All Saints Benhilton
27th June 2004
The Second Letter of St Peter
How many of us have read the Second Letter of St Peter recently?
I’m prompted to ask you this question because in the Lectionary which I use (1955) we have just read through the whole epistle last week, and I was struck by how relevant the contents of this Letter are to today’s world.
It isn’t certain that St Peter himself wrote this Letter. But since this is Petertide, and the letter was written to fellow-Christians who were suffering as a result of the persecution which the Emperor Nero instigated against Christians in Rome in 64AD in which year it is certain that both St Peter and St Paul were martyred, the question of authorship needn’t bother us too much. Like St Mark’s gospel which dates from the same time, it may have been written at St Peter’s dictation or from reports of what he said in prison awaiting trial.
So first a bit of history written by someone called Tacitus who was a historian who had no particular affection for Christians. In his Annals he writes about the terrible fire which devastated Rome on July, 19th, 64AD, and burned for nine days, finally destroying or damaging almost three-quarters of the city, including numerous public buildings. Rumours spread that the fire had been planned by Nero. And according to Tacitus:
[Nero], to put an end to the rumours, created a diversion and subjected to the most extra-ordinary tortures those hated for their abominations by the common people called Christians. The originator of this name (was) Christ, who, during the reign of Tiberius had been executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate. Repressed for the time being, the deadly superstition broke out again not only in Judea, the original source of the evil, but also in the city (Rome), where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and become popular. So an arrest was made of all who confessed; then on the basis of their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of arson as for hatred of the human race."
And he continues:
"Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames. These served to illuminate the night when daylight failed. Nero had thrown open the gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or drove about in a chariot. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being punished."
This letter, then, was written at a time of deep crisis for the Church of God. Those who met faithfully in secret to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and to be his Body on Earth, knew that at any moment there might be a knock on the door and the Imperial Police arrive in large numbers to take into custody anyone who dared to say ‘Jesus is Lord’.
As always happens under persecution, there were many who put their own welfare and safety before the faith they had pledged themselves to believe. Remember the Parable of the Sower and the seed which fell on stony ground. It flourished until the sun of persecution fell upon it when it withered and died because it had no depth of root.
So our author in the first part of his letter seeks to confirm his readers and hearers in their Christian profession – those who through the justice of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ share our faith and enjoy equal privilege with ourselves. That Faith isn’t something which we discovered for ourselves, but the free gift, revealed to and us by God through Jesus Christ. ‘His divine power’, he writes, ‘has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and true religion, enabling us to know the One who called us by his own splendour and might.’
But it’s not just enough to ‘have faith’ any more than it’s enough to have the seed planted in us. Unless the seed grows into grain, which was the object of sowing it in the first place, it will remain barren. So he says:
With all this in view, you should try your hardest to supplement your faith with virtue, virtue with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with fortitude, fortitude with piety, piety with brotherly kindness, and brotherly kindness with love.
He reminds them of the Transfiguration, of which St Peter was a first-hand witness:
‘We saw him with our own eyes in majesty, and a voice which said: `This is my Son, my Beloved, on whom my favour rests’ This voice from heaven we ourselves heard; when it came, we were with him on the sacred mountain’.
But he goes on to warn them of the danger of listening to false prophets about whom Jesus specifically warned his followers in the Sermon on the Mount:
‘But first note this:’ he says, ‘no one can interpret any prophecy of Scripture by himself. For it was not through any human whim that men prophesied of old; men they were, but, impelled by the Holy Spirit, they spoke the words of God.
‘But Israel had false prophets as well as true; and you likewise will have false teachers among you. They will import disastrous heresies, disowning the very Master who bought them, and bringing swift disaster on their own heads.’
And several paragraphs later he says of these false teachers:
They promise [their hearers] freedom, but are themselves slaves of corruption; for a man is the slave of whatever has mastered him. They had once escaped the world's defilements through the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ; yet if they have entangled themselves in these all over again, and are mastered by them, their plight in the end is worse than before’
Notice particularly what he says next: ‘How much better never to have known the right way, than, having known it, to turn back and abandon the sacred commandments delivered to them!
That is a theme which comes up over and over again in the New Testament. Lapsing from the faith having once embraced it is infinitely worse than never to have believed at all. The atheist who has serious intellectual problems about what Christians believe is far closer to the Kingdom of God than the ex-believer who through sin, or his fear of persecution or other worldly disadvantage, has fallen away. With friends like that, who needs enemies?
In the third section of his letter the writer addresses a problem which troubles many believers today. He says:
Note this carefully: in the last days there will come men who scoff at religion and live self-indulgent lives, and they will say: 'Where now is the promise of his coming? Our fathers have been laid to their rest, but still everything continues exactly as it has always been since the world began’.
It’s the age-old question which has troubled the faithful since the world began ‘Why does God allow evil to continue?’ The whole book of Job in the Old Testament is about that and nothing else. Though it sheds a some light, it doesn’t provide a perfect answer. For his part the writer says:
‘with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. It is not that the Lord is slow in fulfilling his promise, as some suppose, but that he is very patient with you, because it is not his will for any to be lost, but for all to come to repentance.’
And a few lines later he adds:
‘…think what sort of people you ought to be, what devout and dedicated lives you should live! Look eagerly for the coming of the Day of God and work to hasten it on… we have his promise, and look forward to new heavens and a new earth, the home of justice… bear in mind that our Lord’s patience with us is our salvation.’
In other words, don’t allow the fact that we haven’t been given the answer to everything by God blind us to the fact that he has provided us with all the answers necessary for our salvation through Jesus Christ. Not having all the answers is no excuse for failing to act upon the answers that we have been given!
The author ends by giving his readers and hearers a stern caution:
‘But you, my friends, are forewarned. Take care, then, not to let these unprincipled men seduce you with their errors; do not lose your own safe foothold. But grow in the is grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory now and for all eternity!’
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