Facing the future - 2 Peter 3:11-18
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Facing the future- SJN. EP. 2.6.19
2 Peter 3:11-18
If you asked a member of Jo public for one word which for them would sum up heaven it would probably be the word ‘boring’. George Bernard Shaw, in his typically pugnacious way, captured what many people think when he said: ‘Heaven as conventionally conceived as a place so inane, so dull, so useless, so miserable that nobody would venture to describe a whole day in heaven, though plenty of people have described a day at the seaside.’ What are we to make of that?
Strictly speaking Shaw is, of course, correct-that is how heaven is conventionally conceived, as if all we will do all day is waft around on a cloud, clothed in a celestial negligee, strumming a golden harp. But that is not how the Bible presents our eternal future. Here in v13 the apostle Peter speaks of a ‘new heaven and a new earth’, which is not some shadow world but a world more substantial, more vibrant and entrancing than this one. The word translated ‘new’ doesn’t refer to a simple replacement of what you had previously, like swapping an old bike for a new one, rather is it is of a new kind, something so qualitatively different and wholly superior that any comparison is nigh on impossible to make. After all, how can we even begin to imagine a universe which according to verse 13, is soaked in righteousness? But that is what is coming down the line.
And maybe it was against that kind of background which either denied the life to come or conceived it as a shadowy existence that the false teachers of Peter’s day came to stress that real pleasure and genuine satisfaction are to be found in the here and now, in this world of flesh and desire. It is what has recently become known as the YOLO philosophy, ‘You Only Live Once’. It is a form of Epicureanism which was was captured on a tomb in the Middle East from this period which read, ‘I was nothing: I am nothing. So thou who art still alive, eat, drink and be merry.’ Well the false teachers were into all of that kind of thinking in spades according to chapter 2:13ff. And that does make some kind of sense actually. If this is all there is, then we need to squeeze as much out of life as we can in the short time available to us.
But such thinking is based upon a faulty premise - the premise which denies that history is heading somewhere- the Day of Judgement which will not only give meaning to our lives but will issue in a new universe where Christ is seen to be King. The kind of lifestyle being promoted by the false teachers and approved of by the world is, according to verse 10, going to be burned up in judgement. So why invest in that? It is like spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on kitting out your home and hours and hours in setting it up only to then pour a can of petrol over it and torching it. That is what we are in effect doing with our lives if we are not living for Christ according to his ways. You see, Peter’s main concern is not so much with the fate of unbelievers but the lives of believers v11, ‘Since all these things will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?’ In other words, what effect is the future to have on our living in the present; because Christians are always meant to be looking forward to the ultimate future- did you see that in v12; v13; and v14? Well according to Peter the future is to impact our present in three ways.
First, Christians are to be concerned with living and looking in a certain way, vv 11-13: ‘Since all these things will be destroyed, what kind of people ought you to be? [Here is the answer] You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.
Just as a bride looks forward to her wedding day not by sitting around watching the clock and the calendar but by getting herself ready, sending out the invitations, ordering the dress, arranging the guest list and so on, so the Christian is meant to be looking forward to the day of God by getting ready. A major part of this involves living lives which express holiness and godliness. A bride will make sure she looks her best for the groom; similarly Christians will be keen on being beautified by the Spirit, ready to meet their groom. And what motivates the bride to get ready? It is the thought of the wedding day. What motivates Christians to live differently? The thought of the Lord’s Day- we want to be ready for him. Well, at least I hope we do. There is a famous poem by the missionary C.T. Studd entitled ‘Only One Life’ which should be every Christian’s aspiration: ‘Two little lines I heard one day, Traveling along life’s busy way; Bringing conviction to my heart, And from my mind would not depart; Only one life, twill soon be past, Only what’s done for Christ will last. Only one life, yes only one, Soon will its fleeting hours be done; Then, in ‘that day’ my Lord to meet, And stand before His Judgement seat; Only one life, ’twill soon be past, Only what’s done for Christ will last.’ That is a perfect summary of what Peter is saying to us in this passage. So we have to ask: What are we making of our one life? What is it out of the vast range of things we are involved in at the moment which will actually last in a thousand, three thousand, a million years’ time in eternity? Because that is the perspective Peter is urging us to adopt in order to get our values right.
And by living like this, says Peter, you will actually hasten the coming of the Day of the Lord. How? Well, in verse 9 we were told that God delays his coming because of our sin and so giving people time to repent, which is also hinted at in 15, that ‘the Lord’s patience means salvation’-and so conversely by our obedience we encourage him to come. Of course we don’t hasten his coming in an absolute sense because according to Acts 1:7 that day has been fixed by the Father in heaven. But from our perspective on earth, as we fulfil the preconditions of Christ’s return, to preach the Gospel to all nations (Mk. 13:10) until the full number of the Gentiles who must come in before the end (Romans 11:25) - then the end is brought closer. Do we long to see Christ’s kingdom established which we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer? Then that prayer will only be answered if we commit ourselves to living godly lives and reaching out with the Gospel. So, be committed to living and looking for Christ.
Secondly, be committed to striving and submitting, vv 14-16. Take a look at verse 14, ‘So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this [that is a new heaven and earth in which righteousness dwells], make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace.’-full stop [‘with him’ is not in the original].
The righteousness we anticipate in the ‘new world’ is meant to precipitate personal righteousness in the ‘now world’. The other stuff is going to be burned up, what won’t be burned up but carried over will be deeds and characters which match that new world towards which we are heading.
Peter talks about ‘making every effort’ or ‘striving vigorously’ in order to be found ‘spotless’ and without ‘blemish’ and at ‘peace’. This contrasts markedly with the blots and blemishes of the false teachers of 2:13, stained by self-seeking and immorality and the divisions they cause in the church. It is not those who are seeking to uphold the biblical teachings who are the divisive ones, the awkward brigade, but those who wish to move away from it.
The plain fact is that you don’t get to be a mature Christian by being passive any more than you get awarded a green beret in the Marines by sitting at home watching telly- both require immense effort and self-discipline. If you want to avoid flab you watch your diet and take exercise, if you want to avoid spiritual flab you have to do the same and at the heart of it all is working hard at understanding and submitting to the Scriptures which is what verses 15-16 are about.
There are a number of things Peter says here which are so important for us to grasp if we are going to make any spiritual progress either as individuals or as a church.
First, the apostles are united in their belief, v 15, ‘Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom that God gave him.’ Peter talks of Paul as being a ‘dear brother’. He speaks of him engaging in teaching which is the result of God’s wisdom, teaching the very same things that Peter has been teaching in this letter, for example, Romans 2:4: "Do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" That is the same idea Peter has taught back in verse 9.
You see, one of the games false teachers like to engage in is playing off one apostle or part of Scripture against another. You don’t like something Paul says because it is too challenging, well, you try to hide behind another apostle you think is less challenging, although reading what they all have to say makes that rather difficult, but people to try to do it. No, the apostles present a united front because what they have to say comes from the same source- God.
Secondly, although what is written is God-given wisdom, it doesn’t mean that it is handed to us on a plate requiring no effort on our part. Peter admits that some of the things Paul says (and we might add, what Peter says) are hard to understand. The problem is not with what Paul has written, but our ability to get a handle on what he has written. Why is that? There are a number of reasons.
Sometimes we don’t understand a thing because we are too lazy to make the effort to understand it. So don’t go complaining that you find the Bible difficult if you don’t pay attention to the teaching you get here in church which helps you to understand or neglect reading Christian books which will expand and deepen your understanding. You can’t take in what Paul teaches by some kind of spiritual osmosis, opening a passage before you and hoping in some magical way it will make sense. Get out the different translations of the Bible and compare them, get out the commentaries and read them, come and talk to us as your teachers after the service or some other time but don’t be satisfied until you make progress.
Secondly, don’t expect to understand the difficult things if you have not spent time laying the foundations by understanding and applying the more simple things. You know, sometimes Christians become obsessive about a particular problem- the second coming, predestination, the question of Israel and they become so absorbed by those kinds of things that in the meantime they neglect getting on with basic Christian living and Christian service. Perhaps something needs doing in the church, but they won’t do it because they are spending so much time reading and debating these more obscure points of theology. Put first things first.
Thirdly, sometimes we don’t understand a thing because we are not mature enough, we need a little more time, a little more Christian reading and experience under our belt before we can tackle some of the more difficult stuff. So if you do come across something perplexing, don’t dismiss it with a ‘Paul got it wrong’ attitude- simply put in on hold, saying to yourself ‘I don’t understand it but God has taught it and I will accept it and I will come back to it later.’
