2 Peter 3:1-18

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Peter addressed fellow believers as “beloved ones,” mentioning that this was the second letter he had written to them. Like the first letter, this one also served as a reminder of things they knew. He wanted to arouse the “sincere thought” (eilikriné diánoian) of fellow believers. The Greek expression for “sincere thought” has been variously rendered “sincere intention” (NRSV), “honest minds” (NCV), “honest thought” (REB), and “unclouded understanding.” (NJB) The basic sense appears to be that Peter wanted his letters to stimulate the recipients to give sincere consideration to matters he brought to their attention. (3:1; see the Notes section.)

He wanted them to recall the words the “holy prophets” had spoken in the past and the “commandment of the Lord and Savior.” The words “of your apostles” are linked to this commandment, indicating that the “commandment” was originally made known through the apostles who had heard it from the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Savior, for it is through him that individuals are forgiven of their sins and delivered from the condemnation to which sin leads. (3:2)

In the context of this letter, the words the “holy prophets” spoke appear to relate specifically to the coming judgment upon the ungodly. As servants of God who faithfully proclaimed his message, they were “holy” or undefiled. They were not like the false prophets who uttered lies and so were unclean in God’s sight. According to verses 14 and 15 of the letter of Jude, Enoch was the first one of the prophets to speak of a day of judgment. Among the Hebrew prophets who warned of a judgment to come were Isaiah (66:15, 16), Jeremiah (25:31-33), Ezekiel (38:2-39:6), Daniel (7:9-22), Joel (3:11-15 [4:11-15]), Amos (9:1-4), Habakkuk (3:16-18), Zephaniah (1:14-18), Haggai (2:21, 22), Zechariah (14:1-16), and Malachi (4:1 [3:19]). In relation to the future judgment that would occur at the time of his return in glory, Jesus Christ gave the commandment for his disciples to remain awake or alert and to be prepared to welcome him, proving themselves to be loyal to him and actively advancing his interests. (Matthew 24:36-44; Mark 13:32-37; Luke 12:35-40; 21:34-36) The apostles, including Paul the apostle to the nations, did not neglect to convey the commandment to be prepared for the return of the Lord Jesus Christ and the judgment to come. (3:2; Acts 3:19-21; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11)

The reference to “your apostles” need not be understood to mean that the writer excluded himself as an apostle and that, as some have concluded, he was no part of the generation which directly heard the teaching of the apostles. Joshua, for example, when addressing warriors from the tribes of Reuben and Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh, commended them, saying, “You have not forsaken your brothers,” that is, your fellow Israelites. (Joshua 22:1-3) The use of the second person plural “your brothers” did not mean that Joshua did not consider himself to be a “brother” or fellow Israelite. (3:2; Joshua 22:1-3)

“First,” or first of all, believers needed to know or understand that, in the “last days,” scoffers would come on the scene to scoff or ridicule, indulging their “own desires” or lusts. Some have taken these words to point to a late composition for 2 Peter, but these words do not point to knowledge of a development that was foreign to early believers. The apostle Paul warned the elders from the congregation in Ephesus that, after he would be gone, men from their midst would mistreat fellow believers, corrupt the truth, and get others to follow them as their disciples. (Acts 20:29, 30) Jesus Christ had indicated that, when seeing that his return appeared to be a long time away, certain ones in the community of believers would become abusive toward fellow believers and in other respects conduct themselves in a reprehensible manner. They would express themselves like a slave whose master had departed, saying regarding his return, “My master delays in coming.” (Matthew 24:48-50; Luke 12:45-48) Failing to recognize that Jesus Christ could return at any time, the scoffers would ridicule the thought about any imminent return and would speak of it as if it would never take place. Acting without any sense of accountability to the Lord Jesus Christ who would indeed return to render judgment, they would act according to their own debased cravings. (3:3)

Having lost faith in Jesus’ promise that he would return, the scoffers in the “last days” or later times would say, “Where is the promise of his arrival [parousía]?” In their view, no evidence existed that the promised return and time of judgment would take place. Nothing had changed since their “fathers” or ancestors “fell asleep” or had died. Everything in the human realm, with people marrying, having children, and growing old and dying, had remained the same “from the beginning of creation.” (3:4)

