2 Peter No. 14, “The New Testament Added to the Old”
2 Peter 3:11-18
January 6, 2019
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
We’ve been away from 2 Peter for a month and have but the final paragraph before us. Let me remind you that Peter’s subject in this final chapter – remember, of course, Peter didn’t divide his letter into chapters; that was done a thousand years later by someone else – has been the Second Coming of Christ and, in particular, the years that had passed since Christ left the world promising to return. And if that were a problem in the 60s of the first century, just some 30 years after the Ascension, how much more is it a problem for us now these 2,000 years later. Peter addressed that problem and his readers’ concerns by reminding them that time is not measured in heaven as it is on earth and by teaching them that the reason for the delay is precisely God’s desire to see the unbelieving brought to faith in Christ and the lost saved. Assuring them that, though we do not and cannot know when it will occur, Christ’s return is nevertheless a certainty, he urged them to live in the light of his coming and the judgment that will accompany it.
This final paragraph is interesting and important for several reasons and so I plan to take two Lord’s Day evenings to consider it. This evening I want to pay attention to two fascinating remarks that Peter makes, as it were by the way. Then next time I want to consider the drift of his exhortation as a whole. Tonight, I’ll comment only on vv. 14-16.
v.14 Peter’s point, made often in the Bible and in many different ways, is that heaven is for the righteous, therefore every Christian ought to strive to be righteous, strive to be found righteous either when by death we go to Christ or when Christ comes to find us. The thought is like that in Hebrews 9 where we are told that, having come the first time to atone for our sins, Christ will come a second time to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. Another way of describing a person as righteous is to say that he or she is waiting for the Lord! He’s anticipating the Lord’s coming. He’s preparing for it. Hope and godliness are two sides of the same coin. It was precisely the loss of hope in the Second Coming that had led to the worldliness of the false teachers whose teaching Peter was combating in this letter. Here is the question every Christian should be putting to himself or herself regularly: how will he find me? And the best possible answer we could give is: he will find me working hard to become as much like himself as possible. The same pair in v 14 – without blemish or spot – is found in 1:19 of Christ himself! [Lucas, 149] This is a key ingredient in the Bible’s doctrine of the Christian life. As John puts it in his First Letter (3:3), everyone who has this hope of heaven and the future life purifies himself. [Green, 155-6] The anticipation of the Second Coming, even of the Last Judgment, should not induce anxiety in Christians. The more they take that hope seriously, the more assiduously and carefully and earnestly they are preparing for that day, the more they are waiting for him, the more assured they are that the day will be the grandest of their lives!
v.15 The thought here is the same as in v. 9. The Parousia or appearance of the Lord will not come until Christ has given every opportunity to the world to repent and until the last of God’s elect has been brought to salvation. It is hard to reproach the Lord for not having returned when we ourselves are the beneficiaries of that delay! This is certainly a call to arms for every Christian and the church as a whole. Our business is the salvation of the world and that will remain our business until the end!
Now the reference to Paul’s similar teaching poses the question: where does Paul say that we should count the patience of our Lord as salvation? The most likely reference is to Romans 2:4. There, in the midst of his argument that all are sinners needing salvation, the apostle writes:
“Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”
Interestingly, if Peter can assume that these believers know Paul’s Letter to the Romans, it is some evidence that the apostolic writings were circulating among the churches very early on and thus the New Testament was taking form almost from the time its various books were written. On the other hand, Peter may be referring not to any particular statement of the apostle Paul, but rather to his constant emphasis on the need to put on Christ in light of his eventual coming again and the reckoning that will follow. All of his letters teach us to live in the light of Christ’s return, so Peter may simply be summarizing Paul’s teaching. In any case, the fact remains that these believers are obviously familiar with Paul’s writings even though not a one of the thirteen letters that Paul wrote and are part of the New Testament was addressed specifically to any of the churches to which Peter is writing this letter. Now that might mean Paul would take the letter he had written to the church in Rome and send copies of it far and wide – a very distinct possibility. Indeed, Peter says that Paul had written to them, whether that means that they had received from Paul’s own hand certain of his letters or merely that, as Christians, all Paul’s letters were for them as they were for all Christians. Obviously, if they weren’t familiar with Paul’s writings and if they didn’t regard them as the writings of an apostle of Jesus Christ, there would have been no point in Peter’s reference to them. In any case, though they seem to have been rarely in the same place after Paul began his writing career, Peter himself obviously was well acquainted with Paul’s letters and with the reception they had received, both good and bad.