The other thing thing to notice is how Peter puts Paul’s letters on the same level as the rest of the Bible, for he talks about ‘the other Scriptures’ in v 16. The apostles are not just interesting people with the occasional insight which we can dip into when it takes our fancy; they are in the same category as the writers of the Old Testament whom Peter reminded us in chapter 1 are people whose words had a divine origin as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. The same applies to the apostles. If you defy or deny what they are saying, you are defying and denying what God is saying which is a monstrous thing to do. Of course this is what people do according to verse 16, folk who are ‘ignorant’ -know nothing, but think they know everything refusing to listen to those who do know something, and so are ‘unstable’- all over the place in their belief and behaviour as they ‘distort’ the Scriptures. The word used is from twisting rope or torturing on a rack, taking something Paul says and twisting it out of shape so that it is almost unrecognisable.
You know I have read theological articles which manage to get Paul to say the exact opposite of what he does say which is quite an achievement when you think about it. Let me give you just one example. In Romans 1:26 Paul writes, ‘God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way men abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another.’ A writer in an Anglican Evangelical journal, discussing the term ‘nature’ or ‘phusis’ in Greek, writes about what Paul says here like this, ‘Because it uses a moral argument based on the Greek phusis, Paul’s reasoning in verse 26f means that in our different empirical and moral setting we can come to a different conclusion in the specific case of homosexual relationships. We can thus remain faithful to the deep argument of Paul’s text….’ In other words, taking what Paul says at face value we would naturally conclude that homosexual acts are ruled out of court, but when we take into account that we are living in a different time and setting to Paul we can come to the exact opposite conclusion of Paul while at the same time claiming we are remaining faithful to his ‘deeper’ meaning. That, my friends is twisting Scripture 2 Peter 3 style- big time! And as Scott mentioned last week there are churches here in Hull doing precisely that and so are to be avoided for the reason Pete is about to explain.
Truth twisting has a dreadful consequence- viz. destruction. People who do this kind of thing end up destroying. They destroy themselves as they move away from the faith and end up being condemned by God on the Day of Judgement, and if they teach it to others they are liable to destroy them too. This is why we make such a big thing of being faithful to the Bible at St Johns; we are not playing games- because we know people’s lives are at stake.
Finally we are to be in the business of guarding and growing, v17ff, ‘Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever!’
They say to be forewarned is to be forearmed- that is the point Peter is making. He wants Christians to be protected from error so that they can grow in truth- even when he and the other Bible writers have been long gone and buried- the truth lives on in the Scriptures and it remains true regardless of changing opinions and philosophical fashions. I remember seeing some graffiti in Oxford which read: ‘God is dead- Nietzsche’ and underneath someone had written, ‘Nietzsche is dead- God.’ That gets it about right!
We must always be on our guard against error. This is not just erroneous ideas but dodgy practices which flow from them- lawlessness, the abandonment of God’s design for human beings. And the false teachers will almost invariably be clever communicators and charming people who seem so reasonable. That is why we have to be on our guard, if it were so obvious then we wouldn’t have to be so vigilant. The simple fact is that no matter what theological pedigree someone has (he used to be an evangelical), no matter how clever their arguments are, if what is being presented to us is out of line with the teaching of the Bible and 2,000 years of thought-out Christian teaching arising from the Bible-you don’t give their ideas the time of day because the result is that you could lose your security in Christ- and that is too great a risk to take.
Nonetheless, making sure you are free from error isn’t enough, as it isn’t enough to be free from disease, you still need to grow- grow in what? ‘the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.’ As you grow in knowledge of him then you grow in grace through him and as you grow in grace, you grow in knowledge - they feed each other in a never ending cycle.
Let me ask: who do think wrote these words: ‘ I do not think in the last 40 years I have lived one conscious hour that has not be influences by our Lord’s return.’ It was Anthony Ashley Cooper, better known as Lord Shaftesbury. That man probably did more to improve the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged than any other single person in the 19th century. He tirelessly sought to reform the treatment of the insane, pioneered legislation against exploitation of labour in factories, sponsored low-cost urban housing and free education for destitute children. Do you see how his view of the future affected his life in the present and as a result countless others too? He didn’t want to waste his one life, he knew that what mattered, mattered, for he knew what was to be lasting and what was to be burned up. That new car, that new house, even that university degree, will not last; they belong to the old order and will be destroyed along with it. What will go on into the new world? The answer: character. Holy lives designed to live in a holy world. That is our future and we have to start preparing for it now.
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