by Al Maxey
Issue #854 -- September 28, 2022
To receive a particular conclusion upon the accepted
authority of an admired instructor is obviously not
so vivifying to the argumentative and questioning
intellect as to argue out conclusions for yourself.
Walter Bagehot [1826-1877]
Billy Graham (1918-2018), a number of years ago, made the following astute observation: "What we all need to do is return to the Bible afresh; not going to it to prove a point, but seeing what it says as the Holy Spirit opens our eyes." As disciples of Jesus, we have a valuable resource in the Scriptures. At the same time, these sacred writings can become a snare to those seeking greater spirituality, for these "God-breathed" texts can easily come to be revered and then invested with an authority they were never intended to possess. Jesus cautioned the religionists of His day, who were doing this very thing, saying, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life" (John 5:39a). Life is not to be found in the written word, but in the "Word that became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). "In Him was life" (John 1:4). "God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life" (1 John 5:11-12). Sadly, some have made the Bible into an idol, a deadly delusion about which I wrote in my study titled "From Biblicism to Bibliolatry: Have We Made the Bible an Idol?" (Reflections #829). Seeking life in the Scriptures is a deadly deception, for "it is these (the sacred writings) that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life" (John 5:39b-40).
The Scriptures most definitely do serve a divine purpose, a purpose about which Paul wrote to Timothy: "From childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 3:15). Therefore, "all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness" (vs. 16). These writings are a guide leading us to the source of Life; they themselves are not that source. That was never their intent nor their purpose. "For it is not the written Word that in the fullest sense saves the soul, but the Word of life, the Word that is living and powerful, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself manifested to the believer. ... The written Word is a most precious gift; but no such outward privilege can save us" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 22, p. 77].
In addition to this critical perception about the purpose of Scripture, it is equally critical that those who seek to understand these sacred writings approach these writings with a sound hermeneutic, and along with that we ourselves must possess certain inner qualities that will guard and guide us as we read and reflect upon Scripture. I outlined what these personal qualities should be in my article "Building Biblical Hermeneutists" (Reflections #53). In that article, I point out not only those qualities that help us better understand and apply the Scriptures, but also those traits that may hinder us from doing so. The apostle Peter, near the end of his life, touched upon this danger, focusing specifically on those who were mishandling the writings of Paul, "in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:16). We must be alert to this danger, "so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men" (vs. 17). Instead, let us continue to "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (vs. 18). [NOTE: For those who might like to pursue this study of hermeneutics in greater depth, there is a book on the market that I would highly recommend you purchase. I promoted and did a review of that book in this article: "'The Hermeneutical Spiral': Dr. Grant R. Osborne's Overview of the Rudiments of Theological Study" - (Reflections #493).]
As Peter brings his second epistle to a close, there are some fabulous truths he brings to the attention of his readers. He speaks of the return of Jesus, and what that coming will be like, and what sort of people we should be as we conduct our lives in anticipation of that coming (2 Peter 3:10-12). He also speaks of "new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells" (vs. 13). If you would like to dig into that topic in more depth, see my study titled "Restoring Paradise: New Heavens and New Earth" (Reflections #310). You might also consider my response to some who had questions about that article: "Questions from Abroad: Challenging Queries from Readers Regarding Reflections #310" (Reflections #311). Peter also points out that the coming of the Lord will not result in a pleasant outcome for the unrighteous. Thus, there is a pressing need for us "to be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless" (vs. 14). "Our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him," also wrote about "these things in his letters to you" (vs. 15b-16a). In his treatment of these topics, Peter readily admits that there are some things "hard to understand" (vs. 16b). It behooves us, therefore, to approach such biblical texts with care if we would grasp the author's intent. Sadly, not all who read/study the sacred writings do so. It is these persons, and what Peter reveals about them, that will be the primary focus of this present issue of Reflections.
Before we do so, however, we dare not miss a couple of insights gained into the character of Peter that are conveyed to us in this passage. First, we find Peter referring to Paul as "our beloved brother" whose writings and insights are "according to the wisdom given to him" from the Lord Himself (2 Peter 3:15). In light of the confrontation between these two men, where Paul "opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned," since Peter had given in to the pressure of "the party of the circumcision" and had departed "from the truth of the gospel" (Galatians 2:11-14), and in light of the fact that quarreling factions were developing in Corinth around both men, it is impressive that Peter near the end of his life regarded Paul as a "beloved brother" whose teaching was filled with wisdom from God. That speaks well of Peter, for "Peter affirms Paul's teaching in the warmest terms!" [David Guzik, The Enduring Word Commentary, e-Sword]. We also note that Paul, near the end of his own life, and in his final epistle, evidenced the same warmness of spirit with regard to John Mark (2 Timothy 4:11), over whom he had earlier had a falling out with Barnabas (Acts 15:36-40).
Second, Peter admits that he sometimes fails to fully understand the message of God as conveyed through the teaching of Paul. Peter was no longer the "know-it-all" that he appeared to be in his earlier years; with age had come maturity and humility. Peter, as he considered the sacred writings, which he believed Paul's writings to be, didn't always "get it" ... and neither do we, if we're honest. None of us has arrived at a perfect perception of all Truth, and we most certainly haven't arrived at perfect application of those truths we have understood. Understanding our own limitations and imperfections is critical in our quest to obtain insight from the Scriptures! If this is missing in our character, exegesis can very quickly devolve into eisegesis, and Truth is never well-served by such an approach to Scripture.
The phrase "hard to understand" is a rather rare word, and it appears only here. It is "dusnoetos," a word "used of texts which are difficult to interpret. ... The reference is probably to passages which are liable to be misunderstood unless they are interpreted in the light of the rest of Paul's teaching and of apostolic teaching generally" [Dr. Richard J. Bauckham, The Word Biblical Commentary - 2nd Peter, p. 331]. In other words: Context Matters. Origen (185-253 A.D.), on the other hand, who was an early Christian theologian, mistakenly "attributes the variety of interpretations of Paul's writings to the fact that Paul was unable to express himself clearly" [ibid]. Most scholars disagree with this assessment. "To regard this statement by Peter as a criticism of Paul is to misunderstand Peter's words. Such wisdom as Paul evidenced in his writings always penetrates to the bottom of its subjects/topics and does not skim over the top as a shallow mind does. The effort to understand some parts of such deep writings naturally taxes the 'nous' or thinking faculty, but that is what the mind is for!" [Dr. R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of Second Peter, p. 354]. It was said of him, "His letters are weighty and strong" (2 Corinthians 10:10), which was not necessarily a compliment, for this was uttered by his critics. Paul was a deep thinker and a deep writer, and this was a gift of God to the church (even to this day), although it often proves frustrating to those who tend to favor a more shallow exposition of divine concepts, principles, and truths.
With profound teaching, however, comes the possibility of profound misunderstanding and misapplication of that teaching, and some of that may be more intentional than not on the part of those who read or hear it. Dr. Albert Barnes makes a good point when he states, "Peter should not be understood as accusing Paul of obscurity of style. He refers not to the difficulty of understanding what Paul meant, but to the difficulty of comprehending the great truths which he taught. ... The difficulty is not that the meaning of the writer is not plain, but that the truth is so unpalatable and the mind so prejudiced against it, that some are unwilling to receive it" [Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. It is of these persons that Peter speaks in his next remarks: "... which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures" (2 Peter 3:16, NASB). In verse 17, Peter characterizes them as "unprincipled men." This is a different category than those who simply struggle to fully grasp some concept or text with which they may be unfamiliar. This is a willful distortion of Truth by those who are devoid of godly guiding principles. In verse 16, Peter employs two terms to describe them: "Untaught" and "Unstable," both of which are used only by Peter; they are not found anywhere else in the NT writings (which is also true of the term "hard to understand"). Let's take a closer look at those two words:
UNTAUGHT: This is the Greek word "amatheis." It signifies one who is unlearned, untaught, uninstructed. Putting a "positive face" on the problem, this could simply be someone with a strong desire to teach divine truths, but who is utterly unprepared and unequipped to do so. I remember Dr. Stephen Eckstein, my Greek professor at the university (I took three years of Greek under him, as well as some directed studies in which I translated most of the NT writings), telling us at the end of our first year of Greek, "You all now know just enough Greek to be dangerous!" That caution was an eye-opener, and I've never forgotten it. Paul spoke of those "wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions" (1 Timothy 1:7). James cautioned his readers: "Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment" (James 3:1).
This word used by Peter is rather common outside the Scriptures, and it "means not simply 'ignorant,' but 'uninstructed.' These people have not received sufficient instruction in the faith to be able to interpret difficult passages in the Scriptures correctly. ... They are incompetent exegetes because they have never taken the trouble to understand Christian teaching thoroughly" [Bauckham, p. 331-332]. "It seems strange that the Holy Scriptures, containing, as they do, the fundamental truths of salvation in such simple, unmistakable passages, should yet give a great many people, usually such as lack the training for intensive explanation of the Bible, occasion to teach the greatest heresies. It is but necessary to glance over a few pages in the books published by most modern sectarians in order to be convinced of the truth of this statement" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible - the NT, vol. 2, p. 556]. Being unlearned and uninstructed is not in itself wrong, for each of us begin our journey of faith in that condition. It is remaining in that condition that becomes problematic, especially if one, while in that state, seeks to speak with authority about matters he/she knows little or nothing about. Whenever the blind attempt to lead the blind, it rarely turns out well for either.
UNSTABLE: This the Greek word "asteriktoi." It signifies that which is "unstable, lacking stability; someone or something that has no solid foundation." This would be like the house built upon sand: it lacked the stability to withstand the coming storm (Matthew 7:24-27). This word is also used by Peter one other place: 2 Peter 2:14, where he spoke of false teachers "seducing the unstable." Those with no solid spiritual foundation, and little to no understanding of revealed Truth, are easy victims of those with evil intentions; and they are also poor teachers themselves, for they lack the necessary foundation that comes as one grows in the grace and knowledge of the Lord. Paul speaks of such unstable ones in Ephesians 4:14, "We are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming." In like manner, the author of Hebrews states, "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil" (Hebrews 5:12-14). Peter takes this one step further: such persons are presuming to critique and comment upon the deep truths proclaimed by Paul (as well as other sacred writings), and in so doing are only succeeding in perverting that message! These are persons "who are uninstructed in the way of truth and who lack the stability of character necessary to espouse a position and hold it" [Guy N. Woods, A Commentary on the NT Epistles of Peter, p. 191]. "The unlearned and unstable make wretched" teachers, and "are in great danger of perverting the Word of God" [Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword].
When the "unlearned" and the "unstable" get their hands on the Scriptures, one has a spiritual disaster in the making, not only for those they may mislead by their teaching, but also for themselves as they mishandle Truth. Peter states that they "distort" the writings of Paul, "as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:16, NASB). The Greek word translated "distort" in this passage is "streblousin." It is used only here in the entire New Testament writings and has been variously translated in this text as "distort, pervert, twist, wrest, explain falsely, misinterpret, and change the meaning." None of these renderings really do justice to the Greek term itself, for it has a rather interesting background. It means "to torture on a rack." It conveys the image of a victim being stretched, twisted, torn, and wrested out of his or her original shape. Now, imagine that the "victim" on "the rack" is the Scriptures: the sacred writings of those inspired of God to convey His message of love, grace, hope, and salvation! The Greek scholar Dr. Marvin Vincent, in commenting on this passage, says the word means "to twist or dislocate the limbs on a rack. It is a singularly graphic word applied to the perversion of Scripture" [Word Studies in the New Testament, vol. 1, p. 708]. "It is used here of those who twist the Scriptures from their intended purpose in order to make them teach matters never intended by the sacred writers" [Guy N. Woods, p. 191].
Some will probably not like me saying this, and I'll likely be "tossed up on tongues" for saying it, but I believe this is precisely what those do to the teaching of Paul in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 when they "distort, twist, and wrest" those passages to perversely pronounce an anathema upon the use of instruments of music in the worship of the church! Those passages say no such thing; they have been placed on the rack and stretched and twisted and distorted into something Paul never intended to convey (see my article titled "Legalism's Twin Proof-Texts: Allowing Tradition to Trump Truth" - Reflections #454). We could say the same about a good many other sectarian demands that have been wrenched painfully from the Scriptures (manmade "laws" pertaining to legalistic views on baptism, the Lord's Supper, the role of women, immortal soulism, fellowship halls, Sunday School, and on and on). "If men with perverse ingenuity use it as a weapon of party strife, and twist its sacred words to suit their selfish purposes, then it may increase their condemnation" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 22, p. 77]. "Here the meaning is that they apply portions of the Bible to a purpose for which they were never intended. It is very possible for a man so to read the Bible as only to confirm himself in error. He may find passages which, by a perverted interpretation, shall seem to sustain his own views; and, instead of embracing Truth, may live always under delusion" [Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. "What ravages have been wrought in the use of Scripture by the utter neglect of the context!" [Sermon Bible Commentary, e-Sword]. "The ignorant and unstable ... wrest and torture the Scriptures, forcing them, like some poor victim under torture, to say what their torturers want them to say. But such who wrest such writings do it 'to their own perdition'" [R.C.H. Lenski, p. 354].
