The Pursuit of Christian Character (2 Peter 1:5-7)
1 Simon Peter, a bond-servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ: 2 Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; 3 seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. 4 For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, in order that by them you might become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.
5 Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge; 6 and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness; 7 and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love.
I have heard some incredible promises in my lifetime, just as you probably have also. Most often advertising promises far more than it delivers. But the promises of our text are completely reliable. Indeed, the benefits of heeding Peter’s words, and the consequences of neglecting them, are great:
8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins. 10 Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; 11 for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you (2 Peter 1:8-11).
Heeding Peter’s words keep us from being useless and unfruitful in our relationship with Jesus Christ (verse 8) and enables us to live in the present in light of our past conversion and our hope for the future (verse 9). Doing as Peter instructs can keep us from stumbling and assure us a triumphant entry into the kingdom of our Lord. Conversely, neglecting Peter’s instruction diminishes our perception and confidence in the salvation God has provided and sets us up for a fall.
Peter’s own words should convince us to pay careful attention, for the benefits pertain to our past, our present walk, and our future hope. May we approach our text with a deep sense of its importance and an open and willing heart eager to hear and heed what God’s Spirit has revealed.
In preparation for a more detailed study of Peter’s words, we must stand back and look at the big picture to understand the context for our further study. Note these observations about our text.
(1) Peter is writing to those who are saved about their sanctification, and not to the unsaved about their salvation. Peter does not challenge his readers to work hard in order to be saved, but to strive diligently because they are saved (see verse 1).
(2) Peter calls for diligent, disciplined, life-long effort on the part of the Christian (verse 5a). This is a discipleship text which requires discipline and self-denial. It is a challenge to every Christian for all the days of their lives. No Christian ever works his way through this text to move on to other pursuits.
(3) The Christian’s efforts are based on the sovereignty of God and the sufficiency of His provisions (verses 1-4). Peter has already laid the foundation for the Christian’s exertion. In verses 1-4, Peter emphasizes the sovereignty of God in salvation. Salvation has been accomplished by God, through Christ, apart from human works or merit. Peter also stresses the sufficiency of God’s provisions for our salvation and sanctification. God has provided all that is necessary for life and godliness (verse 3).
(4) Verses 5-7 contain a list of character qualities for which God has made provision and for which every Christian should strive. This is not a list of imperatives, duties, or activities. Peter is not writing about “how to,” but about the kind of person the Christian should strive to become.
(5) The character qualities we are to pursue are also the character traits of God. Peter has written in verse 4 that God has provided for us to become “partakers of the divine nature.” These character qualities he then lists are the particular character qualities of God which should also be evident in our lives.
(6) Peter gives us a list unlike any other list in the Scriptures. In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul lists the “fruit of the Spirit.” First Timothy 6:11 has yet another list of godly qualities the Christian should pursue. None of the New Testament lists are exactly alike, which suggests that Peter has given us a selected list and that there are other character qualities to pursue. It also implies Peter’s list was compiled for a particular reason. I believe this list of qualities was chosen because of the false teachers who will seek to distort the truth of the Scriptures and seek to seduce men to follow them. If the character qualities of verses 5-7 are also the attributes of God, they are in dramatic contrast to the character of the false teachers and their followers.
(7) A purposeful order and relationship is evident in this list of character qualities. This list of character qualities is not presented in a way that suggests a random order. Each quality builds upon the qualities before it. The sequence of qualities begins with faith and ends with love. These qualities are similar to the ingredients in a cake recipe where all ingredients are needed, but they should be added in the proper order.
Characteristics of a Growing Christian
(1) Faith. The first characteristic of the growing Christian has a uniqueness to it—the Christian is not instructed to supply faith. Faith is a given, something upon which the Christian builds. According to Peter, faith is given, for the readers of this epistle are those who “have received a faith of the same kind as ours” (verse 1). Faith is something we have received, not something we are to supply—because faith is a gift from God (see Romans 8:28-30; Ephesians 1:3-6; 2:8).
