Scripture readings: Isa. 40:1-11; Ps. 85:1-2, 8-13 2 Pet. 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8 Sermon by Ted Johnston from 2 Pet. 3:1-15a (drawing on commentary from Warren Wiersbe in The Bible Expository Commentary and David Wheaton in The New Bible Commentary)
Today on the second Sunday of Advent, our focus continues to be the promised return of Jesus. A classic passage addressing that advent is found in 2 Peter chapter 3. In chapter 2, Peter is addressing the problem of false teachers troubling the churches in Asia Minor with their “destructive heresies” (2 Pet. 2:1). He pulls no punches, calling them out to warn his readers to steer clear of their false teachings (also good advice in our day!).
Then in chapter 3, Peter counters the false teachers’ heresy by pointing to three foundational precepts of the orthodox Christian faith:
Precept #1: God’s word is truth
In 2 Pet. 3:1-4, Peter reminds them that because God’s word is truth (truth that, ultimately, is found in Jesus), they must pay careful attention to it (thus blocking out messages to the contrary). Part of that truth is that judgment is coming upon all evil—a judgment that will occur when Jesus returns—the very return that the false teachers were scoffing at. Instead of this judgment being one of condemnation, it will involve a decisive intervention that will convey visibly and conclusively the truth of all truths—namely, who Jesus truly is. This “unveiling” or “revealing” of Jesus will also mean exposing—judging—humanity’s darkness.
Precept #2: God’s work is consistent
In 2 Peter 3:5–7, Peter notes that the false teachers who scoff at the idea of Jesus’ second coming argue that because God has not interrupted the stable operation of his creation before, the promise of Jesus’ return must be false. But Peter refutes that argument, citing evidence that the false teachers deliberately ignore, namely the work of God at creation (3:5), and the work of God through the flood in Noah’s day (3:6). He then concludes by noting that God will intervene again in a time of judgment, which he says will be a cleansing “fire” (3:7).
Despite the scoffing and heretical teachings of the false teachers, Peter assures his readers that Jesus will return and that it will involve God’s judgment. And lest his readers be scared out of their wits by this assertion, Peter reminds them of a third foundational precept:
Precept #3: God’s will is merciful
In 2 Peter 3:8–10 (NRSV), the apostle both reassures and exhorts his readers with some important facts:
Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
The scoffers are not only ignoring what God has done in the past (creation and the flood), but they are ignorant of what God is like. They have re-created God in their own image, ignoring the fact of God’s eternality. God has neither beginning nor ending. God’s eternity is not just “extended time.” Rather, it is existence above and apart from time. In this passage, Peter is quoting Psalm 90:4: “For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.”
Since a thousand years are as one day to the Lord, we cannot accuse him of delayed fulfillment of his promises. In God’s sight, the whole universe is only a few days old! He is not limited by time the way we are, nor does he measure it according to our standards.
When we study the works of God, especially in the Old Testament, we see that he is never in a hurry, but he is never late. God could have created the entire universe in an instant, yet he preferred to do it over a very long period of time. He could have delivered Israel from Egypt in a moment, yet he preferred to invest 80 years in training Moses. He could have brought about the first advent of Jesus much sooner, but he waited for “the fulness of the time” (Gal. 4:4, ASV).
Though God works within time, he exists outside our time and is thus not limited by it. Thus to God, a thousand of our years is like one day, and one day is like a thousand years. God can accomplish in one day what it would take others a millennium to accomplish! He waits to work, but once he begins to work, he gets things done!
The false teachers did not understand God’s eternality and they did not understand his mercy. Why is God delaying Christ’s return and other yet-coming aspects of the final judgment? It is not because he is unable or unwilling to act. He is not tardy nor off schedule! Nobody on earth has the right to decide when God must act. God is sovereign in all things and does not need prodding or even counsel from sinful humans (Rom. 11:33–36). Rather, God “delays” Jesus’ coming and the judgment his coming will bring because he is merciful—patient as it says in the NRSV—wanting to give lost sinners the opportunity to awaken to and embrace their salvation in Christ. Peter said it this way: “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation” (2Pet 3:15).
There should be no question in anyone’s mind about God’s desire for every person: God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2Pet 3:9). 1 Tim 2:4 affirms that God “wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.” These verses assure us that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked as is noted in Ezek. 18:23, 32; 33:11. Indeed, God shows his mercy to all (Rom. 11:32) even though not all will embrace the salvation he has secured for them.
A call to repentance
2 Peter 3:9 is the only place in his two letters where Peter uses the word repentance, but that does not minimize its importance. To repent is to change one’s mind. It’s not about regret (being sorry for being caught), nor is it about shame or remorse (a hopeless attitude that can lead to despair). Instead, repentance is a change of one’s mind resulting in action of the will. The sinner who changes their thinking (repents) about God and his will and work, turns to God in faith (trust), receiving with a receptive mind what God has secured for them already in Jesus.
But when will Jesus return?
