Fishermen do something, they fish. That explains why we call them what they do. Who are Christians? What they do is not revealed in their name. What does Scripture say they do? Well a number of things, but the most obvious is that they tell people about
In the final verse of his letter Peter lays down the alternative (note the Greek de, “instead”) to being carried away by erroneous ideas of reprobate teachers. It is to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord.” The best way to escape error is to move as rapidly as possible in the other direction. The reason is simple in that all truth resides in Christ. Those who move in that direction experience not only his gracious presence (they “grow in the grace of our Lord and Savior”) but also an increase in their understanding of the truth he exemplifies (“and the knowledge of our Lord”). It will be well to examine these two crucial terms.
The grace of the Lord Jesus is his selfless gift of forgiveness and restoration. ”Unmerited favor” is how it is often defined. However, in one sense it is not definable because as an active relationship its full meaning has to be experienced. We know, for example, that the full meaning of love cannot be compressed into the words used to describe it; it must be experienced. The grace of Christ is understood only by those who have by faith come to know him as a personal friend. And how do we “grow” in this grace? We live with an increasing awareness of who he really is and a continuing experience of his gracious presence.
In addition to growing in grace we are to grow in our knowledge of him. This, of course, begins with an ever-expanding grasp of all that scripture has revealed about him. I suspect that a major reason for a weak and unproductive life on the part of some believers is their failure to make scripture a primary resource for Christian growth. It is said that written inside the cover of Susanna Wesley’s bible were the words, “Dust on your bible means sin in your heart.” It is import to know that learning about Christ is not learning him – the latter is existential. Once again we move from the outside toward the center. When I learn about the love of Christ it enables me to communicate it to someone else. It does not mean that I know it in the fuller sense of experiencing his forgiveness and the joy it brings. The young man sitting on the football bench while others are strenuously engaged on the field does not, as yet, know what the game really is. Involvement is the key.
Peter closes his second letter by encouraging his readers to learn more and more about the Lord Jesus and this will necessarily involve an ever-expanding experience of his gracious presence.
Peter concludes his remarks on the coming Day of the Lord noting that their “dear friend Paul” had written that God’s patience provides people additional time in which they may accept salvation. Then he added the oft-quoted line that Paul had written a number of things that were “hard to understand” and that the “ignorant and unstable” are distorting them to their own destruction. This kind of distortion has continued from the day of the apostles until the present hour.
The Greek word translated “distort” was originally used in reference to the tightening of a cable with a windlass. In our text it describes the straining and twisting of words in order to produce a desired meaning. So it has been from the beginning. What God has stated through the inspired writers is so often adjusted to express what the speaker would like it to say. The most ludicrous example I know of is that the word “become” in John 1:12 (“but to as many as believed he gave the power to become the children of God”) should be understood in the sense of “having an attractive appearance” – that is, if you believe you have the power to become more attractive.
Words are important. They are not isolated objects that we arrange in different orders so as to communicate some specific thought. They are part of the verbal method for communication. They “mean” exactly what the speaker or author intended when he used them. To understand a word or sentence correctly one has to consider context, intention, whether or not they should be taken as satire, etc. Because words are flexible, correct understanding calls for a genuine desire to understand. In Peter’s final chapter he is dealing with eschatology and that is where words have been twisted in support of many strange ideas about the future. There is a wider point of view in the church regarding the second coming of Christ than of any other doctrine. The book of Revelation and what it says about the future has been vandalized by misguided experts more than any other section of scripture. If Paul has been misunderstood by the “ignorant and unstable” I would like to argue that John (in the Apocalypse) has even more.
The seriousness of verbal adjustment for personal reasons is especially disturbing in biblical interpretation because scripture is God himself speaking through inspired channels. The very fact that it is God himself who speaks to us through his word calls for us to do our prayerful and intellectual best to understand what he is saying, not what we would like to believe.
