The Second Epistle of Saint Peter is the twenty-second book of the New Testament and included in the collection known as the Catholic or universal epistles. The author claims to be Simon Peter, apostle of Jesus, an eyewitness to the transfiguration, and a dear brother of the Apostle Paul. Second Peter is as immeasurable as revelation and as inscrutable as time. Selections appear just three times in the lectionary, on the Second Sunday of Advent (3:14-18), and during the ninth week of Ordinary Time (1:2-7, 3:12-15a, 17-18). The purpose of the work in its entirety is to impress upon readers/listeners the reality of the Parousia and to remind Christians that God alone is the author of Sacred Scripture and that its authentic interpretation comes only through the Holy Spirit.
Know this first of all: that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation, for no prophecy ever came through human will; rather human beings moved by the Holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God (1:20-21).
In the letter Peter recalls the night he and his companions witnessed the Transfiguration of Jesus atop Mount Tabor where the Lord displayed his glory. “His face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light” (Matthew 17:2). There with Jesus stood Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet. Peter’s response illustrates the terror with which the mighty vision struck him. “‘Lord, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ But he did not know what he was saying, he was so terrified” (Mark 9:9). This was one of a number of unforgettable moments that the apostle experienced while following Jesus during his life on earth.
Following the vision Jesus tells Peter and the others: “Tell no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead” (Matthew 17:10). Years later the memory resurfaced as a line in the letter to emphasize the credibility of the writer who saw many signs and wonders performed by Jesus throughout his earthly ministry. Peter wrote to support his argument that Christians in crisis must recall the glory of the Lord’s resurrection and remain assured that the Parousia was a real and impending. They are not to be fooled by the vagueness of earthly time.
Do not ignore this one fact, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is as a single day. (2 Peter 3:8)
The transfiguration of Jesus that Peter witnessed empowered him and increased his belief in the Word and the Spirit that impelled him to write to the Christians and explain to them the reality of the Parousia. Thus did he recount what he saw and heard on that blessed mountain.
We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain. Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Peter 1:18-19).
Few scholars believe that Peter wrote this letter or even that it was composed during the apostle’s lifetime. The author claims that he witnessed the transfiguration and this is entirely truthful since the revelation of Jesus Christ as the incarnate Word carried out over the ages and what Christian could not say that they too had witnessed the glory of God? The writer refers to the First Epistle of Saint Peter, and he makes note of Paul “our beloved brother”; he was familiar with the traditions of which Paul was writing, an apostle who also left a substantial legacy constructed on having received a glorious vision of the Son of God (Acts 9:3-4).
Like the Epistle of Saint Jude, Second Peter endured centuries of debate to earn entrance into the canon. Church Fathers doubted the validity of its authorship because the narrative distance seemed far too lengthy to be legitimately written by Peter, who in the letter refers to the apostle as though long deceased. Origen defended its legitimacy in stating that “Peter proclaims the truth with the trumpets of his two epistles.” Jerome in the fourth century acknowledges the difficult in accepting Petrine authorship for both letters but attributes differences in style between the letters to different secretaries. Genuine Petrine authorship would place the letter written from Rome circa AD 67-68; other theories suggest the letter was written as late as AD 150. Canonization of the letter occurred at the Council of Laodicea in AD 360 and additional affirmation followed at Hippo in 393. He wrote the epistle to an audience facing difficulties in believing that Christ would return in their lifetimes.
Second Peter should not be relegated to the lectionary three times a year nor trotted out to display its colorful use of proverbs (“The dog returns to its own vomit” (Proverbs 26:11). The letter must be revered as the Word of God dictated to the Church universal and eternal as a reminder that the presence of God in Christ means continual preparation of spirit and heart to welcome him whenever he returns, in ways great and small. Peter’s second letter borrows considerably from the Epistle of Jude, and relies heavily upon Jude for imagery and theology; the writings are similar in style and language. The work is highly emotive, expressing the delight that its author found in knowing the Messiah. We are hard-pressed to find any New Testament character more devoted to Jesus Christ, save for Paul. The challenge with devotion to the Catholic epistles is not the theology—prayer and a good commentary or two can help explain the writings—but that they are quite short and it is easy to flip past them while searching through the end of the New Testament for the Apocalypse. Like any great story we are tempted to skip to the last chapter but then we would lose the completeness of the canon. Don’t equate the small size of the letters and the placement of them at the end of the Bible with importance. Think of them as saving the best for last. Don’t pass them by!
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.