It is an appropriate reading for today, Advent Sunday. We prepare to celebrate Jesus' first coming, and we look forward to Jesus' second coming.
And in chapter 3 Peter focuses on one particular promise: the promise that one day this current heaven and earth will face judgement, come to an end, and be replaced with a new heaven and earth, the home of righteousness (3:13)
We may believe that the world is going to end. Scientists tell us that in about 4 billion years this planet will be burnt up by an expanding sun. But the idea that Jesus will return, and that there will be a new heaven and earth (in which stars do not turn into red giants on us) belongs to the realm of Bermuda triangles, UFO's and little green men. It's there for odd people walking about with billboards, which say, 'the end is nigh'.
And anyway, Jesus said that he would return, and the first Christians expected that he would return. But after 40 years, or after the apostles had died, or after 2000 years, how can we possibly believe such a promise.
It is one of the hardest Christian teachings to believe. If we did a poll here, I suspect that over half of us would say that we are unsure about the teaching of the second coming of Jesus, of a final judgement, and of a new heaven and earth. It is one of the teachings that we put in brackets.
It is of course incredibly hard to imagine.
There are pictures of Jesus descending from the heavens to the earth, of him coming back to Jerusalem, of all people seeing it happen. Perhaps it will be televised or we’ll see it as a webcam. And it doesn’t work for me.
But we do not need to be too literal in our imagination. What we are talking about here is the end of space and time as we know it. And we can only think and speak in terms of the space and time as we know it. That is why we talk of Jesus being 'up there' or 'in our heart'. And so the images we are given in the bible are picture language - trying to explain something that is beyond our understanding in terms that we do understand (that is also how I understand the creation stories): and when, after the end, we look back, we'll be able to look again at the pictures we were given in the bible and we will be able to say: 'yes, they make sense'.
And Peter here urges us not to give up on the promise of God that one day all that seems so solid to us will be destroyed, and that there will be a new heaven and earth, the home of righteousness.
And he asks us to remember five things.
1. The promise of God
The idea of the promise of God, and the word of God, is big for Peter.
In 1:4 he writes, 'He has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires'.
And then, a little bit later, he speaks about the prophets. They did not speak on their own understanding, but they were men who spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (1:21)
And now in 2 Peter 3:2 he says: 'I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets'.
And the prophets spoke about the day of the Lord: a day of dreadful judgement on a world that had rejected God; and they spoke of the future kingdom of God - when God will reign, when all would acknowledge and know him, and there would be peace and justice on earth.
2. Peter reminds us of the power of God's word
By God's word the heavens exist and the earth was formed (v5); by God's word the heavens and earth are being kept before that final day of judgement (v7)
This echoes an argument that Jesus had with the Sadducees. They did not believe in a resurrection. Jesus tells them that they are wrong, 'because you do not believe the scriptures or the power of God'
3. Peter reminds us that God’s timing is not ours.
Peter quotes Psalm 90:4, “For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night”
A man who read this passage was quite amazed and talked to God about it. "Lord, is it true that a thousand years for us is like one minute to you?"
The Lord said yes.
The man said, "Then a million pounds to us must be like one penny to you."
The Lord said, "Well, yes."
The man said, "Will you give me one of those pennies?"
The Lord said, "All right, I will. Wait here a minute."
We do not understand the timing of God. It is not our timing. It is much much bigger.
God is Lord of time. Remember how, in the Old Testament, on one occasion the sun stood still; and on another occasion a sundial went backwards. And I know of two people who have both told of experiences that they have had when time stopped and even went back.
So the bible speaks of the days between the resurrection of Jesus and his second coming as the last days. To us they may last 2000 years or 2 million years, but if to God they are the last days, then they are the last days.
And Peter warns us that, in God’s timing, that day will come ‘like a thief’.
Jesus also spoke of that day, the day when the Son of Man would be revealed, when he would come in judgement, as being like a thief coming in the night.
And Jesus and Peter are telling us to beware, and not to be complacent.
There was a report on the news about a 16yr old house burglar who, as part of his sentence, had to write to his victim. His letter was intercepted before it was sent. Instead of saying sorry, he wrote to tell the owner of the house that he was an idiot. He said, ‘You should not have left your front window open”.
