Scoffers in the Last Days
A verse by verse Bible study in 2 Peter 3
Few subjects have grasped the interest of the Christian more than that of the return of Jesus Christ. This was as true in the early church as it is today. The Apostle Paul dealt with it extensively in his letters to the Thessalonians. It was a major theme in the Apostle Johns vision of Revelation on the Isle of Patmos. In our study here, the Apostle Peter shows equal interest in the subject.
Stirring Up Pure Minds--Verses 1 and 2
This second epistle, beloved, I now write unto you; in both which I stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance: that ye may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us the apostles of the Lord and Savior.
Peters opening sentence in this chapter demonstrates what should be the object of all Christian communication. It is a two-fold object, both to stimulate pure thought and to direct attention to the words of the Bible. This was the object of both of Peters epistles. In the first, he dealt with the sufferings of the Christian, and how submission to those sufferings would eventuate in salvation. The subject of the second epistle is the certainty of the Lords return. Although he only deals with this in this third chapter, he precedes it by establishing the authority of the scriptures in the first chapter and warning of false teachers who bring other doctrines in the second chapter.
While Peters object is to stimulate their pure minds, his method is to bring things they knew to their remembrance. In this he is emulating the method by which God instructs through the holy spirit. "But the Comforter, which is the holy spirit whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you" (John 14:26).
Writing before there was a New Testament, he nevertheless anticipates it by calling attention to two sources for this remembered knowledge: the prophets and the words of Jesus. The King James translation somewhat clouds the issue in the second verse. Most other reliable translations follow the Greek in attributing the "commandments" here to "the Lord and Savior" and not to the apostles. He is the author of them. The apostles were only the channel for their communication.
The inspired author carefully chooses the word "commandments." These are not mere suggestions. They are precepts to be acted upon. Strongs Concordance defines the word as "an authoritative prescription." Thayer defines it as "an injunction that is prescribed to one by reason of his office," "a prescribed rule by which a thing is done." He further states that it is used ethically of "the commandments in Mosaic law or Jewish tradition." In other words, Peter is stating that the words he is about to write are not his own but have divine authority and are not given for mere information but are to be acted upon.
Scoffers--Verses 3 to 7
Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation. For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: but the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.
Before beginning his discussion of the "day of the Lord," Peter continues his theme of the previous chapter by warning of false teachers. The Greek is even stronger than most translations, preceding the noun "scoffers" with the adjective "mocking." The intensity of Peters distaste for these teachers is shown by his accusation that they are "willingly ignorant" of relevant facts. It is impossible to know to which specific group of false teachers he refers. There were many of them. While the canonical New Testament contains four gospels, there were more than fifty apocryphal gospels circulating amongst the early church, according to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.
The specific challenge of these false teachers is, "Where is the promise of his coming (Greek parousia, [presence])?" The probable meaning is "Where is his promised coming?"
The support for this challenge is that "all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation." Jesus encountered such skepticism at his first advent. His rebuke to such skeptics is found in Matthew 16:3: "O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?" The "signs of the times" in his day were the various miracles he performed and the fact that the gospel was even preached to the poor (Matt. 11:4, 5). His second advent was to be likewise accompanied by specific "signs," many of which he outlined in his Olivet sermon, found in chapters 24 and 25 of the Gospel of Matthew.
The fact that Peter is directing attention to the scoffers of the second advent is supported both by his reference to these being in "the last days" and by the later verses of the chapter which describe the work of the second advent.
The reference to their being ignorant of the lesson of the flood of Noahs day appears to be drawn from the Lords words in Matthew 24:37-39, "But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be." The point of emphasis is on the unawareness of the ending of the first world being parallel to a similar unawareness of the return of Christ. Peter charges that the refusal to be on the alert for the indications of that return was "willingly" and deliberate. The connection with Noah can also be deduced from the prophecy of Enoch found in Jude 14-16.
The title of James Baldwins best seller on the black separatist movement, The Fire Next Time, is drawn from verse 7. His title is appropriate, though it will be not only racial tensions but the inequities in all of the areas of society that will occasion the eruption symbolized by the "fire" of this verse.
It is significant that he uses the illustration of fire to describe the closing scenes of the present age. It would seem at first more logical to use the parallelism of saying that as the old world ended in a flood so would the new world similarly end in a flood. However such would have been an offense to his readers who may well have remembered Gods promise to never send a flood again (Gen. 9:11); though Isaiah did use such a figure of speech (Isa. 28:15-18).
