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Introduction to the 2nd Epistle of Peter

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General Info

The book’s title comes from the name of the author.  It was originally given the Greek name “Petrou B” to distinguish it from Peter’s first epistle, and it came to be called “Second Peter” in the English translations.  While Peter’s first letter was written to encourage early Christians who were facing persecution from external sources, his second letter focuses primarily on opposition from internal factions, namely false teachers.

In this epistle written shortly before his death, Peter also emphasized the importance of growing in godliness in anticipation of the coming day of the Lord.

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Brief Survey

As the letter opens, Peter identifies himself as a slave and apostle of Jesus Christ, and urges his readers to grow in the grace and knowledge of God and Christ to keep from falling away (1:1-10).  He then briefs his readers of his situation, that he has only a short time to live, and wants to remind them of certain things to remember (1:12-15).  The first chapter closes with Peter’s testimony as an eyewitness Jesus’ transfiguration (prefiguring His return as King), and the reliability of Scripture based upon the authors being moved by the Holy Spirit (1:16-21).

In chapter 2, Peter warns of false teachers, giving three OT examples of how God justifies those who remain faithful, but condemns those who deny Him.  He then profiles the false teachers, focusing primarily on their character and nature rather than their teachings, and declares that they are worse off because of their deliberate rejection of truth than if they had sinned due to ignorance.

In chapter 3, Peter shifts from his condemnation of false teachers to encouraging believers to live holy and godly lives in light of the coming day of the Lord.  Peter concludes his letter with a final call for Christians to live peaceful and blameless lives, a final warning to be on guard against false teachings, and a doxology to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

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Key Verses

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. but if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins. Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (1:3-11)

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (1:20-21)

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them--bringing swift destruction on themselves... They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity--for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him. If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. (2:1,19-21)

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. (3:8-12)

Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen. (3:17-18)

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Author and Date

The book identifies its author as the apostle Peter (1:1), an eyewitness to the transfiguration (1:16-18; see Mt 17:1-13), and an associate of the apostle Paul (3:15).  Other internal evidence includes the author's use of personal pronouns, such as in the very personal section referring to his impending death (1:12-25), and the mention of a previous letter (thought to be 1 Peter, see 3:1).

That said, many in the early church were slow to accept the authenticity of Peter’s second epistle.  The first known mention of 2 Peter by name came from Origen near the end of the second century.  By the fourth century however, the authority and author of 2 Peter was widely accepted by most, including Augustine of Hippo and Athanasius, two of the greatest leaders and theologians of the early church.  In addition the Council of Laodicea (372 AD) and the significant third Council of Carthage (397 AD) strongly confirmed the book as canonical.  It was also included in Jerome’s Vulgate (~404 AD), an early Latin Bible.

The legitimacy and authority of 2 Peter remained indisputable until the past couple of centuries, when many modern critics challenged Peter’s authorship (along with most of the other books of the Bible).   A primary objection centered upon the difference in style as compared with 1 Peter.  There are several factors which can easily account for this variation.  First, the two letters were written with a different purpose and contained different themes, but the distinctions can primarily be explained by the use of different scribes.  Peter used Silvanus (aka Silas) for his first epistle (1Pe 5:12), and either used a different scribe or penned the second epistle himself.  It’s interesting that many of the same critics who reject 2 Peter for the roughness of style also reject 1 Peter for being too polished.

A second objection is the similarity of chapter 2 to Jude’s epistle, but this is no reason to reject Peter as the author. Peter could have borrowed parts of Jude (or vice versa) that would provide better understanding for his readers. Since both Peter and Jude both wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they could have also written these verses independently or even borrowed from a third source.

Critics also maintain that the false teaching mentioned in 2 Peter was an advanced form of Gnosticism that emerged in the second century, therefore the book must have been written much later than Peter’s lifetime. While Gnosticism developed into a more sophisticated system afterward, the patterns and thought processes were certainly present during Peter’s day.

This leads us to one final piece of evidence against the critics' charges.  The fact that the letter dedicates quite a bit of space to denouncing false teachers actually contributes to its authenticity.  It is highly doubtful that anyone falsely claiming to be the apostle Peter would write a letter condemning false teachers.

So, we see that the external evidence strongly supports the internal evidence that the book was written by the apostle Peter shortly before his death.  According to the early church historian Eusebius, Peter was martyred in Rome during the reign of the emperor Nero who died in 68 AD.  So, Peter’s second epistle was probably written from Rome between 64 and 67 AD.

