8 But 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. 9 The 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. 10 But 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. 11 Since 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, 12 waiting 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? 13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. 14 Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; 15a and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him.2 Peter 3:8–15a (NRSV)
Everybody waits. From excitedly anticipating a child’s gestation to anxiously awaiting a medical diagnosis, we all wait. On average, it’s been estimated that people spend at least six months of their lives waiting in line, significantly more for those who live in big cities. And this is only one small type or moment of waiting.
The same was true for the earliest followers of Christ in the generations after Jesus’ death and resurrection. They were all waiting. 2 Peter is written to a community (or communities) who were engaged in active waiting and anticipation. Specifically, these communities were likely at odds, not only about how to wait for Christ’s return, but – more than that – also what they were waiting for. The author of 2 Peter writes to clarify both what followers of Christ can expect in the anticipated parousia and how they should act as a result.
Such anticipation traces back to the very beginnings of the Jesus Movement. In the earliest letter we have preserved from Paul, he writes to a group of Christ followers, encouraging them in their waiting: “For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven” (1 Thess 1:9-10, emphasis added).
By the time Paul pens his final letter, he applies this waiting to the whole of creation: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God… We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:19-23).
Paul did not think the church would have long to wait before Jesus’ return. But, by the time 2 Peter was written, more than a generation had passed. Christ followers (some of whom were beginning to call themselves Christians), began to realize that, like the rest of creation before them, they may have a long wait before Christ’s return.
Waiting, then, becomes a central question of many of the latter books of the New Testament, written more than a generation after Jesus’ ascension—including 2 Peter. As time continued to pass without Jesus’ return, these communities had to wrestle with what it meant to wait for Jesus. But, unlike the community addressed in 1 Thessalonians, the question for the original audience of 2 Peter is not whether or if to wait, but how.
How does one wait well?
The author of 2 Peter maintains that in order to wait well one must place trust in God and God’s promises (3:13). What sets a follower of Christ apart in the communities to which this epistle is addressed is that they do not act according to their own interests, or even their own timeline, but rather, in accordance with the promise of God. This promise is, for members of these communities, embodied in the Christ Jesus. It is only on account of such trust that the author of 2 Peter expects that people may be able to refrain from hastening ecological destruction and, instead, strive towards peace and wholeness (another translation of that word “salvation”, σωτηρίαν in v. 14).
This week, representatives of the United Nations are meeting in Dubai for the United Nation’s 28th annual climate change conference—COP 28. As I write this, citizens of the United States wait to hear whether President Biden will change his mind and decide to attend the conference after all—signaling an ongoing commitment to environmental protections that have been at the head of his policy agenda in the past, even as political pressures to promote fossil fuels grow.
But this is not the most significant wait associated with the climate conference. In fact, many policy analysts note that the presence of Biden and any other state leaders at the conference is far less significant than the policies that they choose to (or not to) enact as a result. Whether or not a particular state leader attends – to borrow a phrase from Paul – “all creation waits with eager longing” to see how the collective states gathered in Dubai will respond for the sake of our future and the world.
Perhaps the most visible sign of this wait is the infamous Doomsday Clock, which metaphorically tracks the wait for global disaster, weighing not only impending climate change, but also nuclear risk and other disruptive technologies. When I talk with people about the Doomsday Clock, the reactions I experience are usually mixed. Some feel hopeless, as though we are already too late. Others, indifferent. And, still others, anxious for ways we might, together, turn back the clock—or, at least, stall it in its tracks, as the scientists and policy makers at the COP 28 conference aim to do.
When I talk with people about the return of Christ, the responses I hear vary similarly across this spectrum. For some, especially the ecologically minded among my Lutheran associates, the promise of Christ’s return inspires hope even when the wait seems hopeless. These colleagues and friends quote to me the apocryphal tale of Martin Luther’s apple tree—the supposed response of this biblical interpreter and church leader, when asked what he would do if he knew the world would end tomorrow, that he would “plant an apple tree.”
While the historicity of this tale is dubious, the point gets to one theological response to Christ’s anticipated Parousia. Indeed, one such a response aligns closely with the sentiments of 2 Peter 3:14—“while you are awaiting these things, strive to be found by [Christ] at peace, without spot or blemish.” In other words, live each day in the meantime to its fullest and according to the Gospel promise of Christ Jesus. Even if it seems hopeless, even if it may be uprooted tomorrow, plant an apple tree.
Similarly, but with a slightly different intent, my Process Theology friends and colleagues generally affirm the apple tree sentiment, but not in order to be found at peace, so much as to help bring the peace that God desires for our world into fruition. Recognizing the interconnectedness of all creation, such an ecological perspective centers the role that each element—including people—play in bringing about the New Creation 2 Peter promises. Thus, humans are to steward and care for the environment to hasten the idyllic Day of the Lord (2 Peter 3:10).
However, other close readers of the text point out that the Day of the Lord that 2 Peter anticipates is not so idyllic—“then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire” (2 Peter 3:10). I even recently heard a paper delivered at an event I attended that decreed humans should behave in such a way to hasten global warming because it is through such destructive heat that God will eventually destroy the earth.
But, whether you believe that God will destroy this earth and replace it with an entirely new one; or, whether you believe that God will loose this earth from the destruction we have wrought upon it (another translation of the Greek word luo translated as “will be dissolved” in v. 10), the letter of 2 Peter makes it clear that God’s actions are – and will be – God’s own. 2 Peter reminds the faithful to wait “in accordance with [God’s] promise” (3:13).
And, so, the question resurfaces: how does one wait well?
This is what 2 Peter has to say:
“Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.” (3:14-15a).
Waiting means planting an apple tree. Waiting means slowing the global thermometer rise and turning back the Doomsday Clock. Waiting means smiling at the person in front of you in line rather than pushing them out of the way. Waiting means trusting God. And, waiting means, enacting that trust by the way we live in the meantime. At peace. Without spot or blemish. Patient for the salvation—the wholeness that comes from and through God.