2 Peter No. 13, “Living Sub Specie Aeternitatis”
2 Peter 3:10-13
December 9, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
Last time, from verses 8 and 9 we considered the time of the Lord’s Second Coming; in particular, the long years that have now separated his first coming from his Second and the temptation that poses to Christian faith. And who knows how many more years may pass before the Lord appears in the sky! But that the Lord is coming again, we know. Not only because he made a point of telling us that would return to the earth to bring salvation to his people and judgment to his enemies; not only because he ascended to heaven in the sight of his disciples and proved by doing so that he could and would descend in due time; but also because the whole story of redemption, the entire history of God’s dealing with the human race, both assume and require such a consummation.
v.10 The Second Coming may be deferred, but it is coming! The notion that the Lord will come like a thief is found elsewhere in the New Testament. Paul says the same thing in 1 Thess. 5. The Lord told a parable about a thief breaking into a home precisely to warn his disciples to be ready for his return. The analogy is obvious. A thief surprises you. If you had known he was coming, you would have taken precautions, but because you didn’t you weren’t ready. Liberal biblical scholarship has long taken the view that Jesus expected to return within a few years of his death and the fact that he didn’t necessitated a reevaluation of the whole idea of his Second Coming. The false teachers apparently thought similarly. According to them we should no longer be looking for an actual event in history. But, says Peter, what a shock his coming will be to those who imagined that the very idea of the Lord’s return had been discredited by the passage of time. As his first coming had been unexpected and so was unprepared for, so will be his second.
The fact that the Second Coming will be unexpected has led some Christians to argue that it must, therefore, be utterly unexpected, without prior indications of any kind. But it seems clear to me in both Daniel and Revelation, then from some other texts, for example 2 Thessalonians 2, that perceptive believers may well realize that the Lord’s coming is near from certain developments in human history prophesied to occur at the end of the age. They still will not know the day or the hour, but I don’t think it impossible that when he appears the Antichrist can be identified by Christians or the Great Tribulation, both of which portend the end of the age in several biblical prophesies of the future. That the Lord will come as a thief is a warning to those who are not taking care to be ready; not a promise that no one will have any idea that the end of the age is upon him or her.
The description of the Second Coming here is very like what we find in the teaching of Jesus himself and, in greater detail, in the account of the end of history in Revelation. The description, however, is framed in apocalyptic language. We should not attempt to by some pedantic literalism to understand precisely what is here being described, any more than we are to understand Isaiah 34:4 – “All the stars of heaven will be dissolved and the sky rolled up like a scroll” – as a precise description of the astronomical changes that will occur. The point is: cataclysmic destruction and judgment. Everything will be affected! The entire universe is involved. This is far beyond the power of a nuclear holocaust or climate change to effect. [Lucas, 142] Peter is describing the indescribable (Green, 150). It is intended to be a terrifying description; the end of the space-time world that has been the home of the human race from its beginning. But then since God made this world, he can certainly destroy it and remake it as he pleases!
v.11 As is typically the case in the Bible, the indicative is followed by the imperative. This is what is going to happen. Therefore, this is how you must live!
v.12 How can it be said that we can hasten the coming of the Lord? Well, we said last time that, since the Lord said that he would not return until the gospel had been preached throughout the world, evangelism and missions would hasten the day. Remember the Lord’s parable about the master who goes on a journey leaving work for his servants to do while he is gone. To prepare for his return in its way is to hasten the day. In the New Testament the prayer for the Lord’s return, retained even for the Greek speaking churches in its Aramaic form, Maranatha – “mara” being the word for “Lord,” the “n” a possessive attached to mara and “atha” being an imperative form of the verb “to come” (making “Our Lord, come”) – powerfully suggests that we can hasten the Lord’s return by praying for his coming. After all, didn’t the Lord tell us to pray, “Your kingdom come”? And in Peter’s sermon in Solomon’s Portico, on the east side of the outer Temple court, we read in Acts 3 that he told the Jews that their repentance would be a means of hastening the Lord’s return. “Repent, therefore, and turn again that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send Christ…whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all things…” The point is that we are not to wait for the Lord in passivity or inactivity. We are wait in action, seeking to serve him in those ways that he has called us to serve.
v.13 Christians needn’t fear the Day of Judgment because it will be for them the beginning of the new heavens and the new earth; a world of human life far grander than anything so far experienced even by the most faithful of Christians. Peter doesn’t describe that world or that life here, any more than he describes the Last Judgment, but his few words call to mind the great descriptions of heaven that we are given elsewhere in the Bible. All of those descriptions are highly image laden – think of the Lord’s words in Matthew 13: the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father – we are not given anywhere, as it were, a travel agent’s brochure of the heavenly country. But the point of all the biblical descriptions of heaven is to whet our appetite by overwhelming our imagination and to teach us that the life of heaven will far surpass our present power to understand or appreciate. So far the Word of God.
I once found a birthday card for my sister – who preferred this kind of card – which read on the front, “Scientists calculate that the world will end on July 10th in the year 34,326.” When opened, it read “You might want to leave your schedule blank on that day.” Scientists actually have sought to predict how long it will be until our sun’s energy is consumed or until some other cosmic event will bring death to our solar system or to the entire universe. But, of course, all such calculations presume that the only forces in play are natural ones: the laws of thermodynamics or the law of gravity. But add the infinite personal God to this equation and everything changes. Add the creator of heaven and earth to these calculations and those other factors, important as they may on a certain level, are made immediately largely irrelevant. And, of course, that is precisely what the Bible does: it places the future of the world and of mankind entirely in the hands of God who made them in the first place, who has ordered their history, and promised to bring that history to its consummation in due time. It is not entropy that we are taught to fear in the Bible, but God himself!
In one way or another the prospect of the consummation, of the end of history at the personal appearance of Jesus Christ a second time, leaves its mark on every page of the Bible and especially of the New Testament. This is the Day of the Lord of which all previous days of the Lord were but anticipations. This is the terminus of all that God has been doing in the world through the ages of its life.
But it is also an obvious fact that virtually no one, apart from serious-minded Christians, entertains this expectation any longer. It is the mark of our frivolous age that people by and large are content to live their lives with no thought of the possibility of judgment or reckoning. They don’t think seriously about why they ought not to think about that prospect; they simply don’t. They demand judgment and reckoning in this world, demand it for others that is; but they have no thought of why they are so determined to pass judgment or of what that fact may portend for the future. It is one of the principal reasons why there is so much hatred and violence in the world today: no one takes seriously the fact that a day of reckoning is still to come when everyone will receive his or her just deserts. The punishment must be enforced now because otherwise there will be none. The evil-doer – or the one we regard as an evil-doer – must be made to pay now, must feel our displeasure now lest he never pay for his crimes or be made to suffer for them. Think, for example of Hitler, escaping judgment for all his terrible crimes, by committing suicide!
This denial of a final judgment, a cataclysmic consummation of human history brought to pass by the personal intervention of God himself, is fundamental to the very fabric of modern thought. Think, for example, of the ideas now so commonplace in our society, such as the origin of human life in bio-chemical accidents, the unquestioned benefit of technological advancement, personal fulfillment and happiness as the highest good of human existence, that there are no moral absolutes, that human beings are basically good and that the evil in them is largely the result of environmental and social influences, the supreme importance of politics, the supreme virtue of privacy, that the accumulation of things is fundamental to human happiness, that education is more important than salvation, and so on. Not a one of these ideas – the fundamentals of modern western thought – can stand for a moment in the prospect of a divine judgment that is personal, comprehensive, and catastrophic.
No doubt you followed the case recently of the young American Christian, John Allen Chau, killed by primitive tribesmen who live a life largely untouched by the modern world on a small island at the bottom of the Bay of Bengal. He went to bring the gospel to the inhabitants of Sentinel Island. The Indian government has made it illegal for anyone to visit the island and the fishermen who took Mr. Chau there were also arrested. The American made no secret of his intention to bring the gospel to the islanders and was hardly the first missionary to have been killed by those he hoped to save. To the modern mind Chau was hardly a hero. Some have said he had no business trying to change the lives of the islanders. He was nothing but a cultural imperialist. The state, of course, emphasized the fact that he had broken the law by visiting the island, something he had apparently done several times before. All of this makes perfect sense to the typical western mind and to the eastern mind as well for different reasons. Add the Last Judgment to the equation, however, and everything changes, immediately and profoundly. Mr. Chau was hastening the coming of the day of the Lord. What official, Indian or otherwise, and what Western pundit, is going to stand before the Great White Throne and protest that Mr. Chau had no business interfering with the lives of these primitive islanders? And when together with them in hell, what do you suppose the islanders themselves will think of those who kept them in the dark about the most important fact of life: that God would bring them into judgment at the last day and that there was no possibility of escaping condemnation in that judgment apart from faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God, a person about whom they had been kept in the dark?
