In writing to the congregations throughout Asia Minor Peter wanted them to be aware of the difficulties they will face in the last days. From our standpoint, some two thousand years later, it is a bit confusing that he is telling his readers way back then about a situation that we understand to be yet future. The early church was convinced that it was living in the twilight of history. The children of Israel had looked forward to a coming Messianic age and the Christian church understood that with the advent of Christ it had arrived. Before long Jesus would return and a state of eternal blessedness would begin. In those last days there were scoffers within the church claiming that Christ would not return, thus freeing themselves to live the immoral life-style so appealing to their old nature.
There have always been scoffers in every society. It is so much easier to deny something than to explain it. Peter notes that they “deliberately forgot” (vs. 4) something that otherwise would have undermined their point of view, that is, that since God stepped into history at creation, it follows that there is no reason he can’t do it again with the return of Christ. The point is that the malcontents had deliberately forgotten what they didn’t want to take into consideration. In context, the Greek lanthano, “to be hidden from someone,” should be taken in the sense of “purposely ignored” (TEV). The willingness to misunderstand is a basic trait of human nature. It allows us to avoid any restriction we choose. It puts us in control of “truth” as we want it to be. But truth has a way of emerging whenever it wants to. The best-laid plans of scoffers will in time prove to be erroneous because that is exactly what they are. God may be slow as we consider time but that alters exactly nothing. It was a long time between the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament and the birth of Christ child in a Bethlehem stable. But it happened. It may be a long time as we count time before he comes in final triumph, but he will. Deliberately choosing which facts are to be set aside is exegetical blunder of significance.
Peter understood the nature of the last days and identified the scoffers as evidence. As we look around, even within the church (more loosely defined), we see the same disbelief and animosity. With Peter, let us keep a firm grip on the truth revealed in the apostolic message
The Galilean fisherman would have been surprised to learn that at one point he was encouraging the positive benefits of neuroplasticity. In chapter 3, verse 1, he tells his readers that in both of his letters his goal was “to stimulate you to wholesome thinking.” He knew nothing about how our thought life can change the structure of the brain and how it functions. But he did know that thinking about that which is pure had a way of leading to a more positive thought life. We now know through the contributions of neuroplasticity that intentional thinking can change the actual structure of the brain. In his letters Peter wanted to encourage his readers to let that which was wholesome and good fill their minds. He knew from experience that it changed the way people thought about life.
Paul would agree wholeheartedly with his fellow apostle. In a letter to the believers in Philippi he wrote, “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” What he didn’t know was that what he was recommending would create new neural connections and change how we think. We all know that there is a power in positive thinking. No doubt about it. A former pro football player told me that at one point in his career he tried it out and for several years running he was All-Pro in the NFL. Could we not say that there is a power in wholesome thinking that can establish us in All-Pro Christian living? The British philosopher and writer, James Allen, said, “You are today where your thoughts have brought you.” Christians whose thought life centers on that which is uplifting and vituous are the models for how to live as followers of Christ.
Isn’t it interesting that intellectual progress is not so much in new fields as it is in understanding more perfectly what we already know? Peter wanted to stimulate his reader to fix their thoughts on that which was positive and wholesome. He knew that that mindset had a positive effect on life. We now know more about what is going on inside the brain but that is less new knowledge than it is expansion of what we already know. So, thanks, Peter, for stimulating us to do a bit of thinking about thinking.
The second chapter of 2 Peter is perhaps the darkest chapter in the New Testament. It deals extensively with apostasy within the early church. In great detail it describes apostate teachers, their conduct and their false doctrine. Recent scholarship holds that their departure from Christian truth was primarily ethical. They adjusted their doctrine to support their change in life-style, not the other way around. And so it has always been. Whenever people want to live in a way not sanctioned by scripture they do their best to justify it by reinterpreting the text.
Why apostasy? Why the constant leftward trend in society as well as the church? Is it not the lure of a supposed freedom made possible by dropping, or at least adjusting absolutes? Christianity holds to certain basic truths. Some things cannot be changed. So when people are denied permission to enjoy a forbidden pleasure, the simplest way to solve the problem is to adjust the absolute. That is what was happening in Peter’s world and still is today. Anyone approaching sixty can remember the days when that which is currently protected on the basis of some sort of phobia, was consider morally improper if not illegal. Why do institutions of higher education, which often began as Christian training centers, become totally secular? If the trend weren’t so pronounced and obvious it could be set aside as unimportant but that isn’t the case. Can we name a single social custom in the free world that is moving away from so-called freedom to a more controlled position?