Faith begins as saving faith and then becomes the faith without which it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6); whatever does not originate through faith is sin (Romans 14:23). Our faith is based upon the revealed word of God (2 Peter 1:4; see Romans 10:8, 17). Our faith is tested, proven, and strengthened by the trials and adversity God allows to come into our life (1 Peter 1:6-7). Faith is not only the basis for belief but also the basis for our behavior (see Hebrews 11).
Our Lord Himself is the object and the source of our faith; Christ is also the model for our faith. It is easier to think of the Lord Jesus as the object of faith than to think of Him exercising faith. But His faith was exercised when He submitted to the will of the Father by taking on human flesh and suffering and dying at the hands of sinful men:
23 And while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously (1 Peter 2:23, emphasis mine).
If you have not come to a personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, you cannot possibly pursue the course Peter prescribes in our text. To enter into that “faith,” which is of the same kind as the apostles (verse 1a), you must know God through Jesus Christ and find the righteousness you desperately lack in none other than Jesus Christ (verse 1b). Knowing Him brings grace and peace (verse 2). Only by His power are we granted everything necessary for life and godliness (verse 3). The basis of our salvation is the work of Christ, and the basis for our future hope is the promises of God. All we need to know about these is recorded in God’s Word (verse 4a). Trusting in God’s provisions, as revealed in God’s Word, makes us partakers of the divine nature and delivers us from the corruption of fleshly lusts (verse 4b). Taking on the divine nature does not happen quickly; it happens by the process of sanctification (verses 5-11). While this sanctification is individual, it also takes place through the body of Christ, the church (Ephesians 4:11-16). The process of sanctification is completed not in this life, but when we are with Him in glory (Philippians 3:8-14; 1 Peter 5:10; 2 Peter 3:13; 1 John 3:1-3).
(2) Moral Excellence. Of all the virtues listed by Peter in our text, this is by far the most difficult virtue to grasp. Two problems have troubled me in my study of this quality. First, the precise meaning of the term rendered “moral excellence” by the New American Standard Bible. The difficulty in defining the word Peter uses here can be inferred from the various ways it is translated:
- “virtue”—KJV, NEB, Berkeley
- “goodness”—Goodspeed, Jerusalem Bible
- “moral character”—Williams
- “manliness”—Helen Montgomery—The Centenary Translation
- “Noble character”—Weymouth
- “real goodness of life”—Phillips
The second problem is that “moral excellence” precedes “knowledge.” One would think “knowledge” would be a necessary prerequisite to “moral excellence,” rather than the reverse.
The key to resolving these two problems seems to be found in the usage of this term in the Greek Translation of the Old Testament in the texts below:
- “I am the LORD, that is My name;
- I will not give My glory to another,
- Nor My praise to graven images” (Isaiah 42:8, emphasis mine).
- Let them give glory to the LORD,
- And declare His praise in the coastlands (Isaiah 42:12, emphasis mine).
- “The people whom I formed for Myself,
- Will declare My praise” (Isaiah 43:21, emphasis mine).25
When we compare these Old Testament uses of Peter’s term with all the New Testament occurrences of this same term, the meaning begins to come into focus:
8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things (Philippians 4:8, emphasis mine).
9 But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR [God’s] OWN POSSESSION, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9, emphasis mine).
3 Seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence (2 Peter 1:3, emphasis mine).
The King James Version of “virtue” most often refers to a characteristic or quality of God. In the Isaiah texts, it is that for which God is praised or praiseworthy. In Isaiah 42:8 and 12, it is an expression poetically paralleled with the glory of God. God’s glory is His virtue, His excellencies, for which He is worthy of praise. No wonder Paul will instruct the Philippian saints to set their minds on that which is both “excellent” and “worthy of praise” (Philippians 4:8).
If His excellencies are God’s very nature, His glory for which men should praise Him, then our condition as unbelievers is exactly the opposite:
23 For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
Man in his sinful state refuses to give glory to God, deifying himself instead:
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. 28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper (Romans 1:18-28).
God revealed His nature, His divine power and glory to sinful men, but they refused to give glory to Him. Instead of worshipping God their Creator, they worshipped created things. Instead of believing the truth, they believed a lie. As a consequence of their sin, God gave them over to a depraved mind so they could no longer grasp the truth. Apart from divine grace and intervention, sinful men were hopelessly lost.
The good news: God did act. He sought out sinful men and gave them faith in His Son. He enabled them to become partakers of His divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). Since a part of this nature is His “own glory and excellence” (verse 3), it is little wonder this should become a part of our character as well. The “moral excellence” we are to “add” to our faith is the excellence of God’s nature, which He makes available to us in Christ. We are to “add” it to our faith by acknowledging it as good, as desirable, as worthy of praise, and as that which we wish to emulate in our own lives.
But why does excellence precede knowledge? I think we can understand this in light of Romans 1. Sinful men rejected the glory of God and established their own glory. As a result, they were darkened in their minds, unable to grasp divine revelation and truth. As a result of our salvation, we are now able to recognize the excellencies of our Lord and regard His excellencies as worthy of praise, embracing them as qualities we desire in our own life. When we embrace these virtues, we are then able to grasp the knowledge which comes next in the list of virtues. The apostle Paul puts it this way:
17 This I say therefore, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, 18 being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; 19 and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality, for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. 20 But you did not learn Christ in this way, 21 if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, 22 that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, 23 and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and put on the new self, which in [the likeness of] God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth (Ephesians 4:17-25; see also Ephesians 1:13-23).
To embrace the excellencies of God is to strive after them and then to express them in our lives to the glory and praise of God:
9 But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR [God’s] OWN POSSESSION, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9, emphasis mine).
Embracing and pursuing the excellencies of God means having the spirit of mind which exalts the Word of God and explores the Word for the knowledge of Him who saved us. Thus we see how “virtue” or “excellence” precedes “knowledge.”
17 “If any man is willing to do His will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God, or [whether] I speak from Myself” (John 7:17).
In summation, the excellence or virtue of God is God’s glorious nature, which is our ultimate good we should pursue as the goal of our character to the praise and glory of God. Doing so produces a mindset receptive to the knowledge of God revealed through the Scriptures.
“Excellence” is greatly emphasized these days in the secular culture and also in the church. I must say with deep regret that none of the excellence sought after today is that of which Peter speaks in our text. The “excellence” often sought by Christians concerns numbers and worldly standards and appearances rather than the moral character which emulates the excellencies of our Lord to His praise and glory. But this is not a new problem. This same mindset characterized the saints of old, causing King Lemuel to write about the “virtuous woman” in Proverbs 31:10-31, where he contrasted the worldly standard of physical beauty with the moral excellence26 of godly character:
29 “Many daughters have done nobly, But you excel them all.” 30 Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, [But] a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised (Proverbs 31:29-30).
(3) Knowledge. In our former state as unbelievers, we were not knowledgeable; we were ignorant:
14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts [which were yours] in your ignorance (1 Peter 1:14; see Ephesians 4:17-18).
The solution to our ignorance is having our minds transformed with the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, knowledge which comes from the Scriptures (see John 17:17; Romans 12:1-2; Ephesians 4:17-24; Colossians 1:9-11) and is communicated through the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:6-16; Ephesians 1:17).
This is a doctrinal knowledge, a knowledge revealed in Scripture with clear biblical support. While it must be a doctrinal knowledge revealed in Scripture, it is also an experiential knowledge of God. This experience is not divorced from Scripture; rather, it is the experiencing of Scripture. The writer to the Hebrews puts it this way:
12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. 13 For everyone who partakes [only] of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil (Hebrews 5:12-14).
9 For this reason also, since the day we heard [of it], we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please [Him] in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 11 strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light (Colossians 1:9-12).
