We are fortunate to have in Scripture what amounts to farewells from Peter and from Paul, the two greatest figures in the New Testament, with of course the obvious exception of Jesus Christ Himself. This blogpost will discuss those farewells — from Paul in II Timothy, and from Peter in II Peter.
Paul wrote his letter from prison in Rome about A.D. 66 or 67, according to my NIV study Bible (note II Timothy 2:9); Peter wrote his letter in A.D. 67, quite possibly during Roman imprisonment as well. Both men were executed soon thereafter, Paul by beheading and Peter by crucifixion. In both instances, it would be a dramatic end to a dramatic life.
The authors in each letter are aware that they are reaching the end of the line. Paul says he has “finished the course” (4:7), and Peter “know[s] that the laying aside of my earthly dwelling is imminent, as also our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me” (1:14).
Given this and the commitment of the two men, it is no surprise that most of each letter is devoted to exhorting their fellow Christians to carry on, and giving advice on how best to do that. As Paul says at the beginning of his concluding chapter (4:2): “[P]reach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.” And (4:5): “[B]e sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of the evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” Likewise, Peter writes near the beginning of his letter, “I shall always be ready to remind you of these things, even though you already know them, … And I consider it right, all long as I am in this earthly dwelling, to stir you up by way of reminder, … And I will also be diligent that at any time after my departure you may be able to call these things to mind” (1:12-15).
It is interesting that, of the two, Paul’s letter is the more emotional (perhaps in part because it seems more personal, ostensibly written not to a group of people but specifically to Timothy, who was in many ways like a son to him). Peter in the Gospels is an impetuous fisherman; Paul is the intellectual and prolific writer. Yet it is Paul who does some score-settling and complaining (no doubt justified, see 1:15, 4:9-10, 14-16, and it must be noted that he also includes some heartfelt thanks, see 1:16-18, 4:11) , before concluding with this famous passage (4:6-7): “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith ….”
The two letters are each short, and would fit into the space allotted now for a newspaper opinion piece of modest length: II Timothy is a little more than 1200 words, and II Peter is just under 1100 words.
Samuel Johnson observed, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Just such an imminent and literal execution confronted Paul and Peter, so what did each decide was important enough to pass along to their successors in these two short letters?
I think it is significant that each author urges following Scripture. Paul refers to “the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” And, he continues, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, that the men of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” Peter, for his part, explicitly commends Paul’s letters, as not only wise but as Scripture. Each man knew that, in the long term, the anchor of the Word of God is essential, because humans can be swayed by fashion and smooth-talk and emotion — indeed, we know that the early church faced frequent divisions over popular heresies and personality contests.
Even more important, though, is the emphasis each author places on the truth, the factualness of Christ. Thus, Paul recognizes that, alas, people will want “to have their ears tickled,” and so will seek out teachers who tell them what they want to hear, and so “will turn away from the truth, and will turn aside to myths” (4:3-4). See also 2:15. Likewise, Peter says of Christ that that “we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” at the Transfiguration; this was no “cleverly devised tale” (1:16-18). It is noteworthy that the Christianity’s two greatest early leaders were willing to stake their claims on the reality of just who Jesus was.
Paul and Peter each give a list of virtues and vices for their readers to bear in mind. Each devotes quite a bit of space to this, and there is an extraordinary amount of overlap. One reason — maybe the principal reason — for these lists must be that following them makes you a more effective evangelist, right? That is, whatever their role in saving your soul, they certainly make it more likely that you will be able to serve other people and save their souls. Note similarly that, with respect to vices, both authors are warning their followers not only to avoid them themselves, but also to beware — because of the threat they pose to the community — of other people who do have them.
Virtues: Early on in chapter 1, Paul singles out for praise the faith of his protege Timothy’s grandmother and mother (a fact worth noting, given the frequent claims that Paul was sexist); he urges us to be disciplined and not timid. Paul extols righteousness, faith, peace, and love (cf. I Corinthians 13, where Paul famously concludes with extolling faith, hope, and — especially — love); he urges us to be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, and gentle when correcting those in opposition (chapter 2). In chapter 3, Paul praises faith, patience, and love (again cf. I Corinthians 13, extolling faith, hope, and love). Throughout his book, loyalty and steadfastly are implicitly and explicitly valued.
Likewise, Peter lists diligence, faith, moral excellence, knowledge, self-control, perseverance and patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love.
Vices: Paul lists “wrangl[ing] about words” and worldly and empty chatter, youthful lusts, foolish and ignorant speculations, and being quarrelsome (chapter 2); he criticizes lovers of self, lovers of money, the boastful, the arrogant, revilers, those disobedient to parents, the ungrateful, the unholy, the unloving, the irreconcilable, malicious gossips, those without self-control, the brutal, haters of the good, the treacherous, the reckless, the conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, those opposing the truth, and men of depraved mind (chapter 3).
Peter warns against lust, sensuality, willfulness, imprudence, greed, and arrogance and vanity.
Finally, each has something to say about God’s ultimate judgment. Once more, there is remarkable consistency. Paul warns that, for now, the good will be persecuted (chapter 3), but that finally all who love the Lord’s appearing will wear the crown of righteousness (4:1, 8). Peter in chapter 3, his book’s last chapter, promises that the Lord will come, and punish those who do not repent (cautioning that for Him one day is like a thousand years for us). In chapter 2 he warns in the meantime of liars and false prophets who will mock and exploit (I’ll note that there is here an Old Testament reference to the story of Balaam; Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, makes no overt Old Testament references).
Paul’s last verse is (4:22), “The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you.” And Peter’s is (3:18), “[G]row in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.”
Footnote: I’ll point out as well that both letters wrestle with those perennial theological sticking points: faith and works, and predestination. Thus, there’s a reference in II Peter 1:10 to “calling and election,” but this and the following verse also suggest that our choices determine whether we will be provided entrance “into the eternal kingdom.” And, in II Timothy 1:9, Paul says we are saved and called “not according to our works” — but then, in verses 16-18, he asks that God grant mercy to someone because of his works; compare also 2:12 (“if we deny [Christ Jesus], He also will deny us”) with 4:14 (saying that someone will be punished “according to his deeds”).
In sum, there is a remarkable consistency of themes here: The central importance of the factual identity of Jesus and the necessity of following Scripture; the virtues to be cultivated and the vices to be avoided; and the need to bear in mind always that God will ultimately judge.
And yet the two books are not carbon copies of each other and, while both are God-inspired, each is also clearly human-written. Scripture can reflect human emotion, and can draw on personal perspectives and experiences.
To return to the thought at the beginning of this post, we are blessed indeed to have these parting words of wisdom from two Christian GOATs (greatest of all time).