2 Peter No. 6, “The Place of the Bible in the World”
2 Peter 1:16-21
September 16, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
Peter has so far urged his readers to press on in their Christian faith, to remember its foundations, its promises, and its purposes. Now he turns to remind them of what is most important that they remember: viz. that it is true. It is the very truth of God!
v.16 “Cleverly devised myths” apparently is a jab at the false teachers who were troubling Peter’s readers. They were accusing Peter of resting his teaching on fables. It is not easy to identify their teaching, but it may be, as is suggested by material later in the letter, that they were denying the Second Coming and the resurrection of the body at the end of the age. We know this denial surfaced elsewhere. Paul confronts such teaching in 1 Cor. 15. It was a denial of the redemptive historical arc – from creation to consummation – that is fundamental to the biblical understanding of salvation. A more static spiritualizing system was put in its place built on the importance of mystical knowledge, probably. Everything necessary was present already; there was no need to wait on events yet to come. “The power and coming of our Lord” then refers, as it does everywhere else in the New Testament, to the Second Coming. Parousia, “coming” or “advent” or “presence” in the Greek of the period often referred to the state visit of a king. In the NT generally it refers to the Second Coming of Christ. The phrase “power and coming” is probably best read as a hendiadys, a figure of speech common in the NT, in which two words connected by “and” express a single idea. Think of a familiar hendiadys in our English usage. We speak of a day being “nice and warm.” That means, of course, nicely warm, as this phrase would mean his “powerful coming.”
The NT makes a great deal of eyewitness testimony. A recent study by the British scholar, Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, now published in a second, enlarged edition, rarely done except in the case of noteworthy books, demonstrates in great detail how firmly the NT message rests on the testimony of eyewitnesses. Peter seems to be making the point that he was an eyewitness of the Lord’s glory as the false teachers were not. He could speak with an authority they did not have. He knew what they did not! Remember what Peter said to the Sanhedrin when he was arrested shortly after Pentecost: “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard!”
v.18 Peter is here referring, of course, to the Transfiguration, the display of the divine glory of Jesus of Nazareth – it happened but once in the three year ministry – on the top of a mountain in Galilee about a year before his crucifixion and resurrection. On that occasion, you remember, the Father spoke from heaven saying, “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” The “Majestic Glory,” capitalized in the ESV, is a typical Hebrew and Jewish periphrasis for God, a way of referring to God without using his name. God spoke on that mountain that night and Peter heard his voice! The event is narrated in all three synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Only Peter, James, and John were eyewitnesses of that event. It was an experience that left an impression! His point is clear: he was there; he saw the Lord; he heard God speak. These false teachers could make no such claims. Peter likely chose to refer to the Transfiguration because it was the most “supernatural” moment in Jesus’ public life and, being so, it was an anticipation of his glorious return to earth. The false teachers denied the Second Coming but for Peter that glimpse of the divine glory on the mountain was, as Jesus had taught him, an anticipation of a far greater sight of that divine glory when Christ returns. The Transfiguration was temporary, the glory of Christ upon his Second Coming will be the permanent experience of the saints.
v.19 The “prophetic word” is always in the NT a reference to what we call the OT, or Holy Scripture. Peter’s point, put more directly, might be, “If you don’t believe me, go to the Scriptures.” [Green, 98] The transfiguration underlined the teaching of the ancient prophets who foretold the comings of the Lord. The day that dawns and brings the morning star to our hearts is, once again, the Second Coming. Such knowledge dawns “in our hearts,” when Christ comes again because the shadows dissipate as everything finally becomes clear and we become like the Lord because we will see him as he is. The thought seems to be similar to Paul in 1 Cor. 13:8-9: “As for prophesies, they will pass away…as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” In any case, meantime, before the return of the Lord, the Word of God is our only source of light in this dark world.
