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God and Time

DM Lloyd-Jones

 

‘But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.’ — Chapter 3:8-9

 

So far in our study of this chapter we have seen that in this world we are confronted by two possible positions: we can either accept the ideas of men and their philosophies, their attempts to understand history and to explain history and to forecast the future of the world — we can either do that, or else we can believe that the Bible is the Word of God; that these prophets, to whom Peter refers, and these Apostles were men specially chosen by God, given by Him a message, and an understanding beyond human reason, and that here in this Book we have God’s account of the world and history. We must be in one of those two positions. That is the argument that Peter is working out, and you remember how, in doing so, he takes past history and shows how the scoffers are utterly mistaken. He points out how there have always been such people — before the Flood and before Sodom and Gomorrha. How confident and arrogant and assured they always are, but they have been proved to be wrong, not only by what has happened, but also by the way in which God has finally acted after a long delay. Peter ended on that great note by reminding them of the power of God.

But now, here, in these two verses he goes a step further forward. For it is not only the scoffers who are concerned about these questions; God’s people themselves know what it is to be affected by doubts and uncertainties. They believe the Gospel, they accept the Gospel and yet, as they look at the world, it does not seem to conform to what the Gospel says. Thus it comes to pass that most of these New Testament Epistles were written in order to strengthen the faith of God’s people and to comfort them. For though God’s people are not like the scoffers, though they do not put their questions in the same way, they very often put the same questions. You will find in many of the Psalms such questions as, ‘Hath God forgotten to be kind?’ In other words, the difference between God’s people and the scoffers is in the way in which they put the questions rather than in the nature of the questions. For instance you will find many times in the New Testament itself that God’s people have become discouraged. The members of the early church, at least many of them, seemed to have believed that the Lord would return immediately. They began to wonder, therefore, what was taking place — why hadn’t God done this? why didn’t God send Christ?

Well now, the position is very much the same still as we look at the modern world, as we see its godlessness and its irreligion. It is not surprising that at times we should feel like asking questions — why does God allow this? why does God tolerate it? If God has the power, why does He allow this to go on, why does He not intervene and interfere, why does He not overwhelm His enemies? He has promised to do so, why doesn’t He? That is the kind of question which the Apostle now deals with in these two verses. Here we have his answers to the church and to the Christian; not his answer to the scoffers, which we have already considered.

We can divide up his answer most conveniently under two main headings — the general answer, and the particular answer. There are certain general points here, says Peter, which we must always bear in mind. The first is that we must never be too curious about ‘the times and seasons’. I need not stay with that, because this warning about being over-concerned about dates and times and seasons is found repeatedly in the Bible. In general, the Bible tells us that we must have a great concern about the End; that we must be looking for, and waiting for, this great event which is going to wind up history; but we must never be too concerned as to the particular time, as to when it is going to happen. That seems to be the way in which the New Testament approaches this whole subject — we are to be always looking unto and waiting for and expecting the coming of the Lord, but the moment we begin to calculate and to fix when it is going to happen we involve ourselves in difficulties and troubles. Hence the warning not to be concerned about times and seasons and dates.

I do not want to stop with that now, but it is a most illuminating and interesting study to read history on this subject and to see how even good and devout and godly men have fallen into this particular trap. There were people centuries ago who felt certain that the coming of the Lord was going to take place in their time. It has always been something that has come very naturally to some people to identify certain of the symbols — Napoleon as the anti-Christ for example. When they have tried to fix times and seasons, men have always fallen into that error. We know how there were people who were certain of the significance of the war of 1914-1918, while in the last war, too, men and women were guilty of this particular fallacy and made the same identification in connection with Mussolini and Hitler. Now the answer is, that we must always expect the Lord, and yet never try to fix and determine exactly the time of His coming. For the Bible says that it will be sudden and unexpected, and known to no one.

