What we learn from 2 Peter 1:1-11
There are as many versions of Christianity as there are people to explain them. One of the more deceptive versions was thrown my way during a vigorous online conversation about the desire of homosexuals to appropriate the word marriage to describe their unions. I was accused of discrimination when I refused to use the term marriage as if its definition included same-sex unions. My accuser asked how I could claim to be a Christian, since Christianity is supposedly all about love. I was accused of being unloving because of my rejection of the campaign for marriage equality.
To some people, the word love is their definition of Christianity. Their definition of love is an amorphous refusal to hurt anyone’s feelings, because of perceptions that Jesus would not do that.
The word love is one of the essential characteristics of Christianity, but its definition would not please those who simply want Christians not to hurt the feelings of same-sex couples who want to say that they are married. You can find the Christian definition of love in 2 Peter 1:1-11, where Peter writes about the way Christians mature. Love is at the pinnacle, not the root of a Christian’s maturity, and the love which grows in a maturing Christian is not defined by the avoidance of hurting other people’s feelings. In polite society, respect for people’s feelings is part of common courtesy, but even polite society does not call for anyone to be bludgeoned into a betrayal of conscience over the prospect of hurt feelings. Polite society actually expects all participants to be mature and principled individuals who would not attempt to compel anyone to betray his conscience.
The text listed above is a letter from Peter to a church, and it begins with a greeting:
Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ,
To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ:
2 May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.
2 Peter 1:1-2 ESV
The next few verses reference Jesus our Lord repeatedly. It is important to keep that in mind as you read:
3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, 4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.
2 Peter 1:3-5 ESV
It is the divine power of Jesus our Lord that has provided everything we need for life and godliness. To recognize the thrust of these verses is critical. Jesus our Lord is central to everything Peter is saying. In fact, Peter is introducing here the concept that he will subsequently develop, namely that mature Christians partake of the divine nature. In short, the goal of our maturity is to become more Christ-like, and Peter says that if we use the things Jesus our Lord has given to us, we will actually achieve that goal. He proceeds immediately to tell us how that can happen:
5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.
2 Peter 1:5-7 ESV
How can we become more Christ-like? We make an effort. I have a little sticky note on my desktop that says, “No one expects to attain to the height of learning, or arts, or power, or wealth, or military glory, without vigorous resolution, strenuous diligence, and steady perseverance. Yet we expect to be Christians without labour, study, or inquiry.” This statement is attributed to William Wilberforce, the one-man bulldozer who succeed in his tremendous effort to end the slave trade in the British Empire. He would completely scorn the idea that a Christian can legitimately claim the name of Christ without making an effort to mature in the faith. A recent Barna study said that less than 10% of the people who self-identify as Christians believe the most foundational principles of Christian faith. They don’t believe that the Bible is the Christian’s guide for faith and life. They don’t believe that Christ lived a sinless life. They don’t believe that Christ’s death was necessary. They don’t believe that salvation is through Christ alone. Most of the people who claim to be Christians have not made the slightest attempt to mature in that faith. In this passage, Peter assertively refutes any notion that touchy-feely love for everybody is Christ-like love.
Peter says that if we want to be like Christ, we need to grow up. We need to get past the idea that simply being nice is being like Christ. It will take work, effort, energy. It begins with faith, the foundation. “By grace you have been saved through faith.” (Ephesians 2:8 ESV) After that, we need to work to mature in virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, and brotherly affection. None of these facets of a mature Christian are easily developed. If we want to be healthy, we must learn a lot about food and a lot about exercise. A healthy body is not easily developed, either, but that objective pales by comparison with the effort required to become more like Christ.
What do we need to work on?
- Virtue, called goodness in other translations. Some writers call it “excellence of moral character.” In this context, a virtuous person is a person who studies and emulates Christ’s standards for behavior. Remember how he said it was right to do good on the Sabbath? Remember how he called the prostitute to repentance after shaming her accusers. This virtue is not self-centered judgment of the rest of the world, but it is an uncompromising commitment to God’s standards.
