II Peter 3:1-13
Now normally when I ask a question in a sermon, I’m not really looking for and answer. Sometimes the questions I ask could be personally embarrassing if any of you tried to answer them. But this morning, I am looking for an answer, and you can answer it any way you like, with an “Amen!”, or anything else positive. So here’s the question: anyone here this morning want Jesus to come back soon? I suspected as much, and that puts us in really good stead with every generation of Christians that has ever lived. There has never been a generation of Christians on this planet that has not eagerly anticipated our Lord’s return, and there probably has never been a generation of Christians on this planet that did not believe that Jesus would return during their life-times. That has been the sure ans certain Christian hope ever since Jesus was raised from the dead.
But in our passage this morning, we discover that one of the most vexing and troublesome pastoral and apostolic issues in the latter part of the first century was the apparent delay in the return of Jesus Christ. People were beginning to wonder why it was that God hadn’t yet torn open the heavens and come down. Now for all of us, living more than 2,000 years later, this may come as a bit of a surprise to us. Why in the world were Christians living in the first century so anxious for Jesus to return? And, going along with that question, is a deeper, more probing question: Why were they beginning to worry that Jesus might not return at all? Why were they beginning to fear that they had fallen prey to a terrible hoax?
Well, first questions first. In the first century there was a very high expectation that Jesus would be returning at any moment for a couple of reasons. First of all, Christians living in the latter part of the first century believed that they were enduring a great time of tribulation. Persecution against the fledgling Christian church was terrible and enormous. Christians were dying. The were being beaten, tortured and murdered. It is probably impossible for us to imagine the agony that our Christian forbears endured in the first century. Their prayer, “Lord Jesus come quickly”, was not something that they simply repeated by rote in their worship services, it was an agonized cry from the depths of their hearts. They were desperately seeking rescue and salvation from their horrendous living and dying conditions, and they were holding fast to Jesus’ promise that he would return soon. And that was a huge theological issue for them as it continues to be for us. There are several places in the Gospels where Jesus himself seems to indicate that his return will take place before his current generation passes away. In other words, the sense was that not many Christians living in the first century would die before Jesus returns.
Over the centuries we theologians have done our best to explain away those references, and actually we’ve done a pretty good job of it. We’ve tied most those references to Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70AD, which certainly did occur before most of Jesus’ generation passed away. The issue, however, has not gone completely away; those sayings of Jesus are still somewhat troublesome to us, and the best that we can do is balance them with Jesus’ statement that he himself did not really know when he would be returning.
But this is also where this whole idea of the great and terrible hoax began to filter into the church of the first century. Peter says this in verses 3 and 4: “First of all you must understand this, that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging in their own lusts and saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!'”
And that is the whole problem in a nut shell. Where is your Jesus? You gullible people have fallen prey to a hoax! People are dying off, nothing has happened, the world is going on it’s merry path, just as it always has, your Jesus is never coming back! Get over it.
The saddest thing about these scoffers who’ve shown up among Peter’s readers is that they’ve always been there. These scoffers aren’t outsiders or strangers to Peter’s readers, they’re Christians. They’re Christians who’ve gone to the dark side. They’re Christians who’ve lost hope. They’re Christians who believed that Jesus set a time limit for his return, and now that time limit has passed, and so the promise of his return has become null and void. And because these scoffers have lost hope, they’ve also lost their moral and ethical compasses, and they’ve degenerated into people who are indulging in their own lusts, wants and desires. And all of this has come about because of their deep and heartfelt disappointment in Jesus. I really, really feel sorry for them. How many people do we know, who because of deep disappointment in Jesus, have drifted away from faith in him, and have lost their moral and ethical compasses? Some of them, because of their deep disappointment in Jesus, have even become scoffers. This is a problem that has plagued the Christian church for centuries.
Just the same, the question, “Where is your Jesus?” Rattled the Christian church of the first century very deeply. And 2,000 years later it still rattles us. We still ask ourselves, “Where is the promise of his coming?” And even the most faithful among us sometimes wonder if we, too, haven’t fallen prey to a great and enormous hoax. We no longer believe that the world has gone on its merry way since the beginning of creation, because we have witnessed changes in the last 100 or so years that have absolutely transformed life on this planet, that no one in the first century could possibly have imagined, even in their wildest dreams. For instance, the wheel was invented many, many thousands of years ago. But no one thought to put a motor to that wheel until a little better than 100 years ago. Everything in this world has changed in the last one hundred years or so. Nothing is the same.
To address this business of the great and terrible hoax, Peter makes the very bold assertion in verse eight that time, as we know it, is completely irrelevant to God. Peter says, “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” And we find this totally inconceivable because we are absolutely addicted to time. We are driven by time, we are controlled by time, we order our lives by time. We push ourselves to keep time, and when we lose time, we become angry. How do I know this? I know this because I am one of the greatest offenders when it comes to time that I know. I am an abuser of time in the most offensive way. Just ask my family. Better to be fifteen minutes early than a minute late. I bristle at those whose motto is “On time is when I get there.” And the love of my life is one of those people.
Time is irrelevant to God because God deals both in moments and in eternities. We’re not so good at that. We traffic in much smaller spans.
But if, like the scoffers, we think that God is slow in fulfilling his promise, it is only to our advantage. And don’t miss that: The promise is still active. Peter intentionally picks up on a line from the scoffers. They want to know, “Where is the promise of his coming?” Peter says in response, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” If God is slow, as we think of slowness, it is only for our own benefit. And that benefit is for God’s grace to become fully alive in our hearts. This is quite the opposite of the argument that the scoffers have put forth. The scoffers have announced that God has abandoned us. The scoffers have announced that God has reneged on his promise.
Peter is proclaiming that God has only us and our spiritual and eternal welfare in mind. That God is being patient with us so that we’ll have time to repent of our sins and to get into right relationship with him.
The promise has not gone null and void, as the scoffers have indicated, the promise has instead been extended so that more of us can live forever. And I can’t help but think that Peter, because he has the heart of Jesus living within him, is leaving room even for the scoffers to return to the fold in repentance. Peter has a special and blessed affinity for scoffers, because he knows deep down that he once could be counted among them, and it is only by the forgiving grace of Jesus, expressed, after Jesus’ resurrection, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, that he can once again count himself as a disciple of his Lord.
And so we must be patient as God is patient. We must be patient with God, as God is continually being patient with us. One day, Jesus will return to take us home to be with him forever. But because God counts one day as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day, the time of his return is humanly incalculable. Many have tried; all have failed. False prophets are even more odious than scoffers because they intentionally and deliberately attempt to lead God’s people astray. And sadly, there will never be any shortage of false prophets until that great and glorious day of the Lord arrives, suddenly and unexpectedly.
In the meantime, though, we have a responsibility. It isn’t just patience that is required of us. Peter hints at it in verse eleven. We’re to be leading lives of holiness and godliness, and not like the scoffers who indulge in their own lusts. But also, in context of this passage, let’s keep in mind that God is not only being patient with us, but he’s also being patient with the scoffers. And if God has a special affinity for the scoffers, and is not willing that any of them should perish, maybe, just maybe, we ought to have that same affinity. All of them need to come back to Jesus, and we can help with that.