Distorting Scripture

And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given to him, wrote unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; wherein are some things hard to be understood, which the ignorant and unstedfast wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction (2 Peter 3:15-16).

As Peter is concluding his letter, describing what will happen at the end of time and exhorting Christians to understand that God is not “slow” or “delayed” but patient and longsuffering toward us so that we might repent and be saved (2 Peter 3:1-15a), he goes out of his way to show that Paul had also written to them regarding “these things” (2 Peter 3:15b-16). Peter says they are written according to the wisdom given to him, and that some things are hard to understand. These difficult matters are “distorted” (Greek streblousin, “to torture, wrest,” thus, to pervert) by those who are “ignorant” (Greek amatheis, unschooled or unlearned) and “unstable” (Greek asteriktoi, unfixed, vacillating, unsteadfast; used also in 2 Peter 2:14; these three Greek terms used only in these instances in 2 Peter in the New Testament). Peter then encourages those Christians to whom he writes to beware lest they also get carried away with the error of the lawless and fall from their own steadfastness, but should instead grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus (2 Peter 3:17-18).

Peter’s affirmation of Paul and his writings is quite important: it represents a strong challenge those who seek to find discontinuity and inconsistency between Peter and Paul, making much of Galatians 2:11-14. Peter affirms that he and Paul have taught the same things; not only that, but Peter proves willing to cite Paul’s writing as further confirmation of the things which he is teaching, giving great credibility and honor to Paul’s writings. Paul is not an outlier in Christian theology and thought: Peter makes that clear.

What are “these things” to which Peter refers (cf. 2 Peter 3:16)? Perhaps Peter refers to “salvation,” the nearest concept (cf. 2 Peter 3:15): Paul has much to say about the nature of salvation in terms of election, grace, faith, obedience, etc., throughout his writings. Yet “these things” are plural, and the final section of the letter, 2 Peter 3:1-15a, has focused on Jesus’ return, the end of time, and the Lord’s patience, another theme regarding which Paul has many things to say (cf. Romans 2:4-11, 8:17-25, 1 Corinthians 15:1-58, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:10, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-2:12, among others). Peter’s letter has also featured encouragement through testimony and warnings about false teachers, other themes which feature in Paul’s writings (cf. Galatians 1:6-2:10, 1 Timothy 4:1-4, 6:3-10, 2 Timothy 2:14-19, 4:3-4, although the parallels are stronger between 2 Peter 2:1-22 and Jude 1:3-23). Peter, therefore, likely has Paul’s warnings about false teachers and particularly discussions of the end of time in mind.

While the tone of the passage is negative in many ways, we can derive positive encouragement from it. Some things in Paul’s teachings are hard to understand: yet many things are more easily understood, and even though some parts may be difficult, it is not impossible to understand them. Yes, the unlearned and unstable distort the Scriptures: but we can be learned and stable, and handle the Scriptures properly (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15, 2 Peter 3:14-15). The Scriptures can be understood; we can gain encouragement from them. We can learn of God’s will and purpose for us.

Yet the focus is undoubtedly on the negative in 2 Peter 3:16: the unlearned and unstable distort and pervert not just what Paul writes but also other parts of Scripture. We do well to consider these matters so that we may not be guilty of them!

Peter warns about the “unlearned” distorting Scripture. “Unlearned” is not synonymous with “a lack of formal or higher education”; Peter himself is reckoned as one without formal education and a common man in Acts 4:13. One can have many degrees in higher education and still be “unlearned” or at least “unstable”; one may not have a lot of formal education but be wise in the Scriptures. Yet Peter’s warning is apt: many people, even good-intentioned people, end up distorting Scripture because they are not familiar with much of the story. Many false doctrines have begun and spread because men with less than stellar understanding of Scripture began teaching what made sense to them and refused to accept correction from those with better understanding of what God has made known through Scripture. We must remember that the sum of God’s word is truth (Psalm 119:160); many times people will focus on some passages or statements in Scripture to the detriment and neglect of others and come out with unbalanced, unhealthy teachings. These days many teachings of Scripture are discussed and attempted to be applied without any consideration of or respect given to their original contexts: this is a particularly relevant concern in light of 2 Peter 3:15-16 and discussions of the “end of time” (apocalypticism or eschatology), when many seek to understand apocalyptic images purely in terms of the present day, as if Ezekiel, Daniel, and John were talking specifically and directly about the early twenty-first century.

