Summer 2009

Religion and Spirituality

The Apostles, Part 15

What Kind of People Should You Be?

David Hulme

The apostle Peter’s impending death led him to write a second letter to the early Church, encouraging them to remember his example and warning them to beware the far-reaching effect of false teachers.

As the apostle Peter began his second (and for us, final) letter, he was nearing the end of his eventful life as a follower of Jesus.

What was most important for him at this stage was to motivate his audience and make it possible for them to remember the way of life he had lived: “I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things” (2 Peter 1:13–15).

This was especially important, because teachers who taught falsely about Jesus had become a major problem and were traveling across large parts of the Roman world. 

Opening Thoughts

The letter opens with the greeting, “Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ . . .” (verse 1a). While Peter refers to himself as an apostle, he is first a bondservant. The Greek word doulos means not merely a servant but a slave. It signifies someone who is completely given over to the authority of another. So Peter is under authority to Christ as a slave; and as an apostle (in Greek,apostolos, “he that is sent”), he possesses authority from Christ as one He has sent out.

Peter continues with the recognition that he is writing to people with whom he shares equality in God’s sight. Though he is one of the apostles, he is no different in terms of his faith than his brothers and sisters: “. . . to those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (verse 1b). Peter and the other apostles shared the privilege of seeing Jesus firsthand, but his audience is not to be looked down on because they were not equally eyewitnesses. A similar thought is found in John’s Gospel when Jesus says to the doubting apostle Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). Belief is what is fundamental, not how it originated.

Peter wants his audience to have the blessing of peace and knowledge of God and Christ. He reminds them that God, by His power, has granted not only “all things that pertain to life and godliness” but also “precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption [depravity] that is in the world because of sinful desire” (2 Peter 1:3–4). It is because of God’s involvement in their lives and their rejection of the world’s way of behaving that they have the possibility of taking on God’s own nature.

God’s calling is the reason Peter mentions next the need for constant development of several personal characteristics. He writes: “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love” (verses 5–7). If the members of the Church will do these things, they will not fail to produce good spiritual fruit in their lives and will avoid the spiritual blindness that can result from failure to continuously improve. They will then accomplish the goal of entering God’s future world (verses 8–11).

The Kingdom to Come

Peter is confirming what he long believed and taught—that there will be a kingdom of God on the earth. The basis for his belief is in part that he saw Jesus in a resurrected state. But there is more. He refers next to an extraordinary experience, one he could never have forgotten. It gave him a glimpse of the future God has planned. Not only did he experience the effect of resurrection in the case of Jesus, he previewed aspects of the kingdom to come and heard God’s voice confirm it. He says that because of this kind of experience, his witness is true. He saw it for himself, and his word can be trusted. It’s not that he and his fellow disciples followed speculations and ideas that had no substance—rather like in our day when people talk about “spirituality,” yet it is vague and has no firm basis. Peter reminds his readers that the knowledge they share is based on solid fact. He writes, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain” (verses 16–18).

No prophecy in Scripture ever came from a prophet’s own understanding. It never came simply because a prophet wanted it to. Instead, the Holy Spirit guided the prophets as they spoke. So prophecy comes from God.” 

2 Peter 1:20–21, New International Reader’s Version

This, of course, is a reference to the much earlier experience of transfiguration, when Peter and two others saw a vision of the resurrected Jesus in the kingdom of God (see Matthew 16:24–17:9). It confirmed Jesus as the Messiah, the Anointed One who was to come. Peter would later recall this event and begin to understand in a much deeper way what it signified. For him it was further evidence that the prophecies about the coming of the Messiah had been fulfilled in Jesus. As Peter says in his final letter, “We have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts; knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation [or origin], for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:19–21, New King James Version).

Peter makes some very important points here. Prophecies about Christ’s first coming have been fulfilled, and Peter is a witness to that. He taught this much earlier in his ministry. And just as surely as they have been fulfilled in respect of the first coming, so there are prophecies about the second coming that will come to pass (see Acts 3:18–21). At the moment, they are like a light shining in a dark place for those who understand. As the day of Christ’s return gets closer, they will shine more brightly (become more evident or understandable), until that growing light culminates in His second coming (see Matthew 24:30).

Another important point in this passage is the simple, logical fact that God’s prophetic statements do not originate in human minds. What Peter writes here is not a statement about the interpretation of prophecy; it’s about its origin. The source of these prophecies about Christ is God. Humans inspired by the Holy Spirit (the mind of God) wrote them down. But they are not of human origin. That’s to say they can be trusted implicitly, unlike human prophecies.

Beware False Teachers

Perhaps with this difference between God’s foretelling and human prediction in mind, Peter next warns of the dangers of listening to false teachers who inevitably come around from time to time. They exploit people’s weaknesses, doubts and fears. It has always been so, and Peter reminds his readers that the children of Israel suffered the same difficulties. Such people “will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction.” Their “destructive ways” cause “the way of truth [to] be blasphemed” (2 Peter 2:1–2, NKJV).

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. . . . And in their greed they will exploit you with false words.”

2 Peter 2:1, 3, English Standard Version

The “way of truth” is God’s way of life. Peter explains the mentality and fate of people who decide to go the opposite way and assures his audience that God will deal with such people as He has in the past. This has included sinning angels, the pre-Flood population of Noah’s time, and the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah—all of whom are examples for anyone who would live in an ungodly way (verses 4–7).

Peter had plainly had enough of dealing with people who had gone wrong. It’s interesting how quickly the mind becomes disrespectful of the authority that God has given His servants (verse 10), once there is a turning away to the authority of self. When the mind becomes opposed to God’s servants, depravity sets in.

What Peter has to say next about false teachers is shocking in our world, which prizes political correctness. He does not hold back: “These, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction. . . . They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you. They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. . . . These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved” (verses 12–15, 17).

The way that false teachers go about their deceptive business is laid out. These are things to be aware of: “For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved” (verses 18–19).

Peter’s conclusion about those who have been enlightened and subsequently heeded false teachers is delivered with strong imagery: “For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: ‘The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire’” (verses 21–22).

In the Last Days

In chapter 3, Peter turns again to the purpose of both letters: “This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions [prophecies] of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles.” Recalling for his readers their calling in the context of a world of opposition to God’s way and denial of Christ’s return, he writes, “Scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation’” (verses 1–4).

This sounds very familiar in today’s English-speaking world, which is experiencing a major attack from educated atheists. But as Peter says of those in his day, “they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (verses 5–7).

Peter then reminds his readers that the temptation to think that because nothing like this has happened for thousands of years, therefore nothing will, is foolish: “Do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (verse 8). The delay results from His patience with us and His desire that all will come to fully accept His way in a repentant frame of mind. God will keep His word: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (verse 9).

Getting humans to see the need to repent, and then do it and live that right way, is very difficult. The hardest thing for a human to do is admit he or she is wrong. The next most difficult is to change and practice the right way.

In this context, Peter writes about the day of God’s intervention that is yet ahead. This is something that the early Church firmly believed. It is found in the Gospels, in Paul’s letters, and in the writings of the other apostles. It is an event that will catch most by surprise: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (verse 10).

An important question for the Church springs from knowing God’s coming judgment of human ways. It concerns the kind of spiritual progress God’s people should be making. Peter is passing on knowledge that should make a difference in how life is lived: “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (verses 11–13).

Last Words

Peter’s concluding remarks—the last the Church had in writing by this leader from its earliest days, one who had been with Christ and had witnessed so much, struggled so much and achieved so much personally and collectively—are about persistence in holding on to the values of God and growing in all that Jesus Christ represented: “Beloved, since you are waiting for these [new heavens and earth], be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation. . . . Knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen” (verses 14–15, 17–18).

Take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.” 

2 Peter 3:17, English Standard Version

Next time, we’ll consider the life and writings of the man who probably was the last surviving member of Jesus’ original 12—the apostle John.