Having reaffirmed the certainty of Jesus’ return and the judgment that comes with it, Peter anticipates his readers’ next question: When will Jesus return? His answer is that nobody knows, because it will come unexpectedly “like a thief” (3:10, and see Matt. 24:43 and 1 Thess. 5:3). Moreover, he shows that the coming of Jesus and judgment will be earth-shattering. Kenneth Wuest gives an accurate and graphic translation here:
The heavens with a rushing noise will be dissolved, and the elements being scorched will be dissolved, and the earth also and the works in it will be burned up. (2Pet. 3:10)
In short, it will be a time of unparalleled transformation of the entire cosmos, making room for a new heavens and new earth (2 Pet. 3:13).
In this cataclysm, the empty works of rebellious humankind (including the false teachers) will be burned up. All that humans boast of in their arrogance—their great cities, great buildings; inventions and achievements—all these will be destroyed in a moment of time.
Peter’s point is that when we all stand before Jesus at his return, we will have nothing to point to as evidence of our own greatness. The only thing that will be seen is who Jesus is and who and what we are in him. We will either joyfully acknowledge and accept that truth, or we will turn from it in continued obstinacy. God will not force anyone to receive and live in his gift of salvation, which is our inclusion in the love and life of Jesus.
In the remaining verses of this letter, and the latter part of our reading in 2 Peter today, Peter applies the truth of the life we have in Jesus to daily living. But before we go there, I think it’s appropriate that we should push the “pause button” to ask ourselves an important question: What is my relationship with Jesus, God’s Truth? Is my life grounded on him—the Solid Rock of my existence? Or is my life grounded on the sinking sand of human ideas and achievement—all which are destined for the ash heap that gives way to a new heaven and new earth when Jesus returns? My prayer for us all is that we will rejoice and live fully in Jesus right now, every day. He is God’s Truth, our Life, our everything.
A call to diligence
Having established the reality of who God is, and of Christ’s promised return with the judgment that will bring about, Peter now concludes his letter with a call to diligence—he admonishes his readers to be responsive to the truth that is in Jesus—the truth that establishes their very identity as the people of God on journey with Jesus toward a new heaven and new earth.
Peter’s call to diligence is prevalent in this letter. He already has told his readers to be “applying all diligence” (2 Pet. 1:5, NASB) and to “be all the more diligent” (2 Pet. 1:10, NASB). Then he says of himself, “I will also be diligent” (2 Pet. 1:15, NASB). And now he concludes, telling them:
Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for these things, give diligence that ye may be found in peace, without spot and blameless in his sight. (2 Pet. 3:14, ASV)
This diligence is not about self-effort motivated by fear or by superstition. Rather it is joy-filled participation in Jesus’ own diligence, which is expressed in the hope and expectancy of his life and message (the gospel). Peter ends his letter with three admonitions for gospel-centered diligence:
Admonition #1: Be diligent to live the gospel
A key word in 2 Peter 3:11–14, NASB, is look (or looking). This looking is not about physical sight, but spiritual sight—a hope and expectancy grounded in the truths of the gospel, including the promise of Jesus’ return, which is the believer’s “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13). Because we realize that the world and its works will be “destroyed,” we fix our hope not on the things of this world, but on Jesus and his enduring, ever-expanding kingdom.
The believer who hopes in the things of this world, rather than in Jesus, develops a worldly orientation that leads to an unfaithful life (Luke 12:35–48). Like the false teachers, they may even begin to scoff at the very idea of Jesus’ return as they pursue their own evil desires. But a gospel-centered attitude of hope and expectancy yields positive changes in personal conduct (2 Pet. 3:11). These changes don’t come from self-effort as though we could change our own nature (can a leopard change its spots?). Rather, changes come because in union with Jesus we “participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Pet. 1:4). Through this participation in Jesus’ relationship with the Father in the Spirit, we are transformed from the inside out and thus begin to live differently from the people whose lives are not centered in this hope.
Peter says that a Jesus-follower lives a “holy and godly” life (2 Pet. 3:11b). In his first letter, Peter wrote: “Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy'” (1 Pet. 1:15-16). God’s holiness, which we share with him by grace in union with Jesus, is grounded in God’s own being—it is his relational “wholeness” as an eternal triune communion of love: Father, Son and Spirit.
As we participate in God’s triune, divine nature, we participate in his communion of love. And this communion transforms our lives—it conforms us to God’s own relational wholeness (holiness). Through this transformation, we become vessels of God’s self-giving love toward others.
Amazingly, Peter says that hope-filled, expectant looking “forward to the day of God” will in some way “speed its coming” (2 Pet 3:12a). Though we don’t know how this works (and Peter may just be using a figure of speech), his overall point is clear: Jesus includes us in his ministry in the world, and our participation has a real impact on how his ministry proceeds. The same God who ordains the end also ordains the means to that end, and we, by his grace, are part of that means. Our task is not to speculate but to participate—and to do so with diligence.
