Text: 2 Peter 3
“If only we’d known how that holiday would turn out,” muttered the Jones family as they returned yesterday wet and muddy from a week of camping in the West Midlands.
“If only we’d known how that marriage would turn out,” reflected Jenny and Brian as they signed their divorce papers.
“If only we’d known how that evening would turn out,” lamented the family of James Oyebola, who was shot in the back after asking some bar customers to stop smoking.
Of course, although some things turn out worse than we feared, others end up better than we dared hoped for. Including holidays, marriages, and evenings out. But we can’t help thinking, ‘If only we knew what the future holds.’ Will we end up looking back with pleasure, or regret? Should we look forward with hope, or with despair?
If you glance at 2 Peter 3:1 you will see that the apostle’s purpose is to stimulate pure, sincere, wholesome thinking. And it’s wholesome thinking about the future that is the leading theme of vv1-9. How can we resist unwholesome thinking, and how can we cultivate wholesome thinking, about the future? These are the two questions I would to set before you this evening.
1. How to resist unwholesome thinking about the future
Certain people were troubling the church. Peter refers to them as ‘scoffers’, v3. Although they are spoken of in the future tense – ‘scoffers will come’ – v5 makes it clear that they have already arrived on the scene. Indeed, they are probably the very people whose teaching and behaviour he has just opposed so vigorously in ch 2.
In 3:4 we see that these false prophets were particularly fond of ridiculing a key part of the Christian hope – the return of Jesus Christ in glory at the end of the present age. They were demanding to know, ‘Where is this ‘coming’ he promised’?’
Jesus had spoken clearly and frequently about his future return. “I will come back,” he promised in Jn 14:2. It would be a glorious return. He spoke of the time “when the Son of Man would come in his glory, and all the angels with him,” (Mt 25:31). But 20 or 30 years had now passed, and some were beginning to doubt the promise.
It’s not just an ancient problem, it’s a modern problem, too, this scoffing at the prospect of Christ’s Second Coming. Two thousand years have now passed, and our Lord still hasn’t returned. So it’s even easier to doubt it now than it ever was. I wonder if you remember the fuss that the former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, caused when he called into question just about every basic truth of the Christian faith. He thought the Virgin Birth was improbable, doubted the divinity of Jesus Christ, and suggested that any physical resurrection of Jesus would amount to ‘a conjuring trick with bones’. You will not be surprised to hear of his pronouncement on the Return of Christ. ‘I do not think it possible to believe any longer in a literal Second Coming.’
Now look at the half-truth with which Peter’s scoffers attempt to justify their doubts. V4 – “Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” Well, yes, that sounds plausible enough. The sun still shines by day, and the moon by night. Fish still swim. Birds still fly. Water still boils when you heat it up, and still freezes when you cool it down. Everything carries on just the same as it always has. There is very important insight here. The notion that the universe is stable, orderly, and uniform underpins the whole of the scientific enterprise of the last few hundred years. Indeed, it is Christianity with its enquiring mind; Christianity with its love of truth; Christianity with its belief in a creator-God who works rationally and not capriciously, which has done more than any other religion or philosophy to promote scientific discovery. Yes, the scoffers’ error was half true, and all the more seductive because it was a half-truth.
But there’s something the scoffers have forgotten, vv5-7. They have forgotten that the Creator who spoke the universe into existence has the right to determine its end.. They have forgotten that the God who once judged the world by flood will one day judge the world again, by fire. They have forgotten that God has intervened before, and he will do so again.
Now this forgetfulness, claims Peter, is deliberate, v5. He says that the reason the scoffers don’t believe that Christ will return is that they don’t want to believe it. They are intent on satisfying their own ‘evil desires’, v3, and in order to do so they must deny that a day is coming when they will be called to account. They would shudder to think that, as v7 says, ‘the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.’ So they choose not to think about it.
Here are some action points for us. Don’t be seduced by the half-truths of sceptics into doubting what God has clearly revealed in his word. Don’t forget that God does intervene – and not only with acts of judgment, but also with a work of salvation. And if anyone comes up with an objection to the Christian faith, it’s always worth pondering, ‘Is this person objecting because they can’t believe, or because they don’t want to?’ And so we will learn to resist the unwholesome thinking of the scoffers.
2. How to cultivate wholesome thinking about the future
God does want his people to think about the future. And he wants that thinking to have a profound and lasting effect on our attitudes and behaviour right now. Jesus once said to his disciples, “I have told you everything beforehand, so that you can be on your guard,” Mk 13:23. What then should we do?
We should remember the teaching of the prophets and apostles. This ‘ministry of reminding’ is a leading theme of the whole epistle. We saw it several times in ch1. And now we meet it again in ch 3. V1 – ‘I have written my letters as reminders.’ And then in v2 – ‘I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles.’
There are two things in particular that come across time and again in the teaching of the prophets and apostles: first, that the fact of Christ’s return is certain; second, that the timing of it is uncertain.
To take just one example. Acts 1 tells us that after his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ ascended to heaven. Peter had been there. He and the other disciples asked Jesus, ‘”Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.’ And then they were assured by two angels that ‘this same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’
We know that Christ will return. What we don’t know is when. Sometimes, it seems that it has been a very long time coming. But God’s perspective on time is very different from our own. Look at v8: ‘With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.’ Think about it – God brought the Israelites out of Egypt – and then kept them wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. Paul was converted in an instant – and then spent three years in Arabia, Gal 1:17. Jesus ascended to heaven in a moment – and Christians have been waiting two thousand years for his return. In this, as in so many other things, we have to understand that God’s ways are not our ways, his thoughts not our thoughts.
The scoffers turned this delay into an excuse for wickedness and into a denial that they would ever be called to account. But God’s people should use this interval as a spur to live and work for God while we have the opportunity.
But Scripture does give us one reason for this delay. And it’s not that God has overslept, or has changed his mind. V9 tells us. ‘The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’ Notice that Peter doesn’t merely say, ‘God is patient’. He says, ‘God is patient with you.’ Yes, there is real pastoral concern for those he has earlier called his ‘dear friends’. There were some within that company of professing Christians who were wavering, who were in danger of losing their grip on the truth as it is in Christ Jesus and of being taken in by the scoffers. I wonder if some of us are wavering like that. ‘Act now,’ says Peter, ‘while there’s still time.’ Let’s not presume on God’s patience.
And if God is patient with us, should we not be patient with others? Some of you are fretting about loved ones who do not yet know Christ as Saviour. You pray and pray and still nothing seems to happen. I’ve heard some Christian parents say, ‘If only all my children could come to know Christ before I die, I shall be happy’. But God works to his own timescale, not ours. I recently heard the story of a retired Christian minister who was in his 80s. He was was asked if he would visit a woman in her 90s who was very ill and had become concerned about her soul. He went, and he led her to Christ. She died 2 days later. Yes, God is so patient that while there’s life, there’s always hope for the oldest, as well as the youngest person, for the greatest, as well as the least, sinner.
The sum of it all is this: What God has done in the past is the guarantee of what he will yet do in the future. Despite what ‘scoffers’ may say, God is faithful to his promise. Any delay in Christ’s return is due, not to impotence, but to patience. So, let’s not doubt his power or try his patience. Let’s live for Christ, and bring his message of life to others. And then we will be able to look back with joy, and look forward not merely with wishful thinking, but with a sure and certain hope.