The temple theme of Genesis 1 & 2 is foremost in Peter’s two letters. From this Peter paints the picture of who the church is in the world, why we are here and what our methodology is for transforming our nations. Peter begins his epistles “to the strangers scattered abroad.” Peter was the apostle to the circumcision, meaning the Jewish believers. Jews were scattered in diaspora throughout the then Roman Empire, especially in the Mediterranean area and in the region of Babylon (modern day Iraq).
This concept of “strangers” carries significance throughout Peter’s two letters. It refers to a foreigner in a strange land. It could be referring to an ambassador that resides in a foreign land to represent his home nation. In this case our home nation is heaven, as Paul says, “our citizenship is in heaven.” This means we are of heaven in the sense of being born of God, with his values and life. We are not lead by worldly fashions in values.
This needs to be understood in the Jewish sense in which Peter meant it. In many English commentaries we get the idea that heaven is our ultimate destination and we are just passing through this earth. Earth isn’t seen as important, but is just to be cast off like an old cloth. The Bible speaks metaphorically this way about the old sinful world, but this refers to a renewing of the world in righteousness through the gospel. A common view in the English world comes from the Puritan book Pilgrim’s Progress, where Pilgrim is passing through the word on his way to his eternal home in heaven. Over time this has contributed to a self-interested gospel, not really related to our communities and our natural world, which God also loves and gave to us to nurture.
Throughout First and Second Peter, Peter is building a temple theme. He sees our pilgrim call in this sense. As citizens from heaven, we are God’s strangers, or God’s ambassadors in a foreign land. It isn’t foreign in the sense of not being owned by God. It was created and has been redeemed by God. It is foreign in the sense of its old fallen cultures. These are now being renewed by the church. Paul also uses this theme, calling us ambassadors, drawing others into God’s new creation, which is reconciling and transforming the world (2 Cor 5). Just as Paul said the church is here to show God’s wisdom to the powers (cultures, governments, faiths), so Peter is showing us the same purpose.
As strangers and pilgrims we are God’s new temple in the world. We are sent out into the world, as strangers to the ways of sinful cultures, to be God’s new transforming temple within the nations. It is the language of Christ in the Great Commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Nations are being renewed. The temple is that place God inhabits in a strange land, so that his image and likeness may impact and renew that land. The temple is the place where heaven and earth join for the purpose of earth’s transformation. This was Adam’s call and it was Israel’s call. Peter is writing to the Jews about their ongoing call in Christ. We are God’s temple in our nations.
What did the Jews think of the term “pilgrim” or “stranger”? This term stems from the Jewish exile and captivity in Babylon in the Old Testament period. Paul calls it “the casting away of Israel” and says it was a “blessing to the world.” When the exile of many Jews continued throughout the Greek and Roman Empires, the whole world was impacted by their presence. The presence of synagogues were like transforming temples in the nations, bringing the knowledge of God through the Torah. This greatly impacted the world’s religions and philosophies from India and Asia through to Greece. As well, many gentile people accepted the God of the Jews and joined the Jewish faith. So when Peter uses the term “pilgrim” as a Jewish believer, he has in mind the blessing of the world.
Our call to pilgrimage is one of the most central parts to the Christian message. Jesus was a pilgrim, or stranger, cut off from his people, rejected and crucified. In so doing, in being cast away, he also became a blessing to the whole world. And this is the identity, the central identity that Peter assigns to the church in this world. We are not to live as landlords, as occupiers, as furnishing ourselves comfortably in this world, settled and content with our possessions, but we are to follow Christ’s example. We are not to follow the examples of violence, corruption, greed and immorality we see around us. Because of this the world will treat us as strangers. They will cast us off, as Israel and Jesus were cast away, but we are beloved of God and accepted. Through being cast away, by entering into our identity as the new Israel, and partaking of their sufferings and of Christ’s sufferings, we are also a transforming blessing to the nations.
As Christ opened not his mouth, but forgave those who persecuted him, this is how he became a blessing to the world. So Peter says, following Christ’s example is how the church is called to renew the nations.
“For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps… He did not retaliate when he was insulted, nor threaten revenge when he suffered. He left his case in the hands of God, who always judges fairly.” (1 Pet 2:21, 23)
“Now, who will want to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you suffer for doing what is right, God will reward you for it. So don’t worry or be afraid of their threats. Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ. Remember, it is better to suffer for doing good, if that is what God wants, than to suffer for doing wrong! Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. He suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit.” (1 Pet 3:13-18)
“So then, since Christ suffered physical pain, you must arm yourselves with the same attitude he had, and be ready to suffer, too. For if you have suffered physically for Christ, you have finished with sin. You won’t spend the rest of your lives chasing your own desires, but you will be anxious to do the will of God.” (1 Pet 4:1-2)
We can see here Peter’s world evangelism strategy. He didn’t say, “Arrange a program and get in a well-known evangelist to win everyone to the Lord.” In the end that won’t transform us or the world. The strategy that Peter very clearly laid out was about our life style of love and respect for others. He said when people see us living that way, and not for self, as people lived for self in the Roman world, and when they ask us why we live like this, what is our hope if our hope isn’t the things other people go after, then we share our hope with them in respect. He said preaching the gospel is secondary action: it comes as an explanation for the way we live. If not, then we have no gospel to preach. If we all lived this way today, we wouldn’t have the divisions we have, and we would have shown Christ to the whole world by now. Our call to evangelism is our call to follow Christ in the world as his new community and temple, showing his glory.
The world isn’t changed by landlords putting sinners on the cross, like they did to Jesus, but by strangers and pilgrims taking up their cross.