One final observation. Peter refers to Paul as our beloved brother. The wording suggests that Peter regards Paul as standing on the same level as himself. A generation later, Polycarp, one of the most prestigious of the post-apostolic bishops, refers to Paul as “the blessed and glorious Paul,” a man on a much higher level. A human touch, I think, reflecting the difference between the apostolic age and the one that followed it, a time when the apostles were personal acquaintances and a time when they had become the heroes of the past. [Green, 159]
Tonight, I want to devote our attention to two fascinating remarks of Peter in these final verses of his letter. Indeed, it is these two remarks, not the gist of his argument, to which most attention has been paid throughout the ages. The first is his reference to Paul’s writings as “scripture’ and the second is his admission that there are things in Paul’s letters difficult to understand.
As you remember, Paul on one occasion, when both men were together in Antioch, early on in the spread of the gospel into the Gentile world and long before the writing of 2 Peter, had publicly rebuked Peter for kowtowing to pressure from the Judaizing element and withdrawing from table fellowship with Gentile believers. In New Testament scholarship over the past 170 years or so, far too much has been made of that incident, as if it would have been unthinkable for the two men to like or respect one another ever again, as if the rift between them was so deep that it must have left its mark on apostolic Christianity, as if from that point onward there were a Peter party and a Paul party in first century Christianity. Scholars who have thought such things, in my view, were men who were strangers both to the living witness of the New Testament itself and to the power of the gospel. They also slandered Peter’s good name. In any case, this was a principal reason many New Testament scholars regarded and still regard 2 Peter as a pseudograph, a forgery written under Peter’s name, as if Peter had written it, but actually decades later written by somebody else. In their mind, Peter wouldn’t have said here what he said about Paul’s writings. He would never have paid such a compliment to Paul’s letters, putting them on the level of the Bible. Of course, the counter-argument is still stronger. No 2nd century forger writing under Peter’s name would ever have made Peter sound as if he found Paul’s writings difficult to understand!
Remember, it was Peter who first introduced to the church the principle of gospel freedom: that Gentile believers as Gentiles were to be warmly welcomed in the church. It was Peter who first ate with Gentiles in their homes, something the Judaizers – Jewish Christians of the stricter sort who wanted Jewish practices and customs to be observed even in the Gentile church – would never have done. It was Peter to whom the Lord had given the vision of the sheet being let down from heaven with all manner of unclean foods in it and Peter who was told to take and eat. It is in Mark’s Gospel, which is to say Peter’s Gospel, that we read that the Lord Jesus himself declared all foods clean, again a repudiation of the Judaizer’s position. In other words, it was Peter whom God called to teach the church that Gentiles did not need to become Jews to become Christians and that Jewish Christians were to welcome Gentiles as brothers without requiring them to conform to Jewish practices. It would have been genuinely shocking, in view of all that, if Peter would not have immediately recognized his sin, confessed it, repented of it, and renewed his table fellowship with the Gentile believers in Antioch. No doubt that is precisely what he did! That Paul in Galatians 2 says nothing about a continuing controversy on that point between Peter and himself confirms that conclusion. Peter had stumbled once before through cowardice and repented furiously. Surely, he did the same on this occasion. After all, First and Second Peter are both addressed to a readership that must have been overwhelmingly Gentile. There is not a whiff in either letter of the idea that Peter favors the idea that there are two communities of Christians pursuing the Christian life in distinctly different ways or that Gentile believers need to practice Jewish customs such as the Saturday Sabbath, circumcision, or the distinction between clean and unclean foods.
