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Lesson 12: Why Doesn’t Christ Return? (2 Peter 3:8-9)

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An atheist farmer often ridiculed those who believe in God. He wrote a letter to the local newspaper in which he scoffed, “I plowed on Sunday, planted on Sunday, cultivated on Sunday, and hauled in my crops on Sunday; but I never went to church on Sunday. Yet I harvested more bushels per acre than anyone else, even those who are God-fearing and never miss a service.”

The editor printed the man’s letter and then added this remark: “God doesn’t always settle His accounts in October.” (Taken from “Our Daily Bread,” date unknown.)

Do you ever wonder why God delays judgment on this wicked world? Why doesn’t Christ return to judge the world as He promised? But then you realize, “What if He had returned to judge the world while I was still an unbeliever? I would have been lost!” And so while we join millions of believers down through the centuries in praying, “Your kingdom come,” we have to be content to leave the timing in God’s hands.

Peter wrote this letter to churches where false teachers were scoffing at the promise of Christ’s coming again to judge the world. Their theological error stemmed from their greedy, lustful lifestyles. Although they claimed to believe in Christ, they did not submit to Him as Lord. Their evil views were snaring some who professed to be Christians. So Peter wrote to refute their errors by showing that if Jesus Christ is returning to judge the living and the dead, then you must live in submission to His lordship.

Thus in chapter 3:1-7, Peter shows how God’s day of judgment is certain in spite of the mockery of certain men. In verses 8-9, Peter gives two truths to help explain why God seems to delay the return of Christ to judge the world:

Christ’s return in judgment seems delayed because God has a different perspective on time and because He patiently waits for all to come to repentance.

1. Christ’s return seems delayed because God’s perspective on time is radically different than our perspective (3:8).

“But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day” (3:8). Peter again addresses his readers as “beloved” (see 3:1, 14, 17). As a gentle shepherd, he wants them to know that he cares for them. He wants them not to miss this one fact which is of vital importance to their spiritual health. If you do not understand this truth of how God’s perspective of time differs from our perspective, you will not be able to endure trials well. You will not understand why the wicked seem to prosper, while the godly suffer. You will not live in light of the coming judgment.

Peter draws this truth from Moses’ profound Psalm 90, which grapples with the shortness of life and the eternality of God. He wrote (Ps. 90:3-4), “You turn man back into dust and say, ‘Return, O children of men.’ For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it passes by, or as a watch in the night.” He goes on to compare our lives to grass that sprouts in the morning and withers by evening. Our lives are short and feeble, but God is eternal!

Time greatly affects us, but it does not affect God. I have shown you before a picture of Marla and me when we first met 36 years ago. You can probably perceive a few changes in our appearance! She’s still beautiful, but I’ve lost some hair! If we live another twenty years, you will see even more changes, and they won’t be in our favor. But God never changes! He is the same now as He was at the beginning of time.

All of time is equally present with God. He sees the past, the present, and the future with equal vividness. We remember a few things from the past, but forget a lot. We’re limited by our finite perspective in perceiving the present, whereas God can see everything happening everywhere all at once. And we have no knowledge of the future, except for our clouded view of biblical prophecy. But God sees it all in great detail.

God’s view of the length of time differs from our view: “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years.” What does that mean? I think Charles Spurgeon is correct when he observes that God can make a single day as useful in His purpose as it would take us a thousand years to produce (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], “God’s Estimate of Time,” 8:247). When God sends revival, for example, thousands may be converted in a short time, whereas under more normal conditions, it would take many years. The day that God converted the apostle Paul was just like any other day, but that one day resulted in more than a thousand years’ of influence through Paul’s ministry and his inspired writings.

Also, with the Lord “a thousand years [are] like one day.” Since the late second century, some (Irenaeus and The Epistle of Barnabas, cited by Thomas Schreiner, The New American Commentary, 1, 2 Peter, Jude [Broadman Publishers], p. 380) have speculated that since God created the world in six days and rested the seventh, it follows that creation would last for six thousand years, followed by the millennium. If you add up the genealogies in Genesis with no gaps, creation was about 4,000 B.C. Thus the “six days” should be up any time now!

But, as interesting as that speculation may be, Peter does not say that a thousand years equal one day, but rather are like one day. In other words, he is making an analogy, not a literal equation. Most of us can’t conceive of what the world was like a thousand years ago. But that was like yesterday to God!

Although the gap between our view of time and God’s view is far greater, we might compare it to a child’s view of time versus an adult’s view. When you tell a young child that his birthday is just one month away, he doesn’t get it. Every day he will ask, “Is it my birthday yet?” Or, when you get in the car to make a long trip, you tell the kids that it will take twelve hours to get there, but 30 minutes into it, you will hear, “Are we almost there yet?” In the same way, we can’t conceive of a thousand years. But that is only like one day to God.

This is a very practical truth to understand. It helps you endure suffering. Many years ago, I was reading through Genesis when the Lord startled me with Genesis 42:1, “Now it happened at the end of two full years that Pharaoh had a dream ….” You can read that phrase in a second, but I stopped to think about it. It occurs in the context of Joseph being in prison. He had correctly interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s baker and the cupbearer. As the cupbearer went out the prison door, Joseph pled with him to remember him before Pharaoh, so that he could get out of prison. But the cupbearer forgot!