So what is the effect of this leftward movement of social mores on the church? Sociologists writing on the issue agree that the church is being increasingly molded by secular culture. In an attempt to share the faith with the secular world, the church is becoming increasing like the world. It has forgotten J. B. Phillip’s famous rendition of Romans 12:2, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould.” It is true that Jesus kept company with outcasts rather than religious types, but I can’t find anyplace where he became like them in order to tell them to become like he used to be. Somehow that doesn’t work.
Peter, you’ve given us a lengthy dissertation on early apostasy and it may be better for us to read it with care than to discuss it endlessly. Sometimes truth is its own advocate. We acknowledge that your insights are inspired, but have to confess that they are not very inspiring.
The entire second chapter of 2 Peter deals with false teachers and their destruction. His point of view is summarized in the final sentence in which he writes, “A dog returns to its vomit” and a sow “to her wallowing in the mud.” It’s clear that he has little use for those who would lead others astray. Returning to the first verse of the chapter Peter reminds us that (1) “There were” and “there will be” false teachers in their midst, and (2) They will “bring swift destruction on themselves.”
Heresy will always be with us. It is inevitable. Always has been. In the primeval Garden of Eden Satan became the first theological heretic. He suggested to Eve that God had denied them access to the tree and its fruit for reasons other than he had given. Tricky! And what began with the first couple continues today – the suggestion that God didn’t really mean what he said so let me tell you what is right. From this basic perspective there is no end to the heresies that can suddenly appear. The voice of error whispers in the ear, “ God didn’t mean what he said; science, you know, has proven the bible can’t be trusted; God exists only because we need some sort of psychological prop.” Attempts to twist biblical truth will continue until the end of time. It’s a was/is/will be reality of life.
The other point is those who insist on twisting the clear teaching of scripture will self-destruct; they will “bring swift destruction on themselves.” While Peter is speaking of a fate yet future, the insight is relevant to the present as well. There is a real sense in which all departure from truth destroys the heretic himself. Often God punishes by simply stepping away. Paul teaches that God “gives them over” (the wicked, that is) to the result of their own sinful acts (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). It so happens that God’s way is not just what God desires but is also the way that is best for us. To act contrary to the will of God is to intentionally afflict harm on oneself. In World War II my brother was an underwater demolition expert. He laid mines around battleships that were bombarding some target. A hospital ship needing to get to shore would be given a map showing the explicit location of each mine so it could safely navigate to its destination. So it is with the “laws” of God. Their purpose is not to please God, although they do, but to show us how to make it safely through without stepping on the “mines” that clutter our life. If we choose to ignore the map and go it on our own, chances are we will step on one and suffer the penalty. It is the self-destructive nature of sin.
It is interesting that the best statement about Scripture, its origin and reliability, comes to us from an unsophisticated Galilean fisherman by the name of Peter. One would think that perhaps it might have been Levi, the professional tax gatherer, or Paul, the erudite scholar of Judaism, but that is not the case. In three short verses (2 Peter 1:19-21) Peter tells us that the prophetic message is divine in origin, was brought to us by men “carried along by the Holy Spirit,” and therefore “completely reliable.”
The doctrine of inspiration is crucial because if the Bible is a mixture of truth and error then there is no solid basis for the Christian faith. For example, if the account of the resurrection had its origin in the imaginations of a small group that needed some sort of supernatural reason for their faith, then there remains no solid historical reason for the rise of the Christian faith. People don’t sacrifice their lives to support an event that they themselves made up.
History indicates that when people begin to lose confidence in the reliability of scripture they see no reason to attend church and hear it read and/or explained. In America, those denominations that no longer trust completely in the written record, begin to lose membership and sacrifice outreach. It is those churches that continue to believe without reservation to the inspiration and reliability of scripture that flourish. Check the stats in our major denominations. Genuine Christianity calls for an active faith in Christ. There is no placed for indifference. This very day, Christian converts around the world are being put to the test. If they choose not to deny their faith in Christ and accept some alternative, the consequence is incredibly severe.
