The epistles of 1 and 2 Peter are unjustly neglected, first because they are both God’s inspired Word. Second, because these epistles give us a perspective on the history of salvation, the accomplishment of redemption, and the nature of life between the ascension and return of Christ that is much needed today. As the West devolves from post-Christian to neo-Pagan and anti-Christian, the original setting of 1 and 2 Peter will become that much more familiar to us. The Apostle wrote to congregations in Asia Minor who were beleaguered and suffering for he sake of Christ. The great, unifying theme of the two epistles is, as the title of the series suggests, taken from our Lord’s description of life between the first and second advents:
Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed (Luke 17:26–30; ESV).
This series in 2 Peter is the continuation of an earlier series on 1 Peter on the Heidelblog. In that series we observed the Apostle addressing the fears and concerns of the churches in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1 Pet 1:1). Some were being abused by pagan masters. They were mocked by the local synagogue, and under threat from the secular Roman authorities, who did not understand who these Christians were, what they believed, and why they met. Indeed, much confusion and misinformation about the Christians would persist for centuries. Imagine how odd and even frightening it must have been to the pagan Romans to find a sect of Jews and Gentiles who worshiped a Jew, whom the Romans had crucified—in their eyes that would have placed Jesus among the worst of the worst—whom they claimed was raised, ascended, and is now ruling a kingdom from heaven. This would have seemed like a direct threat to their idolatry of the Roman state and to the cult of Caesar. That any Roman came to faith is evidence that regeneration is the sovereign gift of God. Only the Holy Spirit could produce in a Roman citizen faith in a crucified Jew.
1 and 2 Peter reveal much to us about the eschatological expectations of the early church. They did not expect to transform the world in this life nor were they anticipating a secret rapture to occur just before a seven-year tribulation to be followed by a literal 1,000 reign of Christ on the earth. Much less were they expecting the reconstruction of the Jewish temple and the reinstitution of the sacrificial system.
The great point of our Lord’s analogy with Noah is to explain the nature of life between the ascension and the judgment. Most of the world ignored God’s prophet (Noah) as he announced (2 Pet 2:5) the law and the gospel. Even as he built the ark and discharged his duty, most of the world carried on as it always had to that point. People did as people do. They worked. They married. They acted as if there God is not and as if there is no judgment and no Savior from the wrath to come. They mocked Noah and his family right up to the point the rain not stop.
So it is with us Christians. We are part of this world. We work. We have families. We co-exist with our fellow image bearers on God’s earth. We fulfill our secular vocations and, by his grace, serve God and neighbor as best we can but we know that there is more to come. This life is not the end of the story. Just as Noah “found favor in the eyes of Yahweh” (Gen 6:8), we too are the recipients of grace. Now, as then, the earth is corrupt and filled with violence (Gen 6:11). Now, as then, Yahweh has appointed an ark of salvation, Jesus the Messiah (Gen 6:14). Now, as then, we who believe are in a covenant of grace (Gen 6:18). The judgment to come, however, will not be with water but with fire:
For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly (2 Peter 3:5–7; ESV).
This is Peter’s response to the (mostly Jewish) critics of Christianity, who mocked the seventh article of the Christian faith: “Thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.” The function of invoking the analogy with Noah, by the way, tells us that, contra the pagan critics today, who mock Christianity as just another failed “apocalyptic religion” (like the Millerites of the 19th century, the progenitors of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other false sects), the Apostle Peter knew that the return of Jesus would not be immediate, that the Lord had yet to send the gospel to the ends of the earth. Remember, this is the same Apostle Peter who had seen the risen Jesus, who had watched him ascend into heaven, had been baptized with the Spirit at Pentecost, who had announced “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39; ESV). The gospel was just beginning to go to those who were far off. We are still in the ark-building phase of the program, as it were.
There was some doubt about the authorship of 2 Peter early in the history of the church. According to Eusebius its authorship was a “disputed” book but then so was Hebrews. Athanasius listed it among the canonical books in his 39th Festal Letter (367 AD). Modern scholarship is divided. The majority opinion (but not necessarily the correct opinion) is that it is pseudepigraphal, i.e., that it was not actually written by the Apostle Peter but only attributed to him by someone else. As the ancient church came to see that this really was an inspired work, and imposed by an apostle as part of the canonical word of God, it was received as such. The medieval and Reformation churches accepted it as such but in the modern period, influenced as it as been by the rationalism of the Enlightenment movements, doubt has been cast on the authenticity (and therefore the date) of 2 Peter based entirely on subjective grounds. The critics tend to date 2 Peter in the 2nd century and regard it as inauthentic because the style varies from 1 Peter.
