2 Peter 3:17-18: Be on your guard

Sun, 15/12/2019 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

So many things feel uncertain. We don’t know what the future holds.

People have been holding out making big decisions until we know the outcome of last week’s election, or until we know how Brexit will play out.

But if you know where the future’s going, you can map your way through life with confidence.

Today we reach the end of our journey through Peter’s second letter. The closing verses of New Testament letters are often very significant, as they sum up the major themes. In this letter, Peter has shown us where history is going, and how we can live now in the light of it.

The good news is that if you’re a Christian, you’re already on the right course. You’re going in the right direction for where things are heading.

But Peter had to write to these Christians because they need to be careful. As verse 17 says: “Be on your guard”. Don’t let your guard down! Watch out! Take care! Because there’s a real danger that we allow ourselves to be deflected from that right path.

There are two dangers. One that comes to us from others. And one that comes from within.

So we’re going to recap this morning. We’re going to unpack these final two verses of the letter together, and they’ll remind us of what Peter’s said throughout the letter. They’ll tell us how we need to be on our guard.

Before we get to them, let’s just notice how the passage starts. “Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned…” Or “since you already know these things”.

These closing verses, the whole letter, is about the importance of living out what we already know.

It’s just a warning to us as Christians not to be always on the look-out for something new.

Of course we should never stop learning. Being a Christians is about lifelong learning. That’s one of today’s main points in fact.

But the biggest danger is not actually that we fail to learn. The biggest danger is that we don’t live out what we already know.

When you first become a Christian, you’re learning all the time. Every time you read the Bible, it’s full of new things. Every Sunday, the sermon teaches you something new.

When you’ve been a Christian for a while, the rate of new stuff slows down. But we still read the Bible, and we still need to hear it preached in church. Because each week contains challenges, and each week is an opportunity to live out what we know, or to forget it.

2 Peter has had lots of warnings not to forget what we know. Lots of language of “forgetting” and “remembering” in this letter. And these two verses start on exactly that note.

What this means is that we need to be careful not to spend the whole sermon each week listening out for something we didn’t already know. In fact, this was what made the false teachers so dangerous. They were saying something new. When in fact we just need reminding of what is old.

As we approach Christmas, many vicars worry what they’re going to say. What can they say that is new? They’ve said it all over the past decade of Christmases. One wise Christian said to me: Don’t tell us anything new. Tell us the old, old story.

As you read the Bible, as you sit and listen to the Bible being preached, don’t ask: What is new here that I did not know? Ask: What here does God want me to take away and put into practice, whether or not it’s new?

So then, “dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard…”

Of two things. One danger from without. One danger from within.

Take care that you don’t fall

Number 1: Take care that you don’t fall. Take care that you don’t fall.

Verse 17: “Be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position.”

This is the danger from without.

Let’s unpack this together.

The problem starts with the people he calls “the lawless”. This is the same word he used in chapter 2, verse 7, for the inhabitants of Sodom. Lot was “distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless”.

The problem starts with people who don’t want God to tell them how to live, through his word. They want to let their feelings dictate what is right and what is wrong.

And then they construct a form of Christianity that lets them do just that. This is what Peter means by “the error of the lawless”.

This is the same word we had in chapter 2, verse 18. The false teachers “entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error”. You see, the problem was not just that these people were lawless. Their lawlessness had become a lifestyle. A way of life that they were convinced was OK.

And because the false teachers claimed to be Christians, they were convinced God had no problem with them simply indulging their feelings. As long as nobody gets hurt, as long as there is consent on all sides, as long as I can argue this is loving behaviour, then God has no problem.

So they recast the Christian faith into something that allows them to have the lifestyle they would like to have.

“The error of the lawless.”

Peter says, don’t be “carried away by the error of the lawless”. Swept away. You think of those pictures from the news when we get bad flooding in some parts of the country. The river breaks its banks, and sweeps away not just rubbish bins, but cars – swept away by the water.

These false teachers, living how they please, indulging their feelings, teaching that Jesus doesn’t require you to stop such behaviour. And their lifestyle, their teaching is so very appealing. But like a flood, they’ve broken the banks of the true Christian faith. And so we mustn’t be swept away by what we wish was true.

Because of the next thing Peter says in this verse: We’d fall from our secure position.

If you think about it, that’s a weird combination. Peter wants us to feel the dissonance of this. If the position we have is secure, how we can fall from it?

But that’s exactly the point. We Christians are in a very secure position. Our identity is all bound up with Jesus. The same Jesus who has taken on death itself and come out victorious. The same Jesus who is presently seated at God’s right hand and will one day come back to this world.

The word for “secure” is the same word as the word for “established” in chapter 1 verse 12. “… even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have”. But here’s the problem: We also get the same word in the negative in chapter 2 verse 14. The false teachers “never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable”.

