Commentary on 2 Peter 3:8-15a
Apocalyptic language is used in 2 Peter 3:8-15a to express the seriousness of Christian holiness and divine judgment.
For many Protestant believers, a category for a judgment according to works does not exist; we’re saved by faith after all! The concept of a judgment according to works is considered in much of pop evangelicalism to be a “Roman Catholic error.” While a judgment according to works is certainly not an error, it can be said to be both Roman and catholic, for one of the primary places that this catholic (that is “universally held”) doctrine is taught is in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans 2:6-8 (“He will render to each one according to his works”).
There are a host of other places in the New Testament in which the biblical author exhorts Christians (not pagans) — folks who are already following Jesus — to live a holy life lest they cease the ability to “inherit the kingdom of God” (for example Ephesians 5:5; Galatians 5:21). Thus, the biblical call to live a sanctified, holy life is a positively crucial truth with eternal consequences. We are not justified by faith with an option to sign up for the additional “holiness package.” Rather, we are justified by faith in order that we might have access to a transformative relationship with the holy God.
It helps to begin a study of this passage with a consideration of the importance of sanctification in the Christian life because holy, godly living — not eschatology — is the primary point of 2 Peter 3. In a Christian subculture that is seemingly obsessed with the idea of the “end times” and which has effectively turned the topic into a multi-million-dollar entertainment genre, it is helpful and healthy to issue the exegetical alarm. On the surface these verses may appear to give good reason to ready one’s rapture survival kit in anticipation of the apocalypse, but under the surface it becomes apparent that perhaps this hermeneutic must be left behind.
Apocalyptic was a popular Jewish literary genre in the Bible and in the Second Temple period. In apocalyptic literature, the language of cosmic destruction and cataclysmic disaster was used to express — not the end of the physical universe — but the imminent arrival of an event of great political and/or spiritual significance. Thus, Jesus in Matthew 24 uses the language of international wars, earthquakes, famines, and birth pains to prophesy about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Often those very verses have been used to cook up kooky, end-time teachings propagated by overzealous oddball televangelists peddling predictions of impending eschatological doom. The entire enterprise would be enough to make Kirk Cameron and Nicholas Cage roll in their future graves … that is, if they aren’t raptured first.
The text begins by putting the primary focus on the day of the judgment of the Lord. It is important to point out that the desire of God is clear, namely, that he wants all to reach repentance before the day of judgment. The frequent claim by some that in these verses “all” means “all kinds of people” is unlikely. We know, for example, from John’s Gospel that Jesus is the “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Likewise, there are a number of other verses that clearly communicate that God desires the salvation of all people (see also 1 Timothy 2:3-4 “God … desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”; 1 Timothy 4:10 “God … is the Savior of all people, especially those who believe”).
In addressing this issue from the pulpit, however, care should be taken to not go beyond the tension and mystery of Scripture. At the end of the day, faithful interpreters from a variety traditions just cannot see eye to eye on these issues. And far too many sermons that should be about Jesus end up as theology lectures in which a divisive theological factoid peripherally related to Jesus replaces the preaching of Jesus. We are not called to preach Calvin or Arminius; we are called to preach Christ crucified and risen. In any case, these verses are focused on the themes of holiness and judgment, not the end of the world or atonement.
All of the cosmic language in the passage actually serves to highlight the themes of repentance, judgment, and holiness. Notice that the talk of the “heavens passing away with a roar,” and “the elements” burning and dissolving are for the purpose of discussing — not cosmology — but sanctification. When the elements are dissolved that which is revealed is not something biological or geological; it is something moral, namely “the works” that are done on the earth. Again in 2 Peter 3:11, the dissolving of the elements is specifically shown to function as a literary mechanism, a picture, that reveals something moral, that is, the type of people we are in regard to “holiness and godliness.”
Interestingly, rather than employing typical Jewish apocalyptic categories of melting mountains and falling stars, Peter takes up popular Stoic cosmological language that was widely known by Gentiles in the Greco-Roman world of the time. In Stoic thinking, the cyclical destruction of the world through fire (known as “the conflagration”), was indeed conceived of as a literal happening through which the world was destroyed and restarted in an endless cycle. Yet, in what proves to be a brilliant example of contextual communication, Peter uses this popular Stoic form of secular, Gentile cosmological language and inserts it into the Jewish genre of apocalyptic literature.
In doing so, he is not attempting to provide a cosmological map of the end times. After all, Peter is not a Stoic and certainly does not adhere to Stoic physics, theology, or cosmology! Rather, like the Apocalypse of John, the Gospels, and the Old Testament prophets Joel and Ezekiel, he is using contemporary, contextual cataclysmic language to talk about the reality and severity of judgment, and the necessary pursuit of holiness for Christians.