8But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.
9The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 10But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
11Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness,12waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? 13But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. 14Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; 15and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.
The earliest Church’s expectation of Christ’s imminent return has long been a source of theological discomfort and apologetic embarrassment for many Christians. The apparent failure of New Testament prophecy throws the reliability of Christ himself as a prophet into serious question. Christ and the apostles who bore witness to him declared firmly that he was coming soon, yet here we are, almost two thousand years later.
Passages such as 2 Peter 3 can accentuate the problem. Peter is writing to Christians, reminding them of the prophetic witness of Christ and the apostles, against the background of disbelieving and mocking false teachers. Even at the time of the epistle, people are starting to ridicule or reject the prophetic testimony.
Early in the letter, Peter declares his intent to write to remind his readers of what has been promised, knowing that he is about to die soon (1:12-15). He assures the readers that, in their testimony concerning the coming of Jesus Christ, they weren’t following ‘cleverly devised myths’ (1:16). He presents what he witnessed with James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration as evidence that the word concerning Christ’s coming was certain: Christ’s kingly glory was a reality and just waiting to be revealed at the appropriate time.
Yet Jesus had declared a period of time within which his prophecies would be fulfilled, and everyone could see that the time was swiftly running out. In addition to saying that he was coming soon and that the time was near (Romans 13:12; James 5:8; 1 Peter 4:7; Revelation 1:1; 3:11; 22:6, 7, 12, 20), Jesus had given more specific details concerning the time within which the prophecies would be fulfilled and he seemed to be on an increasingly tight schedule.
Jesus had assured his hearers that his promised coming would occur before they had finished going through the towns of Israel (Matthew 10:23) and while some of the apostolic witnesses were still alive (Matthew 16:28). That generation would not pass away until all Jesus’ prophecy came to pass (Matthew 24:34). It was this that represented the biggest challenge for the readers of 2 Peter. The apostles and witnesses of Christ (‘the fathers’—2 Peter 3:4) were dying and Peter, by his own admission, was near death (1:14), but still the awaited coming of Jesus hadn’t materialized.
It was looking as though he would be a no-show, which threw everything into question. This is the troubled background for Peter’s statements in our reading for this week.
Having reminded his readers of the example of the Flood, Peter proceeds to challenge some of his contemporaries’ understanding of apocalyptic timetables. The Lord, Peter wants us to appreciate, never finds himself on a ‘tight schedule’. He is the Lord of the ages, and is never racing against the clock. The vast scale of a millennium doesn’t weaken his memory of his promise, nor do the exigencies and time pressures of a day leave him in danger of overshooting his deadlines.
Peter goes on to explain that the Lord’s apparent slackness concerning his promised return is not a manifestation of his failure to keep his scheduled appointments, as if Christ struggled with punctuality. No, it is his mercy and patience that leads him to tarry. Christ’s apparent delay is his gift of time to his people, enabling them to prepare themselves for his return.
Peter returns to a familiar image from Christ’s own teaching in the gospels, where Christ compares his return to the coming of a thief. Peter’s teaching in this passage, with its references to the Flood and an unexpected thief, strongly recalls Jesus’ own teaching in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24:37-51). The day of the Lord is a day for which many will be unprepared. Jesus warns both of a febrile climate of misguided predictions and excited expectations and of the cynicism of those who dismiss his return entirely, pointing to the fact that things continue as they always have done.
When the day of the Lord does arrive, it will have dramatic and devastating effect. The heavens will pass away and be dissolved, the ‘elements’ (στοιχει̑α) will melt with fervent heat, and the earth and the works within it will be exposed (εὑρεθήσεται).
Considering the coming dissolution of the present world order, Peter charges his readers to be people distinguished by their holy conduct and godliness (verse 11), rather than by the insobriety and licentiousness that marks the false teachers. Their conduct is to be different from others, revealing the fact that they are people driven by hope in a promise concerning a new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells (verse 13), both anticipating it and praying for its soon arrival.
Stirring as Peter’s message to his readers may seem when read in its original context, I am sure that many Christians who have followed the train of his argument will find themselves disheartened by it. Peter doubled down on the promises of Jesus and yet they still failed to come to pass. If the reliability of Jesus as a teacher depends so much upon the accuracy of his prophetic predictions, where does that leave us?
In addressing this question, it is important to pay attention to two particular things. The first thing to attend to is the specifics of the New Testament teaching concerning the last things. In the Olivet Discourse and the chapter that precedes it, the last days are focused upon the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. There is a judgment on the near horizon and it will particularly relate to the Jewish people and their city, Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37-38; 24:2; 15-16; Luke 21:20). Although it is clearly a widely disputed position, I believe that Revelation principally refers to the same series of events.
