The Second Letter of Peter
The formal style and stiff polemical tone of this brief book help to rank it among the least read of the biblical canon (New Interpreters Study Bible). Not exactly the most welcoming words as we approach this book of the New Testament. That writer goes on to say, yet it grapples with profound and enduring theological issues, such as God’s providence and the destiny of the world.
This work takes on the form of a letter, a form that had become very popular. “In fact, letters of Paul had already been collected into a body of writing and were being circulated in the churches as Scripture (II Peter 3:15-16)” (People’s New Testament Commentary). This letter takes the form of a final letter, a farewell address.
The work is a general letter, intended to be circulated among a number of Christian communities. We are not sure of the location of these communities or the location of the author. It is pretty clear that the author is not Peter. If Paul’s letters were in circulation after his death, Peter was probably also dead by the time this letter was penned. The later date of this letter is attested to by references to the time of the apostles as a time in the past, by the references to Paul’s letters,and by the incorporation of the Letter of Jude into this letter. The writer, then, writes in Peter’s name but is unknown – “probably someone from the circle of Peter’s disciples honored the apostle by writing what Peter would say to the church in a new time and place” (People’s New Testament Commentary). The letter was probably written at the end of the first or beginning of the second century CE.
Unlike I Peter, the concerns of this writer are internal to the community. It is not persecution without that is the problem, but what is going on within the Jesus communities to which the author is writing. The readers, wherever they were, are plagued by controversies over the interpretation of Scripture and destabilizing teachings about moral conduct that in the writer’s opinion, were the fruit of rejecting the doctrine of the return of Christ and final day of God (People’s New Testament Commentary).
II Peter 1:1-2: This pseudonymous letter is written in the name of Peter, but using the rare form – “Simeon.” The recipients of the letter are broadly identified as those who share the same precious apostolic faith. The phrase “God and Savior Jesus Christ” is rare in the New Testament. A well-developed theology of how Jesus as the Christ was also God incarnate had not been formed, but this is the kind of language which would have been a part of the on-going conversation. A few words later, we have the phrase, “God and Jesus our Lord.” For Christians our understanding of God is decisively shaped by Jesus the Christ. He is the face of God turned toward us, to use a phrase from Marcus Borg. That is the central Christian affirmation. Questions arise about how this is the case and whether or not God can be known in a life-changing way outside of Jesus. Last week I attended a meeting where a Christian clergyperson said to the group, about Muslims and Jews, “they worship a different god.” The language of II Peter might provide him some reason for such a statement, but it is not the only language of the New Testament.
II Peter 1:3-15: Whatever the shortcomings of this book may be, this section contains some beautiful and moving words. In God, and through God’s power, we have everything we need “for life and godliness.” We don’t need to wait around until something else comes. The readers are told that they have promises from God, and through power and promise we can escape the present corrupt world (corruption due to lust – again, see my thoughts on the topic of “desire” in my commentary on James 2). What we move toward is becoming “participants of the divine nature.” This is quite a promise – something about our lives is intended to be Godlike. One is reminded of Jesus words that we should be as compassionate as God. I am also reminded of the words of theologian Walter Wink: “To incarnate God is what it means to be fully human” (The Human Being, 30).
God has given us all we need to be this kind of person, but that does not mean we have no role to play. The readers are told to make every effort to live their faith in goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection, and love. This is quite a list! When these qualities are growing among us and in us, our faith is being effective and fruitful. Lacking these qualities, faith is nearsighted and blind. Cultivating these qualities of life is being a part of God’s kingdom. So don’t lose a minute in building on what you’ve been given, complementing your basic faith with good character, spiritual understanding, alert discipline, passionate patience, reverent wonder, warm friendliness, and generous love, each dimension fitting into and developing the others (The Message).
The writers purpose is to remind them of these things, which they already know. He does so knowing his death is near. The letter is thus set up as a final word from a revered teacher. Such a literary construct gives the words a certain poignancy and power.
II Peter 1:16-21: The writer’s last testament will include a debate with others who, by implication, are propagating a cleverly devised myth. “Myth” here is being used in a pejorative sense. We should be aware that many theological and biblical scholars today use the term “myth” very positively. They can be seen as the stories that orient us, that speak to us deeply as human beings. “Our myths, whether recognized or not, are what animate us and direct us: they face us this way or that; they open and close our horizons” (Amos Niven Wilder, Theopoetic, 78). When we read the term myth used negatively, we need to remind ourselves that this does not exhaust the use of the term. In any event, the writer, in the guise of Peter, argues that the apostolic faith given the readers comes from the testimony of those who knew Jesus and the power of his life first hand, and not simply from fabricated stories. The experience of the Transfiguration is used as evidence that the power of God was working in Jesus. The readers are to be attentive to the faith they were taught, and not to the “false teachings” that are a problem the writer is trying to combat. The readers are to “be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your heart.” What a nice turn of phrase. A principle of interpretation is argued for here – “no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” Christian faith trusts that God’s Spirit was at work in the life and writing of the persons whose words we read in the Scripture. This is distinct from a fundamentalist view of verbal inspiration and infallibility of Scripture. It is a view which says that God’s Spirit touches lives through these writings. Understanding them is the work not of self-appointed individuals, but of God’s Spirit working in the community of faith. Prayerful and Spirit-attentive conversation and dialogue is the best way to move toward more adequate interpretations of Scripture. Apparently the troublesome teachers were simply doing their own thing with the texts and traditions and creating all kinds of problems.
