Prior to the widespread availability of electronic carbon monoxide detectors, coal miners carried canaries with them into the mines. Canaries are far more sensitive than humans to poisonous gases and were employed as early detection systems. If a canary died, it served as a warning of the presence of poisonous gas and miners had opportunity to vacate the mine.
In 2 Peter 2:4–10a, Peter offers examples of proverbial coal mine canaries to drive home an important point: Divine judgement is inevitable. God will punish the ungodly and vindicate the godly. He offers several biblical examples to highlight this dual truth.
First, he references the fallen angels, who were “cast … into hell” and “committed … to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgement.” This is the only place in the New Testament where the Greek word Tartarus (“hell”) is used. In Greek mythology, Tartarus was a region of the underworld lower than Hades, where ferocious monsters and the worst of criminals were imprisoned. Peter uses it to symbolically describe the restraining of fallen angels while they await the final judgement.
Second, he points to the ancient, ungodly world that was destroyed by the flood. God warned the people of destruction to come but, apart from Noah and his family, everybody ignored him until the floodwaters brought death upon the wicked.
Third, he highlights the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which were reduced to ashes as an example of the fate that awaits unrepentant sinners at the day of final judgement.
As he highlights the deathly fate of the godless in these three examples, he also emphasises the gracious deliverance of the godly. Even as he rained judgement upon the ancient, godless world, he graciously delivered Noah and his family. Even as he rained judgement upon Sodom and Gomorrah, he graciously delivered righteous Lot. The judgement of the wicked was a frightening experience for Noah and Lot, but God was gracious to deliver his faithful saints in the midst of judgement.
Peter’s argument is simple: God is faithful. He is faithful in judgement and deliverance. He is faithful to punish the wicked and to save the godly. If Peter’s readers doubted God’s faithfulness to do this, they needed to look to “the prophetic word more fully confirmed” (1:18) and trust God to be who he has revealed himself to be. They readers needed to take at least two things away from this section.
First, they needed to be aware of the dire consequences of embracing false teaching. As we noted in a separate devotion, Peter’s primary concern was the aberrant behaviour that false teaching would invite. If his readers did not reject the false teaching of the heretics among them, they would soon find themselves involved in all sorts of destructive behaviours. They needed to consider the consequences of destructive behaviour. Angels had been cast from God’s presence because of destructive behaviour. The world had drowned because of destructive behaviour. Sinners had been turned to ash because of destructive behaviour. Heresies that denied the authority of Christ would surely lead to destructive behaviour and the proverbial coal mine canaries in the angelic realm, in Noah’s time, and in Sodom and Gomorrah served as warnings of what faced the ungodly.
We must similarly be on guard against false teaching, knowing that an embrace of such teaching inevitably leads to godless living, which inevitably invites God’s judgement.
Second, they needed to be encouraged by God’s ability and faithfulness to deliver the godly. There were many angels who rebelled and were cast out of God’s presence to one day face final judgement. But there are many more angels who remained faithful and to this day enjoy his glorious presence. An entire world was destroyed because of its godlessness but one family trusted and obeyed and God saved them. Cities were reduced to ash because of their rejection of divine authority but the one man who lamented the wickedness around him was spared. Peter’s readers needed to know that, in that day of final judgement, God would not only punish the wicked but would also deliver the righteous. They needed to cling firm to the true gospel and, like Noah and Lot, mournfully resist the evil around them in hope of final vindication.
We must likewise learn to hold this long view. Too often, it appears that the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. We must be encouraged that that will not always be so. God is able—and is, indeed, committed to—deliver his righteous people in the day of judgement.
Fallen angels, a deluged world, and a Sodomite ash heap serve as canaries in a coal mine to those who take seriously God’s word. Let us heed these warning and thereby resist the aberrant teaching that invites godless behaviour.