In the Olivet Discourse, there are several references and allusions to the prophecies of Daniel, which concern the ‘end of days’ of the Jewish people (Daniel 2:28; 10:14), during which time the Messiah will come, followed by destruction and the tearing up of the world order (9:24-27). The decisive apocalyptic events there, associated with the work of Messiah in bringing an end to sacrifice and offering, are the destruction of the city and the sanctuary (9:26-27).
These events, while focusing upon the Jewish people and Jerusalem, are of cosmic and epochal significance. Jesus speaks of ‘all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah’ coming upon the Jews of his generation (Matthew 23:35-36). The destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple will mark the conclusion and the judgment of an entire era of human history and an entire world order.
The second thing to attend to is that the dramatic language of a conflagration of the heavens and earth that Peter employs here resembles Old Testament imagery of epochal and cosmic judgment (Isaiah 13:13; 34:4; 51:15-16; 65:17). It is also like language used by the author of Hebrews, who speaks of God currently shaking and removing certain temporary realities of the heavens and earth, so that the enduring things should remain (Hebrews 12:26-29).
This does not refer to the annihilation of the physical order, but to the destruction of the divine world order. For Peter, the destruction of the Temple would have closed a window of time in which the old covenant and new covenant orders overlapped and changes the way that God relates to humanity in general.
With the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD70, that route of access to God is completely closed off, leaving nothing but judgment for those who continue to rely upon it. This is the melting of the firmament and the elements, the removal of the protective cover that the Temple afforded the people of the land and their works.
With the decisive destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, the entire theo-political firmament is brought crashing down. In the internal Jewish and Jewish-Christian debate about the continuance of God’s special covenant with Israel, the destruction of the Temple marked a turning point. For these early Christians, there was no longer a nation with a special holy status or proximity to God, with the other nations ordered relative to it. The rule of the Messiah has been declared and all politics is now redefined relative to him. The kingdoms of the earth belong to our Lord and all rulers are but stewards, responsible to administer justice in submission to him until his kingdom is consummated.
AD70 introduces the de-sacralized time in which we now live. Israel no longer holds the status of a holy nation and no sacred polity has taken its place. All humanity and every ruler are now called to prepare themselves for the consummation of the kingdom of the Christ, for which the Church serves as an anticipatory sign and witness. All political idolatries that would usurp his right must be dethroned, all stewards of rule and authority must humble themselves and acknowledge his claim, and earth must prepare herself to receive her King.
After AD70, a new heavens and a new earth is established. God deals with people on different terms. A world order structured around the Temple in Jerusalem, marked for condemnation in Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection, is finally be torn down and a new world order structured around the New Jerusalem and the coming kingdom, where there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, is established in its place, one that will eventually grow to fill the entire earth, as Daniel foretold.
While the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple was not the final reality that we anticipate at the general resurrection, it was a major milestone on the way there, a key point at which the world order inaugurated by Christ was established to a new degree. We should not be surprised that the shadow of this event falls so powerfully over the New Testament scriptures.
While, by the (highly disputed) reading I have offered, some might consider Peter’s message to be lacking in relevance, they would be quite mistaken in thinking so. Peter is declaring the truth of Jesus Christ as the glorious Lord and Judge of history, as the one before whose bar empires and kings must appear, and by whom all of our works will be tested. Christ is the one who establishes the ages of history and the one who brings them to an end, as he did in AD70.
Political events over the last couple of years have alerted many of us to the instability and weakness of a prevailing world order that we once took for granted. While once Fukuyama’s prophecies of the ‘end of history’ might have seemed compelling, growing cracks that have recently appeared in the liberal democratic order have provoked concern that the political ‘heavens and earth’ that followed the end of the Cold War might be disintegrating, to be replaced with who-knows-what.
The confidence with which we once looked to History’s arc for the vindication of the hopes of liberalism has been shaken. Ours is the foreboding dread of the rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born; Yeats’ “The Second Coming” was the most quoted poem of the first several months of 2016.
Whether we are inured to our danger by the false security of living in relatively settled times, or weighed down with nightmarish fears of a threatening and uncertain future, Peter draws our attention to Christ, as the Lord of history and time. Those who serve History will discover it to be a fickle god, its assurances unreliable; only as we live by Christ’s word and promise, as those whose works will ultimately be disclosed and judged by him, will we live appropriately within it.
We do not know when our day of judgment will come, when our nations will rise or fall, or when the times of testing in which we are either proven or broken will hit us. Yet Peter exhorts us to be found ready in vigilant holiness when they do.
Alastair Roberts is the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture.