Selections on New Creation Week 3
Peter’s Vision of God’s New Creation: 2 Peter 1-3
Humanity’s Reconciliation with God – Living in the New Creation, Part 2
By Rob Wall
Paul T. Walls Professor of Scripture and Wesleyan Studies
Read this week’s Scripture: 2 Peter1-3
Some of my most vivid memories growing up in Richland, Washington were the trips our family routinely made over sometimes icy mountain passes to visit my grandparents in Tacoma and Bremerton. These were hard, scary trips in those days — a trip over mountain passes now made much easier by excellent roads and rest stops. Careful advance planning was required. Mom’s constant refrain spoken over dad’s careful planning (he was an engineer) was: “should the Lord tarry.” We will make this trip only if Jesus doesn’t return beforehand to gather up God’s people for heaven’s sake. Sometimes I wished the Lord hadn’t tarried!
Regaining Our Hope of Christ’s Return
Mom’s confession of faith was deeply rooted in Scripture’s vision of Jesus’ second coming. Prudent people continually make careful plans for their futures; but faithful Christians qualify their plans with the conviction that Jesus could return at any moment and without advance warning to inaugurate the reforms of God’s new creation. No stone of the old order will be left unturned; no evil or decay left standing. God promises to renovate all things by and because of Jesus. Mom’s refrain, “should the Lord tarry,” sounds the church’s witness to a blessed hope that qualifies every present moment and even our best laid plans for successful careers and content families.
Few Christians think this way anymore, especially when congregations are chock full of well-educated people who aspire to the niceties of the middle class right here, right now. It’s hard to hope for new creation sometime in the future when we are locked and loaded for the present moment!
The problem may also be a Christological one. Our thin view of the risen Jesus, which explains his importance in close connection with our present needs, tends to humanize and demystify him. We may earnestly confess our belief in the Lord’s second coming without living into its hope for a new heaven and new earth beyond this one.
2 Peter is an important placeholder in Scripture’s revelation of God’s plans for the future in part because reading this letter animates that hope. Yet its neglect in both the church and the academy remains one of Scripture’s great tragedies, especially since the apostle Peter was a close friend and eyewitness of the historical Jesus. Peter knew him well.
2 Peter Silences the Scoffers
Although brief, 2 Peter is a remarkable read for all kinds of good reasons. In the first place, 2 Peter is a theological complement to 1 Peter (read 2 Peter 3:1). Reading 2 Peter with 1 Peter “reminds” the Bible’s readers of Peter’s apostolic witness of the gospel (so 2 Peter 3:2), which has the happy effect of increasing the volume of Peter’s powerful and distinctive understanding of the gospel. [Author’s Note 1] Having a robust understanding of Peter’s apostolic witness to Jesus is especially important whenever the core claims of the gospel come under dispute. This seems to be the situation addressed by 2 Peter, which warns that “in the last days scoffers will come, jeering, living by their own cravings, saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? After all, nothing has changed — not since the beginning of creation’” (2 Peter 3:3–4).
The letter implies that those who scoff at the gospel’s teaching of the Lord’s second coming appeal to Paul’s letters for support. While 2 Peter allows that Paul’s letters provide “wisdom” to their readers (2 Peter 3:15; cf. 2 Timothy 3:15), it goes on to admit that Paul’s letters “are hard to understand” in a way that allows these scoffers to “twist them to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16).
2 Peter’s implication seems clear: the Church’s difficulty in understanding Paul’s teaching about “the coming day of God” (3:12) has been manipulated by certain teachers to lend support to their bold denial of what the prophets have expressly foretold and the apostles have clearly proclaimed as the truth about the future of God’s salvation (3:2). In effect, armed with their misreading of Pauline letters, they question the legitimacy of Mom’s refrain, “should the Lord tarry,” as a guide appropriate to our present decision-making and moral lifestyle as followers of Jesus. 2 Peter’s stunning exposition of a new creation (3:5–13) should be read as a powerful response to any Christian who questions the importance of the Lord’s return to complete his messianic mission to save the world.