v.20 I don’t want to spend much time on this, but you should be made aware that there are two very different interpretations of this statement. Some, following the wording of the KJV, take Peter to mean that he is not talking about the Scripture itself, but one’s interpretation of it. That is, no individual is allowed to interpret the Bible for himself. He must hew to the church’s authoritative interpretation. In other words, this is a prohibition of private judgment. Roman Catholics accordingly make much of this verse. Only the church can authoritatively interpret the Bible. The meaning of v. 20, however, is almost certainly that the Scripture itself does not originate in a prophet’s own thinking. This is the point of the statement that follows in v. 21 as the initial word “for” indicates. The prophet did not create the message in his own head. He got it from God. Fact is, the prophets got both their visions or dreams or other forms of divine communication and the interpretation of those visions or dreams from the Lord. And, of course, as you know from the reading of the Bible this was their own claim. They didn’t say, “Now, this is my opinion,” or “This is what I think,” but “The word of the Lord came to me,” or “Thus says the Lord.”
v.21 It was characteristic of the false prophets of the OT, as it was of the false teachers in the New, that they made up their message. God hadn’t given it to them; they invented it themselves. One proof of that, of course, is always this: that there is something about the message that takes its origin in the culture round about. You don’t ordinarily expect that God will think like all the people in the world around us at any particular time. But false teaching is invariably culturally situated. It is, as Abraham Kuyper once observed, the deflection of the truth in the atmosphere of the culture at any particular time. As Jeremiah put it, “they speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord.” [23:16] The prophets of the Lord, however, relayed messages that they had received from God himself. Expressions such as “the Lord said” or “the Word of the Lord came to so and so” or “Thus says the Lord” are found more than 3,800 times in the OT alone. Peter’s point is that what the prophets tell us, what they wrote down in Holy Scripture, is what the Lord himself wanted to say to us and to the world.
You will notice that Peter is placing himself and the other apostles on the same level as the ancient prophets. God spoke directly to Peter as he had to them; he heard the divine voice as had they. He had seen the divine glory as Moses had and as Isaiah had. It was precisely these direct communications that gave to the apostles the same authority and so gives to the last 27 books of the Bible the same authority as the first 39. Peter will make this point explicitly in chapter 3 when he refers to the writings of Paul as “Scripture.”
We are given no detail here, of course. Nothing about precisely how the human and the divine worked together to produce Holy Scripture. The point is that Scripture is the Word of God. No doubt the false teachers were casting doubt on the authority of the OT prophet’s teaching as they were the authority of the teaching of the apostles. So far the Word of God.
A young Winston Churchill once wrote:
“One of these days, perhaps, the cold bright light of science and reason will shine through the cathedral windows and we shall go out into the fields and seek God for ourselves. The great laws of nature will be understood – our destiny and our past will be clear. We shall then be able to dispense with the religious toys that have agreeably fostered the development of mankind. Until then, anyone who deprives us of our illusions – our pleasant, hopeful illusions – is a wicked man and should (I quote my Plato) ‘be refused a chorus.’” [Cited in Lucas, 73]
A great many have thought the same throughout the ages and still more do today. Christianity is a religion, like other religions, perhaps useful in its way – giving people a reason to live and a moral code to live by – but an illusion nonetheless. In our day of ascendant individualism and of the subjectivity of truth – each individual free to determine truth for himself or herself – the divine authority of the Bible is under sustained attack. But the fact is, it has always been so. There is hardly an objection leveled against the Bible in our time that wasn’t leveled against it in the early centuries of the gospel’s advance throughout the world.
In distinction from Churchill’s patronizing of the Bible as comforting illusions, Christianity is hardly a message of comforting illusions. It is sharp-edged truth that most human beings have never wanted to believe or accept. The Bible requires the death of human pride, never a popular project; it requires obedience to stringent standards of behavior, even less popular; and it has as many warnings as it has promises; all of which explains why the Christian message has never won as many friends or influenced as many people as religions and philosophies softer on human pride, less exacting as to the limits of acceptable behavior, and more generous with comforting platitudes.