We also know that in the early years of Paul’s apostleship, he had met Peter, that the two men were of one mind regarding the work God had given each of them to do, that each respected and valued the other’s ministry, and that Peter welcomed Paul as another of the Lord’s apostles – an astonishing thing for the leader of the apostolic band to acknowledge – even though Paul had not shared the experience of the others accompanying the Lord during his ministry and was not present to witness his miracles or hear his teaching. That in itself says something about Peter’s view of Paul. Peter knew that Paul had been a persecutor of the church and so he knew very well what a mighty work God had performed in the heart of that man! At different times in the history of their ministries the men had shared both Silas and Mark as an aide. Paul refers to Peter’s example as an itinerant minister in 1 Cor. 9. There is literally nothing to suggest that the incident in Antioch turned into life-long jealousy or personal antagonism. Indeed, knowing the two men as we are given to know them in the New Testament, that idea is frankly preposterous. Paul knew how to mend fences as his reconciliation with John Mark powerfully demonstrates. But it is highly doubtful there were any fences to mend!
The fact that Peter refers to Paul’s letters as a way of confirming that what he is saying to his readers is what the apostles as a group have always taught, is itself only what we would expect. Paul wrote more of the New Testament than anyone else, certainly more than Peter. His work was widely familiar. It was entirely natural, I would say inevitable, for Peter to draw attention to the fact that he was exhorting them in the same way as had the apostle Paul.
But, what really gets the liberal scholars exercised about Peter’s reference to Paul here is that he refers to Paul’s writings as the Scriptures, which is to say, as the Bible. According to their theories this was not supposed be anyone’s idea about Paul’s writings until later in the 2nd century. But, again, there is precious little to say in favor of that conclusion and much to say against it. Certainly we don’t find anyone saying in the 2nd century, “Guess what, we’ve just figured out that Paul’s letters belong to the Bible in just the same way as do the writings of the ancient prophets.”
It was Paul himself who wrote that the church was built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. To put himself in Ephesians 2:20 on the same level as the prophets is evidence enough that these men fully understood the role they were playing both in the history of salvation and in the creation of the Word of God. After all, the prophets also had known what God had called them to do and that they were transmitting for all time the very Word of God. So did the apostles. They knew that their office was unique, that no one had held such an office for centuries. But, then, they also knew that Jesus Christ having come, having died, having risen again, having ascended to heaven, having made the promise of his eventual return, this history and its interpretation would be written down and preserved for the life of the world and the life of the church; just as the previous great events in salvation history had been. They knew that, indeed Paul said that they were living in the day when the end of the ages had come upon them. It did not surprise them when they realized that the Bible was not yet complete. Of course, it was not yet complete. It didn’t recount, it didn’t describe, it didn’t relate the most important things that had ever happened in the history of salvation and the fulfillment of all of the prophecies that had been made in the ancient Scriptures. The Bible did not yet contain either the account of Christ’s birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection or the authoritative interpretation of those events. No one can read the first 39 books of the Bible and suppose that it was unlikely that the last 27 would be added to them. In fact, as we saw, Peter, in 1:20, claims this prophetic authority for himself concerning what he had written about the Lord Jesus. He made a point of saying that what he had told them was not produced by the will of man, but by men speaking from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. The prophets would have said the same thing! It was exactly what the prophets thought about their own work.
Fair enough, we admit that we do not know precisely how they knew that what they wrote was the Word of God, when obviously every thought and word that they ever committed to paper was not the Word of God. How did they distinguish between that which was and that which was not? We do not know. We know, for example, that Paul wrote other letters that were not incorporated in Holy Scripture. We don’t know precisely how it was that only some of what Isaiah or Jeremiah preached was written down and included in Holy Scripture. All we have in the books they wrote are brief precis, summaries of the sermons of those great men. We only know that every Jew knew that both prophets had added their voices to Holy Scripture. In the same way the early Christians knew that the writings of Paul and later of Peter were the Word of God. So far as the evidence goes they knew that as soon as they received the writings. About a few of the books of the New Testament there was some uncertainty for a time, true enough. But concerning most of the New Testament there was never any concern: about the four Gospels and Acts, about the letters of Paul, and Hebrews, James, and so on. Listen to how Paul begins Romans:
“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the Gospel of God…through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations…”
No one doubts that Paul wrote Romans; hardly anyone doubts that we know at least within a few months when the letter was written. Does that sound like a man who thought his letters were just records of his personal opinions? Or how about this at the beginning of Galatians?
“Paul, an apostle – not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead…”
There is a man who is Isaiah or Jeremiah alive again with truth from God to transmit to man! Peter, in chapter 1, put himself on the same level as the OT prophets. It is hardly surprising then that he put Paul on that same level.
We have here, then, a very early demonstration of the fact that before the death of Peter the writings that make up the New Testament – remember, Paul’s writings make up a sizeable portion of the NT – are nothing less than Holy Scripture. And so the church believed from the beginning. We have the evidence of that from the earliest writings after the New Testament. They are referred to as the Scripture. That is a very important conclusion only because it has so often been denied. Not, however, on the basis of any literary or archival evidence. But of that Holy Scripture that Paul wrote, Peter goes on to say that there are passages that are hard to understand, which has made it easier for people with an agenda to misuse. That’s Peter’s point.
Now, neither you nor I find that statement controversial. We’ve often ourselves found Paul difficult to understand and some of the principal divisions between Christians still today result from differing interpretations of Paul’s teaching. If Paul were always easy to understand, we would all be of the same mind, since Paul’s writings are sufficiently thorough in their exposition of the Christian faith that virtually no major Christian doctrine is not addressed in the letters.
What do you suppose Peter was thinking about in particular when he referred to those “some things that are hard to understand”? I can think of any number of subjects that Paul treats in ways that have led to misunderstanding through the ages and, we know, had already done so as soon as people began to read his letters. Some of the misunderstanding, to be sure, was willful. Unscrupulous people didn’t want to believe what he was teaching them and twisted his words to avoid their obvious implications. Such, for example, was his teaching on justification by faith alone. He was accused by those who wished to retain a place for their own accomplishment in their salvation of saying that if we were put right into a right relationship with God solely by the work of Jesus Christ received by faith, we could live however we pleased, as sinfully as we wanted. He was accused of teaching that we could do evil and, in that way, increase the glory of Christ because he would be covering still greater and greater amounts of sin. He was accused of teaching, in that way, that we should do evil that good may come. They would hurl back at him statements such as “Everything is permissible to me,” taking it out of context and willfully misinterpreting it. Paul could not fairly be said ever to have said anything like what he was being accused of saying, anything that suggested that he didn’t care how Christians lived their lives. But it has always been a human penchant to put the worst construction on the words of people with whom we disagree. And there were plenty of folk who were putting the worst possible construction on the teaching of Paul. The false teachers no doubt were masters of such misrepresentation. I’ve actually had people do the same thing with things I’ve said: accused me of teaching doctrines that I never taught, never thought to teach, never imagined that anyone would think me to teach. I know how frustrating and irritating that misrepresentation can be. Paul lived with such misrepresentation all the time.
But other of Paul’s teaching was found difficult not because his readers were determined to undermine Paul’s doctrine but because certain of his teachings are, in the nature of the case, difficult for us to grasp or because Paul’s intellect being what it was, he put his teaching in language and in argument inherently difficult for at least some folk to grasp. Why do we typically urge people who are investigating Christianity to read first the Gospel of John and not the Epistle to the Romans? Why does almost no one start with Paul? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, Paul was a lot smarter than John! Paul’s Greek is much more sophisticated than John’s and his prose style more dense. Every seminarian learning Greek loves John more than Paul because John is so much easier to read. As a result of Paul’s intellectual and literary power, he is more difficult to understand.