Peter also shows concern regarding the “unstable” distorting Scripture. Some perhaps are “unstable” because they are “unlearned”; nevertheless, one could be “learned” yet “unstable.” Few persons prove more dangerous in a congregation than one who has great Scriptural knowledge but is seriously lacking in practicing the message of Scripture and developing in maturity. They are “puffed up” by knowledge, and do not “build up” in love (1 Corinthians 8:1). There is a vast difference between an academic understanding of Christianity and a practical, “full-of-faith” understanding of Christianity. The practice of Christianity leads to proper understanding of love, humility, grace, mercy, and compassion; an academic understanding of Christianity often leads to presumption, pride, division, and often perversion of and departure from the message of Scripture when people begin to think they “know better” than that which has been revealed. So it was with the Gnostics in the first centuries after Christ; so it is to this day.

Peter affirms that Scripture can be understood, but warns that it can be misunderstood and distorted. Let us take Peter’s warning to heart: none of us are “above” or “below” distorting Scripture, however intentional or unintentional. Let us instead continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, derive encouragement from Scripture, and do all things for God’s glory and honor!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Longsuffering of the Lord

The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some count slackness; but is longsuffering to you-ward, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).

If after thirty years people were already asking, “where is the promise of His coming?” (2 Peter 3:4), how much more so after 1,980 years?

These days you might still hear the phrase, “slower than the second coming,” to describe someone or something that is not moving very quickly. That type of phrase says much about people’s attitudes toward the Lord’s return: it’s taking a very long time. It seems slow! To many it has become almost a joke. Many believers have come to experience “apocalyptic fervor burnout” on account of the continual drumming up of the expectation of the Lord’s imminent return only for time to continue on yet again. Some have come to discount the eventual return of Jesus completely; some suggest it happened in a “spiritual” way in the past, while others think of it as a relic of an earlier, more eschatologically-minded age. Even among those who do look forward to the day of the Lord’s return, it seems remote, something not highly likely to happen within our lifetimes. The Lord’s return, therefore, becomes a very abstract and almost academic matter.

The Apostles expected this kind of mockery and fatigue. Paul warns the Thessalonians about staying awake, ever ready and vigilant for His coming, as it will be like a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:1-10). Peter, in 2 Peter 3:1-14, also speaks directly regarding the expectation of the Lord’s return, especially in light of those who mock and deride the suggestion that the Lord would return. He wishes to remind such people about the great Flood of Genesis 6:9-8:22: it came with plenty of warning and yet happened suddenly (2 Peter 3:5-7).

Yet Peter’s very potent argument involves a challenge to our expectations: why do we think that the second coming is “slow” to happen? Why do we consider the 1,980 and counting years as a reason to doubt God’s faithfulness? Peter quotes Psalm 90:4 in 2 Peter 3:8 to underscore the challenge: to God a thousand years is as one day, and one day as a thousand years. God transcends the space-time continuum; time does not matter to God. A thousand years, which is a long time to humans, is likened to a very short time in God’s estimation (one day). And one day, which we consider a short amount of time, can yet be understood as a long time, a thousand years, in God’s sight. 1,980 years? Simultaneously like less than two days or as much as 723 million years. Time, therefore, is irrelevant when discussing God and what He is doing. Nevertheless, why is it that the Lord has yet to return?

In 2 Peter 3:9, Peter makes it clear that it is not a matter of time. God is not slow; the return of Jesus is not “delayed”; the Lord’s return should not be used by us as a marker for someone or something’s lack of speed. Instead, He is patient, “longsuffering” toward us, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

Peter will go on to warn everyone that just as the Flood came upon people quickly, so Jesus will come like a thief in the night, and that is a good warning to heed: when the Lord returns, it will be very fast, and there will not be time for any more second chances (2 Peter 3:10). In light of all this, believers should live holy lives, waiting earnestly for the day of God, ever prepared and vigilant whether He comes or not (2 Peter 3:11-14). And then he encourages believers to consider the longsuffering of the Lord as salvation (2 Peter 3:15).