There may be yet another reason for the change of metaphor. Many (perhaps the majority) of those destroyed in the flood were born as a result of an illegal hybridization of the race, being the children of angelic fathers and human mothers. As a result of being an unauthorized race they could expect no resurrection from the dead. In contrast, those who may love their lives in the conflagration which ends the present age will all come back from the grave to receive their trial and judgment in Christs kingdom (John 5:28, 29). Fire, as contrasted to a flood, could convey this thought for fire is a symbol of purgation as well as destruction.
Another interesting word play is employed by Peters choice of the words translated "kept in store" and "reserved." The Greek for the expression "kept in store" is thesaurizo (from which we derive the English "thesaurus"), meaning a treasure house, or to lay up as treasure. (Note its use in Matt. 6:19, 20; 1 Cor. 16:2; and James 5:3.) The Greek word translated "reserved" is a stronger term than merely to delay an action, but implies an active guardianship. Both Professors Strong and Thayer define the word as meaning "to guard." The picture thus drawn is of a wise Creator treasuring the experiences which man learns through his life under evil influences and guarding, or protecting, the status quo until the fullness of the lessons are learned. It is, as the Lord answered Job out of the storm, "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed" (Job 38:11).
Though the heavenly Father has been protecting the nations from their own destruction for the present (see Rom. 13:1 and John 19:11), great will be the fall thereof when that protection is withdrawn. It will indeed be a day of both judgment and perdition. Here, too, the words are carefully chosen. The nations will both receive a fair and equitable judgment, or crisis as the Greek word would have it, and the effect of the negative judgment, which is the thought of the word "perdition." There is, perhaps, a tendency of some to place too much emphasis on this word "perdition," as though it always means a destruction from which there is no relief. While the word can be used of the second death from which there is no release, it is also used of Adamic condemnation. In Matthew 7:13, for instance, it is used as the terminus of the "broad road" upon which the entire race is walking. (Note also its use in Rom. 9:22.)
The ones being thus judged are the "ungodly." These are not limited to those who do wickedness but to all who disregard God and his laws. Their fate is not necessarily eternal death, for, as we read in Romans 5:6, "Christ died for the ungodly."
The Day of the Lord--Verses 8 to 10
But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.
Peter extends the thought of the willing ignorance of the scoffers to the warning of the believers against similar disregard of the facts. By reminding his readers that the day of the Lord is not a 24-hour period, but a lengthy term, he suggests that not all expectations of that period will come at one time. Rather, there would be a gradual onset, much as the rising sun gradually makes its presence known.
The apostle is not here asserting that the day of the Lord is precisely one thousand years. That may very well be true and appears indicated in Revelation 20:1-6. Here, however, Peter contents himself with a generality by stating that the day is "as," or "about," one thousand years.
The Greek word hos, translated "as" in the King James Bible is open to a broad variety of meanings. However, as Professor W. E. Vine notes in his Expository Dictionary, "when the word is used with numbers, it signifies about." He then cites a number of examples where this Greek word is used. The Gadarene swine that drove themselves into the sea was about 2000 (Mark 5:13). Those who ate the feast that Jesus prepared from the loaves and fishes were about 4000 (Mark 8:9). Jesus invited Andrew and his companion disciple to stop with him about the tenth hour (John 1:39). The disciples had rowed about twenty five or thirty furlongs when Jesus came walking on the sea (John 6:19). Bethany was about fifteen furlongs from Jerusalem (John 11:18). The disciples gathered before Pentecost number about one hundred twenty (Acts 1:15). When the Revelator saw the seventh seal opened there was silence in heaven for about a half-hour (Rev. 8:1).
Noting the length of the period, the apostle exhorts against discouragement. "Hope deferred maketh the heart sick" (Prov. 13:12). Gods reckoning of time is different from that of man. When a thousand years are as one day, then the average life span is only an hour or two. It is this seeming delay that caused the prophet Habakkuk to write, "For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry" (2:3).
In our day we see these same tendencies are prevalent. Some tend to look at the Lords return as a single event, a rapture with a world-wide recognition of a change in world conditions. The Bible, on the contrary, indicates a more gradual event, as the "Sun of Righteousness" gradually dawns on the horizon.
The reason for this "day of the Lord" being so long is then revealed by Peter. It has two purposes. It is an example of the longsuffering of God, first "us-ward," to the church, to give them sufficient time to make their "calling and election sure." But, beyond that, it is for the purpose of dealing with all of mankind, the dead as well as the living, for God is "not willing that any should perish, but come to repentance."