There is nothing particularly surprising about that. Some of the most powerful and influential minds in the history of mankind – from Plato and Aristotle to Immanuel Kant – ordinary folk found almost impossible to understand. Profound depth of thought and simplicity of expression are almost never found in the same person. The Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, as a young philosopher, said that unless his philosophy could be understood by a simple shoemaker he was wasting his time. I’d like the to meet the shoemaker who can make head or tails of Dooyeweerd’s three-volume A New Critique of Theoretical Thought! Dense thought expressed in denser prose.
Paul is not opaque, of course. He was writing letters after all. His original readers, by and large, got his message. But, as Peter tells us here, even they scratched their heads from time to time. But it is also true that Christianity in the nature of the case confronts us with deep mysteries that cause the head to spin: whether the humanity and deity of Christ’s one person or the sovereignty of God and the freedom and accountability of man. How does God’s love exist side by side with his justice? And so on. Even Paul’s mighty intellect – one of the greatest intellects in the history of mankind – could not take either the difficulty or the inevitable controversy out of those ideas jostling with one another in the teaching of Jesus and in Holy Scripture. “Every heretic has his text,” it has been often observed. It is the totality of the picture that is necessary in order that every biblical truth may be given its due.
When you think about it, this is why Christians of all stripes can recite together the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. Both of them leave out so much and concentrate only on the historical data. But you can’t explain the respective places of grace and works in the Christian life by reference to either of those creeds. And yet Paul tells the Galatians that the correct relationship between grace and works, between faith and obedience, divides heaven from hell!
The fact that Peter himself admits the difficulty of some of Paul’s teaching – no doubt he had himself faced similar misunderstandings of his words throughout his ministry – is important instruction for us. When we find something we struggle to understand; when we read something that seem, at least to us, to be in conflict with something else we have read in the Bible, what are we to do, knowing as we do that biblical misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and misinterpretation have been chronic problems in the church from the very beginning. Not wanting to be guilty of such misunderstanding ourselves, wouldn’t this be the path of wisdom and sound judgment?
1. Pray to God for illumination and help in understanding. It is, after all, his Word and he wants us to understand it so that we might believe it and obey it.
2. Humble yourself before God and admit that biblical wisdom and learning did not begin and will not end with you. You are hardly the one confidently to settle some biblical problem of interpretation. You know so little; others know so much more. Withhold your judgment until you have made a careful investigation of the issue.
3. Consult the tradition of biblical interpretation. You are hardly the first to have read that particular verse or paragraph. I don’t know how many times in my life I have scratched my head over something I have read in the Bible only to consult several commentaries and realize that the solution to my problem was actually quite simple, even in some cases embarrassingly simple.
4. Remember Augustine’s remark that just as there are shallows in Scripture where a lamb may wade, so there are depths in Scripture where an elephant may swim. [Cited in Packer, Quest for Godliness, 99] I remember Palmer Robertson telling his class that he still did not really understand the test for the adulterous wife described in Numbers 5, but he was continuing to work the problem. He didn’t know how to treat that text, didn’t know how to explain it, didn’t know how to understand it. Well I think, with the help of more recent biblical scholarship, I now understand that strange passage – I actually think it is a fascinating demonstration of both the compassion of God and the superiority of the ethics of Israel to those of the rest of the ancient near eastern world – but I am still at a loss to understand why God had Moses make an image of a snake, put it on a pole, and command Israel to look at the snake in order to be healed of a plague that he had sent among the people. It is everything one would have thought God would never have told Moses to do. And as it turned out, it ended up having precisely the effect we would have feared; it became a temptation to idolatry in Israel. I’m still working the problem, but still have no satisfying explanation.
5. And, finally, don’t embrace an interpretation of a biblical writer unless you find godly folk, faithful folk, people who love the Lord and are walking with him, people who are setting an example for you of genuine Christian faith and virtue, who likewise understand the passage in that same way.
That Paul was sometimes difficult to understand, even when he was still alive, is a caution to us. Let’s not be among those who twist the teaching of the Bible to our own destruction – which is to say, to our own advantage – but, comparing Scripture with Scripture and submitting our thinking to holier and smarter people than ourselves, let’s think and read and discuss until we have it right or, if we can’t get there yet, file it among those things we have yet to learn.