Prayer Beyond Theatrics

It seems that the early disciples witnessed on may occasions the prayer performances of religiously misguide fanatics who identified their religions with the ceremonial performance of their prayers and other ritualistic theatrics. Such religious performances were so prevalent and common in the first century that when John the Baptist came as the forerunner of the Christ, he had to teach his disciples the simplicity of prayer (Lk 11:1).

When Jesus was revealed as the true light, He too needed to teach His disciples how to pray. After determining that there was a significant difference between Jesus’ prayers and the prayers of the religionists of the day, one of Jesus’ disciple eventually came to Him and asked, “Lord, teach us to pray as John also taught his disciples” (Lk 11:1). It was then that Jesus taught the disciples the substance of that for which they must pray, as well as how they should make their requests known to the Father (Lk 11:2,3). Jesus and John had to teach their disciples how to pray because the misguided performance of prayers of the religious world in which the disciples lived.

When the gospel moved out of Palestine and into all the world, there was the continued need that prayer be taught to the new disciples because the gospel had brought many out of idolatry. In the absence of the written New Testament Scriptures, one of the works of the Holy Spirit among the early disciples was to teach proper prayer. This was Paul’s meaning in the statement, “The Spirit also helps our weaknesses, for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession with groanings that cannot be uttered” (Rm 8:26).

If the religious-oriented disciples of Jesus and John needed to be taught how to pray, then certainly the Gentiles, who were converted out of idolatry in their obedience to the gospel, needed to be taught to pray correctly with the help of the Holy Spirit (See 1 Co 14:15). But when the Scriptures were written on the matter of proper prayer, there was no longer the need that the Spirit directly lead the disciples in prayer. The miraculous gift of prayer passed away (See 1 Co 13:8-10). If one seeks to be taught how to pray today, then he or she must study the Spirit-inspired manual on prayer, the New Testament.

We must understand that Jesus did not give His disciples a ceremonial ritual of prayer to perform. Neither did He give them a recital of words that should be repeated in order to pray properly. Jesus did not establish a religion by handing down a legal ceremony of ritualistically worded prayer that would identify His disciples. Doing such would have established the disciples as just another religion of the day with their own unique ceremony of prayer to perform.

If we would legally use the exact words that Jesus gave to illustrate the substance of correct prayer, then we would be ceremonializing the words, and thus instituting another ritual of religion that should offer prayers exactly as He stated. And then we need to consider the fact that if we used as our prayer the exact words that He gave in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4, then we could not pray for one another, for none of us were mentioned personally in Jesus’ example prayer.

In the context of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus wanted to make it clear that His disciples would not cry out from morning to noon as the Baal prophets with some ceremonial prayer of repetitious words and phrases (See 1 Kg 18:26). He did not want the disciples to cry out in confusion in public places that would bring attention to themselves as specialists in prayer. Neither would they pray themselves into an emotional frenzy, even to the point of falling down, or cutting themselves as the Baal prophets (1 Kg 18:28). If they prayed in such a manner, then the Holy Spirit said that when the unbeliever witnessed such confusion, he would think that they were mad (1 Co 14:23). At least one principle in the Spirit’s instructions concerning prayer is very clear: The manner of our prayers should never give the pretense of confusion, madness or false spirituality.

In order to guard His disciples against digression into the confusion and disorder of showmanship prayer, Jesus gave some important principles that should characterize our prayers and the atmosphere in which we should pray:

A. Sincere prayer:

“When you prayer,” Jesus instructed, “you will not be as the hypocrites” (Mt 6:5). The religious leaders during Jesus’ ministry were the Pharisees who gave a pretense of righteousness in public places because “they love the praise of men more than the praise of God” (Jn 12:43). They publicly prayed for the praise of men. But at the same time they were inwardly ravenous wolves (See Mt 7:15-20). Nevertheless, they loved to utter public prayers in order to be seen of men to be spiritual in their prayers. If people seek to be seen in public for their boisterous praying, then they are hypocrites as the Pharisees because they pray for the praise of men.

B. Unnoticed prayer:

Jesus continued to teach the disciples, “When you pray, enter into your closet” (Mt 6:6). The metaphor of the closet is clear. Once in the closet of secrecy, shut the door to the public. Jesus wanted us to understand that in the secrecy of our “closets” we can pour out our hearts to God without being tempted to draw the attention of the people to us in our prayers. In such a personal location of communication with God in secret, we would not be tempted to use some hypocritical “prayer language” to approach God. We would not be tempted to preach in our prayers. We would be motivated to understand that a quiet prayer in seclusion is as effective as a prayer in public before the assembly.