II Peter 2:1-22: “The tone of the letter changes as the author unleashes a fierce attack on the false teachers, much of it drawn from Jude 4-16” (New Interpreters Study Bible). As in the past there were false teachers, so, too, is this the case for the readers of the letter. Such teachers “secretly bring in destructive opinions.” The teachers are deceptive, and their opinions destructive - - - -they are destructive of the Jesus way of life and thus of the Jesus community. Great care needs to be taken with such words these days, when Christians are divided on a number of important issues – the meaning of Scripture, human sexuality, contemporary public policy. It is too easy to claim the high ground and hurl the accusation of “destructive opinions” against those with whom we disagree. As I read this section, it seems that the ideas are not as much the problem as the kinds of behavior they support – licentiousness, greed. When ideas are clearly linked with this kind of behavior, then we seem to have evidence that these ideas have stretched the elasticity of Christian faith to a breaking point.
God’s judgment is evoked harshly, with examples derived from the past. Those who “indulge the flesh” and “despise authority” will be judged accordingly. Yet this same God knows how to keep the faithful through a difficult time. Harsh rhetoric toward the false teachers continues – they are like irrational animals, they have hearts trained in greed, they are like waterless springs. They have exchanged their freedom in Christ for a life again enslaved. The rhetorical rampage of this unit was familiar to audiences of the time. It belonged to a form of oratory called “in praise or blame.” Exaggerated flourishes were used to praise or blame a person or a group of persons. (People’s New Testament Commentary)
What is puzzling to this point is that the nature of the teaching which evokes this rhetoric is not at all clear. We only get a glimpse of the kind of life that accompanied this false teaching – a life of excess, greed, giving in to every desire. We will get a slight glimpse into the problematic teaching in the next chapter.
II Peter 3
II Peter 3:1-13: The writer has finished the harsh speech against the false teachers and returns to the theme of reminding the readers of the faith they were first taught. It seems evident that either this writer has composed another letter or he is aware of the First Letter of Peter. Anyway, the writer is inviting the readers to remember the words of the prophets and the apostolic teaching about Jesus.
Here we get to at least one of the issues that is troubling this Jesus community – teachers who scoff at the notion that Christ will come again, that God will act again in a decisive way through Jesus as the Christ. Admittedly the scoffers have a point, how much does the world seem to have changed? Jesus lived here on earth 2,000 years ago, and still we have war, poverty, hatred, greed, injustice. What has changed? The scoffers of the writer’s time simply noted that Christians had died, yet Jesus had not yet come. We note that generations of Christians have died, many have become a part of the church and while the world has changed, we wonder if it has changed for the better.
What makes the whole doctrine of a second coming of Christ difficult for many Christians today are the absurd notions that have often been associated with this doctrine in many churches. Too many Christians have spent too much time and effort speculating on the last days, and many other Christians turn away from the notion because of this. Yet we who struggle with the idea of Christ’s second coming should remember that in our traditional communion liturgy we proclaim “the mystery of faith – Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” The essential element in this doctrine has nothing to do with the kind of timetables rapture theorists put forward. The essential element of this doctrine is that God continues to work for God’s dream for the world, a dream we understand through Jesus. We trust that that work continues and we trust that all that we do that furthers that dream is important. Finally we trust that someday God will make the world right and so we work for that.
Understood in that way, the words of II Peter are even more powerful. Time for God may be different than human time. God’s work is patient work, and we should continue to work patiently and persistently for God’s new world. The final completion of that dream is in the future sometime, and we don’t need to worry about that, only continue to do our part.
Christians do their part, the writer says, by living lives of holiness and godliness. “We wait for a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” The writer couches much of this discussion in mythic language, but the essential point is to hold on to hope and live differently because of that hope.
II Peter 3:14-18: Waiting for a new heaven and a new earth is not passive. “Strive to be found by him at peace.” The writer then offers a backhanded compliment to Paul, noting that Paul writes about similar themes, but that “there are some things in [Paul’s letters] hard to understand.” What refreshing honesty. But because some things are hard to understand, some of Paul’s writings have been twisted beyond recognition. The readers are encouraged to continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. While this letter spends quite a bit of time on the negative, its primary purpose is positive – encouraging this growth in grace and knowledge, and growth in generous love.