I’m always amazed at how fascinated everyone is by biblical prophecy. One night when I was in the Coast Guard, I was sitting alone in the bridge of the cutter on radio watch when the chief came up to get some paperwork. I was reading First Peter. The chief looked over my shoulder and asked, “Whatcha reading?” Then he answered his own question, “Oh, Peters huh? You ought to read Revelations. It’s really [expletive meaning “cool” deleted].”
I thought, “Here is this thoroughly pagan man who thinks that the book of the Bible that describes God’s awful wrath and judgment against sinners is a cool book!” People are drawn to prophecy like moths to the fire, not realizing that biblical prophecy warns sinners to repent and flee from God’s coming wrath.
As we’ve seen, Peter is writing to counter some false teachers who were denying that Jesus is coming again to judge the world. They denied that truth because they wanted to pursue their greedy, sensual lifestyle. They were drawing away some naïve professing Christians with their message of “freedom,” which was really leading people into slavery to sin (2:19).
After explaining why the Lord’s return seems to be delayed—because He has a different perspective of time and because He is patiently waiting for all to come to repentance (3:8-9)—Peter returns to the theme that he mentioned in 3:7, that the day of judgment is coming. As with all biblical prophecy, it is not given to satisfy our curiosity about the end times, but rather to motivate us toward godly living. Peter’s message is simple:
Since Christ will return in frightening judgment, we must live in holiness in light of that day.
Peter is not interested here in setting forth a detailed, chronological account of the end times, so that we can draw up prophecy charts. Rather, he is driving home one main point: This world and all that it treasures is going to burn. God is going to re-create a new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells. So, you need to make a basic choice: Do you want to live for everything that is certain to be destroyed, or do you want to live so that you will have an inheritance in that new heavens and earth? While I will try to explain a few details about biblical prophecy as we work through the text, I don’t want us to get distracted from the central message: Christ is coming again in frightening judgment. Are you living in holiness in light of that day?
In verse 9, Peter explains that one reason for the delay in the Lord’s coming is that He is patiently giving sinners the opportunity to repent. But it would be a huge mistake to conclude that because He delays, He will not come at all. “Will come” is first in the Greek text to emphasize that the Lord certainly will come (Thomas Schreiner, The New American Commentary, 1, 2 Peter, Jude [Broadman & Holman Publishers], p. 383). There is no doubt about it!
The theme of the “day of the Lord” is familiar from the Old Testament prophets. Sometimes it points to near historical judgments, whereas other times it looks ahead to a final great day of judgment. In both cases, it always uses frightening language of destruction. For example, Isaiah 13:9 warns, “Behold, the day of the Lord is coming, cruel, with fury and burning anger, to make the land a desolation; and He will exterminate its sinners from it.” (See, also, Jer. 46:10; Ezek. 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Obad. 15; Zeph. 1:7, 14; Mal. 4:1, 5.) The New Testament repeats this theme (Acts 2:20; 1 Cor. 5:5; 2 Cor. 1:14; 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Thess. 1:7-10; 2:2; Rev. 16:14). As I understand it, “the day of the Lord” in 2 Peter 3:10 is synonymous with the more unusual phrase, “the day of God,” in verse 12 (John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible [Nelson Bibles], p. 1929, sees a distinction).
There have always been those who don’t like the “fire and brimstone” imagery of God’s judgment. They prefer a kinder, gentler God, who will be nice to sinners. Paul talks about “the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience,” and adds, “the kindness of God leads you to repentance” (Rom. 2:4). But keep reading! In the next verse he adds (Rom. 2:5), “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” So while we should proclaim the good news of God’s kindness if a person repents, we also must warn that a day of frightening judgment is coming for those who do not repent. Note four things from verse 10:
“The day of the Lord will come.” There isn’t any doubt about it. It will happen personally the day we die: “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). It is appointed! You’ve got an appointment with death and no one yet, except for Enoch and Elijah, has been able to dodge that appointment. There is no reincarnation, where you get another chance to improve yourself. There is no purgatory, where if enough of your relatives pray and light candles and give money to the church, you eventually get into heaven. Rather, you have an appointment to die and face God in judgment. Are you ready for that appointment?
But there is also the coming day of the Lord, when Christ returns. At that point, there will not be a second chance. Although this idea may not appeal to the intellectuals, it is the very truth that Paul proclaimed to the philosophers on Mars Hill (Acts 17:30-31): “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” If God has fixed that day, you had better believe that it will come!
“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief….” Peter is repeating the words of Jesus (Matt. 24:42-43), who said, “Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming. But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into.” (See, also, 1 Thess. 5:2-3.)
