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Preaching the End Times Better (Part 1): 2 Peter 3 Disambiguation

Reading Time: 6 mins

There is a better way to preach the End Times that has nothing to do with Left Behind series scenarios. The key is no secret at all. Follow where Christology leads.

2 Peter 3 relates to four problems in sectors of contemporary thinking and preaching about the final parousia of Christ Jesus.[1]

  • The first error concerns the fate of the Earth, along with that of the “heaven’s.” In certain streams of contemporary apocalyptic thinking, spatiotemporality (the time-space continuum which constitutes reality as we experience it) undergoes complete obliteration by fire (millennial views notwithstanding), so all which remains for humanity is a spiritual, disembodied existence “in Heaven.” In short, God annihilates spatiotemporality. Creation is not redeemed but lost.
  • So, Platonic or Neo-Platonic notions of redemption frequently follow, where the goal of salvation terminates in “getting to heaven” instead of “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” (Apostles Creed). The Ecumenical Creeds rightly recapitulate Scripture, explicitly 1 Corinthians 15, in which everlasting life is embodied resurrection life.
  • The third error pertains to widespread failure among Protestants to acknowledge Holy Communion as the ongoing parousia of Jesus until the Day of the Lord. The enduring presence of Christ stabilizes the Church in her recognition of Jesus’ ongoing lordship in and over spatiotemporality, satiating her need for assurance of salvation and the divine presence, culminating in the Final Coming of Christ. This third error propounds a sense of loss and alienation, looking only to a so-called “Second Coming,” while ordinary time advances towards annihilation of the created order, not its redemption. Repudiating the self-donation of Christ in the Eucharist lends itself to a theology of disembodiment.
  • A fourth error is when one asserts, “The Day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night,” as true, yet it is thought certain people possess the ability to divine the “signs of the times.” It is believed they can rightly predict the final parousia, also called the “Day of Judgment,” at which the resurrected Christ is globally revealed. This error does not appear in the text of 2 Peter 3, per se, but Peter does address how there were those who led people astray because they predicted a negative outcome regarding the Last Coming of Jesus (that is, there would be no final parousia whatsoever), and were guilty of harboring esoteric knowledge.

These errors have had enormous influence and contribute to unfaithful biblical interpretation and understanding regarding what happens when the “Day of Grace” comes to fruition. Such errors are the consequence of a non-Christological interpretation of what happens on the Last Day, contributing to a disembodied view of Christianity or, as Philip Lee once deemed it, “Protestant Gnosticism.”[2] All this in addition to leading many astray by divining the “signs of the times,” which terminate in predicting the date of Jesus’ return and using it as a pretext for teaching and preaching the so-called “rapture” and aberrant millenarian views, particularly premillennialism and dispensationalism. Hence, there tends to be an apocalyptic fixation by these groups, sometimes promoting isolationism, engendering anxiety, and espousing Neonomianism, as well as conspiratorial narratives. With these errors comes a vocabulary which reinforces errant beliefs. Referents like “second coming” intend to negate the sacramental presence of Christ and associate the Ascension with Jesus’ absence, rather than the consistent biblical idea of the cloud of abiding divine presence. Likewise, “rapture” itself becomes a paradigm for interpreting not only 1 Thessalonians 4:17, in which it does not appear, but the general resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:51-55, Paul’s ecstatic experience in 2 Corinthians 12:2, and even Jesus’ own Ascension in Acts 1:9-11.[3]

These errors have shipwrecked the faith of many.[4] But there is a better way to preach the End Times that has nothing to do with Left Behind series scenarios. The key is no secret at all. Follow where Christology leads. For if all theology is Christology, then eschatology is determined by the person, word, and works of Christ Jesus.

For if all theology is Christology, then eschatology is determined by the person, word, and works of Christ Jesus.

In successive essays, we will consider (1) Saint Peter’s argument in 2 Peter 3, identifying the matters he addresses, (2) along with highlighting misreading’s of the text and, as an antidote, (3) reasserting a Christological interpretation of eschatology and affirming our Lord’s continual bodily parousia in the Eucharist until the climatic, once-for-all parousia on the “Day of the Lord.” This will make for faithful, simple, and clear biblical preaching, consistent with the teaching of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church for millennia.

The Day of the Lord, according to Scripture, is the last event of our time-space continuum that immediately precedes the recreation of the heaven’s and earth; that is, when both humanity and the earth are resurrected. Christ is determinative. He sets the paradigm for understanding the future of the world. Therefore, the transformation of the body of Jesus through resurrection sets the paradigm for understanding the coming transformation of spatiotemporality, in addition to “the living and the dead.”

