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The Variable of Time: Yesterday’s answers won’t solve today’s questions

blog May 09, 2024

By Martijn van Tilborgh

Albert Einstein, Nobel Prize recipient and one of the greatest and most influential scientists of all time, provided us with a profound nugget of wisdom when one of his students approached him one day with what appeared to be a mistake.

The student took a test and commented, “These are the same questions you asked on last year’s test. Nothing has changed.” Einstein answered, “True enough, all the questions are the same; but this year, the answers are different.”

Wow! Let this sink in for a moment. Einstein made his students aware of something we should all learn to understand as leaders. 

Just because the question is the same, doesn’t necessarily mean that the answer hasn’t changed. 

It is the context in which the question is being asked that will determine the answer to that question. Every context is created through several variables such as place, people, opinions, vision, available resources, etc. 

Yet perhaps the most important variable at play is what I call “the variable of time”.

In other words, the timing of a question determines the answer to that question. Then those answers determine how we act and live our lives. 

When you read Scripture you can clearly see this playing out throughout history. Some of the things God seems to communicate to His people early on in the Bible seem to be irrelevant (even ridiculous) in today’s context. 

Why? Time has changed the answers to questions we ask as humanity!

Now before you judge me for saying that “God has said some ridiculous things” in the past, please hear me out. It wasn’t ridiculous when He said it, but it would be if He said it today. 

Let me explain by quoting king Solomon who dedicated a good portion of Ecclesiastes 3 to explaining “the variable of time”.  

He put it this way: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

He says that different “matters” are dealt with at different “times”. Therefore “time” is a variable that will determine what “matter” is being dealt with “when”. Solomon then continues to give us specific examples of these matters in the verses that follow. 

As God interacts with humanity throughout time it appears that Solomon and Einstein are right. He’s guiding us on a journey of discovery of who He truly is as well as a journey of deconstruction of what we've come to believe in our “fallen state”.

I discovered a “cycle” to this process that seems to be recurring, and it goes like this: 

  1. Specific Question: Certain Answer
  2. Same Question Later: Different Answer
  3. Same Question Even Later: Irrelevant Question 

The cycle ends by making our previous question irrelevant in context of where time has brought us, thus requiring “new questions”. 

OK, let’s find a practical scriptural example: 

Question: Do you need to be circumcised? 

Moses: “Yes!” 

Peter: “Nah … Don’t worry about it!” 

Me: “Uh … are you seriously asking me this question? You must be joking!” 

This is just one Biblical example. Believe me, there are many more (some of which would be too offensive to put in this article). 

I don’t know about you, but this fascinates me. It even excites me!

Someone once said that theology is not a subject to study, but it’s a conversation to explore. 

There seems to be so much more to discover about God that we can’t see from our place in time. Understanding “the cycle” pushes us to search out “matters” that were previously hidden from past generations. 

King Solomon says it this way in Proverbs 25:2: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, But the glory of kings is to search out a matter.”

As kings in His kingdom, let’s search for what was previously concealed to those who provided us with the answers of the past. 

Cause let’s face it … What got us to where we are as His people, can’t get us to where we are going! 

We can’t just blindly adopt “the answers” of the past. Perhaps, we need to even start changing the questions we ask.

SOMETHING NEW REQUIRES SOMETHING NEW

It’s been said that:

“If you always do, what you always did, you will always get, what you always got.”

In other words, “Something new requires something new.”

You’ll have to walk away from the familiar and traverse into the unknown. 

Nobody understood this better than king David. He had known for some years that he was going to end up as king over Israel. It hadn’t been an easy journey to say the least. Many times he wanted to give up, but the word and promises of God were like fire in his bones, giving him the strength to keep going. 

Finally, the day had come that both Israel and Judah had anointed and accepted him as king. 

Although relieved that the war with the house of Saul was over, he was faced with another challenge. He realized that if something was going to change for the people he served, he himself needed to change something first.

He came to the conclusion that if he was simply going to embrace the answers from the past that he was going to be stuck in the same status quo he had inherited from the past.

David had just been crowned as the first king of Israel. Israel never had a king before and as a result he had no point of reference for what it meant to be a king other than the kings of the nations around him. Sure, Saul technically was a king, but one in “name only”. 

This thing that had never been done before required new questions and new answers for him to be effective in his time. 