Contrary to the thinking of the ridiculers, everything had not continued to be the same since the beginning. Although aware of the account that is preserved in the book of Genesis, the scoffers, “according to their wish” or their deliberate choice, would ignore what they knew about developments in the days of Noah. “Heavens” existed “of old,” and “by the word of God, earth out of water and through water came together [synístemi].” The Greek word synístemi basically means to “stand together” and can signify to “combine,” “prepare,” “establish,” or “hold together.” Based on the Genesis account, the formation of the land areas came about by their rising “out of the water.” “Through the water” perhaps means through the collecting of the water into seas that surrounded land and through the suspension of water above the land and the seas, which water became part of an apparent celestial dome. (3:5; Genesis 1:6-10)

The introductory “through which [plural in many manuscripts but singular in a few others]” could, as a plural, refer to the water on the earth and the water above the earth. This would mean that the land was flooded by means of water from the sky in the form of rain, combined with the water already on the earth, destroying the then-existing “world.” Another possibility is that the introductory words “through which” (plural) could indicate that the destruction of the world came about through God’s word, or by his express will, and the water. The singular “which,” found in a few manuscripts, could apply to either the word of God or to the water as causing the world to perish. The world that was destroyed included everything in the human realm outside the ark. (3:6)

The now-existing “heavens and earth,” however, are stored up by the “same word for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of impious men.” It was God’s word, or his declared purpose, that brought into existence the former “heavens and earth” and the factors that made a flood possible. The same “word” (God’s decreed purpose) that has reserved the present “heavens and earth for fire” will not fail to be fulfilled. (3:7)

Many have reasoned that, because literal water flooded the land, the divinely determined future destruction would be by literal fire, resulting in the conflagration of the whole material universe. This, however, is not necessarily the case and does not appear to be indicated in the Scriptures as a whole. In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul spoke of the whole creation as longing for the revelation of the “sons of God,” that is, of humans who have become part of his beloved family. At the time of this revelation of God’s children in the glory or splendor of the sinless state, the whole creation would be freed from the bondage in which it shared on account of the divine condemnation of human sinfulness. The creation would then no longer undergo senseless devastation and ruin. If the entire universe were to be utterly destroyed by fire, the creation would cease to exist and would not be liberated from the baneful effects that human sinfulness has had on the whole environment. A fiery end of the entire creation would not be its long-awaited liberation, or the means for obtaining the “freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (3:7; Romans 8:19-21)

In verse 13 of the third chapter of 2 Peter, God’s promise of “new heavens and a new earth” is mentioned. This promise is found in the book of Isaiah, and so it reasonably follows that the reference to the destruction by fire should be viewed in the light of the words of the prophet. Regarding the judgment to befall Edom, for example, Isaiah 34:9-11 (NAB) reads, “Edom’s streams shall be changed into pitch and her earth into sulphur, and her land shall become burning pitch; night and day it shall not be quenched, its smoke shall rise forever. From generation to generation she shall lie waste, never again shall anyone pass through her. But the desert owl and hoot owl shall possess her, the screech owl and raven shall dwell in her.” Edomites no longer exist as a people. So the land they once inhabited has ceased to be their possession, just as if it had been completely consumed by unquenchable fire. Although the portrayal of the utter desolation is represented as being by fire that continues to burn, the land is not depicted as destroyed but as becoming the habitat of birds and other creatures. (Isaiah 34:11-17) Similarly, in 2 Peter 3:7, the “heavens and earth” are stored up for fire, but it is not a “day of judgment” for the material universe but a time of judgment for humans who defiantly pursue a God-dishonoring way of life. The destruction to come is specifically identified as affecting the impious or godless ones. This also fits the parallel with the flood in the time of Noah. The world of ungodly humans ended, but the universe remained, as did the earth itself. (3:7)

