REAL WISE MEN
Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
December 29, 2013
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him." When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: "‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’" Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him." After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
— Matthew 2:1-12, ESV
The Christmas season would not be complete without the display of nativity scenes. Often they are wooden, plastic, or ceramic figures placed on tables or shelves in our homes or church buildings. Some churches present living manger scenes, complete with live animals, real hay, a wooden crib, and freezing adults.
The infant Jesus is always in the center, as He should be, surrounded by people and animals. The people include Mary and Joseph, shepherds from the fields, and three wise men. But were the three wise men really there at the birth of Jesus? If so, were there exactly three of them? And furthermore, were they really wise?
Wisdom is something God and God’s word take very seriously. It has its origin in the triune God Himself, who is the personification of wisdom. And God passes His wisdom along to those who live by reverential fear and faith in Him. So who are the real wise men in this text?
Wise Men From the East
Having a one-time, exciting or emotional experience with Jesus does not make one a wise man. This is illustrated by the “wise men from the east,” who in spite of the legend that has grown up around them, seemed to have had only a fleeting encounter with the Lord. A lot is speculated about them, and there are some things in this life we cannot know, but there is enough evidence in Scripture to make us doubt many of the traditions that are told about them.
They were not there at the manger when Jesus was born. Planes, trains, and automobiled did not exist in that day, and their actual transit time on foot and camel would have taken a long time. They were detained by King Herod on the way, too, which would have cause a lengthy travel delay. By the time they arrived in Bethlehem, Jesus was in a “house,” not a manger, which would have served as one of the temporary homes for Mary and Joseph while they figured out what to do with the Son of God.
There were almost certainly not three of them. This legend grew from the fact that three types of gifts were brought by the men to give to Jesus. There were at least two, due to the use of the plural “men.” It was probably an entourage of a dozen or so men.
Finally, and most significantly, there is no indicative evidence that these men were truly “wise,” at least in the way that God reckons wisdom. “Wise men” is better translated in one, transliterated word from the Greek into English, “Magi.” This is short for magician. These men were some kind of magicians, astrologers, soothsayers, and practitioners of some pagan or syncretistic religion which originated far east from the true wisdom and worship of the God of Israel.
I cannot say for certain that God’s special and peculiar revelation of the star over Bethlehem did not change them. I cannot say for certain that their brief encounter with Jesus did not result in saving faith. I cannot say that their generous offering and deception of Herod on the return trip did not buy Jesus time to take exile in Egypt. But I do know that when all the excitement was over, they went back to their old homes and as far as we know began to practice their old way of life and religion.
They did not relocate to Israel and begin to worship Jehovah. There is no identification of a synagogue or church built in the east at that time of their return. There is no further mention of them in Scripture at all. I know this is an argument from silence, but how can someone who really meets Jesus and really accept Him as Lord and Savior remain silent?
It happens all the time after church services, so-called revival meetings, youth camps, and vacation Bible schools. Someone has a brief, exciting, emotional response to Jesus and we proclaim them saved, or “wise.” Then they walk away from the church, returning to the east, never to be seen or heard from again. Having a one-time, exciting or emotional experience with Jesus does not make one a wise man.
Herod the King
There were a few more unwise men mentioned in this text, too, beginning with big King Herod. He was actually among the most intelligent, wealthy, and religious men of his era. But, being highly intelligent, wealthy, and religious, even at the same time, does not make one wise in God’s eyes.
“Herod the king,” as he is called in these verses, was more often called “Herod the Great.” He was the leader of a notoriously infamous and powerful half-breed Gentile and Jewish family who helped Rome rule over Israel. He really was a brilliant politician and architect who actually designed and built the Temple that stood in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day. To this day, it is still referred to as “Herod’s Temple.”
If Time magazine had existed in the year when Jesus was born, it would have been “Herod the Great” who was recognized as man of the year. He was very, very smart. He was obscenely wealthy. And he was an expert in matters of religion, and even built the Temple to house the worship of the true and living God.
But Herod was by no means wise, the way God counts wisdom. He was blinded by his own pride. Being highly intelligent, wealthy, and religious, even all at the same time, does not make one wise in God’s eyes.