This “knowledge” must also be understood as contrasting and contradicting the false knowledge of the false teachers who would undermine both the truth and the faith of the saints if they could:
1 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. 2 And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; 3 and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep… 17 These are springs without water, and mists driven by a storm, for whom the black darkness has been reserved. 18 For speaking out arrogant words of vanity they entice by fleshly desires, by sensuality, those who barely escape from the ones who live in error, 19 promising them freedom while they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved. (2 Peter 2:1-3, 17-19).
14 Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, 15 and regard the patience of our Lord to be salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, 16 as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. 17 You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard lest, being carried away by the error of unprincipled men, you fall from your own steadfastness, 18 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 (2 Peter 3:14-18).
The knowledge of God is essential to our growth in Christian character and our ability to recognize and avoid those who teach what is false.
(4) Self-control. William Barclay informs us that the term rendered “self-control” means literally “to take a grip of oneself.”27 Self-control is the opposite of self-indulgence. As unbelievers, we are dominated by our physical appetites, enslaved as we are to them:
1 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts [which were yours] in your ignorance (1 Peter 1:14).
1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest (Ephesians 2:1-3).
But we have been delivered from our bondage to the flesh:
15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! 16 Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone [as] slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness (Romans 6:15-18; see Romans 8:12-13).
Living a godly life requires us to master the flesh and make it our servant, rather than our master:
24 Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but [only] one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. 25 And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then [do it] to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; 27 but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
Sin uses the flesh to keep us in bondage (Romans 7:14-21). Satan and the world encourage us to live according to the flesh. But being a child of God requires that we live no longer for the flesh or in the power of the flesh. Our flesh still has a strong attraction, as Paul’s words in Romans 7 and our own experience make painfully clear. Only by God’s grace can we overrule fleshly lusts, and because of His provisions, we must diligently strive to do so. The prompting of the flesh must be brought under control, and we are to heed the prompting of the Spirit of God, as He speaks through the Word of God (see Romans 8:1-8; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; 3:16-17; 4:6).
False teachers appeal to fleshly lusts. They gather a following by proclaiming a gospel which indulges the flesh rather than crucifying it:
1 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. 2 And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; 3 and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.… 9 then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment, 10 and especially those who indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise authority. Daring, self-willed, they do not tremble when they revile angelic majesties, 11 whereas angels who are greater in might and power do not bring a reviling judgment against them before the Lord. 12 But these, like unreasoning animals, born as creatures of instinct to be captured and killed, reviling where they have no knowledge, will in the destruction of those creatures also be destroyed, 13 suffering wrong as the wages of doing wrong. They count it a pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are stains and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, as they carouse with you, 14 having eyes full of adultery and that never cease from sin, enticing unstable souls, having a heart trained in greed, accursed children; … 18 For speaking out arrogant words of vanity they entice by fleshly desires, by sensuality, those who barely escape from the ones who live in error, 19 promising them freedom while they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved (2 Peter 2:1-3, 9-14, 18-19).
Such false teaching is not uncommon in the pulpit today. The “good-life gospeleers” offer a different gospel than the apostles. Rather than proclaim a gospel which involves suffering and self-denial, they proclaim a “better” gospel of self-indulgence and success in life. They promise that those who possess enough faith can escape suffering and adversity and be guaranteed peace and prosperity. They promise that when one gives a little, one may be assured of receiving much more in return. These rewards are not looked for in heaven as much as on earth, now.
The gospel of the apostles was very different:
24 But some days later, Felix arrived with Drusilla, his wife who was a Jewess, and sent for Paul, and heard him [speak] about faith in Christ Jesus. 25 And as he was discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix became frightened and said, “Go away for the present, and when I find time, I will summon you” (Acts 24:24-25).
19 Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, 21 Envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you just as I have forewarned you that those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law (Galatians 5:19-23).