But what is all threat and fear for the unbelieving, what will come to them like a thief, is for the believer a welcome home. The very thing that is here likened to the very worst of unwelcome surprises for the unprepared and the unwatchful is called elsewhere the Christian’s “blessed hope.” This is a noteworthy feature of the Bible’s universal depiction of the Second Coming: it is utterly unsentimental. Salvation for some is doom for others. Tolkien described the Second Coming as the eucatastrophe; that is, the good catastrophe, the happy catastrophe! It cannot be otherwise. Victory for one must be defeat for another. And so it is that Peter’s description of that terrible day with its catastrophic destruction will also usher God’s people into new and eternal goodness. And so it is and must be. Absent a goal in history and so in human life, absent the possibility of the conquest of death, absent the prospect of a life that is far better than can be found in this world, there are only a few alternatives, none of which is attractive, none invests human life with any meaning or lasting hope.
One commentator, the Scot William Barclay, cites three epitaphs, inscriptions from heathen tombs of the period. Each illustrates a view of life made possible and only possible by the denial of the consummation, of the Last Judgment, and of the hope of eternal salvation. They illustrate what one is left with who rejects a teleological view of history, that is, who rejects the idea that history is going somewhere, that it has a goal, an endpoint, a meaning. [Cited in Green, 152] One such epitaph reads:
“I was nothing; I am nothing; so you who are still alive, eat, drink, and be merry.” There is a classic expression of hedonism and hedonism’s rationale or justification. This is it; this is all you will ever be, all you will ever do, all you will ever enjoy!
“Once I had no existence; now I have none. I am not aware of it. It does not concern me.” There we have apathy.
Still another reads:
“‘Charidas, what is below?’ ‘Deep darkness.’ ‘But what of the paths upward?’ ‘All a lie…’ ‘Then we are lost.’” Here we have despair. There is the thinking skeptic’s response to meaningless human life.
Once the consummation is denied, those are pretty much the only choices honest men and women can make and we find multitudes making one or the other: hedonism, apathy, or despair.
God has seen to it that man’s hope for a home here in this world has been repeatedly blasted, made futile, even ridiculous. Famine, warfare, crime, poverty, sickness, unfulfillment, and death have always been man’s fate in this world. They remain the curse of vast multitudes in our day. Never have these problems been overcome, and even if, at some time, it appears that one or more of them may be overcome, as for example in a wealthy, largely healthy society like ours today, another problem comes along to devastate our hope. In the 19th century – a time of immense confidence in the power of man to overcome his problems and to create heaven on earth – people in large numbers thought that the human race was on the cusp of an age of peace and plenty. Social progress was all the rage and all the hope. Then came the First World War and the appalling blood-letting and disease and futility that marked that conflict. After its conclusion people spoke optimistically of the end of war, man’s lesson having been learned. Then came the Great Depression and the Second World War that made the human cost of the First World War a drop in the bucket in comparison. Then the Cold War and as soon as it was over, suddenly terrorism and an ascendant Jihadist Islam had become the scourges of nations. Great advances in sanitation and medicine have prolonged life but as we live longer Alzheimer’s has become the new plague. Have you noticed how little optimism there is in our time? Only some techies are talking about a wonderful new world that is just around the corner, but, of course, virtually every new development in technology has also borne bitter fruit as it has been put to use by sinful human beings.
Here is but one example of technology made captive to the sinful human heart, a simple illustration of what Neil Postman called the “net cost” of technology. Reported in the press a few years ago was the case of a woman who, after she was robbed, posted a video of the robbery on her Facebook page and, as a result the thief was identified and arrested. However, it turned out that the burglar was the woman’s Facebook friend and had learned that she would be out of the house that evening from her Facebook posts! We are all far too familiar with identity theft, with the ravages of pornography, and with the wastage of the lives of young men playing video games to invest in the hope of salvation through technology!
It takes a touching faith – or perhaps we should say it takes an almost inconceivable incredulity – to believe nowadays that the human race is soon or ever going to rise above its problems and create a heaven on earth. Give us time and every forward step will be matched by at least one taken in the opposite direction! The problem is, as it has always been, the human heart and its aching need to assert itself at the expense of others.
The only hope of the human race, therefore, is the intervention of God, the very intervention the Lord Christ promised, when he promised that he would come again to judge the world and to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. So, what does it mean to wait for him? How does one do that? Well Peter answers that question here.
“Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of the Lord…”
We are to live our daily lives in view of his coming cataclysm, this terminus of human history, this judgment and these new heavens and new earth. The old writers used to speak of living sub specie aeternitatis, living with an eternal perspective, living in view of eternity. Much of the time, to our shame, we do not do this. We live, alas, as if Christ were not coming again; as if we were not to stand in judgment and give an account of our lives to the Lord Christ, as if the people we are rubbing shoulders with day by day are not one day to melt in terror before the Judge of all the earth.
When Florence and I were in Australia some seven years ago now, we made a point of visiting some of the sites associated with Arthur Stace, the down-and-outer who was converted at a downtown Sydney mission, and who thereafter for years surreptitiously wrote in chalk and with his distinctive hand the word “eternity” on Sydney’s sidewalks. For years no one knew who was doing it, but every morning somewhere on the sidewalks of the city was found written that single world: “eternity” in that distinctive hand. Few townspeople take it seriously any longer but the word “eternity” was in this way made part of Sydney’s civic lore. The word was even spelled out in blazing lights at the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Sydney in 2000. There remain a few places in the city where the word as Stace wrote it can be found, now in permanent form, one of them on the pavement beneath a fountain right near the city’s Anglican cathedral. Stace was reminding his fellow citizens when they went out to work in the morning, when they came back at night, when they were walking the streets of the city doing this thing or that, that it was imperative that they keep eternity, the last judgement, heaven and hell in view as they lived their lives day by day. It is the same inevitable conclusion to which Peter drives us here. Arthur Stace is long gone, but his lesson is timeless and all the more necessary in a day like ours when very few people – including Christians – give a thought to the eternal future that the Bible teaches us repeatedly and in the most emphatic terms is bearing down on us all the while.
This world is doomed. There will be many, perhaps most who are rescued from it and granted a place in the new heavens and the new earth, but this world, its order, and vast multitudes of human beings living in this world today are doomed. The peril is not from climate change or from nuclear holocaust or from some pandemic. When that comes up in conversation, there is an opportunity for you to say, “You don’t need to worry about that, but there is something you ought to be worried about.” It is not from alien life that will come to destroy us. The danger is from God himself, his just and holy wrath, his determination to punish sin and rebellion, and his power and his intention and his promise to do so. We are to live in the light of that fact. We are not to make our home here as if we might somehow live forever. We are not to value the things that are soon to be destroyed, but only those things that will be found in the new heavens and the new earth. It is there we are to store up our treasures! The world may well scoff; indeed it does. But then it has scoffed before, it has boasted before, it has promised a cure to the human predicament before, and has never delivered. It assures us that no judgment awaits but gives us no reason to believe in that assurance. The Lord Christ, who gave himself for us, the just for the unjust; the Savior who shed his blood for our peace with God, he assured us of the catastrophe that awaits the world. I believe him. I find his promise consistent with what I know about myself, about the heart of every human being, and about the life of this world. The universal longing for just judgment: where on earth did that come from apart from our having been made in the image of the Judge of all the earth? Where do the very ideas of heaven and hell come from? From without? No; from within. A person has to deny what he or she confesses every day, what he or she cares most deeply about, in order to deny the Last Judgment. I’m not willing to cut off the branch upon which I stand in order to comfort myself with a view of life that can only lead to either hedonism, apathy, or despair.
So, what do you think? What is your reaction to the world you see around you every day? Are you surprised by what you see? Does it shake your confidence? Are you hopeful that man can solve his problems one by one or is it clear to you that he never shall? Do you think that human beings have been created for nothing more than a brief moment of existence before eternal extinction or is it clear to you that God has put eternity in our hearts? Is it possible for you to believe that you are, that all human beings are nothing more than elaborate cellular organisms whose existence has no more enduring significance than that of a bacterium? That is your alternative, the only one. No one has found another. You are either nothing like what you think you are, your life means none of what you think it means, what things are precious to you are nothing more than illusions, or the Last Judgment does in fact loom over human history and beckons it to its conclusion. There is either a new heavens and a new earth where righteousness dwells or human beings are nothing more than sentient animals, here today and gone tomorrow, their lives nothing more than a walking shadow, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing. A man may say that life is nothing more than that, but he doesn’t believe it; he can’t believe it. It is beyond him to believe it. Christians know it is not so but they alone find the truth of God’s Word also writ large on their hearts and on the experience of human life. The Lord’s promise of his Second Coming simply confirms what we know to be true, what every human being knows to be true: our lives matter! Peter’s simple challenge is: if we know that, why on earth would we live as if we didn’t?