Back to the future - 2 Peter 3:1-13
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
One of the films that is in the cinemas at the moment is a film called Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The film stars Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet who play two people called Joel and Clementine. The two characters happen to meet at a friend's BBQ and fall in love. But Joel and Clementine are total opposites, and whilst at first the relationship is fun and unpredictable, later it gets bitter and the differences between the two end in a painful split. In fact things get so bitter, that Clementine decides she will undergo a memory erasure procedure of all the memories of Joel she has, a procedure performed by a company called Lacuna Incorporated. And when Joel finds this out he is so disturbed that he too decides to undergo this procedure. And the rest of the film is an emotional trawl through Joel's memory as he pays others to erase the memories of his one time lover Clementine. Now if it sounds bizarre that is because it is, but it certainly raises some interesting questions about memories. And one of the questions that the film raises is whether we would truly want all our memories erased of a particular individual, or event, or if in fact we want to hang on to them. At the very least, it reminds us that memories are very important to us and forgetfulness is a very dangerous and scary prospect.
And it is remembering and forgetfulness that are at the heart of this little letter of 2 Peter that we have been studying together in our evening services. Back in chapter 1, we saw that Peter gave his reason for writing. There in verse 12 he said: "I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. I think it is right to refresh your memory." And in verse 1 of our passage, Peter again tells us that he is writing to remind us of something. He says: "Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking." So what is it that Peter wants to remind us? Verse 2 gives us the answer. "I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Saviour through your apostles." In other words he is writing to remind us of the teaching of the prophets of the OT and the apostles of the NT, their commands. We need to be prompted to remember the Bible's teaching.
Now we might be tempted to ask why? It may seem obvious to us that we need to keep remembering the teaching of the Bible. Why does Peter need to remind us? Well because in Peter's day, as we saw last week from chapter 2, there were some very serious problems. False teachers had come into the church and were pedalling false teaching. And in chapter 3 Peter tackles a particular problem. It is the denial of the teaching that Jesus will return in judgement. And Peter is telling us that we need to keep remembering this teaching on Jesus' return. If in verse 5 the false teachers deliberately forget key truths, then we in verse 8 must not. We need to remember.
Now we need to pause here to think what the Bible means when it talks about remembering. To our mind to remember something simply means to bring it to mind. If you've lost your keys, you need a memory jogger to remind you where they are. And we might think that Peter is just giving us a memory jogger about the return of the Lord Jesus. OK, sometimes we forget, so let's have a bit of a prod so we don't forget. Actually remembering in the Bible is much more dynamic than that. Remembering means recalling what God did in the past and then acting in the present in the light of that past action. Take our Communion services for example. Jesus says that they are remembrance meals. But he doesn't just mean jog your memory on what Jesus has done, as if we would forget. Rather he means remember what I have done for you and continue in the present trusting what was achieved for you in the past. Live in the present in the light of the past event. It's not that we are likely to forget the cross, or let it slip our mind, although sometimes we might. We are though much more likely to stop trusting the cross, and begin to trust ourselves. That's why we need that remembrance meal to help us to keep trusting that past event in the present battle. It's like a wedding anniversary. Ours is the 21st August, and I need to keep remembering that date! Why? Because I'll forget? Well possibly. But more importantly as I look back to that historical event when I made those promises, then I am reminded that I need to live differently in the present in the light of that past event. I must continue to love my wife sacrificially and not spend all my time with other women! Recalling the past helps me to live faithfully in the present.
And so Peter says to us: Remember what you were taught. Remember the apostles' teaching and live accordingly in the present time. Don't be swayed by the false teachers. Don't be put off by the scoffers and mockers who constantly have a go at the Christian faith. No remember and press on. That's Peter's message for us today. And it's specifically the second coming of Jesus that Peter reminds us of here in chapter. And when we see remembering as much more than simply jogging our memory, then we see that the challenge is much more pointed. Because Peter is asking us a very important question: Are you someone whose life is shaped by this future event? Are you someone whose priorities and decisions are controlled by the return of Christ? Or are you someone who has forgotten it, whose life decisions and priorities tell a different story. Because what we think and believe about the future affects the way we live in the present. And that's why we need to remember. So let's turn to these verses and see what Peter teaches us. Three things that he reminds us of in verses 3-13:
1) Remember God's Promise (Vv 3-7)
2) Remember God's Character (Vv 8-10)
3) Remember God's Challenge (Vv 11-13)
1) Remember God's Promise (Vv 3-7)
So first Peter says to us remember God's promise. And the promise is about the coming of Jesus Christ in verse 4. It's the promise of Jesus' return to judge the world. It's the one promise that he has yet to fulfil. And if he has kept all the others, then we can be sure he'll keep this one. But Peter says that the false teachers mock this promise of God. In fact, he says, they are marked by two characteristics.
a) They are Scoffers- First they are scoffers in verses 3-4: "First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, 'Where is this 'coming' he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.'" This is what will happen in the last days, says Peter. Scoffers will come scoffing against God's truth. The last days are that period of time between Jesus' first coming and his return. So we are in the last days. And there are people like that today aren't there. Certainly outside the church, and sadly many within the church too would have a laugh at the Christian's expense on this issue. They think that Christians are simply deluded to think of Jesus returning to judge the world. It's as daft, they say, as cults believing that a space ship is hiding behind a comet and will take you away to some paradise somewhere in the universe. "Come on, they say. It's laughable. Where is this coming Jesus spoke of. He's not coming back. Get a life." And do you notice the reason they give for this disbelief in verse 4: "Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation." Things don't change they say. In fact nothing's changed for two thousand years since Abraham our father's time. Why do you think it's going to change now? It's very contemporary isn't it? Nowadays people talk about the chain of cause and effect in a universe governed by natural law. You cannot have things like a second coming in that sort of universe can you? I mean we're 21st century rational people aren't we? Come on, get real. We're enlightened by science! Isn't that what many of our friends would say? And in that sort of world view there is no place for the miraculous.
Thomas Jefferson had that opinion. In the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC in the States, there is a leather bound book which belonged to Thomas Jefferson, the second president of the United States. And in this book he pasted all the passages from the gospels which had no miraculous element in them. That was the Bible that Jefferson read. In his own mind, he had shut off the possibility that the supernatural could take place. He put his faith in the laws of nature and came to the conclusion that what he saw was in fact reality. The trouble is that it fails to appreciate that scientific laws simply explain what is observed. They cannot predict what will happen in every given circumstance. Nor can they account for a God who made the world bending the laws for his purposes. But the false teachers scoff, and still today people scoff. Where is this coming, they say?
b) They are Forgetful- But not only are they scoffers, they are also forgetful. Because these false teachers of Peter's day forget that God has actually acted in history already in the most dramatic way. Verse 5: "But they deliberately forget that long ago by God's word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed." Peter says they wilfully choose to ignore the fact that God created the world by his powerful word. By God's word the heavens existed, he says. And if that isn't proof enough of God's power, they also forget that God has already acted in judgement on the world in a cataclysmic way once before, in the great flood. Peter is saying this: OK, you don't believe God can act in judgement? Well you've forgotten that God has done it before. Don't you remember the story of the flood he says? Remember the story of Noah, no Sunday School myth, but a real historical event, he says. Do you remember that? God told Noah to build a boat so he could be saved. But did anyone else believe him? Answer, no. Even in Noah's day they didn't believe. You can imagine the scene can't you? Noah's building a boat miles from any serious water. And all he gets is stick. "Why the boat Noah? Going fishing are we? Flood? We've not had rain round here for months." So when the rain comes, what do they say? "Could be a coincidence. It'll do the garden good." Day 2, still rain. "Just one of those things. After all we need a fair bit for the new lawn?" But after a week, people are getting worried. And within a few more, everyone is wiped out because they refuse to heed the warnings. There was total destruction. And only Noah and his family who had trusted God were saved. And Peter's conclusion? Verse 7: "By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men." God's done it once. And in fact he's done it many times in history though in smaller ways. And he'll do it again. Except this time it won't be with water. It'll be with fire and it will be final. Remember, he's saying. God will not be mocked. He has acted in history, but the false teachers choose to wilfully ignore that.
And if anyone here ignores that fact, then you do you do so at your peril. Because Jesus is coming back, make no mistake. The coming judgement is as real as the judgement of the flood. It will happen sooner or later. You can scoff all you like, says Peter, but it's going to happen. Because God has promised it. And let's face who would you rather trust? Men and women with all their frailties and faults and limited knowledge, shaking their puny fists at God saying it's not going to happen? Or God, who created the universe with one word saying it will?
So if you are in any doubt about Jesus' return or you are really wondering whether it's going to happen, then be in no doubt whatsoever. He will return because God has promised it. And I can think of not one instance in history where God has failed to keep a promise. So are you ready? Are you in a position to meet God face to face. Could you stand before him tonight with a clear conscience knowing your sin is forgiven and dealt with? Well if not, then I urge you to get it sorted. Come to the cross when you can find forgiveness. Because it's only through Jesus that you can face judgement day with confidence. And that day will come when Jesus returns. Don't be fooled by the scoffers. Remember God's promise.
2) Remember God's Character (Vv 8-10)
But Peter's next lesson is to remember God's character in verse 8-10. And Peter tells us two things about God's character which we must remember lest we fall into the false teacher's trap. For whilst the false teachers deliberately forget, Peter tells us Christians not to forget.
a) God is Patient- And the first characteristic of God we need to remember is that he is patient. Verses 9-10: "But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." Because for many people, the fact that Jesus has not returned is a real question mark over God's promise keeping ability. I mean it's been so long hasn't it? Has God forgotten? Is Jesus ever going to return? Well Peter's answer to that is that God is Lord of time and he is very patient. See how God measures time. To him a thousand years are like a day, and a day is like a thousand years. On the one hand God has a perspective over time that we do not have. He can see the beginning from the end. Like an author writing a book, God looks at the bigger picture. So to him a thousand years is nothing. In that time scale, Jesus came last Friday, Moses last Wednesday lunchtime, and Abraham, on Wednesday just after breakfast. Puts it into perspective doesn't it? And God is also able to view time with an intensity we lack. He can examine one day as if it were a thousand years. He can delve so deeply into that day that to us it would be a thousand years? Why? Because God is eternal. The psalm Peter quotes, Psalm 90 also says this about God: "From everlasting to everlasting you are God." God is eternal. That's his perspective on time. So don't be fooled into thinking Jesus will not come back. From the perspective of eternity, 2000 years is nothing!
But why is God taking his time? Well it's not because he has forgotten his promise. It's because he is patient, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. God delays because he longs for more and more to come to know him. I for one am grateful that God did not return in 1979, because in 1980 I became a Christian. And that is why today is a great day to repent. Because you do not know what tomorrow will bring. God is still being patient today. And let us rejoice in that. But you cannot presume that tomorrow will happen. Why? Because of what Peter says next.
b) God is just- But that won't last forever, because God is also just. And there will be a day of reckoning. Verse 10: "But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare." The original is very emphatic at this point. Literally Peter writes: "It will come, this day." Yes God is patient, but there will be a time when he will act in judgement. It's like a thief. Thieves don't leave calling cards. They don't usually ring and tell you they are coming. All you find when you get home is a big mess and your possessions gone. When it happened to our family some years ago, none of us knew that that day would be the day. I just got home and found the mess. And I did what any sensible seventeen year old would do in that situation. I picked up my baseball bat and went round the house looking for the burglar! It's the suddenness of the coming that Peter is highlighting. It will happen. And when it does, it will reveal everything. There will be no hiding place. Everything will be laid bare. For God is just and he will leave no stone unturned on judgement day. So do you still doubt it will happen? Well remember God's character. He is patient, yes. Longing for everyone to repent. But that is no reason to take his patience for granted. For he is also just. Time will eventually run out, sooner or later. Remember God's character.
3) Remember God's Challenge (Vv 11-13)
But the last thing Peter says to us in this passage is to remember God's challenge. Because you can say you believe all you like that God keeps his promises and that he's patient and just and will come again in the person of Jesus. You can recite the creed every week and say that Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. But if you don't act on it, then you show you don't really believe it, or at the least you don't really care about it. How you live in the present is a reflection of what you think about the future. Now for most people, thinking about the future breeds one of three reactions. One reaction is hedonism, putting pleasure before everything else. One ancient tombstone put it like this: "I was nothing; I am nothing; so you who are still alive, eat, drink and be merry." That's a very common reaction today isn't? I remember reading a quote from a young man speaking after September 11th who said that in the light of the uncertainty of the world, knowing he could be blown up tomorrow, he was going to make the most of life and eat, drink and be merry. Another reaction is apathy. How do we know where we are going? Why bother anyway? And a third reaction is despair. If we don't know what the future holds, then all is lost!