C. Quiet prayer:

The volume of one’s prayer does not enhance its effectiveness. Volume does not guarantee answered prayer. We must not pray as if God were deaf. Some feel that prayer in a loud voice demands that God listen. However, shouting prayers are more self-centered than God directed. When more than one person is praying publicly at the same time, the people who are praying often get into a shouting contest in order to be seen by others that they are praying with earnestness. If one is seeking public attention for his praying, then he needs to find a closet.

D. Prayer without repetitions:

In view of the repetitious words and phrases that were used by the Pharisees in their prayers, Jesus instructed His disciples, “When you pray, do not use meaningless repetitions” (Mt 6:7). Some translations render this verse with the phrase “vain repetitions.” In other words, repeating the same words or phrases over and over again is useless, if not senseless. In the eyes of God, it is meaningless to go on chattering with repetitious phrases. God is not one to whom we must repeat what we say in order for Him to hear and understand. Saying the same phrases over many times in prayer is simply meaningless chatter in the ears of God. If we spoke to one another in such a manner, we would think that we were all mad. Why do we think we can speak in the same repetitious manner to God?

E. Few words in prayer:

Those who practice repetitious prayer performances “think that they will be heard for their many words” (Mt 6:7). The Baal prophets of Elijah’s day led themselves to believe this. They cried out in prayer most of the day (1 Kg 18:26). The vain worshipers of the temple of Ephesus believed the same, and thus, they cried out in praise of the goddess Artemis for two hours with the same meaningless chant (At 19:28). If we do the same in our prayers today, then we have followed after the same religious ceremonialism in prayer as the prophets of Baal and the idolatrous worshipers of Artemis in Ephesus. If Elijah were alive today, he would certainly take the opportunity to mock those who behaved as the Baal prophets, as well as those in the temple of Artemis who chanted the same phrase over and over for two hours.

In order that His disciples not lead themselves into believing that repetitious prayer performances are profitable, Jesus reminded His disciples, “Your Father knows what things you need before you ask Him” (Mt 6:8). Jesus’ statement does not say that the Father answers our prayers before we pray simply because He already knows our needs. Jesus was revealing the omniscience of the One to whom we pray.

Before we pray, the Father always knows that for which we would ask, and thus, asking over and over for the same thing assumes that we believe God does not know our needs. Before we start a shouting session of repetitious words and phrases in a performance of prayer, therefore, we need to remember that all such behavior in prayer is useless and senseless in view of the fact that the Father already knows that for which we would pray.

We must keep in mind that our Father wants us to communicate with Him. He does not need to be preached to in prayer. Neither does He need repetitious shouting, or confusion. As His children, He simply desires that we lay our hearts before Him in words that come from a dependent child who calls on Him for comfort and reassurance. There is no need to make our conversation with God a performance. Whenever we think of performance, we must always remember that performance is something that we do for men. The Baal prophets of Elijah’s day were masters at performances in prayer (1 Kg 18).

Surreal Experiences

I wrestled my old bones out of a cozy bed on a farmer’s early morning in order to encounter a rural group of faraway disciples. They had regularly corralled themselves together on Sunday morning on a distant farm two towns away from where Martha and I had homesteaded. Once my bones had reconnected, and my mind recovered to some sense just past dreams, I was on my way to a land just beyond the rising sun. It was going to be a great day.

A warm invitation had initially and telephonically arrived at my ear a month before from a Christian game reserve and farm manager on the West Coast of South Africa. As soon as Stefan, the manager, released the words “game farm” into the telephone, there was no hesitation in my reply. How could I, as a relic of old farming days, deny such an alluring invitation to my distant past.

For a long month that surely passed beyond the allotted limit of thirty days, I eagerly awaited in anticipation to ignite the diesel cylinders of our White Rhino in order to press the throttle toward a return to a familiar culture of yesteryear. Being burdened with the urban, I was ambitious to awaken suppressed sentiments of foregone days on a farm in central Kansas.

After bypassing two towns on my exciting adventure to an exciting destination, the comfort of smoothly paved passage ways turned into the challenge of dusty dirt and sandy roads. As the dust crept through every minute crevice in the cocoon of my transport, the smell of choking dust restored my long-forgotten memories. I was at last on my way to my almost forgotten rural roots. I recalled from memory what my father over a half century ago always said: “Boys, you can take the boy off the farm, but you can never take the farm out of the farm boy.” It was going to be a great day of giving freedom to this farm boy that had laid in solitary confinement in the bondage of my present.

