I purchased a Jaguar several years ago. Perhaps it was a mid-life crisis kind of thing, I’m not sure. Anyway, I didn’t take it to church on Sundays or Wednesday nights so most of the members where I preached weren’t aware that I had it. At home, I always put it in the garage—I never left it in the driveway. To tell the truth, I was a little too big for it and after a while I realized I needed to do something with it so I gave it to our youngest daughter.
You do understand that I’m speaking about a Schwinn Jaguar bicycle—right?
Anais Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” She got that right! That means we have to work hard and listen carefully to overcome this tendency. Since 2 Peter was written for us but not to us, it’s important, make that imperative, that we don’t try to force the the text into communicating its truths in the way we would say them. Instead, we humbly recognize that the biblical witness speaks to us in the language of the people and times in which it was written. Trying to force a 21st century frame of reference upon it is at best ignorant and at worst arrogant and almost always gets us into interpretive trouble.
When we read in 2 Peter 3 about last days, a coming, a day of the Lord, the destruction of the heavens and earth, and a new heaven and earth—from our frame of reference this has to be the end of the world when Jesus returns. After all, that’s how how anyone today would understand these words. But remember, that’s ultimately not the basis for understanding the text. We should be asking, “How would someone in Peter’s audience have understood his words? and “How did Peter mean for his words to be taken?” With this in mind, let’s look at some things that will help us understand the meaning of his words.
1. Peter’s letters were addressed to Jewish disciples. They are “exiles scattered” who have experienced the new birth through Jesus (1 Peter 1:1-3, 2:3:1). The ESV has “exiles of the Dispersion” reflecting that the word Dispersion (diaspora) is present in the Greek. This word refers to Jewish people living outside Palestine (John 7:35; Acts 8:1,4, 11:19; James 1:1). Although this is a phrase often taken metaphorically in James and 1 Peter to mean Christians who are living as aliens/exiles in the world, I’m unaware of any compelling reason to do so. And in the absence of such, we should understand the word in its normative sense.
2. One of the issues Peter deals with in his second letter is the rise of false teachers. After commending them to the “completely reliable” message of Scripture as something they should give attention to (1:19ff), his tone darkens as he warns of heretical teachers who would appear (2:1ff). This wasn’t going to happen sometime in the distant future to a another generation because Peter repeatedly tells them these things will happen to them. The false teachers will be “among you” (v. 1), “exploit you” (v. 3) and be “blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you” (v. 13).
What will be the outcome of those who “bring the way of truth in to disrepute (v. 2)? Peter says, “Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping” (v. 4). He goes on to give examples of wickedness being punished and concludes, “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority” (v. 8-9). The rest of the chapter is an expansion on this theme.
3. These false teachers will scoff at the idea of the ‘coming’ promised by God (3:3-4). Despite the chapter break, this isn’t a new group but the same people he has been referring to. Their scoffing (mocking/NASV), fits right in with what we have been told in the previous chapter—they will exploit “with fabricated stories,” (2:3), they “despise authority,” (v. 10), are “arrogant,” (v. 10), and “blaspheme in matters they do not understand” (v. 12).
In regard to the “coming,” their contention will be that since it hadn’t occurred yet, it wasn’t going to. In 3:4 Peter tells us they will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation'” (3:4). Note that they go back to the time of their ancestors to show how long this coming has been anticipated. This can’t be the return of Jesus since these ancestors lived before the time of Christ. They couldn’t have anticipated His final return if His first appearance hadn’t yet taken place! Other translations use “the fathers” (not “our fathers” but more like how we use the word when we speak of our “Founding Fathers”). Furthermore, Peter doesn’t dispute this point—his speech of v. 8-9 concedes the lengthy period of time and explains it as God graciously granting the opportunity for repentance.
If it is objected that the scoffers belong to the “last days” (which some take to refer the period of time before the return of Jesus at the end of the world) and that would provide the necessary time for them to speak of ancestors in reference to Jesus’ return, the logic is correct but it is at odds with the context. As mentioned earlier, it is clear Peter is speaking to people who will be be around when these false teachers come on the scene (note again the “you” in 2:1,3,13). That means “last days” should be understood as having reference to the last days of the Jewish economy (i.e., the temple, the priesthood, the city of Jerusalem). The phrase is used that way in Acts 2:17; Hebrews 1:1-2; James 5:3; and is in keeping with 1 Peter 4:7 where he tells them “The end of all things is near.” The return of Jesus wasn’t near, but the fall of Jerusalem was. If Peter is not speaking of the return of Jesus at the end of time, what is he speaking of? Was there a ‘coming’ that had been spoken of in the time of their ancestors?