Asleep in the World
That man is rare who does not promise himself an eternity on earth. In youth it seems all the time in the world is before us. In the prime of life, life’s rapidly ebbing tide is obscured by the demands of work and family. When old, we feel the end of life approaches, but the hour has grown late, the body weak. To have done more, to have done better; these grey mists of regret often cloud life’s closing scenes. Most of us are wholly unprepared for the end of life. This is because we do not live as those who must soon stand before the judgment seat of Christ. We do not live as dying men. If it is ten years; it is soon; thirty or even sixty, how quickly the hourglass empties. We need a strong jolt to awaken us from our slumbers. This is a great challenge of godliness – to be aroused to consider seriously, seek, and prepare for God’s eternal kingdom. It is for this reason that Paul wrote: “Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, Christ shall give thee light” (Eph. 5:14)). Similarly Jesus told the parable of five wise and five foolish virgins. Both, you will notice, fell asleep; only the wise prepared to wake up. They knew the bridegroom was coming; though weary in watching and waiting, they loved him and made provision for his return. They lived in expectation of the end. The foolish gave no thought to his coming, of the dreadful consequence of being shut out of the marriage feast, out of heaven.
Knowing this, we still sleep: loving this world, concerned with our own affairs, little thinking that if Peter could write almost two thousand years ago that the end is near, it is much truer today. It is not, however, simply that time is running out. He is concerned with far more than the certainty of death and preparation for it. The end of all things must grip us – not unto melancholy or fatalism but unto a holy alertness that shapes the way we live. The near end of all things must control each day’s thoughts, activities, and aspirations. It should lead us to arm ourselves with the sufferings of Christ so that we shall use the life he gives us to serve him: resisting sin and seeking righteousness, prayerfully watching, loving, faithfully exercising the gifts and graces he has given us, and glorifying the God who brought all things into existence by his word and will end all things by that same word, Jesus Christ. He will be all in all. We shall have our share of eternity: of indescribable joy and blessing, or horrible woe and judgment. The end is near. Are you ready? The end is coming when the only tomorrow is either heaven or hell. The only life worth living is a continual preparation for that end, for meeting with the God who gave you life.
The End Draws Near
It is sometimes said that by “end” Peter refers to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman armies. This brought a public and decisive termination to the old covenant economy, which was centered upon the temple, priesthood, and sacrifices. Its earthly seat was Jerusalem. Jesus certainly foretold these events in Matthew 24, and Peter’s original readers would have felt the tremors of this upheaval. It is difficult for us to sympathize with the early Jewish believers about a place and way of life that had defined their very existence for a thousand years. For the church as a whole, the destruction of Jerusalem and dispersion of the Jews removed the protective barrier between it and the persecuting wrath of Rome. As long as the temple and nation existed, Christians were considered a sect of Judaism and tolerated by the authorities. Once the Jewish economy was destroyed, believers were singled out as enemies of Rome’s divinized, monolithic empire. Jerusalem’s destruction was highly significant in God’s redemptive purposes for history. By this cataclysm the Lord fulfilled his warning of judgment for Jewish apostasy from the covenant, and vividly testified to the arrival of Messiah’s kingdom, the heavenly Jerusalem.
While the destruction of Jerusalem was a testimony to this reality and the fulfillment of our Savior’s word, it pales in significance to the significance of his death, resurrection, and ascension. By these, God in his mercy fulfilled his ancient promises, brought in everlasting righteousness, and opened a new and living way for us into his Most Holy Presence, the resurrected flesh of Jesus Christ and his intercession for us at the Father’s right hand. Thus, the veil of the temple was rent at our Savior’s death; this was the de facto end of the old covenant economy. From his death and resurrection to the destruction of the temple about forty years later, all the priestly work done there was superfluous, even a denial of his all-sufficient sacrifice and ascension “now to appear in the presence of God for us” (Heb. 9:24). The Jewish believers living in Jerusalem went to the temple to disciple their lost countrymen, but they worshipped separately, seeking the living Savior not a dead tradition.
