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 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.