Just as in the days prior to the flood, the people around Noah were going on about life with no thought of impending judgment, so it will be in the day when Jesus returns (Matt. 24:37-39). People have heard that Jesus will come again in judgment. Maybe they’ve seen a movie about it or read the Left Behind books. But they procrastinate from doing anything to get ready.
It’s like preparing a will. Marla and I just updated ours, which we had last done about 18 years ago. But I confess that it took me over a year to really do it, even after I committed myself to do it. But the Bible’s message is clear: Don’t procrastinate about getting right with God! Dying without Christ will have far more disastrous effects than dying without a will! Don’t let the day surprise you like a thief in the night!
When people in the Gulf States receive a warning that a hurricane is bearing down on their city, they usually have time to board up their houses, grab a few belongings, and get out of town. If we heard that Mount Humphries was threatening to erupt, we’d probably have time to escape. But if astronomers warned us that a giant meteor was heading straight for earth and it would disintegrate the entire planet, where could we go?
Peter warns (3:10) that at the coming of Christ, “the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.” There is a difficult textual variant on that last verb, with many reliable manuscripts reading, “will be found.” If it is original, the idea is probably as the NIV translates, “will be laid bare,” or as the ESV puts it, “be exposed.” The idea would then be that those who thought that they could hide their sins from God will be exposed. No one, no matter how clever, will get away with anything.
So whichever reading is authentic, it is clear that there won’t be any place to go to escape this judgment! If you could get in a rocket and head into outer space, it wouldn’t do you any good, because it’s not only earth, but also the heavens, that will be destroyed by this huge judgment of fire. Only those who are in Christ will be safe.
If 2 Peter were the only book of the Bible, we would have to conclude that this all-encompassing judgment by fire will take place at the instant that Christ returns. Amillennialists believe this. They argue that there will not be a literal, 1,000-year reign of Christ on earth. Rather, He will return, judge the earth, and create the new heavens and new earth, which will be the final, eternal state.
But, as I said, Peter is not interested here in giving a detailed chronology of the end times. As in many biblical prophecies, Peter telescopes the events of the future, leaving out large gaps of time (cf. Isa. 61:1-2 with Luke 4:17-21). He is trying to impress on us the need to be right with God before this awful, inescapable day comes on the whole world. When you fit together other prophecies, such as Isaiah 65 and Revelation 20, it seems to me that when Christ returns, He will reign upon earth on the throne of David for 1,000 years. During that time, there will be unprecedented peace all over the earth. But at the end of that time, Satan will lead a final rebellion. God will destroy His enemies with fire (Rev. 20:9). I understand that to be the judgment that Peter describes here.
But in trying to figure out the sequence of end times events, don’t miss the main point: Christ’s return is absolutely certain. It will be sudden, unexpected, and disastrous for all who have not repented of their sins. Thus you need to be right with God before it comes, because then there will not be any avenue of escape!
Peter not only says that the earth will be burned up (or exposed), but also “its works.” Everything that proud man has accomplished will go through this burning heat that is so intense that the very elements will melt (3:12)! Peter repeats this judgment by fire in verse 7, again in verse 10, and again in verse 12. Why does he repeat himself? Is he a forgetful old man? No, Peter knows, as the Old Testament often records, that those who need to heed the warning are prone to procrastinate or get distracted with other things and put off getting right with God.
Although there are similarities, Peter is not talking here about the same thing that Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 3, where he says that our works will be tested with fire. The wood, hay, and stubble will be burned up. The gold, silver, and precious stones will survive. In those verses, Paul is talking about the judgment of believers’ works, not of believers themselves, because he adds (1 Cor. 3:15), “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” But Peter is talking about both the destruction of sinners (3:7) and their works (3:10). Everything they have worked for will go up in smoke and then they will face eternal judgment in the lake of fire!
This is not to say that everything that unbelievers work for is a complete waste. Numerous medical and technological advances are for the good of the human race. God gives us things like music, art, and literature for our enjoyment and pleasure. But if, like the city and tower of Babel, those things are done for the glory of proud man (Gen. 11:4), then they will end up in a pile of ashes in the day of judgment. As the familiar wall plaque that was by our front door when I was a boy, puts it, “Only one life, ’twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” I would encourage all of you, but especially those of you who are young, to read John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life [Crossway Books]. He will help you to make sure that however you spend your life, you will not watch your works go up in the big blaze.
So Peter’s first point is, although Christ has not yet returned in judgment, that frightening day will come certainly and unexpectedly, with disastrous consequences for all who have not repented of their sins (3:10).
“Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness…” (3:11). It’s not a question; it’s an exclamation! The word “conduct” means way of life, or lifestyle. Peter uses it often in his first letter (translated as “behavior”). He writes (1 Pet. 1:15), “But like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior.” In 1 Peter 2:12, he urges, “Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.” (See also, 1 Pet. 1:18; 3:1, 2, 16.) “The day of visitation” is the same as “the day of the Lord” or “the day of God.” It is the day of judgment, when we must give an account to God.
