Trusting God for the long-haul (2 Peter 3:1-7)

Have you noticed the consistent theme that has come through the recent government briefings. Within that umbrella word “government” I am including the road map document, civil servants, science officers and the devolved governments in Scotland. I know there were some controversial issues, some confusing messages and some disagreement. However, everyone was agreed that we are in this for the long haul.

In fact, it is when you realise that the dominant message is that the coronavirus pandemic is going to be with us for some time yet and there isn’t a guaranteed vaccine about to turn up in the next few months that a number of the measures start to make sense.

I think most of us thought, or at least hoped that we would bunker down as though in hibernation for a few weeks and then go back to life as normal. I doubt anyone was really optimistic enough to believe it would all be over by Easter. However, we were probably hoping that things would start to get back to normal over the summer and we’d all be back at home, school and church by the Autumn at the latest.

Well, that isn’t going to happen.  Sticking with churches for the time being, the current expectation seems to be that although some form of opening may be permitted by July, this is likely to be extremely limited.  The expectation of many senior church leaders is that it will only be for people to come in to a building and pray privately initially.[1] When public worship services are permitted it will be for small numbers at a time. Word on the street is that we should not expect anything near approaching normal before the end of the year.  “Don’t get too optimistic” I was told by one national leader in conversation.

So, one of the hardest things about living in this current crisis is the uncertainty of not knowing when it will be over.  We cannot really rely on the promise of specific dates in the calendar, though we can look and see objective measures which will show us that the day is getting closer.

In many respects, Christians should be better equipped than many to handle that uncertainty.  “Stay Alert” was after all a slogan first designed for believers.[2]  We live in the now and not yet, we face persecution and suffering, we have been promised that Christ will return, we can see the evidence around us that points to the truth that he will return and that day is closer than ever but we do not know the day nor the hour.

So Peter writes to believers who need to be ready both for the possibility that Christ might return at any moment and that they need to be ready for the long-haul.

A Vital Reminder

(v1) Peter reminds his readers that this is not the first letter he has written to them.  Therefore he is not writing with surprising, new information. Rather it is a reminder. In fact both letters were reminders of things that they had already heard from him in person and from others.

The first letter does not have the same emphasis on Christ’s return but it does set the life of believers in that context.

Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.[3]

15 but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,[4]

 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.[5]

In that first letter, Peter tells the believers to be ready for the long-haul, bearing suffering, witnessing to Christ in everyday life, even when they face unfair or harsh treatment from government, employers and spouses.[6]  They are to do so in the light of two things, looking back to Christ’s death and resurrection, they enjoy the grace of the gospel (past grace), looking forward to Christ’s return they have hope (future grace), both of these contribute to the present grace believers have as rely on the Holy Spirit.

The first letter focuses on external opposition from outside the church. The second points to trouble within through false teachers. As I said last time, we leave behind our detailed look at the false teachers but not entirely because it is their objections to Christ’s return that we engage with in this chapter.  

(v2) So, Peter’s aim here is not to add more information but to stir up and motivate the believers by reminding them of what they already know. It is not just what they have heard through Peter but from other sources too. First of all, they have the words of the prophets. Those prophets both prophesied the final judgement and resurrection of the Dead (See Daniel) and the events surrounding Christ’s first coming, his death and his resurrection. This meant that the readers could have confidence that God would keep his promise. Imagine how many times over a 700 year period, the Jews would have been tempted to doubt that the Messiah would come. Yet he did come. So whether the time is long or short, we can trust God to keep his promise to us that Christ will return.

Secondly, they have the words of the Apostles, revealing what Christ had said, done and promised. Notice that Peter personalises this. They are “your apostles” this is to emphasise their personal connection to the apostles and not to separate Peter out from the apostles mentioned.

The aim of helping them to remember is so important because their minds may well have been filled with the nonsense that the false teachers were spouting and so they needed once again to be brought back to the truth.  So often, God’s word is squeezed out by the lies others tell us and the lies we tell ourselves.

Scoffers gonna scoff (v3-4)

(V3) And so the reminder is needed because of the presence of “scoffers.” This is likely to refer once again to the false teachers who as we have seen were complacent believing themselves to be safe from God’s judgement. The believers should be aware that mockers and false teachers would come. Jesus himself had warned about this (Matthew 24: 3, 4, 11)  as had Paul when speaking to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:29-30). Their identity as the false teachers is confirmed by their attraction to sinful desires.

(v4) Their specific mockery, probably central to the particular false teaching was that they did not believe Jesus would come back. Their basis for this was that they believed that history was just going on as it always had done without any sign of God intervening. This has been the case since “the fathers” died and since creation. Some commentators think that “fathers” here refers to the first church leaders and so date 2 Peter much later than the later 1st century, although it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for those living towards the end of the first century as the apostles died out to refer to them as Fathers. However, the sense here is of lengthy history and normally the word “fathers” is used to refer to the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

And so their doubt and mockery is expressed as a question. “Where is the promise?”  Of course, if they truly knew their history they would know that this has always been the attack of the enemy whether in Eden with Adam and Eve or with Jesus in the wilderness.

