The Delay of Jesus Return & The Crisis of Patience
December 10, 2017
2 Peter is a little book with a whole lot of passion. It feels intense, but that’s to be expected when the apostolic pillar of the early church pens his last words. Peter knows he’s about to die, so he carefully crafts this farewell speech to the network of churches in Asia Minor (2 Pet. 1:12-15). He wants his final exhortations and warnings to be recorded and preserved in order to serve as a memorial of his teaching for future generations, which includes our generation today. And I think you’ll discover that his message is as timely today as it was then.
What’s 2 Peter All About?
In chapter one, Peter challenges believers to never stop growing in godliness and Christ-like qualities. Then, in chapters two and three, he pivots towards the corrupt teachers who were denying the return of Jesus and final judgment in order to justify their immoral behavior. Their combined skepticism of Jesus’ return with their love of sin without consequences was all too convenient. They could reject biblical authority, get rich quick teaching a false message of Christian “freedom,” and have lots of casual sex all without fear of accountability or judgment. It was a classic “have your cake and eat it too” scenario.
Peter wasn’t having any of it. He condemns them in chapter two, reminding his readers of God’s certain judgment on wickedness. To make his case he follows a rabbinic formula of proof, which moves from a minor to a major premise. It goes like this: if A is true, how much more so is B true also. Using that formula, he pulls from notorious events in biblical history to knock it out of the park. If (A) God did not spare the fallen angels, the ancient civilization in Noah’s day, or Sodom and Gomorrah (2 Pet. 2:4-8), then (B) how much more so will he bring certain judgment on false teachers who claim to be Christians but reject the truth (2 Pet. 9-10)? Moreover, their knowledge of the gospel will actually make them more culpable on the final day of judgment (which, by the way, is coming!). Wow. Let’s just say, Peter: 1, False Teachers: 0.
But Peter doesn’t stop there. The allegation that the delay of Jesus disapproves the expectation of his return demands a response. Yes. The false teachers needed to be silenced, but the young churches also needed to be shepherded through the delay. After all, they were living through the first wave of organized persecution against Christians during the reign of Nero, a wicked Roman emperor. The question initially raised by the corrupt leaders would have become inescapable in the minds of these persecuted Christians. Why did Jesus delay when such palpable evil was ruling the day?
This very real, felt question isn’t limited to first-century believers. Just look at the world around you. Evil is rampant. There’s violence and mass shootings and terror. There’s brokenness and pain and suffering. The innocent are oppressed while the wicked prosper. High rise moguls get rich while the assaulted are shunned. We can’t help but wrestle with the same question. What’s taking Jesus so long to return and right all wrongs?
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The Central Crisis: What’s Taking Jesus SO Long?
2 Peter 3 actually contains the most explicit treatment on the delay of the parousia (a Greek word that means the second coming of Jesus at the end of human history) in the entire New Testament, so it’s particularly important if you’re trying to make sense of Jesus’ delay.
Peter begins by reminding his readers how the Scriptures warned there would be scoffers in the last days who depart from truth and follow sinful desires. They would question the promise of God’s return, citing that ever since the patriarchs died, all things have continued just as they were from the beginning. They purposefully overlook the fact that God had intervened before, both in the account of creation and the flood, and that he would surely intervene again on a final day of reckoning for the unrighteous and rescue for the righteous (2 Pet. 3:1-7). He then moves to his central argument on how to understand the delay of the parousia in verses 8-9:
“But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
At this point, we need to pause because there’s differing schools of thought on how to understand Peter’s logic in verse 8 (“one day is as a thousand years”). Without boring you, I’ll briefly share two prevailing views in order to reject both for a more balanced, biblical alternative, which I think better helps us to understand the meaning of the delay. (Note: I’m following Richard Bauckham’s excellent work done on 2 Peter here.)
One school says you have to interpret the verse in light of parallels in contemporary Jewish and Christian literature, following a chronological formulation where a “day” means a thousand years in human terms. Interpreted this way, verse 8 is speaking to chronological data (the day of judgment will last a thousand years), not to the delay of Jesus’ return.
But this doesn’t work in light of the context of 2 Peter 3. The whole chapter is built around refuting scoffers who deny the Lord’s coming, so why would Peter turn aside from his central argument to give one line of chronological data about how long the day of judgment would last? It just doesn’t add up.
The second school acknowledges that verse 8 is indeed Peter’s answer to the problem of the delay raised by the scoffers in verses 1-7, but they hold that his use of Psalm 90:4 is a novel idea produced in an ad hoc kind of way to meet the urgent issue raised by the false teachers. They don’t understand Peter to be utilizing any resources from contemporary Jewish or Christian literature.
I also find this highly unlikely. In the Apocalypse of Baruch, a contemporary of Peter reflects on Psalm 90:4, contrasting God’s eternal existence with man’s brief span of life. Clearly, there’s Jewish precedence for a reading of Psalm 90:4 in its original sense during Peter’s day. It’s hard to believe that Peter, writing as a thoroughly Jewish Christian, was unaware of this material while simultaneously using Psalm 90:4 in the same manner. It doesn’t fly.
That said, how should we understand Peter’s argument in verses 8-9?
Hit Play Again—What’s Taking Jesus SO Long?
We should read these verses according to their genre (apocalyptic eschatology), appreciating that Peter is a Jewish Christian who has been shaped by apocalyptic visionaries throughout the centuries. He would have been intimately familiar with writers such as Habakkuk or Daniel or Baruch, men who knew what it was to cry out in anguish, “How long O Lord,” while maintaining trust in God’s sovereign purposes even as he delayed. He would have learned from their fierce faith in the face of evil to trust that God’s timetable was not his own and that God’s delay was part and parcel of the plan.
This helps us see how Peter, when confronted with the delay of Jesus’ return, does not hastily contrive arguments in hopes of calming fears for a moment. Rather, he brilliantly enters into a long line of apocalyptic tradition saturated with eschatological delay to form arguments regarding the parousia that were already familiar in his readers’ minds. Through this technique, he is able to help them (and us!) understand how the delay holds within it great meaning. Check out his two points:
One: God’s timetable is different than ours (verse 8).
Ah. This one’s hard to grasp in the face of all the evil that we see, yet apocalyptic writers were quick to point out that God operates on a different eschatological clock than we do. His eternal, everlasting perception of time frees him from human concerns. Our human expectation of the “situation” as we see it is bound by our own brief existence and our desire to experience full redemption. We’re impatient to see our broken lives fully restored, so we cry out with the martyrs of Revelation 6, “How long O Lord?!”
Peter reminds us that “the eternal God is free from that particular impatience” (The Delay of the Parousia, Richard Bauckham). He’s not bound by a desire for personal redemption or a limited by human perspective. Thus, what seems so long to us, might not be as significant when viewed from the perspective of the eternal God who surveys and rules over all of human history.
Two: God is patient, wanting all to come to repentance (verse 9).
Lest we think God works according to his own timetable without any sense of the urgency with which evil and suffering confront us, Peter gives his second argument taken from Jewish apocalyptic writing—God delays not because he is slow, but because he is patient toward sinners, giving everyone time for repentance. We see this in God’s description of himself from Exodus 34:6-7, “…The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty…”
This is as true as ever when it comes to the parousia. Though we may long for Jesus’ return and the defeat of all evil, God has allowed these last days to continue so that more people can turn towards him in faith. The delay isn’t a hiccup in his plan; it’s a part of his plan, which makes him kind, not cruel. Jesus will indeed return to judge the living and the dead, but as long as the parousia is delayed, there’s still time for people to repent and trust in Jesus, which should actually fuel our patience and passion as we await our Lord’s return.
"God is patient, wanting all to come to repentance
So How Do We Live Right NOW?
With patience and purpose! Peter says we’re to be characterized by holiness and godliness as we wait for and hasten the coming of the day of God (2 Pet. 3:11-12). Like the apocalyptic visionaries of old, we’re called to patiently trust in the perfect purposes of God. But this text also suggests that Christian living actually has an effect on God’s timetable (we can “hasten” the coming of the Lord) as we live out the new covenant realities.
That’s pretty profound.
As followers of Jesus who believe that the eschatological promises have broken into the present through the work of Jesus and the outpouring of the Spirit, we don’t wait idly for Jesus’ return, nor do we live like the corrupt teachers who saw Jesus’ delay as an opportunity to indulge the flesh. Rather, like Peter, we live as new, transformed humans who take advantage of the divine delay to join in God’s redemptive purposes, living out our days bearing witness to Jesus, continuing his mission, fighting back the powers of darkness, and hastening the day when those purposes will be fully accomplished.
So yes, we wait. But we wait patiently, knowing that God is orchestrating all of human history towards his glorious end, and we wait purposely, joining in God’s redemptive mission to make disciples of all people.
Whitney Woollard is a writer, speaker, and Bible teacher in Portland, OR. She holds her M.A. in biblical and theological studies from Western Seminary and loves sharing her passion for the Bible with others. You can check out her work at her website, whitneywoollard.com