“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. 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.”(2 Peter 3:8–10 ESV)
This is a very controversial passage of scripture around which many arguments have erupted. This seems to be one of the primary passages that we gravitate towards when we want to place our own freewill at the pinnacle of the bible. But, before we can come to any conclusions regarding this passage, we need to understand the context of it and what the Apostle was attempting to communicate to His readers. Far too often, we grab a verse that sounds nice and begin to apply it without ever having a good understanding of the context and the author’s intent.
The first question we need to answer is who the letter is addressed to? Peter writes this letter from prison in Rome and knows that he will soon be executed for his faith (2 Peter 1:14-15). The letter was written to Christians (2 Peter 1:1). In the opening verses of this epistle, Peter affirms that there are no tiers in Christianity. He is an apostle – He walked with Jesus, personally – but, their faith is equal to his (1:1). There is no varsity squad & junior varsity squad in Christianity. Their faith is equal to our faith. Our faith is obtained by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ. This faith was obtained – we did not possess it on our own. It is a gift that was earned by the righteousness of Christ. Peter calls Jesus God here which is one of the strongest New Testament arguments for the divinity of Jesus.
Why did Peter write this letter? Peter is in Rome nearing his imminent execution (1:12-15) so what He covers in this letter is of utmost importance in his mind. He covers such sweeping themes as God’s grace toward us and it’s centrality in our ongoing sanctification, the pursuit of holiness, the Lord’s patience towards us and He combats false teachers & scoffers who had managed to work their way into the church and were doubting God’s presence & faithfulness.
We want to gravitate towards the part of this passage that says that God “is not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (3:9b). What is truly unbelievable is the preceding part of this verse that says that “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you” (3:9a). That is spectacular! Don’t run past it! What we perceive as slowness is really God’s patient mercy. If I were God, I would have ended it all at Genesis 3 or 6:5-6, so the fact that we have air, gravity, water, a planet to inhabit and enjoy is nothing but His benevolent grace towards His creatures that want nothing to do with Him; we want His blessings & gifts, but don’t really want Him. All of us – believer & nonbeliever alike – are recipients of His common grace. If this part does not wow you and cause you to worship the Almighty then you are missing one of Peter’s main points!
The broader context of this verse helps us because it is eschatological in nature. It is titled, “The Day of the Lord Will Surely Come (3:1–13).” What Peter is combatting is what the scoffers have been saying in the church – that God is distant, disconnected & slow in acting (3:1-7). There is much connection between Peter’s Jewish eschatological beliefs (see Habakuk 2:3) and the point that He is making here. The Word Biblical Commentary is quite helpful in interpreting this section of the passage. It says, “God desires all, without exception, to repent and escape damnation. But (“all”) is clearly limited by (“you”). There is no thought here of the Christian mission” The author remains close to his Jewish source, for in Jewish thought it was usually for the sake of the repentance of his own people that God delayed judgment. Here it is for the sake of the repentance of 2 Peter’s Christian readers. No doubt repentance from those sins into which some of them have been enticed by the false teachers (2:14, 18; 3:17) is especially in mind. We need not suppose that the author put the false teachers themselves entirely beyond possibility of repentance and salvation, but here he addresses his readers, who are distinguished from the false teachers (3:5, 8, 17).”
God takes not delight in the destruction of anyone that bears His image – even the most wicked. He is connected to them and derives no pleasure in their destruction. Though we have seen that the “all” in this passage is limited by the “you,” some will still use this passage to argue that it is the will of God that all people on planet earth be saved. All people are clearly not saved so one of these must be true:
1) God is not able to save all people,
2) Some will not turn to God because their free will prohibits them,
3) Peter (and Paul) are lying, or
4) God has another purpose.
It is interesting that God seems to desire something that does not come to pass. He certainly has the power, so why not fulfill His every desire? He desired that Adam & Eve would not have sinned and He desires that we walk faithfully to His revealed will. We rarely walk faithfully, so God does not always fulfill His wants. Some would say it is because He is is a gentlemen and will not force Himself upon anyone. This sounds nice to my flesh, but is contrary to the overall teaching of the scriptures. God has many desires that are not met (yet) because they all come under his ultimate desire – that He be glorified. Some would disagree with this and teach that God’s greatest desire is for human free will. If I’m honest, I like this because it appeals to my sense of control over my destiny, to my ability to choose, to my autonomy and control over my life (kind of sounds like the original sin, doesn’t it!). But, if I’m intellectually honest – my free will has never been my friend, it has always been my enemy. I always chose (apart from God’s regenerating my heart) what I saw as best and most beautiful – which was always me, my sin and my way and NEVER GOD.
One of the overarching themes of the scriptures is God’s electing love. God chooses people to shower His affection on – not because they are worthy of it or because they sought it. God chose Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He chose Joseph over his brothers, He chose, David, the prophets, and Moses. Men did not chose Him, they did not seek Him. God’s glory is most shown by redeeming a rebellious people. He is most glorified when He takes the heart of a dead man and makes it new, when He showers him with His saving love and that man comes alive. He is most glorified when He takes a dead heart of stone and makes it a soft, sensitive heart of flesh. This is the power for us to love even when the love of others is not reciprocal.
Paul helps us with this in Romans 9: “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated. “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”” (Romans 9:11–26 ESV).
God gets no pleasure in the destruction of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:32 & 33:11) – indeed there is a sense of sorrow & remorse at the destruction of that which was created in His image. The problem is that we lack the ability to come to God, apart from Him calling us. God’s kindness is meant to lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4). Some will say, “yes, no one can come unless God calls” (Jesus said so over and over in the gospels, especially in John) so God calls some (or all, depending on one’s belief) and those who respond of their own free will are saved. The problem with this theology is what the rest of the bible teaches; this is man centered, intellectually lazy & theologically shallow. There are challenges with the sovereignty of God in election and salvation, but by far and away the continuous theme in the scriptures is one of God’s effectual, electing love. We would rather stop short and avoid asking all of the questions. There are mysteries, for sure, but there are not nearly as many as we’d like to lazily believe. When we face these mysteries, we must ask Who & what is ultimate? God’s glory or ours? If we are the ultimate determining factor in salvation then we are most glorified.
All of history is in the hands of the Lord and it is moving to the climax of Jesus’ return and restoration of all things. Verse 9 is in response to the scoffer’s accusations in the immediately preceding verses saying that God is absent, disconnected, aloof and slow to act. Peter says, “no He is delaying because He is patient with you – He is providing an opportunity for more people to respond to the Gospel by faith.” God is indeed slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Exodus 34:6). God’s patience is a central theme in the Old Testament and indeed it is a central theme in our own lives. It is beyond me how the perfect holiness of God tolerates the continual rebellion and perversion of His creatures. This is the definition patience. Though He is long suffering, He will not tolerate it forever – His wrath will be spilled – and rightfully so! He is patient, but His patience with sinners will eventually expire and all that there will be is His just wrath and judgement. In the meantime, His patience are meant to lead you to repentance. Will you repent & believe?