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THE PAROUSIA

by James Stuart Russell

THE PAROUSIA IN THE SECOND EPISTLE OF ST. PETER.

The Parousia

It is no part of our plan to discuss the difficult and still unsettled questions respecting the genuineness and authenticity of the Second Epistle of Peter and the unsolved problem of the second chapter. We might perhaps, in view of the difficulties which it presents in its eschatological teaching, decline to accept its authority, but we accept it as it stands, honestly believing that it bears indubitable internal evidence of apostolic origin. It appears to have been written at no great interval after the first epistle, and very shortly before the death of the apostle. (2 Pet. 1:14) Alford gives the date conjecturally, A. D. 68.

SCOFFERS IN ‘THE LAST DAYS.’

2 Pet. 3:3, 4—‘ Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of his coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.’

The scoffers referred to in this passage are no doubt the same persons whose character is described in the preceding chapter. Disbelief of God’s promises and threatenings, and especially of His coming judgment, is the characteristic of these evil men of ‘the last times.’ We are reminded by this description of these unbelievers, of our Lord’s prediction with reference to the same period, — ‘Nevertheless, when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith in the land?’ (Luke 18:8) It is worthy of notice also that the apostle, in replying to their argument derived from the stability of the creation, refers to the catastrophe of the deluge as an illustration of the power of God to destroy the wicked: the very same illustration employed by our Lord in referring to the state of things at the Parousia (Matt. 24:37-39)

It must not be forgotten that St. Peter is speaking, not of a distant, but of an impending, catastrophe. The ‘last days’ were the days then present, (1 Pet. 1:5, 20) and the scoffers are spoken of as actually existing, —(2 Pet. 3:5) ‘This they willingly are ignorant of,’ etc.

ESCHATOLOGY OF ST. PETER.

2 Pet. 3:7, 10-12. —‘But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.... But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burnt up. Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness.’

The imagery here employed by the apostle naturally suggests the idea of the total dissolution by fire of the whole substance and fabric of the material creation, not the earth only but the system to which it belongs; and this no doubt is the popular notion of the final consummation which is expected to terminate the present order of things. A little reflection, however, and a better acquaintance with the symbolic language of prophecy, will be sufficient to modify such a conclusion, and to lead to an interpretation more in accordance with the analogy of similar descriptions in the prophetic writings. First, it is evident on the face of the question that this universal conflagration, as it may be called, was regarded by the apostle as on the eve of taking place, —‘The end of all things is at hand’.(1 Pet. 4:7) The consummation was so near that it is described as an event to be ‘looked for, and hastened unto’ (1 Pet. 4:12) It follows, therefore, that it could not be the literal destruction or dissolution of the globe and the created universe concerning which the spirit of prophecy here speaks. But that there was at the moment when this epistle was written an awful and almost immediate catastrophe impending; that the long-predicted ‘day of the Lord’ was actually at hand; that the day did come, both speedily and suddenly; that it came ‘as a thief in the night;’ that a fiery deluge of wrath and judgment overwhelmed the guilty land and nation of Israel, destroying and dissolving its earthly things and its heavenly things, that is to say, its temporal and spiritual institutions, —is a fact indelibly imprinted on the page of history. The time for the fulfilment of these predictions was now come, and when the apostle wrote it was to declare that it was the ‘last time,’ and the very taunts of the scoffers were verifying the fact. We are therefore brought to the inevitable conclusion that it was the final catastrophe of Judea and Jerusalem, predicted by our Lord in His prophecy on the Mount of Olives and so frequently referred to by the apostles, to which St. Peter alludes in the symbolic imagery which seems to imply the dissolution of the material universe.

Secondly, we must interpret these symbols according to the analogy of Scripture. The language of prophecy is the language of poetry, and is not to be taken in a strictly literal sense. Happily there is no lack of parallel descriptions in the ancient prophets, and there is scarcely a figure here used by St. Peter of which we may not find examples in the Old Testament, and thus be furnished with a key to the meaning of like symbols in the New.1

THE CERTAINTY OF THE APPROACHING CONSUMMATION.

2 Pet. 3:8, 9. —‘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.’

Few passages have suffered more from misconstruction than this, which has been made to speak a language inconsistent with its obvious intention, and even incompatible with a strict regard to veracity.

There is probably an allusion here to the words of the psalmist, in which he contrasts the brevity of human life with the eternity of the divine existence, —‘A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past’. (Ps. 90:4) It is a grand and impressive thought, and quite in unison with the sentiment of the apostle, —‘One day is with the Lord as a thousand years.’ But surely it would be the height of absurdity to regard this sublime poetic image as a calculus for the divine measurement of time, or as giving us a warrant for wholly disregarding definitions of time in the predictions and promises of God.

