The Pattern of Judgment
then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise authority. (2:9–10a)
Earlier in this section (in verse 4), Peter began a lengthy conditional clause. Now, in verses 9 and 10, he provides the conclusion—if (or since) God knew whom to judge and whom to rescue in the past, then He certainly knows how to do the same in the present and the future.
Centuries before Peter’s time, Scripture established God’s pattern of judgment. The prophet Malachi wrote:
Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another, and the Lord gave attention and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the Lord and who esteem His name. “They will be Mine,” says the Lord of hosts, “on the day that I prepare My own possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him. So you will again distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve Him. For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,” says the Lord of hosts, “so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall. You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing,” says the Lord of hosts. (Mal. 3:16–4:3)
Put simply, the Lord knows how to judge the wicked while simultaneously preserving His own (cf. Matt. 13:36–43; 1 Thess. 4:13–18; 5:1–5).
For Peter, then, the pattern of divine judgment is clear. First, there is comfort in the fact that the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation. God knows how to save those who belong to Him; therefore they have absolutely nothing to fear (Ps. 27:1; Prov. 1:33; John 14:27; 2 Tim. 1:7; cf. Isa. 8:12). In this context, the word rendered temptation (peirasmos, which usually conveys the concept of testing) connotes the idea of an attack with intent to destroy. (See Mark 8:11; Luke 4:12; Acts 20:19; and Rev. 3:10 for other instances where peirasmos is used in this same way.) Believers, then, are called to trust in the infinite wisdom and sovereign power of their divine protector (cf. Rom. 8:28, 38–39).
God not only knows how to rescue His children but how to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment. He is holding them for the day of final reckoning while continuing their punishment in the meantime. The unrighteous are like prisoners in jail who await final sentencing and transfer to their final fate. While they wait, they continue to accumulate more guilt (cf. Rom. 2:3–6). They will then face judgment at the Great White Throne, the future tribunal where God condemns all the ungodly from all the ages to eternal hell, the lake of fire (Rev. 20:11–15; cf. Matt. 11:22, 24; 12:36; John 12:48; Acts 17:31).
The Lord especially targets those who indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise authority. Thus Peter brings the discussion full circle, again recounting the false teachers’ two primary characteristics. Like the wicked contemporaries of Noah and Lot, false teachers are slaves to sin. The Greek indicates that their lives are characterized by a continual “going after flesh in defiling lust.” They are dishonest, disrespectful, and displeasing to God—actively pursuing their sensual fantasies (as mentioned earlier in 2:2; cf. Jude 6, 7) and eagerly parading their irreverent blasphemies (cf. 2:1). Corrupt translates miasmou, meaning “pollution.” The English word miasma, meaning unpleasant and unwholesome, is derived from this term. Authority (kuriotēs) means “lordship” (cf. Eph. 1:21; Col. 1:16; Jude 8), and in this context indicates that the false teachers rejected the sovereign lordship of Jesus Christ over their lives. As discussed in verse 1, they superficially identified with Him but refused to live by His commands.
In keeping with God’s unmistakable promise, divine judgment will ultimately come upon all His enemies (cf. 1 Cor. 15:25–26). The historical precedent leaves no room for doubt. As in the past, God will finally destroy any who oppose Him—including the false teachers and their followers. At the same time, however, He will rescue believers from such a terrifying end. This passage thus echoes Paul’s words to the Thessalonians:
We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows ever greater; therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure. This is a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you will be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering. For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed—for our testimony to you was believed. (2 Thess. 1:3–10)
God is in total control (v. 9)
The numbers involved in these examples of judgement gradually reduce to make this teaching very personal:
COSMIC JUDGEMENT of angels;
WIDESPREAD JUDGEMENT at the Flood;
LOCAL JUDGEMENT on the cities of the plains;
THE RESCUE OF AN INDIVIDUAL from God’s judgement.
The first three were collective judgements, but Peter now reduces it down to an individual.
A wise old saying puts it like this:
To lose one’s wealth is much, to lose one’s health is more;
To lose one’s soul is such a loss, that nothing can restore.
Yet there are comforting words in this verse: ‘The Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials.’ He does not take believers away from trouble, but he sustains them in their troubles.
God protected Noah and the other seven during the worldwide Flood. He then protected Lot when fire and brimstone rained down. If he is powerful enough to save when the whole world is under water, and when the skies are raining fire, then he can save his people through and from trials, and bring them at last to glory.