It is for our benefit, then, that the Lord has yet to return. We can certainly personalize this truth: if you are a believer in Christ, and have submitted to the Lord through belief, confession, repentance, and baptism, and walk with the Lord as His follower, when did you come to that faith and obtain your salvation? Now ask yourself: what would my fate have been if the Lord had returned the day before? God facilitated your salvation through His patience; why now would you impose on that patience? Perhaps today is the “day before” or the “day of” the obtaining of salvation for another, and that person has as much a right and access to God’s patience as you.

The Lord, therefore, has been longsuffering toward the world for 1,980 years. It is good for us to consider the longsuffering of Jesus toward us: how many times have we grieved Him because of our sins, weaknesses, and immaturity? What if the Lord were not as patient and longsuffering toward us as He is? What would our fate be? And, God forbid, what if the Lord was as patient with us as we are with our fellow human beings? If God were only as patient as we are, the world would have ended a very long time ago!

Peter well defines the longsuffering of the Lord as salvation: if the Lord were not patient with the creation, we might never have enjoyed the opportunity to live, or, in a darker light, perhaps would live in sin and be condemned before we might have turned in repentance back to the Living God. God’s longsuffering has allowed for our rescue, and how many times do we continue to depend on the longsuffering of God as we seek to grow in maturity? As it is with us, so it is with others. The world continues because the Lord is showing longsuffering toward them as well. As God has been patient with us, and that patience allows for our salvation, so we do well to be patient with others, both within and without the household of faith. We needed some time and wherewithal to recognize our challenges and to come to the Lord for healing; so do others. We have needed our time to grow in the faith and come to understand many of its precepts in greater clarity and understanding; so do others. We may have gotten further on the path of Jesus than others, but just as we needed to cross that terrain, so do they, and we do well to seek to truly build them up and strengthen them through that process just as we were, or at least should have been, built up and strengthened at that stage ourselves.

God is faithful to His promises. Jesus will return. Until then, let us not think of Jesus as slow or delayed; let us recognize that God is patient and longsuffering toward us, and be thankful that we have been able to obtain salvation through that patience of God. Let us account the longsuffering of God as salvation and praise and glorify Him in Christ in all things!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Time and God

But forget not this one thing, beloved, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day (2 Peter 3:8).

To say that we live in a fast-paced world might be one of the greatest understatements of the age. Technological advances allow us to get things done more quickly and efficiently than ever; communication can happen instantaneously. We now expect things to be done already; we have very little patience to wait for anything that we feel takes too long. A package may take a week to ship; a website might require a few additional seconds to load; we chafe and chomp at the bit, wanting to have it or to see it already.

Meanwhile, Jesus died, was raised in power, and ascended on high almost two thousand years ago. For two thousand years we have been waiting for His return and for the consummation of all things (cf. Romans 8:17-24, 2 Peter 3:1-14). And to think that even within a hundred years of Jesus’ death people were scoffing, wondering when He would return (2 Peter 3:4)!

Peter wants to encourage Christians regarding this dilemma: why is God taking so long to accomplish His purposes? But before he can provide an answer, he must first establish the proper perspective on all of these matters.

Peter declares that one day is as a thousand years to God, and a thousand years as one day (2 Peter 3:8). It has been tempting for people to emphasize one half of this verse over the other half, suggesting that one “Biblical day” is really a thousand year period; from the second century until today people attempt to hypothesize how much longer we will be around on the earth based on this suggestion. But Peter’s statement is not that one day is a thousand years, or, for that matter, that a thousand years is one day. Peter uses a simile: to God, a thousand years is like a day; a day is like a thousand years.

Such a statement, on its surface, seems ridiculous. It is ridiculous only when one seeks to literalize the statements or try to use the statements to make some declaration about the nature of time in the Bible. Peter is not providing a cipher with which one can unlock the numerological mysteries of the Bible; instead, he uses a simile to communicate how God transcends time. A day, a thousand years; it does not matter with God. God is above time, eternal in nature, from everlasting to everlasting (Romans 16:26, Psalm 41:13).

