Warning: VERY long post ahead!
You’ve probably heard the preacher say it. It goes something like this when finding a particular three-letter word in the Bible:
There’s this little word that I want you to notice. A – L – L. We know what it means in English. It means “all.” Well, I did a little study in the Greek language and discovered what it means in Greek. It means “all.” Not “some.” Not “many.” Not “most.” All means “all” and that’s all all means.
Determining whether or not this summation is accurate is very important, especially because it is often voiced after reading the following two statements:
- I Timothy 2:3-4 - This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
- 2 Peter 3:9 - The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.
Before we look at those two verses to see how the biblical authors used the term “all” (which is “pas” in the Greek), we need to examine a few other passages to show some potential problems with this simplistic understanding and lay a little foundation for how we interpret (if we want to be consistent) the two main passages above.
First, look at the first chapter of Philippians. In the first verse, Paul states that he is writing “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in
- In 1:3-4, Paul writes that he thanks God for “you” and that he prays with joy in his prayers for “you.”
- In 1:6, Paul is confident that God will complete the good work that He began in “you.”
- In 1:7, he says “you” are all partakers of grace with him.
- In , Paul says it is for “you” that is has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer.
- In , he then tells the readers to do all things without grumbling so that “you” may prove “yourselves” to be blameless and innocent, children of God in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom “you” appears as lights in the world.
In , the subject matter of Paul's thoughts change. Paul starts talking about “them.” He says “'they' all seek after 'their' own interests, not those of Christ Jesus.” It seems quite evident that Paul is talking about two separate groups of people here: “you” and “them.” There is no way you will confuse the two groups in this chapter. I've not proved anything here - just laying some foundation that I hope you will remember.
Now, look at Romans 11:7-13. Paul speaks of
Then, Paul says in “But I am speaking to ‘you’ who are Gentiles.” Do you see how the conversation has turned? Different pronouns to speak of different groups. It is again very evident and undeniable. Do you agree? Nothing more to say here - only laying more foundational layers.
Let’s look at just one more important example - 1 Peter. It is important because it comes from the pen of the man who wrote one of the main verses mentioned much earlier. Peter, in his first letter, wrote to “those who reside as aliens, scatter throughout . . . who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” (That is a discussion for a later time but it will come). What does Peter say about these chosen scattered aliens?
- In 1:3, Peter writes that God is to be blessed because He has caused “us” to be born again through the resurrection of Jesus Christ . . . to obtain an inheritance that is imperishable. Peter is lumping himself with this group.
- In 1:6, Peter tells this same group that because of what God has done, “you” can rejoice greatly even though “you” have been distressed by various trials.
- In 1:8, Peter says that even though “you” have not seen Him, “you” love Him.
- In , Peter calls his readers “obedient children” who should not be conformed to the former lusts which were “yours” in “your” ignorance. Instead, “you” shall be holy because “you” were not redeemed with perishable things but with precious blood. Peter keeps this up throughout the rest of chapter one and into chapter two.
Then, in , Peter writes this: “Keep ‘your’ behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the things in which ‘they’ slander ‘you’ as evildoers, ‘they’ may on account of ‘your’ good deeds, as ‘they’ observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.”
Again, it is an elementary observation that Peter is writing now of two completely distinct groups: “you” and “them.” It is undeniable and hardly needs mentioning except for the foundational application that comes next.
The above needed mentioning because of the two verses mentioned at the beginning of this long post, namely 1 Timothy 2:3-4 and 2 Peter 3:9.
First, since we just finished reading from Peter’s pen, let’s continue on to his second letter. In the first verse, Peter says he is writing to “those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” The audience is set – Peter is writing to fellow Christians. Again, he includes himself in this group. He will do so often.
- In 1:3, Peter says that God has granted to “us” His previous and magnificent promises so that “you” may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption of the world.
- In 1:5-7, Peter writes of “your” faith and “your” moral excellence and “your” knowledge and “your” self-control and “your” perseverance and “your” godliness and brotherly kindness. This sounds like decidedly Christian characteristics.
- In , Peter calls his readers “brethren” and encourages them to be certain about God’s calling and choosing “you.”
From all this, we can discern that Peter is addressing a particular group. Then, in 2:1, Peter starts talking about another group – false prophets. He says the following of this new group:
- In 2:2, he writes that many will follow “their” sensuality and because of “them” the way of the truth will be maligned.
- In 2:3, “they” will exploit “you” with false words because of greed and “their” judgment and destruction are certain.
- In , he says that because these in this different group are “daring [and] self-willed, ‘they’ do not tremble when ‘they’ revile angelic majesties.”
- In , “they” count it a pleasure to revel in the daytime. “They” are stains and blemishes, reveling in “their” deceptions, as “they” carouse with “you.”
- In , Peter writes more about this group: "forsaking the right way, 'they' have gone astray, having followed the way of Balaam."
- In , Peter writes “these” are springs without water. “They” entice by fleshly desires.