But perhaps the most important general principle which Peter lays down here can be put like this, that we must always remember that we cannot by our very nature and constitution understand fully the mind of God. We are upon earth; we are finite. Not only that, but our minds have also been twisted and perverted as the result of sin. One of the first things we have to realise, therefore, is that we always start with this limitation as we begin to meditate upon God and His ways and His works with respect to man. ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (Isaiah 55:8 and 9). That is the great principle which we find everywhere in the Bible, and we can put it in a practical form and manner. Whenever I am troubled as to God’s ways, if I cannot quite understand what is happening, if I feel that something altogether different ought to be happening; if God’s ways with respect to me personally or with respect to the world and mankind seem odd and strange, the first thing I should say to myself is that I must always remember that the trouble is probably in my mind, because God is so infinitely above me, and His mind eternal and so different that I must not expect to be able to understand. If we begin to approach these problems on the assumption that we can understand the mind of God as we understand our own mind, there, at once, is an initial fallacy. Indeed the one thing that is quite definite is that we must start with the realisation that there is this infinite qualitative difference, as the modern theologians put it, between God and ourselves — that God is in the heavens, we are upon earth. We cannot see things as He sees them.

That, then, being the general principle, let us see how Peter works it out in particular and in detail. The first point which he makes is God’s relationship to time, which he works out in the following terms.

In the first place, Peter tells us that God is altogether above time. ‘Beloved, be not ignorant of this, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day.’ That is the principle; God is eternal, God is above time. We must never think of God as being involved in the time process or in the flux and movement of time and history — God is altogether above time. It is almost impossible for us to grasp such a thought and such a concept, and yet it is a very vital principle. We, being creatures of time, of necessity think in terms of time. God is altogether above and beyond and outside it, so that when we are thinking of the purposes of God, it is always dangerous to exaggerate this time element. God Himself, being eternal, is right outside it. To Him a thousand years are but as one day and one day as a thousand years. In other words, He does not live at all in the realm, or in terms of, the time process.

However, we do not stop there, obviously, because we must go on to this second statement: though God is above time, God does act in time. That is equally necessary. It is God who started the time process. God, by creating the world, began the movement of history. He Himself is outside it and above it, but He set it going. Now in that sense I suppose that the argument of the famous Deists of zoo years ago can be used as long as we do not misuse it. God is like a man making a watch or clock — He Himself is outside it, He exists without it, He is not a part of it. The watchmaker makes the watch, he winds it up, he sets it going, he is outside the process but he initiates the process, he sets the hands in motion. That may help us a little to understand the relationship of God to time. But, according to this biblical teaching, God set the process going and He keeps it going. We can even go further than that— God is controlling time and God’s actions are all worked out on a very definite plan and according to a very definite scheme. You cannot read the Bible without seeing that quite clearly and quite definitely. God made the world, and at a certain point history began. But man sinned and fell. Then God intervened. Again it seemed as if the process was going on apart from God, but then God intervened again. You notice all along how He did things — it all happened ‘in due time’ — that is a biblical term which is constantly employed. So we see that although God is above and beyond time, He still controls and acts in time. He has set the time process and the historical process going and then He comes into it; if you like, He enters into it from the outside. That still does not make God a part of the time process, but it does show His control over it and His interference with it, according to His own eternal will and counsel.

