Have you ever really thought about what kind of legacy you want to leave behind when you die? Maybe you hope to leave some kind of material legacy for your loved ones: money or property of some kind. As my mother’s dementia worsened and my brothers and I took over her financial affairs, we were surprised to learn that she had bought four small annuities, with each one of us listed as the beneficiary. Clearly, she had wanted to “leave us something” when she died. But, those annuities were the smallest part of the legacy we received from my mother. Her most valuable legacy was in the values she both taught and modeled, and which we live by to this day.
Peter wanted to leave a legacy for the Christians who came after him, too. It wasn’t land on which they could build a worship center. It wasn’t money for financing a mission project. It wasn’t a collection of beautiful objects to use when they served Communion or baptized new believers. His legacy was a reminder of God’s promises, advice on how to participate in those promises, and warnings about what could stand in their way. We find his legacy in the Second Letter of Peter, and we are among his beneficiaries.
When we did our initial time-travelling back to the days when the First Letter of Peter was written, we had to decide whether the letter was written by the apostle Peter himself in the mid-1st century, or later by someone writing in his name, around the end of the century. We have a similar choice to make about the second letter. It can be argued that it was written by the apostle, but a case can also be made for the letter being written as much as a hundred years later. In this case, it would have been written in Peter’s name, and it was accepted because what it contains is consistent with what Peter would have written in his lifetime. Regardless of who wrote it or when, its words are instructive for Christians in any age.
In the verses just after our passage, Peter is portrayed as being about to die. He says that he knows his death is coming soon, prompting him to write this letter. In ancient times, this kind of letter was called a “farewell address” or “testament.” This kind of testament didn’t have anything to do with personal property, as a “last will and testament” does today. Instead, it was a type of literature in which someone’s words would live on, even after his or her voice had been silenced by death. The testament served to remind the readers of a shared heritage which should be preserved for future generations. It offered guidance in how to preserve that heritage. And it warned of the things that could threaten it and the well-being of those who had received it.
Our passage describes the beautiful inheritance all Christians share—an invitation to participate in the very nature of God through our relationship with Jesus Christ. As we live our earthly lives, we are empowered to become more and more Christlike—to grow in holiness. As Christians in the Wesleyan tradition, we call this process of growth “going on to perfection” or being perfected in love. In Jesus, we have received God’s “precious and very great promises”—the promise of life after earthly death for sure, but also the promise of transformed, abundant life now, today.
The invitation to live a transformed life is a gift, but it remains an unopened gift without our participation. We have been given an invitation to participate in God’s nature, but this requires some effort on our part—every effort, Peter says. We are to strive for the things of God’s nature—to earnestly and diligently seek them. There’s an urgency in Peter’s words. Peter’s Greek suggests the need to make haste—to strive to live in godly ways without delay. Faith is given to us in the moment when we surrender ourselves to Jesus, but we grow in our faith as we practice it in the world, and we’re perfected as we live in ways that reflect God’s nature.
We do this, Peter says, when we support the faith we’ve been given by adopting the characteristics of God’s nature. “Support your faith with goodness,” Peter says, “and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.” The NIV wording is a little different. It says to “add” these things to our faith.
I like that translation better. In New Testament times, the Greek word for we translate as “supply” or “add” had the sense of lavishly providing for something, like paying for the entire chorus for a stage play, or bringing an expensive bottle of wine to a party. It’s a word that suggests making something good even more wonderful. That’s what Peter instructs us to do: to enrich the faith that we’ve been given.
When I read Peter’s description of this process, it makes me think of something like a pile of blocks, with faith on top and love on the bottom, and a bunch of other godly qualities stacked in between. But a better image would be a kind of delicious stew that’s enriched when we add the virtues Peter lists. To our faith we stir in godliness: we maintain an appropriate attitude of reverence, honoring God and acknowledging God’s authority in our lives. We are obedient to the will of God, as far as we can discern it, and we walk according to God’s moral standards. We pour in goodness, striving for moral excellence in our daily lives. We add the knowledge that we gain as we continue our Christian walk—not simply knowing things about God but actually knowing God through our relationship with Jesus. We stir in self-control, restraining our desires for the things that, in John Wesley’s words, “do not prepare us for taking pleasure in God.” We enrich our faith by adding endurance, persevering in our Christian way of life, even in the face of temptation and suffering and evil, because we trust in the precious promises of God. Finally, we add swirl of affection for our brothers and sisters in Christ, whomever and wherever they may be.