Let us not dilute the gospel to make it attractive to men by appealing to their fleshly lusts. We must proclaim the message of the gospel in its fulness and its simplicity, knowing that only through the Spirit of God are men enabled to grasp the truth of the gospel and quickened to do so (1 Corinthians 2:1-5, 14-16; 2 Corinthians 2:14-17; 3:1-11; 4:1-15).
(5) Perseverance.28 “Faith” brings us into relationship with God through Jesus Christ. “Moral excellence” seeks the character of God as the standard and goal for our own character. “Knowledge” describes what God is like, and what we should be like as well. “Self-control” enables us to curb our physical passions and to make our bodies servants of the will of God. The next character trait—“perseverance”—enables us to persist in our pursuit of godly character, even when we suffer for doing so.
If self-control has to do with physical pleasures, perseverance has to do with pain. Our natural tendency is to pursue pleasure and flee from pain. The gospel calls for us to identify with Christ, which includes identifying with Him in His suffering:
21 For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, 22 WHO COMMITTED NO SIN, NOR WAS ANY DECEIT FOUND IN HIS MOUTH; 23 and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting [Himself] to Him who judges righteously; 24 and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. 25 For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls (1 Peter 2:21-25).
24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body (which is the church) in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. 25 Of [this church] I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, that I might fully carry out the [preaching of] the word of God, 26 [that is,] the mystery which has been hidden from the [past] ages and generations; but has now been manifested to His saints, 27 to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:24-27).
Perseverance is the frame of mind and character which persists in doing what is right even though doing so may produce difficulties, suffering, and sorrows. Perseverance is the commitment to suffer in the short term in order to experience glory for eternity. Perseverance was exemplified by our Lord:
1 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart (Hebrews 12:1-3).
Perseverance also includes patience. In the light of eternity, suffering is light and momentary (see 2 Corinthians 4:17), but when our Lord’s tarrying seems to be endless, we desperately need patience to persist in the stewardship God has given to each of us. The false teachers point out that our Lord has not returned as proof that He will not. They urge men to live for the moment and to pursue fleshly pleasures, doubting the reality of a day of judgment or even our Lord’s return as told in Scripture (2 Peter 3:1ff.). Knowing that in God’s economy one day is as 1,000 years, and 1,000 years is like a day, we must patiently persist in doing what is right, looking for our eternal rewards when He returns.
(6) Godliness. The terms Peter employs here for “godliness” are infrequently used in the New Testament.29 This may be because the same expression was the most common word for religion in the pagan culture of Peter’s day.30 Godliness refers to practical religion, or, perhaps we should say, practiced religion. Godliness is the religion we practice in our day-to-day walk. It is …
“… the attitude of reverence which seeks to please God in all things. It desires a right relation with both God and men. Godliness brings the sanctifying presence of God into all the experiences of life.… This characteristic distinguishes the true believer from the ungodly false teachers (2:5-22; 3:7).”31
The Old Testament Law related true faith to the daily aspects of living. The New Testament does the same:
14 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, even while for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you shall receive greater condemnation.… 23 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:14, 23).
27 This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of [our] God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, [and] to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:27).
We were once “ungodly” as unbelievers, ripe for the judgment of God (see 2 Peter 3:7). Now that we have come to newness of life in Christ, we must put off our old way of life and put on the new:
14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts [which were yours] in your ignorance, 15 but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all [your] behavior; 16 because it is written, “YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY” (1 Peter 1:14-16).
8 But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, [and] abusive speech from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its [evil] practices, 10 and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him (Colossians 3:8-10).
(7) Brotherly kindness32 (Greek: Philadelphia33). “Brotherly kindness” is the love saints should have for one another as fellow-believers. It is a love based in part on what we share in common with the One we love. There is a certain element of reciprocity involved, for ideally we should be a blessing to our brother in Christ, and he should be a blessing to us.
This love, based on a shared relationship with Christ, can be sensed immediately even though two saints may never have met before. I well remember my first trip to India. Having arrived without anyone to meet me at the airport, I was very much alone. After a long train ride, I joined a group of Indian believers who were complete strangers. As we rode to our destination in an old van, we began to sing some of the hymns of the faith. A deep sense of brotherly love was evident as we found a bond of love in Christ.
