Holding Tight to Truth Together
Scripture: 2 Peter 3:13–18
The title for my sermon today, Holding Tight to Truth Together, has been the theme for the past sermon year, which concludes today. One of the great privileges of being a preacher and getting to study the Bible as a vocation is that, as with anything, teaching a subject means you learn more than you can ever teach to others. I want to share with you this morning something about what God has been teaching me over the past year.
What I want to do today is to put before us the great promise of the Bible and help us to align our lives in line with it. I want to argue that the promised end of the gospel story informs the present task of the Christian life. I want us to hold tight to truth together and thereby to see a transformation within our church that will reinvigorate us for sustained and fruitful gospel ministry in the year ahead of us.
So, first, I want us to consider the truth we hold together, namely, the promise of God that we believe and that we are trusting he will bring to completion. Second, let’s consider how it is we can hold tight to this truth, the preparations we should make since we expect God to fulfill his promise. Then, lastly, as we hold tight to this truth together, we catch a glimpse of the kind of people we will become.
The Promise We Believe
First, what is the promise of God that we believe, the truth that we must hold to? What is it we are expecting God to do in the future?
God’s Great Promise
This is a question that Christians do not seem to answer very clearly. If we were to survey professing Christians about the hope they have, what it is they expect God to do, we would surely not receive a unified response. I’m guessing that most would say something about how their faith in God helps them handle the great challenges of life, to find purpose and meaning in it perhaps. I’m sure many would say that they have hope that God will accept them into heaven when they die. I’m not denying the truth of such claims. But they all miss the mark.
The God of the Bible makes clear, from Genesis to Revelation, what his great promise is, and the muddle that most Christians seem to be in on this point is a serious problem. How is it that we don’t seem to know the main thing the Bible promises? We do, in fact, know it; the problem is that I’m not so sure we believe it. Or at least we seem to downplay it in favor of some of the other suggested responses to the question of what God has promised to do.
Looking back to the beginning of this chapter, Peter states that he has now written two letters to stir up his readers, urging them to remember what the Old Testament prophets had predicted and what Jesus had commanded in light of those predictions. And what was predicted was God’s final judgment on the world, his setting everything right again. This is the great promise of the Bible, and it has to do not with simply navigating through life’s great challenges or being assured of peace after death, important as those things are. It has to do with the world we live in now.
Optimism and Pessimism
Like Peter in his two letters, I, too, want to remind us of this great promise. Holding tight to it will mean not that we believe the world will get better and better until, finally, we have ushered in the kingdom of God in its fullness. In spite of the rhetoric of every politician, we do not have to keep believing that our best days are ahead of us—provided, of course, we give him or her our vote. At the same time, we must reject the all-too-pervasive belief that the world is “going to hell in a handbasket” and that the consolation is that we will soon enough find rest in “the sweet by and by.” The truth we believe about what God is going to do for the world is neither the optimism of the progressives nor the pessimism of the fatalists.
So what do we believe? Look now at verse 13 and note it well: “But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” The promise of God is a new creation, when God does for the entire cosmos what he did for Jesus of Nazareth on Easter Sunday.
In other words, it is not that God will do away with the world but rather, having subjected it to death, he will raise it from the dead. That is how we are to read the apocalyptic language Peter uses in verses 10-12. The world being “burned up” is compared to the floodwaters in Noah’s day (vv. 5-7) which destroyed “the world that then existed” and led to the one that exists now. Similarly, we believe that God will again do something dramatic, resulting in a new heavens and new earth that is the redemption, but decisively not the annihilation, of the old.
The Righteous New World
The Bible encourages us to imagine what life in this new creation would be like, but however we do imagine it to be, it is still a creation of time, space, and matter. It is still something like the world we experience now, complete with food and animals, with rivers and mountains. The Christian expectation here is in line with the Jewish one, for the “new heavens” and the “new earth” is promised first in the Old Testament.
Peter is referring to the prophesy of Isaiah 65 and 66. It was to Israel in exile that God promised to create “new heavens and a new earth” where “the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (Isa 65:17). The new creation will include a world “in which righteousness dwells,” or where righteousness “is at home” (NRSV). This righteousness is not simply a reference to the moral behavior of individuals but to an entire culture of equity and justice. What every progressive can only dream of the Christian gospel promises to deliver.
