2 Peter and the Return of Jesus

The implied opponents in 2 Peter denied the return of Jesus (1:16, 2:1-3, 14, 18). There are several reasons for this, but primarily it was because the first generation of believers were old or dead. Peter himself is about to die, Paul will die about the same time. Yet Jesus has not returned – why is this?

It is possible that the opponents charged the older generation with creating the return of Jesus, it is a “cleverly devised myth (1:16). Bauckham suggests that the opponents might have claimed the apostles made up the return of Jesus in order to control the early church (Jude, 2 Peter, 154).” I am not sure how that would work, it almost sounds like the first generation knew they were creating a cult and they came up with a story and brainwashed their converts.

I think that it is more like that the phrase “cleverly devised myth” implies that they opponents claimed that the (Jewish) apostles over-interpreted the words of Jesus because of there apocalyptic world view. As the church became increasingly Gentile, it became more rational. The second and third generation Gentile believers were not reading Daniel and 1 Enoch, they were reading Stoic and Epicurean philosophy. As a result the “apocalyptic” aspect of early Christianity was muted. These false-teachers deny the return of Jesus because they do not share the apocalyptic assumptions of Paul and Peter!  (This suggestion has the advantage of explaining the missing text from Jude, especially the citation of 1 Enoch which concerns the apocalyptic return of the Lord. Peter avoided them since they would cause more trouble from his opponents.)

The opponents also denied a future judgment as well as the return of Jesus. The coming of Messiah is bound up with the idea of a judgment on the nations in Jewish apocalyptic. When Messiah comes, he will judge the nations and punish those who are not considered “righteous.” In Matt 25: 31-46, for example, when Jesus returns he will punish the nations that mistreated his children. If the Messiah is not coming back, then he is also not going to judge people for their present behavior (2:19).

Peter’s strategy for countering his opponents is interesting especially since we now live some 2000 years after Jesus.  It is fairly easy to mock the  idea of a “return of Jesus” given that he has been away for quite some time, and some of his followers keep failing at predictions of the day and hour.   Rather than point to so-called fulfilled prophecies or trends in society which “prove” Jesus is coming very soon, Peter argues first that God keeps his promises, even if there is a long time between promise and fulfillment.  Second, if there is a delay, that delay is a reflection of God’s mercy and his hope that those facing judgment will repent.  I think this is  the point of 3:8 (“a day is like a thousand years”) is to point out that God often gives a long time for repentance.

Does this sort of “strategy” work today?  How does a Christian firmly hold to the return of Jesus while separating from the more embarrassing examples of recent years?

The Power and Glory – 2 Peter 1:16-18

In response to the claim the apostolic teaching concerning the return of Jesus is a cleverly devised myth, Peter claims to be an eyewitness of “his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16b-18). Peter is referring to the Transfiguration of Jesus (Matt 17:1-8, Mark 9:1-8, Luke 9:28-36).  In this well-known story, Jesus takes Peter, James and John to a mountain where the glory of God comes upon Jesus. God’s voice speaks, declaring Jesus to be his son and then Jesus speaks with Moses and Elijah.

In the Gospels the transfiguration calls attention to who Jesus really is: he is the Son of God and the fulfillment of both the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah). God’s voice sounding from a bright Transfiguration Raphaelcloud declaring Jesus to be his son evokes both the theophany at Mount Sinai and Psalm 2, an important messianic Psalms.

In 2 Peter, the writer claims to be an “eyewitness of his majesty.” The noun Peter chooses for “eyewitness”(ἐπόπτης) only appears here in the New Testament, but has the connotation of someone that makes very careful observations. For example, God sees everything (2 Macc 3:39; 7:35; 3 Macc 2:21; 1 Clem 59:3) or the Emperor (IPerg 381).