Therefore, even though we are bound by the constraints of time, spending our few decades up to perhaps a century on the earth, we should not impose such constraints upon God. Sure, to humans, two thousand years seems like a long time; yet, on the divine scale, one could compare it to two days. Then again, humans believe that two days is a short period of time; yet, on the divine scale, one can compare it to two thousand years! God cannot be so easily compressed and fit into the boxes that dictate our existence!

Peter says this in order for us to take comfort and be encouraged. The fact that two thousand years have transpired between the momentous events of the first century and the present day does not mean that God has neglected or abandoned us. It does not mean that God is slow as humans would consider slowness. Time is meaningless to Him; He has His purposes, He is carrying them out, and when His purpose has been fully accomplished to His satisfaction, the end will come and we will understand better.

God promised Abraham that his descendants would inherit the land of Canaan; 500 or so years later, they obtained it (Genesis 17:1-14, Joshua). God promised Israel through Moses that He would raise up a prophet like Moses for the people; 1,450 years later, Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled the promise (Deuteronomy 18:15-19). When God cursed mankind, He provided the promise of the One who would bruise the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15); it took no less than 4,500 years before Jesus’ death and resurrection allowed anyone to be freed from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:1-4). God will do what God does according to His purposes, and He is not limited to our time-frame or our scale of time. Let us therefore be patient and maintain our trust in God and His purposes for us in Jesus Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Endurance

Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12:1).

Sporting events featuring displays of endurance are rarely as glitzy as their faster counterparts. It is much harder to keep the audience’s attention for a 26 mile race than it is for a 100 meter dash. Preparation and training for the two types of events are also entirely different. One cannot use the same strategy to win a marathon as he or she would in order to win a 100 meter dash.

Our life of faith is comparable to the endurance walk or run– a long hike or a marathon (cf. 1 John 2:6, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Hebrews 12:1-2). Those who burst out of the gate with an unsustainable pace tend to burn out (cf. Matthew 13:20-21). We are supposed to understand Christianity as the long haul– there will be ups and downs, moments of happiness and distress, peaks and valleys in faith and strength. That is why we must hike the path or run the race with endurance!

The key to any long-term hike or run is setting the appropriate pace. If one goes too fast, one will lose energy, and will not be able to finish. If one goes too slow, it is easy to get bogged down, and victory will be out of reach. God calls upon Christians to set their pace– not to attempt to grow or progress so quickly so as to lead to burnout, but not so slowly so as to lead to atrophy and complacency (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

While we are on the path, nothing is as important as the need to just keep going. Dory, in Finding Nemo, kept telling herself to “just keep swimming,” and that sustained her.

In previous days I did a lot of hiking, including 20 mile hikes. Yet few hikes were as memorable as one particular 10 mile hike. I and a few others had hiked ahead of the main group but lost the trail after a few miles. We stopped and waited for the rest of the group to catch up. When we did continue hiking I began to experience terrible cramping and pain. The rest of the hike was miserable, and I was not sure that I was going to be able to complete the hike!

It was by no means the longest hike I ever attempted. Had we just pressed on I probably would have been fine. It was the stopping and then trying to continue that caused the duress!

So it is in Christianity. It is imperative that we never stop growing– never stop pressing on to the goal (cf. Philippians 3:13-14). As in anything that requires endurance, very short periods of rest may be in order. But if we rest for too long, we will find continuing to be that much harder, much harder than it would have been had we continued progressing without fail.

We must run the race, or follow the path, with endurance. As long as we are in the flesh there is further to go. Paul was still striving, despite being an Apostle and a Christian for thirty years (Philippians 3:13). We must never believe that we have reached the summit of the faith. Growth is often painful. Growth often costs us. Growth may lead us to have different troubles than we had at the beginning. But God makes it clear that if we are not growing we are dying (cf. Revelation 2-3). Let us press upward toward the goal with endurance!

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and for ever. Amen (2 Peter 3:18).

Ethan R. Longhenry