2:9 / Despite the sheer intensity of the divine judgment, whether by water (as in the case of the Flood) or by fire (as in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah), the Lord still preserved godly Noah in the former instance and righteous Lot in the latter. Since the biblical record makes it abundantly clear that this is so, then it follows as certainly as dawn follows dark that the Lord has demonstrated to believing hearts that he knows how to rescue godly people of any generation and in any situation from trials, testings, and afflictions arising from their living among unbelievers or from evil in the present world. No doubt some of Peter’s readers, galled by the pernicious workings of the false teachers, must often have asked how long God would allow the situation to persist. In his role as pastor, Peter reassures them. Divine deliverance may seem to be uncertain, or at least long in coming. But come it will, for God is in control all along—as is illustrated in the experiences of Noah and Lot.
Furthermore, since God is Lord of heaven as well as earth, it also follows that his saving and keeping power, on the one hand, and his power to inflict judgment, on the other hand, extend beyond the present world. The physical destruction wrought by the divine action is not the end of the story. God will hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment. The consequences of unrighteousness, in other words, do not come to an end with those concerned being annihilated, reduced to nothingness, which was the fate of their physical bodies. Their punishment carries on (cf. 2:4). This is not vindictiveness on the part of a God who has been scorned, but the inevitable outworking of divine principles built into the created order. Life and peace come from and are dependent upon the living God. Any who willfully choose to reject God thereby cut themselves off from the source of life and peace (2 Thess. 1:9). Logically, therefore, it follows that for them these qualities must be absent. In other words, they can know only an eternal state of death and restlessness.
The niv translation continuing their punishment seeks to catch the sense of what is one word in the Greek, kolazomenous, a present participle. The ungodly are represented as already suffering some sort of penal process. The Greek ethical writers on punishment (e.g., Aristotle, Rhetoric 1:10) distinguished between kolasis, inflicted for the good of the sufferer, and timōria (Heb. 10:29), imposed for the satisfaction of justice. Since Peter’s term is reflected in the former, he may be hinting at the notion of the penalty being corrective (cf. 1 Pet. 3:19; 4:6).
God is in control (2:9)
Peter reaches two conclusions, as the ‘For it’ clause from verse 4 reaches its pairing, then. Having said that Noah and Lot were marked out by being righteous (2:5, 7–8), and that the people of their day were marked out by being ungodly (2:5, 6), he reverses the terms and says that God is in control of both the godly and the unrighteous. He is now equipped to address the hard topic of why, if God is so firmly in control, the godly and righteous suffer while the unrighteous and ungodly go free.
- God is in control of the godly
The lesson so far could be that the way out of trials is through what God will effect on the last day, just as he ‘protected’ Noah during the flood (verse 5). Ultimately, that will be the case. But the emphasis in the three examples has been much more on what happened before judgment. Even the angels are still waiting for their judgment. Peter says that the Lord knows how to rescue godly men, shown in the way he ‘rescued Lot’ (verse 7). The difference between Noah and Lot was that the flood was a widespread and effective judgment enabling God to start again, but the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was local and exemplary. It changed nothing, but set the alarm bells ringing. So we must copy those two heroes and stand out against the prevailing immorality of our world, especially (as Peter is about to show) when that same immorality has infected the church. It could be that the answer in our lifetimes is the final judgment, but it may be that we have to endure trials. These are the tough times all Christians have gone through, where the only way of safety is adherence to God and his faithfulness. The temptation is to think that because the unrighteous seem to run the world, and sometimes the churches too, God has ceased to rule. He has not, but the alert Christian will find it a painful business to be faithful surrounded by filth. If we do not find it painful, then Peter’s letter should alert us to the likelihood that we have become more compromised in our world than Lot was in Sodom. Ruth Graham has said, ‘If God does not one day judge America’—and, we might add, whichever country we live in—‘he will have to apologise to Sodom and Gomorrah!’
- God is in control of the unrighteous
The rebellious angels are being ‘held for judgment’ (4), and the same is true of the rebellious humans, for God knows how to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment. God is in control, and the men and women who run the world and the church their own way will one day find that out to their cost. That was the lesson Jesus himself taught from the stories of the flood and the cities of the plain.36 In the meantime, those who hold on to their belief in God must not lose heart because he has not yet vindicated himself. He will.