Paul Glosses Over the Second Coming
Let me begin with a speculation, unwritten by Peter, of what this misreading of Paul’s letters might look like. Paul mentions God’s “new creation” twice in his letters (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15). He doubtless has Isaiah’s grand vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17–25; 66:22) in mind when sounding his hopeful note that believers are “part of the new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). But on the face of it he seems less interested in the cosmological or sociological dimensions of this new creation than in its more personal and spiritual aspects. [Author’s Note 2] After all, the results of God’s victory inaugurated by the risen Christ are readily observed in the transformed lives and relationships of individual believers. Everywhere else the social and moral practices of the present age remain bent on death, antagonistic to God’s life-giving reign of grace (cf. Romans 1:21–32). The groans and suffering of creation are still heard by us all, with creation’s promised repair set sometime in an indeterminate future (Romans 8:18–22). Out of sight, out of mind.
Moreover, Paul’s letters are introduced in the New Testament by his story in the book of Acts. Surprisingly this authoritative Paul of Acts mentions the Lord’s second coming only once in Acts (Acts 17:31), and it is to frighten a bunch of unbelieving pagans that God has already registered a future date for their judgment on an online calendar! [Author’s Note 3] But Paul says nothing else about the Messiah’s return or anything at all about Isaiah’s promise of a renovated cosmos. The effect of reading Paul’s letters along with Acts, as church history shows, is to train our understanding of his beliefs about the apocalypse of God’s salvation on the present moment, when transformed individuals embody God’s promise of new creation.
A diminished interest in the future transformation of creation in favor of the present transformation of individual Christians may well lead to a pronounced introspection, which concentrates us on a personalized, privatized salvation at the expense of the church’s responsibility to steward God’s creation. On this basis we participate with the scoffers of 2 Peter who act with impunity as though there is no end time accounting of works done caring for all others (cf. 2 Peter 2:21). Surely if God has future plans to renovate all things, God’s people must assume it is God’s will to care for all things right here, right now.
The Disparate Fates of Believers and Nonbelievers
This, I take, is the crucial imperative hidden in 2 Peter 3’s evocative description of “the coming day of God” (3:12). 1 Peter has already set a beautiful table for this feast by clarifying what the community of resident aliens and strangers (as Christians are called) should come to expect (1 Peter 1:1–7; 2:11–12). Unlike James, in which believers struggle against inward forces, 1 Peter locates believers within a hostile social world that marginalizes faithful Christians (4:12; 5:9) by publicly ridiculing their faith in God (2:12; 3:14–17; 4:4). But they are encouraged never to lose sight of their baptism into “a living hope” (1:3, 21; 3:15) that targets a future inheritance awaiting them at the Lord’s second coming (1:7, 13; 4:13; 5:4). His future return will reveal once and for all God’s triumph over the very evils that make for the hardship and heartbreak presently experienced by God’s children.
In fact, the Lord’s past resurrection prefigures the future vindication of God’s people (cf. 3:18–22), whose faithfulness heralds the Creator’s future restoration of all things (4:19). In this sense, reading 1 Peter before 2 Peter cultivates a deep trust in a Creator whose best work is yet to come. 2 Peter 3:5–13 elaborates this keen sensibility by a vision of renovated nature (2 Peter 3:10) and a new social order in which “righteousness is at home” (3:13).
This letter’s revelation of the mysteries of God’s future bids us to count time by God’s beat. Everything in God’s economy has its own time, and that time must be carefully watched. The scoffers have lost track of God’s time. Their skepticism about God’s future, tied to Jesus’ return, is a mistake in marking time. The issue is not a delayed second coming at all; rather, God requires more time to save people, “not wanting any to perish but all to change their hearts and lives” (2 Peter 3:9; cf. 1 Timothy 2:4). God is not slow to act, but patient. And so it turns out that it is God who schedules Jesus’ return as “TBA” to allow the time necessary to complete the gathering and restoration of God’s people for kingdom come (cf. Romans 11:25; Colossians 1:24–27).
