How to Read the Bible Book by Book: 2 Peter
2 Peter 2:10-11: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?”
In our studies of the books of the New Testament, we have already observed one letter that was written by an apostle in the shadow of death. The letter of Second Timothy was written as Paul’s execution quickly approached. He seemed to be aware of its nearness and wanted to share one final word of courage to his young disciple. As we come to the letter of Second Peter, we have a similar situation. While this letter is not written to one individual as the letter of Second Timothy was, it appears to be written to a group of people who “through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours.” (1:1)
We don’t know what it was that gave Peter the knowledge that his own death was near, but it seems the Lord has made it known to him that it will soon come to pass (1:14). So, with that in mind, Peter writes one last letter to those he loves. It is both an encouragement and a warning. We have seen this theme come up time and time again in these letters of the New Testament. The Church is never without her enemies, and more often than not, the enemies rise from within her ranks. False teachers have infiltrated the churches of the faithful. They are trying to twist the scripture to their own immoral end. It seems very little has changed over the years.
What was it that was of concern to Peter? From the context of the letter, it appears that men were denying the second coming of Christ. As it is with all false teaching, the motive behind such teaching was not simply an intellectual misunderstanding. There is greed in their motives. Greed for immoral living…greed for sexual gratification…and just good old fashion greed for money. The same themes appear among false teachers in every generation. We should not be surprised by this. These are the hallmarks of life in the flesh rather than life in the Spirit. Those who abandon God become dominated by the desires and appetites of the flesh. Peter will not handle them delicately. He calls them out in the boldest sort of way. But beyond calling them out, he is warning the faithful. Do not be drawn in by them. It would be better not to have known Christ than to know him, and then abandon him for the ways of the flesh. (2:21)
The book is easily outlined and falls into four distinct sections. Section one goes from 1:3 to 1:11 and speaks about the need for the people of God to pursue virtue and godly living with all their strength. Section two finishes the rest of chapter one (1:12-21) and states Peter’s validation for his message about the second coming of Christ. Both the event of the transfiguration of Christ, which he was a part of, and the testimony of the Old Testament prophets serve as evidence to the validity of his teaching.
Section three (2:1-22) is the longest section of the book and covers with great detail the nature and corruption of the false teachers. It appears that the main element of their false teaching was that they were denying the second coming of Christ and were advocating immoral living. Peter says something shocking about this. His audience should not be surprised this sort of thing was happening. Just as there were false prophets in the Old Testament period, so also are there false teachers today. These teachers will claim all kinds of things that they really do not know about and many people will choose to follow them. But their condemnation has long been predicted.
Peter goes on to say that if God did not spare the angels of the ancient world when they sinned, then neither will he spare false teachers such as these. God is just, he knows how to preserve them for the day of judgment, and he also knows how to rescue his true sheep from trials and from that ultimate punishment. But the false teachers are bold and arrogant. Apparently, they have a habit of slandering spirit beings. This is foolish because spirit beings are much more powerful than human beings, and when the good angels themselves dealt with such rebellious creatures, even they did not slander them but simply carried out the work God gave them to do. But these false teachers are foolish and driven by their own pride. They especially target people who are just coming to the faith and have not yet grown strong in Christ. Because of this they will be punished most severely.
The book comes to its conclusion in a final section (3:1-18) that counters the claims of the false teachers. These teachers mock people and say things like “Where is this coming that he has promised? Things have continued on in the same way they have since the creation of the world?” But Peter says they deliberately forget some things. They forget that the world was once destroyed by a flood at God’s hands. They forget that the future world is reserved for fire. Yes, it may appear that God is slow in carrying out what he has promised, but our understanding of slowness and God’s understanding are two different things. With the Lord, a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a day. In this way of understanding, the Lord is not slow at all.
Make no mistake about it, the Day of the Lord is coming, and when it comes it will show up like a thief, catching people unaware. The future is set…the world is scheduled to be destroyed by fire, and since that is true, Peter questions what kind of people they ought to be. The answer is obvious—they should live holy and godly lives as they wait for this day to arrive. But despite this coming judgment, the people of God are not to live pessimistically. They live in hope, because they know that even as the present world will be destroyed by fire, we are awaiting a new heavens and a new earth. God is going to renew the cosmos and we will have a place with him there forever and ever. Because this is true, we live different kinds of lives now—lives informed by what is to come. We no longer live in the flesh and its corruptions, we live by the Spirit, trusting that God’s delay and patience is for the salvation of many.
Peter ends the letter by noting that Paul taught the same sort of things that he did. We assume that Paul is dead now, and Peter’s death is soon to follow. But he and Paul have left quite a legacy in both life and writing. Peter admits that sometimes Paul can be hard to understand and people take advantage of his writing and twist his words. But the church has been forewarned about such things; they must be on their guard against error and from falling from what is otherwise a very secure position in Christ.
It is a warning that all of us must heed. Nearly two thousand years have passed since the writing of this letter, and the Lord’s patience with sinners is still being displayed. But that patience will one day run out and we will all be cast into the Day of the Lord. Where will we find ourselves when the day comes? Will we be confident and secure in Christ, or will we have thrown in our lot with the greed and lust of the false teachers?