Commentary on 2 Peter 1:1-11
Among the letters of the New Testament, 2 Peter is an easily forgotten writing. With only three chapters to speak of, wedged between the more popular First Letter of Peter and the equally popular First Letter of John, Bible readers often overlook 2 Peter. Even more alarming is how we continually miss the speech acts of 2 Peter and the Christian ethics and behavior it models. Left to itself and unattended, 2 Peter can be used to set a dangerous precedent for Christian behavior and community.
Regarding the letter’s contents—2 Peter continually points readers to other writings of the Christian tradition preserved in Scripture. For example, it acknowledges the existence of a previous letter written under the name of Peter (3:1). Most scholars consider this a reference to 1 Peter. The letter of 2 Peter also offers the fourth retelling of the transfiguration story (2 Peter 1:16–18) found in the Synoptic Gospels, but not the Gospel of John (Matthew 17:1–8; Mark 9:2–8; Luke 9:28–36). Last, the letter reminds readers about some of the stories found in the first five books of the Old Testament with its references to Noah (2 Peter 2:5 // Genesis 7:13; 8:18), Lot (2 Peter 2:6–8 // Genesis 19:7–29), and Balaam (2 Peter 2:15 // Numbers 22; Deuteronomy 23:5).
But 2 Peter is not merely a compendium of traditions. It not only reaches backward, digging into the library of Christian writings and updating its relevance for the current moment. Second Peter also participates in that tradition, albeit with an aim and tone distinct and disturbing. Caution is necessary while reading and interpreting 2 Peter.
This letter is up to something, and it is not what 1 Peter accomplishes. Second Peter does not share 1 Peter’s commitments to hospitality (1 Peter 4:9) and mediation (1 Peter 3:8–9) across a diverse membership (1 Peter 5:9). The community ethic of 2 Peter is strikingly different in tone and outcome. Whereas 1 Peter attempts to cultivate Christian kinship across differences in response to the persecution aimed at believers outside the community (1 Peter 3:14–15; 4:3–4, 14–16), 2 Peter aims at its own people among its membership ranks.
The letter profiles and targets Christian members who share a common confession but espouse a different understanding of its meaning and significance for the Christian manner of life and teaching. It even recycles some of the attacks the letter of Jude wages against people (Jude 4, 6–13, 16–18 // 2 Peter 2:1, 4, 6–13, 17–18). Yet, where Jude provides space for mercy and reconciliation (verses 22–23), 2 Peter does not. It insists members subscribe to a single understanding of the Christian faith and practice (2 Peter 1:5–8) while ousting those who do not (3:17). This letter champions expelling Christians who are different in thought, practice, and being. And the nature of its process of targeted expulsion is one characterized by stigmatization. It calls the members it disagrees with dogs, pigs, and cursed children and assigns those attributions as Peter’s thoughts and acts of the righteousness or justice of “our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (1:1).
In this way, the letter of 2 Peter is a dangerous writing to read and preach. Yet, it is necessary to do just that—read this letter and preach this letter with the intent of awakening believers to the options and agency they have. Second Peter purposely strikes against its people because some have a difference of opinion, interpretation, belief, and way of being.
To interpret 2 Peter as actions we should re-enact today is to potentially take a sword to the diversity of Christian communities and existing understandings that are also evident in the Bible. Paul talks about the clash and tensions between different community ethics and identities in places like 1 Corinthians 1:10–15, but he does not take a sledgehammer to that diversity. Instead, he attempts to mediate it and identify some connecting lines across those differences. In Pauline thought and 1 Peter (5:9), the variety of Christian identities and expressions are not to be remedied but to be connected responsibly. Christianity should be a connecting link rather than a door that leaves some of its people outside.
Second Peter does not draw the connecting lines of 1 Peter and Paul. Instead, it draws lines in the sand using familiar Christian traditions and Peter’s face as the authorizing power. This is why it is necessary to read and preach 2 Peter. As a part of our Bible, it is a canonized reminder of what can be done with the Christian tradition, and it leaves it to us to say this is not the way now. We have canonical examples of other ways that express the imperatives of mercy, reconciliation, acceptance, affirmation, allyship, friendship, love, and communities forged across differences. There are different ways 2 Peter opts to step away from such imperatives and enact others. The letter necessitates preachers to invite their congregations to consider how dangerous 2 Peter’s speech acts are and to choose another way even as we honestly acknowledge that what the letter accomplishes can be done with the Christian tradition.