But the Christian replies with neither of those reactions, neither hedonism, apathy or despair. See how Peter puts it in verse 11: "Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness." The Christian is to act in a way which illustrates he is heading for another place. We have a new home. We are looking forward to a new world which God will renew, a new heaven and a new earth. It's the home of righteousness, a place where everything is good and reflects God's perfect character. And if we have trusted in Jesus' death for us on the cross, then we too can have a place in God's new world. And it will be a wonderful place to be. But in the meantime, how are we to live? As citizens of that new land. We ought to live holy and godly lives as we look forward to that future. And Peter says we can speed that day's coming by the way we live our lives. In other words we can work towards that day as we proclaim the gospel and seek to win more people to Jesus. So how you live in the present reflects what you think of the future. Or to turn it round, your future hope shapes your present life.
So Peter asks us a very simple question. Does that future hope affect your present life? Can you honestly say that your life, your priorities, your finances, your attitudes, your relationships, are they shaped by this future hope? Sometimes I ask myself this question: Just how different am I to the people that live next door to me, my non Christian neighbours? Is there any obvious difference to the way I live? It's not that I want to see I am better than them. Rather I serve the King of Kings. I'm looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth. So is it obvious in the lifestyle decisions I make, how I spend my time, my money, how I use my gifts? If not, then my future destination has had no impact on me at all. We ought to live godly lives in the light of that future hope, says Peter. We are looking forward to a new heavens and a new earth. Can you say that of yourself? Because surely if you believe what Peter says about the future, the awful horror of the day of judgement and the wonderful hope of God's new universe, then you will live differently. If you believed that there was a bomb planted somewhere in St. John's, then you would react accordingly. You would take action. You get as many people out of the building as possible. And yet when it comes to the far more serious issue of Jesus coming again, so often we Christians are characterised by the attitudes of the world. Perhaps we're characterised by hedonism- more interested in material gain, than the gospel. Apathy- well does it really matter, is it really that serious? Or most terrible of all- despair. What good is it? After all the world is sliding into chaos! But each of those attitudes need to be repented of. Each of them show a total lack of trust in God as the Lord and Saviour. Rather we can be confident of God's promise and we are commanded to live gospel lives in that light of that future certainty. And that is what Peter means by remembering. We are to remember these things and then to live in the light of them.
A few weeks ago in the morning service, I mentioned that a friend of mine had lost his wife in a car crash. In many ways it was an awful tragedy. And yet at the memorial service a week ago, there were some quite incredible words spoken by my friend. As he spoke he reminded us of the fragility of life, so tragically illustrated in his wife's death, and then he gave us this challenge. He said to Christians. "[My wife's] death asks us this question. Will we live life for God knowing that our time is short, living with God's priorities in mind? Will we devote ourselves totally to his service in all we do? Or will we waste the time, the gifts and the life that God has given us." And to those not yet Christians he gave this challenge: "Will you make sure you get your life sorted out with God before it's too late. We don't know how long we have. It may be seven more days or seven more decades. But one day it will end, or Jesus will return. And you will stand before God. So are you ready?" And he spoke saying that that was what his wife would have wanted to say had she been there to say it. Incredible confidence and courage isn't it? That service made me realise once again how fragile human life is, and yet also just how powerful the certain hope of the gospel is when you stare death in the face like my friend is doing. My friend has absolute confidence that Jesus has defeated death, and that there is much more to come. That is what happens when you take the gospel hope seriously as he has done, when you believe the promises of God. You know death is not the end when you trust in Christ. And yet you know there is much to be done on this earth if you truly believe what Peter says here about he future. Everything will one day be destroyed, he says. Will you take up the challenge in the meantime?
You see it's one thing to remember, quite another to act. And Peter calls us in this passage to a remembrance which is active, which lives in the present in the light of the certain future. So remember God's promise. Remember God's character. And remember God's challenge.
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