The Chief Priests and the Scribes
Neither the Magi nor Herod could be expected to be really wise, since they were not schooled in Holy Scripture and not regular attenders at biblical worship services. But there were other men in this story that fit that bill. They were “all the chief priests and scribes of the people.” But knowing your Bible and serving in worship services is not necessarily the same as knowing Jesus as Lord and serving Him with your mind, heart, and soul.
These characters appear in the birth story of Jesus and they will be around through His death story. At all points in between they either ignored Jesus, harassed Him and His followers, blasphemed His holy name, or directly contributed to His arrest, death, and burial. Yet they knew the Bible better than anyone. They never missed “Sunday School” or weekly worship. They would have been considered to be the wise men in their day.
If anyone should have traveled to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus, it should have been them. If anyone should have taken up a collection for the holy family, it should have been them. If anyone should have rebuked Herod and paved the way to acknowledge Jesus as the true Lord and King, it should have been them. But, knowing your Bible and serving in worship services is not necessarily the same as knowing Jesus as Lord and serving Him with your mind, heart, and soul.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
Jesus is wisdom incarnate, Mary is blessed among women, and Joseph is a hero in the first degree. The first family at the first Christmas were blessed with the gift of wisdom, yet none of them at that point fully understood why Jesus has been born.
God had emptied Himself into a child, and would have to grow in wisdom (ref. Luke2:52). Mary would put her doubts on display many times (ref. Luke 2:48-50; Mark 3:31ff). And Joseph we hardly know. They were all faithful and true, but truly did not have full faith and understanding of what the birth of Jesus Christ was all about.
Real wisdom comes from examining the whole of the Christmas story, the gospel of Jesus Christ, from beginning to end. So then, where are the real wise men in this story?
Real Wise Men
Real wise men and women see what the Magi couldn’t see. They see what Herod, the chief priests, and scribes wouldn’t see. They see what even Jesus, Mary, and Joseph could not see clearly at the beginning of His life.
Real wise men and women see the cradle and contemplate the cross. They know Jesus was born to die for the sins of the world. Real wise men and women have experienced God’s grace. Real wise men and women do not merely make a profession of faith, they possess faith and live by faith. Real wise men and women do no harm to the cause of Christ. Real wise men and women are not cold-hearted, judgmental Bible thumpers. Real wise men and women have exchanged their sin for the righteousness of Christ, the Christ who was born in a manger on Christmas day, lived a perfect life, sacrificed His life on the cross, and rose again the third day. And, one day He is coming back, for the real wise men.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOSEPH
Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
December 22, 2013
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him:he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
— Matthew 1:18-25, ESV
Joseph is one of the most important and enigmatic persons in Christian history. Unlike Mary and Jesus, there are no outstanding Old Testament prophecies about him. Unlike Mary and Jesus, he has no speaking parts in the New Testament. Unlike Mary and Jesus, no one worships him, prays in his name, or puts him on big stained-glass windows in church sanctuaries.
But without Joseph, Jesus may not have been born. Mary could have been scorned and possibly stoned to death, with the baby in her womb. Therefore, Joseph is an integral part not only to the Christmas story, but the entire gospel story. While the other Gospels virtually ignore him, the Gospel according to Matthew tells the brief, brave, beautiful story of the gospel according to Joseph.
Devout Jews are fiercely monotheistic and decidedly anti-trinitarian. They believe in one true and living God, who has only one form as Father, “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, In light inaccessible hid from our eyes” (Walter Chalmers Smith). No Messiah, no matter how much He claimed to be the Son of God, could get His ministry off the ground without some attribution to an earthly father. This father, of course, would have to be devout, Jewish, and able to trace his ancestry to the tribe of Judah and house of David. Joseph was perfect for the part in the script that was, of course, written by God.
In the grace and providence of the Author of history, “Mary had been betrothed to Joseph.” According to Jewish custom, the marriage of Mary and Joseph was arranged by their parents. “Betrothed” is a legal word pertaining to a contract. This is followed by an engagement period, usually about one year, which concludes at the wedding when the two become one. “Divorce” was almost out of the question after the wedding, but mostly referred to the breaking of the betrothal contract during the engagement period. Breaking off the engagement was something Joseph actually considered, which we will consider later.