But there are limits to God’s patience. The future day of cosmic purification (= Judgment Day) and renovation (= “a new heaven and a new earth” 2 Peter 3:13) will “come like a thief” (2 Peter 3:10; cf. Matthew 24:43–44; Luke 12:39–40; 1Thessalonians 5:2; Revelation 3:3; 16:15) without prior warning for those who are unprepared or unwilling “to change their hearts and lives” (2 Peter 3:9). The fiery Judgment Day assigned to purify the planet of its “ungodly people” (3:7) is described in poetic idiom that is evocative of sudden, cataclysmic change: the heavens will “pass away with a dreadful noise” (3:10). [Au[Author’s Note 4]
The material “elements” of the natural order (i.e., earth, wind, water, fire) will self-destruct to lay bare “all the works” that have contaminated God’s handiwork (3:10). Not only will the natural elements “melt away in the flames” (3:12), but the spiritual elements of the heavens will also be destroyed by purifying fire (cf. Galatians 4:3; Colossians 2:20; LXX Isaiah 34:4). God’s cosmic renovation begins with a thorough cleanse.
We Can Live as New Creations Now!
Peter’s point is clear enough. Everything opposed to the Creator’s reign will be “destroyed” (2 Peter 3:11a); nothing will be left hidden from God’s purview; every rock and hiding place will be overturned; and the deeds of all things will be revealed to God (cf. Isaiah 2:19; Hosea 10:8; Amos 9:1–6; Revelation 6:15–17). The coming day of God is payday. Bank on it.
But God’s final word is not a “no” but a “yes” (2 Corinthians 1:19–20). Nor does it finally concern a destruction of all things by fire and brimstone, or a “concept” of new creation (as biblical scholars like to call it). God’s final judgment merely clears the decks for a whole new way of living for and with God in “a new heaven and a new earth” (2 Peter 3:13). 2 Peter 3:11–13 teaches us that Scripture’s vision of God’s future is finally about a pattern of faithful discipleship lived for God’s present. A right understanding of a renovated earth concerns the kind of people who will populate it; and God wants that kind of people right here, right now.
What a liberating hope! There is no good reason to adjust one’s life in conformity to the dysfunctional cravings of a comfortable, politically correct life as the scoffers do (cf. 3:3). The deep logic of 2 Peter’s moral vision is that right thinking about God’s future cultivates in God’s people a “holy and godly” (3:11) manner that will make them feel right at home in the future new creation.
Actively Waiting for Christ’s Glorious Return
Upon closer examination, 2 Peter’s arresting question, “What sort of people ought you to be?” (3:11), addresses its present readers: us. Two assertions provide the shape of our lifestyle as God’s people, characterized by holiness and godliness, in light of “the coming day of God” when the purification of the heavens and earth (3:12) will provide cover of a new creation (3:13).
First, parallel participles “waiting” and “hastening” (3:12) are read of a single piece. God’s people wait for the coming apocalypse of God’s salvation in an active way that hastens its arrival. We don’t simply count time, but we use time wisely in caring for people (holiness) and in calling people to repentance (see 3:9), which will speed the Lord’s second coming. The implication is that God’s day is not fixed, but that God is open to moving it forward or backward depending on the manner of our lives in the world (cf. Acts 3:19–20; Romans 11:25–26; Sirach 35:14—36:22).
People are impatient — and made more so by modern inventions that speed up life or cause us to drill down on the present moment. We hurry from one task to the next; we replace old models with new ones at an ever-increasing pace. Life gets obsolete quickly these days. Learning to wait for God’s future is demanding work. But we make use of the time allowed us in purposeful ways with our eyes on the prize.
Second, we should assume that God’s endgame is of a piece with who God is. Whatever is “according to [God’s] promise” is worth waiting for (2 Peter 3:13)! “Waiting for these things to happen” (3:14) is not a fixation on Jesus’ return; it is motivation that shapes the present. God’s promise is not simply a demolition project in which everything evil is removed from the cosmos. God’s promise is finally about a renovated world that is at long last hospitable to the righteous reign of God (3:13; cf. 1:1). New creation, purified of all that subverts righteousness, is eternal home to shalom and loyal love in a people’s continuing praise of God.
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