Peter: The End is Near

The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining.  Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.

The two letters of Peter are quite different in content and style. Most scholars believe that while 1 Peter was written by Simon Peter during the time of Nero, 2 Peter was written, perhaps by a student of Peter, many years after his death. While 1 Peter is primarily concerned with how believers should conduct themselves during a time of intense persecution, 2 Peter is concerned with false teachers, probably antinomian Gnostics, who promulgated licentious lifestyles. The writer of 1 Peter expects the imminent return of Jesus while the writer of 2 Peter hypothesizes reasons for its delay.

It is upsetting to me when I hear people claim U.S. Christians are being persecuted, because I think such talk does a disservice to all those who have faced and are facing real persecution. I like Benjamin Corey’s essay on this subject. The people to whom 1 Peter was intended faced the very real possibility of being fed to lions in the arena, or set afire to illuminate Nero’s gardens at night. I doubt they would have much sympathy for people who complain because someone says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”.Furthermore, complaining and raising a fuss about persecution is doing exactly the opposite of what Peter advised.  Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings…Therefore, let those suffering in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good.” Instead, Christians should endeavor to live good lives, and by doing so they will not only increase the likelihood of their own survival, but also may draw those outside the faith to God.  Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge..For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish..”

By the time 2 Peter was written, Nero was gone and active persecution of Christians had died down, at least temporarily. Now the early church faced a different and perhaps more dangerous problem. Jesus had not returned as expected, most of the original apostles were gone, and the original good news of the gospel was being challenged by new teachers with unorthodox ideas. The author of 2 Peter writes, Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.  The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” and rebukes false teachers who equate liberty with license and who take advantage of and exploit people in order to feed their own greed and passions.He has some pretty harsh words for people like that: They are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm…they speak bombastic nonsense, and with licentious desires of the flesh they entice people who have just escaped from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption”  By contrast, genuine faith is marked by spiritual growth that demonstrates positive qualities:“For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ”

Although the two letters of Peter were written in different times and had different concerns, they are consistent in their message. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. It is not so much a question of how that might happen or when it might be as it is what we are doing in the meantime. And again, the message is pretty clear on that. We are to follow Jesus, and he’ll take care of the rest.

And that’s good news to me.

 

Corinthians: The Greatest of These is Love

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,[a] but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

The church at Corinth was Paul’s problem child, as his two letters to the Corinthians will attest. The Corinthians seemed to have been an enthusiastic, but immature group of people.  Paul’s letters to them deal less with theological than practical matters, primarily how to deal with cliques and one-upmanship, but also with “anything goes” behaviors that went beyond what was considered normal by even the fairly lax standards of a cosmopolitan city in the pagan world. He spends most of 1 Corinthians telling them everything they are doing wrong, and a fair amount of 2 Corinthians apologizing for his earlier harshness

The good news of the gospel- that God loves and accepts everyone- was perverted by some as justification for licentious and harmful behavior. Paul emphasized the difference between liberty and license. Yes, you are free from following arbitrary rules in order to be accepted by God, but no, you are not free to do things that hurt other people. For Paul, the key to moral behavior was love.”Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”  “All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.” When it comes to moral choices, don’t just think of yourself. Don’t do things that hurt other people. Do do things that help other people. Paul gives several examples that most people would consider universally relevant: don’t murder, don’t steal, be faithful to your spouse. He also gives some examples that most people do not consider universally relevant: women should wear head coverings in church and remain silent.

I think the thing to remember about Paul’s letters is that they were just that: letters to specific churches, dealing with specific problems those churches were facing. I don’t agree with my more traditional and conservative friends who think every word Paul wrote was straight from the mouth of God and therefore literally and universally applicable for all cultures and all times. I don’t agree with my more progressive and liberal friends who think Paul’s letters are irrelevant and have nothing to say to us today. Some of his advice to first-century churches may no longer be applicable in the twenty-first century, but the principles which lie behind his advice are still valid. If Paul were writing today, he might give different examples of bad behavior- maybe he’d rail against spreading gossip on the internet instead of women with bare heads.

The devil is in the details, but God is in the principles, so it’s the underlying principles I look for when reading Paul. And the greatest principle of all is love. As Peter later writes, “love covers a multitude of sins“. If we put the principle of love first, in everything we say and do, we will be headed in the right direction.  It’s that easy, and difficult.

And that’s good news to me!