The starting point of married life is deciding to get married. But before Joseph and Mary decided, their parents decided they would be married. But before Mary’s and Joseph’s parents decided Mary and Joseph would get married, our sovereign God decided that they would be married to carry out God’s saving purpose for the people of the world. Far above any American president, God really is the “decider.”
Contrary to popular opinion and watered down theology, God does not leave things to just happen by chance. When God decided to send His Son to be the Lord and Savior of Heaven and earth, He decided to place Him in the virgin womb of a woman named Mary and give His early care over to an earthly father named Joseph, these things “having been predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will” (ref. Ephesians 1:11).
Joseph’s story and the Christmas story begins with God’s sovereign grace. Such grace, in this and every case, is a blessing and a responsibility. Grace was shown to this man, Joseph. How did Joseph respond to the grace of God? How should we respond to the grace of God? By faith, of course.
One of the greatest doctrines of the Christian faith is the doctrine of justification by faith. It is seen in the Old Testament and in the cement of the New Testament. “The righteous shall live by his faith (ref. Habakkuk 2:4).” “For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (ref. Romans 1:17).
We do not know a lot of details about Joseph, but one thing we do know, he was “a just man.”
Is it important to you to be a “just” person? People, more or less, seem content with being good, or honest, or hard-working. But God puts a premium on being “just” (ESV), which can also mean “righteous.” People, more or less, consider themselves to be righteous, self-righteous by being good, honest, or hard working. But God does not accept self-righteousness (ref. Isaiah 64:6), only the righteousness that comes by faith. And faith is no mere decision, it is an active lifestyle.
Joseph was a just man, a man of faith, a fully devoted follower of God. So, he lived his life not for popularity (he is almost anonymous, even by biblical standards) nor money (he was a working class carpenter) nor fame (compare him again to Mary and Jesus), but by faith. Faith is a belief in God that is so sincere and strong that it effects the way you made decisions and live your life. A just person lives a life of faith, and its accompanying repentance, in the gospel according to Joseph.
Joseph repented, or changed his mind, about the situation with Mary. At first he could not wrap his mind around her story. An angel of the Lord? Virgin birth? “That which is conceived in her is by the Holy Spirit?” At first he did not believe, which is not to say he had no faith. Faith and reason are compatible. Faith and fact-finding go hand in hand. But so do faith and patience, kindness, prayer, and belief in a God with Whom all things are possible. Joseph decided to do a good deed for Mary by not reporting her to the Jewish authorities, by not risking a trial and death sentence for her (for convicted adulterers could be stoned to death), and “to divorce her quietly.” Then, by faith, Joseph patiently took some time to pray and “considered these things.” Then, Joseph changed his mind, or repented, guided by God’s Spirit and God’s word.
Joseph trusted the Lord. He gathered God’s word from “an angel of the Lord” in amidnight dream, although today God normally communicates His word to us in the completed Bibles we hold in our hands. Mary’s story was actually confirmed by both, the dream and the word of God (ref. Isaiah 9:6; this is the first of twelve “fulfillment” passages in Matthew). In repentance and faith, Joseph obeyed God. Joseph did not file for divorce. Joseph did not pressure Mary to get an abortion. Joseph trusted God and married Mary, then became an earthly father for the holy child, Jesus.
So it was by grace that Joseph was brought into this picture in the first place. Then, by faith, Joseph demonstrates how grace empowers ongoing repentance and faithful obedience. Amazing grace and abiding faith are chief characteristics of the gospelaccording to Joseph. But the greatest character is the Christ.
Other religions and other gospels offer some form of grace. All religions and all gospels require some faith. But only the gospel, the gospel according to Joseph, gives us the Christ.
His name is “Jesus,” (Joshua in the Old Testament), which means “God saves.” This salvation is specific. God did not send His Son into the world to save us from government (Roman or American), from poverty and sickness, or from that Christmas party you really didn't want to attend. “He will save his people from their sins” by providing the perfect atonement with absolute forgiveness.
