Second Peter is a short, straightforward epistle. It begins, after the salutation, with an exhortation to piety, encouraging Christians to practice virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, kindness, and love. This is followed by an exclamation about the nature of the faith. It is not a “cleverly devised myth” (2 Pet 1:16); rather, it has been revealed by God through prophets and apostolic eyewitnesses to the incarnation of that word. Even so, false prophets and teachers are and always will be present in the church. Therefore, Christians should remain vigilant and not be led astray. There will also be scoffers who will mock Christians for their hope in the last day that has yet to come. Just as God is patient with those who hate him, so too shall we be patient. The “Day of the Lord” (2 Pet 3:10) will come—maybe not as soon as hoped—but in God’s time, all things in heaven and on earth will be made new.
This letter is not without controversy—not because of its content but due to questions concerning its authorship and canonicity. To be sure, the author identifies himself as Simon Peter (1:1), the same author as 1 Peter (2 Peter 3:1). However, you don’t have to look too far online or in scholarly books before you find out that Petrine authorship has long been disputed. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, its style and vocabulary are very different than 1 Peter, suggesting two different authors. Second, for several reasons some scholars date its composition to a period well after the time of Peter, who was executed by the Roman Emperor Nero sometime between A.D. 65-68. This is primarily based off of two premises: 1) the false prophets and teachers mentioned in 2 Peter 2:1 were the Gnostics of the second century, and 2) the fathers mentioned in 2 Peter 3:4 refers to the first generation or two of Christians. These are assumptions, though. The false prophets and teachers could just as well refer to first century heresies (gnostic or otherwise); the fathers may just as well mean the Hebrew patriarchs. And as far as stylistic and vocabulary differences between 1 and 2 Peter are concerned, it might just be a matter of circumstance, or due to that fact that the former was written for Peter by a scribe named Silvanus (aka Silas; 1 Pet 5:12). The latter may have been written by Peter himself or perhaps a scribe other than Silvanus. Whatever the case, there is no evidence so incontrovertible that “require[s] a date beyond Peter’s lifetime” for the letter’s composition.
This letter is not without controversy—not because of its content but due to questions concerning its authorship and canonicity.
Nevertheless, you should know that 2 Peter has historically been designated as antilegomena, that is, a book whose authenticity was spoken against by some in the early church as it wrestled with the canon of the New Testament. Even so, it has long been read and cited by Christians going back to church fathers in the second century. St. Jerome (c. 347-420), who first translated the Bible into Latin, considered it canonical even though some of his contemporaries considered its authenticity, along with six other New Testament books (James, Jude, Second and Third John, Hebrews, and Revelation), questionable. A few things should be kept in mind here. First, while it might not have been universally accepted as authentic (homologoumena) in the early church, its status as antilegomena in no way implies it is spurious or heretical—the two other categories that were used to distinguish early Christian writings claiming to be of apostolic origin. Second, while the distinction between homologoumena and antilegomena is useful to be aware of, “caution must be exercised not to exaggerate the distinction.”
Second Peter is still profitable to read even if it wasn’t written by Peter himself (I think it was), for in it we are encouraged to live holy lives in response to the complete righteousness already given to us in Christ. Scripture often urges us to pursue virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, kindness, and love. And as Luther noted, “This epistle is written against those who think that Christian faith can be without works. Therefore he exhorts them to test themselves by good works and become sure of their faith, just as one knows trees by their fruit” (L.W. 35:391). Additionally, it is always worth being reminded of the objective foundations of our faith—through external, prophetic and eyewitness, evidence—from which any defense against heresy and abject falsehoods should be made. And lastly, the more our world spins out of control and our patience wears thin, any encouragement to remain vigilant before the Lord’s return is welcome. How easy it is to be distracted, led astray, or frustrated? Very easy. At the end of the epistle, 2 Peter encourages us in this way: as we wait for Christ’s return, be “diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish.” This is already done by Christ, through faith, for you. So, be “at peace.” The day of the Lord will come. In the meantime, let us “take care that [we] are not carried away with the error of lawless people” and “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:14-15, 17-18).
The more our world spins out of control and our patience wears thin, any encouragement to remain vigilant before the Lord’s return is welcome.
Over the next month, we’ll continue to explore the teachings of 2 Peter with a look at each of the three chapters contained within Peter’s second letter to the churches of Asia Minor.