A woman who worked for the Internal Revenue Service at times had to communicate with delinquent taxpayers. On one occasion she called Anchorage and was patched through to a ham operator in the Aleutian Islands. Two hours later the ham operator raised the taxpayer’s home base and from there reached him at sea with his fishing fleet.
After the woman identified herself as being with the IRS in Utah, there was a long pause. Then over the static from somewhere in the North Pacific came: “Ha! Ha! Come and get me!” (In Reader’s Digest, “Life in These United States,” 10/82)
A lot of people scoff at God and the warning of His coming judgment like that fisherman scoffed at the IRS. They somehow think that either it will never happen because it hasn’t happened yet or that if it ever does happen, they’ll be okay. And while few are so bold as openly to scoff at God and the judgment, many do so practically by living as if they will never stand before Him to give an account. The idea of facing Him in judgment is so far from their minds that it never affects how they live.
Just before the apostle Peter’s death, some false teachers were plaguing the early church by scoffing at the idea that Christ would return to judge the world. At the root of their mocking, as we will see, was the fact that they were living for their own lusts. As Peter said, they had eyes full of adultery (2:14) and they enticed others by fleshly desires and sensuality (2:18). When people who profess to know Christ decide to pursue their own lusts, they have to invent some doctrinal loopholes to justify their sins and pacify their consciences. These false teachers scoffed at the idea that Jesus Christ would return in power and glory to judge the world.
They were clever operators, as all false teachers are. They mixed their errors with some truth, so that the unsuspecting would swallow the whole package. They professed to know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord (2:20). For a while they gave the appearance of knowing the way of righteousness (2:21). They joined in the church life as if they were in full agreement with everything (2:13). But they were not living in submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ. They were following their lusts, claiming to be free in Christ. But in reality, they were slaves of corruption (2:19), living for sensual pleasure and greed. Peter describes them as dogs returning to their own vomit or as pigs going back to wallowing in the mire (2:22).
After exposing these false teachers for what they really were (chapter 2), Peter as a shepherd now urges the church not to follow these mockers who are heading for judgment. He addresses his readers as “beloved” four times in this chapter (3:1, 8, 14, 17). He wants them to know that he cares for them. He also assures them that they have sincere (“pure” or “unmixed”) minds (3:1). But he wants to stir them up by way of reminder (as he did in 1:12-15), so that they would stand firmly upon God’s Word and not be deceived by the mockers. His message is that…
In spite of mockers who scoff at the prospect of Christ’s coming, God’s Word promises that He will come in judgment of the whole world.
Throughout these verses, Peter’s emphasis is on God’s Word. He mentions it in verse 2 as the authoritative message that we must remember. He refers to it in verses 5 and 6 as the means by which God created the world and brought the judgment of the flood on all the wicked. He refers to it again in verse 7 as the basis on which we know that there is a terrifying day of judgment to come.
Peter says (3:1), “This is now, beloved, the second letter I am writing to you in which I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder….” Scholars spill a lot of ink debating what the first letter was and whether Peter really wrote this second letter or whether a man posing as Peter wrote it in the middle of the second century. It is possible that the first letter is one that we no longer possess, just as some of Paul’s letters were not included in the New Testament (1 Cor. 5:9; Col. 4:16). But I don’t see any convincing reasons why the first letter isn’t First Peter or why Peter didn’t write Second Peter (as he claims, 1:1). Like every effective teacher, Peter knew that repetition is a key to learning. So he wrote his two letters to stir up the minds of believers to be ready for the return of Jesus Christ (see, also, 1 Pet. 1:13). Note three things:
The implication of verses 1 & 2 is that we do not need “new” truths, but rather we need to be reminded of and remember the old truths that we already possess, but tend to forget. It’s easy for our thinking to become distorted through the godless culture around us and by those who deliberately attack the truthfulness and reliability of God’s Word.
For example, the world assumes as fact that everything on earth evolved by chance over hundreds of millions of years from pond scum into the forms of life that we now see around us. The world mocks those of us who believe the biblical account of creation, as if we somehow haven’t progressed in brain power much beyond our ancestral monkeys! When you’re constantly bombarded by this mindset, it’s easy to get lulled into believing at least some of it. So we need to be stirred up (the word is used of awakening Jesus when He was asleep in the boat, Luke 8:24) to remember what God’s Word says.
John Calvin pointed out (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on 2 Pet. 3:1, pp. 412-413) that even the godly, who have some degree of biblical learning, will become dim and mentally rusty if they do not receive these constant reminders and warnings. And so the church needs faithful teachers to impress the truth on the memory of their hearers, just as Peter is doing here.