And how do you supposed an eagerly expectant visitor is greeted at the entrance gate into a farming kingdom? The inviting warm smile of Stefan was there as he swung his farm heart and gate wide open for my arrival. From that entrance moment that was just short of the Pearly Gates to come, myself and others enjoyed the sweet hospitality that only isolated farmers can offer. We all basked ourselves in the loving arms of the Stefan Steencamps and one another. Throughout the encounter of those of a kindred spirit, love blossomed as the daisies in a near pasture.

Novels are written of surreal rural encounters as these. I was given birth by a farmers wife who was a host and teacher for farmers in rural Kansas. My past finally caught up with me, and that past was sweet. The experiential fellowship of such farm gatherings are difficult to generate in urban centers with those, who during the gatherings, often have somewhere else on their minds to go. Before urbanites get over their weekly re-acquaintance with one another as disconnected disciples of the city, their encounter in assembly is often shut down with a “closing prayer.” Before they realize it, their “appointed hour” is over and they find themselves in making formal “good byes” in order to escape to another appointment. What sometimes becomes habitual formalities in assembly often makes the participants emotionally distant from one another. But farm house assemblies are often very different. In such reunions, one finds himself or herself forcing departure from one another, even though in a few days all the participants will encounter one another again in loving fellowship the following Sunday.

It seems that exhilarant communication springs into life when Christian farmers come together. It is as if their assembly encounter with one another only seven days before never came to an end. They simply pick up the conversation from where they left off, focusing on a common cultural connection with Christ and farming. It’s just not like urban encounters where each participant of the group has been in a different business adventure and culture throughout the week. Too few attendees have a common vocational background upon which communication can be continued indefinitely. Christ is in common, but there is no platform of life-style culture that bonds them together. Farmers speak a language that is a strange tongue to urbanites.

And then there is the matter of one’s taste buds. On this occasion, my taste buds were driven into a surreal experience around a luscious love feast. On the farm, “home grown” is light years away from “shop bought.” There is a freshness about the farm table. It overflows with the succulence that stimulates salivation long before the first bite is ushered into one’s entrance to the stomach. “Oh my!” are the only words that are fit to describe fruits and vegetables that have been freshly freed from a garden just outside a farm house. Their new residence was on top of my taste buds, and then into a stomach that could be revived only by lounging for some time on a sofa. In definition of rural culture, the love feast reaches a zenith of expression by the participants, who conclude, “Where have we been all our lives?” The table of a farm assembly declares throughout the meal experience that we have all finally come home.

Because I had another encounter that day “in the city” at 5:00, I slipped up for a moment by regressing back into my city culture. Since I wear no watch, I had to ask someone, “What time is it?” I had to instantly become apologetic for having to depart from such a spiritual gathering when someone said, “It’s about 5:00.” That information set in motion my hasty departure, wondering at the time, how much better can a Sunday get. It was a great day.

So I tore myself away from the arms of love, and was back in the White Rhino. As I throttled speedily down that country road, I was again reminded that dust smells good. So I darted through the first small village, and then made my way on to the next. As I meandered through town two, I made a wrong turn, corrected, and then was back on the main way through congestion. As I passed through the squatter camp on the south side of town, I hunkered down behind the controls of the vehicle. When in such areas one’s mind often envisions a thrown rock or something worse.

As I began to breathe some relief on the way out of town, I passed through a taxi (bus) depot. In the midst of a Sunday evening crowd of hopefuls who were on their way back home as I, taxis and buses surrounded the intersection. A hoard of humanity populated the area as passengers waited patiently for some bus to carry them home from the city, many going to places from which I had just come … the farm. I came to a stop at the intersection in the midst of the masses. I glanced both ways, and then anxiously pressed on. Out of the corner of my eye, and in the midst of bodies between two buses, I thought I saw Felix.

Brother Felix is a Malawian immigrant who lives in my home village. He has worked my garden every two weeks for over a year. He is married, with a wife and two children back in Rumphi, Malawi. I think I may have taught seminars at the Rumphi Mission in Malawi during the 90s long before he was born.

I said to myself, “Surely not. How could my eye in a glance pick Felix out of a mass of humanity, and then disappear behind a bus as I traveled on?” So I carried on for about a city block. But then I pulled over to the side of the road. I just sat there thinking that I had only experienced seeing someone who only looked like Felix. I made every argument to myself not to go back to that mass of humanity and vehicles. After all, I almost convincingly rationalized, I had the 5:00 meeting that I was rushing on to attend.

