January 4, 2009

Precious Gifts and Promises: 2 Peter 1:1-4

Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours:

Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (2 Peter 1:1-4)

The first letter Peter wrote told his readers how to deal with persecution from outside the church. He tells them not to be surprised at the persecution, because the world hates righteousness. And he reminds them that the suffering they were then going through is minor compared to the rewards waiting for them in heaven.

While the first letter deals with threats from outside, Peter’s second letter concerns mostly with how to deal with false teachers and people inside the church intent on evil, false doctrines, and sin.

He has three purposes in this letter:

  1. To encourage Christian growth and maturity
  2. To teach them to recognize and reject false teaching
  3. To encourage diligence in their faith and watchfulness in light of Christ’s future return.

Peter wrote this letter a year or two after writing his first letter. In it we find:

  • He knew that his death was not far off (1:14; see John 21:18-19 for the prediction of his crucifixion). Peter was crucified by Nero approximately 65-67 A.D.; tradition is that he was crucified upside down, considering himself unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord and Savior
  • He warns that false teachers will try to lead them astray (2:1-2)
  • He tells them to remember the words of the prophets and of Christ (3:1-2)
  • He predicts that in the last days many people will scoff at the idea that Christ is about to return (3:3) and assures them that Christ’s return is nevertheless sure (3:10)

In the first four verses of the opening chapter, Peter sets the stage by listing gifts God has given to His people:

A precious faith(1-2)

Peter tells them in verse 1 that they, like him, have received, not through their own righteousness, but through the righteousness of Christ, a precious faith.

We conservative Christians often refer to our faith as true, righteous, a born-again faith, our salvation, even our heritage. But I don’t often hear faith referred to as “precious.”

“Precious” means esteemed, honored, valued, something very expensive and treasured; something even like an heirloom, to be adored, preserved, and protected. It is in that context that Peter warns them to keep their faith pure.

I run into an attitude about our faith sometimes that troubles me. Christians will describe their faith in terms of the church they attend. It’s either big or growing, and that kind of validates their faith in their own estimation. I hear faith described as exercised in a nice large building with a gym and playground, and that makes it a successful expression of their faith. Sometimes, the verification of true faith is the exciting new program for teens, or increased giving, or an increase in Sunday attendance, or a dozen other factors that spell validation and success in our 21st century western culture. But we rarely hear about the preciousness and value of faith expressed in the fact that it exists because of the simple grace of God and the faith He has given us.

I, for one, don’t see the “mega-church” as the ultimate (many in our culture would say the only) measure of success. Maybe it’s the human measure of success in the west, especially the United States. But for the New Testament writers, we find only Luke mentions numbers as an indication of the effectiveness of the gospel message (Acts 2).

Ephesians 2:8-10 puts all this in context: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”

Look again at what that passage tells us. Our faith itself is a gift from God. It does not come from works, including a new church program, a marketing/church growth strategy, a bigger building, or a pastor’s impressive résumé. Our faith, in fact, is the result of His workmanship. When a local church grows, it is because God has added to the church those who are being saved (Acts 2:47). Unfortunately, a lot of “church growth” today isn’t church growth at all, but, rather, growth in a congregation takes place because one local church has instituted programs designed to attract Christians from other local churches; as such, many of the church growth strategies today lead to no actual growth in Kingdom of God.

Maybe all this is a little off the subject. But I am struck by the fact that here was Peter, under house arrest in Rome, pastoring or teaching a small group of Roman Christians. He is writing to Christians who had been scattered across Asia Minor because of Roman persecution after the great fire in Rome in 64 A.D. He was not urging them to make their local assemblies grow. He was urging them to keep their faith pure. If he were delivering this sermon today, Peter might say something like, “Praise Him not because what He does for us, but for what His presence means to us.”

There is a growing movement in the U.S. right now of cell churches, which are small groups of worshippers who meet in homes or a rented facility—churches a lot like ours—where the focus is not on big new programs and buildings, but on knowing more about who God is, what He has done for us, and what He expects of us.

I really value the cell church model compared to the typical western-culture brick-and-mortar view of church, and I think of the cell church movement as a kind of revival of the early church’s focus on how precious is the faith they were given and which enables us to focus on what the word of God tells us about Him and about us. It’s also a place where unbelievers can see Christian fellowship and be introduced to the word, without a lot of programming and trappings to attract them there. I want to make it clear I am not opposed to large churches with big buildings. When I decided to change careers and enter seminary, we were part of a 2,000-member church with programming focused on adult Bible study, meaningful worship, evangelism, and missions. There were no marketing or church-growth strategies there; just preaching and teaching the word of God.