The early church was confident that Jesus would return before long as the Lord of lords. Peter describes the coming as a cosmic cataclysm in which the entire universe would explode in a fiery mass, dissolving the elements with fervent heat. The obvious moral question is, “Since life as we know it is about to end, what sort of people ought we be?” (2 Peter 3:11). Peter answers, “Our lives should be holy and dedicated to God.” It makes sense that, in view of the cosmic conflagration about to take place, we ought to be living in a way that reflects the beauty and goodness of our Heavenly Father.
The text speaks of a life-style that is holy (i.e. apart from sin) and godly (reflective of the nature of God). Once again we need to remind ourselves that what is being held before us is a model or goal for living. It pictures a life conditioned by the fact that since the end of all things is near, it follows that heaven should become our guide for living. The conclusion is too logical to be denied. The life of the believer is to be holy and godly. The fact that Peter, along with others in the early days of Christianity, was mistaken in the literal sense of time does not alter the fact that we who are destined for heaven ought to live in a way that reflects our eternal home.
I grant that the normal congregation in today’s world falls short of this ideal. Wherever people care deeply about the spiritual is the spot where Satan is dong his best to create division. So instead of badmouthing those congregations, would it not be better to pray for them. Perhaps God will provide the healing necessary for a more positive congregational health. Jesus promised that not even the “gates of hell” could prevail against his church, i.e., those who acknowledge, as Peter did, that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God (Matt. 16:18). So let’s not dwell on the trouble in that little church down the road.
Every general principle is easier to understand when illustrated by a particular example. Here is one: God sees us not in terms of what we are but in what we can be. Christ died for our sins and God sees us in him. What if we viewed every person in our world in terms of what they can become. I am sure that would help us to carry out our obligation to live a “holy and godly life.”
Peter has just warned his readers against the erroneous teaching of some scoffers who were claiming that Christ would not return. Their problem seems to be the expectation that God would work on their timetable. They hadn’t caught on that “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day (2 Peter 3:8). Peter wanted his readers to know that the Lord is not slow in keeping his promises. What may seem to be an unnecessary delay is actually God exercising his patience for their benefit – “he doesn’t want anyone to perish but all to come to repentance” (vs. 9).
It is this last phrase that I want to talk about somewhat theologically. It seems to say that God is not in charge of the future. He doesn’t want something that is going to happen anyway (some will perish) and he does want something that won’t happen (for everyone to repent). That sure looks like God’s sovereignty is limited. Obviously this doesn’t fit the standard portrait of an omnipotent Deity who spoke and what is came into being (Heb. 11:3). How could one of such creative power be unable to overrule my little decision about whether or not to accept his offer of salvation?
Granted, this question has been around for a long time. Way back in the early years of the church, the fathers argued about the relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. There’s little chance that we will solve the problem now! But here is what is for me the closest thing to a satisfactory answer. I accept the sovereignty of God as clearly taught throughout scripture. He covered the face of the world with water when he wanted to (Genesis flood). He brought a man back from death (Lazarus). He maintains order in a universe larger that we can imagine and expanding faster than the speed of light. But we also know that through the years vast numbers have rejected his offer of forgiveness and apparently he is unable to do anything about it. How could this be? Doesn’t all-powerful mean there can be nothing more powerful?
My “solution” is that God, in the creation of the human race, intentionally gave to us the ability to disobey. What he wanted was for us to accept, love and follow him out of our own freewill. So he placed a restriction on his own sovereignty so as to have a people who would love him freely. But, you ask, doesn’t that put his sovereignty in question for other areas? I don’t know. I believe what he has declared, that he is Lord of lords and King of kings. There is none greater. There is none more powerful. J. I. Packer, the Christian theologian of note, calls these two statements an “antinomy.” Each is clearly taught in scripture while at the same time are opposed to the other. I find myself willing to accept both statements in spite of the fact that considered within our finite world of logic they raise a question. In fact, I am quite sure that I don’t want a God who is limited to my ability to understand him fully.
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.