There are two specific terms for time in the New Testament language of Greek. One is chronos: linear time that moves from past to present to future. It’s symbolized by the newborn baby that ushers in the New Year and finishes the year as grizzled, old Father Time. That’s the only way most folks in the Western world assume time goes. But the other word for time is kairos, which is a different creature altogether.
In ancient Greek, kairos meant “the right, critical or opportune moment” when a person or a people could make an important decision or could change the course of history. It was qualitative and uniquely timely, calling for the right response that could make a difference in a person’s character or a people’s future.
In different contexts, kairos means the right moment or the opportune time. It can be a word, an idea, or a practice, and has been used in several fields, including persuasive debate, science, and Christian theology (which simply means “study of God”). It is a time that cannot be measured and offers a choice with implications for the future.
Another way to understand kairos is as “the eternity nestled deep in time.”1 It is a moment when we can feel our personal smallness and the fragility of life, and at the same time experience intimate connection with humanity and the whole created order. It gives us the opportunity to leave a legacy: a contribution, something that really matters, something significant. 2
In the New Testament kairos is used a whopping 85 times, with different qualitative nuances. For example, in these passages the term means:
- Mark 1:14-15 – “the time” [is fulfilled]
- Luke 12:54-56 – “the present time” [that requires interpretation and response in faith]
- 2 Corinthians 6:1-2 – “the acceptable time” [a crisis, opportunity, or favor given by God; a moment of grace]
- Colossians 4:5 – “making the most of the opportunity”
- Ephesians 5:15-16 – “making the most of your time.”
The Gospel of John is striking in its use of this idea. One might imagine kairos moments continually coming down from above, interlacing like fingers with daily chronos events below. For example, in John 7:6 Jesus says, “My time (kairos) has not yet come, but your time (kairos) is always here.” In this case Jesus’ time will offer him a decisive moment that will have significance among people for all (chronological) time. When Jesus said this verse, his kairos moment had not yet come, but at any chronological point in their lives, people can make their significant choice to love God and follow Christ.
We may recognize such interlacing events in our own lives: perhaps as friends around a dinner table, a child at play, a painter at an easel, a worshiper deep in prayer, a mother reaching out for her newborn, or someone viewing a glorious sunset. It is a moment in chronological time, but it is also so much more: kairos breaking through.
This “eternal now” reveals one other distinction about kairos time. It can be an invitation, a challenge, a personal call to take decisive action or to take a step to live life in a new way. For example, in Romans 13:11-14, “the time” or “the moment” calls for action and a changed life. It is like waking up from sleep, like discovering a new day. Kairos invites us to live in the moment, to recognize God’s presence, to take a whole-hearted leap of faith in response to God.
1 – Rev. Willie Dwayne Francois III, “Reflections on the Lectionary” for Dec. 5, 2021, Christian Century, Nov. 17, 2021, p. 20.
2 – C. Mark Frier, “Kairos: In the Midst of Ordinary Time, Kairos Happens!” https://markfreier.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/kairos-study.pdf