But Churchill’s dismissive account of the Christian faith poses the same question that false teaching leaking into the church in Peter’s day posed and all manner of counter-messages pose in our time. Who says that what we Christians believe is in fact the truth, not just for us but for everyone? Who says that the history of salvation unfolded as we believe it did and that Christ is coming again to bring judgment to the wicked and salvation to those who are waiting for him? How do we know that our account of reality is in fact the truth? Who has the authority to tell us what we must believe and how we must live? And how can we recognize that authority amidst the welter of competing claims we encounter in this world? After all, there are a lot of very intelligent Christians, but there are at the same time a lot of very intelligent unbelievers.
Let’s bring these questions home to ourselves. The fact is we study the Bible in depth and reverently here Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day. We examine its teaching in detail and apply it to our lives because we believe it to be truth with a capital “T,” the truth that sets men free. But we do not very often stop to consider why we are so sure that the Bible is the Word of God. Only from time to time does a Christian pause to remember why it is that he or she believes that the Bible speaks to us with all the authority of Almighty God himself. The false teachers Peter was concerned about dispensed with key biblical teaching and fashioned a religion much easier on the conscience and requiring much less in the way of self-denial. How did Peter know; how do we know that they were wrong? And how do we know that the prophets and Peter were right?
Extraordinary events verified the teaching of the ancient prophets – whether in their own time; think of Moses at the burning bush or orchestrating the 12 plagues or his conversations with God in the tabernacle and his face shining with divine glory afterward; think of Elijah’s miracles, or Isaiah’s vision of the Lord, or the shadow going backward on the stairs – and in the same way the incarnation, the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus, his miracles, his Transfiguration, and supremely his resurrection from the dead all vindicated the teaching of Jesus as the authoritative revelation of the truth of God and man. Peter said in his Pentecost sermon that Jesus was a man accredited by God by the tremendous things he did. All of this placed the divine the authority of the Scriptures beyond question for those who were witnesses of those mighty events. And then the miracles the apostles performed accredited them as God’s spokesmen, for no one else could do what they did. And, of course, all of this stupendous history is recorded for us in Holy Scripture. But we were not there. We did not witness those events. We never heard God speaking from heaven. We never saw Jesus with the divine glory radiating from his body. For Peter the authority of God and the authority of Scripture were of a piece: he’d seen and heard God speak! He recognized the same voice in the one as the other. It was less faith for him and more sight. But for us it is different. We didn’t see what Peter saw or hear what he heard. What we have is the Word of God; only the prophetic word!
So how do we know that the Bible is the Word of God and is, therefore, true in what it teaches us about God and man, about sin and salvation, about the past and the future?
I think it is pretty obvious that no one comes to believe in the divine authority of the Bible by studying the question, by examining the evidence for the Bible’s reliability and its superiority to other sources of information about the fundamental issues of human life, comparing the Bible to other holy books and other philosophers and their writings and so on. I doubt there has ever been a person who first came to believe that the Bible is the Word of God without knowing what the Bible actually said! Take the famous statement in the first chapter of our Westminster Confession of Faith enumerating the various evidences for the divine origin of the Bible:
“We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverend esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God…”
Actually, the phrase “many other incomparable excellencies” covers a great deal of ground. There are many more things that can be said in proof of the utterly extraordinary and unique nature of the Bible. Compare it to any other religion’s holy book and you will be immediately impressed by the differences, by the historical seriousness of the Bible, by the psychological and spiritual insight, by the elevation of its prose and the power of its poetry, and by the extreme difficulties faced by anyone who is determined to believe that the authors of these books were not intending with all seriousness and in all honesty to tell us what they had discovered to be the truth about God and man, about the world, its past, present and future. The history of the Bible is so utterly unlike the stories you find in the other religious epics. Have you ever read the epic of Gilgamesh or one of the Babylonian creation accounts? Be sure to do that. And then read Genesis 1:1-2:3. No book together with its teaching has been so carefully examined by believer and unbeliever alike and has so successfully withstood that examination.