What the mockers overlook

Not only do the false teachers question the future but of course that must depend on them wilfully ignoring the past. To deny Christ’s return must involve them denying the truth of his first coming and indeed all of God’s interventions in history. Peter chooses to highlight one in particular.

This one fact is expressed in the following 3 verses and is summarised in three stages. First of all, that God created the World from water, this was through his word(v5)  God then brought destruction through the flood (v6). It is the same word of God that brough creation about (and implicitly brought the judgement of the  flood that now sustains creation, keeping it for judgement day.

In other words, we are not meant to see this world as existing independently and occasionally  possibly experiencing God’s intervention like some independent alien being stepping in.  That’s the wrong way of thinking about God. As we have mentioned before, there are two ways to think about God. On the one hand, you have the traditional pagan, deist and secular view that any higher force is distant, remote, impersonal and unknowable. With that view of divinity, any supernatural intervention is unlikely and accidental. Indeed if miracles do exist then they run contrary to nature.

The alternative view is the Biblical view that God is intimately involved in creation, it is by his word that this world exists and is sustained. I think we are meant to see these verses as representing the whole stretch of creation. God has never been absent or distant. He has always been involved. We may note as well that Jesus as the Word was not a surprising and sudden entrant either. We are only here and alive day to day because of God’s constant invisible intervention. Therefore if creation depends on God’s intervention, his future visible intervention is a logical expectation.

Implicit here is the point that there were long times of waiting for the visible interventions such as the flood. Of course, in Noah’s day there were scoffers too.

But we are to make no mistake, a judgement day is coming, this will lead to the end of this world as we know it through fire and the judgement of the ungodly.

Reflection and Conclusion

This passage primarily helps us to think about the hope we have, Christ is surely coming. However, before we wrap up with some final thoughts on that, I want to think about a couple of other implications for us today. You see, that point about how God continuously engages with his creation is vital and often overlooked.

First of all, I think it is a point badly missed in our discussion about the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. We tend to see a sharp division between two camps in the debate. On the one hand you have cessationists who believe the spiritual gifts of 1 Corinthians 12 ceased with the apostles. On the other hand you have charismatics who insist that the gifts are available today.  However, both camps are in my opinion united by a tendency to occasionalism in terms of their view of God’s interaction with creation.  By this I mean that we tend to think of God as uninvolved until something unusual happens like a dream, miracle or prophecy.  Cessationists think that this means those things cannot happen whereas charismatics may be tempted to seek opportunities to make those things happen such as special church services and music.  However, when we think that God is always intimately involved in his creation and everything he does is a self-revelation so that God is always speaking then it seems reasonable for people to talk about hearing God and further, it means that we don’t need special events for this to happen.

Secondly, this helps us to think again about the question of judgement and discipline during a crisis like coronavirus COVID-19.  I have argued persistently that this is not a specific judgement for specific sin. However, this does not mean that God isn’t disciplining his church but rather that he consistently is doing that day to day through his providential acts. This means that those who suddenly look for evidence of discipline in the one off events miss that God has been acting to discipline as a loving father disciplines his children all along.

Finally, this passage reminds us to keep watching and waiting, to be alert. Christ is returning.  There will always be those around who mock and tell us that it won’t happen. Don’t listen to them. Further, we can intellectual believe in the truth of the Second Coming whilst practically living as though we don’t expect it. We should heed the warnings against complacency in 2 Peter.

[1] It is worth noting a couple of things here. First of all, the concept of opening church buildings for private prayer (i.e. so that individuals can come into the building and sit and reflect) is important for some traditions, especially Catholicism and some strands of Anglicanism but not for all. In fact within our tradition we would want to emphasise that you can pray anywhere and so our building is not a special holy place.  This means that in fact if measures are only designed to allow private prayer, then they won’t particularly help us much at all.  Secondly, it helps us to understand the complexities of governing through a crisis like this. The Government will be getting all sorts of diverse opinions about what is possible and what is needed not just in church matters but from industry and education.

[2] See e.g. 1 Peter 5:8.

[3] 1 Peter 2:12

[4] 1 Peter 3:15

[5] 1 Peter 5:4

[6] Note I firmly believe that we need to read that in the context of provision in our law to be kept safe from abuse in the workplace in the home. If you are subject to unlawful practices and/or an unsafe environment at work, know your employment law rights. If you are in danger from sexual, physical or emotional abuse at home, again seek help, get out, stay safe.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: