The Day of the Lord: Judgment and Mercy

2 Peter 3:1-18

 

Christ is coming back. In the words of the Creed, "On the third day He rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end." When He arrives, no one will miss it, and all our motives will be laid bare: "For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels" (Mark. 8:38). Are you ready?

As Peter builds to the climax of his second letter, the Day of the Lord is in full view-the time when all things will be sorted out, when the Lord will "rescue the godly from temptation and…keep the unrighteous under punishment" (2:9) forever. The stark difference in perception of and preparedness for that day between true believers and false teachers serves as his final warning to the Church against their lies.

First, though, he states again his purpose in writing: "This is now, beloved, the second letter I am writing to you in which I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the words spoken beforehand by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken by your apostles" (3:1-2). As he has said throughout the letter, his passion is for believers to grow in knowledge (1:3-4, 12) that is manifested in holiness and love (1:5-7) through reliance on God's Word (1:19-21) so that they may reject any false teaching that undermines the Gospel (2:1-3).

We've seen the thread of Peter's argument that false doctrine and immoral living are two sides of the same coin. Disbelief feeds on the desire for guilt-free indulgence of every lust, luring men and women to death. An inevitable part of this vicious cycle, Peter points out, is denial of the Lord's return and judgment: "Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation'" (3:3-4). The false teachers in Peter's day chose to see the world as a fixed constant with no repercussions for man's deeds. Every species of naturalism (scientism, Darwinism, etc.) is still rooted in this denial of God's continual involvement in His creation and His impending return.

Peter quickly gives the lie to this mockery, though: "For when they maintain this, it escapes their notice that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water" (3:5-6). They ignore ("escapes their notice" translates the Greek lanthanei-"it is concealed" or "their eyes have been shut to") the fact that Creation is not simply continuing on under its own power. It was made by God through Christ, "who upholds all things by the word of His power" (Heb. 1:2-3), and He has previously demonstrated His authority to judge every square inch of it (through the flood). And just as He did then, He will judge again according to His absolute righteousness: "But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men" (3:7).

The flow of Peter's reasoning to this point in the letter seems to beg many questions: If God knows how to judge the good and the wicked, and He will return to judge, why hasn't He come yet? Why does God allow Satan, through false teachers, to seek to destroy the Church? Why does He let so many be led astray? We may cry out with Asaph: "Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling, my steps had almost slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant as I saw the prosperity of the wicked" (Ps. 73:1-3).

Anticipating the question, Peter answers, but the truth he reveals should stop us cold from every presumption. "But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance" (3:8-9). God's time is not our time, and His judgment is pure and eternal. He delays His coming, wanting all to repent, making space for that to happen and knowing from eternity past when the iniquity of the world will be complete (cf. Gen. 15:16).

Even so, His righteous judgment is coming, and it will be swift, sure, and total. "But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up" (3:10). This window into the coming Day of the Lord should cause us to tremble. The words Peter uses are graphic. The Lord's coming will be "like a thief", not in a moral sense but with secrecy and complete surprise. He says "the heavens will pass away with a roar", translating the Greek ouranoi rhoizēdon pareleusontai-literally "The sky and stars will become as nothing with a mighty rushing sound." All of the physical creation "will be destroyed"-from the Greek lythēsetai, meaning "dissolve or untie"-coming apart at the seams, as it were. Finally, all the works of earth "will be burned up"-the Greek here, heurethesetai, means that it "will be exposed," laid bare by God's judgment. When the Lord returns, all that is not spiritual and eternal will be burned away.

Peter then puts the question to us, "What are you building?" "Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat!" (3:11-12). The Lord is coming. How should we then live? Peter tells us that we should have "no fear in death"-recognizing that, just as the wicked would be in dread of Christ's return, those covered by Christ's blood and righteousness long for God's justice to come quickly. He describes our righteous longing for our perfection in Christ, "But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells" (3:13), reminding us that sin and righteousness cannot coexist.

Taken together, Peter's reminder of the Lord's coming and his question add up to a compelling charge to carry the Gospel of Christ to all the world. In essence, he says, "Was the earth destroyed last night? No? Now would be a good time to live in holiness and love and evangelize the lost." "Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation" (3:14-15a). If God is patient, not wanting any to perish, every moment His judgment is withheld is a renewal of our call as His people to proclaim His excellencies to a watching world (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9). Throughout the letter, Peter has called out false teachers for indulging their lusts (epithumia) and called believers to flee from theirs. Here, he extols God's patience (makrothumia) in contrast, calling believers to Christ-like restraint of anger and receive His blessings as opportunity for grace, thanksgiving, and evangelism.

Coming to a close, Peter references his fellow apostle, Paul, as having previously delivered a similar message to his readers: "Just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction" (3:15b-16). Recall that Peter was writing to believers "throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia"-modern day Turkey-areas where Paul had planted churches and had sent back letters of instruction that we today know as Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians. This is significant, in that Peter equates Paul's writings with all other Scripture, denying those who would later reject Paul's authority as an apostle any biblical warrant for their error.

He acknowledges that Paul's works (drawing as they do on his "great learning" as a teacher of the Law) can be difficult to understand, but says that those who refuse to accept and believe them as written are in error, just as false teachers who distort the Old Testament and other apostolic teachings. Their misunderstanding is "to their own destruction" because it is only in the truth of Christ that they can be saved-there is only one way to the Father, and both Paul and Peter labored faithfully to lead their readers to the cross. If these believers had the same teaching we do, our responsibility to study and obey is equal to theirs. That we today can believe the same glorious truths they learned from the apostles is a testimony of their faithfulness, and we should carry on the chain of obedience.

Peter closes with one last reminder of the themes he has written on throughout both his letters: "You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (3:17-18a). He tells them again that they "know [these things] and have been established in the truth which is present with [them]" (1:12), so they ought to continue on in truth, growing in knowledge and obedience.

His benediction gives all the credit for the faith and perseverance of those who read to the one to whom it is due: "To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen" (3:18b). Here, 2,000 years later, the "day of eternity" is yet to come, so Peter's admonition to us is as crisp and urgent as it was to those who first read it. May this word dwell richly in our hearts and draw us to faithful obedience.

Justin Lonas is editor of Disciple Magazine for AMG International in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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