In one of his letters Paul writes of two things that will take place before the return of Christ – the “man of lawlessness” (the antichrist) will be revealed, and there will be a wide-spread apostasy (Greek is apostasia), that is, “a falling away from the faith.” Such a basic conflict is taking place in our world today and some believe it is the specific fulfillment of 2 Thess. 2:1-4. If that is so, we may expect a major split in Christianity between those who maintain the complete trustworthiness of scripture and those who don’t. It’s bound to happen because God gave us an accurate account of it in his sacred Word.
It appears that some false teachers had been encouraging those to whom Peter was writing that Jesus would not return in a physical form (2 Peter 1:16-18.) Peter refers to their “cleverly devised stories” as muthoi,” from which we get our word “myth.” His purpose at this point was to establish for his readers a solid basis for believing that Christ would in fact come back to earth in an actual body. Normally, Christians turn to the resurrection as proof that Christ is alive and therefore able to return, but Peter cites his experience on the Mt. of Transfiguration. That was when Christ appeared to Peter, James and John in the radiant splendor of his eternal state. They were eyewitnesses of that visual display of the truth of the resurrection. Their experience argues the credibility of his promise to return.
The point I want to stress is the deceptive nature of heresy. If what the false teachers were saying was true it follows that believers have no basis for expecting a literal return Christ. The argument is that since such things as returning from the dead are not a part of life as we know it, any reference to them should be taken allegorically. They would say, “To state that Christ will return in bodily form is a way of emphasizing the remarkable impact of his life. It honors the greatness of his ministry. To understand it in a literal fashion misses the point.”
And so it has been argued ever since. To take the second return literally is to miss the larger truth. One needs to open the imagination to understand what the words actually intended. So goes the argument. Heresy has always preyed on the more vulnerable. When scripture speaks about rivers clapping their hands and mountains singing for joy (Psalm 98:8) we recognize the genre and don’t expect to sit in on the next concert. But in other areas it is more difficult to distinguish between literal and allegorical. People don’t normally die and return to life so an actual return of Christ is open to some alternate explanation. Peter was well aware of that so he told his readers that he and his fellow disciples had been right there on the mountain with Jesus when the transfiguration took place. With his very own eyes he saw Jesus in his glorified body. He heard the majestic voice of God announce, “This is my Son, whom I love.” What greater proof could there be that Jesus, who appeared in heaven glory in what became known as the Transfiguration, could and would return in bodily form.
Peter writes that as long as he is “in this tent” (2 Peter 1:13) he needs to remind his readers of certain things. Some scholars think this reflects the Greek idea of an immortal soul living in a mortal body. In fact, there are Christian believers who mistakenly believe that we are souls temporarily using a body. But who we essentially are cannot be partitioned that way. The TEV translation of 1 Thess. 5:23 says that our “whole being” is comprised of “spirit, soul, and body.” The background for Peter’s imagery comes from the nomadic life of the patriarchs of old who were on a journey to the Promised Land. God dwelt in a tent (or tabernacle) and guided them along the way. We too are on a journey; ours is from earth to heaven. We are sojourners and like the patriarchs we are tent-dwellers as we continue toward home.
Since, as the old song has it, “This world is not my home I’m just a-passin’ through,” what does that mean for how we live? I don’t want to sound like a cranky old preacher but the truth is that God’s expectations for us sometimes have a way of making us uncomfortable. Seems to me that the logical implications of being a tent-dweller run something like this: don’t waste all your energy fixing up the old tent; don’t waste time on what is temporary; think about the journey in terms of where it is leading; your Father is there waiting for you (he wants to have a party); don’t take unnecessary side trips; Now you can add yours!
The simple truth is that we were created by and for a God who loves us so much that in the person of his Son gave his very life to save us from the penalty of our own sinfulness. We are the reason why God decided to create in the first place. He wanted a people with whom he could enjoy the deep relationship of love. To imagine an eternity of bliss awaiting the believer certainly rules out any excessive involvement in life here below. Let’s clarify that. Life here on earth is to be lived, as the old gospel song has it, with “eternity’s values in view.” Our choices are made in the light of the fact that earth is temporary and heaven is eternal.
So, fellow tent-dweller: How’s the journey going? Aren’t you glad that before long we’ll all be home!