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"The Longsuffering of our Lord"

H A Barnes, Westhoughton


The Greek word makrothumia (3115) appears fourteen times in the Greek New Testament, and in our Authorised Version it is translated twelve times as longsuffering and twice as patience. While the latter translation is quite correct, longsuffering is an excellent rendering of the original Greek word, which is a combination of the two words long and temper. It is the exact opposite of our expression "short temper", and has been paraphrased as "the ability to hold one's temper for a long time". When it applies to divine persons, it is always translated in the Authorised Version as "longsuffering". Makrothumia is also used in the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, to translate the Hebrew word that we have in our Authorised Version as "slow to anger" (Num 14.18; Ps 86 15; Prov 14.29; 16.32), where the Hebrew word is similarly a compound containing the thought of "long".

The word "longsuffering" itself was first recorded in English in William Tyndale's translation of the New Testament (1526) as "longe sufferynge", and is one of the three dozen or so of his then newly introduced words, e.g. atonement, holy place, intercession, Jehovah, judgment seat, mercy seat, modesty, passover, peacemakers, scapegoat, stumbling block, and zealous. 

We will now look at six instances of divine longsuffering in the New Testament.

1. "Despisest thou the riches of his…longsuffering" (Rom 2.4)

The wealth of divine characteristics obviously includes "the riches of his glory" (Rom 9.23; Eph 3.16), but in the gospel "the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering" (Rom 2.4) especially come to the fore. At the beginning of Romans 2 the apostle states, "we are sure that the judgment of God is according to truth" against inexcusable men (v.2), who would not escape the judgment of God if they continued in their "hardness and impenitent (unrepentant) heart" (vv.2-5). Were they despising the great manifestation of divine characteristics as revealed in the gospel - the "riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering" (v.4)? They certainly were unaware that the goodness, indeed the kindness, of God is trying to lead (Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament) men and women to repentance, and the forbearance (tolerance) and longsuffering of God gives them sufficient time to repent, i.e. change their mind about themselves and acknowledge that they are hell-deserving sinners. Repentance goes along with faith (see Acts 20.21 and Hebrews 6.1).

2. "God…endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath" (Rom 9.22)

Paul considers how God choose to show His wrath and display His power. Of this William Kelly (Commentary on Romans) wrote very suitably that "the way adopted was admirable and worthy of His nature. Arbitrariness there was none, but 'much long-suffering'. So He bore long with the corruption and violence of guilty man". God is quite at liberty to exercise His longsuffering, even to those whose continued unbelief is preparing them for utter destruction.

3. "In me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering" (1 Tim 1.16)

One of those whose unbelief was definitely fitting him for utter destruction was Saul of Tarsus, but, as he wrote to Titus, "God…according to his mercy…saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3.4-5). God's mercy was extended to him for a special purpose - it was in order "that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting" (1 Tim 1.16). The number one sinner became the number one example to them who were "about to believe" (JND), perhaps those who were hesitating, thinking they were too bad to be saved, as John Wesley put it "that none might hereafter despair". (Note that the words chief (v.15) and first (v.16), are identical in Greek and both mean "first in rank" - Strong.) The phrase "all longsuffering" is very expressive and has been rendered or paraphrased as "the whole longsuffering" (Darby, Kelly); "His all-patience" (Vaughan); "all his longsuffering" (Vincent); "the whole [of His] longsuffering" (Jamieson, Fausset & Brown); "the highest possible degree of forbearance" (Barnes); "the entirety of long-suffering - all that was possible, every kind and degree of long-suffering…the utmost" (Pulpit Commentary), and "the utmost longsuffering which he has" (Expositor's Greek Testament). Paul was well aware that he himself had been the object of such great longsuffering!

4. "The longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah" (1 Pet 3.20)

The verb "to wait" in this verse means "to look for", "to expect", or even "to wait out to the end" (Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament). The people of Noah's day had been given all they needed - a faithful "preacher of righteousness" (2 Pet 2.5), and the Holy Spirit striving with them (Gen 6.3), so it is quite reasonable that God should expect people to be saved. However, only eight were saved because there was a time when God shut the door (Gen 6.16): He had "waited out till the end", but the end came eventually with the bringing in of the flood upon the world of the ungodly (2 Pet 2.5). If the Lord was longsuffering for Paul's few years, then He was very longsuffering when we think of Noah, who preached for one hundred and twenty years. Christ by His Spirit preached through Noah to the unbelieving people whose spirits are now in prison, i.e. in hell.

5. "The Lord…is longsuffering…willing…that all should come to repentance" (2 Pet 3.9).

Whatever we think about election, in the light of 2 Peter 3.9 we must be able happily to place our thoughts alongside this lovely verse that gives the negative and positive aspects of the Lord's desire concerning "any" in particular and "all" in general. God's desire to "have all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim 2.4) is possible because the Lord Jesus "gave himself a ransom for all" (1 Tim 2.6).

Peter wrote that the Christian's calling had brought "exceeding great and precious promises" (2 Pet 1.4), and one of the greatest of these promises is "the promise of his coming". However, he also predicted that there would in the future be scoffers (mockers, JND) who would ask, "Where is the promise of his coming?" (2 Pet 3.3-4). This became true not many years afterwards in Jude's day (Jude v.18). These mockers belittled the great promise, but how could they be answered? Peter tells the believers that "The Lord does not delay his promise, as some account of delay, but is longsuffering towards you, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (2 Pet 3.9, JND). It is not delay but longsuffering that dictates the length of the period we call "the day of grace". While being busy in the gospel in this present evil age (Gal 1.4), we can still "according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness" (2 Pet 3.13).

6. "The longsuffering of our Lord is salvation" (2 Pet 3.15)

When we account (consider, regard, reckon) "that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation", we are further affirmed in understanding why the Lord has not yet come, for He is indeed "gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy" (Ps 145.8; see also Ps 103.8), and that salvation is still possible for those who will repent and believe the gospel. ("The interval is called "His long-suffering" - and we know it is "salvation", a time for gathering and quickening" (J G Bellett). Peter then reminds his readers that Paul had also taught the same truths in his inspired epistles (v.16).


When it comes to the longsuffering of God, words such as "riches", "much" and "all" are necessary to describe this great divine attribute. It is always meant to bring men and women to salvation, but has been abused, as in the days of Noah, but, on the other hand, it had been particularly appreciated by Paul. Peter explains that this longsuffering is not to be mistaken for delay, but is yet another expression of divine love to sinners with a view to their salvation.

Last, while enjoying thoughts of divine longsuffering, we must not forget that believers, as "followers [imitators] of God" (Eph 5.1), should also be longsuffering (2 Cor 6.6; Eph 4.2; Col 1.11; 2 Tim 4.2; Heb 6.12); in fact this is available to us as the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5.22), with Paul and the prophets as good examples of such longsuffering (2 Tim 3.10; James 5.10). John Newton wrote, "If we enquire what is the will and pleasure of this great and only Potentate, we are told it is to show forth all longsuffering and grace". As others have said, believers need patient endurance to cope with difficult circumstances, and longsuffering to cope with difficult Christians!



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