That brings us to a concrete statement of the nature of what we may call divine chronology. God acts and plans and schemes, He interferes and enforces. When does He do so? What is it that determines when God intervenes? That is the question that concerns people. Our trouble when we begin to think of time, of chronology, is that we think of clocks and calendars, of weeks and months and years. But a study of the Bible makes it abundantly plain and clear that God’s chronology must never be thought of in this way. It is always, rather, a matter of moral conditions. Let me give you some quotations from Scripture to prove what I mean. In Genesis 6:3 we read, ‘And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man.’ Now what was happening there? Well, the world had sinned and the moral conditions were getting worse and worse. God was speaking, God was upbraiding, He was condemning, and calling to repentance; but men paid no heed. So He makes this statement: the point will arrive when I will cease to strive with you and I will act. That is not a point on a calendar, it is that the moral conditions would become such that God then would act. Or take the statement in Genesis i 5:16, ‘For the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.’ God will only act when the iniquity is full. Take again the words from the New Testament: ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they shall slay and persecute; that the blood of all the prophets, which was shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation.’ The prophets had been killed centuries before, but the punishment comes when the iniquity has reached a certain level. Then take the phrase, ‘until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled’, and ‘this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world, and then shall come the end’. When is the end going to come? It is obviously not a certain date on a calendar, it is when the Gospel shall have been preached to all nations and amongst all people —‘then cometh the end.’ When did Christ come into the world? ‘When the fulness of the time was come’ — when the conditions were such that God said: This is the time. Again, ‘in due time Christ died for the ungodly’. When will the end of the world be? It will not be until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in, until God has gathered out His people from amongst the Gentile nations — it will not happen until then. Now that is the biblical teaching on divine chronology.

Let us therefore get rid of all these ideas of dates and calendars, and let us realise that what determines God’s intervention in the time process is the matter of moral conditions. What is much more important than any particular date is the moral state and condition of the world today; for Scripture makes it very plain that before the end there will be a terrible apostasy. But we must be careful, for men have often said before, ‘This is the last great apostasy’. We must not again try to fix the exact time of the end, but we should be made to think, as we see the falling away from God and the arrogance and the active godlessness and irreligion. We should be made to think of these things because we are told that just before the coming of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the moral conditions will be such that there will be this great apostasy and sin and iniquity will be revealed. Let us therefore, keep our eyes on the moral conditions rather than on the dates, because that is what seems clearly to be the teaching of the Bible with respect to the nature of divine chronology.

Peter then moves on to the second principle, which I am just going to note. It is the principle of God’s righteousness. Having pointed out that although God is thus outside the time process, He nevertheless interferes in it, Peter goes on to say, ‘The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward.’ Let me put it like this. When we are troubled about these things, we must not only remember that we cannot understand the mind of God, that this whole question of time is not to God what it is to us; we must also hold tenaciously and without wavering to the principle that God is righteous. In other words, whatever else may be the explanation of the things that trouble us, it is not anything unworthy in the character of God. When we see the world as it is today, or as it has been in previous ages, and God does not seem to act, the temptation, suggested to us by the Devil, is to ask, ‘Is God unconcerned that the ungodly are thus being allowed to flourish?’ Now I say there is only one way to answer that, and it is to say, ‘The Lord is not slack.’ Whatever else it is, it is not any unrighteousness in God. It is not that God is unconcerned. We can be certain and sure at this moment that what God has said, God will perform. His promises are absolute, they are sure, they are certain. God’s righteousness is something that cannot vary, it is one of those absolutes which I must never attempt to quibble about. What God has said, God will perform, and we can be sure that the ungodly and the unrighteous shall be brought to judgment, shall be brought to punishment. ‘The heathen rage and the people imagine a vain thing; yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.’ That is the biblical answer.

Christian people, let us comfort ourselves as we think of that great principle. Because we are Christian we may be called upon to suffer at a time like this. The world may laugh and mock, and it may seem to be very successful as it does so, but as certainly and as truly as we are alive at this moment, the unrighteous and the ungodly will have to answer for their every word, and those who have been faithful to the Lord will receive the ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant’. The Lord is righteous, the Lord is ‘not slack’, there is no slackening in God, there is no moral slackness; the utter, absolute righteousness of God remains. Let us hold on to that whether we understand what is happening or not.