No one would think Peter is still speaking of "those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours."
Finally, in chapter three, Peter returns his attention to the original audience but does not forget about “them.”
- In 3:2, Peter says “you” should remember the words spoken by the prophets.
- In 3:3, Peter says that in the last days, mockers will come following after “their” own lusts. As this group mocks the return of Christ, Peter says that it escapes “their” notice that creation speaks of God.
- In 3:8, Peter cautions the readers to not let a fact escape “your” notice – that a day is like a thousand years to the Lord.
With all this in mind, we are now ready to read and understand Peter’s words in 2 Peter 3:9. He writes “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”
Now, you see why I went to the trouble of working through those other passages. They have nothing to do with this particular text except to force you to be consistent in how you interpret the Scriptures. We see here that the Lord is patient towards whom? God is patient toward “you.” With all the passages given earlier in mind, who is “you?”
You must be careful here. How you answer this question will determine how you interpret the often misunderstood second half of this verse.
Obviously, “you” refers to the readers of this document – the saints of God. Can anyone deny this contextually? To deny this is to ignore all the evidence to the contrary and arbitrarily assign random meanings to various antecedents. You didn’t do it in the examples given earlier from Romans and Philippians and 1 Peter. Don’t do it now.
With that settled, the meat of the discussion occurs. After this phrase, Peter says that God is not wishing for “any” to perish but for “all” to come to repentance. It is at this point that "all" is said to speak of "every single person who has ever lived or will ever live," including "them."
However, it appears to be that the “any” and “all” are limited by the inclusion of “you.” God does not wish that “any of you” perish but that “all of you” come to repentance. Does that make sense? I think you would, at the very least, agree that this interpretation is plausible. You can not simply dismiss it as Calvinistic proof-texting or philosophical bias - especially since Peter returns immediately back to “you” in , asking “What sort of people ought ‘you’ to be?”
So, it has taken us a long time to get here but it appears that ALL does not ALWAYS mean "every single person." Sometimes it means "all kinds" or "all types" or "all of this group." It's just like someone sticking his head into a room and saying, "I want everyone to come with me. I'm buying lunch." Just how big a tab will this person have if by "everyone" he means "every single person" in the building, town, county, state, etc., etc., etc. No, we know what he means - "everyone OF YOU."
Now, let’s look at the other passage: 1 Timothy 2. Paul begins the chapter by asked for prayers to be made on behalf of “all men.” Did Paul mean to pray for every single individual alive at that moment? Was he suggesting that Timothy open the phone book and pray through it from alpha to omega?
Of course not. Paul gives us his meaning of “all” in the next verse, saying “for all men, for kings and all who are in authority.” It seems that in Paul's mind, he is equating the two groups. It is important because we need to pray for our leaders. We often forget that. It is easy to pray for President Bush. How many of us truly prayed in an intercessory fashion for the well-being of President Clinton?
Paul is using “all” to refer to “all KINDS of men.” We think this because Paul gives his reason for asking for prayer for “all men” – so that “we may lead a tranquil and quiet life.” What exactly will lead to this kind of life: praying generally for “every single person” or praying specifically for our leaders? The answer is obvious.
This is an important realization because Paul repeats the phrase in verse 4. He says that praying for all kinds of men, including leaders, is good and acceptable in the sight of God, who “desires all men to be saved.” Is God forever disappointed because His desires are forever frustrated since not all men are saved? Not necessarily, if you take “all men” to once again mean “all kinds of men.”
Is this an accurate interpretation? It is - if you take seriously the verses that follow.
In verse five, Paul starts the verse with the word “for” which indicates he is going to explain his previous statement. He writes that there is one God and one mediator between this God and man – Christ. In verse 6, Paul writes that Jesus gave Himself as a “ransom for all.” Did Jesus give His life as a ransom for every single individual who has ever lived or will ever live? Or did He give His life as a ransom for many (Matt )?
Before you anwer that, there are a few more things I want you to ponder:
- How does Jesus “mediate” between God and man? Hebrews argues that the blood of Christ allows Him to be the “mediator of a new covenant.” In , the author says that Christ did not enter a man-made holy place but heaven itself to appear in the presence of God for us. He does not offer Himself “often” but only once and then He sat down at the right hand of the Father (Heb 7:26 - "Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself." See also ). The job was complete. In , we learn that “by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” Has Christ done this for every single person who has ever lived?
To answer "yes" is to say that that Christ appeared in heaven before the Father, offered His precious blood as a very real substitute for the sins of every single person who ever lived and then sat down because God accepted that substitutionary sacrifice even though God would later punish those same people for whom Christ allegedly died and made atonement and propitiation?
- What does it mean for Jesus to give Himself as a “ransom for all?” Jesus offered His blood as a substitute and God accepted that substitution. His wrath was propitiated – which means His holy anger burned no more on those for whom Christ substituted. Yet, that anger must flame once more at the final judgment. Can this be?
So, all does not necessarily always mean all. Agree? Disagree?