Isn’t it extraordinary how the Bible leads with its chin? It makes one historical claim after another. It situates its history in the history of this world during a time when the history of that world was being written down and recorded in various places in various ways. Yet, still today, there is no particular historical statement of the Bible that has been proved to be false, to be untrue, to be incorrect. There are certainly people who say that this claim or that is untrue or incorrect, but when they make that claim there will be others – both believers and unbelievers alike – who will rush to the Bible’s defense and say the evidence is otherwise. Indeed, unlike the Koran, which forbids critical examination, the Bible invites it. Compare its historical record with the records of the same history provided in other sources and the Bible maintains its credibility in startling ways. Compare its teaching to what any person can see is the nature of human life in the world; compare its teaching about God and Jesus Christ, carefully situated in human history as it is, with the teaching of any other religion or philosophy. My goodness; we don’t want people to burn the Koran; we want them to read it, and then read the Bible. The nature of the Bible simply stands apart from and utterly above all other religious literature in its authority as an account of history, the life of human beings, theology, and ethics. Written so long ago, it describes ourselves as we know ourselves to be today – no other religious book does that – the world as we encounter it every day is described in this book – the life of human beings as we know that life to unfold, and God and salvation as they must be, if only we will be honest with ourselves, or at least reckon with it as a tremendously powerful and likely way of God dealing with the human problem and predicament. This is certainly part of the reason why the Bible has exerted such an unprecedented influence not only upon untold numbers of human beings, but upon the world as a whole, why it has elevated the life of humanity everywhere it has been read and taken seriously. There is nothing like it, nothing remotely like it, anywhere else. It commands respect as no other written explanation of life does or can do.
We invite the most careful investigation of the Bible and its claims. But, it is perfectly obvious that such an examination is not how a person comes to believe that the Bible is the Word of God! He or she does not sit down to master the Bible’s content, compare it with the holy books of other religions and the various philosophies of life developed by human thinkers, test its various claims – historical and theological – and then conclude that since it fares better than any other source of knowledge it must be the Word of God. No one does that. True enough, there are people who have come to the Bible intending to disprove it in some particular only to be convinced that it is telling the truth. That has happened on a number of occasions to people investigation the biblical record of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. But still, the Bible itself teaches that real conviction of the authority of the Bible comes about in a different way. The fact is, a great many people have read the Bible and still don’t believe that it commands their assent. I read a lot of these people. They know what the Bible says. They even know what Christians say about the Bible. But they aren’t persuaded. Others are. What makes the difference?
Well let’s go back to Peter and the prophets. How did they recognize the word of God? Moses had the burning bush and God spoke to him face to face, whatever that means precisely since God doesn’t have a face – though if your face were shining with radiant glory after one of those interviews, it would certainly confirm that you had been with God – but most of the prophets didn’t enjoy such demonstrations. In ways that are not usually described or explained “the word of the Lord came to them.” How did they know that it was the word of the Lord? Take Abraham as an example. How did Abraham know that it was God who was speaking to him? After all, that was a strange instruction to receive: to pick up, sell your house, take what you will with you and move to a country far away and live there in a tent. Before someone pulled up stakes, sold out of his wealthy holdings in his homeland, and took up the life of a nomad, living in tents, one would want to be sure that it was actually God who had told him to do it!
Well in his case, as in ours, and, for that matter, in Peter’s, it was never a case of submitting a statement or a claim to examination or various tests. For example, consulting several works of ancient history to determine if Nebuchadnezzar was actually the Babylonian emperor in the days of Daniel – he was as a matter of fact – or whether the description of Abraham’s life conforms to what archaeology teaches us about life in the ancient near east in the early second millennium B.C. – it does as a matter of fact – or whether the Bible’s view of God is coherent and persuasive when put to the test of philosophical examination – it is, as it happens. It was very much more personal than that. God spoke to Abraham. And since it was God Abraham knew it was God who was speaking to him. As someone has said, when you are in the jungle at night and hear a hyena growl, you might mistake it for a lion. But when you hear a lion, you know damn well it is a lion!