The analogy of the "thief in the night" captures both the suddenness of his coming and its unexpected manner. This metaphor was first used by Jesus himself (Luke 12:39-41), and picked up by the Apostles Paul (1 Thess. 5:2) and John (Rev. 3:3; 16:15) as well as Peter.
But though the onset of this day is sudden and not anticipated, the effects will be felt worldwide. It will accomplish a complete dissolution of the present world order and its replacement with a "new heavens and a new earth." Peter uses intensive words to describe the completeness of this dissolution. It will be accompanied by "great noise" and the elements shall melt with "fervent heat," resulting in their being utterly "burned up." The present religious ("heavens") and civil ("earth") orders of society will be completely done away with in preparation for the new kingdom of peace and justice for all.
The "elements" refer not to physical components of the universe, but to the basic principles upon which present society is based. The base concepts of "might makes right" and "survival of the fittest" will have no place in the new government that considers the rights and dignity of all peoples.
Practical Effects--Verses 11 to 14
Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless.
The effect of this knowledge about the utter dissolution of earths society should not be discouragement or fear but stimulation to a more devout and godly life. Realizing the possible shortness of our time on earth should be an incentive to prove all the more faithful and to finish the work that God has given us to do. The exhortation is not so much to work and activity, though, as it is to holiness and purity of conduct. The Greek word translated "conversation" (anastrepho, Strongs 390) is not limited to what comes out of our mouth but the entire manner of behavior, our conduct in life. The prefix ana in this word suggests a turning back, and answers to the "repentance" of verse nine. The proper course for all has always been "repent and be converted" (Acts 3:19), not only showing sorrow for past misdeeds but also changing ones course in life so as not to repeat past mistakes.
The Christian is admonished to not only "look for" this promised day, but also to "haste its coming." The word "unto" is not supported in the Greek, though the thought may be there. Although the American Standard Version translates the phrase "eagerly desiring," most translators follow the usual usage of the word as indicating the hastening or speeding up of its arrival.
This raises a serious question. Can man change Gods timetables? Can he truly hasten any feature of Gods plan? The answer seems obvious: No! We suggest that the statement is not to be taken in a strict literal sense but as an admonition to work diligently towards the end of speeding its arrival. The blessings of that day cannot commence until the church is complete. The church cannot be completed until each of its members proves faithful. Therefore giving diligence to such faithfulness is, as it were, a hastening of the promised blessings that day will bring.
The specifics of this "holy conversation and godliness" are given in verse fourteen, "that ye may be found in peace, without spot and blameless in his sight." The peace here referred to is that peace of mind that comes from doing that which is right. This gives one confidence of a favorable judgment by God. The encouraged action is to live a life as pure as possible so that one is neither defiled nor can be justly so accused by others. This is to be done with "diligence." The word for diligence is from the same root as the word "hasting" in verse twelve and illustrates how we can do this hastening in a practical way.
Pauls Concurrence--Verses 15 and 16
And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.
The seeming delay of the "day of the Lord" gives each Christian ample opportunity to show his faithfulness and to learn the lessons from his daily experiences.
Peter cites Paul as being in complete agreement with his arguments. This statement indicates either that the epistles of the apostles had broad circulation in the early church or that there were epistles that have been lost. Paul speaks most directly of these issues in his letters to the Thessalonians. Peter is writing his second letter to the same church as his first (2 Peter 3:1), and that was directed to the Christians in what is now north central Turkey (1 Peter 1:1), a long way from Thessalonica in Greece. Only the epistles to Colossae and Galatia were in the vicinity of Peters audience. Peters reference to Paul also shows the high regard he had for his fellow apostle, despite the fact that they had had a face to face confrontation in Antioch (Gal. 2:11), an example for all Christians who may sometimes have differences with each other. While Peter shows his respect for Paul, at the same time he suggests that Pauls complex logic was frequently misinterpreted and given meanings other than Paul intended.
Final Admonitions--Verses 17 and 18
Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own stedfastness. But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and for ever. Amen.
To be forewarned is to be forearmed. This adage is the essence of Peters closing remarks. The Living Bible phrases it well, "I am warning you ahead of time, dear brothers, so that you can watch out and not be carried away by the mistakes of these wicked men, lest you yourselves become mixed up too."
Peter concludes his epistle by encouraging his readers to grow in both grace and knowledge. Either without the other makes for an unbalanced and unstable character. Both are needed, both must be diligently developed.