Text – 2 Peter 3
“If only we’d known how that holiday would turn out,” muttered the Jones family as they returned wet and muddy from a week of camping in North Wales.
“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 a young man 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?
Hindsight is always 20:20; foresight needs help to see even beyond the ends of our noses.
Cue the Old Testament prophets. Now it’s often said that Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the others were forthtellers, rather than foretellers; that they focused on their own times, rather on the future. But this is a half-truth, and, like many half-truths, misleading. The fact is they did look forward to the future. They often spoke of a time, that sometimes seemed close at hand, at other times far off, that they called, ‘the day of the Lord.’
The earliest mention of the day of the Lord comes in the book of Amos. He prophesied in the northern kingdom of Israel just a few decades before the disintegration of that kingdom. It’s clear from what he says that ‘the day of the Lord’ was an already-known, if much-abused, concept:-
Amos 5:18ff. Woe to you who long for the day of the LORD! Why do you long for the day of the LORD? That day will be darkness, not light. It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear, as though he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him. Will not the day of the LORD be darkness, not light— pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?
The Israelites, evidently, were longing for a day when God would destroy their enemies. What they had failed to realise is that because their own faithlessness and disobedience the day they longed for would be a ruinous day for them too.
But alongside these storm-clouds of divine judgment the prophets also glimpse the rainbow of God’s mercy. Zephaniah was a prophet from the southern kingdom of Judah. Its people were soon to be dragged off into exile. But on the far side of that experience lay hope:-
Zeph 3:14-20. Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm…The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing…At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home. I will give you honour and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes,” says the LORD.
The New Testament, too, speaks of the day of the Lord. It asserts that, beginning with the coming of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we are already living in the last days. And the last days will culminate in the ‘the last day’. Sometimes it is called ‘that day’, or even just simply ‘the day’ as if it were the only day in all the millennia of human history that really mattered.
But the most striking thing about the teaching of the New Testament about the day of the Lord is that it is ‘the day of Christ’. Listen to what Jesus himself says in Jn. 6:38ff – “This is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Given this centrality of Jesus Christ, it comes as no surprise that we find Paul referring to ‘the last day’ as ‘the day of Christ’, ‘the day of Christ Jesus’, ‘the day of the Lord Jesus’ and so on (2 Cor. 1:14, cf. Phil. 1:6, 10.
Turning now to 2 Peter 3 we find the apostle referring back to all of this earlier teaching. He says, v2, ‘I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Saviour through your apostles.’
Peter wants his readers to recall that they are already living in ‘the last days’, v3; and that these will culminate in that great effect known as ‘the day of the Lord’, v10.
Peter wants to remind his readers that Jesus is central to all of this. After all, who, for Peter, is ‘the Lord’? Why, it is none other than ‘our Lord and Saviour’, v2; and ‘our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’, v18. The day of the Lord is the day of his promising ‘coming’, v4.
Once again, Peter sees the gathering clouds of God’s judgment. V7 – ‘the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men’; v10 – ‘The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.’
But Peter too sees the rainbow of God’s goodness and mercy. Final judgment is not just about condemning all that is wrong; it’s also about putting all wrongs to right. So radical will this be that Peter describes the complete destruction of the present creation, and the ushering in of ‘a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness’, v13.
Friends, this mixed-up world will be put to rights. Evil will be finally overcome. God will settles his accounts with those who have loved wickedness. Justice will rule after all. God’s people, long-oppressed, will enjoy his blessing in a restored paradise.
But why is it taking so long? This was the question asked by certain ‘scoffers’ in Peter’s day. They say, v9, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.”
The reason for the delay is not that God has gone to sleep on the job, or changed his mind. It is that he is being patient, v9 – ‘He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’
I wonder if you have ever had the experience of an unsatisfactory situation at work: people not pulling their weight, critical mistakes being made, important things being forgotten. You warn, guide, encourage. You give ample opportunity for people to see the error of their ways and make some changes. Finally, the time comes when you say, ‘That’s it. Enough is enough. I have been patient long enough. I’m coming to sort it out.’
Let us not presume upon God’s patience. ‘All the while thou delayest, God is more provoked, the wicked one more encouraged, thy heart more hardened, they debts more increased, thy soul more endangered, and all the difficulties of conversion more and more multiplied upon thee, having a day more to repent of, and a day less to repent in’ (George Swinnock).
So: we are already living in the last days. The day of the Lord is approaching. The clouds of judgment are gathering, but the rainbow of God’s mercy still shines brightly. Now in view of these things, Peter asks, v11, “What kind of people ought you to be?”
Live holy and godly lives, v11. Our lives will be ‘godly’ if, like God himself, we adopt an attitude of patience and mercy, of love and compassion, towards those who do not yet know him.
Look forward to the day of God and speed its coming, v12. How often do we think about the return of Christ? ‘Anthony Ashley Cooper was elected to Parliament in 1826, aged 25. First in the House of Commons, and then in the House of Lords as the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, he concerned himself successively with the plight of the mentally ill, child workers in the factories and mills, chimney sweeps, women and children in the mines, and the children of the slums, more than 30,000 of whom in London were without a home, and more than a million of whom in the whole country were without schooling. His biographer concludes “No man has ever done more to lessen the extent of human misery, or to add to the sum total of human happiness.”‘ Shaftesbury said near the end of his life, ‘I do not think that in the last forty years I have lived one conscious hour that was not influenced by the thought of our Lord’s return.’
Make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him, v14. If parents left their teenage children at home for a few days, and said, “We’ll be back on Sunday evening, 9.30 sharp,” then the dirty dishes, the empty pizza boxes, and the stains in the carpet might well be left until 9.25. If, however, the parents said, “We’re going away, but we could be back at any time,” then there would be a much better chance that the house wouldn’t be trashed in the first place.
Be on your guard, v17. The main purpose of 2 Peter is to warn believers against false teachers who, amongst other things, mock the prospect of Christ’s return. As we have already see, a big part of Peter’s antidote is ‘the ministry of reminding’. 1:12 – ‘I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have.’ 3:1 – ‘Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders.’ 3:2 – ‘I want you to recall…’ 3:17 – ‘Since you already know this, be on your guard.’ Let’s listen, by all means, to one another’s new ideas, new insights, new understandings of the Christian faith. But let’s be prepared, too, to remind one another of old truths.
We can sum all of this up in the words of v18 – ‘grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.’ And so we will learn what it means to live for him in these last days, be ready to meet him at the last day, and prepared to live within him for ever in the new heavens and the new earth, the home of righteousness.