Then lastly, there is this wonderful principle of God’s long-suffering. ‘The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.’ This is a difficult statement. It is a difficult statement theologically, and it has led to much argument and disputation. If I may say so in passing, it is generally one of those stock quotations which are always brought forward whenever people are discussing election and predestination. But to look at it in that way is rather to miss the point which Peter is making. It seems to me that Peter’s point is this, that a part of the explanation of what seems to us to be a delay is God’s long-suffering. This we can be certain of, that God does not wish that any should perish (I did not say ‘will’, I said ‘wish’, for the word translated ‘will’ should really be translated ‘wish’). Whatever God wills inevitably comes to pass —there is a difference between God willing and God wishing a thing, and what Peter says is that God does not wish that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. God takes no delight in the death of the ungodly; that is why, Peter says, He delays His action. That is something which we can illustrate from Old Testament history. Did you notice the times before the flood — how God seemed not to act for one hundred and twenty years? There was Noah preaching to those people. Why didn’t God destroy them at the beginning, you ask? Ah, that is the long-suffering of God. God by thus holding back His hand does not wish that the ungodly should perish. God always warns before He strikes, and if you read your Old Testament history again from this standpoint, it will amaze you more and more to notice the extraordinary patience of God. Look how He waited before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrha. Look especially at His patience with the children of Israel when they laughed at Him and insulted Him and turned their backs upon Him. God sent them that succession of Prophets — the long-suffering of God! Oh, let us not ask our questions as to why God delays. It is this amazing patience and long-suffering of God.

Then look at it in terms of the centuries that passed before Christ came — why that long apparent delay? To me there is only one answer: it was God, as it were, showing the ancient world how it could not save itself apart from His action. Man always claims that he can put himself right — God gave the nation a law and said, If you can keep that law it will save you. They felt confident they could do so and God gave them all those centuries just to show them that they could not. It is this long-suffering of God that leaves the world without an excuse or a plea. And that, according to the Apostle Peter, is the explanation of why the Lord has not returned before this particular point in history. The world is being given a chance, an opportunity; Christ is preached, the Gospel is offered; all these years are passing and the offer is being made. So it works out like this. When the end shall come, and when the final judgment shall take place, all men and women who have ever lived shall be raised to stand there before God in judgment, and then this delay will in itself be the one thing that will finally condemn them. The world will be left without an excuse. God will be able to say, ‘The Gospel was preached, Christ was offered to you and throughout all these long centuries I waited, I delayed, I gave you the opportunity.’ The righteousness of God will be revealed. The world will be left without a vestige of an excuse. Thank God that there has been this delay. Where would you and I have been had it not been for it? The long-suffering and the patience of God! ‘The goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance,’ says Paul. And again at the end of this chapter we find Peter saying once more, ‘Account that the long-suffering of our Lord is salvation.’

That then seems to me to be the Apostle Peter’s answer to the Christian who is troubled about the conditions, and who sometimes is tempted to query and question with regard to the delay. Remember that we are dealing with God and not with man. Remember His eternity. Remember His relationship to time. Remember the utter righteousness and holiness of God. Remember His love, His mercy, His compassion. We are in time, and let us confess it, we are far too much like James and John. You remember our Lord sent them one day to prepare His way for Him. They went into a city of the Samaritans who would not receive them, and you remember how James and John said unto our Lord, ‘Shall we call down fire from heaven to consume and destroy them?’ If you and I controlled this world, no doubt it would be like that — we would bring in immediate judgment. But the reply was, ‘Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of, for the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.’ ‘The Lord is not slack’, but He does not wish that any should perish, but that all should come into this blessed knowledge of salvation.

Let us then submit unto God and His absolute wisdom, and especially to His love and mercy, His long-suffering and compassion. The ways of God are certain and are sure. We cannot understand them now, but in His own good time we shall understand all things.


Author

Born in South Wales, Dr. Lloyd-Jones trained at St. Bartholomew's Hospital and thereafter practised as a physician and was assistant to the famous Lord Horder. After leaving medicine in 1927, he became the minister of a Welsh Presbyterian Church in Aberavon, South Wales. He was there until 1938, when he moved to London to share the ministry of Westminster Chapel in Buckingham Gate with Dr. G. Campbell Morgan, who retired in 1943. This ministry lasted for thirty years until Dr. Lloyd-Jones retired in August 1968. He then engaged in a wider preaching ministry and in writing until shortly before his death in 1981.



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