Only Jesus can save because only Jesus is “Immanuel, which means, God with us.” Jesus was not half man and half god, like the god-men of mythology. He is fully God and fully man. He was not merely born of God, He was, is, and always will be God. Only God can save, and God only saves from sin. He will not save all people, but “his people.” God has no plan to save people who choose to be atheists, agnostics, or adherents of world religions other than Christianity. God chooses to save people who choose to follow Jesus Christ.
But how do people choose to follow Jesus Christ? God’s saving gospel comes to us by grace through faith in Christ, to be sure, but it also comes to us through people, people like Joseph. Joseph, in what little we can know about him in the Scriptures, used his short life to glorify God. He repented, and was constantly open to changing his mind in order to be in a more perfect union with God. He trusted, at every turn and at every trial, in the providence and word of God. He found his purpose in life as life in Christ.
Joseph’s major purpose in life was to be a husband to Mary while she brought Jesus Christ into the world. When you think about it, Joseph’s purpose is our purpose, too. Our greatest purpose in life is to be a husband, wife, parent, child, worker, student, retiree, or anyone who, by grace through faith, brings Jesus Christ into our world.
Realize that you are who you are and where you are by the sovereign grace of God. Make sure you repent and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ, and live your life by closely following Him and His word. Honor Him in the major moments of your life, like if an angel should come to you in a dream. Moreover, honor Him in the everyday moments of your life, in public worship and Bible study, in prayers and acts of kindness, and in witnessing to others about your faith in Jesus Christ.
This is Joseph’s life, a life of grace, and faith, in Jesus Christ. And, this is the gospel, according to Joseph.
Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
December 15, 2013
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon. And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ. So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.
— Matthew 1:1-17, ESV
Most people are curious about where they came from. Many years ago, author Alex Haley parleyed his curiosity into a best-selling novel and ground-breaking mini-series entitled “Roots.” Today, ordinary people can use websites like “ancestry.com” to find out where, or from whom, they came.
The New Testament begins with the Gospel of Matthew because of the way Matthew begins. It begins with a beginning, not unlike the first book of the Old Testament. It’s first two words are “Biblos geneseos,” a book of beginnings, in this case a new beginning for a New Covenant. And this New Covenant begins with a genealogy, a family tree. The gospel has roots.
Some find the long list of names boring and skip to start reading at verse 18. Others find holes in its accuracy, noting the difference that exist between Matthew’s account and Luke’s. While Luke’s is admittedly more accurate, it is only because Matthew was writing poetically, not literally, reducing the line to make it fit into three sets of fourteen, or six sets of seven, and sometimes used the names of royal heads rather than biological fathers.
Matthew’s aim, leveled primarily at the Jewish people and secondarily to all people, was to plant his Gospel firmly in Old Testament soil in order to bear New Testament fruit. He aims to prove that Jesus of Nazareth appeared in human history to fulfill God’s promises to Abraham and David. These gospel promises are for the Jewish people and for all people. They are fulfilled, historically and perfectly, in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel is Rooted in People
Before Jesus came to earth as a historical person, historical people preceded Him. In some cases these historical people were hysterical people. Most of us have nuts in our family tree, and the flaws of Jesus’ family are flagrantly apparent in this genealogy. I think this demonstrates the honesty and historicity of the gospel.
Jesus’ genealogy contains mostly Jews and some Gentiles, a majority of males and a few females (though the mention of any is certainly significant), paupers who became kings, good kings who did bad things, and bad kings who did worse things. Forty-two men are named and there are two allusions to their other brothers. Five women are named, four by their name, and the other by the name of the husband to which she was unfaithful.
And speaking of that unfaithful episode, King David was front and center in the adultery and subsequent murder. Father Abraham once impregnated his wife’s maid. Judah sired twins through his daughter-in-law, who at the time was pretending to be a prostitute. Rahab, another famous prostitute, was apparently a favorite girl’s name among the Hebrews. The good kings mentioned, like David and Solomon and Uzziah and Hezekiah, did sinful and stupid things. The bad kings mentioned, like Manasseh and Amos (Amon) and Jechoniah, went beyond bad to the border of heresy and infidelity.