So while I sat there and pondered the possibility that I had only experienced some vision of Felix, I glanced in my rear view mirror. And in a distance I could see this man running furiously toward me with bags in both hands—maybe bags of rocks. As he neared the door of the White Rhino, he swung the door open with a smile that went from one ear to another. It was indeed brother Felix who was returning home after a Sunday assembly in that town.

Both of us just sat there, being overwhelmed with the surrealism of the encounter. We just absorbed the moment. He had been waiting for a bus for over three hours. We just could not get over such a chance encounter of two brothers discovering one another in the midst of a mass of people in another town. He said that out of the corner of his eye he also saw the White Rhino—which he had washed many times at the house—before I passed beyond the buses. It seems that visionary moments as these are locked in one’s memory forever. He said he peered around the buses and saw my tail lights come on, and that I had pulled over. So he said, “I picked up my bags and started running as fast as I could.” A great day had now turned in a magnificent day!

We were exhilarated by the “chance” encounter we had with one another in another town. We could not get over the ordeal, as we now traveled on to our home village where both of us lived. I told Felix that I was going home to pick up Martha, and then go on to the 5:00 meeting in the city.

After about fifteen minutes down the road, Felix started to vigorously look through his bags and check his pockets. Both of our hearts just sank deep into despair when he announced, “I can’t find my cellphone!” We drove on. All the communication numbers of those with whom he worked, as well as his wife and two children in Malawi, were on that phone. He transferred his money to his wife and children to Malawi through an account that was linked to that phone. I thought to myself, “What a terrible ordeal to end such a surreal day. Satan has done his best to dash the joy of both of us.” Satan made a good day turn bad.

I became desperate in despair as I empathized so much with him. But I could not overcome the shocking disappointment that he was experiencing. I thought that I could just buy him a new phone, as someone had bought for him the phone that was now lost. That might soothe his pain. But this would not replace all the information on the phone.

I could not bear the disappointment any longer. Empathy conquered hopelessness. So I just stopped in the middle of traffic on a busy main road, and turned back. With all hope against hope, we would return to the scene where Satan had ruined both of our good days. Felix explained that he had put the phone in his shirt pocket. We both concluded that it must have bounced out of his pocket when he ran so vigorously for me at the bus stop.

We eventually arrived at the scene of discouragement. I stopped about a city block before the bus stop and let Felix out to start a futile search by walking back to where he commenced his vigorous jog to catch me. We both knew that this was a hopeless effort because there were people milling around everywhere. Someone had surely looked down, saw the phone, and then went away with a newly acquired gift. Nevertheless, we were both trying to do everything possible to relieve ourselves of despondency.

I then drove up to the intersection of the bus stop. I casually glanced across the road and saw on the ground a faint sparkle gleaming from under the dust of the walkway along the road. “That can’t be,” I thought to myself. With a hopeful thrill, I knew I had to check the source of the sparkle. I crammed on the brakes in the middle of the intersection with people and cars dodging around me. I threw open the door of the White Rhino, jumped out in the traffic and ran to the sparkle. I ran as if in a 100-meter scramble to beat others who likewise may have noticed the sparkle.

And looking down, I saw through the dust that had been thrown over the object that was emitting the sparkle. It was Felix’s cellphone almost completely covered in dust. In all my exhilaration I just could not believe what I had just discovered. Only that sparkle off the corner of the phone was exposed, and subsequently had caught my eye from the far side of the road as the evening sun notified me that all would be well.

You can only imagine the exuberance of both Felix and myself as we carried on. We just went on and on with joy over the experience. It was simply a surreal discovery, so surreal that one’s faith moves him to conclude that more was at work than fate. Who would ever have believed that a cellphone that was lost in the middle of the masses at a bus stop would ever be found. I said to Felix, “Satan tried to spoil our day, but God had our backs. It’s going to be a fabulous day!”

(I missed that 5:00. But I was so high on thanksgiving, that I never thought about it again. Sometimes in our lives, something happens that just cannot be explained by either fate or coincidence. If you have read this editorial, we both know who to thank.)

Gospel Troublemakers

Seriously, I would have loved to have personally met the prophet Elijah. Here was a hero of faith who was surrounded by God’s presence. For example, on one occasion he stood alone and brave with God against the religious prophets and priests of his day, mocking them for their misguided religious shenanigans. Nevertheless, though brave in the face of misguided religionists, he had his times of apprehension, especially when government officials turned against him. After his victory in the contest of God over the Baal prophets on Mount Carmel, he fled to the wilderness of Sinai in fear of the wicked Jezebel, the king’s wife.