You become unstable if you stop paying attention to what God says in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, and start being drawn towards this false teaching, start being drawn towards their lawless way of life.

We’re secure because we know Jesus. Drift from Jesus, you fall from your secure position.

So Christians who have the most wonderful eternal security, and who are well taught, can become unstable, and fall.

There’s the warning Peter has for his readers and for us.

The lawless. Their error. Being carried away. Falling from our secure position.

“Be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position.”

Take care that you don’t fall.

Take care that you grow

And then Peter’s second warning. The one that comes from within. Take care that you grow. Take care that you grow.

Verse 18: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”

Back in September, when we were looking at chapter 1, we talked about the importance of growing as a Christian. You don’t become a Christian, and then sit back and you’ve arrived.

Here’s chapter 1, verse 5: “For this very reason, [because God has given us all we need for both life and godliness], make every effort to add to your faith…”

Every effort. Lots of Christians just coast along. We don’t put much effort in to growing as a Christian. We certainly don’t make every effort. And chapter 1 gave us a wonderful list of 7 qualities. If we’re a healthy Christian, we’ll be growing in those 7 areas.

When we looked at chapter 1, we said a healthy Christian is like a healthy plant, and like a cyclist.

Like a healthy plant, in that healthy plants grow. Some grow really slowly – cacti, oak trees. Some grow really fast – leylandii. But they all grow, and a plant that isn’t growing at all is in trouble sooner or later.

Like a cyclist because you have to keep moving forwards. This brings the two halves of our passage together in fact. Verse 17 told us to take care that you don’t fall. Now verse 18 tells you the best way to do this. The antidote to falling off is to keep moving forwards. Keep peddling. Make every effort.

But look at what we are to grow in. Back in chapter 1, we had 7 qualities.

Here there are just two things, and they take us right to the heart of what matters to Peter. “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”

Firstly, we grow in grace. Grace means kindness from God that we don’t deserve. That we haven’t earnt. That is completely free.

Peter says we grow in grace so we are absolutely clear. We put down our roots into what Jesus Christ has done for us. It’s anchoring ourselves more and more securely in the gift we have been given. When we read the list of qualities we are to grow in, in chapter 1: “goodness, knowledge, self-control, … mutual affection”, and so on, we aren’t working our way into God’s good books with our good behaviour. Christian growth is always growth in grace, before it’s anything else.

But then, second, we’re to grow in our “knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”

A few weeks back we talked about the fact that other languages have two words for “know”. There’s knowing a person and there’s knowing a fact. I talked about how easily we Brits get them confused, and how I mistakenly told a French person that I have a personal relationship with a local shop.

Well, “grow in grace” is all about the fact that we need to know Jesus, know the person. Christianity is a relationship not a bunch of facts you have to know.

But the word here for “knowledge” is the word for knowing facts. Having got to know Jesus, we spend the rest of our lives, the rest of eternity, getting to know more about him. There’s always more of Jesus to discover. You never exhaust Jesus.

Which is why what I said earlier about novelty is only part of the story. Yes, we mustn’t always be looking for something new. A lot of being a Christian is about living out what you already know. And novelty can be dangerous, because it can be wrong. All of that is still true.

But there’s another side of the coin. As Christians, we should be always learning. Always aiming to grow in knowledge. You can never say you know everything about any subject. Nobody knows all there is to know about geography. But that’s so much more the case with Jesus. He is God incarnate. There is no limit to how much there is to discover. So don’t settle at just knowing the basics, the A, B, C of the king of the universe. He’s brought you into his family, and he wants you to get to know him better and better.

Grow in grace.

Grow in knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Conclusion: All glory to Jesus

This letter is all about Jesus.

Peter has some very lofty titles for him. Chapter 1, verse 1: “Our God and Saviour Jesus Christ”. Chapter 3, verse 18: “Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ”.

It’s all about him.

He is the one to whom belong all the glory.

We are in a culture that worships celebrities: sports stars, actors, musicians. Politicians love to take the stage and have all the attention on them.

But when all is said and done, there is one person and one person only who is the true centre of attention. On whom every spotlight will shine. Who is worthy of our worship. And that is Jesus.

It’s true now. Verse 18: “To him be glory both now and for ever!” It’s true forever as well.

Literally “both now and in the day of eternity.” This letter ends with one last reference to that great day in the future when Jesus will return. In all his glorious majesty. When every knee will bow before him, voluntarily or not. When every mouth will proclaim that he is the centre of the universe, the centre of history, the who deserves all honour and worship.

It’s all about him.

And so if we know him, we are on the winning side. Absolutely surely.

If we know him, our lives are aligned with where the whole of history is heading.

Which makes it all the more tragic if we are deflected from that right path.

So we need to take care.

Take care that you don’t fall. Carried away by the error of the lawless.

Instead, take care that you grow. Grow in grace .Grow in knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

To him be glory, both now and for the day of eternity!

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