that Peter said that God “is not slow, as some count slowness, but is patient with us, not wanting anyone to perish but everyone to come to repentance.” God is waiting for the time to be right, for the fullness of the times. Just as Christ was born in the “fullness of times,” so will he return when the time is full.
It is the fullness of the times that is the most critical. The number of years seems to matter less to God than does the fact that the times should be ready to advance his plan for the ages. His plan, after all, is much more grand than we often recognize. We usually focus on the events that surround us and which directly concern us, such as the second coming of Christ.
The reason that, at least to our way of thinking, God is taking a long time to fulfill his plan is not because he is slow about keeping his promises, but that he is waiting for the time to be right—not only the year on the timeline of his plan, but also for the fullness of the time.
This indeed is an important event on God’s agenda, but that aspect of the return of Christ is only part of the events that will occur at that time. God’s complete plan, and one that he is working toward in the fullness of time, to unite all things in Christ. These are things not only on the earth, but also in things in heaven (Ephesians 1:10).
This Christ, spurned and crucified in his own day, and still derided by many today, will, in the fullness of time, be pre-eminent above all. It is God’s grand plan, and it will come about when He determines the time to be ready.
Some Things are Already at the Fullness of Times
But it is not everything for which we are obligated to wait for God’s timing. There is at least one thing that is ready right now. The time for this one event has come, both the date and in the fullness of the times.
John the Baptist spoke of this in introducing Jesus to the multitudes and proclaiming the gospel of God. John told them, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe in the gospel!” (Mark 1:15)
The Apostle Paul quoted the prophet Isaiah when he wrote the message of God for the future day. Foretelling of the coming of Christ, God said in Isaiah’s day, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.”
Paul writes that that favorable time that was in the future for Isaiah had been fulfilled in Paul’s own day. He adds his own message for the people: “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (Corinthians 6:2; Isaiah 49:8).
The writer of Hebrews speaks of this same message given and of the certainty of severe punishment of rejecting it, and puts the question in our minds, “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (Hebrews 2:3)
“Pay careful attention to how you walk,” Paul writes, “not as unwise but as wise. Redeeming the time that you have, because we are living in evil days. Do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Ephesians 5:15-17).
The fullness of days have come for you, now is the day of salvation.
“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light, for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness, and truth. Test and prove what pleases the Lord” (Ephesians 5:8-10 BSB).
 Jonah gave this prophecy in about 760 BC, and Nineveh was destroyed by the Medes in 612 BC