Lesson 6 of 6
In Progress

Bible in the World – 2 Peter

The Apostle Peter

In a culture where it was not entirely unusual to write documents in the name of a revered deceased figure, 2 Peter draws on the Apostle Peter’s reputation and authority to make its case for faithful adherence to an established tradition. This is understandable, given Peter’s prominence in the early church. He is a key figure among the apostles in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, and the Apostle Paul refers to his face-to-face interactions with him in Galatians 1-2. Not surprisingly, then, other ancient texts mention Peter and talk about his future beyond what any of the New Testament writings narrate.

Several other ancient writings claim to have been authored or dictated by Peter, most notably a book called the Apocalypse of Peter. Even though some of these books circulated widely, evidence suggests that none of them, with the exception of the Apocalypse of Peter in some quarters of the church, received much traction as an authoritative text in the way that the Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s Letter did during the second century. That isn’t to say that those writings don’t reveal aspects of Christian experiences and convictions from the time when they were written; rather, they were not valued as highly as other books or seen as authentically written by Peter.

Tradition holds that Peter eventually made his way to Rome and conducted ministry there before he was executed. The New Testament does not tell any of those stories, except that there is a brief greeting to the audience of 1 Peter from the church in “Babylon” (a cipher for Rome after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E.) in 1 Peter 5:13. That greeting alone proves nothing, but it could suggest that the author of 1 Peter was familiar with the memory that Peter did conduct ministry in Rome. Other Christian authors, writing at the very end of the first century and throughout the second century mention Peter’s work in Rome as well as his martyrdom, which likely occurred in the year 64. Eusebius includes mention of a simple memorial to Peter placed on Vatican Hill, where he likely died, to commemorate the event. Later tradition, most notably preserved by St. Jerome, remembers Peter as being crucified upside down. Peter’s final encounter with Jesus in the Gospel of John seems to reflect the understanding that he died as a martyr, killed by the authorities as a consequence of his beliefs and ministry (John 21:18-19).

A Shining Lamp and a Morning Star

Among the many biblical passages that speak about light sources illuminating the shadows, probably the most famous is Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount when he tells his followers they are “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). Less well known but just as evocative is the encouragement in 2 Peter 1:19 to pay attention to the apostles’ confirmation of prophecy about Jesus as if it were “a lamp shining in a dark place.” When the context in which one lives and believes is confusing, and believers are not sure to whom they should listen, the apostolic testimony will guide them, showing the way like a lamp.

In what appears to be a metaphorical reference to the glorified Jesus at his coming (parousia), 2 Peter 1:19 goes on to speak of “the morning star” rising in the hearts of believers. The Greek terminology in question here is a single word, phōsphoros (see a different Greek expression in Revelation 22:16), which means “light bearer.” The term was used to indicate the planet Venus, which can sometimes be visible just before sunrise. Here it becomes a way of describing Christ as a source of divine glory and revelation.

Christian iconography and music builds on the idea of Christ himself, as well as testimony about him, as a source of light, illuminating a path of truth when those things are difficult to discern. Those artistic and liturgical developments find their inspiration from other verses in addition to 2 Peter 1:19, but the language of this verse is nevertheless resonant. Some examples in hymnody include the lyrics of the hymns “Longing for Light, We Wait in Darkness” (also called “Christ, Be Our Light”) and “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright.”

Fallen Angels

In a discussion of God’s commitment to punish ungodliness, 2 Peter mentions angels who sinned and were cast into Tartarus, a word that most English translations equate with “hell” (2:4). The reference here about angels is probably considering the “sons of God” described in Genesis 6:1-4. A few ancient Jewish writings describe the punishment of these heavenly beings or their leaders, and that tradition is reflected in 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6. Over time, interpreters connected a variety of relatively obscure passages and traditions to develop the idea that Satan and a number of rebellious angels were at one point cast out of heaven. The notion of “fallen angels” has become a part of popular theology, even though it has no real clear biblical support.

Relatively early in the church’s history, some interpreters put passages such as 2 Peter 2:4 into conversation with passages including Luke 10:18 (where Jesus mentions seeing Satan fall from heaven like lightning), Revelation 12:4 (where a red dragon sweeps a third of the stars out of the sky with its tail), Isaiah 14:12 (which mentions a deity “fallen from heaven”), and Ezekiel 28:12-19 (which laments over the king of Tyre’s downfall in language reminiscent of the expulsion of the primeval couple from Eden in Genesis 3). All of those passages are enigmatic and rather symbolic, yet mixed together in the ambitious imagination of some interpreters they created a mythology of Satan and angels expelled from heaven and perhaps suffering punishment or temporarily influencing human beings as a result.

The idea of fallen angels, especially as angels serving as active agents of evil in the world or as captive in some hell-like place, makes for a good story, but it has no clear biblical basis. The Bible itself, on its own, has comparatively little to say about what angels do, whether they once rebelled, and where evil or demonic spirits come from in the first place.

Choosing Disobedience

Following the pattern of the Letter of Jude, 2 Peter devotes significant energy to criticizing false teachers and their motives without revealing much about what those teachers actually advocate. A significant detail found within the lengthy accusations found in 2 Peter 2, and perhaps a clue to understanding why the book is so harsh in its outlook appears in 2:15 and 2:21. There the author says that false teachers should know better, because they already have been exposed to the truth. In 2:15 the author speaks of teachers who, like Balaam in Numbers 22, “have left the straight road and have gone astray.” In 2:21 the audience learns that the people in view once knew “the way of righteousness” but turned away “from the holy commandment” they previously received.

