Commentary on 2 Peter 3:8-15a
The believers to whom Peter writes have, in his view, two interrelated problems: they doubt the coming of Christ and they are drawn to immoral living.
Peter wants to remind (1:12) those believers who “have obtained a faith of equal standing” (1:1) of what they have been given by belief. The focus and core of their belief is the righteousness of God and Christ. Conviction about God’s righteousness grants everything that is needed for believers to share in God’s righteousness. In fact, believers can expect to “become partakers of the divine nature” (1:4). They can expect to become like God and have life and godliness (1:3).
Conviction about God’s and Christ’s righteousness is not simply a collection of ideas about the character of God and Christ. Faith in God’s and Christ’s righteousness includes the belief that because God and Christ are righteous, all that is not righteous will be destroyed. The righteousness of God and Christ means that what is evil will not last. It cannot last. The righteousness of God and Christ means that all that opposes the pure goodness of God and Christ has a limited shelf life.
The premise upon which this letter is based is the righteousness of God and Christ is stronger than sin and wickedness. Further, sin and wickedness, unlike God and Christ, will come to an end.
Despite the letter’s chilling references to the punishments in store for the wicked (e.g., 2:4-6)–inspiration no doubt for Dante’s Inferno–Peter’s focus is not on the negative but on the positive. The good news is the righteousness of God and Christ will one day be all there is. One day there will be no evil. One day there will only be the divine nature. The divine nature has many aspects to it, but all of these are aspects of love (1:4-7). One day there will only be love.
In order for the righteousness of God and Christ to be all in all, what is now must come to an end. Peter is certain that the present heavens and the earth must be destroyed in order for the purity of the divine nature to fill creation. Peter is convinced that there will be a new creation–“new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (1:13).
The author recognizes that this idea is preposterous to some. He defends his views with the argument that God has done this before: the first creation was destroyed by water (3:5-6). Peter thinks that he knows how the present creation will be destroyed–it will be consumed by fire: “The heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works of that are upon it will be burned up” (3:10).
This is the only place in the New Testament where the day of the Lord is described in this manner. The New Testament writings agree, by and large, that a cataclysmic event is in the offing when God, with the agency of Christ, will set everything right. They disagree on whether there will be intelligible signs of the impending day (for instance, 1 Thessalonians [5:4], like 2 Peter, claims the day will come like a thief in the night, whereas 2 Thessalonians [2:1-4] argues that there will be a visible signal that the end is near). They also disagree on whether what is will be destroyed (2 Peter) or will ‘pass away’ (Revelation 21:1) or whether it will be renewed (e.g., Romans 8:18-23), perhaps in light of the revelation of the true and eternal heaven (Hebrews 9:24).
Peter is clearly of the opinion that what now exists is so badly tainted and stained that God will burn it with such an intensity that nothing will be left. In Peter’s view, all that is will be dissolved. The slate of creation will be wiped completely clean. This thought is not unique to Peter, although it is unique to the New Testament scriptures. Other Jewish and Greek thinkers of Peter’s day believed there would be a cosmic fire that would destroy all things (e.g., from Qumran, 1 QH iii.29-35; Stoic writers expected a cosmic conflagration).
Peter’s view on the means of getting to the good future does not need to be ours. It was certainly not the view of other early Christians who comprise our canon.
More fundamental than the mechanics of arriving at the day of the Lord is Peter’s certainty that what is will not last as it is, and his conviction that part of faith in the righteousness of God and Christ is expectation for the coming of Christ. The hope and promise of the ‘coming’, or, in Greek, of the parousia of Christ (1:16), is an essential and critical aspect of faith in the righteousness of God. The two go hand in hand.
Here Peter is in sync with other early believers whose views we see in the New Testament. The day of God, when God will judge the world and put an end to any opposition to righteousness, is the same as the coming of Christ. Christ’s coming is at once the judgment of God on unrighteousness (e.g., Matthew 25:31-46).
Peter is worried that his fellow believers are tempted to believe those he calls ‘scoffers’−people who ask, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation” (3:4).
We might sympathize with those believers. It seems nonsensical to live life waiting for everything to be put right by God. Moreover, it is difficult to understand why, if God is so concerned with ridding God’s world of sin and wickedness, God should wait so very long. It appears to make much more sense to think of the parousia as a fairytale and to believe that what is will go on forever.
Peter does not agree. He thinks it is dangerous and life-threatening to scoff at the coming day of God, at the parousia of Christ. God’s righteousness means that there will be a day of reckoning. Christ’s righteousness means he will participate in the cleansing judgment of God. The present status quo will end.
Peter’s proof for this is that it will not be the first time the world will have been destroyed (3:5); and that both his scriptures, our Old Testament and the inspired word of the apostles (3:2), have said it would be so. There is no doubt in Peter’s mind; and he takes it as essential to faith to believe this. Moreover, he warns his readers that doubt about the day of the Lord leads directly to what he calls “licentiousness” (2:2).
Peter muses about why God may be taking so long: “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (3:8). We are on human time which is different from God’s time. Peter also suggests that God is waiting because in fact God does not want to enact a judgment. God’s preferred option is that everyone would repent so that there would be nothing to judge (3:9).
Whatever we might make of Peter’s attempt to read the mind of God on this issue, his main point is that God will not let evil go on forever. There will be an end.
Life during the time of waiting for the end is to be lived in light of the good future. Since what is coming is a creation cleansed of sin–“new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwell” (3:13)–now is a time for believers to live what will be. Earlier in the letter, Peter gives a prescription for how to live for the future: “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with sisterly and brotherly kindness, and such kindness with love.” (1:5-7).
Peter sees an inextricable connection between expectation of the advent of Christ and purity of life.