Welcome to a new week on the Ask Pastor John podcast with longtime author and pastor John Piper. Thanks for listening. We begin the week with a short question, but a very good one from a listener named Bryce. “Pastor John, hello! Can you tell me: Why did God wait so long in human history — centuries, even millennia — before he finally sent Jesus to earth? Why the long wait for the incarnation?”
I don’t think that in this life we will have a complete answer to that question. I am going to suggest some pointers. But in the end, I know that even the pointers I am going to suggest do not completely or satisfyingly answer the question. But they might be helpful. They have been helpful to me over the years to think about.
In general, the answer is going to be something like: Given the way God chose to prepare for Christ in the world and to make the gospel clear in the world and prepare for the mission of the church to the nations, in the light of his design for how to do that, this kind of history for thousands of years leading up to Christ was necessary, was fitting. This length and this kind of history leading up to Christ so that Christ becomes clear and so that the gospel can be clear, this was the most suitable, the most appropriate, the most effective way to get the world ready for Messiah, for gospel, for mission.
“The time leading up to Christ was the most suitable, appropriate, and effective way to prepare the world for the gospel.”
That is what I think the general answer is. God has designed the world and cultures and the nature of humanity so that certain conditions, certain states of affairs come about in the world gradually. We can always second-guess why God would ordain it to be that way, but he has told us that some things take time, meaning taking all of reality into account, God thought it wise that things would develop the way they do. Here are some examples.
God tells Abraham in Genesis 15 that there will be four long generations that will elapse before the Israelites come back to the Promised Land and take it over. And God intends for there to be roughly 400 years. And here is the reason he gives: “They shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16). Very strange. In other words, God regards it as fitting that there be a certain completeness of corruption and iniquity and depravity in the inhabitants of Canaan so that, when the judgment comes through Israel from God, it will be fitting and proper when Joshua wreaks havoc among the Canaanites generations later.
“God saw 400 years fitting for the completion of a state of affairs that needs to be in place for another state of affairs.”
So, we have roughly a 400-year block of time that God deems appropriate, fitting for the completion of the fullness of a state of affairs that needs to be in place for another suitable thing to happen. So, this is an artist, you might say, painting a canvas and saying: The reason this color is here is because later I am going to add this color, and those two colors together make this beautiful whole. So, that is the kind of thing that I think is at work in creating the durations that we have in the Old Testament.
Here is another example. When God says to Isaiah in Isaiah 6:10 that he is going to preach in such a way that the people are hardened, Isaiah cries out, “How long, oh Lord?” To which God answers, “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the Lord removes the people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land” (Isaiah 6:11–12). Now, that is a lot of events and a lot of time that God says must elapse before his purposes of this kind of preaching are finished.
And we can think of numbers like 70 years of captivity for the Jews in Babylon. Why 70? Why not 7 or 700? And God has his reasons based on the nature of what he is trying to show about his grace, his mercy, the law, disobedience, wrath, judgment, holiness.
“God has his reasons for how he shows his grace and mercy, the law, disobedience, wrath, judgment, and holiness.”
Here is one last text and the most important, at least as far as I can see, in answering this question. The thread of Old Testament history runs from creation through fall into sin through election of Israel, thorough exodus, through giving of the law, and then a thousand years, give or take, of the inability of Israel to keep the law. A thousand years of covenant-breaking over and over again. It is a bleak, bleak history as you read it. Disobedience followed by punishment, followed by repentance, followed by mercy, followed by disobedience, followed by repentance, followed by mercy, followed by more judgment, and on and on it goes. It is just awful to watch the history go.
Now in Romans 3:9–18, Paul quotes half a dozen passages from the Old Testament, mainly from the Psalms, but he calls them “the law.” And the point of those passages is to show that everybody is under judgment — everybody, Jew and Gentile — are sinners. And then Paul says one of the most important sentences in the Bible regarding what God has been up to for these 2,000 years of Jewish history. Verse 19: “Now we know that whatever the law says” — and he is referring back to those statements about the failure of Israel and all people — “whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law” — that is Israel — “so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (Romans 3:19–20).
So, Paul uses the word law here in its wide reference to the Old Testament, and he says that the point of the Old Testament record is that it is addressed first to Jews, those who are under the law, so that every mouth, every Jewish mouth would be stopped. In other words, the record of God and what he has required of man and the failure to do it is intended to shut the mouth of every Israelite so that they can never protest that they have succeeded in obeying in such a way as to be right with God — that they are in desperate need of grace.
They can’t have it any other way than by someone else, some Savior, some Redeemer, because verse 20 says they will never have it on the basis of their own good works. And then he adds this crucial statement: The reason every Jewish mouth is stopped by the Old Testament record of law and failure to keep law is so that “the whole world may be held accountable to God.” That is really worth thinking about.
“God ordained that Israel would develop in such a way to be a lesson book for the nations about the gospel.”
In other words, the history of the Jewish people and the record of its failure to keep the covenant that God made, that record not only shows that Jews will never be able to save themselves, but the whole world is accountable because it, too, has failed in all of its ways of trying. Because, if the Jews can’t do it with this much special revelation and privileges as they have had, how much less will the world be able to work its way into God’s favor? And then he gives this in verse 20: for no human being will be justified in the sight of God.
Now that, it seems to me, is as close as we get in the Bible to an explanation of why there is such a long and contorted, disappointing, frustrating history. God ordained that the history of Israel would develop in such a way and for as long as it did, so that Israel would be a lesson book for the nations about the gospel, a lesson book for the nations that no one can be justified by law keeping. And evidently God believes that the lengthy story of failures under every condition of advantage makes the point in the best possible way.