Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Second Pass at This Week's Bible Lessons: Second Peter 3:8-15a

I've decided to use both this text from Second Peter and the Gospel lesson appointed for the Second Sunday in Advent this year, Matthew 1:18-25, as the basis for our worship and the message on December 4. There are good reasons for this, which I probably will get into in a post tomorrow.

In this post, I'm going to do a verse-by-verse survey of Second Peter 3:8-15a. This will reflect both my own observations and what I've read so far on the text.

v. 8: First, the writer asserts that God's reckoning of time is different from our own. This would have been an important and reassuring fact for the letter's original addressees. As you'll recall from my discussion here, the first recipients of the letter were troubled by what's called the delayed parousia, the seeming slowness the risen Jesus was taking about returning to the earth. The common assumption of Jesus' earliest followers was that He would return in their lifetimes.

Peter's reminder echoes Psalm 90:4:
For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.
Another Old Testament passage lurking in the background of verse 8 (and verse 9) is probably Isaiah 30:18:
Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore He will rise up to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all who wait for Him.
In other words, God's seeming delays can be seen as acts of mercy, a point underscored in the next verse.

This verse seems to begin a new segment of Second Peter's argument against false teachers. Back in verse 5, the writer accuses these teachers of "deliberately" ignoring the word of God. Here, the false teachers are accused of ignoring God's frame of reference regarding time (and how it might be used for our good) being different from our own.

v. 9: Christ isn't being slow about His return, only patiently affording people the opportunity to turn from sin (repent) and have a saving relationship with Him.

Scholars point out that similar statements about God's patience and His desire for relationships with us can be found in Joel 2:12-14; Jonah 4:2; Romans 2:4; 13:11; First Timothy 2:4; and Revelation 2:21.

v. 10: This passage employs the very description used by Jesus of how His return will seem for the world, like the intrusion of a thief, as found in Matthew 24:43-44 and Luke 12:39-40. Also see First Thessalonians 5:2; Revelation 3:3; 16:15.

The verse also says that everything that we have done on this planet will be revealed. We would all be crushed by the shame of our deeds and thoughts were it not for the fact that through Jesus Christ, we are saved from death, the consequence of our sins, as an act of charity (grace) on God's part.

v.11: Since the world is to be dissolved, the writer rhetorically asks, how are we to live each day? We're to live lives of "holiness and godliness."

To be "holy" is to be set apart, special, even weird, different, against the grain, subversive. The values of people who have surrendered to Jesus Christ are meant to be different. Some of what that means:
  • Putting the interests of God and others ahead of our own;
  • Being secure enough in who we are as children of God that we don't need to prove ourselves;
  • Being secure enough in who we are as children of God that we're freed to be unique, some would say, iconoclastic;
  • Fighting for just treatment of everybody, even people society deems marginal or unpopular, especially the poor.
To be godly means to attempt to conform our lives to the expectations, calls, and commandments of the God Who made us. We do this not to earn God's love and forgiveness. None of us is capable of being good enough to earn God's approval.

We do it in grateful response to the approval with which God has already blanketed the human race through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We can refuse this approval by spurning the God we know in Jesus. (Check out John 3:16-18) But it's available to all.

To lead godly and holy lives doesn't mean that we're perfect. And it most emphatically does not mean being judgmental or legalistic; Jesus repeatedly condemned such pseudo-holiness. It means to joyfully and humbly accept the grace of God and to ask God to help us live lives that display that gratitude through love for Him and love for others. It means to grow in our confident dependence on Christ and His capacity to refashion us into the people God has made us to be and who we want to be.

v. 12: The word sometimes translated as hastening would be better rendered earnestly desiring.

This is especially the case because in some sick interpretations of Christian belief, there is a notion that human beings can force Christ to return to the world sooner, as though God isn't sovereign or act on His own timetable.

Christians await Christ's return with longing, just as in Old Testament times God's people longed for things like their own land, the end of their exile, and the coming of the Messiah.

v. 13: To me, this passage contains an awesome promise, which John Eldredge addresses beautifully in his fantastic book, The Journey of Desire. Like Eldredge, I hate the thought of losing things like the Grand Canyon, the plains of Kansas, the Great Lakes, the foothills of the Appalachians in eastern Ohio, the mountains of Colorado, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, and so on. Earth has been my God-given home and God created it good, even though it and all of creation now groans under the weight of human sin. (Romans 8)

What the writer seems to suggest here is that just as God is making a new creation of people who turn from Him and we will be resurrected in forms recognizable to others on the day of Christ's return, God is also intent to make "new heavens and a new earth." So, while the earth we know will be destroyed, we will live on a new earth, the perfect, whole, and wholesome place it was when God first created it and before humanity despoiled it. C.S. Lewis portrays how this might be in the singlemost sublime and beautiful piece of fiction I have ever read, The Last Battle, the final volume in The Chronicles of Narnia.

v.14: I find it interesting first, that the writer exhorts his first co-respondents, to "strive to be found at him at peace." I find several implications here:
  • Christ so values love among us that He wants us to make every effort to remove acrimony or relational discord. This is certainly to be true among Christian believers. But other passages indicate that we are also to strive for peace with all people. That would, after all, seem to be among the points of the Great Commandment, with its call on believers to love God and love neighbor.
  • Strive is a word often associated with personal ambition or with conflict. But here, the word is used of a different kind of struggle. We're to militate against our selfish impulses and to work to establish ties of love toward others. Love, as the Bible understands it, is not primarily an emotion. It has an in spite of quality. Love's unspoken attitude is, "I will accept and work for your good even sometimes in spite of how I may feel about you."
How does one strive for peace in this way? By inviting Christ into our every moment.

"Without spot or blemish" is the very term used in the New Testament of Jesus as the perfect sacrificial lamb. Be like Christ? Yes, of course. Become Christ or morally perfect? Impossible this side of the grave. What the phrase points to--again--is our need to allow Christ access to our minds and wills so that His perfect love begins to take hold of us. Think of the surprised "sheep" in Jesus' parable of the day He returns to judge the world. The sheep are surprised because they can't remember the good things they have done which Jesus so extols. And why is that? They did these deeds not to earns spiritual merit badges. They did them as people who have allowed Christ access to their lives and so, with Christ in the interior of their souls, almost subconsciously live as "little Christs" to the world around them.

v.15a (ending with the word salvation): In a sense, Peter is saying, "Focus on being Christ's people now and take His seeming delay as yet another sign of how gracious and willing to give second and third chances Christ is."

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