The coming of Jesus did nothing but confirm that God would keep this promise, for in his resurrection we see a glimpse of what is to come. We must wait for it, for it is not yet here as promised. But the promise has already begun to be fulfilled, so we must now work for it. Not “for” in the sense of “in order to earn it,” but in the sense of “with an eye toward, for the benefit of.” We work for the new creation not like we work for a paycheck we don’t yet have but like we work for the employer and his business which is already here.
The Preparations We Make
The challenge of the Christian life, as with any other worldview, is to now see if one can live consistently with his or her beliefs. We can consider the answer to the conditional if/then statement: If we believe that God is going to deliver on his promise of “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells,” then what is the way we ought to live our lives? Peter’s answer to that question comes in verse 14. “Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.” The promise we are waiting for informs the preparations we now make while we wait.
Waiting Is for Getting Ready
But we need to consider for a moment the difference between waiting for something unexpected verses waiting for something anticipated. Suppose you have a house on the beach of the ocean. There are certain things you will need to do to prepare for the possibility of a hurricane. You know a hurricane could come, but it is also possible a hurricane won’t come, at least not for a very long time. Your preparations for a hurricane will be very different if you’ve been told by the meteorologists not that a hurricane might form and hit your house but that a hurricane has formed and is heading your way.
The promise of God we are waiting for—the new heavens and new earth—is the promise of the kingdom of God which Jesus plainly declared was imminent. And when Jesus’s disciples encountered him after Easter, they understood that the long-awaited promise of God was now unfolding before their very eyes. Here before them in a physical but immortal body was “the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,” (Col 1:19). A new creation was now underway.
So, like the owner of the house on the beach, noticing the dark clouds starting to form, it really is time to get busy. The kingdom of God is at hand. What should we do?
Again, note Peter’s answer to the question: “Be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.” To be “without spot or blemish” is a way of describing a perfect sacrifice free from any moral impurity. Peter is saying that since we are waiting with anticipation for the full arrival of the kingdom of God, a new creation in which righteousness dwells, we had best get busy making ourselves fit to enter it.
This makes perfect sense. If we anticipate a great king coming to dine with us at our house, we will surely do everything we can to ensure that the meal is the best, that the house is spotless, and that we have properly groomed for the occasion.
But someone is sure to object that talking like this is legalism. But it is Peter who says this, and Paul, too. The reference to Paul in verses 15-16 reminds us that what Peter is saying here is consistent with what Paul often writes about. For example, Ephesians 1:4 says that “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” In Ephesians 5 Paul says that Christ gave himself up for the church “so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:27). Colossians 1:22 says that God has reconciled us to himself through the death of his own Son “in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.”
Twisting the Scripture
How did we ever get to a place where we thought that God did not really care about our moral behavior? One way we got there was by misreading the Bible, a problem that Peter brings up right here in verse 16. It is not because Paul or the other biblical writers are not clear in their communication but because of the misinterpretation of their communication by the “ignorant and unstable.” So long as we do not keep the clear apostolic teaching in front of us, we will tend to misunderstand the more difficult passages. And I’m suggesting that for many of us the clear apostolic teaching we’ve not kept in front of us is the great promise of the new creation, and this has caused a lot of problems for the church.
For example, thinking that the Bible’s primary message was how we might get “into heaven” upon our unfortunate death, we’ve not taken seriously the call to Christian holiness. Now the answer to the question of how it is that God comes to accept us is of course “by grace, through faith” (Eph 2:8) and “not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy (Titus 3:5). But to focus all, or even most, of our attention there is to miss the great promise of the Bible, the promise of new creation, the promise that in Jesus has already begun to be fulfilled. And missing that great promise will cause us to twist the scriptures to our own destruction.
How so? If we think that the Bible is mainly concerned about how we can be right with God, then there are plenty of texts that can be twisted to mean that our own behavior makes very little difference to God. Paul himself addressed this distortion of his teaching, most famously, in Romans 6 where he deals with the suggestion that we can go on sinning so grace will go on abounding. But if we keep in mind the great promise of the Bible, a new creation in which righteousness dwells, then we will be quite concerned about aiming to be the kind of people who are part of that new creation rather than the kind of people who would necessarily need to perish with the old world.
The People We Become
What kind of people, then, will be part of the new creation in which righteousness dwells? Righteous people. Those who are waiting for new heavens and a new earth will become the kind of people who will inhabit that new creation.
Don’t Lose Your Stability
I believe that holding tightly to the truth of new creation, to the promise of new heavens and a new earth, is key to us becoming the kind of people God intends to live in his world. Or, to say it negatively: when we lose sight of the truth the Bible claims to make, the promise of God redeeming and restoring and reviving his created world in order that he might dwell with us forever here, we get off the path of spiritual formation and end up colluding with evil. Peter warns us of this, in verse 17. The twisting of Scripture can cause any of us to be carried away with error and to lose our “stability,” probably a reference to losing our convictions on the truth. And if that happens, we can have no assurance that we will dwell in God’s new world forever.
I feel compelled to point out my concern for professing Christians in our day, from two different sides. Far too many who have long held to an orthodox Christian faith seem to have lost their grip on the truth precisely in thinking they were defending it. It’s not a good time to be an evangelical, which we are, especially not a white evangelical, which most of us are. We are known by the world, but not for the reasons we’re supposed to be known. Colluding with the political powers of the kingdom of men, the religious right has been exposed for fighting with worldly weapons, like hypocrisy and lies, whatever it takes to maintain political power. It astounds me that so many from our tribe within Christianity will bend over backwards to defend Donald Trump and his political allies in spite of the insurrection of January 6, 2021 and the claims of a stolen election. The kingdom of God will not be advanced with such strategies.
So it’s not surprising to me that many professing Christians are seeking out the other option that the kingdom of men gives us. Better to be on the side of “love” and to be affirming of others, we think, then to be associated with a side known more for hating people. But the problem here is that this is just another way of wielding the power of evil, demanding that everyone accept “my truth” and the person I say I am. Christians can make no alliance with the sexual revolution happening in our day. The word lawless in verse 17 is the same word used to describe the Sodomites in 2 Peter 2:7—those who ignore all moral constraints, especially sexual constraints. The kingdom of God will not be inherited by “the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,” says 1 Corinthians 6:9. Christians must repent for the various ways in which we have been guilty of homophobia, encouraged by our self-righteous hypocrisy; but the correction we need to make must not include capitulation to the demands of the moral revolution.
Peace and Patience
So what are we Christians to do? I am not suggesting that we have to stay out of politics. If the Bible’s central claim is not how we can escape the problems of earth and go to heaven but rather how heaven comes to earth and transforms it, then the Christian faith is inherently political. Jesus was not a religious sage claiming to know the way to heaven but a political prophet claiming to know the way—indeed, to be the way—to heaven on earth. True Christianity cannot be left to the privacy of our hearts because the whole point of Christianity is what the one true God who made the world has promised to do for the world he made.
If we human beings are to be blamed for everything that is wrong in the world, then the hope for the world necessarily involves the transformation of us human beings. And that’s exactly what Paul said in Romans 8:19: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.” When God saves people, working through his Spirit to bring them to faith in Jesus, he does so in order that they might follow Jesus in Christian discipleship—the “obedience of faith” is what Paul calls it at the beginning (Rom 1:5) and end (Rom 16:26) of Romans. And in this way, God has designed that those whom he has saved now are not only a sign and foretaste of what God will one day do for the entire creation but also “part of the means by which God makes this happen in both the present and the future.”
That is why we Christians must “be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish.” That is why our spiritual formation matters. It’s not because we are trying to get to heaven but because God, by his grace, has already begun his new creation of earth in us who are united to Christ. So it is high time we take seriously again our spiritual formation. If we keep before us the promise of God then we can do this “at peace,” verse 14 says, because we understand that “we have been justified by faith,” so “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1). It is he who began a good work in us; he will see to it that the work is brought to completion (Phil 1:6). If you’re frustrated by the sin that seems so often to hinder your obedience to Christ, be at peace and “count the patience of our Lord as salvation” (v. 15). “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness,” verse 9 says, “but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” That verse is not about the evangelism of non-Christians but about the discipleship of Christians. Why has Christ not yet returned? Because his bride is not yet ready. God is patient with you and me.
Growing in Christ
What we are called to do, then, according to verse 17, is to take care that we not lose our grip on the promise of God, the promise of “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” But verse 18 adds that we must also then “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Let’s be clear: the point of spiritual formation is not that we conform to a set of rules and regulations. Let us not now go back to the already failed attempt to get Christians to conform to the moral codes that somehow come to represent true Christian conduct in a given cultural context. What we are called to do is to follow Jesus and allow him to reshape our entire life. Jesus is the Savior of the world. He is the world’s true Lord. And the power of the gospel lies in that announcement, that in Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen from the dead, “the powers of evil have been defeated” and “God’s new world has begun.”
Let’s hold tight to that truth together. Let’s strive to know the Savior and be conformed to the only in whom there is grace that overcomes all sin.