Joseph was probably in his twenties. An Egyptian dungeon isn’t a pleasant place to be at any point in life, but especially not when you’re young, healthy, and desiring to get a wife, children, and a career. I’m sure that Joseph must have prayed fervently each day, “Lord, get me out of here! I’m here because I obeyed You and resisted Potiphar’s wife’s advances. How long, O Lord?” “Now it happened at the end of two full years that Pharaoh had a dream ….” Why couldn’t God have given Pharaoh that dream after two weeks or two months? Why did God wait two full years? We don’t know God’s reasons, but Joseph trusted in God’s sovereign control of all that had happened to him, so that later he could affirm to his brothers, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).

God also had a sovereign purpose when He kept Jacob’s descendants as slaves in Egypt for 400 years (Gen. 15:13; Exod. 12:40). Four hundred years is an awfully long time to be slaves making bricks in the hot Egyptian sun! But from God’s perspective, it’s less than half a day! It was also four hundred years from the last of the prophets to the birth of the Messiah, but as Paul wrote (Gal. 4:4), “When the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son ….” He was right on God’s schedule!

Peter is applying this truth to us as we await the return of Christ, when He will judge all the wicked and reign in righteousness. It seems as if He never will come. But it’s only been two days that He has been gone! (See, also, my sermon, “The Inefficiency of God,” 1/16/00, on the church web site.) So Peter’s point is that Christ’s return seems delayed, but only because God’s perspective on time is radically different than our perspective.

2. Christ’s return is delayed because the Lord is patient, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance (3:9).

“The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (3:9). This is a wonderful verse with great practical application that we can easily miss, because it plunges us into some deep theological controversies!

A. If the Lord has promised something, it will happen in His ordained time, not on our schedule.

Peter seems to be alluding to the charges of the false teachers when he says, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness ….” They were saying that because Jesus had not returned yet (by the mid-sixties!), His promise to return must not be valid at all! The irony was that they were using the Lord’s patience, which was giving them time to repent, against Him! They wrongly presumed that because God wasn’t acting according to their timetable, they could sit in judgment on Him! But the fact is, although we often will have times when we do not understand the Lord’s ways or His timing, we never have the right to pronounce judgment on Him and say that His ways or His timing are wrong!

In 1 Peter 3:20, Peter refers to God’s patience during the days of Noah’s building of the ark. For at least 100 years, God waited while Noah built the ark and preached righteousness to those evil people. But none responded, except for Noah’s family. Even so, now God waits patiently while evil abounds, before He brings judgment. But at some point known only to God, judgment will fall. He is not slow about His promise, which refers to the promise of Christ’s coming (3:4), which will bring judgment. When that judgment comes, all who have not responded to Christ’s call to repentance will be excluded from “the ark.” They ignored the warnings. It will be too late!

B. God’s seeming delay in Christ’s return in judgment is not due to indifference or inability, but rather to His patience and compassion for sinners.

Here is where we encounter a wonderful truth, but one which plunges us into theological controversy! “The Lord … is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”

There are at least two ways to “fall off this horse”! Some emphasize God’s heart for the lost to the degree that they picture Him as pining away in heaven, wringing His hands in despair because these stubborn sinners won’t exercise their free will and come to Christ. He has done everything that He can do to save them. Now all He can do is to sit in heaven and be heartsick over their sinful refusal to repent and believe. Others argue that God could not wish for all people not to perish because He has not chosen all for salvation. So they say that the only ones God does not wish to perish are the elect. The implication is that He really doesn’t care about the non-elect.

It seems to me that both of these views are out of balance with what Peter is saying here. The first view is out of balance because it pictures God as restricted and unable to save anyone because of so-called “free will.” But the Bible is clear that fallen man’s will is not free, but rather, “fast bound in sin and nature’s night,” to use Charles Wesley’s phrase. To use Paul’s words (Rom. 3:10-11), “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God.” He also described the human race outside of Christ as dead in their sins (Eph. 2:1-3), blinded by Satan (2 Cor. 4:4), darkened in their understanding and excluded from the life of God because of the hardness of their heart (Eph. 4:19). So if it is up to the will of man to choose salvation, no one could or would be saved. The first view errs by picturing God as unable to save anyone.

But the second view errs by picturing God as uncaring or unloving towards the lost (except for the elect lost, who have not yet come to salvation). It correctly affirms God’s will of decree, which assures us that the Father has given a certain number of people to the Son, and that of that number, He will not lose any, but raise them up at the last day (John 6:37-40). Both Jesus and Paul referred to “the elect” or “the chosen” (Matt. 24:22, 24, 31; Luke 18:7; Rom. 8:33; 2 Tim. 2:10), which does not refer to man’s choice of God, but rather to God’s sovereign choice of man. God chooses sinners in spite of themselves, so that none can boast before Him (1 Cor. 1:26-31).