This does not mean that brotherly love is a snap, that it is automatic. If it were, Peter would not have found it necessary to command us to pursue it with diligence, not only in his second epistle but also in his first:
22 Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart, (1 Peter 1:22, emphasis mine).34
Sin not only alienates men from God, it also alienates them from one another. Thus, when men come to faith in Christ, they are united with Him and also with their fellow believers. This union of believers with one another crosses every barrier, racial or social:
11 Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” [which is] performed in the flesh by human hands—12 [remember] that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both [groups into] one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, [which is] the Law of commandments [contained] in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, [thus] establishing peace, 16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity (Ephesians 2:11-16).
While God has removed the barrier between fellow-believers, this is something we must strive to practice and to preserve. It is a humanly impossible task for which God has provided the means to accomplish. As believers, we must diligently strive to practice brotherly kindness by employing these means.
(8) Love.35 This love is “agape love,” which might be called the highest love. It is also the capstone of all the virtues the Christian should pursue. Michael Green shows its uniqueness:
“In friendship (philia) the partners seek mutual solace; in sexual love (eros) mutual satisfaction. In both cases these feelings are aroused because of what the loved one is. With agape it is the reverse. God’s agape is evoked not by what we are, but by what he is. It has its origin in the agent, not in the object ... This agape might be defined as a deliberate desire for the highest good of the one loved, which shows itself in sacrificial action for that person’s good. That is what God did for us (Jn. 3:16). That is what he wants us to do (1 Jn. 3:16). That is what he is prepared to achieve in us (Rom. 5:5). Thus the Spirit of the God who is love is freely given to us, in order to reproduce in us that same quality.”36
While “Phileo love” is directed toward fellow-believers, “Agape love” is universal in scope. It is a love which applies both to believers and to unbelievers:
12 And may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all men, just as we also [do] for you (1 Thessalonians 3:12).
Agape love is not prompted by what the other person is or does, but by a love rooted in what God is. It is the love of God which flows through us.
19 We love, because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).
Paul speaks of this love as the greatest of the Christian virtues (1 Corinthians 13:13).
As we love others we manifest the perfections of God to men:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR, and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you 45 in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on [the] evil and [the] good, and sends rain on [the] righteous and [the] unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax-gatherers do the same? 47 And if you greet your brothers only, what do you do more [than others]? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).
This 2 Peter passage makes several contributions to the Christian. First, it shows that the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man are not incompatible. We need not choose one in place of the other. The sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man are interdependent truths. Man cannot contribute to his salvation. Though the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary, God did for us what we could not do for ourselves. All we must do is receive it, and even this occurs by divine grace. But once we have come to faith in Christ, we are to diligently strive after godly character—for God has provided the means for “life and godliness.” We strive in our Christian walk because He has given us the means. The sovereignty of God should never be an excuse for passivity or inactivity; rather, His sovereignty is the basis for disciplined living. The Christian life is not: “Let go, and let God;” it is “Trust God, and get going!”
Our text also contributes lessons on discipleship for the Christian. Salvation is the first step of discipleship. We must first believe in the gospel and trust in Jesus Christ for salvation. Having done so, we must then forsake our former manner of life and former manner of thinking and engage ourselves in the pursuit of holiness. We are not merely saved to be rescued from the torment of hell and enter into the blessings of heaven. We have been saved to “proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of the darkness and into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). We have been saved to become partakers of His divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) and, by so doing, bring glory to Him.
We must be careful that our presentation of the gospel does not minimize what salvation is all about. Jesus never did (Matthew 5:1-16; Luke 9:57-62), and neither did Paul (Acts 14:22; 24:25; 2 Timothy 3:12). While men and women are saved so they may enter into God’s blessings, they are saved primarily to bring glory to God by manifesting His excellencies to men and to celestial powers (Ephesians 1:1-12; 3:10).