What Peter witnessed was “his majesty” (μεγαλειότης, v. 16). This noun is also rare in the New Testament, but it is used in Acts 19:27 when the pagan Demetrius the Silversmith described the “great goddess Atremis,” she might lose some of her “majesty” if Paul’s gospel is left to grow unchecked. The word therefore refers to something ultimately impressive or awe-inspiring even in the pagan world. A similar word appears in v. 17 (μεγαλοπρεπής), although this word appears in the LXX to describe God himself (Deut 33:26; Sirach 17:3, “the glory of his voice”).

It is perhaps unexpected that Peter would answer the objection concerning the second coming of Jesus with a reference back to the Transfiguration. But as Thomas Schreiner points out, the transfiguration follows a statement about seeing “the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matt 16:28–17:13; Mark 9:1–13; Luke 9:27–36).

In Matthew 16:21-23 Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection for the first time, immediately after Peter has confessed his belief in Jesus as the Messiah. In response to the surprising prediction that God’s Messiah was going to be killed when he went to Jerusalem, Peter rebukes Jesus (v. 22), and Jesus’ rebukes Satan and calls Peter a hindrance!

Jesus then declares to his disciples they must be ready to “take up their cross and follow him” (Matt 16:24-28). To a first century Jew, “taking up one’s cross” meant to be crucified by the Romans! Jesus warns his disciples that he will he be executed in Jerusalem, but also they must be ready for the same treatment. The assumed context of 2 Peter is just before Peter literally “takes up his cross” and die on account of his faith in Jesus.

Peter is therefore presenting himself as a prophetic witness to a foretaste of the glory of the Son of Man and his kingdom. Having raised the issue of prophecy, he goes on to argue that the prophets are reliable because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Memories of Jesus – 2 Peter 1:12-15

This paragraph is like a “last testament” for Peter. He knows he will be executed soon and he wants to encourage the readers to keep what he has said in mind even after he is gone. Some of the language here is “stock language” used in last testaments, both in the Bible and I the literature of the Second Temple period.

The prediction of Peter’s martyrdom at the end of John’s gospel generated a number of extra-biblical legends about
the kind of death Peter would experience, including a legend that Peter met the resurrected Jesus on the road to Rome and Jesus told him he was about to be Caravaggio - Crucifixion of Petercrucified (Acts of Peter). There is nothing historical in these stories since the point of Jesus’ prediction was only to tell Peter that his faith was not weak and that he would persevere all the way to the end.

In 2 Peter, he uses a vivid metaphor for death, he will soon be putting off the “tent of his body.” This phrase is usually associated with Bedouin who pack up their tent when they are ready to move on to a new location.  Peter knows the time is near for him to leave be body and move on to what is next.

Since he knows he is about to die, Peter wants his readers to remember his personal testimony about Jesus. This would include his ethical teaching in the previous chapter he also is looking ahead to the personal testimony in the next few verses, that he was a witness to the transfiguration. For many of his readers, Peter will be a last connection to the life of Jesus. An eyewitness was respected more than a written source by many in the ancient world, so Peter wants his readers to remember what he is about to tell them in the next paragraph.

He wants to “stir up” his readers “by way of a reminder” (ESV). To “stir up” (διεγείρω) is a word used for rousing someone from sleep, to “awaken” a thought in the mind of the readers. The noun (ὑπόμνησις) is a reminder, so the meaning here is to awaken a particular thought. Think of this as a trigger for a flood of memories. Peter’s goal is to provide a trigger in the minds of his readers so they recall what he has taught them about Jesus and living an exemplary life. Alluding to the story of the transfiguration is part of that trigger.

Likewise, the phrase “make remembrance” (μνήμη, v. 15) refers to a memorial, a marker set up to remember someone or a special event.  Some of my students create elaborate mnemonic devices to recall things for quizzes. I know this because they write random letters in the margins to help remember things, although sometimes remember the crazy word or sentence, but forget the thing they were supposed to remember in the first place! Peter’s words are to be like a memorial stone set up to remind people of the ethical teaching in the previous paragraph and the glorious revelation of Jesus in the following.

This “last testament” of Peter is a way of introducing the main goals of the rest of the letter. Peter wants his readers to recall his testimony about Jesus and his return in the face of opponents of the apostolic teaching about the return of Jesus.

