This article is part of the Distinctive Theology series.
The Word of God
For many Christians, 2 Peter is the neglected sibling of 1 Peter. Whereas 1 Peter is widely read and studied, that is not the case with 2 Peter. Indeed, few Christians today would name 2 Peter as their favorite New Testament book. But the contemporary church neglects 2 Peter to its own detriment. Second Peter treats a number of themes that are also addressed elsewhere in the New Testament. But perhaps its most distinctive contributions are found in its teaching on three particular areas: (1) the Word of God; (2) God’s ability to both judge and save; and (3) the new heavens and new earth.
Second Peter has a robust doctrine of Scripture. Peter begins his letter with one of the strongest assertions of the sufficiency of God’s Word found in all of Scripture:
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. (2 Pet 1:3–4).
Not only does God’s Word make us spiritually alive (1 Pet. 1:3), but the promises found in God’s Word are also sufficient for our pursuit of godliness. Godliness refers to a life that is single-mindedly oriented towards God that expresses itself in one’s thoughts, feelings, desires, actions, and words. Indeed, it is through these promises that believers “become partakers of the divine nature,” an expression that refers to the restoration of the image of God that had been corrupted and distorted when Adam rebelled (2 Pet. 1:4).
Second Peter also beautifully portrays Scripture as a powerful human and divine word. In 2 Peter 1:19–21 the apostle asserts that:
We have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Describing Scripture as a prophetic word highlights the human role in receiving what God says and communicating it faithfully to his people. Yet there is no prophetic word without the Holy Spirit carrying along the men whom God inspired to write down his words.
Because God has a proven track record of judging his enemies and saving his people, we can be confident that God will preserve his people through trials.
The emerging two-fold structure of the canon is also evident in 2 Peter. Look carefully at 2 Peter 3:2, where Peter exhorts believers to “remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles.” The predictions of the holy prophets refers to the OT in its totality, evidenced by Peter’s use of specific texts from all three major divisions of the Hebrew canon (Torah, Prophets, and Writings). Since the expression “predictions of the holy prophets” refers to written texts, there is good reason to conclude that the parallel expression “the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles” also refers (at least in part) to written texts (cp. Jude 17). The plural “apostles” further indicates an awareness of multiple divinely inspired and authoritative writings, including Peter’s own letters.
The God who Judges and Saves
In his efforts to combat the false teaching that threatened the church (2 Pet. 2:1–4a), Peter draws on a series of OT examples in which God brought judgment on those who disobeyed God by crossing his clearly established boundaries: angels (2 Pet. 2:4b), those who lived in Noah’s time (2 Pet. 2:5), and the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (2 Pet. 2:6-8). Yet, in the midst of the judgments on the ancient world and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, God also demonstrates his power to save his faithful Noah (2 Pet. 2:5b) and Lot (2 Pet. 2:7-8). Based on these OT examples, Peter confidently asserts that “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment” (2 Pet. 2:9). Because God has a proven track record of judging his enemies and saving his people, we can be confident that God will preserve his people through trials.
The New Heavens and New Earth
Outside of Revelation 21–22, 2 Peter contains the longest discussion of the new heavens and new earth. Despite those who scoff at the promise of Christ’s return (2 Pet. 3:4), Peter assures his readers that the promised day of the Lord will indeed come. What from a human perspective seems like a delay is simply evidence of God’s patience in giving people time to repent (2 Pet. 3:8–9). When the day of the Lord does come, it will be sudden, “like a thief in the night”; the heavens will roar, the basic elements of the universe will burn, and the earth and the works done in it will be exposed for judgment (2 Pet. 3:10). Regardless whether this language refers to the complete destruction of the present creation and its replacement with a new creation or the renewal of the present creation, the result is a “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13). That hope fuels us to live “lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Pet. 3:11–12).
Although we are now almost two thousand years removed from when Peter wrote this letter, the contemporary church faces many similar challenges. False teachers openly question God’s Word and twist it for their own selfish gain, seeking to lead others away from the true gospel through lives of immorality. Those who seek to be faithful to Jesus find themselves under constant pressure to give into contemporary sensibilities on moral issues. Scoffers dismiss as a naïve fairy tale our belief that one day Jesus will indeed return for his people and usher in a new heavens and a new earth. Into these confusing times, 2 Peter speaks with a clarion call to trust in the sufficiency of Scripture, God’s power to save his people and judge his enemies, and the promise of a new heavens and earth where righteousness dwells.
Matthew S. Harmon is the author of The God Who Judges and Saves: A Theology of 2 Peter and Jude.
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