Date: 11 Sep 2016
Text: 2 Peter 3:1-9
This week we move on in our series on 2 Peter to look at the first half of 2 Peter 3; that is 3:1-9. In the Chapter as a whole Peter deals with the tricky subject of the end times and the second coming of Jesus, whilst in this first half of the Chapter the Apostle warns of the many scoffers who were within the church and doubted that Jesus would ever actually come again. It seems reasonable to suggest that these scoffers may well have been the very same false teachers who Peter was warning against in 2 Peter 2. On the other hand, they may have been ardent members of the church who were losing heart at the seeming failure of Jesus to return within their lifetime. Sadly, I suspect that there are many today who would share their sceptical views.
The opening to this Chapter is interesting since Peter addresses it to “Dear friends” (3:1a). I somehow doubt that he had met everyone who was likely to read this letter and yet he regarded them as friends. He was of course referring to fellow believers in Christ as being friends. Do we see our fellow Christians as friends? I’m not referring to those we know within this church or this local community but to Christians elsewhere, perhaps in other parts of the UK or in other parts of the world. Both Peter and Paul frequently refer in their letters to fellow Christians as being “brothers and sisters”. Perhaps we can learn from that.
The second thing to note is that Peter identifies this as his second letter to them and says that both were written to remind them of some important points on how to live and also to stimulate them to “wholesome thinking” (3:1b). His main reminder is to coax them to recall what had been spoken by the prophets of many years earlier as well as the words of the Lord Himself. We all need to be reminded from time to time to do that; to read God’s Word and refresh our memories of what Jesus actually said and commanded. Remembering His words is all part of our drawing nearer to Him in our daily walk of faith and reminding ourselves of His many promises.
The believers to whom Peter was writing obviously thought that Jesus’ return was imminent or at least not too far off; they truly believed that they were living in the “last days” and that Jesus would return in their lifetime. They were absolutely right in thinking that since some believe that the end times actually began with the birth of Jesus over two thousand years ago; others that the period started with the resurrection of the Lord and still others with His ascension into heaven. Whichever point in time we take as being the beginning, I don’t think there is any doubt that we are in the end times or “last days”. The people at the time, and no doubt many today, struggled to understand though that God’s “imminent” wasn’t necessarily the same as our “imminent”, something that we’ll come back to shortly. There were also believers in Thessalonica who had a similar problem and consequently they had stopped working as they were convinced that Jesus’ return was so imminent that there was no longer any need to work. Paul soon nipped that sort of thinking in the bud! Paul was aware of this as we can see from his comment in 2 Thessalonians 3:11 when he warned them that he had heard “that some among you are idle and disruptive”. This all came about because they had also expected Jesus to return during their lifetime. Earlier in the same Chapter Paul had warned his “brother and sisters”, “to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6b).
So bad was the thinking and behaviour of some within the churches to whom Peter was writing that they scoffed at the very idea that Jesus would ever return. These scoffers were almost certainly the same people who Peter regarded as false teachers. They were preying on those within the church who were disappointed at the non-return of Jesus and they were simply adding to their worries and doubts. Paul knew that this sort of thing would happen, which is why he warned Timothy when he wrote to him and said, “But mark this: there will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.” (2 Timothy 3:1-5). From where I stand, Paul pretty much sums up a lot of the attitudes that persist today!
There will always be those in the world who scoff at Christians and their strongly held beliefs. Such people will always be the same; they scoff at someone’s success; they scoff at their lifestyle and they scoff at someone’s faith and wonder how they could ever believe such gibberish as a carpenter’s son Who “died” over 2000 years ago ever returning to earth. In Peter’s time such scoffers were particularly scathing about the ‘supposed’ return of Jesus; the second coming. Like many of those believers in Thessalonica and no doubt elsewhere, they regarded imminent as meaning something like the day after tomorrow! Many of them based their scoffing on the fact that “ever since our ancestors died” nothing had changed; the world kept turning and there was little evidence of Jesus ever returning. You could almost sympathise with their point of view given that Jesus died and rose again in about 32 AD and Peter was writing this letter in about 67 AD. That’s a few years in which to their way of thinking, nothing had happened; Jesus still hadn’t returned. Their attitude though hardly shows much patience on their part and they needed reminding that God always keeps His promises, no matter how long it takes for them to be fulfilled.
