Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 7, 2014
2 Peter 3:8-15a Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions
Our text for the second Sunday of Advent is a vivid reminder that Advent is not only about the coming of the “tender and mild” baby Jesus at Christmas, but also about the Coming of God in the terrifying Day of the Lord. Frankly, no one really wants to think about that Day, especially during the celebrations of Christmas, but here’s where the church can be genuinely counter-cultural. In a world that buries the first coming of the Christ under a blizzard of fluffy sentimentality and that scoffs at the very idea of a second coming (cf. verses 3-7), our text is designed precisely to tell Christians how we ought to live in such a time. I think you can boil down Peter’s practical advice for living to three ideas (patience, looking forward, and righteousness), all of which revolve around the stunning image of a universe on fire.
In previous lectionary readings from I Thessalonians, we often heard that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night, so that part of verse 10 is not new. What’s new is this business of fire. Peter is the only New Testament writer who describes the Return of the King in exactly these terms (but see Paul’s announcement that Jesus will be revealed “from heaven in blazing fire” in II Thessalonians 1:7). Peter’s startling claim is not only that Jesus will be attended by fire (picture Katniss Everdeen in the movie “Girl on Fire”), but also that the fire will consume the entire universe. Apparently, Peter thought that everything is so thoroughly corrupted by sin that it will take fire to completely cleanse it and start over with “a new heaven and a new earth.” The slate of creation must be wiped completely clean. God tried that once with water. At the end he will use a more powerful cleansing agent.
Even as the people in Noah’s day could not imagine a world inundated with water and, thus, did not heed God’s warning, so we cannot imagine a universe on fire. So Peter ransacks the vocabulary of apocalyptic thought to describe the indescribable. “The heavens (the sky above, the stratosphere and beyond into the far reaches of outer space) will disappear with a roar.” The Greek here is an onomatopoeic word, rhoizedon, which conveys the sense of a rushing, whistling sound, like an arrow whizzing past your ear, or, more appropriately, like the sound of a fire roaring through the forests of northern California.
Peter continues that image by explaining that the “elements will be destroyed by fire….” The word “elements” is stoicheia, which could refer to what the ancients thought were the four constitutive elements of the world (earth, air, water and fire), or to what we moderns call the elemental chart (oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, etc.). Or Peter might be thinking of the evil angelic beings that inhabit the air (as in Eph. 2:2). Whatever he means specifically, he is looking up and out at the universe. And he sees it in flames, not because of a nuclear holocaust initiated by the hand of a fanatical terrorist or because of green house gases finally overheating the atmosphere to the point of explosion, but because of the cleansing fires of God’s judgment at the return of Christ.
The earth will fare no better; “the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.” The word translated “laid bare” in the NIV is heuresthesetai, which is usually translated “found.” Its meaning here is one of the genuine exegetical mysteries of the New Testament. So, translators have opted for “burned up” to fit the context of a fiery conflagration, or “laid bare” to describe what a burned up world would look like (think of those pictures of a village in northern California reduced to ashes after those fires this summer). Other scholars stick with the idea of “found,” and connect this verse to Paul’s thought in I Corinthians 3:13-15, where the fire will reveal the quality of our works. We will be found naked before God, with all of our alleged virtues burned up. A few scholars want to supply a negative here, so that Peter is saying that the earth will “not be found.” It will cease to exist. Whatever we do with that one verb, the basic idea is probably what we read next in verse 11, “Since everything will be destroyed in this way….”
Preaching this text will definitely put a damper on our holiday celebrations, unless we preach the whole text by going on to verse 13. God’s purpose in the fiery destruction of everything in heaven and on earth is the creation/recreation of a “new heaven and a new earth” which is “the home of righteousness.” God is not a wanton destroyer. God is a loving creator and redeemer. After millennia of struggling with a sin-ruined creation, God will finally clean all the sin away and make the world as he first intended it to be. Peter’s choice of adjective here is telling. The “new” heaven and earth is not neos, which means something that did not exist before, but kaivos, which means the renewal of something that was before. According to Acts 3:21, Peter preached something very like this in his second recorded sermon, where he spoke of the “restoration” of all things. God doesn’t annihilate anything he created in his love; he recreates it, so that it returns to its divinely intended state.
What God always intended was a world filled with nothing but righteousness. The world today groans because it is filled with unrighteousness (Romans 8:22ff). That makes God groan (cf. Genesis 6:6). But one day God will make it all right, permanently (“the home” is the Greek katoiokeia, an augmented noun that conveys the idea of permanence). Interestingly, Peter doesn’t describe the new world with the apocalyptic symbols of Revelations 21 and 22, but with the hugely important biblical word, righteousness. This is something we can preach at Advent, because we live in a world where so much is wrong, a world filled with the groaning of creation and its inhabitants. The fire will make everything just fine in the end.