There are two main considerations that lead us away from making Peter’s “end” a primary reference to the destruction of Jerusalem and Herod’s temple. First, Peter concludes his second letter with a similar idea (3:1-14): the “end of the world” must motivate us to faithfulness. The verses there cannot refer to the events of 70 AD, though some have tried to make them do so. The language is too universal, too final, and too glorious to admit of such an interpretation. The parallel between Noah’s Flood and the burning up of the heavens and earth is physical, not spiritual. The old world was destroyed by the Flood; the present world will be destroyed by our Savior’s coming. In the light of this, we are to live faithfully and endure hardships by looking for the “new heavens and new earth” that are soon to dawn at the return of Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:13). Second, the “all things” in our passage carries a similar weight of finality and climax: for everything, not just apostate Judaism. It is too great a stretch of exegesis to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem as “the end of all things.”
Instead, we should take the phrase to refer primarily to the day on which our Savior shall descend from heaven with a shout and trumpet, raise the dead, put an end to Satan’s schemes, judge all the nations, and cast Satan and the wicked into everlasting hell. But how can this day be “at hand?” Two millennia have passed since Peter wrote these words; it may be two more may before that day dawns. It is foolish to weigh time and to judge the truth of God’s word by the short span of our lives. Peter later reminds us that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years” (2 Pet. 3:7). This does not have the effect of making time irrelevant but of putting it into perspective. The time is short; this end is near. It always has been; it always will be – until it comes. But we think that if it does not come in the seventy or eighty years of our lifetime, then it is a long way off. This kind of thinking, however, is not the dynamic of the kingdom or of time itself. All the times have now been folded up into Christ, compressed, drawn together, utterly dominated by this one, urgent reality: Jesus Christ has come, obtained our redemption, reigns at the Father’s right hand, and will soon reappear in glory to consummate all things (1 Cor. 7:29). The end is at hand. Every generation lives near the end, must look for our Savior’s appearing, and live accordingly.
When the Holy Spirit impresses this truth upon us, several things happen. First, we live differently: purposefully, hopefully, courageously. The deep conviction that the time is short, that the Bridegroom will soon return, is a great impetus to faithful Christian living. Then, time itself is put in perspective. The young must be about their Father’s business, like Jesus. Adults must use the years God provides for work and service to him with great zeal and focus. Older believers may certainly enjoy the harvest time for a life of faithfulness, but it is not a time to sit back and retire but to sow seeds of godliness in the heart-fields of the next generation. Finally, since the “end of all things” means the end of the wicked, we must expect the Lord of the harvest to give indications of that end throughout history. Remember, he is ready to judge (1 Pet 4:5). The destruction of Jerusalem was one such judgment. There have been many more. We see the Lord making an end of many things today. He is removing the façade of Western morality and American exceptionalism. He is removing sound thinking and replacing it with blind madness, causing men to believe a lie rather than the truth, and driving his enemies against the immovable wall of his sovereign power and redemptive purposes. He has given all rule, authority, and power into the hand of his Son. Our Lord Jesus will rule until the end; he will bring all his enemies to an end, either in judgment or conversion, Judas or Saul. His death on the cross, resurrection from the dead, and enthronement at God’s right hand means the end of sin and opposition to his rule. The Father gave it to him; he will be faithful. The pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
Sober, Watch unto Prayer (v. 7)
In these verses, Peter tells us how living near the end of all things must shape the way we live. He begins with sobriety. Interestingly, the Holy Spirit regularly brings to our attention the connection between the “end” and sober, careful living (Matt. 24:42,44; 25:13; Mark 13:33-37; Luke 21:36; Eph. 5:14-15; 1 Thess. 5:2-8; 1 Peter 1:13). This is wholly opposed to those who say that if they knew the world or their own lives would end tomorrow, they would go on a sin spree today. Heavenly grace, however, sounds a different tune. Convinced that we shall soon stand before Christ, it holds grace as a treasure, not to be bandied about as a mantra but to be pursued with joy and holiness. God’s true children never receive his grace in vain (2 Cor. 6:1). Knowing what a gift God has given to us, what a price the Son of God paid on the cross to reconcile us to God, they live soberly, in guarded possession of their wits or reason, thinking his thoughts after him (Mark 5:15; Acts 26:24-25; 2 Cor. 5:13). To be sober is to think carefully, clearly, and wisely about this life, especially its brevity, purpose, and final accounting. It is to use time in light of eternity, this world in light of heaven. It is the kind of living of which Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31: “But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none; and they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; and they that use this world, as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away.” To the sober believer, all is tempered in the light of the end: now is lived with later always in mind.
In practice, how much holier and more purposeful our relationships, conversations, and daily work would be if they were pursued in the light of Christ’s resurrection, ascension, and return at the end (1 Cor. 15:58)? Far from being hopeless and aimless, we must see the coming of Christ even now as if we were looking through a telescope. “Now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed” (Rom. 13:11). We believe he is coming, that the end draws near. We have his promise. The footsteps of his return are clearly heard: the collapse of the existing world order, the growth of the church throughout the world, and the spread of his glorious gospel. We also see the end of sin approaching: the futility of making war against the word of God and denying the crown rights of his Son. Are not the immorality, blindness, and statism of the West quickly reaching a point of no return, if it has not already passed it? Are not many churches capitulating to the spirit of our age, tolerating gross perversion, and so utterly confused about grace that it has become little more than a slogan: “Be kind to everyone; judge nothing; accept everything?” What else are these things but shadows of the approaching end, when all shall be exposed, the secrets of every heart revealed, and the King separate the sheep from the goats? Thus, we have great need for sober judgment. We shall not be able to be steadfast in God’s truth, constant in love and mercy, or willing to suffer for our Savior unless we are clothed with the armor of light, forsake the world in favor of heaven, and put on the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 13:12-14).
We have not strength to maintain this kind of vigilance. Watching and waiting for the end is weary work. Great is our need for constant supplies of grace, of the oils, the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit. We obtain these and are able to maintain soberness only if we are continually strengthened by the power of God. There is far more of the five foolish virgins in us than the five wise, far more of the disciples sleeping in the garden than of the spirit of watching unto prayer that alone preserves us in the hour of temptation (Matt. 25:41). Yet, pray we must: and watchfully. Peter assumes that as Christians, we cannot but pray. He gives us not a general exhortation to pray but calls us to a specific kind of prayer: with our faculties and spirit alert to our need to “pray without ceasing,” being on the lookout for occasions to pray, what to pray for, for the fruits of our prayers so that we may be encouraged to pray more. To watch unto prayer is to be alert to the great battle raging around us: for our children, marriages, congregations, even the whole world. It is to recognize and feel intensely that the Lord is our only Helper. Only by his favor does the mountain of our life stand strong (Ps. 30:7). It is to be on guard against the many hindrances to prayer: worldliness, pride and self-reliance, distractedness, the dangerous idea that “really doing something” is more important than calling upon God to help us before we can even know what to do. It is to hope in Jesus Christ as our great High Priest, that he has opened heaven for us, intercedes for us, that we are never closer to him, more like him, more united in his great work than when we are casting our cares upon the Lord, confessing to him, “Not my will, but thine be done,” and asking him to fulfill his many promises to us.
Prayer is our safeguard, our place of security, the time of the day we enjoy closest communion with our God and Father. Through watchful prayer, we draw out the promises God has given to us in his word. They become part of us, shaping our desires and expectations, fanning the flame of faith, and setting our affections on things above. Especially among his people, we need for the Lord to awaken a spirit of watchful prayer. The midweek prayer meeting must be used for this kind of prayer, with meeting leaders urging prayer in the light of Christ’s soon return, our present need, and God’s precious promises. When troubled, we must pray; fearful, pray; needy, pray; hurting, pray. Confident hope in the return of Jesus Christ always produces sober-minded, believing prayer. The voice of the church calls for her Head and Husband; her fervent prayers anticipate his coming. Our prayers are one means the Lord has ordained to “hasten” that day: “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.” His approach is felt even now by the collapse of all that opposes the living God and his Christ. Who shall survive, be protected, be used to glorify God except those who are often at prayer, watching for his promises, giving him no rest until he makes his church a praise in the earth, and weeping over their own sins and those of the men around them? Our Savior is coming. We must wake up, trim our lamps, and hasten to meet the Bridegroom. May our watching prayers be holy incense rising to welcome his coming!