What does all this mean? It means that God works with flawed people, because all people are flawed at some level. It means that God’s word is honest and true, not some made up fairy tale. It means that we the people, historically and personally, are sinners, and something must be done to save us from ourselves and our sin. It is the gospel that saves, the gospel rooted in history and people.
The Gospel is Rooted in Promise
Two historical people are prominent as Matthew prepares to preach the gospel: Abraham and David. These two are prominent because it is to these two that God made two particularly precious promises: a seed and a son. Tracing the seed and the son gives us an outline that is filled in by the particular person promised in the gospel.
The Old Covenant really begins, after an eleven chapter prelude, with Abram/Abraham in Genesis 12. God’s first words to Abraham compose a promise: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (ref. Genesis 12:3). God was preparing Abraham a place at the head of the family table, a family named after his grandson Jacob, or Israel, and eventually known by a derivative of the name of his great-grandson, Judah, from whence we get the name of the Jews. The grace that fell upon and around this table would eventually feed every race and tribe and tongue, by faith in one particular, peculiar descendent or “seed.”
The New Testament, which in many ways explains and in every way fulfills the Old Testament, speaks of this promise in this way: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ” (ref. Galatians 3:16). It was a long time coming, but finally a descendant, or seed, or offspring of Abraham came to earth who would give the special blessing of salvation to all who believe. And so, the Christ was born.
This Christ is also Lord, according to the promise made to the other prominent person in the genealogy. Consider this word given by God to David, shortly after his inauguration as the King of all Israel: “Your throne will be established forever” (ref. 2 Samuel 7:16). In other words, a descended of David would ascend to the throne as the King of God’s people and His reign would last forevermore. This Lord, from the house of David, would rise above David as King of kings and Lord of lords. Jesus affirmed at the end of His earthly ministry that David’s son would also be David’s, and all other’s, Lord (ref. Matthew 22:41-46).
David did not accomplish this himself, for his tomb is in Jerusalem. Neither did Solomon nor the succession of the other, ordinary kings mentioned in this text or elsewhere in the Bible. But there is One who sits on the throne now, spiritually, and will one day be revealed, visibly, and He will reign, eternally. And so, the Lord will come.
This historical genealogy gives to us the hope of Abraham and David. It gives to us the promise of the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior to free God’s people from sin and death. It gives to us the promise of the Lord who will rule over nations with justice, mercy, grace, and peace. It gives to us the promise of the gospel, and the gospel is rooted in the people, the promises, and the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Gospel is Rooted in a Person
If the pronunciation of all the names is confounding, or the textual criticism of Matthew’s literary style is confusing, then perhaps a second look at two key verses containing familiar names will make sense of the whole scenario.
Allow me to offer an expanded translation of verse 1: This is the true story of the historical life of Jesus the Messiah, the promised descendant of King David who is the King of kings, and the promised descendant of Father Abraham who is the Savior of the world. And how did the Christ come into the world? Consider this expanded translation of verse 16: from all of these rulers over the nation of Israel and the tribe of Judah, came a man named Joseph who married a woman named Mary, a miraculously impregnated virgin who gave birth to a son named Jesus, who is the Messiah.
More than a mere family tree, this genealogy proclaims the gospel. It starts with the roots, Abraham and David and the others, and goes to the top, the Lord Jesus Christ. It makes a passing reference to Mary and the virgin birth, and important subject that will be elaborated upon in the next paragraphs. Most of all, it provides a tree, not for man to climb up, for for God to come down, and gift the greatest gift of love, the gift of Himself in His Son for eternal salvation.
The Christian gospel is not hearsay, it is history, and there are people to prove it. Yet the Bible is not primarily a history book, it is promise book, and not one of its promises will ever fail to come true. And most of all, the gospel and the word of God are centered around God, who He is and what He has done to show His love and share His salvation with mankind.
LAST WORDS ABOUT THE LAST DAYS
2 Peter 3:1-18
Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
December 1, 2013
This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.