If you dare to preach on this text, be sure you apply it as Peter does. He does not use this terrifying image of a universe on fire to “scare the hell out of people.” His intent is to motivate them to a certain kind of living. “Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?” Here’s where those three previously mentioned ideas come to the fore. First, we ought to be patient. The world scoffs because it’s been millennia since Jesus promised to return. Peter explains that “delay” in a way that is designed to make us patient.
More correctly, he uses the idea of God’s patience to explain that delay. In verse 8, he alludes to Psalm 90 to remind us that time means something very different to God than it does to us. Einstein proposed the theory of relativity to explain the phenomena of the universe. Peter gives us the biblical theory of relativity to explain divine slowness. “With the Lord a day is like a thousand (millennium) years and a thousand years are like a day.” That word “millennium” led some ancient scholars to develop an entire theory about how long the world would exist. But Peter is simply telling us that God doesn’t mark time as we do. Our time is irrelevant in the divine counsel. So, for God, it’s only been a short time since Jesus made his now famous promise about returning, a mere two days.
But, if God really loves us, why would he delay at all in cleaning up the mess in the world and making everything right? Peter has a simply profound explanation. God is being “patient with you, because he doesn’t want anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” “Patient” is macrothumia, long suffering. God is willing to suffer a long time with this fallen and broken world, because he wants the sinful humans at the heart of the mess to come to themselves and return to God. People may scoff at the “delay” of Christ’s return, but God’s slowness is born of a love that wants even the scoffers to return to him through faith in Christ.
Here’s a theme that will preach at Advent. As we wait for Christmas and for the Parousia, we should be in prayer for those who scoff. And we should spread the Good News in the hopes that they might finally repent. Imagine, an evangelistic sermon in Advent. In that connection, notice that mysterious expression in verse 12, “and speed its coming.” What can it mean that the way we live can “speed the Parousia?” Isn’t that already determined by the God who “knows the end from the beginning?” How could human behavior affect the divine counsel?
Obviously, this is a mystery we cannot solve, but we should note verses like this one. Late Judaism taught that if all Israelites would genuinely repent for one day, the Messiah would come. Further, it taught that the judgment is kept back by the sin of mankind, which sounds like the reverse of our text in I Peter 3:12. And don’t forget what Jesus said in Matthew 24:14. “And this gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” On the same note, read Peter’s sermon in Acts 3:19ff, where he connects the restoration of all things with repentance. So, yes, let’s preach an evangelistic sermon in Advent. Maybe we will speed his Second Advent.
In addition to patience, Peter’s vivid portrayal of a universe on fire calls us to “look forward.” He uses the verb 3 times (verses 12, 13, and 14). In each use of that word, Peter simply assumes that this is the way Christians will live. That is noteworthy. He doesn’t encourage or command these first century Christians to look forward, because he assumes they already are. But I wonder if we need to do that. Have 20 centuries of waiting destroyed our forward look? Have the troubles of the present given us a downward look? Advent is a good time to remind ourselves that our faith not only looks back to the work of God accomplished in Christmas/Good Friday/Easter, but also looks forward to the completion of that work at the Day of the Lord. Let’s not get lost in the glow of Advent candles. Let’s look forward to the glow of the fire over the horizon and the glow of a world filled with righteousness.
That word “righteousness” summarizes the major admonition of this text. Since we expect to live someday in a world that is the home of righteousness, let us live this day in righteousness. “What kind of people ought you to be?” Paul uses a number of words to describe right living: “holy, godly, spotless, blameless, at peace with him.” Each word shows us another facet of righteousness: “holy” suggests separation from sin for service to God; “godly” points to devotion to God in worship and service; “spotless and blameless” echo the description of Christ in I Peter 1:19, thus suggesting that we must strive for Christ-likeness; and peace with him surely contains the idea that we are not only justified (declared righteous), but must also live righteously. In the season of Advent, we must call the church and ourselves to “make every effort to be found” in a righteous state. We get so busy with our holiday preparations that we forget to get busy with righteousness, so that we are prepared for the coming Christ.
Peter’s assertion that God’s “delay” is motivated by patient love brings to mind the parable of the Prodigal Son. Some have called it the parable of the Waiting Father. As the son mucked about in the pigpen of the far country, the father simply waited for his son to come to his senses (or “come to himself,” as another translation has it). Without violating the actual words of Luke 15, it would be helpful to picture the waiting father with furrowed brow, pacing the floor, shedding tears, offering prayers, etc. That famous story might put flesh and blood on the concept of God’s patience with a sinful humanity that scoffs at the very idea of Christ’s return.
Peter’s call to righteous living in the light of the fire at the end reminded me of Pascal’s Wager. The famous mathematician/theologian put this challenge to scoffers. “Live as if you would see God in the end. If you see God, your faith has been justified. If not, you have lost nothing.” Live for God’s tomorrow. That way, you can continue in peace, no matter what the outcome.
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