2:9. Lot’s rescue emphasizes God’s promises to rescue godly men from trials. This may suggest present trials in the life of the believer. God can and does rescue believers from trials and difficulties; however, this is certainly not the norm, nor is it the biblical promise (see Jas. 1:1–2 and the commentary on 1 Peter). Such an interpretation misses the point of Peter’s illustration. His emphasis is on God’s final judgment of the ungodly (cf. v. 6).
“Trials” (peirasmou) literally means “the test.” Consistently, the New Testament views the second coming of Christ as the final test. Then the Lord will rescue his true followers, but the ungodly will face judgment, for the Lord knows how to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment. “To hold” literally means “to keep or to guard.” It suggests that God is in control of judgment and people; he will have the final say.
While continuing their punishment in the niv represents a rigid translation of a Greek present participle that most likely has a future meaning here, so the niv translator’s note is probably preferable: “until the day of judgment” (see the discussion of Bauckham, WBC 50, 253–254). An intermediate state of punishment or purgatory is not in view. The entire context points to the final judgment of rebellious angels, people, and teachers.
9. If this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment.
In his conclusion to the section on the ruin of the ungodly and the protection of the believer, Peter speaks as a pastor who encourages the members of his flock. He first addresses the believers with a message of encouragement and then discloses the future of the unbelievers. His words also sound a warning to those people who are drifting from the truth of God’s Word.
- “The Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials.” The New International Version has added a short statement (“if this is so”) that summarizes the essence of the preceding verses. With the addition of this clause, the sentence itself has a proposition and a conclusion. What is the point of presenting three illustrations? In one word, assurance. Peter wants his readers to know that God is in control of every situation and that they have this assurance. As Paul puts it, “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear” (1 Cor. 10:13). The readers experienced the pernicious influence of the false teachers who infiltrated the Christian church. They saw the evidence of the erroneous doctrines in the shameful conduct of these teachers. And they undoubtedly asked why God allowed his people to be harassed by evil men.
John Calvin formulates a question that disheartened Christians usually ask: “If the Lord would have his own to be safe, why does he not gather them all into some corner of the earth, that they may mutually stimulate one another to holiness? Why does he mingle them with the wicked by whom they may be defiled?”
In his role as pastor, Peter knows that despondency is apt to appear. Peter says that the Lord knows how to rescue. He probably chooses the expression Lord either as a variation of the word God (with which he began the series of examples [v. 4]) or as a name that conveys the grace and mercy of the Lord. God’s mercy is linked to the verb rescue (v. 7) in the case of Lot (Gen. 19:16). The Lord has shown in numerous instances how he rescues godly men from difficult circumstances. The examples of Noah and Lot are cases in point. If God is able to protect Noah’s family from a perverse humanity and rescue Lot and his daughters from a godless society, he knows how to deliver Christians from immoral and corrupt people today.
The language Peter uses at this point is reminiscent of the last petition in the Lord’s Prayer: “And lead us not into temptation [trial], but deliver [rescue] us from the evil one” (Matt. 6:13). God tested Noah when he told him to build the ark. And God permitted Lot to enter into temptation when Lot chose to live near Sodom. But as God delivered both of these men from an evil world in ancient times, so he will rescue godly people from trials and temptations today (compare 2 Tim. 4:18; Rev. 3:10).
- “And to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment.” In the second half of verse 9, Peter reveals what is happening to people who revel in sin. Because they willfully violate God’s law, God keeps them in custody for the day of judgment. Jesus speaks of this day, for example, when he refers to the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt. 10:15). And Peter discloses that “the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (3:7).
What will happen on that judgment day? The ungodly who refuse to turn away from their sinful life will receive everlasting punishment. They will be thrown “into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death” (Rev. 20:14).
As prisoners are held in custody until the day they appear in court, so God keeps the ungodly for the judgment day. However, Peter adds the clause while continuing their punishment. We can interpret this clause with either a present or a future connotation. Here is a representative translation that clearly expresses the present tense: “The Lord, indeed, knows … how to continue the punishment of the wicked up to the day of judgment” (NAB). And in the following version the future tense is evident: “The Lord knoweth how to … reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished” (KJV). Although both translations are current, I favor the first one, because the Greek has a present participle “to which we cannot easily attribute a future tense.” Moreover, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus teaches that the ungodly suffer while waiting for the day of judgment (Luke 16:19–31). Granted that we have no indication that the false teachers at the time of Peter’s writing endured divine punishment, we know that by their conduct they were advancing their own destruction.
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