Throughout his life as a man, however, he wavered not in the midst of the Baal prophets of Israel. He stood firm on his faith in the one true and living God of Israel. Being in the minority, he stood untouched by the majority of the religious leaders of Israel who had led the majority of the people into apostasy. Only seven thousand people of all Israel continued to believe in the one God with whom the nation had a covenant relationship (1 Kg 19:18).

In knowing that God was near, Elijah had the spiritual fortitude to challenge the religionists of his day. So he challenged them to an “offering contest” on Mount Carmel (See 1 Kg 18:16-45). At the time, King Ahab had confronted Elijah with the question, “Are you he who troubles Israel?” (1 Kg 18:17). The one who troubled Israel would again trouble the false religionists on Mount Carmel. Faithful men of God always mean trouble for misguided religious leaders. In the challenge of the Mount Carmel contest, Elijah wanted to present the opportunity for the misguided religionists to reveal their nonsense by being challenged by the one true and living God.

One can often know if he is a faithful man of God if the religionists in the community ask him, “Are you he who troubles the people?” True men of God must “trouble” those who have been led astray by misguided religiosity. People must deal with the word of God that reveals the gospel, and the gospel always troubles puffed up religionists who trust in the ceremonies of their own religions (See Jn 12:48). In this way, Jesus was a troublemaker (See Mk 7:1-9).

So the one who troubled Israel challenged the religious leaders of his time. The contest was accepted, and so all the preparations were made to build altars to reveal whose God was alive and whose god was dead. All the prophets of Baal and Asherah were on the government payroll of the First Lady (Jezebel) of the country (1 Kg 18:19). They needed to be challenged to validate their faith with a miracle from their god.

The Baal prophets were as those religious leaders today who maintain their pomp and positions in apostate religions because they follow the money of the contributors. There are some religious groups today whose leaders are also on a government payroll. In the Mount Carmel “altar contest,” the “profiteers” were to be publicly exposed as Elijah set the stage for a contest between their gods and the one true God.

Elijah sought to proclaim before the nation that the religious leaders—the priests and prophets of Baal and Asherah—had hijacked the faith of Israel. Elijah thus arranged an opportunity for these religious profiteers to expose themselves before the people. So on Mount Carmel, he challenged them to build an altar upon which to make a sacrifice to their god. Elijah also challenged the misguided people, “How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him, but if Baal, follow him” (1 Kg 18:21). The unsuspecting Baal preachers accepted the challenge that was made by the man of God, and the people subsequently gather to watch the spectacle.

So the proceedings began. After the Baal preachers had prepared their sacrifice, the account of the incident reads that “they called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying ‘O Baal, hear us!” (1 Kg 18:26). This reminds us of some today who stand up in religious centers across the land and make a similar cry for a miracle from God: “Lord, Lord, please hear us” (See Mt 7:21).

When the preachers of Baal received no answer to their pleas, “they leaped about on the altar that was made” (1 Kg 18:26). There they jumped up and down, crying out from their “pulpit altar” in a senseless rant in order that they might bring their audience into a hypnotic trance to “receive a miracle.” There are those today who do likewise, leaping up and down, and falling down on their performance stages before the people in order to “receive a miracle from God.” They plead for an answer from their god that they too have created after their own imagination. But as in the case of the Mount Carmel performers, their god is silent.

Religion is based on specific religious ceremonies that the adherents of the religion must perform in order to identify their religion. Their ceremonies must be legally performed in order to perpetuate the religion, and thus identify those who are aligned with their religion. What the Baal prophets were doing was performing their customary ceremonies of prayer in order to involve some response from the gods they had created after their own desires. This is exactly what Elijah wanted them to do in order to draw out of them their hypocrisy before the people. So when they revealed their religious foolishness, Elijah mocked them for their performances of prayer to their god: “Now it came to pass at noon that Elijah mocked them” (1 Kg 18:27).

Nevertheless, the Baal prophets could not help themselves but to continue to cry out for some response from their god. And Elijah continued to mock them: “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is meditating or he is busy or he is on a journey. Perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened” (1 Kg 18:27).