When people read the Bible they have one or two distinct experiences. In the one case it is very much like reading any other book. It may impress them in some way or not. It may interest them or bore them. They may agree with what is being said or disagree. That is one reaction. The other is very different. We find ourselves being addressed by our Heavenly Father. It is a word to us; it’s speaking of our own lives and of our own human situation; it is saying things that we know are not only true but are immensely important, meaningful to us. We find ourselves actually being addressed when we read Holy Scripture. We encounter the Bible as a personal word. Not in the sense that we can hear a voice or even that what we read is always interesting to us. After all, as I have learned in my life as a parent, children aren’t always interested in what their Father says to them, even if they should be, even when what he is saying is, in fact, very important. Still, we know that it is our Father who is speaking, because the way in which the word addresses us and because we understand ourselves to be addressed by it. Let’s take Abraham again, since he is the primary example of Christian faith in the New Testament. [Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 297] There was no Bible in Abraham’s day. He wasn’t reading words on a page. But the Lord communicated his will to him in some way. He spoke to Abraham in some fashion. And Abraham knew it was God who was speaking to him. It was, as the Bible makes clear, a personal interaction. And so it was for Peter. Much of what he witnessed in the time he was with Jesus confused him. It astonished him and thrilled him, but he hardly understood what he was seeing and hearing. The Gospels are candid about the confusion and misunderstanding of the disciples throughout the Lord’s ministry.
But it was all personal. It was all coming to them as a word being spoken to them. They realized it was being addressed to them and was a word of fundamental importance about their own lives, their own relationship to God, their own salvation. Jesus spoke to Peter and he spoke to Jesus. Peter was there; he saw it and heard it. Gradually he came to understand more and more. The resurrection unlocked many of the puzzles that had baffled him up to that point. After that we don’t know much about how the Lord communicated to Peter the material that became his two letters. Surely he thought them out, probably edited and reedited his manuscript until he was ready to send them to the Christians in Asia Minor. Much of what he wrote was founded on his own personal experience of Jesus and the instruction he received from him, including those times together during the 40 days that separated the Lord’s resurrection from his ascension to heaven. Luke tells us that in that period the Lord educated his disciples in the Scriptures, taught them how to understand what they read, and, in particular, precisely how the Scriptures prophesied the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. He also explained the task he was giving them to perform. No doubt the Lord was still teaching Peter to the end of his life and ministry. How he was carried along by the Holy Spirit in the writing of his two letters we are never told; just that this is what happened.
A great deal of this understanding that the Bible is a word that is addressing us, it’s coming to us from someone else – God himself, that it is true, is a conviction produced by the Holy Spirit. knowledge of the Bible’s divine authority, the Bible teaches us in a variety of ways, is produced by the work of the Holy Spirit. He opens our hearts or illuminates them or convinces them that what they are reading or hearing from the Bible is the Word of God.
“The unbelieving world, the academic establishment, and our own rebellious inclinations pose a thousand reasons why we should not accept Scripture” as the truth of God. [Frame, 300]
But the fact is people every day, all over the world, become convinced – sometimes virtually against their will, sometimes out of the blue, having awakened that morning never imagining that they would know or care about the Bible as the Word of God. Nevertheless, all over the world, people are being convinced – that the Bible is nothing less than the Word of God and so its teaching must be believed, and its commandments must be obeyed. There is no formula to explain this, but it is a fact of human life. Indeed, the number of people who are so convinced about the Bible is increasing every day. But, of course, it wasn’t the Bible that they became convinced about first. They didn’t first come to believe that the Bible was the Word of God and then opened it to see what its message might be. It was the gospel, it was the news that Christ is the savior of sinners, that he or she was a sinner needing salvation and that salvation can’t be found in anyone else or anywhere else than in the cross and the resurrection of the Son of God. Their confidence in Christ as their savior was then transferred to the book in which that message is found and that salvation is explained. Our confidence in the message of the Bible and the Bible itself is of a piece, but we believe the message before we believe the book in which it is found. But why do we believe the message, the gospel?
