Where Is the Promise of His Appearing?
This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, 2 that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, 3 knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. 4 They will say, "Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation." 5 For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, 6 and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. 7 But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.
8 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. 9 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. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
In the second chapter of this letter Peter has given us a graphic description of the sexual licentiousness, the love of money, and the rejection of authority by which the false teachers were denying the Master who bought them, Jesus Christ. He warns the churches vividly that if they are enticed out of the way of righteousness and abandon their obedience to Christ, it will be worse for them in the final judgment than if they had never known the way. It is a very sobering word for people who sit under gospel preaching but refuse to give themselves wholly to the Savior.
In chapter 3 Peter returns in part to the theme of chapter 1, namely, that God has given his people precious and very great promises, so that if we hold them in front of us and trust them, we will have power to resist temptation and remain in the way of righteousness. You can see in verses 13–14 the connection between the hope which the promises inspire and the power for godliness which this hope gives. "According to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish and at peace." Confident expectation of a new world of righteousness empowers us to live for peace and purity in this world.
The Denial of the Second Coming
But if the promise of Christ's second coming and the new world of joy and righteousness is going to fill us with hope and power for godliness, we have to really believe it's going to happen. And the churches to which Peter was writing were being infiltrated by false teachers (2:1) who did not believe it was going to happen. Probably these teachers were like Hymenaeus and Philetus (2 Timothy 2:17, 18), who taught that the resurrection of believers was already past. That is, there won't be a bodily resurrection, only a spiritual one, here again twisting the letters of Paul which said, "You were buried with him through baptism in which you were also raised with him through faith" (Colossians 2:12). And since we have already been raised like Christ, then Christ did not really experience a bodily resurrection, but only a spiritual one; and, therefore, this notion of a powerful, glorious bodily return is a cleverly devised myth. And with the rejection of Christ's glorious bodily coming, the false teachers swept away the reality of judgment for things done in the body. And in this way they provided a theological basis for their indifference to sexual morality. The body is canceled out of all moral considerations, except as one can demonstrate his spiritual freedom by defying physical, sexual restrictions.
In chapter 1, verse 16, Peter had already taken the offensive against the denial of the second coming. He said, "We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty." That is, Christ certified to us that he was indeed going to return in bodily glory, by revealing to us the glory of his transformed body in a preview on the mount of transfiguration. Therefore, we have the prophetic word of the second coming made more sure, and we should keep it before us like a lamp shining in a dark place until the day of his coming dawns and the day star of glory rises in your hearts.
Now in chapter 3, verses 1–9, Peter confronts the denial of the second coming head on. He says in verses 1 and 2 that he wants the believers to have a sincere and lively memory (cf. 1:13) of what the prophets predicted and what Jesus commanded. He probably has in mind prophetic words like Malachi 4:1, 2: "Behold the day comes burning like an oven when all the arrogant and evildoers will be stubble . . . But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go forth leaping like calves from the stall." And when he speaks of the commandment of the Lord and Savior (in v. 2), he probably has in view words like Matthew 24:42: "Watch, therefore, for you do not know what day your Lord is coming."
Then in verses 3 and 4 he introduces the false teachers again. They themselves are part of prophetic fulfillment, and their presence shows that the last days had arrived (cf. Hebrews 1:1, 2). In verse 4 Peter lets them make their case: "Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation." This is an amazingly modern argument for rejecting the supernatural, bodily second coming. It simply says, the laws of nature are constant and unchanging. The sun has come up and gone down, the seasons have followed each other, the tides have risen and fallen for thousands of years in perfect order. Therefore, we must expect this constancy for the future, and any thought that the sky might be rolled up like a scroll and the earth purged with global, fiery judgment by the returning Christ is unimaginable and unwarranted. This is exactly the position of much modern science, and there are hundreds of pastors and theologians in the churches and seminaries today who reject a physical second coming and future judgment for the same reason (e.g., Ernest Best, in his commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1972, pp. 363 and 367).
God Creates and Upholds by His Word
Peter responds to this skepticism in three ways. First, in verses 5–7: "They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago, and an earth formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist have been stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men." The first thing the false teachers ignore is that the world was made by God and that its order hangs on his word. If they were willing to think about this, they would realize that the course of natural events is no more locked into one pattern than God is. If God is free to speak a new word, then nature is free to change. We need to guard ourselves against the pseudo-scientific notion that nature is a law unto itself. It is not. The laws of nature are the tireless whisperings of the Almighty. And if he should choose to raise his voice, the cataclysm will come.
And the other thing the false teachers ignore is that things have not continued as they were from the beginning of creation. Peter argues here like he did in 2:5–9. God brought judgment on the world in the flood of Noah's day with a great upheaval in the natural flow of events. God has shown, therefore, that he can and will alter the course of history in judgment. In the past he did it with water. In the future it will be with fire at the coming of Jesus Christ. If the false teachers were not so blinded by their own desire (v. 4), they could see that it is utter folly to deny the future cataclysm of Christ's coming just because the course of the world has been so constant for so long.
A Day Is as a Thousand Years
The second response to the false teachers comes in verse 8: "But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day." Here Peter is answering the criticism that Christ has delayed so long that we can't really believe he is coming back. Peter's answer is that from God's experience of time it hasn't been very long. I doubt that it is a biblical notion that God is outside time. But since he is immortal and does not age and does not forget and sees all history at a glance and is never bored, clearly he does not experience time like we do. But even so, since we are in God's image, there is in us something like God's experience of time. The older we get the faster it seems to go. How many older people say, "It just seems like yesterday I was in school." "It just seems like yesterday we got married." "It just seems like yesterday the kids were young."
And not only age, but joy makes us experience time like God. If you are bored at a program, it seems to drag on forever. But if you go on a vacation for a couple weeks and have a terrific time, you come to the end and say, "It seems like we just got here." Every moment was rich and full of unself-conscious life (like a thousand moments packed into one), and you were so taken up in the joy and beauty and love of those weeks that you never paused to be self-conscious about the passing of time. And at the end of those weeks, it was like yesterday that you arrived. When Jesus comes back and stands on this earth to make it his own, he will say, "It just seems like yesterday that I was here." O people, do not be deceived. It is no argument against Christ's second coming that 1,950 years have passed since his departure. From God's experience of time it is as though Christ arrived at his right hand the day before yesterday.
The Lord's Merciful Forbearance
And finally, Peter responds to the problem of Christ's delay in verse 9 with these words: "The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance." The apostle Paul speaks in Romans 11:25 of "the full number of the Gentiles" who must come into the kingdom before the end arrives. Therefore, we should count the delay of Christ's coming as an act of mercy and patience until all the sheep are gathered into the fold and not one is lost (John 10:16, 26–30). The tragic irony is that the false teachers take God's patience, which is giving them an opportunity to repent, and turn it against God as an evidence that Christ is not coming. It will be an unanswerable indictment on the judgment day, when God asks the false teachers of Peter's day and ours, "Why did you take my gift of time for repenting and use it as an argument for unbelief?"
The Lord is good to us today to address our 20th century doubts in this way. Let us not lose heart or grow weary. Christ is coming. The delay is meant to lead to repentance, not to unbelief. In God's mind it has been only a couple of days. If this world order rests on the word of God, he can and he will bring judgment upon the unrepentant as surely in the future as he did in Noah's day. But for those who repent it will mean glory, honor, and immortality.