“Holy” conduct (2 Pet. 3:11) means conduct that is distinct from this evil world. It doesn’t necessarily mean being weird. I’ve seen Christians who are distinct because they’re weird. But they would be weird whether they were Christians or not. If we’re weird, it should be because we live in obedience to God’s Word. We hold to the values that the Bible teaches us to live by. We live in light of eternity, not for all of the junk that’s going to burn. We value people above things. We treasure Christ above all else.
“Godliness” has the root idea of reverence and awe towards God. William Barclay (New Testament Words [Westminster Press], p. 107) says that it is “the attitude which gives God the place he ought to occupy in life and in thought and in devotion.” Peter used this word back in 1:3, where he said that God “has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness.” He includes it in the list of qualities that he gives us in 1:5-7: moral excellence, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love.
In our text (2 Pet. 3:11), holy conduct and godliness are both plurals. It may refer to repeated acts of holiness and godliness (Schreiner, p. 389), or it may mean that every part of our conduct towards God and man should be holy and godly (editor’s footnote in Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 421). In other words, we should live all of life in the presence of God, with reverence towards Him. We should always be thinking of that day when we will stand before the Lord, and govern everything we do in light of it.
Three times in three verses (12, 13, 14) Peter uses the verb, “looking for.” It is used (Acts 3:11) of the lame beggar by the temple gate, who when Peter told him, “Look at us,” was expecting to receive a gift. It is also used (Acts 27:33) to refer to the sailors on Paul’s journey, during the storm at sea, who had been watching for 14 days. In our text, it emphasizes the eager expectation that we should have for Christ’s coming, when all of His promises to us will be fulfilled. We should love the day of His appearing (2 Tim. 4:8), much as a bride eagerly awaits the day when her groom returns from the war to be with her always.
But what does Peter mean when he says that we are not only to be looking for, but also “hastening the coming of the day of God”? It may simply be reinforcing the earlier word, “looking for,” meaning, “earnestly desiring” (J. N. D. Kelly, A Commentary on the Epistles of Peter and Jude [Baker], p. 367). But, in light of verses 8-9, that the Lord’s coming seems delayed while He waits for all to come to repentance, Peter may mean that as we live godly lives and proclaim the gospel to the lost, we have a part in speeding up the Lord’s return (ibid.).
Jesus said that the gospel will be preached to all the nations, “and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14). Peter preached that if people would repent, not only would their sins be forgiven, but also the Lord would send Jesus back from heaven (Acts 3:19-21). It’s not that we can change the eternal decree of God. But, in some fashion that we cannot completely understand, when we live in light of Christ’s coming, it speeds it up (from our perspective). We are to pray, “Your kingdom come.” Presumably, that prayer somehow has an effect on when God’s kingdom actually does come! As we live holy lives and take the gospel to the nations, it hastens Christ’s coming. Finally,
As Paul points out (Rom. 8:20-22), the present creation has been subjected to the fall on account of man’s sin. But God has promised to restore it when Christ returns. Isaiah 65:17-25 (and 66:22) refers to the new heaven and earth as a place where people will live much longer lives and the lion will lie down peacefully with the lamb. That cannot be a reference to the eternal state, because then people will not die at all. In my opinion, it refers to the millennial reign of Christ on earth. But John (Rev. 21:1) uses the same phrase to refer to the eternal state, after this present earth has passed away. I’m not sure how to bring these two together, except to say that the millennial reign of Christ will be a foretaste of the eternal state, when all of God’s promises will have been fulfilled.
Due to various cartoons, the common conception of heaven is that it will be an eternal bore! You’ll sit on a cloud in a white robe, strumming a harp forever and ever. It doesn’t make you want to go there! But heaven, or eternity for believers, will be living in a perfectly re-created physical world, untainted by sin. This new earth will be a place where righteousness dwells. It will then be impossible for sin to mess things up! And, we will be in God’s glorious presence forever! Hallelujah! (To whet your appetite for going to heaven, read Randy Alcorn’s Heaven [Tyndale].)
A mother once went to the youth pastor of her church and said, “I can’t get my daughter to clean up her room. Is there anything you can do to help?” He said, “I think so.” He announced to the youth group that he was going to come over unannounced and take a picture of each teenager’s room and put it on the bulletin board. (This was a few years ago; today he’d put it on Facebook or “You Tube”!) Suddenly, every kid’s room became much cleaner!
Peter is saying, “Christ is coming back suddenly and unexpectedly. Make sure that your life is clean and ready for His coming! Live in holiness in light of that day!”
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