The temple theme serves as two bookends in Peter’s two letters. His letters open with the establishment of the new temple in Christ, and close with the coming destruction of the old temple in Jerusalem. This theme was prevalent in most of the New Testament books, from the Gospels, to Acts, Paul, Hebrews, James, Peter and Revelation. The new temple has come to bring about new creation, by the coming of God’s kingdom to the whole world in Christ. Taking Peter’s two letters as a whole, this is his theme.
“You are coming to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple. He was rejected by people, but he was chosen by God for great honour. And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God.” (1 Pet 2:4-5)
“But you are not like that (not like the old world) for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Pet 2:9)
God’s purpose in making us his temple is that he might inhabit the world through us. His glory, shekinah, is shown to the world through the Spirit and the lives of the believers. Grace operates in his temple, and as our praises go to God, his blessing comes down through our lives into the nations. The grace is through Christ and his reign at God’s right hand. Again, we see the same themes in Genesis 1 & 2 and the first temple, wherein Adam and Eve were the priesthood reflecting God’s image into the world. Now it’s the church. Peter speaks of the living word, the Spirit and the light overcoming darkness, all creational themes, now all returned through the church bringing the world into new creation. We are born again, brought into new creation, by the living word, and by God’s first new creation act, the resurrection of Christ from the dead. (1 Pet 1:3, 23) Peter’s letters are from start to finishes Hebrew themed letters.
Peter then speaks of God’s judgement in this present world. This is much of the theme in 2 Peter. Sinners perish, but God’s judgment doesn’t consist of destroying the world, but in renewing it. This has almost immediate application in Peter’s own day: the coming judgement of Jerusalem, its destruction and the destruction of the temple. This has been foretold by the prophets since long before Jesus came. Jesus also spoke clearly about this coming to pass in that very generation. This was to be fulfilled near Peter’s own time, but it also speaks to the whole world God is transforming. The Jerusalem temple represents this present age which is passing away. Those who cling to the ways of this present age perish with it. But those who follow Christ have his promise of eternal life and inclusion in the new heavens and new earth. But before Jerusalem was to be destroyed, God was waiting till the gospel had gone out to that generation, especially all the diaspora in the Roman world.
“But the day of the Lord will come as unexpectedly as a thief. Then the heavens will pass away with a terrible noise, and the very elements themselves will disappear in fire, and the earth and everything on it will be found to deserve judgment.” (2 Pet 3:10)
This verse needs to be read from its Hebrew sense. In Greek culture, the idea became prevalent that the world and material things were evil and could not be redeemed. This has become a position that is completely opposite to the Hebrew faith. Greek beliefs speak of the coming entire destruction of the earth and the whole material cosmos (the natural heavens, or stars) and believe that eternity is only for spirits in heaven. When the Greek fathers became leaders in the church, and when the church began to persecute the Jews, the Hebrew background to scripture either became unknown or was rejected for hatred of the Jews. For many years certain sections of the church has laboured under many interpretations of scripture that don’t have a genuine basis. Much of the present end-times teaching today, even in much of the church, is Greek in its origan. There has been a gentile/pagan coup on the scriptures and on Christianity.
So how do we read this text in Second Peter from its Hebrew base? The Old Testament shows how Jewish believers like Peter thought, and how they understood metaphors and scripture. Here is an example from Isaiah:
“The heavens above will melt away and disappear like a rolled-up scroll. The stars will fall from the sky…” (Isaiah 34:4)
This is the exact language Peter used in our reference above. In Hebrew text it is well known as metaphor. It isn’t literal. So when Peter uses texts like this he is not speaking literally. To say that he is speaking literally is to take Peter out of his own context, to deny his Jewish roots and put words in his mouth he does not know anything about. The passage from Isaiah 34 is speaking of the judgment and destruction of Edom. It is God’s judgement on a city and region. The heavens represent the leaders, being above the people like stars. Their destruction means the utter destruction of the Edom nation. This was fulfilled after Isaiah spoke it.
Those in Peter’s time who understood the scriptures as Hebrew believers in Christ knew about the coming judgment on Jerusalem. It had been foretold since Isaiah’s time. All the prophets said it was coming. Jesus spoke of it in detail. Peter is just reiterating what Jesus had earlier told the disciples. Jerusalem will be destroyed, including its leaders and priests, meaning its temple. This was fulfilled soon after Peter spoke it, in AD 70. Peter was not speaking about the end of the world.
“But we are looking forward to the new heavens and new earth he has promised, a world filled with God’s righteousness.” (2 Pet 3:13)
In scripture the fall of Jerusalem represents the fall of all nations. The Old Testament links rebellious Israel with Edom and the gentile nations. The old temple came to represent those in the world who cling to the lusts of the current world, not serving others, but only themselves. This is what the Pharisees represented. The fall of Jerusalem is also the fall of this type of world. It is all coming under judgment and passing away.
While this is happening we are leaving that world, we are coming out of those types of lifestyles, and looking for the new world God is creating through his kingdom and church and finally by the resurrection. In the resurrection all corruption shall be put off and there will be no more curse on the earth. We are to live in that expectation now, spreading this new way of life through the nations as God’s new temple. We are God’s prophetic people, rejoicing today in new heavens and new earth, showing them by our faith and love for each other and our cross-shaped, self-giving love for our enemies. This is the display of our faith and the evidence of the coming resurrection that will renew all things.
So here we have it: Peter’s two letters. The gospel is presented as God’s new temple through which God is present in all nations, bringing forth new life. We are witnesses to the renewing of the world. The old ways are perishing and new ways have already come through God’s new Jesus following community. We shall participate in eternal life, which has already started and which culminates in fully renewed heavens and earth. It’s the Revelation 21-22 vision come to pass through the church.