Preachers are encouraged not to read 2 Peter as a model of what congregational life should do. Instead, they should read it as a warning and a cautionary tale that invites the congregation to ask: What are our commitments to each other and other Christians even when we disagree about what our faith means and requires of us? Can we not still be Christians—or at the very least, considered human beings made in the image of God who deserve care, compassion, charitable listening, and community?
This is the invitation of 2 Peter—to see it for what it is, and to ask, “Is this who we are?” My hope is that you will say, “Not us.”
Week 1 (July 2, 2023)
Preaching text: 2 Peter 1:1–11; accompanying text: Matthew 13:44-46
Preaching 2 Peter requires thoughtfulness and awareness. The letter’s message carries hostility and inhospitality—all of which the letter subsumes under the banner of the Apostle Peter’s name and the “righteousness of our God” in verse 1. The Letter of 2 Peter opens by acknowledging its primary author as not just Peter but Simeon Peter. The Semitic spelling, Symeōn, stands in the first position to the Greek spelling, Petros. The letter hybridizes the dialectal name, rendering Peter a person of two worlds: Semitic-speaking and Greek-speaking, with their accompanying thought and behavior patterns.
The double name, especially the reference to Simeon, is reminiscent of James’ address to Peter during the Jerusalem Council meeting (Acts 15:14). James addresses Peter in his Semitic name. However, much of Acts references him in Greek. In Acts 15, it is the meeting and mediation of two worlds—Jew and non-Jew—that is navigated and brought together across differences. But in 2 Peter, the letter does not promote the kind of tolerance one might expect from an author who describes themselves as a person of two worlds.
While mainline translations often render the Greek term dikaiosynē as righteousness (2 Peter 1:1; 2:21; see 2:2, 15), it also can be translated as justice. This is the only letter in the New Testament that begins with an explicit commitment to God’s justice. Yet, contemporary readers must wonder if the justice 2 Peter asserts and performs is our definition of justice now.
Week 2 (July 9, 2023)
Preaching text: 2 Peter 1:16–2:2, 15-19; accompanying text: Mark 13:5-7
Likely the latest writing in the New Testament, 2 Peter is written in the early to mid-second century in the name of Peter. It accomplishes this in several ways. As a testament letter, the author casts the letter as Peter’s last words and recollections (1:12–19). It blends the authority of a testament from a respected leader with the hopeful expectations that accompany apocalyptic writing (3:10–13).
In terms of memory, the letter repeatedly refers to matters of recollection using words and phrases like “reminding you” (1:12; 3:1), “memory” (1:13),” and “remember” (3:2). Threaded through the letter is an encouragement toward community practices of remembering. However, caution is necessary. What the community remembers and to what end matters. What is the goal of such acts of Christian memory? Do we remember so that we can discern how to be a stronger community together despite differences? Or do we remember so that we can re-enact former actions of separation, segregation, expulsion, and harm? Just because 2 Peter had the goal of remembering so that it can stigmatize a particular constituency does not then, in turn, affirm our contemporary acts of recollection that harm. We must be careful not to repeat the violence the letter performs under the banner of Christian remembrance.
Week 3 (July 16, 2023)
Preaching text: 2 Peter 3:1-10, 17-18; accompanying text: Matthew 24:42-44
This passage casts Peter as a contributor to the Christian letter-writing tradition in the same way as Paul (3:1, 15–16). It attests to the rich and active literary tradition of Christian letters and, in turn, creates an opportunity for preachers to narrate the work of Christian communication and literature. What parts of the Christian tradition do Bible readers merely consume, and what factors do we participate in—even extend in our contemporary moments? What is the work of Christian letter writers now? This passage models the importance of locating ourselves as receivers and contributors to our faith tradition.
The passage also names the essentials of the tradition while expressing the unanswered questions of the tradition. The letter places the Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles on par. Together, the prophets and apostles are pillars of the tradition to be referenced, remembered, and re-contextualized (3:2). Yet, the letter does not insinuate that these two traditions supply the answers to every mystery of the faith. In particular, the question of the timing of God is left unanswered.
The letter divides the community into those who accept the Second Coming is ahead though they cannot know the specific time, and those who have abandoned the idea that the Coming (Greek: parousia) will occur at all. Readers encounter the letter’s position—it opposes any Christian teaching that questions the timing and viability of Jesus’ return. That opposing view—which it casts more as a question than an assertion—the letter stigmatizes as the actions of scoffers, ignorant, unstable, and lawless. In 2 Peter 3:4, the question is rehearsed, “Where is the promise of his coming?” It is unlikely that in the historical Peter’s lifetime, expectations about Jesus’ return would wane so much as to create different opinions within the newly constituted movement and gospel tradition (cf. Matt. 24:3, 27, 37–39).