The reason we believe the gospel in the final analysis is the same reason Peter believed Jesus to be the Messiah. After all, other people witnessed Jesus’ miracles and didn’t believe him to be sent from heaven. Think of the Pharisees who were incensed by the miracle-working of the Lord. It was his miracles that convinced them that they needed to kill him. The Holy Spirit was at work in Peter in and through what he heard and saw. Paul makes a point of this in 1 Corinthians 2 when, in a famous and very important passage, he writes both that “these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit,” [v. 10] and
“Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. … The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
Multitudes of human beings hold the Word of God in their hands, they read it and they never understand its message as being addressed to them. As the great Irenaeus wrote in the 2nd century:
“The Lord taught us that no one is able to know God unless taught by God. God cannot be known without the help of God.” [Adv. Haer, 4.6.4]
There is nothing terribly surprising about this. The Bible introduces us to a God who loves his people and who intervenes in their lives to bring them to himself. It is hardly surprising then that we should find the matter of faith itself, our confidence in message of the Word of God is first and foremost the result of God’s personal involvement in our lives. Everything else in salvation is personal in this way, why would the foundation of it all, faith itself, confidence that God has spoken the truth to us, not be personal in the same way, a matter of God making himself known to us.
And that is, in fact, what we find in the Bible – whether we are thinking of the prophets and apostles or the ordinary believer who never witnessed a miracle or heard the voice of God – and what we find in church history. It is the recognition of God’s voice in God’s Word, it is the recognition of God himself in and through his Word that is the cause of our conviction that the Bible is nothing less than the Word of God himself. I’m happy to say that investigation has always shown and will always show that the facts are on the Bible’s side, but that is not how we know that the Bible is the Word of God.
I’ve told some of you before one of my favorite illustrations of this reality, a story particularly interesting to a preacher. William Haslam was the Anglican minister of a parish in Cornwall in the middle of the 19th century. He was a Christian minister, but he wasn’t a true believer in Jesus, a situation quite common in the Anglican ministry in those years. He had come under the conviction of sin and had been talking with a fellow minister who was a real believer who had urged him to confess his sins and put his faith in Jesus, but to no obvious result.
Then one Sunday he was in his pulpit preaching, as all the Anglican preachers were that morning on the lectionary text that was appointed for the sermon in all the churches of England. It was from Matthew 16: “Who do men say that I am?” He was explaining why people gave the various answers they did: some said he was John the Baptist back from the dead; others that he was Elijah back from the dead, others that he was some other prophet back from the dead. But as he spoke he realized that, like those people long ago, he didn’t really believe himself that Jesus was the Christ. This is what happened in his own words.
“Something was telling me, all the time, ‘You are no better than the Pharisees. You do not believe He has come to save you any more than they did.’ I do not remember all I said, but I felt a wonderful light and joy coming into my soul, and I was beginning to see what the Pharisees did not. Whether it was in my words, or my manner, or my look, I know not; but all of a sudden, a local preacher, who happened to be in the congregation, stood up, and putting up his arms, shouted out in Cornish fashion, “The parson is converted! The parson is converted! Hallelujah!”
For the rest of his life Haslam was known as the parson who was converted by his own sermon. His conversion sparked a revival in Cornwall that led to many other conversions in the weeks and months that followed. Now what happened? What happened is what happens thousands of times every single day in people’s lives all over the world. God spoke to the man. The Holy Spirit opened his heart, of a sudden, to believe what the Bible was telling him. He realized that he was being addressed by God himself. He suddenly knew it was all true, wonderfully true. He had lived his life, he had studied the Bible indeed, as a professional student of the Bible, but had never heard God’s voice speaking in it. Suddenly he did. He saw the Lord Christ as the Savior of sinners, a sight he had never seen before. He became a Christian for the same reason Peter was a Christian, who was actually there when Jesus had asked his disciples the question: “Who do men say that I am?” The Lord opened his heart to believe what was being said to him. How do we know that the Bible is the Word of God? God tells us that it is!