The expression “heavens and earth” is best understood in the light of the prophetic scriptures. Often “heaven” or “heavens” applies to the celestial dome, and so the expression “heavens and earth” is simply a way of identifying the sphere in which humans live. This sphere is an area of land and water that lies below what appears to be a vault or dome, where the sun may be seen during the day and the moon and the stars at night. In the prophetic writings, the destruction of nations is portrayed as the end of the sphere in which they lived. When these nations are no more, the sphere in which they lived (their land and its apparent celestial dome) no longer exists as far as they are concerned. According to Isaiah 34, YHWH’s anger would be directed against the nations and he would hand them over for slaughter. In connection with this judgment, the “heavens” would be “rolled up like a scroll.” Thus the sky or the celestial vault is portrayed as a scroll that touches the land and, when separated from the horizon, is rolled up. (Isaiah 34:2-4) Accordingly, also in 2 Peter 3, the fire for which the “heavens and earth” are reserved is indicative of the future thorough destruction of everything associated with the sphere of impious humans. (3:7)

God’s time for the execution of judgment is not to be gauged by the way in which humans reckon time. What to humans may appear to be a long time is but a short time in the sight of the eternal God. On the other hand, God can effect in a brief period things that would take many years for humans to accomplish. Peter wanted his “beloved ones” or fellow believers to be aware of this fact, “One day [is] with the Lord like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.” Recognizing that a “thousand years” are but as a day to God helps one to realize that the passage of many years does not mean that his word will not be fulfilled. Nevertheless, one should not postpone the reality of the coming time of judgment, reasoning that a very long time needs to pass for all aspects of the prophetic word to be carried out. What to humans might seem to require a thousand years, God can do in but one day. (3:8)

He is not slow about fulfilling his promise, as some might consider him to be because things do not happen as quickly as they imagine they should. The reality that Jesus Christ has not as yet returned in glory and that believers are still experiencing distress and have not been united with him as his Father’s sinless children does not mean that God is slow. Explaining the reason for what some might consider a long delay, Peter continued, “But he is patient with you [‘us,’ according to another manuscript reading] not wishing anyone to be destroyed but [desiring] all to have opportunity for repentance.” Divine patience has provided humans in the generations that have passed with the opportunity to hear the good news about Jesus Christ and to respond in faith and be found approved at the time of his return. As a loving Father, God wants as many as possible to become reconciled to him as his beloved children. (3:9)

The “day of the Lord” is certain to come. Jesus Christ will return in glory as the exalted King of kings and Lord of lords, with blessings to his approved disciples and severe judgment directed against those who have persisted in defying him and his Father. That day will arrive “like a thief” (“like a thief in the night,” according to other manuscripts), unexpectedly as would a thief to steal under the cover of darkness. All but Jesus Christ’s devoted disciples will then be found in an unprepared state. Nothing of the ungodly world will remain. “The heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be destroyed by burning, and the earth and the works in it will be found [eurísko].” The sphere in which the ungodly functioned will come to a complete end. As with the loud crackling of materials that an intense fire consumes, the celestial dome of the ungodly will vanish. All the “elements” or parts of that godless world will be obliterated as by fire. The “earth” or the land that the ungodly regarded as their possession and all the works of human manufacture would be “found” or “discovered.” This could mean that the destructive element would not spare anything associated with the godless society. As the ungodly would lose everything, their whole world of “heavens and earth” would be utterly consumed. (3:10; see the Notes section.)

The entire world of godless human society (the present “heavens and earth” that constitute the sphere in which this society operates) is destined to end (literally, to be “loosed” as when something is broken up or dissolved). Not a trace of this world will remain. Its destruction will be as complete as that caused by an intense fire. Therefore, believers needed to consider carefully how they were living their lives, making sure that their conduct remained untainted by the corruption of the world. This aspect is presented in the form of a question, “What kind of [persons] should you be in holy conduct and godliness, awaiting and hastening [speúdo] the arrival [parousía] of the day of God [‘Lord,’ according to a few other manuscripts] by which the heavens being set on fire will be destroyed and the elements melted by burning?” (3:11, 12)

The realization that everything of the godless world will come to an end should motivate believers to avoid being contaminated by it and to conduct themselves in a “holy” or pure way and to manifest a godly or reverential spirit in everything they do and say. Godliness would also be evident in their having an active concern for the welfare of others, being willing and eager to respond compassionately to their needs. (3:11)