How interesting that Peter speaks of love as the end product of the Christian’s striving and not the source of it. Many wait to “feel” love and then act upon it. Peter tells the Christian he or she has already received faith, and they are to act on it so the outcome is love. For Peter, love is a result and not merely a cause. It seems to me we must say from the Scriptures as a whole that love is both a cause and an effect. Peter would have us strive to obtain love by obediently pursuing the characteristics of the divine nature.
Our text provides the means for Christian growth and also the means for how stumbling can be prevented. I wish the Christian community would wake up and see how we have exchanged Peter’s inspired list for another list, a list provided not under inspiration but from the warped thinking of unbelievers. According to a distressing number of believers, the key to understanding success in the Christian life, as well as failure, is “self-esteem.” Poor self-esteem is the source of failure; good self-esteem is the basis of success. Not according to Peter. Who, then, will you believe?
This leads to one of the most significant contributions of our text. In Galatians 5, Paul lists the “fruit of the Spirit” (verses 22-23), the qualities God produces through the work of the Holy Spirit. The key to manifesting the “fruit of the Spirit” is to “walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16).
Peter has a list of qualities which includes some in Paul’s list in Galatians 5. But Peter does not emphasize the work of the Spirit, as true and as essential as the Spirit’s work is. What does Peter emphasize as the basis for Christian growth? Peter emphasizes the Word of God. He speaks of our salvation and our sanctification as the result of knowing God through His revealed Word. This is the thrust of his entire first chapter. In chapters 2 and 3, Peter shows how false teachers seek to undermine the Word and turn saints from the truths of Scripture. How quickly, how easily we are turned from the truths God has revealed in His Word to the alleged “truths” of men, who appeal not to the spirit but to the flesh. Let us recognize that the knowledge of God not only saves us but sanctifies us. This does not happen independently of the Spirit, but through the Spirit, as He illuminates the Word of God in our hearts.
Our text also tells us that Christian growth is neither automatic nor is maturity merely a function of time. I fear many Christians have a “civil service” mentality concerning their Christian growth. They seem to think that time alone results in growth and maturity. This is not the case:
11 Concerning him we have much to say, and [it is] hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. 13 For everyone who partakes [only] of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil (Hebrews 5:11-14).
Christian growth does take time, but growth occurs as believers diligently and obediently seek to grow, in the power of the Holy Spirit and through the provision of the Scriptures. The writer to the Hebrews rebukes his readers for failing to grow. Growth results from the application of biblical truth to daily living. Growth occurs when we employ the resources God has supplied through His Word.
Failing to grow does not mean that we simply grow stagnant, never moving beyond where we are in our spiritual life. No; failure to grow means we move backwards. According to Peter, failure in striving toward Christian growth and maturity sets us up for a fall. That which we once possessed we can lose. This happened to the church at Ephesus, who lost their first love (Revelation 2:4). If we do not use what we have, we lose it:
24 And He was saying to them, “Take care what you listen to. By your standard of measure it shall be measured to you; and more shall be given you besides. 25 For whoever has, to him shall [more] be given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him” (Mark 4:24-25).
Believer friend, I urge you: press on toward Christian maturity. Do not be content with where you are; press forward, even as the apostle Paul revealed about his own walk:
10 that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11 in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained [it], or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. 13 Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of [it] yet; but one thing [I do]: forgetting what [lies] behind and reaching forward to what [lies] ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; 16 however, let us keep living by that same [standard] to which we have attained (Philippians 3:10-16).
Are you growing colder as you get older in your Christian life? Or, are you, like Paul, pressing toward the upward call, seeking to know the Lord Jesus more and more intimately? May we all press on in the power of the Spirit of God, and through the provision of the Word of God.
25 Even with all the difficulties the translators have in determining what word best conveys Peter’s meaning in 2 Peter 1:5, the translations of the same term in these texts in Isaiah are consistently rendered “praise.”