-- 2 Peter 3:1-18, ESV
I don’t know when I’ll preach my last sermon, and I doubt I will know it is my last one when the time comes. Almost none of us will know when we have our last visit with family or friends. This is one reason, among many, that we should make every day, every moment, every conversation count.
We are about to study the last words of the Apostle Simon Peter, at least his last words enshrined as Holy Scripture. I think he knew his days were numbered (ref. 2 Peter1:14). I think he knew this letter would be his last. So he chose his words carefully and, carried along by the Holy Spirit (ref. 2 Peter 1:20-21), Peter preaches his last words about the last days.
Last Words About the Last Days
In vs. 1-7, Simon Peter acknowledges that he is closing out his second, and last, epistle to the church. His aim is to counter the false prophets (ref. 2:1ff) and “scoffers” (ref. 3:3), whose messages essentially teach people to live for the pleasures of today and ignore the prophecies about tomorrow. To tell the truth about tomorrow, that last days will come, that the earth as we know it will end, Peter points to two witnesses: the Bible and history.
Rather than listen to the false prophets and the non-prophets, we would do much better to “remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandments of the Lord and Savior through your apostles” (ref. 3:2). “Predictions” literally means prologue, or what came before. The Old Testament came before the New Testament, which contains the word of the Lord through apostolic witness. Therefore, Peter is simply admonishing Christians to read their Bibles, all of it, all the time, and grasp the great story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.
Then, drawing from the very same Bible, he makes the case for a coming apocalypse by point out that one has actually, already taken place. Narrow-minded Bible thumper that he is, Peter lectures briefly on the history of the great deluge, the cataclysmic rainstorm that wiped out the residents of planet Earth, save Noah’s family and the livestock. Yes, it happened, as even pages from pagan history books verify. And, yes, it is going to happen again along the same lines, only with a different cast of characters and a different kind of cataclysm. God’s patience with sinful man will run out, a remnant of true believers will be lifted up, and fiery judgment will fall down to purge the planet and make way for a new heaven and new earth.
Most of us would like a little more detail. False prophets have named dates and, of course, been proven wrong. The true prophet Daniel did reveal that before the kingdom of God is consummated, the earthly kingdoms of the Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Greeks, and Romans must take their stand and fall. I think we watch Rome (or Babylon, or Western Civilization) fall every evening on the nightly news. The Apostle John’s Apocalypse probably does not give us as many clues as people think, but it does tell that, at the end, the church of Jesus Christ rises as the wrath of God falls. But when, oh when, will these things be? Simon Peter tell us!
When the Last Days Will Come
Simon Peter tell us in vs. 8-10 exactly when the end of time will come. It will come exactly when God is ready for it to come. Not one day sooner, nor one day late. But the day of the Lord is known precisely only by the Lord (ref. Matthew 24:36). The not-so-veiled reference to Psalm 90:4 speaks of the total inability of man, even of our best prophets, to fathom the factoring of time in the mind of our eternal God. Two clues further prove this point.
The last days will come when all of the elect are saved in the arms of God. Any and all times you read “any” and “all” in Scripture, you must look for a precedent. The key word that precedes these words in vs. 9 is “you,” a pronoun used to describe the Apostles intended audience, which in his first epistle are called the “elect” (ref. 1 Peter 1:1) and in this second epistle are “those who obtained a faith” (ref. 2 Peter 1:1), in other words, true believers who have truly repented and trusted in Jesus Christ because they have been truly chosen by God before God created the world. Our sovereign God planned the end from the beginning, to save a people for Himself and for His glory, and the end won’t begin to end until the last prodigal son or daughter comes home to the Father.
The only problem with this scenario is that it still does not give us the kind of clue we would like to have concerning dates and times. We do not know who the elect are, only God does. This is why we pray for and share the gospel with all the people of all the world. But when that last lost soul reaches repentance and finds faith, “the day of the Lord will come like a thief” (ref. vs. 10).
A common refrain in Scripture, this analogy of the end times is unsatisfying if you insist on a closer clue regarding time. There won’t be any clue, any warning, any real reason to expect that this is the last day other than the bedrock belief that the last day is going to come.