The “day of God” is the time when he will judge the world by means of his Son Jesus Christ. This day will arrive at the time Jesus returns in glory as the exalted King of kings and Lord of lords. Believers demonstrate that they are awaiting the day by maintaining upright conduct and being diligent about advancing Christ’s interests. In this manner, they continue to be in a state of readiness for the arrival of the “day of God,” looking forward to the blessings that will then be bestowed on his devoted servants and loyal disciples of his Son. The “hastening” of the day could either mean to eagerly desire it or to hasten it mentally, keeping it always in view as a day that could come at any time and acting in harmony with what that day will mean for faithful believers and for those who defy God’s will. The world, or godless humans and the sphere in which they operate (a sphere consisting of “heavens and earth”), will come to an end. Its heavens will be destroyed (literally, “loosed” or dissolved) by fire, and all the elements or parts that make up the world will melt as does, for example, wax when subjected to heat from fire. (3:12)

Believers live in expectation of the fulfillment of God’s promise concerning “new heavens and a earth, wherein righteousness dwells.” (3:13) The old world, the sphere of heavens and earth in which corrupt human society operates, will be replaced by “new heavens and a new earth,” a sphere free from corruption and godlessness and where all will be conducting themselves in an upright manner. The promise concerning “new heavens and a new earth” is found in Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22. According to the context, the prophetic words of Isaiah do not signify the replacement of the earth and every other part of the vast universe. Instead, what makes the heavens and the earth new is a complete transformation, with an end to everything that brought pain, harm, and distress. (Isaiah 65:17-25) That the prophetic language does not mean a new planet is indicated by the judgment that is to befall rebels against God. Their corpses are depicted as lying in a place of refuse, where fires are kept burning and maggots feed on the bodies that the flames do not reach. If the expression “new earth” designated a new planet, this would mean that the corpses of the godless would have to be preserved from the fire that consumes the old earth and then become part of the permanent scene in the new earth. The context simply does not justify this kind of literalism. (3:13; Isaiah 66:22-24)

In view of all that his fellow believers awaited, Peter urged them as his “beloved ones” to strive being found by God (and so also by his Son the Lord Jesus Christ) as persons who are “spotless and unblemished” as well as “in peace.” In disposition, words, and deeds, believers should be spotless and unblemished, not being stained by the corruption of the godless world or blemished by having in any respect yielded to God-dishonoring conduct. For believers to be found “in peace” at the arrival of God’s day for judgment by means of his Son would require their maintaining a good relationship with him. A failure to act in keeping with their status as God’s children and disciples of his Son would alienate them from him, disrupting the peace they had come to enjoy upon being forgiven of their sins. (3:14)

While waiting for the great “day of God” and the relief from distress it promises to bring to believers, they need to be patient. Peter reminded fellow believers that the patience of “our Lord” has meant “salvation.” As he had mentioned earlier (3:9), God’s patience (which also his Son manifests) had provided the opportunity for more individuals to come to repentance and to be delivered from the condemnation to which sin leads. (3:15)

Peter referred to Paul as “our beloved brother” and then to what he had written. The context does not provide any specifics that would make it possible to identify which particular letter or letters may be linked to the words of Paul. First Peter was addressed to communities of believers in Asia Minor, providing a basis for concluding that 2 Peter was also sent to them. In that case, the letters to the Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians could have been received by the same believers as was 2 Peter. Moreover, Paul mentioned a letter he had sent to the Laodiceans. (Colossians 4:16) This may indicate that only a portion of the letters he wrote have been preserved through copying and recopying over the centuries. Paul’s preserved letters sent to believers in Asia Minor did include comments highlighting that compassionate divine patience has made salvation possible. (Compare Ephesians 2:1-5; Colossians 1:21-23.) The things he wrote were based on the “wisdom” that had been “given him,” indicating that this wisdom had been divinely granted. (3:15)

The aspect of divine patience is mentioned in letters Paul wrote to communities of believers other than those in Asia Minor. To the Romans, for example, he said, “Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4, NRSV) Furthermore, various thoughts expressed in 2 Peter are found in Paul’s letters. These include comments about the return of Christ, the judgment to be expressed against the ungodly, and the necessity for believers to lead exemplary lives. Therefore, the words about Paul’s “speaking of these [things],” as he does in all his letters, could include the major points that are emphasized in 2 Peter. (3:16)