- Knowledge This term makes sense to everyone. Nobody attains knowledge by sitting in the same room with a pile of books. Learning anything takes work. Reading, thinking, listening to people who know more than we do. It is experience, mature emotions, strong personal relationships, and intellectual understanding.
- Self-control Everybody knows what this is, and nobody has any right to claim to have mastered it. It is the wisdom to know when to speak and when to be silent. It is the will to eat what is needful and to reject the temptation to devour everything in sight. It is the personal discipline to take time for God, even when friends or business opportunities tempt us to skip prayer time “just for today.” It is the ability to choose what is right rather than what is appealing.
- Steadfastness This word is not used frequently in current discourse. Other translations use the words endurance and perseverance (my personal favorite). Endurance is probably the best contemporary term for the underlying Greek word. This quality is the ability to keep going when it is hard and to persist despite pain or deep weariness. It is the word that powers Christ’s promises in the book of Revelation to “the one who conquers.” (Revelation 2:7, 2:11, 2:17, 2:26, 3:5, 3:12, 3:21, 21:7) Christians can expect that the world will push back against them, and they need to be able to keep the faith anyway. Jesus says, “If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you.” John 15:18
- Godliness This word explains itself. Being like God. Piety. Faithful devotion. This quality includes fervent devotion to prayer, the lifeblood of faith. Many people say, “Pray for me,” but most of them are shocked when we actually pray. I try to make a habit of sending a prayer back by email when someone asks, and most are happily surprised at such immediacy. A godly person is a faithful worshiper, but the godly person also loves people deeply. My grandfather’s piety and godliness showed in his ever-loving, ever-giving behavior toward everyone he met.
- Brotherly affection Some translations use the word “mutual affection” or may use “brotherly kindness.” These terms avoid confusion about the word love. The Greek word is philadelphia, a word that became the name of the Pennsylvania city affectionately called “The City of Brotherly Love.” Brotherly affection or mutual affection is the kind of love that glues a congregation together. It is the basis of helping one another with kindness and respect and concern for one another’s needs.
Here are six qualities the can only be nurtured by great effort. What may truly shock the reader however is this: The word love, the love of Christ, the love Christ manifests in our lives as his faithful and obedient servants, is at the pinnacle of all this growth. We start with faith. We work very hard on qualities of a disciple, and in the end, we learn how to love like Christ. Christ’s love, the love that is the foundation of our salvation and the power of Christ’s sacrifice, is not some nebulous, feel-good emotion that might equate with the love of peanut butter cookies. The love we grow into is love that is so powerful and consuming that we are able to look sin in the eye, identify the sin, and still love the person enslaved by it.
LGBT advocates say that it is ugly discrimination when Christians say that homosexuality is sin. That accusation could not be further from the truth. It is deep love for people, all people, including those enslaved by homosexuality, that allows Christians to recognize sin and call it what it is. It is love for Christ, love for all people, and the self-respect that grows out of gratefulness for the gift of salvation that allows Christians to reject sin and refuse to participate in it, even at great cost. It is love for people and a commitment to share the rescue plan God has given through Christ for Satan’s slaves that leads Christians to recognize the sin and share the hope Christ gives with those enslaved by Satan.
8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. 10 Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 11 For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:1-11 ESV)
The key statement in this closing section is the statement “if you practice these qualities you will never fall.” It just makes sense. Mature people in any discipline have better judgment. Those who mature in Christ not only improve their judgment, but they also develop a stronger, richer relationship with Christ. They can count on Christ to guide them past any deficits in their judgment.
Some people think that Christians are the members of a religion, and they define all religions the same way: beliefs, worship practices and sacred texts. No religion is really that narrow, but Christianity cannot be limited in any sense to such a definition. Christianity is a way of living. Christians live in relationship with the living Christ. They don’t engage in manipulative rituals that supposedly guarantee wealth or fertility or rain. That is not what Christianity is about. The message of Christianity is life with Christ, for time and space and for eternity. It is a way of living, not a set of rules. Peter explains the structure of that way of life in this passage. Those who take his teaching to heart will grow and mature both in the qualities he names and in their relationship with Christ.
You could sum up his message in a few words: Grow up! It is a life’s work.
Which if these qualities will be first in your plan for growing in Christ?