The style and vocabulary are somewhat different from 1 Peter but the theology is not essentially different. We have good reasons to doubt the doubters. First, source criticism is a notoriously unreliable and subjective method. I recall seeing a “source-critical” treatment of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, in which it was concluded that there were multiple hands at work in it. Of course there were not but if we set up certain criteria we can get the results we want. Defenders of the authenticity of 2 Peter note that the use of secretaries was common in the ancient world. We know that Peter used Silvanus as his secretary and courier for 1 Peter. There is no note of a secretary in 2 Peter. Based upon what is known about the production of the other NT epistles (including 1 Peter) It seems likely that he had a secretary but perhaps not. At any rate, a change in secretaries is more than sufficient to explain the stylistic differences. Then there is 2 Peter 3:1, which says: “This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder” (ESV). Since there is an explicit claim of authorship we should need strong evidence to doubt it. That evidence simply does not exist. As we go through the epistle we will see internal evidence that 2 Peter has the same kinds of concerns, the same thought structure, and the same theology as 1 Peter.
As one who has spent a good deal of time in the Apostolic Fathers (i.e., a collection of early Christian writings from c. 110–170 AD somewhat arbitrarily collected in the modern period and denominated as “the apostolic fathers”) it is evident to me that there are marked differences between the early post-apostolic writings and holy Scripture. For one thing, the early post-apostolic writings do not claim to be apostolic. The heterodox and heretical groups produced pseudepigraphal writings but the early Christians did not. The Apostolic Fathers quoted Scripture and referred to it as such. They had a consciousness that they were quoting authoritative, apostolic, Scripture. They were appealing to a rule outside themselves, a rule given by God. The Apostles write with a different authority. 2 Peter reads much more like an Apostolic writing than a post-apostolic writing.
Peter begins by describing himself first of all as a servant or a slave (δοῦλος) Were this pseudepigraphal, would the author have delayed, even by one word the assertion of his apostolic authority? That seems unlikely. Indeed, in the case of the Gnostic texts (2nd century) they telegraph immediately, with obvious clauses, that they are spurious. E.g., they claim to have secret information about gaps in our biblical knowledge about the life of our Lord Jesus or a secret revelation from one of the apostles. This salutation is what we would expect from an apostle who is nearing the end of his earthly ministry.
Structure, Setting, And Themes
There are three chapters in 2 Peter and, though there is thematic overlap between them, they contain three discernible themes:
- The Truth of Christ Versus Man-Made Myths (1:3–21)
- The Danger of False Teachers (2:1–22)
- The Day of the Lord (3:1–13)
As noted in the series on 1 Peter, these epistles were sent to Christian congregations in Asia Minor (Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bythinia) in what corresponds to western Turkey. These were ethnically mixed congregations who suffered unofficial persecution, i.e., informal pressure from masters, and others to conform to the surrounding paganism. Where in 1 Peter the contrast is between the pagans and the Christians and how the latter should conduct themselves in a pagan culture, the focus in 2 Peter is problem created by theological and moral error within the visible church.
Peter regards us Christians living between the ascension of Christ and his return as pilgrims and aliens. We live in this world, God’s world, under the Lordship of Christ but we do so as resident aliens. Mark this: unlike those today who are waiting for Christ to exercise his Lordship at some future point, Peter says that Christ is reigning now over all things. That Christians are suffering now is part of Christ’s sovereign Lordship.
The over-arching theme that unites these two epistles is what I have been calling the “Noah Paradigm.” Our Lord appealed to this way of thinking in his Olivet Discourse (Matt 24:37): “As it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be when the Son of Man comes.” Our Lord was characterizing the inter-adventure age. He was giving us a way to think about our life between his ascension and his return. In Noah’s day people were conducting their life as if God is not (etsi Deus non daretur). They were doing the ordinary things of life but they were ignoring the Lord’s prophet, Noah, who was warning them about the coming judgement and urging them to repent and to believe. They did not and all of them who lived in “the world that then was” (2 Pet 3:6) perished except for God’s church, i.e., Noah and his family. For Peter, the New Testament church is in a similar position. Like Noah, Christians too are announcing a message about the coming judgment and calling everyone everywhere to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus. We are in the ark (Christ), as it were, and sometimes it seems as if the rain is about to start falling any moment. Like Noah, we wait patiently, trusting in Christ and in his promises. We live and serve in the knowledge that, as important as God’s world is, there is coming a new heavens and a new earth.