What Have We Forgotten? – 2 Peter 1:9

In 1 Peter 1:5-7, the writer has described a virtuous life. But the one who lacks these qualities has forgotten they are cleansed of sin (v.9).  Two metaphors are used to describe someone that lacks the virtues listed in verses 5-7.

First, they are like people who have poor vision. They are not blind, but so nearsighted that they might as well be blind. Perhaps we might call that “legally blind” in contemporary Mr-magooculture. If you really cannot see well, you find yourself in difficult, embarrassing, or potentially dangerous situations. It is one thing to not be able to read a menu in a restaurant, for example, and quite another to not be able to tell one person from another. Worse yet, if you cannot see well enough to read street signs, driving a car becomes very dangerous.

In the same way, someone that is not developing godliness does not have the spiritual vision to recognize dangers around them and may find themselves not just in an embarrassing situation, but a spiritually dangerous place. A Christian who lacks self-control may say something that is harsh or judgmental when they ought to have controlled their tongue (this is something I have done many times!) They might even be too blind to know that their harsh speech is doing more harm than good.

The second metaphor is forgetfulness. A person who is not perusing godliness has simply forgotten what they are, a forgiven sinner. Most people have had a moment when they forgot something important. Usually it is a name, or something that you RememberAllsaid you would do, etc. Like blindness, forgetfulness can lead to embarrassment (who are you again?) but also to potential danger. Think of people who have serious problems remembering who they are, such as an amnesiac or a person suffering from Alzheimer syndrome. It might be dangerous for a person to be on their own because they have forgotten critically important information that will keep them out of danger.

The person who is not pursuing godliness in Peter 1:9 has forgotten the most important thing imaginable, they have forgotten that they have already been cleansed from sin. Imagine a very dirty child who takes a bath so that they are ready for bed, and then wants to go out and play in the mud again. The believer has already been cleansed of sin, why would they “forget” and go back to their past sins?

This too might be a hint at the problem Peter needs to address in the letter. The opponents claim to have superior godly knowledge of God, and that knowledge allows them (or so they claim) to behave in any way they choose. They are “sinning that grace may abound,” to use the Pauline phrase, since later in the letter Peter will say that the opponents are twisting Paul’s letters in order to support their sin.

Once again I think Peter’s letter is applicable to the current state of the Western church. In our pursuit of some good things, we have lost sight of the most important elements of the Gospel. What is the Church blind to? What are we not seeing (or worse, closing our eyes to?) What have we forgotten in the Gospel?

Is it possible by forgetting what is really important we have become like a child who wants to go play in the mud again?

 

What is a Virtuous Life? – 2 Peter 1:5-7

Like several other places in the New Testament, Peter offers a list of virtues to describe what a “godly life” might look like. The structure of the list is like a staircase (a and b, b and c, etc.) This is a Hellenistic Greek style known as sorites, and is rare in the New Testament (Rom 5:3-5 is the only other example), but appears in Wisdom 6:17-20 and m.Sota 9:15. It is therefore a style known and used by Jewish Christian writers.

Open BiblePursuit of virtue must be a strenuous effort on the part of the believer. “Make every effort” implies deliberate action. Someone might claim to be growing in godliness, but if there is no deliberate activity then the claim is empty. Imagine someone who claims to be trying to lose some weight, but they are not dieting or exercising.  They are not really making “every effort” to lose weight! This is a bit like a “good faith effort” in modern English, but perhaps stronger. It means that the person really does make an honest effort to pursue virtue and godliness.

The believer is making an effort to supplement their faith with various virtues. The participle (παρεισφέρω) is a word only appearing here in the New Testament. In Koine Greek the word refers to benefactors who do good for a community. What they add to is a gift, and the main verb in the clause (ἐπιχορηγέω) is also used for “generous support of the community” (BDAG). Together, the image Peter has in mind here is of a wealthy patron who gives a generous gift to some public building.

Peter includes some virtues from other New Testament lists, but there are also a handful of unique items to this list.

