Wednesday 3 February 2010

Preparing for Judgement, Assured by Salvation (2 Peter 2)

2 Peter 2 is a hard passage. We studied the chapter this week at bible study and it is was hard. Not because we couldn't understand it, but precisely because we were confronted with words that were clearly serious, urgent and relevant.

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.
(2 Peter 2:1-3)

Peter warns the church - here, the bible is warning us as Christians - there will be false teachers who will attempt to lead believers away from the gospel of Christ. It has always been so. Just as the Old Testament people of God were surrounded by false prophets, so the New Testament church will have its share of false teachers. Note the shift in role from prophet to teacher. The prophet was one who stood between man and God, speaking to man words from God. The teachers derived their authority from the written Word of God; the scriptures. But therein lies the greater temptation and danger, for the teacher would interpret the meaning and fulfilment of the words in scripture. It would be harder to discern wisdom from word, rhetoric from revelation, interpretation from illumination.

Also, we are not to think that the teacher has less significance than the prophet. In his first letter, Peter opens by reminding Christians of the more complete revelation we have in the gospel, compared even to the prophets of God. Indeed, he says they were not serving themselves, but us (1 Peter 1:12). And in his second letter, he now compares his own authority as a witness to Jesus to that of the prophets. Peter himself heard the voice of God on the mountain affirming the Sonship and approval of Jesus (2 Peter 1:17-18). Yet Peter's aim in writing the letter is to remind Christians of what has already been revealed in Christ as the fulfilment of scripture. In other words, he is teaching them. In verse 12, he writes, "So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have."

The contrast between Peter and the false teachers is that of content. Peter goes to great pains to assure Christians of the truth of the gospel they have already been established in (1:12), writing mainly to refresh and remind them of this truth (1:13), making this his sole purpose in life and ministry - that the gospel be firmly rooted in the hearts and minds of believers long after his passing. On the other hand, the false teachers introduce false teaching that contradict the gospel (verse 1), exploiting their hearers with stories they have made up (verse 3).

What follows is one whole chapter describing the attributes and condemning the actions of these false teachers - an entire chapter. But why go to such lengths? Judgement, fire, condemnation, hell - we get it, Peter - you are serious about dealing with these problematic teachers. But you say you write to the church to remind us of the gospel, the truth of the Lord Jesus Christ. Well, where is it? How do we see the gospel in these words?

Many who preach from this passage (rightly) say that Peter is concerned that we are able to identify these false teachers. He describes them for us: they are boastful, driven by their sinful and sensual desires and despise authority (verse 10). They speak out of ignorance (verse 12). They are motivated by greed and lust (verse 14). Ultimately, their actions will result in judgement. Therefore, Peter's repeated reference to instances of judgement in the Old Testament serve as a warning that we do not follow in the footsteps of these false teachers.

Yet is Peter's main concern to warn believers of these false teachers and their impending judgement?

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)— if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment.
(2 Peter 2:4-9)

These verses are difficult not because they speak of judgement. They are difficult because Peter is reminding believers of their salvation in the midst of judgement.

He builds the momentum of his argument with a series of "if" clauses.
  • If God did not spare angels
  • If God did not spare the world in its wickedness by sending the flood (Genesis 6-8); but protected Noah
  • If God condemned Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19)
  • If God rescued Lot

However looking back at 1 Peter 3 which links the imprisoned spirits/angels with the "days of Noah" (1 Peter 3:20), we find that Peter is laying out two strands from biblical history, like this:
  • IF God did not spare angels nor the ancient world
    BUT protected Noah
  • IF God condemned Sodom and Gomorrah
    BUT rescued Lot

THEN...verse 9 tells us Peter's conclusion - the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and hold the unrighteous for judgement.

What is Peter's main concern in Chapter 2? It's not them but us. Not just their condemnation - the judgement awaiting the false prophets and false teachers; but the salvation that God is more than able to bring upon us as his people. The Lord knows how to rescue godly men. He rescues them - verse 9 says - from trials.

The temptation and persecution that results from the actions of these false teachers are part of the trials that God's people have always face, and Christians continue to face today. In the midst of our distress, in the face of temptation, perhaps even death - Peter's main concern is that we continue to trust in the God who saves, who has always saved, and who will save us on the last day. In short, we will face trials, and in these trials, we can depend in a God who is utterly dependable.

It is striking that Peter minces no words when speaking of judgement, condemnation nor hell; all the while emphasizing rescue, deliverance and salvation. Salvation has little meaning if we are not aware of what we are saved from. The gospel of the great announcement of Jesus bearing the just wrath of God towards sinful men upon himself on the cross, and through his violent death purchasing a people for himself - now no longer slaves to sin nor facing condemnation; but recipients of Christ's righteousness, regenerated by the indwelling of his Spirit, sanctified for his purposes and glory.

Christ makes the promise of salvation in the gospel certain. At the same time, the cross also makes the final judgement all the more just. Both are part of the same gospel. Trusting in the cross is our only way of rescue. Rejecting the Saviour is the only assured way to destruction (verses 20-22).

To those far from Christ, even the good news and certainty of the promises of God will smell of death. But to those in Christ, even trials and temptations in this world will remind us of the God who is ever able to work all things for his glory and for our good. Paul puts it like this:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Romans 8:38-39)

Let nothing shake you from the knowledge that you are always, always, always in the love of your Saviour and God - Jesus knows how to save those who are his!

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