These people who Peter calls scoffers would have known that Jesus had told His disciples in Mark 13:24-27 that He would return. On that occasion He told them, “But in those days, following that distress, 'the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.' At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.” Jesus actually quotes Isaiah 13:10 and 34:4 in what He had to say proving that His second coming and the subsequent events had been prophesied even before He had come for the first time. Not only had the scoffers seem to have forgotten that but they had also forgotten that long ago God had spoken and the “heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water” (3:5). Previously there had been nothing; just a dark empty void. Now, with just a few words, the world was created. What these scoffers chose to ignore though, was that God was always active in the world and was always watching what was happening. He knew that mankind had disobeyed Him and had sunk deep into sin, and so by just a few more words He passed judgement on them and flooded the earth thereby destroying the ungodly. At that time God saved Noah and his family because Noah was a righteous man. However, just as water was involved in the creation of a glorious world so water was involved in the judgement of a sinful world. That sounds like a massive change to me even though it conveniently slipped the minds of the scoffers. Peter then reminds them that by a few more words the “present heavens and earth” are being kept for the fire of the day of judgement; a dreadful day for those who don’t know Jesus as Lord and Saviour. We know from Revelation 19 and 20 that Satan, false prophets and all those whose names aren’t in the book of life will be thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulphur. That is what Peter is referring to here. However, when Jesus returns it will be a wonderful event for all those who know Him as Lord and Saviour. They will at last see Him face to face and will then spend all eternity with Him in paradise. However, we know that although many will have heard the good news of eternal life in and through Jesus, not everyone in the world will have come to faith in Jesus by the time He does return. What will happen to them? The sad news is that they will be subject to God’s judgement and will be punished accordingly. That is something else that the scoffers seem to have conveniently forgotten.
I want now to return to the subject of time, or rather, God’s time. It is important that we all remember that God works in His time not ours and with that in mind Peter points out that “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like a day”. This isn’t a new thought since Moses wrote a Psalm as a prayer and said “A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.” (Psalm 90:4). None of that means that we should start and do some calculations to try and determine when Jesus will come; that simply won’t work. Peter tells us in 3:9 that God isn’t slow but He is patient “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance”; and to support that the Apostle Matthew quoted Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:14 when he wrote, “...this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” That is the crux of the matter, Jesus won’t return until the whole world has heard the good news of Jesus and had the opportunity to accept Him as Lord and Saviour. Whilst it would be wonderful if everyone who heard that good news did turn to Christ, sadly I doubt that that will happen. The important thing is that they would have had the opportunity. How can we calculate or prophesy when Jesus will return based on what that verse has to say? It is impossible for us to know how long it will take to reach the entire world with the gospel. Amazing though it may seem, there are still parts of the world that have yet to be reached by outsiders and until that can happen those who live in such parts of the world cannot hear the gospel.
When Sue (my wife) and I lived in South Africa we soon became aware of a new phrase; “just now”, as in “I’ll do that just now”! That phrase meant that something would be done, or happen, anywhere in time between the next couple of minutes and the next three months! I believe that that is how God’s timetable works. He will set things in motion for Jesus to return but only “just now” when He is good and ready.
Something else for us to remember is that even Jesus Himself doesn’t know when He will return, only that He will in God’s good time. Jesus told His disciples in Matthew 24:36, “But about that day or hour [that is the Day of the Lord] no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” If Jesus Himself doesn’t know the day and time then I see no point in us trying to calculate when it may happen. We’ll look at this in more detail next week, but for now let’s leave it that only God knows when it will happen and it will be in keeping with His timetable.
What Peter has to say to his readers in the 1st century also applies to us today. He is urging them all to be patient as they await the Lord’s return. We also need to be patient, both as we wait for the second coming of Jesus and as we live our daily lives walking beside Him. There are many Christians who feel that God wants them to do more in His service but they are unsure what that is. They grow impatient wanting God to answer now rather than when He judges the time to be right. God has always kept His promises and He will keep those promises that have yet to be fulfilled. He will call each and every one of us to serve Him in particular ways when it suits Him and not before. Similarly He will keep His promise that Jesus will return and until that day comes we need to be patient and remain faithful to Him. We should also take note of those words at the end of 3:9 that God wants “everyone to come to repentance”. Perhaps we can play a part in helping that come about; perhaps we can help by telling people about Jesus and all the love that He has for people; perhaps we can help by just demonstrating God’s love for His people in the way we live and the way we behave. Only God can lead us into knowing what precisely we can do and until He does that then we need to remain patient; not an easy thing to do in these times of instant everything!
This first half of Chapter 3 of Peter’s second Epistle provides a lead-in to what he has to say about the second coming of the Lord. The people were confused; they were growing impatient for the Lord to return feeling that His “imminent” second coming should have already happened. They weren’t helped by the presence of scoffers in their midst who stirred them up and planted the seeds of doubt in their minds. In trying to turn people from their faith these scoffers suggested that nothing had changed since God created the earth and therefore nothing would; Jesus was never going to come back and God wasn’t going to keep His promise that Jesus would return.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus will return at a time known only to God our Heavenly Father; even Jesus doesn’t know when that will be. Until that time Peter was anxious to counter what the scoffers had to say and to urge believers to be patient as they await that momentous day. Given what would happen to those who didn’t believe in Jesus as Lord and Saviour it’s quite incredible that the scoffers would want Him to return. In scoffing at the very thought of His return perhaps they were hoping that it wouldn’t happen. The bad news for them, and the good news for believers, is that God always keeps His promises in His good time. Jesus will return and until then we are all to be patient and remain faithful to Him.