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

Willful Blindness

“Therefore speak I to them in parables; because seeing they see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And unto them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, which saith,
‘By hearing ye shall hear, and shall in no wise understand; And seeing ye shall see, and shall in no wise perceive: For this people’s heart is waxed gross, And their ears are dull of hearing, And their eyes they have closed; Lest haply they should perceive with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart, And should turn again, And I should heal them'” (Matthew 13:13-16).

Jesus’ teaching style is not exactly what one might expect out of the Messiah, the Son of God. As the Word, active in the creation, He through whom all things subsist, He understands the greatest mysteries of the universe (John 1:1-3, Hebrews 1:3). He has come to proclaim the coming of the eternal Kingdom of God (Matthew 4:23). One might expect some kind of lofty discourse or some compelling argument. Instead, Jesus talks about farmers, crops, merchants, merchandise, women’s work, and similar things.

While it may seem strange to us, Jesus knows precisely what He is doing. While He speaks of farming, house work, matters of trade, and the like, He is really not addressing those matters. He’s providing marching orders in code: suffer loss of everything for the Kingdom. Not all will hear; not all who hear will endure. Do not be surprised when some doing the Devil’s work are in the midst of the saints. God is more interested in humble repentance than sanctimonious professions of righteousness.

So why does Jesus seem to “beat around the bush” and provide these messages in a figure? Yes, it was predicted that He would do so (Matthew 13:35; cf. Psalm 78:2). But there was even a reason why it was predicted that it would be so, and it involves the sad history of the Jews.

Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah (Matthew 13:13-15; cf. Isaiah 6:9-10). God comissions Isaiah to proclaim the message of deliverance and healing to the people. Yet the preaching of that message will not lead to repentance; God knows that it will only serve to further harden their hearts. In the Hebrew in Isaiah 6:9-10, it is the message being delivered that “makes fat” their hearts, “makes heavy” their eyes, and “makes shut” their ears. And, indeed, the people close off their senses. They do not listen to Isaiah’s message of nonintervention in international affairs and repentance regarding injustice, oppression, immorality, and idolatry at home. And Isaiah– and the people– live to see the wrath of God manifest in the Assyrian juggernaut, devastating Aram and Israel while leaving Jerusalem alone unscathed in Judah (Isaiah 1-10). It was not a pretty picture.

Seven hundred years later things had not changed too much for the better. While the Jews may not have been committing the particular sins of their ancestors, their eyes seemed no more inclined to see God’s work, nor were their ears much more inclined to hear God’s message. Jesus quotes the Isaianic prophecy directly at the Jews of His day (Matthew 13:14-15/Mark 4:10-12/Luke 8:10); Paul will later do so to the Jews at Rome (Acts 28:24-30).

In the Greek now, the prediction involves the condition of the heart. Obviously the Jews can “see” and “hear” what Jesus says and does. But they do not draw the appropriate conclusions. They should understand who Jesus is and the value of the message He proclaims, but it would be foreign to them no matter how it would be presented.

Some think that Jesus’ methodology might be unfair. How can He know whether or not His message would be understood before proclaiming it? Is that not unfair to the Jews?

We must remember that many of the Jews not only have no interest in the type of Kingdom of which Jesus proclaims but are even actively working to destroy Him. Anything He says can and will be used against Him, no matter how much the message is misunderstood or misconstrued. An excellent example comes from John 2:19, where Jesus says, “destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews imagined that He was talking about the edifice in Jerusalem (John 2:20), although He really was referring to His body (John 2:21). Years later, at Jesus’ trial, what is the evidence for the charge against Him? “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands'” (Mark 14:58). Their testimony in this did not even agree (Mark 14:59), and for good reason: Jesus never said it. He never said He would destroy the “Temple made with hands.” The memory of the event was entirely confused– and the source of the confusion was not Jesus. The confusion came from the worldview and perspective of the Jews hearing Him and their expectations and what they wanted to hear versus what He actually said!

And this is why Jesus speaks in parables. Even if they had an inkling of what He was really talking about– possibly quite doubtful, for even His disciples, who were more sympathetic to Him, needed them all explained (Mark 4:34)– what could they do with it? What kind of case can be made against someone who talks about crops, bread, pearls, fish, and the like? It was the perfect vehicle for Jesus’ messages: innocuous and innocent on the surface, deeply subversive and powerful in application underneath.

It was all necessary because the Jews wanted their Messiah according to their image and following their ideas of who the Messiah would be. As the Israelites of Isaiah’s day had little use for the declarations of the prophet, so many of the Jews of Jesus’ day had little use for a Messiah of a spiritual Kingdom who left Rome’s control of Jerusalem intact. They did not want to hear because it did not meet their expectations.

This challenge is not limited to the Jews, and it is not limited to the ancient world. Far too often people to this day refuse to listen to God in Christ because the message is unwanted, it does not fit their view of the world and how it operates, and it poses unwelcome challenges. Believers can easily fall into this trap themselves, preferring a particular view or perspective on Jesus that is heavily distorted, and dispense the true message of Jesus Christ with trite sayings and misguided arguments. There is no lack of willful blindness and deafness in our world today!