Yet it is not unusual to quote these words as an argument or excuse for the total disregard of the element of time in the prophetic writings. Even in cases where a certain time is specified in the prediction, or where such limitations as ‘shortly,’ or ‘speedily,’ or ‘at hand’ are expressed, the passage before us is appealed to in justification of an arbitrary treatment of such notes of time, so that soon may mean late, and near may mean distant, and short may mean long, and vice versa. When it is pointed out that certain predictions must, according to their own terms, be fulfilled within a limited time, the reply is, ‘One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.’ Thus we find an eminent critic committing himself to such a statement as the following: ‘The apostles for the most part wrote and spoke of [the Parousia] as soon to appear, not, however, without many and sufficient hints of an interval, and that no short one, first to elapse.’ Another, alluding to St. Paul’s prediction in., (2 Thess. 2) remarks that ‘it tells us that while the coming of the Lord was then near, it was also remote.’ These are specimens of what passes for exegesis in not a few commentators of high repute.

It is surely unnecessary to repudiate in the strongest manner such a non-natural method of interpreting the language of Scripture. It is worse than ungrammatical and unreasonable, it is immoral. It is to suggest that God has two weights and two measures in His dealings with men, and that in His mode of reckoning there is an ambiguity and variableness which makes it impossible to tell ‘what manner of time the Spirit of Christ in the prophets may signify.’ It seems to imply that a day may not mean a day, nor a thousand years a thousand years, but that either may be the other. If this were so, there could be no interpretation of prophecy possible; it would be deprived of all precision, and even of all credibility; for it is manifest that if there could be such ambiguity and uncertainty in respect to time, there might be no less ambiguity and uncertainty in respect to everything else.

The Scriptures themselves, however, give no countenance to such a method of interpretation. Faithfulness is one of the attributes most frequently ascribed to the ‘covenant-keeping God,’ and the divine faithfulness is that which the apostle in this very passage affirms. To taunt of the scoffers who impugn the faithfulness of God, and ask, ‘Where is the promise of His coming?’ he answers, ‘The Lord is not slack concerning his promise as some men count slackness;’ there is no fickleness nor forgetfulness in Him; the lapse of time does not invalidate His word; His promise stands sure whether for the near or the distant, for to-day or to-morrow, or a thousand years to come. To Him one day and a thousand years are alike: that is to say, the promise which falls due in a day will be performed punctually, and the promise which falls due in a thousand years will be performed with equal punctuality. Length of time makes no difference to Him. He will not falsify the promise which has only a day to run, nor forget the promise which has reference to a thousand years hence. Long or short, a day or an age, does not affect His faithfulness. ‘The Lord is not slack concerning his promise;’ He ‘keepeth truth for ever.’ But the apostle does not say that when the Lord promises a thing for to-day He may not fulfil His promise for a thousand years: that would be slackness; that would be a breach of promise. He does not say that because God is infinite and everlasting, therefore He reckons with a different arithmetic from ours, or speaks to us in a double sense, or uses two different weights and measures in His dealings with mankind. The very reverse is the truth. As Hengstenberg justly observes: ‘He who speaks to men must speak according to human conceptions, or else state that he has not done so.’2

It is evident that the object of the apostle in this passage is to give his readers the strongest assurance that the impending catastrophe of the last days was on the very eve of fulfilment. The veracity and faithfulness of God were the guarantees for the punctual performance of the promise. To have intimated that time was a variable quantity in the promise of God would have been to stultify his argument and neutralise his own teaching, which was, that ‘the Lord is not slack concerning his promise.’

SUDDENNESS OF THE PAROUSIA.

2 Pet. 3:10. —‘But the day of the Lord will come as a thief’ [in the night].

This statement fixes with precision the event to which the apostle refers as ‘the day of the Lord.’ It is familiar to us from the frequent allusions made to it in other parts of the New Testament. Our Lord had declared, ‘In such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.’ He had cautioned His disciples to watch, saying, ‘If the goodman of the house had know in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched;’ implying that His own coming would be stealthy and unexpected as a thief in the night. (Matt. 24:43) St. Paul had said to the Thessalonians, ‘Yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night’.(1 Thess. 5:2) And again, St. John, in the Apocalypse, had written, ‘Behold, I come as a thief’. (Rev. 16:15) Since, then the allusions in these passages undoubtedly refer to the impending catastrophe of Judea and Jerusalem, we conclude that this also is the event referred to in the passage before us.

ATTITUDE OF THE PRIMITIVE CHRISTIANS IN RELATION TO THE PAROUSIA.

2 Pet. 3:12. —‘Looking for and hasting into the coming of the day of God.’

That ‘the day of God,’ ‘the day of Christ,’ and ‘the day of the Lord,’ are synonymous expressions, having reference to the selfsame event, is too obvious to require proof. Here we find again what we have so often found before—the attitude of expectancy and that sense of the imminent nearness of the Parousia which are so characteristic of the apostolic age. It is incredible that all this was based on a mere delusion, and that the whole Christian church, with the apostles, and the divine Founder of Christianity Himself, were all involved in one common error. Words have no meaning if a statement like this may refer to some event still future, and perchance distant, which cannot be ‘looked for’ because it is not within view, nor ‘hasted unto,’ because it is indefinitely remote.