When Peter tells us to “remember the words spoken beforehand by the holy prophets,” he is referring to the Old Testament prophets. As you know, the prophets are full of warnings about impending judgment both on Israel and on the surrounding nations if they do not repent and obey God. Peter says that we need to be stirred up to remember these repeated warnings about judgment.
So, I will again try to stir you up to read through the entire Bible, over and over again. Psalm 119:160 declares, “The sum of Your word is truth.” We need all of God’s Word to give us balance. You wouldn’t hear professing Christians say inane things like, “I believe in a God of love, not in a God of judgment,” if they were reading and submitting to all of God’s Word.
Peter does not specify which commandment of the Lord that he is referring to, but he used the same word just a few verses before (2:21) when he said that the false teachers had known the way of righteousness, but had then turned “away from the holy commandment handed on to them.” Thus I infer that Peter is talking about the ethical demands that stem from the gospel, which come to us through the apostles in the New Testament. Peter Davids puts it this way (The Letters of 2 Peter and Jude [Eerdmans], p. 261):
In Jesus the rule of God became manifest in this world, and this manifestation of the rule of God brings with it a demand that people turn from their way and submit to God’s way, that is, obey the good news and submit to the way of life that it proclaims. While often missing from contemporary preaching, this is the message of the New Testament.
By the way, “Lord and Savior” in verse 2 is governed by one definite article in Greek, showing that it refers to the same person, Jesus Christ (Thomas Schreiner, The New American Commentary, 1, 2 Peter, Jude [Broadman Publishers], p. 271). You cannot separate Jesus as Savior from Jesus as Lord. If you truly trust in Him as your Savior, you must submit to Him as your Lord.
So Peter’s opening comments in chapter 3 show us that when mockers attack the faith, God’s Word is our sure foundation.
Peter says, “Know this first of all,” meaning, of first importance. He wants us to be forewarned, “that in the last days, mockers will come with their mocking” (3:3). The entire age between the two advents of Christ is referred to as “the last days.” During that time, we who know Christ as Savior and Lord should be living in the hope and expectancy of His bodily return in power and glory. But we also should not be surprised when mockers attack biblical truth, including the truth of the second coming.
The early church lived with the expectancy that Christ could return in their time (1 Thess. 4:15). That is no wonder, since the 260 chapters of the New Testament have about 300 references to Christ’s coming and only four books (Galatians, Philemon, 2 & 3 John) lack any specific reference to it (The MacArthur Study Bible [Nelson Bibles], ed. by John MacArthur, p. 1928; The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 2 Peter & Jude [Moody Publishers], p. 117). But even by the mid-60’s, when Peter wrote, skeptics were becoming disillusioned that Christ had not returned, and some were so bold as to attack openly the very idea that He ever would return. But Calvin rightly pointed out that you cannot take away the promise of Christ’s return without destroying the very core of the gospel. He said (p. 415),
… for when that is taken away, there is no gospel any longer, the power of Christ is brought to nothing, the whole of religion is gone. Then Satan aims directly at the throat of the Church, when he destroys faith in the coming of Christ. For why did Christ die and rise again, except that he may some time gather to himself the redeemed from death, and give them eternal life?
Years ago, I knew a man here in Flagstaff who wrote a book claiming that Jesus returned in A.D. 70 when Jerusalem was destroyed and so He is not coming again. He was trying to resolve the difficult verse (Matt. 24:34) where Jesus says, “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” But I told him that his “solution” was not only heretical, but also it robs us of any hope for the future. I did not convince him, but I stand with Calvin in saying that if we deny the promise of Christ’s coming, we destroy the gospel itself.
Briefly, note three things in verses 3-4:
We saw this at length in chapter 2, and Peter’s mention of it here indicates that he is referring to the same group. If you are living to pursue your own lusts, you do not want to believe in a future judgment! You have to do something to ease your guilty conscience. So these men looked around, saw some who were wondering why the promises about Christ’s return had not been fulfilled, and started proclaiming, “He’s not coming. Everything is going on just as it has since the beginning of creation.” As we’ve seen, sinful living always results in false doctrine, and vice versa.
To say that any of God’s promises has failed is to call God a liar. We may not understand why God does not seem to answer our prayers when they are in accord with His will and for His glory. If we do so with submissive hearts, I think it is legitimate to bring our complaints to the Lord when we wrestle with these problems, as the psalmists often did. But we dare not charge God with unfaithfulness and assert that we’re right and He is wrong! Because they attacked God’s honor, these false teachers stood condemned.