It is better, then, for us to be disciples in the same mold as the disciples present when Jesus spoke these words. Everyone comes to Jesus with their own ideas and expectations; those who will be found to be true servants of God are the ones who are willing to radically change those views and expectations based on what Christ the Lord says (1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Galatians 2:20, Colossians 2:1-9). Let us not reject His words; let us not create a God or a Christ in our own image, with our perspective to serve, but instead allow our image to be conformed to the true and Risen Christ (Romans 8:29)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Vanity of Knowledge and Wisdom

I communed with mine own heart, saying, “Lo, I have gotten me great wisdom above all that were before me in Jerusalem; yea, my heart hath had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.”
And I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also was a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow (Ecclesiastes 1:16-18).

We have a love-hate relationship with the Preacher and his message. We really cannot deny its substantive truth, but that does not mean that we have to like it. The idea that our lives “under the sun,” on the whole, is absurd, is deeply troubling to us. Yet the facts are in: all who live die, no matter how virtuous or sinful; you can accumulate much or little and you still cannot take it with you; despite our lofty rhetoric, generations still come and go, and most end up forgotten. And, perhaps most frustratingly for modern man, the pursuit of pleasures never end in true satisfaction.

Yet, in the face of all of this, many still want to redeem the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. Yes, people understand that satisfying desires for food, sex, money, fame, and the like ultimately do not satisfy, but there is the expectation that there will be some satisfaction in wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge is deemed power; thus, the idea is, the more knowledge, the more power. Wisdom is understood also as a benefit to people, and if it is good for us, then more of it should make things better!

But the Preacher has some bad news for us. The pursuit of wisdom and knowledge does not fare any better than the pursuit of other pleasures. Too much knowledge, or too much wisdom, can cause as many problems as too little.

There is a reason for the saying that ignorance is bliss. If we suggest it as an absolute truth we are foolish, for there are some things we ought to know and with which we must come to grips– God’s will, our ultimate fates in the flesh, the skills of our profession, and so on and so forth. Nevertheless, there are plenty of times when we feel cursed because of some knowledge we have gained or some wisdom we have understood. We feel that we would have been better off without that knowledge or wisdom. In those circumstances, ignorance is bliss.

Knowledge, for its part, often complicates. More fortunate and blessed are those who trust, say, in the divine operation and sustenance of the universe than those who end up rejecting the existence of God because of the challenges and doubts raised in investigating the nature of that operation. While it is true that challenges and doubts sometimes occur because of ignorance, they far too often are the result of digging too deeply into certain subjects concerning which we humans will never truly understand (Ecclesiastes 8:16-17). Not a few heresies and false teachings have been launched on account of people professing “advanced knowledge” of things they really do not understand (cf. 1 Timothy 6:20-21), or on account of conundrums that come up because of deep investigation of an easily comprehensible statement. Forests are too often missed not just because of trees but because of bark patterns on particular trees!

We honor and praise wisdom, and we are right to do so, since folly should never be in style. But wisdom also has its dark side, and the Preacher understands this all too well. In his wisdom he plumbs the depth of the human experience and feels compelled to come to grips with its ultimate futility. We can experience his grief as he recognizes that the wise and the fool have the same end (Ecclesiastes 2:12-16), or that the fruit of his efforts will enrich another (Ecclesiastes 2:4-11). He desires what we desire– the ultimate justification of the wise and virtuous life– and yet is pained by the absurdity of life, where the wicked often prosper to the detriment of the righteous and all meet the same fate (Ecclesiastes 8:14). How much of what we call “wisdom” does not really taste sweet but bitter!

This is quite distressing to us, and yet it remains a good warning. The pursuit of knowledge and wisdom is to be considered as the pursuit of personal gain and satisfaction. It is not wrong to seek knowledge, wisdom, gain, and satisfaction, and they can provide much good. To believe, however, that any such thing represents the Ultimate Ideal in life is utterly misguided. We internally know, even if we do not always act appropriately on the basis of this knowledge, that money and pleasure is not everything in life or the ultimate goal in life. We must learn the same lesson about knowledge and wisdom. Instead, the Ultimate Ideal and goal in life is God and godliness, and we do well to revere Him and serve Him (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). Just as we direct our pursuits of material resource and satisfaction in life toward His purposes and for His advantage, so must we direct our pursuits of knowledge and wisdom. And, just as we know that gain and satisfaction are not God, so too must we know that knowledge and wisdom are not God. There is an end to what we can know and understand, and we must trust in His understanding and His goodness (Deuteronomy 29:29).

To have knowledge and wisdom from God is good. To believe that knowledge and wisdom are the ultimate ideals and end is folly. Let us keep wisdom and knowledge in perspective and trust in and serve God!

Ethan R. Longhenry