In relation to Paul’s letters, problems had arisen. Some things he had written proved to be hard to understand, and “ignorant and unstable” ones, as also in the case of the rest of the scriptures, twisted his words to their own ruin. This suggests that communities of believers who possessed copies of Paul’s letters considered them authoritative, just as they did the recognized “holy writings” that were read in the Jewish synagogues. (3:16)

Among the things that appear to have been hard to understand would have been Paul’s emphasis on freedom and on the reality that “all things” were “lawful” and “clean.” (Compare 1 Corinthians 6:12; Galatians 5:1; Titus 1:15.) What he had written was probably twisted to justify or condone base conduct. (3:16)

The “ignorant and unstable” ones likely were those who presumed to be teachers of others. They were “ignorant,” for they had no sound understanding of the subject matter but appear to have imagined that they were knowledgeable. These would-be teachers would have been unstable persons, not founded on the truth that Jesus Christ taught but enamored by their own views. Impressed with their own warped opinions, they would have been very bold when making their assertions. (Compare 1 Timothy 1:6, 7.) So it was to their own ruin (and also the ruin of anyone who might have been deluded by them) that they misused the words contained in the “holy writings” and in Paul’s letters. (3:16)

By means of the words contained in 2 Peter, the “beloved” or dear fellow believers had been forewarned about the danger posed by those who would attempt to introduce corrupt teaching. This admonition alerted devoted disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ to be on guard against being led astray with the “delusion” or deceptive teaching of the lawless ones and falling “from [their] own steadfastness.” Proponents of error were “lawless,” for they disregarded the commandment to let love govern in all their thoughts, words, and actions. Instead, they were determined to satisfy their lusts without regard for the hurtful effects on others. Their delusion doubtless included imagining that, on account of God’s great mercy, they would not be disapproved for pursuing their debased craving and for emboldening others to do likewise. Believers needed to watch out that the plausible arguments of false teachers would not sway them, causing them to cease being steadfast in their living a life that harmonized with Jesus Christ’s example and teaching. (3:17)

To remain steadfast in their devotion, believers needed to “grow in the favor and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Growing in “favor” would include advancing in a life that conformed ever closer to the example of Jesus Christ so as to be the recipient of his favor in the form of continued aid and guidance. “Knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” would relate to the kind of knowledge that revealed an individual’s having an approved relationship with him. The godly life of believers would prove that they belonged to him as their Lord and the Savior who liberated them from the condemnation to which sin leads. Because of all that Jesus Christ has accomplished by surrendering his life for the human family, the prayerful expression with which 2 Peter concludes is most appropriate, “To him [be] the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen [‘So be it’ (not in all manuscripts)].” Jesus Christ is Lord, in fact, the King of kings and Lord of lords and so in possession of far greater dignity and authority that any human ruler might have. “Glory,” majesty, or splendor are rightly his, and that is the case now and will be so forever, or throughout all the endless ages to come. (3:18)

Notes:

Translators have variously rendered verse 1. The German Neue Genfer Übersetzung interpretively represents the two letters as serving to recall to the minds of the recipients things that would aid them to remain awake and to avoid allowing anything evil to influence their thinking. Other translations, though less interpretive, convey a variety of meanings. “This, dear friends, is now my second letter to you. In both I have been recalling to you what you already know, to rouse you to honest thought.” (REB) “Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking.” (TNIV) “My dear friends, this is the second letter I have written you to help your honest minds remember.” (NCV) “My dear friends, this is the second letter I have written to you, trying to awaken in you by my reminders an unclouded understanding.” (NJB) “My dear friends, this is the second letter I have written to encourage you to do some honest thinking.” (CEV)

The reading “your apostles” (in verse 2) has superior manuscript support. Numerous manuscripts, however, say “our apostles.”

The reading (in verse 10) “will be found” (a form of the Greek word eurísko) has the support of fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus as well as numerous other manuscripts. Still other manuscripts say “will be burned up” or “will disappear.” One manuscript (P72, thought to date from the late third century or early fourth century CE) reads “will be found dissolved” or destroyed.