Faith with virtue. Despite being common in modern discussions of ethical living, virtue (ἀρετή) is not often mentioned in the New Testament of godly living. The word is often associated with civic virtue, a wealthy patron who does good deeds for his community. This may be why Peter began with this in his list, since he has already used a metaphor of a benefactor in the previous verse.

Virtue with knowledge. To virtue is added knowledge (γνωσις).This noun is usually associated with intellectual knowledge, and it might seem strange for Peter to begin a Christian virtue list with two common Greco-Roman virtues.

Knowledge with self-control. Knowledge without self-control is arrogant. The noun (ἐγκράτεια) appears as the last item in Paul’s fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:23) and was a respected virtue in the Greco-Roman world. It refers to having a proper restraint on one’s emotions and passions.

Self-control with steadfastness. The noun (ὑπομονή) is often translated as patience, but may also refer to endurance or “personal fortitude.” The person who is in control of their passions will be patient with others and “suffer long” before reacting in a controlled manner.

Steadfastness with godliness. That patience is tempered with godliness (εὐσέβεια). The noun refers to loyalty to a god, so sometimes piety is a good translation. Sometimes the word refers only to external acts of worship, so that a pagan might be described as “godly” if they are pious in their worship of their god.

Godliness with brotherly affection. This noun (φιλαδελφία) refers to the sort of affection family members have for one another. It is common in the New Testament for Christians to think of themselves as brothers and sisters.

Brotherly affection with love. Christian love is more than a brotherhood, there is real and genuine love for others at the heart of Christian ethics. How we behave and how we relate to the world ought to be laced with genuine love.

It is significant that this “virtue list” begins with faith (v. 4) and ends with love (v. 7). Christian virtue lists are often introduced with faith and love. Love begins the fruit of the Spirit list, and faith, hope and love are the three most important virtues in 1 Corinthians 13, for example.

It is remarkable to me that these virtues are relational and non-confrontational. There is nothing in this list demanding believers protest the pagan meat-markets or fight back against their persecutors. Like 1 Peter, this virtue list describes a “good citizen” of Rome! A Stoic or Epicurean may have applauded this list as admirable, and not pagan would fault Christians for having genuine brotherly love or self control.

How does this particular list differ from how Christian virtues are described today? What is the reason for this quite striking difference?

A Life of Godliness – 2 Peter 1:3-4

Discussions of 2 Peter tend to focus on the authenticity of the book and the possibility the book is pseudonymous. As interesting as these issues are, they distract readers from the rich theology of this often ignored letter of the New Testament.

First, the believer has all that is needed to live a life of godliness (v. 3). The two words translated by the ESV as “life and godliness” can be understood as a single idea, a “godly life” (NIV2011). If God has called us to be for his own glory and excellence, then it is important to realize that he has already granted to the one he has called everything he needs to succeed in that godly life.

MathIn some basic math classes a student is allowed to make a 3×5 card of information they might need to pass the test (basic formulas or methods for solving problems). Image a crafty student who prints out the entire math book in micro print and then brings a magnifying glass to class. He would be very prepared. Another student might just being a 3×5 card with nothing on it. But the most prepared student would be the one who had a card prepared by the professor with all the answers already on it.

By way of analogy, that is what God has done for us. He called us to live a holy life, but he also granted us all we need to actually be holy. He does not expect us to develop our own methods and rely on our own strength, but to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit which he has already given us at salvation.

The word “granted” is used several times in this passage and is a word usually associated with a royal or divine gift (Esther 8:1, for example). The highest authority in the universe has called us (at salvation) and given to us a task (godliness), and then he has given us a royal grant to enable us to complete that task.

The reason we have all we need is that God has granted to us all the knowledge of him we need. This may hint at what Peter’s opponents have taught to his audience, that the “real Christian” must be introduced to the deep things of God, the secret mysteries or advanced doctrines held back only for the ones who are deeply spiritual.