He realized that past ministry and leadership models from those who had gone before him were no longer suitable for the context he was in. They would fail him. He had seen Saul rely on the past when he called Samuel back from the dead in an effort to get the answers he thought he needed. So he had concluded that that wasn’t going to work. 

A shift had to be made. New questions needed to be asked. Something different needed to be done. 

David decided that it would be best to break away from past seats of government and put up shop in a new location in order to have a fresh start. 

He decided that Jerusalem would be that place!

As he prepared to leave Hebron he remembered the words of Moses (Exodus 33:15) when he said, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.”

The Presence of God was something that his predecessor didn’t really worry about. In fact Saul didn’t really engage with it the whole time he was in power. It was ignored and neglected as it remained in Abinadab’s house for 20 long years. 

So David decided to recover it before embarking on his journey to Jerusalem. 

Although this was a great move and although David was aware of the changes he needed to make, he made a life-threatening mistake to think that the answers from the past would still apply to his context. 

Let me explain … 

WHY FIX IT, IF IT AIN’T BROKE?           

We’ve all heard the sermon about what happened next in the story. Most of us have probably preached that sermon. Uzzah was put in charge of leading the parade. He put the ark on a new cart that was pulled by oxen, but when the oxen stumbled, Uzzah reached out his hand in an effort to avoid an accident. 

And as he touched the ark, he got struck dead!

Uzzah has through the years been painted as this guy who didn’t know what he was doing. The guy who screwed up. He has been villainized by many preachers as the man who train-wrecked David’s first project as king. 

What an idiot! What was he thinking? Trying to control the presence of God with human hands! 

The more I think about this though, the more I started to understand Uzzah. In fact, after processing the story more I believe that Uzzah wasn’t “the bad guy”. 

If anyone or anything was to blame it was David’s lack of understanding of what we’re talking about in this article. 

The new context David found himself in required a new approach! 

Uzzah was the good guy. In fact, I believe he was the best guy for the job. David had hand selected the best fit for this most important task. He had been loyal, dedicated and had shown that he could operate under pressure. 

Uzzah was “the man”!

I understand Uzzah and even sympathize with him. 

Think about it. Both David and Uzzah’s only point of reference for how to transport the ark successfully, was how the Philistines had successfully done it years prior.

Remember the story? After capturing the ark from Eli and his sons, the Philistines ultimately returned it to Israel after they were struck by plagues. They decided that it was a bad idea to keep possession of the ark because it was bad luck for them.

In 1 Samuel 6:7, we read what the Philistines’ spiritual leaders counseled. They put the ark on a new cart pulled by cattle that had never been yoked before. And that’s how the presence of God was successfully recovered by God’s people. 

Samuel was at the helm in this moment when God’s ark was returned to where it belonged. For several decades this story echoed throughout Israel, making sure that everyone knew about the day that this miracle happened (and more importantly HOW it happened). 

So when David and Uzzah were faced with the question: “How do we move this thing?”, it only made sense for them to use the same “proven” method. It had been done before, so why not do it again that way? 

Why fix it, if it ain’t broke?               

The resulting events even confused David to the point where he was both angry as well as afraid of what had just happened.                                                                       

If this was what it was going to be like, he wasn’t sure if he was up for the task. He spiraled down emotionally to the point where he was simply not sure if he was still “in.” 

He needed a break. Time to think. Was this shift really God? How could it be, if it resulted in the death of one of his most trusted delegates.

David aborted the mission and decided to take a three-month sabbatical.                       

In the meantime took the ark aside, into the house of Obed-Edom. But then something interesting happened. The Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom those three months. And the Lord blessed Obed-Edom and all his household.                                                

Remarkable. The same presence that had killed Uzzah now blessed Obed-Edom and all those who were in his house.

How confusing? Yet, at the same time, it released a sense of hope—hope that he hadn’t been wrong completely. This gave him the strength and courage to try again, but this time with an open mind that was free from the assumptions of the past. 

David now understood that the past could not be repeated through the answers it provides. The variable of time had caused the answers to some of the same questions to change. 

This time it had to be done differently. 

There are many more lessons to be learned from this story as well as the story that follows next, but the main thing learned is that we can’t advance God’s kingdom by assuming that the answers from the past still apply to us. 

This is a good thing. It keeps us on our toes as we pray for more of God’s kingdom to become visible on earth as it is already in heaven. 

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