28 See Luke 8:15; 21:19; Romans 2:7; 5:3; 8:25; 15:4; 2 Corinthians 1:6; 6:4; 12:12; Colossians 1:11; 1 Thessalonians 1;3; 2 Thessalonians 1:4; 3:5; 1 Timothy 6:11; Titus 2:2; Hebrews 12:1; James 1:3,4; 5:11; 1 Peter 2:20; 2 Peter 1:6; Revelation 1:9; 2:2, 3, 19; 3:10; 13:10; 14:12.
30 “The word eusebeia is rare in the New Testament, probably because it was the primary word for ‘religion’ in popular pagan usage. The ‘religious man’ of antiquity, both in Greek and Latin usage (where the equivalent word was pietas), was careful and correct in performing his duties both to gods and men. Perhaps Peter uses it here in deliberate contrast to the false teachers, who were far from proper in their behaviour both to God and their fellow men. Peter is at pains to emphasize that true knowledge of God (which they mistakenly boasted they possessed) manifests itself in reverence towards him and respect towards men. There is no hint of religiosity here. Eusebeia is a very practical awareness of God in every aspect of life.” Michael Green, 2 Peter and Jude (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), revised edition, p. 79.
32 “But godliness cannot exist without brotherly kindness. ‘If any one says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar’ (1 Jn. 4:20). Love for Christian brethren is a distinguishing mark of true discipleship, and represents yet another area where the false teachers were so distressingly deficient. ... Love for the brethren entails bearing one another’s burdens, and so fulfilling the law of Christ; it means guarding that Spirit-given unity from destruction by gossip, prejudice, narrowness, and the refusal to accept a brother Christian for what he is in Christ. The very importance and the difficulty of achieving this philadelphia is the reason for the considerable stress on it in the pages of the New Testament (Rom. 12:10; 1 Thes. 4:9; Heb. 13:1; 1 Pet. 1:22; 1 Jn. 5:1).” Green, p. 79.
“‘Brotherly kindness’ . . . ‘the brother-love’ or ‘brotherly affection’ toward fellow members of the family of God is the fruit of the new life (1 Peter 1:22). The term expresses the warm, brotherly affection between those who are spiritual relatives in the family of God. It is more than a passing disposition of fondness for fellow believers; it manifests itself in overt acts of kindness toward them (Gal. 6:10). It was this affectionate relationship in the early Church among Christian converts, in spite of their diverse status and varied backgrounds, that amazed the pagans around them.” Hiebert, p. 54.
34 It should be noted that in 1 Peter 1:22, both the noun, Philadelphia, and the verb, Agape, are found. Some seek to make too much of the distinction between “Phileo love” and “Agape love.” These two terms are sometimes interchanged. This is true in John 21:15-17.
35 Matthew 24:12; Luke 11:42; John 5:42; 13:35; 15:9,10,13; 17:26; Romans 5:5,8; 8:35,39; 12:9; 13:10; 14:15; 15:30; 1 Corinthians 4:21; 8:1; 13:1,2,3,4,8,13; 14:1; 16:14,24; 2 Corinthians 2:4,8; 5:14; 6:6; 8:7,8,24; 13:11,14; Galatians 5:6,13,22; Ephesians 1:4,15; 2:4; 3:17,19; 4:2,15,16; 5:2; 6:23; Philippians 1:9, 17; 2:1,2; Colossians 1:4,8,13; 2;2; 3:14; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 3:6,12; 5:8,13; 2 Thessalonians 1:3; 2:10; 3:5; 1 Timothy 1:5,14; 2:15; 4:12; 6:11; 2 Timothy 1:7, 13; 2:22; 3:10; Titus 2:2; Philemon 1:5,7,9; Hebrews 6:10; 10:24; 1 Peter 1:8; 4:8; 5:14; 1 John 2:5; 3:1,16,17; 4:7,8,9,10,12,16,17,18; 5:3; 2 John 1:3,6; 3 John 1:6; Jude 2,12,21; Revelation 2:4,19.