But the second view does not properly affirm God’s will of desire, which expresses His compassion for all the lost. We see God’s desire that the lost would come to Him and be saved in Ezekiel 18:23, “‘Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,’ declares the Lord God, ‘rather than that he should turn from his ways and live?’” (See, also, Ezek. 18:32; 33:11; Jonah 4:11.)

In the New Testament, we see God’s patience and compassion for the lost when Jesus weeps over Jerusalem in light of the people’s rejection of Him and the inevitable judgment that will result (Luke 19:41-44). We see it in Paul’s sorrow and unceasing grief for the hardened Jews. He even wishes that he could be accursed and separated from Christ, if it would mean the salvation of the Jews (Rom. 9:1-3; 10:1)! Paul also said, in similar fashion to Peter here, that God our Savior “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:3b-4). In line with this, even John Calvin comments on 2 Peter 3:9 (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 419), “So wonderful is his love towards mankind, that he would have them all to be saved, and is of his own self prepared to bestow salvation on the lost.”

So, how do we explain the tension between God’s desire that all would come to repentance and be saved and the clear truth that He only chose some (not all) for salvation? Calvin goes on to explain that in the gospel, God with compassion stretches out His hand to all, but because of His hidden purpose, He only lays hold of those whom He has chosen before the foundation of the world. I also refer you to John Piper’s helpful discussion, “Are There Two Wills in God?” (found on www.desiringgod.org; also in Still Sovereign [Baker], ed. by Thomas Schreiner & Bruce Ware, pp. 107-131; and in Piper, The Pleasures of God, revised and expanded [Multnomah], pp. 313-340). But the short answer is, the Bible clearly teaches that God decrees some things which He does not desire.

The clearest example is the death of Christ, which required the evil deeds of evil men to accomplish. God does not desire evil and He does not in any direct sense cause evil, but His decree permits that evil will happen for a higher purpose or good. When evil people do their evil deeds, which are decreed by God, the evil people are fully responsible and cannot blame God. We see this in Acts 2:23, where Peter proclaims, “This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.” Also, in Acts 4:27-28, the disciples pray, “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.” There are many other examples of this in the Bible (see Piper, ibid.).

But the truth that we must hold in tension is, God decrees the salvation only of His elect, but He desires the salvation of all. When Peter states that the Lord “is patient toward you” (italics mine), he may mean towards any from the churches who had followed the false teachers. God desires each of them to repent, but He did not necessarily decree that all of them actually would repent (Schreiner, p. 382). But we can extend this to all people everywhere (in line with the other Scriptures mentioned earlier): God is patient towards all sinners, “not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” This leads to a final point of application:

C. If God desires all to come to repentance, we must preach the gospel of repentance to all.

Again, there is a tension here that we must maintain: on the one hand we know that God has not chosen all to salvation. But, on the other hand, He desires that all would be saved. We don’t know in advance who His chosen ones are. So we proclaim the good news, that God wants to save you from judgment. He doesn’t want to condemn you. He went to great sacrifice to provide salvation, namely, He sent His own Son to die on the cross and pay the penalty for all who will repent and believe. So we can plead with people to turn from their sin and trust in Christ, assuring them of God’s genuine concern and compassion for them.

But, we must also warn them that God’s patience will not last forever. They may die at any time and face His judgment. Christ may return and when He does, it will be too late to repent. As Peter goes on to say (3:10), “the day of the Lord will come like a thief….” Now is the day of salvation. Don’t presume on God’s patience!

Also, to preach the gospel truthfully, we must preach repentance. Repentance is an essential part of saving faith. Mark 1:15 summarizes Jesus’ message, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” The risen Lord Jesus told the disciples (Luke 24:46-47), “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

To repent means to turn from our sins. If you are driving to Phoenix and you repent, it means you turn around and drive back to Flagstaff. You cannot do both at the same time. And you cannot truly believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior without turning from your sins. We do not truly present the good news about Jesus Christ if we do not call sinners to repentance and faith.

Conclusion

The recent massive recall of Toyotas reminds me of a blurb I read years ago (“Our Daily Bread,” 11/81) about a Christian woman who held a high position in General Motors. On her office door was a sign: “One Maker ultimately recalls all His products.”

We’re all going to stand before God to give an account. Don’t let the delay in the recall lull you into thinking that it won’t happen. It only seems delayed because God’s perspective of time is radically different than our perspective. And, because of His patience, He waits for all to come to repentance. But, as Peter goes on to say, “The day of the Lord will come like a thief….” Don’t be caught off guard. Repent of your sins and come to Christ while you may.

Application Questions

  1. What are some practical applications that stem from understanding God’s perspective on time?
  2. Some say that to talk about God’s will of decree and His will of desire is nonsense. How would you respond? Why is this distinction vital to understanding Scripture correctly?
  3. Some argue that if God’s decree permits evil, then He is responsible for it. Why is this view wrong? What is the only alternative?
  4. Some argue that to preach repentance for salvation is to preach works. Why is this view in error? Why is repentance a necessary part of saving faith?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christology, Eschatology (Things to Come)