THE NEW HEAVENS AND NEW EARTH.3

2 Pet. 3:13. —‘Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.’

The catastrophe about to take place was to be succeeded by a new creation. The death-pangs of the old are the birth-throes of the new. The old Jerusalem was to give place to the new Jerusalem; the kingdom of this world to the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. It may be a question whether by the new heavens and a new earth the apostle means a new order of things here among men or a holy and perfect heavenly state? It may also be asked, To what promise does the apostle refer when he says, ‘According to his promise’? Alford suggests, (Isa. 65:17) ‘For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth,’ etc., and this may be correct. But we are rather disposed to think that the apostle has in his mind ‘the new heaven and the new earth’ of the Apocalypse, where we find righteousness set forth as the distinguishing characteristic of the new aeon. The new Jerusalem is the holy city, into which ‘there shall in no wise enter anything that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie.’ It is no more improbable that St. Peter should refer to the writings of the Apostle John than to those of the Apostle Paul.

THE NEARNESS OF THE PAROUSIA A MOTIVE TO DILIGENCE.

2 Pet. 3:14. —‘Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for such things be diligent that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless.’

This exhortation clearly indicates the expectation of the Parousia as at hand. Its nearness is a motive to diligence, preparedness to meet the Lord. It is not death that is here anticipated, but to be found by the Lord watching, ‘with their loins girt, and their lamps burning.’

BELIEVERS NOT TO BE DISCOURAGED ON ACCOUNT OF THE SEEMING DELAY OF THE PAROUSIA.

2 Pet. 3:15. —‘And account that the long-suffering of our Lord is salvation.’

The apparent long delay of the anxiously looked-for coming of the Lord must have been disquieting to persecuted Christians longing for the expected hour of relief and redress. Their cry went up to heaven, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true?’ Yet this very delay had a gracious aspect; it was ‘long-suffering,’ makroyumia; not ‘slackness,’ but ‘unwillingness that any should perish.’ Exactly in accordance with this is our Lord’s parable of the importunate widow, which has relation to this very case. There were have the same delay in the execution of judgment through the long-suffering [makroyumia] of God; the consequent trial of the faith and patience of the saints; their appeal to the judgment of God for redress; and the exhortation to diligence: ‘Men ought always to pray, and not to faint’. (Luke 18:1-8)

ALLUSION OF ST. PETER TO ST. PAUL’S TEACHING CONCERNING THE PAROUSIA

2 Pet. 3:15, 16. —‘Even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given unto him, hath written unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.’

This allusion to the epistles of St. Paul suggests several important inferences.

  • It proves the existence and general circulation of many epistles written by St. Paul.
  • It recognizes their inspiration and co-ordinate authority with the scriptures of the Old Testament.
  • It adverts to the fact that St. Paul, in all his epistles, speaks of the coming of the Lord.
  • It specifies one epistle in particular in which distinct allusion is made to the subject.
  • It acknowledges certain difficulties connected with the eschatology of the New Testament, and the perversion of the apostolic teaching by some ignorant and fickle-minded persons.

We may consider briefly one or two questions, —

1. To which epistle of St. Paul is reference here made as specially bearing upon the subject of the Parousia? (2 Pet. 3:15)

We are disposed to concur with Dr. Alford in the opinion that the reference is to the Epistles to the Thessalonians. The only difficulty lies in the statement ‘hath written unto you, ’ for there is no reason to think that St. Peter addressed this epistle to the Thessalonians. But perhaps the expression means no more than that all the epistles of St. Paul were the common property of the church at large; otherwise the Epistles to the Thessalonians answer well to this description of their contents by St. Peter. We find in them allusions to the coming of the Lord; to the suddenness of His coming; to the nearness of His coming; to the deliverance and rest which His coming would bring to the suffering disciples of Christ; and to the duty of diligence and vigilance in the prospect of the event.

2. What are the ‘things hard to be understood,’ either in the epistles or in the matters now under consideration?

It has often been pointed out that the proper antecedent to which in the second clause of the sixteenth verse is not ‘epistles,’ but ‘things;’ en oiv agreeing, not with epistoluv, but with toutwn. Now, however, it appears, since Tischendorf’s discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus, that the reading of the three most ancient MSS. is aiv and not oiv, making epistles the proper antecedent to ‘which.’ It does not, however, greatly affect the sense which of the two readings we may adopt. It is quite clear that the difficulties alluded to by St. Peter were in those portions of St. Paul’s epistles which treated of the Parousia. We know how much the subject was misapprehended by the Thessalonians themselves; and we have abundant experience since then to prove how much the whole eschatology of the New Testament has been ‘hard to be understood,’ and has been ‘wrested’ by many even to this day. It is no marvel, then, that much difficulty should have been felt by the primitive Christians as to the true interpretation of many of the prophetic declarations respecting the coming of the Lord, the close of the age, the changing of the living, the resurrection of the dead, the end of all things, etc. That some should distort and pervert the apostolic teaching on such subjects was only too probable, and we know as a matter of fact that they did. It was needful, therefore, to exhort believers to beware of being ‘led away with the error of the wicked.’


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Footnotes

1.  See "On the Symbolism of Prophecy" Note 138

2.  Christology, vol. iii. p. 270.

3.  See Note 139

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