Growing up Pentecostal, and now continuing in the same tradition, I’ve heard my fair share of sermons and lessons on fire. And, full disclosure, I’ve talked about it myself. But in Peter’s second letter the talk of fire is not ethereal, it’s earthy. He isn’t talking about spiritual passion as much as literal destruction.
In 2 Peter chapter three there is a lot of talk about the “day of the Lord.” This at first comes across as ominous and boomy: things stored up for fire (3:7), images of the great flood (3:6) and a story about a thief coming by surprise under the cover of darkness (3:10). But the tone of Peter’s words isn’t focused on an ending but a beginning. And this, perhaps, is one of the most curious parts of this text. He takes images and words that we almost alway associate with fear and destruction and re-imagines them. No longer are fire and flood and thieves things to create fear, but they are the hopeful doorways that provide access into God’s future for the world!
This is a big issue for Peter in more than a cosmic sense.
And he makes this clear:
Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness2 Peter 3:11
It seems as though Peter is not just saying, “be ready for the end,” but he’s looking at the end and imagining how patterns of holiness and godliness are actually developed. Peter isn’t just talking about the end of the world, he is talking about the end of the parts of our lives that – like the present world – need to be touched by the heat of fire, the washing of the flood and the hand of the thief in order to become what it was supposed to be all along.
A handful of times in my life I have taken on the task of putting together a piece of furniture. Most furniture that comes in a box isn’t really furniture, it’s just a collection of dozens of pieces of wood, metal, plastic, rubber, and small clear baggies of screws and dowels. The manufacturer boxes up all these pieces and sends them to you along with a 4 page pamphlet that makes very little sense but for some reason still carries the title “Instructions.”
Nesha is better at putting these things together than I am, but on occasion, out of a sense of defiance, I choose to start a project by myself. And I have paid the price for doing so on more than one occasion.
The price? Getting three quarters of the way through an assembly project only to realize that a step I skipped – or that I performed incorrectly – was actually the pre-requisite for a future step. In simple terms: if you don’t do step 3 correctly, you can’t get past step 11 because the entire instruction plan is based on a particular order.
So, what happens when step 11 is impossible because step 3 was improperly handled? I have to take everything apart back to to step 3 and then rework the process.
Deconstruction, disassembly, feels like moving backward but it is actually the only way we can move foreword past the places where we are stuck, trapped and limited. Peter’s words about fire, flood and theft come across as destructive; a dismantling of everything we know. Because of this they can incite feelings of ending. As if step 11 is the end for us because deconstruction is a process of finality. But nothing could be further from Peter’s point.
Peter is writing about fire as a purifying force in this chapter. The image is of destruction, but if we stop reading immediately after the destruction then we miss Peter’s real point: the fire is coming, the flood is coming, the thief is coming, to usher in the “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (3:13). The Lord isn’t sending fire because He’s fed up, he’s sending fire because He is making all things new!
And Peter, so carefully and compassionately, subtly suggests that our lives are supposed to be lived in view of this approaching restoration – not just as something that’s on the horizon, but as an insight into our present transformation. We are not afraid of God taking things from us in certain seasons, because we know that the “midnight-thief” isn’t robbing us, but He is actually making room for new beauty in cluttered places. The flood isn’t a method of drowning our lives, but of washing us clean. And we choose not to fear the fires of life because we trust in the Master craftsman’s ability to bring mediocre pieces of art to levels of superlative beauty through the kiln of purification – we are tried in the fire only to come forth as gold.
The perspective Peter provides here is powerful. In the image of the “day of the Lord” we see that it’s nothing short of life changing.
- – what if we actually believed that the fire of God was really about purity and not punishment?
- – what if we began to rejoice when we realized the midnight-thief hadn’t stolen anything, but removed the things that were limiting our ability to fully mature?
So yes, we are looking for that glorious day when God purifies and restores all things – making right and beautiful all that is broken and decayed. But what if this is not simply a future event, what if it is also a present mindset? What if part of the reason God chose to reveal His method of restoring the world at the end of time was to help us understand how to live lives of restoration in the middle?