These mockers were basically deists, claiming that God created the world, but then He stepped back and has not been involved in the events of history. Note that they used Christian terminology: they referred to the time when “the fathers fell asleep.” To refer to death as sleep was a New Testament way of saying that Jesus took the sting out of death, so that those who are in Him do not die, but merely fall asleep (1 Cor. 15:18; 1 Thess. 4:13-14). This does not mean that the soul sleeps until the resurrection. To be absent from the body is “to be at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). But the point is, the false teachers used common Christian language to draw in the naïve and snare them with their deism.
Michael Green notes (The Second Epistle of Peter and the Epistle of Jude [Eerdmans], p. 128), “Had they been alive today, they would have talked about the chain of cause and effect in a closed universe governed by natural laws, where miracles, almost by definition, cannot happen.” Thus the idea of God breaking into history in judgment was not possible. And, a further implication of this was that the first coming of Jesus Christ was not an act of God.
But Peter hits them for failing to note that two cataclysmic events in past history point to the final cataclysmic judgment:
Scholars are divided on the translation. The NASB translates, “For when they maintain this, it escapes their notice ….” The ESV puts it, “For they deliberately overlook this fact, …” The phrase seems to mean that in their desire to do away with the future judgment, these men failed to see two huge interventions of God in past history, namely, the creation of the universe and the flood.
Peter says, “… by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water.” He is referring to Genesis 1, which repeatedly states, “and God said,” as the effective power that brought the creation into existence. As Psalm 33:9 says in reference to the creation, “For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast.”
It is not totally clear what Peter means when he says that “the earth was formed out of water and by water.” He is referring to Genesis 1, where on the first day of creation, the earth was covered with water. “Then,” (on the second day, Gen. 1:6), “God said, ‘Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’” God then divided the waters on earth from the waters in the heavens, forming a sort of vapor canopy over the earth. Then on the third day (Gen. 1:9-10), God lifted up the land so that it was separated from the seas. Peter’s point seems to be that water, the agent that God predominantly used in creation, is what He then used to judge the world in the flood.
Peter is also making the point that the mockers were ignoring the implications of the doctrine of God as Creator. The Bible repeatedly emphasizes the point that God created the world, including people. Therefore, He is the rightful Lord of His creation and the righteous Judge of those who do not submit to His lordship.
“Which,” (3:6) in Greek is a plural pronoun, referring to both God’s word and the water of the flood (Schreiner, p. 377). How could the false teachers claim that everything has continued on just as it was from the beginning of creation when God directly intervened in the most catastrophic judgment in history? The lesson of the flood was that God intervened in history to judge the wicked, and thus He will again intervene. All who follow their own lusts and do not repent and submit their lives to the Lord and Savior will face Him when He comes again in judgment.
Again Peter emphasizes God’s word: “But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.” This is the only New Testament passage (except for 3:10, 12) that states explicitly that the future judgment will be by fire. But there are several Old and New Testament passages that allude to it.
Isaiah 66:15-16 states, “For behold, the Lord will come in fire and His chariots like the whirlwind, to render His anger with fury, and His rebuke with flames of fire. For the Lord will execute judgment by fire and by His sword on all flesh, and those slain by the Lord will be many.”
Malachi 4:1 says, “‘For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.’”
In the New Testament, John the Baptist predicts that Jesus will “burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12). Paul pictures the second coming as “when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire” (2 Thess. 1:7), dealing out retribution to the wicked.
Peter’s point is that the God who created the universe by His word and destroyed the wicked in the flood by His word has also warned by His word that He will judge the ungodly in the future by fire. Those who mock the second coming of Christ so that they can continue following their own lusts are fools!
I offer two applications based on these verses for each of us to consider:
· To move away from the truth that God created the world by His word of power is to move toward skepticism and licentious living.
I am not saying that you must hold to a recent, six 24-hour day view of creation, although that seems to be the most obvious interpretation of the biblical record. But if you hold to a different interpretation, you still need to emphasize the miraculous power of God’s spoken word in the process. In other words, creation was a miracle of God’s power however and whenever He did it. If you minimize the miraculous, you move toward skepticism, which at some point undermines the authority of God’s moral standards.
· To move away from the truth that Christ is coming again to judge the world is to move toward skepticism and licentious living.
Our tolerant culture that doesn’t want to make any moral judgments has swayed many Christians to minimize the biblical truth of God’s judgment. Some deny the eternality of hell. Others believe that God will ultimately save everyone. If you move in that direction, you move toward skepticism of God’s Word and, eventually, toward moral relativism.
If you are a Christian—a follower of Jesus—the bottom line has to be, “What does God’s Word say?” It clearly says that God created the world by His word, judged the world at the flood by His word, and will judge the ungodly when Christ returns by His word. Thus we must stand firm on these truths and out of love warn everyone to flee the wrath to come.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation