I think the gist of what Peter is saying in the third chapter of 2 Peter turns on the definition of a single word. On the one hand I’m reluctant to say that because it has the possibility of being overly tricky or entirely too technical, but on the other hand seeing the chapter in this light has given me a different appreciation of the entire book of 2 Peter.
Peter has been on a pretty nasty rant against antinomian gnosticism saying, among other things, that they were doomed to death and hell, that they sought to devour true believers, that they were blots and blemishes, unreasoning animals, springs without water and many other terrible things. You’ll also recall that his quarrel with them was their teaching that what one did in the flesh did not matter because the flesh could not be saved, only the spirit. As a consequence one could live as one wished because purity of the spirit was what mattered and the sins of the flesh were nothing.
In chapter 3 he reminds the addressees of another letter he has written them on another occasion. This may or may not be 1 Peter. 2 Peter seems addressed to a particular church or churches that Peter knew well while 1 Peter was a circular, a letter written to a large group of churches with whom Peter had had little contact. At any rate he says both letters were written to “stimulate wholesome thinking” or correct theology and he calls them back to the Hebrew scriptures and the words of the apostles as authoritative in formulating wholesome thinking (as opposed to the false teachers).
And then the gets to the point the false teachers will sure to be hammer home in support of their arguments: Where is Jesus who was said to be returning? The false teachers certainly noted that the Apostles were teaching Jesus’ return and after all that time He had not. If they were wrong about that central doctrinal point, what else had they got wrong? The world was still spinning and things were more or less like they always had been, such a thing had never happened before, why should we believe it will happen in the future?
Peter gives two examples from scripture to refute the notion that nothing new ever happens.
1) The creation. All that exists was created, ex nihilo, by God’s word. Nothing like that had happened before and nothing since.
2) The Flood of Noah. People were living their lives certain they knew how the world worked and confident that tomorrow would be much like today when the world was destroyed by water. Such an event had not occurred before and, by God’s promise, will not occur again.
He then gives some thought to the passage of time between the promise of Jesus’ coming and its fulfillment. He says:
1) God is not bound by time in any sense that we, as humans, can understand. Time is the creation of God, just like space. He does with it as He pleases, it has no effect on Him.
2) Any perceived delay by God works in our favor, it gives us time to get things right. And we must use this time wisely because the coming will be sudden, cataclysmic, and final. Any hope anyone has of salvation will rest in those things that occur before the coming.
And this brings us to the single word on which I think this chapter rests. It occurs twice in chapter 3 in verses 4 and 12. Its first use is by the scoffers who say, “Where is this coming (parousia)”….
Parousia in classical usage means physical presence or, if the person is not currently present, his expected arrival. Especially it might be used of a royal or official person. It is used 24 times in the New Testament. 6 times to refer to the coming of a person and the physical presence of Paul, once to the coming of the “lawless one” and 17 times in reference to the second coming of Christ.
Do you see what Peter has the Gnostics saying? Where is the physical presence of Christ? What did they believe about the physical? There were some who denied that Jesus was ever a physical being since nothing about the physical is good. Remember Peter’s statement in 2 Peter 1:16-18? He is not relying on cleverly devised stories, Peter saw Christ and His glory with his own physical eyes and herd the voice from heaven with his own physical ears. God was made flesh.
I believe Peter is implying that, having missed believing in the reality of God’s presence in the flesh they have missed His presence in the spirit as well. How can they? How can we? Having been exposed to the very presence of Christ how could they now teach and behave as they do?
Then Peter takes his final step. He says, “As you look forward to the Day of God and speed its coming (parousia), make every effort to be found spotless and at peace with Him.” Since God came in the flesh and since He dwells with us in our flesh, make every effort to find peace with God both in the spirit and the flesh.
Is Jesus’ presence real to us in our lives through the Holy Spirit? Has God come to us? If he has, what difference has it made?