The result is love—love for God, and love for others. Love is the ultimate quality that defines God’s nature. Perhaps the author of 1 John described this love best. He wrote, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” Faith is the gift that starts us on our Christian way. Love—agape love, selfless love, the kind of love God has for God’s Son and God’s people—is its culmination.
Through the promises that God gives us, Peter says, we escape from the corruption that is in the world. Peter isn’t speaking here of the popular ancient idea that our bodies and earthly existence are a kind of prison from which we need to escape. Instead, we are released from the power of corrupting sin. We don’t transcend our earthly existence. Rather, our earthly existence is transformed, day by day, as we become more like the Savior we love by the power of his Spirit.
In fact, we need the world around us to practice the very virtues that Peter lists. A friend of mine always says that “Faith is like a muscle. It gets flabby if you don’t exercise it against resistance.” The world provides the resistance we need to grow in our faith. We need to make a conscious effort at living with moral excellence, when so much of the world around us accepts what is dishonest or cruel or self-serving as normal. In a world that urges us to indulge our every desire, we have the need and the opportunity to learn self-control. In a society with a quick-fix mentality, we develop the endurance that sustains relationships and commitments over the long haul. In a transient society where everyone is constantly on the move, we are challenged to find ways to demonstrate mutual affection, over time and distance and difference. The world around us may be corrupt and potentially corrupting, but it is also the crucible in which we refine the godly qualities we seek to embrace.
Peter was concerned about the challenges to be faced by the Christians who would live on after him. Specifically, he was concerned about false prophets and teachers. If you want to read a really good Biblical rant, read Chapter 2, if you haven’t already. Peter really lets loose in his condemnation of these false teachers. They were opportunists, playing on the fears of second-generation Christians. The first Christians had expected Christ to return within their lifetimes. Obviously, he hadn’t. Now, that first generation has died, and the next generation was wrestling with what they should expect. The false teachers used their concern to draw Christians away from the faith as it had been given to them. Their argument was that Christ’s return was just a “cleverly devised myth.” He wasn’t really coming back. And if he wasn’t coming back, there wouldn’t be a judgment. And, if there wasn’t a judgment, then why not just live however you wanted? Clearly, God wasn’t concerned about how people lived. T eproof was in the way that the greedy and slanderous and those who practiced every kind of transgression flourished! And you didn’t need anyone special to know God. They knew all about God, too, they said. Who needed an unreliable, possibly mythical Christ?
We have the same kinds of false prophets and teachers in our day, so Peter’s response is for us as well. He reminds us that God’s timetable is not ours. “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day,” Peter says in Chapter 3. What we experience as a delay in Christ’s coming is not due to God being slow in keeping God’s promises. It’s God’s design to allow time for all to repent and come to the Savior, for it’s in coming to God through the Savior that we move past knowing about God, as the false teachers did, to knowing God as Christians do—through a loving relationship with God’s Son. And so, in trust, we continue in the faith and life Peter describes.
The good news is that God has given us everything we need for life and godliness. Contrary to the false prophets’ teachings, we have been given everything we need for life that will continue after our earthly lives end. We have also been given everything we need to live abundant lives of godliness now. The ingredients Peter describes—the goodness and knowledge, the self-control and endurance, the godliness and mutual affection, all added to our faith—create a life of love and will make us fruitful and effective ministers of the Gospel. Growing in these Christlike qualities and remembering always how Christ cleansed us from our past sins will keep us from stumbling and serve as a confirmation of Christ’s call on our lives.
This is Peter’s legacy—his testament, left behind for those early Christians and, now, for us. His legacy is a statement of faith which reminds us of the truth when we are tempted to stray. His legacy is a recipe for a strong and vibrant life of faith. His legacy is a warning against those who would try to draw us away. His testament is beautiful and moving and useful.
It can also be perfectly summed up in the three words I began to hear every week from the 3-year-olds of Sunbeam Christian Preschool. Occasionally, I would bring my Jesus doll to the sanctuary to use for their Bible Time lesson—not every time, just when the story for the week called for it. But after one such lesson, something changed. The following week, when the class came to my office door and announced, “We’re ready!” they also shouted, “Don’t forget Jesus!” From then on, every week, they would stand in the hallway and call out, “Don’t forget Jesus!”
This is, in a nutshell, the legacy Peter left through his farewell address. “Don’t forget Jesus” and the precious promises that God has made and fulfilled in him. “Don’t forget Jesus” and how he cleansed you from your sin. “Don’t forget Jesus” and the relationship he invites you into, and the life he empowers you to live. “Don‘t forget Jesus” when the world around you challenges the truth that you have come to know. “Don’t forget Jesus,” for “his divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness.” Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young