Second, God has granted to the believer precious and great promises (v. 4). What are these promises? The result of the promises that the believer has become a partaker in the divine nature. The believer can participate in this divine nature because they have already escaped the corruption of this world.

Is this true? Has God provided all we need to live a godly life? What might be included in this “grant” according to 2 Peter?

 

2 Peter and Pseudepigraphy

Second Peter is something of a textbook case for Pseudepigraphy. Outside of conservative circles, few accept the idea historical Peter was the author of the book. As J. N. D. Kelly said in 1969, “scarcely anyone nowadays doubts that 2 Peter is pseudonymous.” Despite several excellent commentaries in recent years (Neyrey, Bauckham), there has been little change in this consensus. Bart Erhman deals with this issue in his popular book Forged, drawing attention in the media to the possibility the traditional authors of many of the books in the New Testament are not likely the real authors.

In fact, questions about 2 Peter appear very early in church history, Eusebius said “Peter has left behind one acknowledged epistle, and perhaps a second; for it is questioned” (Hist. Eccl. 6.25.11). Despite this reservation, Eusebius reports that the church did in fact accept 2 Peter as an authentic letter and therefore included it in the canon.

Michael Kruger makes an excellent point in his 1999 article on the authenticity of 2 Peter. He points out that in the second and third centuries a great deal of pseudegraphic literature appear which centered on Peter. Both the Gospel of Peter and the Apocalypse of Peter were rejected by the church because they were not authentic. If there was a possibility Peter was not authentic, it would have been treated the same as other spurious documents.

Is the case against an authentic 2 Peter as strong as Kelly (and others) state it? It is true that the second letter of Peter is very different than the first, although these differences can be accounted for in ways other than different authorship. Remember, “authorship” in the Greco-Roman world did not have to mean that the author literally wrote – an different amanuensis might account for the differences, especially if the amanuensis was given a more free hand in one letter than the other. And as Kruger points out, there enough similarities to make the case the two letters are related. Statistical analysis on two short samples is a serious problem for either side in this argument.

There are several personal references in the letter that seem to come from a “historical Peter.” In 1:17-18 there is an allusion to the transfiguration, an event that Peter witnessed. Again, Kruger does an excellent job pointing out the verbal similarities between this verse and Matthew 17:5 and Luke 9:31. And again, this evidence cuts both ways. Peter might have referred to the transfiguration in his writing (I certainly would have!) But if I were creating a letter in order to “sound like” Peter, I would include these details to give the letter the “ring of truth.” In fact, it is odd the is to Matthew when Peter was associated with Mark. The same observation is true for Peter’s reference to the letters of Paul. This allusions sounds is too suspicious, as if someone was creating more unity between Peter and Paul than Galatians 2 might imply. Still, there is evidence for either side of the discussion.

Theology, on the other hand, is a more serious problem for the traditional view. As Käsemann, observed, the Cross is not a particularly prominent theme in the letter, although 1 Peter mentions the crucifixion and resurrection several times. This is a serious charge, but I think Kruger is correct to point out the purpose of the letter is not soteriology, but dealing with a threat from false teachers. The problem with these particular teachers is not the Cross, but ethical and moral concerns.

Would a pseudepigrapic 2 Peter be less authoritative? Suppose someone did in fact create a letter in Peter’s name at the end of the first century which reflected Peter’s response to declining morals in the church. Perhaps a writer was simply using Peter as a literary device to deal with important issues in the late first century. Does this make it less worthy of the canon? J. D. Charles (Faithful to the End, 129f) would say that it does indeed matter. If we now know for sure Peter is not really the author of the letter, then it has no more claim to authority than 1 Clement, a letter written about the same time for approximately the same reasons. What is more, most scholars are confident there was a “historical Clement” who wrote 1 Clement. If 1 Clement is authentic and 2 Peter is not, why not treat the teachings of Clement as authoritative?

Bibliography:

Michael J. Kruger, “The Authenticity Of 2 Peter,” JETS 42 (1999): 645-71.
Ernst Käsemann, Essays on New Testament Themes (London: SCM, 1971) 183-184.