The infuriated preachers intensified their prayer performance. Notice carefully what the Holy Spirit wrote about their prayer performance before the people: “So they cried with a loud voice and cut themselves according to their custom with swords and lances until the blood gushed out of them” (1 Kg 18:28). They did not just cut a few blood veins, in their rapturous prayer performance. They cut even into main arteries. It was a gruesome sight to behold, one that was deserving of the mockery of the man of God.

We notice something interesting in the preceding statement of the Holy Spirit concerning the gruesome ordeal. The prayer performance of cutting themselves was not an anomaly in reference to their pleading for some miracle from their god only on this occasion. It was their custom to cut themselves in this way when they conducted prayer performances to their god. Their bodies were covered with scars from previous cuttings in their ritualistic performances of meaningless prayers.

People in various religions throughout the world today do likewise. In the first century, there were certainly some who were carrying on with similar meaningless chatter in prayer performances to their gods that they had also created after their own imaginations. Paul almost walked into a gathering of such performing religionists in Ephesus in order to preach the gospel. Once the mob of fanatical religionists in Ephesus became emotionally out of control, they cried out in a prayer performance for two hours, shouting, “Great is Artemis [Diana] of the Ephesians!” (At 19:28).

But there was Paul, just as Elijah. He wanted to trouble the people with the gospel. So, “Paul wanted to go into the assembly” of the confused religious fanatics (At 19:30). As Elijah knew that God was the one true and living God who worked in his life without all the performing ceremonial confusion, so Paul wanted to step into the Ephesian crowd of emotionally energized religionists and preach the gospel. In doing so, he would have greatly troubled the multitude.

“But the disciples [of Ephesus] did not allow him” (At 19:34). The disciples who lived among these religious fanatics knew that they would beat Paul to death if he confronted them with the gospel that brings freedom from religious nonsense. This gospel is the message of the One who is the Lord of all those lords that men want to create in their own imaginations to condone their misguided religiosity. The goddess Artemis was only the figment of the Ephesians’ imagination. As the prophets of Baal, the religionists of Ephesus could perform with emotional prayer chatter for hours, but there would be no answer. There is never an answer from a god that does not exist. Listen to the Holy Spirit’s final account of the extravaganza:

Now it came to pass when midday was past, and they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that there was neither voice nor any to answer, NOR ANY WHO PAID ATTENTION (1 Kg 18:29).

At least we can say that these propheteers were energetically persistent. We can only imagine that they were totally exhausted by the end of the day, dripping with sweat from the ordeal of their altar-pulpit performance. Nevertheless, regardless of their high-powered preaching, there was no god to answer. Even the people became bored with their pulpiteering performance. Sometimes, the more energetic one preaches, the less he believes in the god he supposedly represents before the people.

2 Peter 3:14-18

Verses 14-18
“These Things”

“Therefore, beloved, seeing that you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless. And regard the longsuffering of our Lord as salvation, even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given to him has written to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which those who are untaught and unstable distort to their own destruction, as they do also the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, seeing you know these things before, beware lest you also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own steadfastness. But grow in grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be glory both now and forever. Amen.”

Peter’s reference to “these things” certainly refers to the events about which he had just written. In the historical context of his readers who were faced with constant mockery and scoffing, we assume that “these things” are the same things about which Peter, James, John and Andrew asked Jesus when Jesus had just revealed that not one stone would be left on another in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (See Mt 24:2; Mk 13:3). They were concerned about that which was going to happen in their lifetime (Mk 9:1). Jesus admonished those early disciples not to be deceived, but to look for those things about which He spoke in reference to the end of Israel.

We would not do justice to this context if we were to use “these things” as a reference to the “signs of the time” for which we must be looking in order to anticipate the coming of the Lord at the end of time. We must stay in the historical context of the early Jewish Christians who were about to experience the termination of their Jewish nationhood. They were about to suffer a tremendous attack against their religion through the destruction of the temple.

On the other hand, Christians today are in the business of populating the new heavens and new earth through the preaching of the gospel. The more God delays the destruction of this present heavens and earth the more opportunity we have to enroll citizens in the world to come.

Because the future events have no parallel in either the present or past, there are those who will “twist the Scriptures” about these matters (2 Pt 3:16). They do so because they are untaught and unstable in the word of God. The result of their twisting will be their own demise. In the immediate historical context in which Peter wrote, Peter here referred to those mockers and scoffers in the lives of the Jewish Christians who were saying, “Where is the promise of His coming?” (2 Pt 3:4). Since this was the case, then surely their destruction will be in the mass genocide that would take place in the wars of Rome against Jewish nationalism. Jesus warned of the same in Matthew 24.