The recipients of 2 Peter were the same as those of his first epistle (3:1), “to God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia” (1Pe 1:1).  These provinces were located in mostly Gentile area of Asia Minor, which is now modern Turkey, but also contained many Jewish exiles.

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Historical Background

Since Peter had written his first letter to the same recipients, see the Historical Background to 1 Peter.

Since sending his first letter, false teachers had escalated their infiltration into the churches in Asia Minor.  In addition, the Apostle was probably in a Roman prison facing imminent death under the reign of the infamous Roman Emperor Nero.  Out of concern for the moral and doctrinal damage that could result from these false teachers, Peter wrote what could almost be considered a last will and testament as a warning to believers.

According to reliable Christian and historical traditions, Peter was martyred shortly after writing this second and final letter.

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Peter's 2nd Epistle was written in the mid-sixties AD.

27 or 30 (1) Peter called to be a Disciple of Jesus
30 or 33 (1) Last Supper (Passover), Jesus’ Arrest, Peter’s Denial, Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection
30 or 33 (1) Pentecost (birth of the Church in Jerusalem); 3000 Saved at Peter’s Sermon (Acts 2)
~ 41-44 Peter imprisoned by Agrippa, Miraculous Escape & Leaves Jerusalem
~ 49-50 The Council at Jerusalem
~ 54 Peter arrives in Rome
54-68 Reign of Nero
~ 60-63 Peter writes his First Epistle
64 Fire at Rome, Nero blames Christians
~ 64-67 Persecution of Christians under Nero
~ 64-67 Peter writes his Second Epistle; Peter martyred in Rome
70 Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem

(1)  These dates are either one or the other (Nisan 14 Passover falling between Thursday sundown to Friday sundown on the Jewish calendar).  The earlier date is the most popular, but there are good evidences and arguments to support either date.

~ Dates are approximated.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

The original manuscripts of the Bible contained no chapters or verses.  These were added about fifteen hundred years after Peter’s letter was written.  In many books, chapter and verse divisions appear quite random at times.  In Peter’s second epistle however, the three chapters correspond quite nicely with his three basic purposes for writing the letter.

Peter’s first purpose (chapter one) is to encourage spiritual growth among his readers by increasing their knowledge and cultivating their character.  He instructs them to add goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, kindness and love in order to grow in their faith.  This is, of course, to be done under the power and control of the Holy Spirit.

Peter’s second purpose (chapter 2) is to warn his readers of the false teachers, instructing them to be on guard and to resist their influence.  He also provides descriptions of the immoral lifestyles by which they can be recognized, and pronounces their inevitable condemnation.  The best way to combat these teachers is to fall back on Peter’s first theme, continuing to grow in the faith and holding fast to the truth.

The third and final chapter is written to encourage believers be watchful and live holy lives in the confidence of Christ’s imminent return.  Because of the certainty of Jesus’ return, believers should be careful not to be led astray by false doctrine, but grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord and Savior.

We see that “growing in knowledge” is related to each of the three main themes in this letter.  Indeed, knowledge is mentioned over a dozen times in this short book and is one of the underlying themes.  We’re speaking of course, of true Biblical and spiritual knowledge rather than the false experiential or secret knowledge promoted by the apostates.

Also prominent in 2 Peter is his focus on the Lordship of Christ.  He speaks of Jesus as “Lord” over a dozen times in addition to the several mentions of Christ as “Lord and Savior”.  In addition, he speaks of the transfiguration on the mountain, of which he was an eyewitness, and dedicates the final chapter to Jesus’ second coming (Gk parousia).

Other themes found in this letter are the divine origin of Scripture (1:20-21), including Paul’s letters (3:15-16), and the future destruction (or transformation or renewal – see “Interpretation Challenges” below) of the world.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

In the broadest sense, we could say that Peter’s second epistle holds one of the primary keys, not only for determining its own meaning, but for interpreting the entire Bible.  Along with 2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:19-21 provides us with the most straightforward explanation of the nature of the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures.  In these verses, Peter writes of the illumination of the reader; that we have the word of the prophets made more certain, like a light shining in a dark place.  He also speaks of revelation; that it comes from God rather than originating from the prophet’s own interpretation.  Finally, we are told of the origin and method of inspiration; that Scripture came not from the will of man, but from God as the prophet and author was “carried along by the Holy Spirit”.  The Greek word for “carried along” (pheromenoi) is also used by Luke to describe the ship being “caught by the wind” and “driven along” in the storm as he and the Apostle Paul sailed to Rome (Ac 27:15,17).  There are some differences of opinion among scholars regarding the exact method of control during inspiration, but this would require a separate discussion.  We can say that the authors were not taking dictation, nor were they in some sort of unconscious state, as evidenced by the differing personal writing styles.  The Holy Spirit did however, operate in such a manner that resulted in the exact inerrant words being written according to God’s perfect will.  Indeed, Jesus’ interpretation of the OT Scriptures often rested upon the inclusion of a single word.