What is more, there is a neglected aspect of biblical eschatology latent in New Testament Christological thinking, namely the abiding parousia of Jesus in Holy Communion. This thinking is present in 2 Peter, but also 2 John and not for entirely different reasons. The Eucharistic Christ reorients our thinking away from disembodied notions of the eschaton to thoroughly embodied existence upon the renewed (not a new) Earth. Consequently, Christology determines eschatology, including the transformation of spatiotemporality, and should be preached that way. Outside of the resurrection of Jesus’ flesh, there is no better example of God’s commitment to sanctify the material world for His inhabitation than the utilization of water, bread, and wine as the vehicles of Christ’s ongoing self-donation to transform humanity, including our flesh.

The third chapter is the final in this short epistle, in which Peter addresses his recipients because certain false teachers were endangering the apostolic community by their false beliefs and ungodly behavior. The false teachers were embedded within the church to whom Peter wrote (2 Peter 2:1). The heretics denied Christ’s final coming and the subsequent judgment (2 Peter 2:1-10; 3:3-7) because, as they observed, “nothing has changed” since the start of creation; everything continues in the same developmental fashion and, so, they always will. Consequently, they lure vulnerable, neophyte disciples into their lifestyle of sexual permissiveness predicated upon the premise that Christ clearly is not in charge and there is no judgment to come. Their beliefs and behavior were conditioned by the fundamental conviction Christ is not present in the world in any ontological way. That was their “preaching.”

In chapters 2 and 3, Peter disabuses his readers of the heretic’s false premises and conclusions. Every good homilist can work the sharp edge of negation along with the edge of doctrinal affirmation, and here preachers can see both at work.[5] Instead of enjoying unbounded moral liberty, Peter states the false teachers are actually in bondage to their depravity (2 Peter 2:19). What they face is the very judgment they deny (2 Peter 2:9-10, 12, 17). These enemies of Christ have interpreted reality not through a Christological lens, but from within the blindness of their own hubris.

But Peter sets the church back on solid footing, explaining how time, space, and matter must be interpreted in light of this reality: The Lord Jesus is in charge and His status as the resurrected Judge of all means, from a divinely kairotic perspective on time, judgment upon the final parousia may happen any “day.” It is the Sovereign’s prerogative and the Sovereign’s prerogative will not be mocked (refer to Galatians 6:7-8). That is point number one in the orthodox preacher’s End Times sermon: Disabuse falsehood. The second point exhibits the Gospel of God in and through Christ, pro nobis. The current chronological buffer between the first advent and the last, though permeated with continual eucharistic parousia, purposes to lead many to repentance and salvation. In fact, Peter’s word of exhortation surprisingly calls his readers, who have been sympathetic to the heretics rationale, to repentance and true faith. He says, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” Then comes the full magnitude of the Gospel of Christ, extending far beyond personal forgiveness and renewal. Even the physicality of the created order (“the heaven’s and the earth”) will undergo transformation akin to resurrection. For just as the seed must die before renewal, so too the heaven’s and the earth must undergo a death. Thus, the last word on the Last Day is resurrection.

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[1] By “contemporary thinking and preaching,” I principally mean domains of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, both domestic and international.

[2] Philip J. Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993). Historically speaking, it was the Docetists and Manicheans who promoted a heretical, anti-physicalist interpretation of Christianity.

[3] Paul uses the expression “caught up” (1 Thessalonians 4:17) to describe the “catching up” of both dead and living Christians with Christ in the “air” (ἀήρ, ἀέρα). The Greek word for “caught up” is ἁρπάζω (which means to snatch, seize, or take away). Aρπάζω was translated into Latin versions with the word rapturo, which yields the English word rapture.

[4] A recent example is the 2011 predictions of radio personality Harold Camping, deciding on May 21 as the return of Jesus and the “rapture” of the faithful, meaning Camping’s followers. After recalibrating a new day and, consequently, another failure, news articles reported how many disassociated themselves not only from Camping’s nationwide Family Radio broadcasting, but Christianity itself. See Charles Sarno and Helen Shoemaker, “Church, Sect, or Cult? The Curious Case of Harold Camping’s Family Radio and the May 21 Movement,” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 19.3 (Feb. 2016): 6-30; and https://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/18/us/harold-camping-radio-entrepreneur-who-predicted-worlds-end-dies-at-92.html

[5] The Lutheran Confessions of the Book of Concord do this well. Whereas the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds proceed by the way of affirmation only, the Book of Concord approximates the Athanasian Creed where affirmations of true doctrine and negations of false doctrines (and practices) are stated together to provide clarity and protection for the faithful.