But there are also those today who are twisting the Scriptures concerning future events. No few false proclaimers of the end of time have arisen throughout history. Their erroneous prognostications have led to thousands being deceived into believing all sorts of false doctrines and signs concerning the end of time. Jesus would remind such people with the warning that He gave to the disciples in Matthew 24, “Be not deceived.”

[End of series on 2 Peter 3.]

2 Peter 3:13

Verse 13
New Heavens And A New Earth

“But we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”

The promise refers to a new social environment of dwelling. In the Old Testament era, Isaiah looked forward to a “new heavens and a new earth” (Is 65:17; 66:22). The fulfillment of this prophecy was realized in the establishment of a spiritual kingdom reign of Jesus that is within the hearts of people (Lk 17:20,21). Those within the universal kingdom reign of Jesus who submit to King Jesus in obedience to the gospel, become His body, the church. When the will of the Father is done on earth in the hearts of the obedient as it is done in heaven, then kingdom reign is established on earth in the hearts of men (See Mt 6:10; Lk 17:20,21). Those who submit to the kingdom reign of Jesus have their names enrolled in heaven (Ph 4:3). Paul wrote, “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Ph 3:20). The new heavens and earth for those who are living the gospel is presently in the body of Christ. This is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah. But Peter possibly refers to another new heavens and earth that is yet to come.

As opposed to the kingdom relationship that Israel had with the Father, Christians now enjoy a “new heavens and earth” with Jesus as He reigns in our hearts. The church is a spiritual dwelling, a spiritual environment on earth where the kingdom reign of Jesus is seen in the hearts of men by their gospel living (See Rm 5:17). This was the thought that Jesus tried to communicate to Pilate when he said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18:36).

In other words, there is no such thing as nationalism in reference to the kingdom of Jesus. The church is the body of obedient subjects of the universal kingdom of Jesus. And contrary to the behavior of the nationalistic Jews among whom his readers lived, the obedient subjects of Jesus must never consider the thought of taking up swords to defend the church (See Jn 18:36; Rm 13:4).

Peter, however, is directing our minds to another dwelling. It is an environment “in which righteousness dwells.” Isaiah contrasted the kingdom relationship of Israel with the Father to the present kingdom relationship that Christians have with Jesus through His body. Peter then moves our thinking into the future. He seems to be using the same figure (new heavens and new earth) to compare the present kingdom relationship that Christians now have with Jesus to another new kingdom relationship that is yet to come.

The physical earth is not under consideration in reference to the new heavens and new earth that are to come. As Isaiah did not bring into consideration the physical world when he revealed the new heavens and new earth in the church, so Peter is not considering the physical world when comparing the present “new heavens and new earth” (the church) of Isaiah’s prophecy with the future new heavens and new earth in eternal glory. Peter was simply directing us to a new environment as opposed to this one of persecution, ridicule, mockery and scoffing by unbelievers. The one to come will be a dwelling place of righteousness.

We must keep in mind that the bodily resurrected Christian will not be a “floating spirit” in an environment of space. In the context, Peter was possibly emphasizing the “location” wherein dwells the “righteous saints.” This interpretation would be affirmed by viewing the new heavens and new earth in contrast to the present heaven and earth that are being “kept in store” by the word of God (See 2 Pt 3:7). Could it be that as the world and heavens were changed by the global flood of Noah’s day, so this present natural environment of the world will be “restructured” by “fire” that will destroy this world as we know it?

As “the world that then existed perished” (2 Pt 3:6), so this present world that exists will also perish. The world certainly did not disintegrate after the flood. It was only drastically changed. Peter seems to suggest the same in reference to the present environment in which we now live. However, we must keep in mind that the flood of Noah’s day is the best illustration of the destruction of this present world that the Holy Spirit could use to help us metaphorically to understand that which is to come. Simply because the world was not completely destroyed in the flood does not necessarily mean that it will not be at the end of time.

However, the heavens and the earth were radically changed by the flood of Noah’s day. The heavens that was a universal covering (firmament) before the flood was brought down to earth in a forty-day rain (Gn 7:4). The face of the earth itself was drastically changed by the hydraulic forces of the waters that went to and fro upon the face of the earth.

When the flood was over, Noah and his family indeed stepped out of the ark into a new heavens and new earth. Imagine being able to see the moon and stars for the first time because they had previously been obscured by the firmament of waters above the earth. Imagine experiencing rain for the first time and seeing a rainbow. Before the flood, rain was not needed because a mist came up from the earth in order to water all vegetation (Gn 2:6). But it was all new and different for Noah and his family after the flood. In like manner it will be after the consummation of all that we now experience in this world.