But I have found the small cell-church model to be helpful in a kind of a return to the basics of the early centuries of the church, when Christians marveled in what God had done by saving them, justifying them, sanctifying them toward greater and greater holiness, and indwelling them. They did, indeed, see their faith as precious—a gift from God with a value so high it is beyond estimation. That’s what Peter means when he calls our faith precious in verse 1.

And what is ours through this precious faith? The gift of grace and peace. We know what grace is: undeserved favor. In the Bible, peace is used in different ways. To be at peace with God means we are no longer adversaries, but His people. Here in verse 1, Peter uses the word to mean a tranquil state, the feeling of the full knowledge of having nothing to fear.

Peter lists another gift from God:

All things pertaining to life and godliness (3)

Peter sums up what having God’s divine power gives us: “everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness.”

God has made available to us all that we need to grow in faith through our knowledge of Him. That means from the very beginning of our Christian life. Even when we didn’t think we knew much about this new Christian life, God gave us everything we need for life and godliness and the ability to know Him ever more intimately and progress in our knowledge of His will. It all came by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who opened our minds and hearts to a new understanding of our Lord and Savior, and an understanding we can’t really define to those who don’t believe.

Note it doesn’t mean we study and learn Greek and Hebrew and read all the books and then have what we need for life and godliness. It means God has given us everything we need, by His divine power, that pertains to life and godliness.

Verse 3 tells us that part of what we need for life and godliness is “through our knowledge.” God gives us knowledge. In the original language, the word here is a strong form of the term knowledge, implying a larger, more complete, more intimate knowledge.

The preciousness of the Christian’s faith is built on the foundation of knowing the truth about God; Christianity is not a mystical religion based on superstition and feelings; it is based on objective, historical, revealed, and rational truth from God to us.

Very great and precious promises (4)

Through his glory and goodness, “He has given us His very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.”

Peter names two kinds of promises: (1) promises that enable us to participate in His very nature (that is, to be like Him) and (2) promises that enable us to escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. These are promises with which we are familiar from our many discussions here.

The promise that we “may participate in the divine nature” is an eloquent way of saying we are indwelled by the Holy Spirit. Before we trusted in Him, we were servants of sin—we were messed up, we called evil good and good evil; our thoughts seemed good to us but were not, we made decisions and did things that seemed right but which turned out really wrong; we were self-centered, selfish, focused on our own gain; we were slaves to all of that, what Paul calls our old nature.

But look what happened when we trusted in our Savior: a great change took place in us. For the first time, we were able know the mind and will of God, and as we continue to grow in maturity, we understand Him more and more deeply. Our values changed from self-serving to serving our Savior; no, we haven’t been perfect, but our focus changed, and as we grow and mature in the faith, we get better and better at knowing and doing His will and not ours.

In fact, our conscience or sense of righteousness and unrighteousness was reprogrammed. Unbelievers do some really dumb stuff; I know, because I used to be one. (We won’t get into what some of that dumb stuff was!) But when I became a Christian, I changed. It wasn’t a flash of light or voice from the sky, but just a subtle but real change. I remember one thing I did a few months after I was saved was to sell my sports car. Not that a sports car is inherently sinful, but for me, at that time in my life, it had been a way to get noticed, something that had satisfied my arrogance. And all of the sudden, it didn’t matter so much anymore.

The other change that took place in us as Christians is in the last part of verse 4: for the first time we were able “to escape the corruption of the world caused by evil desires.” (Literal translation: “escape the corruption that is in the world through lust.”)

It is interesting the way Peter has phrased this. “Corruption” means decomposing, decaying, or rotting—an accurate picture from the perspective of God of the downward spiral of secular values, morals, and self-centeredness.

The world is rotting spiritually, but isn’t able or willing to smell the decay; every day in our news media, we see evil called good and good called evil, expressing the values of our secular culture.

The word “escaped” in verse 4 means “successful flight from danger.” From the moment of salvation, the Christian has a capacity through the Holy Spirit that he or she did not have before: the ability to ezcape from the power of the lusts and decaying values of the world. He or she is no longer a slave to sin, but a servant of righteousness. For the first time, he or she is not under the power of sin, but able to choose righteousness.

It is difficult to express strongly enough the extent of the changes that take place when the Holy Spirit indwells us. In closing, let us just consider for a moment how Peter describes the tremendous impact of placing our trust in our Savior and Lord: “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through Him who called us by His own glory and goodness” . . . He has given us “very great and precious promises” . . . and we are therefore able “to participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil."

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