How do we maintain eager expectancy that motivates holy living? A key element is keeping “his promise” of a “new heaven and new earth” clearly in our view (2 Pet. 3:13). The promise of Jesus’ coming is a light of hope that shines in an often dark world (2 Pet. 1:19). We must be sure that “the morning star” is brightly aglow in our hearts as we continue to eagerly await Jesus’ advent at the end of the age. Let us be diligent to live in the hope of this gospel. And let us also be diligent to share that hope with others…
Admonition #2: Be diligent to share the gospel
In 2 Peter 3:15-16, which ties in with 2 Pet. 3:9, Peter explains why the Lord has not yet returned in judgment to usher in the new heaven and new earth. God had every reason long ago to judge the world and burn up its works, but in his mercy, he is patient, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” God continues patiently to give opportunity for the human race to embrace the salvation it has in Jesus—to repent, to trust, and to follow Jesus. Peter’s inference here is that we, as Jesus-followers, need to share his heart for peopple who are walking in darkness and join him with diligence in sharing with them the good news of God’s redeeming love in Jesus. Thus our motivation for sharing the gospel with others is God’s love and our participation in his love, which is reaching out to all humanity (see 2 Cor. 5:14).
In 2 Pet. 3:15-16, Peter refers to Paul’s writings, perhaps because Paul, more than any other New Testament writer, addresses the outworking of God’s plan for salvation which is in Jesus and by grace alone. But, as Peter notes, some “ignorant and unstable people” have been distorting what Paul taught. A common accusation against Paul was that his teaching about grace encouraged people to sin. But this was a false accusation, as Paul himself asserted in Romans 3:8.
Admonition #3: Be diligent to grow in the gospel
In 2 Pet. 3:17-18, Peter ends his letter by warning his readers to be on their guard. What particular danger did Peter see? That his readers might be “led away together with the error of the wicked” (literal translation). The false teachers and their followers “live in error” (2 Pet. 2:18) rather than within the sphere of the truth (2 John 1–2). These false teachers are “lawless men” (2 Pet. 3:17, with the word “lawless” being translated as “unprincipled” in the NASB). These false teachers use unprincipled (deceitful and devious) tactics to turn people away from the truth that is in Jesus. Beware! The danger being addressed here is not losing one’s salvation, but falling from one’s “secure position” or “steadfastness” (NASB) in Jesus.
Believers are vulnerable to becoming unstable when they believe untruths. Peter therefore urges us to be “firmly established in the truth” (2 Pet. 1:12). Our stability as followers of Jesus is directly related to our grounding in the truth and our confidence (trust) in that truth. To embrace lies rather than truth has devastating consequences. This danger is particularly great for young believers, “just escaping from those who live in error (2 Pet. 2:18). New believers need to be taught the basic biblical doctrines of the Christian faith so that they will not be “carried away with the error of lawless people” (2 Pet. 3:17, ESV)
How can we as believers maintain our secure position and avoid being among the unstable ones who are led astray? Peter’s answer is that we must continue to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). “Be constantly growing” is one translation. It’s about a lifetime of growth—constant, steady development within the sphere of the grace and truth that is in Jesus.
a. Grow in Jesus’ grace
This has to do with the traits of Jesus that, by the Spirit, he shares with us. Peter reviewed these in 2 Pet. 1:5–7 and Paul wrote of them in Galatians 5:22–23. We were saved by grace (Eph. 2:8–9) and through grace we are being formed by the Spirit into Jesus’ own likeness. Our life in Jesus is about his grace from start to finish. To grow in grace means to share more fully and actively in the life that is ours in Christ, from whom we receive all the grace that we need (John 1:16).
b. Grow in Jesus’ knowledge
Knowledge without grace can be a terrible weapon, and grace without knowledge can be very shallow. But when we combine grace and knowledge, we experience most fully our connection to the love and life of Jesus who is the fullness of grace and truth.
The knowledge in which we are to grow is “the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” It is one thing to “know the Bible,” and quite another thing to know Jesus, who is the central theme of the Bible. The better we know Jesus, the more we grow in the experience of his grace; and the more we grow in that grace, the more accurate and meaningful will be our knowledge of Jesus and of the Bible given to teach us about him.
This growth in the grace and knowledge of Jesus involves diligence—setting priorities and having the discipline to live accordingly. It involves spiritual nurture and development—a journey of growth with Jesus that occurs best within the context of a loving faith-family, and this is where the local church comes in. It is God’s “nursery” for the care and feeding of Christians—the God-ordained environment that encourages growth in the grace and knowledge of Jesus.
And what is the result of this growth? A sharing in Jesus’ own glory! “To him be glory both now and forever!” Our growth glorifies Jesus and leads to a fuller experience of his glory, which is his love and life shared with the Father in the Spirit. As Peter has already told us, it is our calling to be participants in this divine (triune) nature (2 Pet. 1:4). Our growth is about “growing deeper” in our participation in that life with Jesus.
As we look back on the broad sweep of this second letter from Peter, we are struck by the urgency of its message. False teachers are at work! They are seducing immature Christians! So be on guard and be diligent in living the gospel, sharing the gospel and growing in the gospel. In these ways we participate more and more in Jesus’ own life and love, which he shares with the Father in the Spirit. To and with this Jesus, our Savior and Lord, be all glory both now and forever! Amen.