Whatever will transpire in the future, we look forward to a new heavens and earth wherein only the righteous will exist. Therefore, we are “looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Pt 3:12). What this new environment will be for the righteous, we do not speculate. We simply believe that our resurrected and changed bodies will dwell in an environment that is suitable for a body that has put on incorruption and immortality. These are things about which we wonder. They are things for which we also hope.

[Next in series: Sept. 5]

2 Peter 3:11,12

Verse 11
Holy Conduct And Godliness

“Since all these things will be dissolved, what sort of people you ought to be in holy conduct and godliness ….”

Whether Peter in this statement is discussing the destruction of Jerusalem or the final coming, or both, the point is the same. Since that which we place so much emphasis on and time in is going to be done away, then how should believers conduct their lives? On what should they focus in life (See Cl 3:1,2)? Peter mentions two important points for those who recognize the termination of what presently exists:

1. Holy conduct: “Holy” is from the word that means “to separate.” In living the gospel, the believers’ conduct should be as one separated or detached from what will be terminated. In other words, Christians must not become attached to the material world that in verse 10 will have its end in the consuming fire. Their minds must be on things above, things that will permeate the consummation of all earthly things (Cl 3:2).

2. Godliness: In maintaining a “detached spirit” from the material things of this world, the Christian must seek after God’s ways. He must conduct his or her life as God would direct. Gospel living assumes that one live after the spirit of the One who gave up heaven in order to come into this world. The incarnational sacrifice of the Son of God should motivate incarnational living on our part. We must live the sacrificial life as the Son of God gave up heaven in order to give to us life (See Ph 2:5-9).

Peter’s lesson is clear. The more we understand the temporary existence of this world, the more we will focus our attention on that which will last beyond the final consummation of all things.

The same lesson would apply to those Jewish Christians who were still trusting in the security of national Israel. Since Peter’s words are directed to them, then they must trust only in that which will permeate the ashes of Jerusalem and the temple. What will last beyond A.D. 70 would be Jesus and His gospel.

There were possibly too many Jewish Christians in Peter’s audience who still gave some allegiance to the hope that national Israel would someday be restored to independent glory in the promise land. Nevertheless, God, in just a few years from Peter’s writing, would erase from the earth the physical objects of their pride and the spirit of their nationalistic religiosity. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple would help Jewish Christians to focus their minds off their past and turn to the future with the Son of God as their guiding light.

The reader might be interested in the pictorial inscriptions on the Arch of Titus in Rome. All the instruments and utensil of the temple are pictured being carried back to Rome when Titus made his triumphal entry into the city after the A.D. 70 war. Nothing was left in Jerusalem. All those things in which nationalistic Jews took pride in reference to Judaism were either destroyed or carried away by the Roman army.

Verse 12
Looking For God’s Judgment

“… looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire, will be dissolved and the elements will melt with fervent heat?

Since that which exists will be “burned up,” then Peter asks a question that he knows his readers will answer correctly. Christians are looking for the day of the Lord because it will be a day of deliverance from the confines of this present world and the persecution in this environment. Therefore, we are eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Co 1:7).

Paul compared the agony of suffering in this present environment with the glory of that which is to come: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with that glory which will be revealed to us” (Rm 8:18). In other words, the glory that will be rewarded to the Christian will far outweigh the most intense suffering we might incur in this life.

Paul wrote, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory(2 Co 4:17). Paul’s argument is that our affliction is only momentary in comparison to the eternity of the glory to come. Therefore, “we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen (2 Co 4:18).

This is precisely Peter’s point in 2 Peter 3:12. We look forward to the passing of the things that are seen in order to enter the glory of that which is presently not seen. In the immediate context of his statement, the recipients of his letter needed to look beyond A.D. 70, though they had no idea of what was about to transpire. But after the calamity, the Holy Spirit knew that they would understand. When in times of persecution, therefore, Christians must look beyond the immediate present. Because we know that our suffering is confined to this world, we can do as James stated: “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials” (Js 1:2).

Christians who are spiritually detached from what will pass away will be anxiously hastening the coming of the glory that is eternal. That which is eternal will arrive only when that which is temporary is dissolved. Therefore, the Christian seeks the termination of this world in order to encounter and partake of the heavenly. For this reason, both Paul and John looked for the coming of the Lord (See 1 Co 16:22; Rv 22:20).

[Next in series: Sept. 3]