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

Relational Unity

“I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).

It is perhaps one of the most sublime and mysterious concepts– the idea of the Triune God. The arguments regarding how it was possible for God to be One in Three Persons consumed much of Christianity for the first three hundred years after the death of the Apostles– and again in the past two hundred. If there is one doctrine that people have difficulty understanding, it is this one indeed!

The challenge is evident. From Deuteronomy 6:4 on, YHWH uniquely identified Himself as God– not just any god, not one of many gods, but the One God. YHWH our God YHWH one is the literal concept behind Deuteronomy 6:4b. The idea of the unity of God is essential to Judaism, Islam, and indeed also to Christianity.

But then we have Jesus making these divine declarations. John speaks of Him as the Word, not just with God, but being God (John 1:1). Jesus will declare Himself the I AM in John 8:58. He declares His unity with the Father in John 10:30 and fully in John 17:20-23. Both Paul and the Hebrew author declare that Jesus represents the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form, the exact imprint of the divine nature (Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:3). Peter will also include the Holy Spirit in such a framework (1 Peter 1:2, 2:21). Beyond all this, both Paul and Jude strongly intimate that when the Old Testament speaks of YHWH acting regarding His people in the wilderness, that Christ the Son is involved (1 Corinthians 10:1-9, Jude 1:5). So how can God be One yet Three?

All kinds of answers have been suggested. Some answers try to argue that Jesus really was not God like the Father was God. Other answers try to argue that God really is one person, and just manifests Himself in three modes or forms. Yet when we look at the textual evidence, these answers do not work. All three Persons are present at Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:15-17). Jesus declares that there are two witnesses, Himself and the Father (John 8:17-18). There are too many Scriptures confessing Jesus’ full deity and His unique Personhood.

The problem with these answers is that they assume that when God is One, that unity must be in personhood. But neither Deuteronomy 6:4 nor any other passage so limits the understanding of God’s unity. Instead, we can suggest as a feasible answer that the unity of God is not based in personhood but in other factors– they are unified in substance, essence, and will. In short, God is One in relational unity.

God Himself testifies to this within His creation (cf. Romans 1:19-20). Humans are given a glimpse of this idea of relational unity in marriage. From the beginning God has intended for a man and woman to come together and become one (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-6). Paul will later attribute the same unity as existing between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:31-32). How are people one in marriage? They are of the same substance and essence, for one. And the marriage that lives up to God’s ideal is one where each mutually submits to one another, respecting their roles, but becoming as one in terms of purpose, intention, direction, and whatnot (cf. Ephesians 5:21-33). The goal is to see that while they do remain two people, for all intents and purposes, they are one. They are tied together by their reciprocal, mutual love.

So it would be within the Godhead. We must never emphasize the distinctiveness of the Persons of the Godhead to the neglect of their unity. Think about it for a moment– the Three Persons of the Godhead are so unified in will, intention, and purpose, that we can speak of God entirely in terms of a unity. We speak of God Himself doing, acting, working, even though it is really the Three in One, and that is possible only because of the intense relational unity amongst the Three. This is how God is love (1 John 4:8)– for God to be love as one person would make God the ultimate narcissist. Instead, God maintains sacrificial love within Himself amongst the Three, and the blessing bestowed upon us is that He wants us to join in that love.

And that is why understanding God as the Triune, Three in One and One in Three, is so essential. It is not merely some abstract, academic concept that is irrelevant to life. Quite the contrary– God’s nature informs God’s work and purpose for mankind. And John 17:20-23 describes this perfectly.

As the Father is in the Son (and in the Spirit), and the Son is in the Father (and in the Spirit), so Jesus prays for all believers to be one with the Father and the Son as the Father and the Son are one, and likewise to be one with one another (John 17:20-23). Our existence, redemption, and hope of ultimate glory, therefore, are inextricably bound up in God’s own relational unity amongst the Three.

Why did God create all things and make us in His image? Love’s greatest joy is to share in love, and so the Godhead wished to share the love within Himself with all of us (cf. 1 John 4:8).

Why did God prove so willing to redeem us even though we did not deserve it? It is love’s essence to suffer loss for the advantage of the beloved; as the Son does for the Father, so the Father, Son, and Spirit do for all of us (Hebrews 5:7-8, Romans 5:6-11).

What is God’s ultimate goal? To extend the association, love, and relational unity that exists within Himself with His creation, and to maintain that unity for all eternity in glory (cf. Romans 8:17-24, Revelation 21-22).

We are called to seek after God and that relational unity with Him as it exists within Himself (Acts 17:26-27, John 17:20-23). In so doing, we must develop that unity with one another if we are really going to reflect the image of the Son (Romans 8:29, 1 John 1:4-7). The path is clear: as the Father and Son are one, so must we be one with each other, and that requires not just some level of mutual understanding of truth but also willingness to suffer loss for one another, humbling ourselves so as to seek each others’ advantage, just as the Son did for the Father and for us (Philippians 2:1-8).

God is love; God manifests love within Himself; that love overflows toward the creation; we have the opportunity to share in the blessing of a relationship with God so that we can become conformed to the image of the Son so as to return to the blessed state of full, unbroken association with God. How wonderful! How praiseworthy! Let us always praise and thank God for our opportunity to maintain association with Him and to enjoy that association for all eternity!

Ethan R. Longhenry