And Jesus says, ‘Be prepared. There is a day when history as we know it ends. It will come in my time, and it will come suddenly and unexpectedly’
4. Peter reminds us of the patience of God.
This is mentioned twice: 2 Peter 3:9,15.
This is the reason, says Peter, why God takes his time in coming. There have been and there are times in particular places where believers have suffered dreadfully. They must have prayed that this judgement would come, that God would step in and deliver them. And nothing happened.
At the time that Peter was writing many of the Christians were suffering dreadfully. Peter himself would be executed, crucified upside down. But Peter had begun to realise that the return of Jesus could be quite some time.
That is why in 1:15 he speaks of the need to remind Christians of 'these things'.
And most people assume that that was the reason why the gospels were written. At first those who were with Jesus told stories of Jesus, and they thought that Jesus would return in their lifetime. But as they grew older, and as they realised they would die before Jesus returned, so they began to write those stories down. and we now have the gospels. And again, many people say that when Mark wrote his gospel, he was writing down the stories that Peter told him.
And here in ch3, Peter reminds the believers that the reason God is delaying is because of his patience. He knows those who are his, even those who have not yet been born, and he is giving us more time, because he wants all to come in. And he is giving you and me more time: time to repent, time to turn to him and to seek him.
5. Peter reminds us of the judgement of God
‘The earth and everything done in it will be laid bare’ (v10)
Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi, wrote in the Wall Street Journal about the London riots earlier this year.
“[The rioters] are the victims of the tsunami of wishful thinking that washed across the West saying that you can have sex without the responsibility of marriage, children without the responsibility of parenthood, social order without the responsibility of citizenship, liberty without the responsibility of morality, and self-esteem without the responsibility of work and earned achievement.
What has happened morally in the West is what has happened financially as well. Good and otherwise sensible people were persuaded that you could spend more than you earn, incur debt at unprecedented levels and consume the world's resources without thinking about who will pay the bill and when ….
There are large parts of Britain, Europe, and even the United States where religion is a thing of the past, and there is no counter-voice to the culture of buy it, spend it, wear it, flaunt it, because you're worth it. The message is that morality is passé, conscience is for wimps, and the single overriding command is "Thou shalt not be found out."
But if we live like that, we will get a shock. There will be a day when everything is stripped bare.
Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate. (3 weeks to read, 3 weeks to recover). In one episode the Jews have been ordered into the hut next to the ‘bathhouse’, the euphemistic word for gas chamber. They have all been ordered to strip.
“When a man has no clothes on, he draws closer to himself. ‘God, the hairs on my chest are thicker and wirier than ever – and what a lot of grey!’ ‘How ugly my fingernails look!’ There’s only one thing a naked man can say as he looks at himself: ‘Yes, here I am. This is me!’ He recognizes himself and identifies his ‘I’, an ‘I’ that remains always the same. A little boy crosses his skinny arms over his bony chest, looks at his frog-like body and says, ‘This is me’; fifty years later he looks at a plump, flabby chest, at the blue, knotted veins on his legs and says, ‘This is me”
When we are stripped, everything is laid bare. Whispered words, actions, the motives behind our actions, thoughts: the true ‘I’ will be revealed.
George Whitefield, a man who God used to bring revival both here and in America, said, “When I die the only epitaph that I desire to be engraved upon my tombstone is "Here lies George Whitefield; what sort of man he was the great day will discover."
So we are reminded of these 6 things: the promise of God, the power of God, timing of God, patience of God and the judgement of God.
And Peter asks, ‘in light of this, what kind of people ought we to be?” (v11)
He answers his own question: “You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (v11); and in v14 he writes,
“So then, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with God”
One of the privileges of my job is that of being with people as they are dying. We pray that they will be at peace: at peace with themselves, having made peace with those closest to them, and their peace with God. It can be a time of great healing, a time of confession, a time of letting go of hurts and a time of hope.
The tragedy is that we do not need to wait for our death bed to sort ourselves out with God (and it is not worth assuming that you or I will get that chance). But if we lived like that, in the light of our own death, and in the light of the final judgement, if we learnt to be honest with ourselves, others and God in the light of what he has said, we would know so much more peace in this world. And the great thing is that with God we do not need to pretend to be better than we really are - we can be completely honest, about our desires, our failures, our mistakes - and yes he may rebuke us but he will do it in love.