Adam Clarke states, "The word 'streblousin', which the apostle uses here, signifies to distort, to put to the rack, to torture, to overstretch and dislocate the limbs; and hence the persons here intended are those who proceed according to no fair plan of interpretation, but force unnatural and sophistical meanings on the Word of God" [Clarke's Commentary, vol. 6, p. 895]. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, in past centuries (not so much today), twisted this Petrine text to justify their act of removing the Scriptures from the hands of the laity, since these common folk were "unlearned and unstable," and thus likely to "twist" the biblical text. Thus, due to their fear of the laity wresting the Scriptures, they themselves wrested the Scriptures, and the Protestant scholars were quick to pounce on the Catholics for it: "This passage gives no countenance to the Roman doctrine that all Scripture is hard to understand, and therefore was not to be read by the common people" [Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 8, p. 462]. We could cite other examples from the past and present of such wresting of Scripture, but let me close this study with the following words of caution to the church: "In a time when the Christian church is plagued by heretical cults and false teaching, Peter's warning about the irresponsible use of Scripture is important. Correct exegesis must be a continuing concern of the church" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 12, p. 289].
From a Minister in New Zealand:
I've just read your last couple of articles on baptism: "The Romans 4 Gospel: Awesome Apostolic Application of an Abrahamic Awareness" (Reflections #852) and "Challenges and Questions: Responding to Readers who were Concerned by Reflections #852" (Reflections #853). Thank you, and praise God for the clearer understanding you have provided, one that is in harmony with God's saving grace (Ephesians 2:5). It is amazing how many people still think that they have to contribute to the grace of God. In the words of the Beatles' song, they just won't "Let it Be." There is much we still need to learn about the use of the word "baptizo" in the Bible, like 1 Corinthians 10:1-3, which you dealt with in your study titled "Baptized Into Moses: A Cloud/Sea Immersion Symbol" (Reflections #768). Thank you, again!
From a Reader in Georgia:
Al, my husband and I enjoyed your article "The Romans 4 Gospel." I have struggled for many years with breaking traditional mindsets while studying for myself. It is a difficult topic to tackle, as many feel strongly in opposite directions on baptism. I've always felt that the answer was in the in-between. When we really begin to seriously study and meditate on the Word, putting aside any teachings or doctrine that we have been taught, we allow the Holy Spirit to show us new insights to consider. I pray that your study will give people some food for thought. Not one of us has it all correct, and we need to be able to recognize this and be willing and open to share and discuss even the hardest of topics with an open heart and an open mind. Going into a conversation with the mindset of being absolutely right leaves no room for growth and is dangerous territory. Have a blessed day, Al.
From a Reader in Georgia:
[NOTE: On 9/11 I shared on Facebook paragraphs 3-9
of one of my earlier articles titled "Church and State"
- Reflections #211. This brother shared that post on his
own page, making the comment below. I want to thank
him for his gracious words and for sharing my thoughts
with his many Facebook friends.]
This is an important read by Al Maxey, who is one of the Restoration Movement's great thinkers of the 21st century. It is especially important that we have an accurate perspective as we remember the events of September 11th.
From an Author in Arizona:
Al, just a word or two about your article "Challenges and Questions." In it you wrote, "God accepts and blesses us 'by grace through faith,' and baptism, like circumcision, follows that acceptance and blessing, rather than being the sacrament that dispenses it." Right On!! For decades I have said that immersion in water is a reflection or confirmation of our faith. Many years ago, I published a pamphlet for the unregenerate titled, "In A Land Where We Never Grow Old." In it I stated, "You, too, can rejoice by accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior, placing your trust in Him, and confirming (not finalizing, but confirming) your change of direction by being immersed (baptized) in water, as our Lord Jesus commanded." So, we're on the same page, brother! God's blessings to you.
From a Reader in Alaska:
Al, my hope is that your many readers don't take your ministry for granted. I'm not sure who would say what you are saying after your ministry ends. You keep adding to the serious conversations that need to be at least begun among churchgoers, some of whom are doing their best to follow Jesus as Lord and Master. So, stay healthy, for your ministry speaks to important theology!
From a Reader in Georgia:
"Questions and Challenges" - good stuff right there, brother! If only those who disagree with your position would actually read your Reflections and prayerfully meditate on them! My guess is that those who have dug in their heels all the way up to their kneecaps won't spend the time to challenge their long-held beliefs ... but, perhaps. We can only hope. Keep at it, brother!
From an Author/Publisher in Nevada:
Al, in your last article you wrote, "This reader from Georgia asked me, 'Did Peter misunderstand the purpose of baptism?' My answer is: No, I don't believe he did. However, the real question that needs to be asked is this: 'Have we misunderstood Peter?!' Quite frankly, I believe that we have! I simply do not believe the apostle Peter is teaching a sacramental view of baptism in water, and those who promote such an understanding have, in my view, gravely misunderstood Peter's intent in this passage." AMEN to what you wrote here, Al. Your discussion on Romans 4 has been great. Thank you.
From an Author in Texas:
Al, I wrote an article in 2009 for Grace Digest. That article is titled, "Are You Still Living on the Plantation?" It goes along well with what you are saying about baptism. Thanks for all you do for Christ and the Gospel.
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