We now move on to a few themes found in common with Jude's epistle.  We’ve already discussed  the relationship between 2 Peter and Jude in the “Author” chapter above, as well as the in the corresponding chapter in our Introduction to Jude.  Peter doesn’t specifically identify the exact system of false teaching that he denounces in chapter 2, but it was undoubtedly the same or very similar to that condemned by Jude (see “Historical Background to Jude”).  Likewise, Peter also uses the illustration of fallen angels to pronounce the certainty of judgment on the apostates.  These angels could be those who originally fell from heaven with Satan (Ezek 28:15), but more likely refers to the “sons of God” in Genesis 6, whose wicked actions were the final straw that brought on the flood.

Next, we address a few questions specific to 2 Peter, beginning with Peter’s insistence to “make your call and election sure” (1:10).  Some have used this verse to argue that a person can lose his salvation.  Peter however, is speaking subjectively about confidence and assurance of salvation in the mind of the believer as confirmed by the Holy Spirit (2Cor 1:21-22) since only God can objectively grant, secure, and maintain our salvation.

The statement that God is “not wanting (or willing that) anyone should perish” (3:9) is often used to support Universalism, the belief that all people will ultimately be saved and no one will spend eternity in hell.  Besides the fact that this idea contradicts the clear consistent teaching throughout the Bible, it also stems from a misunderstanding of this particular verse.  The words “not wanting” (Greek mē boulomenos) is not the pronouncement of a decree, but merely the expression of God’s desire.  Although God wants everyone to be saved, He forces salvation on no one since this would undermine true love and fellowship.

Speaking about the day of the Lord, Peter writes in the next verse that “The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare” (3:10).  He then mentions believers looking forward to the new heaven and new earth (3:13, see also Rev 21:1).  It is often debated whether Peter is referring to annihilation and re-creation, or to a renewed and transformed cosmos.  Much of the discussion involves the phrase “will be laid bare”.  The earliest and most reliable Greek manuscripts contain heurethēsetai meaning “will be found (or exposed)” as in “will be judged” by God.  Other manuscripts contain katakaēsetai, meaning “will be burned up”.  Verses 11 and 12 contain similar language about destruction by fire, but fire is also used figuratively for God’s judgment.  While we can’t say for sure, we lean toward the transformation position based on the many OT prophecies about renewal of the earth (see also Rom 8:18-25), and on the preferred reading of our subject verse.  This is also consistent with God’s actions throughout history, where he typically renews sin-flawed portions of creation rather than destroying and re-creating.  Nevertheless, whichever position is correct, Peter’s main emphasis is that, this future day should motivate believers to live holy and godly lives.

Finally, we mention the significance of Peter’s use of Paul’s writings to substantiate his own (3:15-16).  At the time of Peter’s writing, most of Paul’s epistles would already be circulating among Peter’s readers.  While some NT writers made occasional use of extra-biblical documents, Peter places Paul’s writings on the same level of authority as the OT scriptures by warning readers not to twist Paul’s words, as the false teachers do with “the other Scriptures”.  The addition of this phrase provides us with one of the clearest affirmations that the writings of Paul are Scripture.  Peter had previously established that the NT writers were recording and explaining what the OT prophets foretold (1Pe 1:10-12).

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Peter’s Second Epistle can be divided into three sections corresponding with the three chapters, plus the initial greeting and closing doxology. The first chapter highlights the source of living a holy life, and of Peter’s authority. The second chapter deals with false teachers, and the third with the coming Day of the Lord.

1:1 - 1:2 Greeting
1:3 – 1:11 Call to Salvation;  Holiness; Christian Growth and Godly Living
1:12 – 1:21 Divine Authority behind Peter’s Words
2:1 – 2-22 Warnings against False Teachers; Their Character, Influence and Judgment
3:1 – 3:13 The Day of the Lord (Christ’s Return)
3:14 – 3:17 Final Thoughts and Doxology

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