This is different from the criticism found in 1 John 2:19, where another biblical author criticizes “antichrists” who were once part of the author’s community but by their departure revealed that actually “they did not belong to us” previously. The author of 2 Peter sees the behavior and motives of the false teachers as all the more tragic or despicable because they once knew the truth and deliberately traded it for falsehood.

In 2:1, the author says that false teachers “secretly bring in destructive opinions.” The Greek word translated “opinions” is hairesis, which has a semantic sense of “choice.” Although this idea that false teachers know well what they are doing does not receive much development in 2 Peter, it became much more prominent in later Christian teaching. By the middle of the second century and beyond, Christian authors argued against alternate forms of Christian theology and practice, condemning those forms as dangerous factions or choices. Thus the English term “heresies” reflects that development. Embedded in the word “heresy” or “heretic” is an assumption that members of rival sects should know better, that they made a deliberate choice to turn from the true form of Christianity to choose something false or self-serving. The rhetoric of the term is important, in that it implies that the person labeled a heretic or the idea labeled a heresy is not an honest error made in good faith but is the result of greed, scheming, or a desire for power.

That notion of “heresy” is not entirely dependent on 2 Peter’s characterization of false teachers, but it is consistent. Second Peter offers a cautionary tale to its audience. They should endeavor to grow in knowledge of the truth and in good behavior lest they find themselves prone to choosing something else. There is no excuse for that, according to the logic of combating “heresies.”

“The Dog Turns Back to Its Own Vomit”

Proverbs 26:11 is the source of 2 Peter 2:22, which compares ungodly people to dogs. Just as dogs instinctively return to their own vomit, so too rebellious people cannot keep from coming back to the disgusting behavior of disobedience. It’s a graphic image, one familiar to many pet owners.

Rudyard Kipling cites the proverb in a poem he wrote during the aftermath of the First World War titled “The Gods of the Copybook Headings,” which takes a decidedly pessimistic view of humanity’s ability to make progress. Sometimes graphic descriptions of our tendency for intransigence and self-destruction are just too good to pass up.

“The Fire Next Time”

There are Jewish traditions from times prior to 2 Peter that speak of God judging the earth by means of fire, although not all of the traditions agree on that. Greek philosophy also imagines fire in connection to renewal. In 2 Peter 3:5-7 there is an explicit contrast between God judging unrighteousness first with water, during the time of Noah, and God doing so again in the future with fire, even though the idea of fire melting down the elements of the cosmos appears to be derived principally from Stoic cosmology.

One way this dual imagery of water and fire has been developed in more popular imagination is in the spiritual “God Gave Noah the Rainbow Sign.” This song includes the lyric, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water, but the fire next time.” James Baldwin, the great Black American cultural critic of the mid-20th century quotes that lyric at the very end of his essay “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” which includes a scathing criticism of American Christianity’s preference for power over love. That essay was later paired with one called “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” and published in 1963 as a book titled The Fire Next Time.

Ethical Implications of 2 Peter’s Teaching about the Day of the Lord

Second Peter is an outlier within the New Testament in its teaching that the day of the Lord will involve some kind of fiery destruction of the elements that make up the cosmos (2 Peter 3:10-13). That peculiar description reflects the influence of Stoic cosmology about the nature of the universe and renewal, and it is not entirely clear whether the biblical author sees fire as more of a purifying or a destructive force. Nevertheless, overly literal interpretations of that passage do exist, as well as interpreters who give 2 Peter as much credence or weight as other parts of the New Testament that have decidedly different things to say about the future of the planet. These interpretations have found significant influence during the 20th century and beyond.

Some of the most destructive interpretations of this passage are those that assume a global nuclear war is simply inevitable, or even that it will be somehow part of God’s grand design to bring about a judgment day with its rewards and punishments. Other interpretations deny the urgency of the world’s ecological crisis or refuse to think about sustainability with regard to natural resources because those interpretations insist that God will destroy the planet anyway. Such interpretations are prime examples of how misreading a text or ignoring the ethical implications of one’s interpretation can erode Christianity’s credibility, encourage further environmental damage, and depict God in a cruel light.

Hastening the Day of God

Within the New Testament, only in 2 Peter is there a suggestion that believers’ conduct might have an effect on when God’s judgment will finally arrive. Not long after the author says that God is eager for all people to repent (3:9) he speaks about the importance of believers’ “leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (3:11-12). There is no explanation about exactly how that hastening comes to pass, but the immediate context indicates it is connected to people who are living in a righteous manner.

Because 3:11-12 is preceded by the statement that God is patient and mercifully eager for all people to repent, some Christians have taken the comment about hastening God’s judgment as an encouragement for evangelism, asserting that more conversions will result in speeding up the timeline resulting in the consummation of God’s promises for the future. There is no obvious biblical evidence for that interpretation, but that does not always dissuade Christians who approach eschatology as if it is some kind of mapped-out sequence with specific causes and effects. A similar mindset exists among Christians who support certain developments in the modern state of Israel, including its policies about land and the treatment of Palestinians, because they think that those developments will fulfill requirements they believe must come to pass before Christ will return. This is a peculiar way of reading eschatological texts and ethically problematic at best.