The Promise of His Coming
Scripture - 2 Peter 3:8-15
Sheryl & I were looking through old photograph albums one evening, identifying family members as they appeared 50 years ago or more. Was he really that short? Was she really wearing that kind of dress? Yes, he was, & yes, she did. It can be a lot of fun, especially when you pick out resemblances with the next generation & then the one after that.
But in one picture there was a different kind of surprise. There was a car we recognized – but no one in our family every owned it! Or did they? We knew they owned a Cadillac much later. But what was one doing in photos way back then?
The answer, it turns out, was quite surprising; it turned out Sheryl’s ancestors had owned a Caddy early on, then decided to go with something “more practical.” But I thought of this sudden surprise as I was thinking about Peter’s sudden reference to someone I have not been thinking about at all: the apostle Paul! What is he doing here in v. 15, making a guest appearance as it were on someone else’s show?
The answer is that, by the time this letter was written, Paul’s letters had already been circulating for some time in many of the churches, both in Turkey & Greece (where all of Paul’s letters except Romans were addressed), & possibly further in the churches as well. Many early Christians were energetic travelers, & there is every indication that texts – letters, gospels, etc. – were copied, taken from place to place, & studied. And what Peter is saying here fits closely with a theme which, though not all readers of Paul now realize it, is in fact important in his writings as well. We have already spoken of the patience to which we are called: patience in our dealings with one another, & patience with God as we wait for the day of the Lord. Now we must consider God’s own patience.
This is, after all, the correct order of things. We are probably quite a comical sight, stamping our little feet with impatience while the Creator & Ruler of the universe calmly goes about his own business, knowing infinitely more than we do about how to run his world. No, the proper perspective is to regard anything that looks to us like ‘delay’ as an indication not that we have to be patient with God, but that God is having to be patient with us.
Which is just as well. If God were to foreclose on the world, & on us, today, what would happen? This was already a theme which Jews before the time of Jesus were pondering, as they agonized over the apparently endless delay in waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled. God, they concluded, was holding back the great day, leaving space for more people to repent, for more lives to be transformed, & for the world to come to its senses. One should be grateful for this ‘patience’, not angry with God for failing to hurry up when we want him to.
This is very much what Paul has in mind in a passage like Romans 2:1-11. It might be worth looking that up & studying it; perhaps it is the sort of passage Peter has in mind. Paul wrote: Don’t you realize that God’s kindness is supposed to lead you to change your heart & life? (2:4) But if you don’t avail yourself of that opportunity, the result will be the opposite: what you do instead with that time, with that interval before final judgment, will just make matters worse when the day finally arrives (2:5-11).
This seems to be what Peter is saying too. Consider the patience of our Lord to be salvation (v. 15). God’s patience is our opportunity. It is our chance to work on the holy, godly lives we ought to be living. It is our chance, too, to spread the gospel in the world. Since we know that the day is coming, the day when the new heavens & the new earth will emerge, filled to the brim with God’s wonderful justice, his glorious setting-right of all things, we should be working towards that already, here & now.
This is the point where a wrong view of what God intends to do will really damage both our understanding & our behavior. If we imagine that God wants simply to burn up the present world entirely, leaving us as disembodied souls in some kind of timeless ‘eternity’, then why should we worry about what we do here & now? What does it matter? Why not just enjoy life as best we can & wait for whatever is coming next – which is of course the answer that many philosophies have given, from the first century right up to today. But if God intends to renew the heavens & the earth – as Isaiah had promised all those years before (in chapters 65 & 66), then what we do in the present time matters. It matters for us that we are pure & faultless (v. 14). It matters for God’s world as a whole.
All this comes together in the closing paragraph of the letter, which sums up well the 2 main things Peter has been saying in the letter & the last 2 weeks of sermons I have preached. First, be on your guard! This does not mean adopting a fault-finding, mean-spirited approach, ready to criticize anybody & everybody in case some of them turn out to be heretics. It means, do not imagine that there are not lawless people out there, ready to lead you astray with smooth talk. Do not imagine there will not be times when it feels the natural & right thing to go along with them. If that were not a real danger, we would not need the warnings. And that real danger is that we might fall away from the solid grounding we have received in the faith.
But second, the message is not all negative. There is such a thing as sustained & lasting growth in Christian character, faith, & life. It is your privilege & birthright, as a follower of Jesus, that you should grow in the grace & knowledge of our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ. This reflects back to the opening of the letter, in which Peter urged his readers to add one thing to another: faith, moral excellence, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, affection for others & love. Some of these, such as self-control & endurance, he wrote on at some length. Others he has left for his readers to work out for themselves.
I believe that this letter might be a word for our own times. If our desire is to bring God glory both now & in the day when his new age dawns we could do a lot worse than study it carefully, take it to heart, pray for it, & put it into practice.
Let us pray. Gracious God, sometimes how stale, flat & tasteless seem all the uses of this present world. It seems we gather to rehearse what never happens. We scatter to address the inhumanity in the world only to find ourselves like children with teaspoons standing before an ocean. There needs to be an end to things. There needs to be a beginning to things. And yet we grieve over endings & we are afraid of beginnings. God, be the Alpha & the Omega of our lives & the life of the world for the sake of Christ. Amen.