And when it does come, most things that most people hold dear will be “burned up and dissolved” and the condition of every person’s heart “will be exposed” (ref. vs. 10). So, in light of this new, or old, information, to quote Francis Shaeffer, “How Should We Then Live?”
Living in the Last Days
The main point of all prophecy is purity (ref. 1 John 3:3). The point of all purity is to have a life that is pleasing and glorying to God, and useful and redemptive toward others. And the point of living a life that glorifies God and leads others to eternal life is so that last soul can be saved and the end will come.
In vs. 11-18, Simon Peter uses his final words in his final epistle to finally remind us how we ought to live in the light of the last days on earth, in negative and positive terms. Don’t hold on to the material, he says, and cling with all your might to the spiritual. Not as ascetics, weirdos, nor holy rollers, but as true children of God and followers of Jesus Christ.
We don’t strive and cling to material things, because “all these things are thus to be dissolved” (ref. vs. 11). Instead, our lives and lifestyles are to be described by a litany of literary words like “holiness … godliness … diligent … peace … stability …” in order to “grow in the grace and knowledge” of our Lord Jesus Christ and to give Him “glory both now and to the day of eternity” (ref. vs. 11-18).
Are you living a life of “holiness?” If by the power of the Holy Spirit your heart has been regenerated with faith and repentance, doubly imputing the gracious gift of salvation, then you stand separate, useful, holy in the hands of God. The Holy Spirit lives within you and guides you to live your life according to holy Scripture. A simple life of sincere love and obedience is true holiness.
Are you given to a life of “godliness?” This means God-centered in your priorities, attitudes, and actions. God, by His Spirit and word, leads you to follow His Son in respects to all the decisions and endeavors of your life. If God, God’s will, and God’s word prioritize your life, your life is godly.
Are you “diligent” in your holy and godly life? This means you steadfastly live the way God wants you to live, even when it is not convenient on earth. And, it seldom is. Plus, it gets harder to live this way the closer we get to the end of time. Diligence describes dedicated believers whose lives are built on holiness, not happiness and on conviction, not convenience.
Are you a person of “peace?” Is there more or less harmony in your church, your family, your workplace, your community because of you? You cannot have peace that pleases God by sacrificing God’s word and standards on matters. But you can have peace when you sacrifice pride and personal agendas that are not compatible with these standards. Peaceful people are positive unless there is an outstanding, biblical reason to be negative. Peaceful people pull people together, not apart. And most of all, peaceful people bring people to Christ and His church.
Are you looked upon in your group as a person of “stability?” Do you worship when others won’t, give when others don’t, and serve the Lord even when other people or circumstances seem to stand in your way? Are you active in your devotion to the Lord now, and will be still be active in a year, ten years, to the end of time?
In regard to all of these character traits, are they “growing” in your life? Christians come in all sizes, shapes, and spiritual giftedness. But one thing we have in common is that we should all be growing in receiving and giving grace, in understanding and applying God’s word to our lives, in closeness in relationships with God and others. Every Christian cannot do every thing, but every one of us has room to grow in our understanding and effectiveness as a Christians.
And now, for the bottom line of basic Christianity, does your life bring “glory” to our God and Savior Jesus Christ? It can, it should, it must, from “now to the day of eternity.” And as a matter of fact, how you are living now makes a statement about where you will live in eternity. Life is short for us all. Glorify God and let God take care of everything else.
There is a true principle preached in Peter’s last words, or whenever God’s word teaches us about living in the last days. Notice how the emphasis is always on living. The end of time will take care of itself. So make sure your life is given to Christ, and make sure you are living for Him, and you will be ready when He comes again.
Dr. Charles F. "Chuck" DeVane, Jr., is the Pastor of Lake Hamilton Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His weekly sermon article, "The Gospel Truth," has been published in newspapers in Arkansas and Georgia. Dr. DeVane is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has served in the pastorate for over 20 years. Contact Pastor Chuck at PastorChuck@lakehamiltonbaptistchurch.org