One of the key passages regarding the second coming of Christ is found in 2 Peter 3:1-18 (the entirety of chapter 3 of 2 Peter). First, let me provide you with the text of the chapter, and then my commentary on it.
2 Peter 3:1-18
This second epistle, beloved, I now write unto you; in both which I stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance: that ye may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us the apostles of the Lord and Saviour: 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.
For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: 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, 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 longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
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 burned 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. Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless. And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; 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.
Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own stedfastness. But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and for ever. Amen.
First, notice that chapter is directed to the beloved – to those who are believers – to those who are already familiar with the promises of God by the prophets and the commandments of the apostles (both Old and New Testaments, one might say today).
Second, notice that Peter prophesies scoffers who will arise and mock the idea of Christ’s second coming. There are such men now. We saw many mocking Mr. Camping’s prediction of May 21, 2011. Some mocked it because of its absurd claim to be based on the Bible. Others, however, mocked it because they mock the whole idea of Christ coming again. This latter group is the group of scoffers that Peter’s prophecy applies to.
Third, notice what else characterizes these scoffers. These scoffers think that the world just goes on and on as it always has. What they are voluntarily ignorant about is the great flood of Noah’s day. In that flood, God wiped out all mankind throughout the world, except for eight souls who were left on the ark.
The point that Peter makes in discussing Noah’s flood is to point out that God has already judged the world once. God will judge it again. Those who think that life will continue on Earth endlessly should pay attention to the warning that the flood provided.
Fourth, notice the two-fold reason given for the delay in bringing judgment on the Earth again. God does not care about time – that’s what the “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” means. It does not mean that God embedded a secret day = one thousand years code in the Bible as Mr. Camping and others before him have thought. Instead, it means simply that God is indifferent to time as such. God doesn’t feel rushed to accomplish in a day what men might take a thousand years to do, and God doesn’t feel impatient about accomplishing in a thousand years what men might wish were accomplished in a day.
The second part of the reason for the delay is that God is gathering in the elect now. God is longsuffering to us, not willing that any (of us) should perish, but that all (of us) should come to repentance. If God were to have destroyed the world on May 21, 2011, some of the elect would (we must assume) never have been born, or never would have come to repentance and faith. God is indifferent to time, but we live in time. Thus, God uses time itself to His own purpose in the salvation of the elect.
Fifth, notice that the Lord will come as a thief in the night. Herein lies the utter absurdity of Mr. Camping’s prediction: a thief wouldn’t advertize his robbery in advance on billboards and radio waves around the globe. No, a thief comes without warning, when he is least expected.
Moreover, observe that this “thief in the night” characterization is not simply with respect to the scoffers, but with respect to the beloved as well. While scoffers had been addressed earlier in the chapter, now the beloved are being addressed and are being told that Christ’s return will surprise them too.
Sixth, notice that the day of the Lord will be a day of judgment. When Christ returns, it will not be to set up an earthly kingdom. No, the heavens will be destroyed with a loud noise, and the Earth will be destroyed with fire.
Seventh, notice the lesson to be taken from the fact that the world will be destroyed. The lesson Peter draws is that we ought to live holy lives. We ought to be less concerned with this world and its glories (all of which will be destroyed) than with the new heavens and new earth that will come after it. We should be longing for the coming of the Lord, and yet we should understand that God in his mercy is showing longsuffering, as also Paul wrote (see Romans 2:4 and 9:22).
Eighth, notice that Peter identifies Paul’s epistle to the Romans and his other epistles as Scripture. This is an important point to take note of, since it demonstrates that the canon of Scripture was known to include the Pauline epistles even during the apostolic era. It was not later generations who came up with this.
Ninth, notice that Peter warns us to be careful. We should not follow the example of men who wrest the Scriptures to their own destruction. It is hard not to apply these words specifically to Mr. Camping at this time, but nevertheless we ought to realize that there were wicked men wresting the words of the apostles in their own days, the Reformers had to contend with those of Rome wresting Scripture in even more destructive ways, and if the Lord tarries we will see many more wicked men do the same.
Tenth, and finally, notice that the way to avoid the error of the wicked is not to run away from learning and knowledge. Instead, the way to avoid the error of the wicked is to grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The antidote to Camping’s mishandling of Scripture is to pray for God’s favor and to seek knowledge of God in the Scriptures – Scriptures that guarantee that the Lord will return, but also guarantee that no one will know the day or the hour.