“The end of all things is near. Therefore, be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray” (1 Peter 4:7). Peter wrote these words for the persecuted believers in the cities and rural areas who lived in the Roman provinces of Pontus, Galatian, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia (1:1-2), the area which is the modern-day Turkey. These gentile Christians broke from the immoral lifestyle and idolatry of their communities, and in response, they experienced the dishonor of being physically and verbally abused (4:1, 3-4). The situation of women and slaves was especially precarious since they were expected to follow the religion of their husband or master (2:18-3:6). Yet suffering dishonor and violence for the faith could be the lot of any Christian (4:14-16). Peter urges them not to be ashamed of their allegiance to Christ and to remain in the faith, sober and vigilant in prayer.
Fear-filled situations – now and then
Their situation was fraught with deep anxieties (5:7), not entirely unlike the horrors that the citizens of Ukraine face at this very hour. Their lives are blown apart as they rapidly transitioned from their ordinary days at work, in shops, and at home to the constant assault of Russian bombs, bullets and lies. Peter’s words jump from the page: “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around looking for someone to devour.” The battle was and is present and real, social and physical, and deeply spiritual (5:8-9).
In these fear-filled situations, Peter offers believers an array of theological perspectives to help them endure the dreadful moment. He calls them to community where they exercise deep love for one another and offer forgiveness to those who break community bonds (1:22; 4:8). Over and again, he points them to Christ and the cross, helping them to understand that they share Christ’s sufferings (3:17-18; 4:13). He did not suffer for his own sins but died to bear the sins of others. In the midst of suffering, Peter exhorts the church to be benefactors in their society, doing good to the very ones who are out to harm them (2:11-17). This is Jesus’ way (Matthew 5:43-48).
Living in the Light of his Coming
Among the perspectives Peter offers to help them frame their experience and orient their actions are his statements about eschatology, that is, the last things: “The end of all things is near.” Jesus taught extensively about the end but clearly stated that nobody knows the day or hour of his coming (Mark 13, especially vv. 32-37). Paul echoes this teaching in his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:1-11). In his second letter, Peter adds his voice saying, “the day of the Lord will come like a thief,” at a time that only God knows. I once heard a preacher say to a group of ministers that the Lord had told him when he was coming but he was prohibited from telling us. Wrong, completely wrong! Years ago, someone gave me a recording of a famous California minister’s sermon. He declared that the Lord would return no later than 1979. Wrong again!! While we do not know the day or hour, we hear the words of Jesus at the end of Revelation, “Surely I am coming soon” (20:20). We respond, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” We live in expectation.
Jesus, Peter, and Paul tie together teaching about the end with how we live in the present. Given that the Lord is coming at an unexpected hour, our duty is to watch, be ready, pray, standing guard like faithful, watchful soldiers: “let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thessalonians 5:8). The time of crisis calls for moral sobriety and prayer (1 Peter 4:7). Jesus and the apostles link eschatology with ethics; the vision of the end leads us to live as people who will not be ashamed before him when he comes. As Peter says, “Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3-11-12). Out with speculation; in with holiness.
Peter’s description of the end is downright frightening: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done in it will be disclosed” (2 Peter 3:10, 12). The horrors of that day hold him transfixed yet he stands firm in hope: “We wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (3:12-13).
Many philosophers in Peter’s day speculated about the end of the world. Heraclitus (20-26) said that the world was made from fire and that fire was transformed into air, the air became water, water was turned into earth and then earth to fire. Ovid said of the god Jupiter, “He remembered also that ‘twas in the fates that a time would come when sea and land, the unkindled palace of the sky and the beleaguered structure of the universe should be destroyed by fire” (Metamorphoses 1.253-261). Peter, however, harkens back to Isaiah 34:4 (“All the stars in the sky will be dissolved and the heavens rolled up like a scroll”) and stands with common Jewish teaching like that in the pseudepigraphic 1 Enoch: “The first heaven shall depart and pass away; a new heaven shall appear” (91:16).
We have stepped into an era of deeply disturbing global turmoil. Covid-19 has claimed over 6,000,000 lives worldwide in the short span of two years. Global warming is disrupting weather patterns across the earth, causing unprecedented heatwaves, wildfires, drought, famine, flooding and sea level rises. Catastrophic conflicts grip Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia, Syria, and now Ukraine – with the renewed dread of nuclear conflict with Russia. In the midst of such upheavals, people turn to autocratic leaders who offer simplistic solutions to complex problems and hail themselves as the only solution. Fascism is rising rapidly at home and abroad.
An early Christian prayer from the Didache says, “Let grace come, and let this world pass away” (10:6). Our Lord taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Once again, we offer our prayers with Paul saying, “Marana tha!” (“Our Lord, come!” 1 Corinthians 16:22). During this time of global uncertainty, we double down in our commitment to doing all the good we can in our world and living the holy lives to which Jesus called us. We stand ready as good soldiers – bearing the holy armor of faith, love, and hope.
Dr. Gene L. Green is the Dean of Trinity International University – Florida. Visit them at tiu.edu/florida
For more articles from Dr. Green, visit www.goodnewsfl.org/author/gene-l-greene/