One of the oddest things that ever happened to me was the night two Mormons came to my church. They had been invited by a lady in the church who had welcomed them into her home, and then she had become enamored with their off-beat theology. Finally, she made a deal that if she went to their church, they would have to come to hers. So they did.
The problem was that she did not tell me the Mormons were coming. I had been teaching through the New Testament and had prepared a Bible study on the verses that happened to come next. At the time I happened to be teaching from 2 Timothy where the writer takes to task those who distort the gospel. At one point the writer says, “For the time will come when they will not listen to the sound doctrine, but, having itching ears, will heap up for themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside to fables” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Well, I think much of Mormon theology is myth, so the passage was a bit close to home. I found myself stammering and stuttering through the sermon.
Then I read aloud 2 Timothy 3:6 which says, “For some of these are people who creep into houses, and take captive gullible women loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts, always learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” And I was speechless! I had seldom read a verse which spoke the truth so plainly. It was one of the strangest nights in my life.
It was that same kind of situation that the writer of 2 Peter is addressing. Verse 16 says, “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables, when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”
The church had been around long enough that they were having trouble with people who were distorting the truth of the gospel. In this case, they were refusing to believe in the Second Coming so the book is written to encourage them to believe what they had been taught.
The author is addressing a group of people who had lived long enough after Jesus’ day to have given up believing that Christ would return soon. Many of the first-generation disciples had died away, and yet Christ had not returned.
Second Peter is a difficult book to preach from because most scholars don’t think Peter actually wrote it. Peter was likely martyred about 64 or 65 C.E. and this book may have been written as much as 50 years after that. But this writer speaks on behalf of Peter and reminds the hearers that Peter and others were eyewitnesses of the events like the Transfiguration.
When my men’s breakfast group wrestled with this passage on Wednesday morning, they suggested that the early church had the benefit of eye witnesses, but we have the benefit of history.
What Christian is there who has not wished at one time or another that they had had the privilege of walking the earth at the same time that Jesus did? Oh, if only we could have been there to hear Jesus preach and to see him heal people, then it would be easy to believe. But as it is, we are so far removed from Jesus’ day and time that doubts creep into our minds.
But we are not left without help! We have the wonderful benefit of a book written by those who were there. And we have the benefit of all of Christian history to help us understand the meaning of Jesus life, death and resurrection. We can learn from the mistakes of many generations who have gone before us. We can stand on the shoulders of the greatest theologians who have written what they understood of the meaning of Jesus.
When the writer reminds them that Peter was there at the Transfiguration, he concludes in 2:19, “We have the more sure word of prophecy; and you do well that you heed it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns, and the morning star arises in your hearts.”
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Our men’s group summarized this passage by saying, “Be attentive and you will be enlightened.” We must be attentive to the message in the Bible if we really want to see the light.
I liked the reference to the day dawning and the morning star rising in our hearts. That tells me that our understanding slowly grows. It does not come in one blast of knowledge, but we have to study the Bible all our lives in order to understand what it means. We must never graduate from Sunday school. The Bible is a big book and there is always something more that we can learn.
The reference to the “morning star” is found in several passages in the Bible. Numbers 24:17 says, “A star will come out of Jacob.” In the book of Revelation, Jesus is called the “morning star.” It says, “He who overcomes, and he who keeps my works to the end, to him I will give authority over the nations…. and I will give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear that the Spirit says” (Revelation 2:26, 28-29). Then Revelation 22:16 says, “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify these things to you for the assemblies (churches). I am the root and the offspring of David; the Bright and Morning Star.”
As we are attentive to the Bible, we will find the morning star rising in our hearts. What a wonderful image!
Verses 20 and 21 are perhaps the most famous verses in 2 Peter:
“Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of private interpretation. For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but holy men of God spoke, being moved by the Holy Spirit.”
The subject of the inspiration of Scripture is one that foments arguments from the left and from the right. But the author here assures us that the Scripture did not arise out of private interpretations, but that the writers were moved by the Holy Spirit.
Dr. Eugene Boring, the long time Disciples professor at Brite Seminary in Ft. Worth, once explained the inspiration of Scripture by comparing it to atomic radiation. When an atomic bomb goes off, we describe the area hardest hit as “Ground Zero.” We now know that radiation permeates everything near the place where the explosion occurred. Then as we move further and further from Ground Zero, the amount of radiation decreases and decreases until it becomes hardly measurable.
Dr. Boring says that Jesus was Ground Zero of God’s breaking into our world. And the Bible is inspired partly because of the nearness to the blast of Jesus’ presence. Those early books in the Bible are filled with the left-over radiation of his presence. That is what we call the inspiration of scripture. And the more time that passed and the fewer people there were who were near Ground Zero, the less inspiration they had. Until finally, the canon of the New Testament was closed. It would be silly to suggest that someone today could write a book that would be worthy to be included in the Bible. All we have now is hearsay evidence. We must depend on those who were closest to the source.
The argument is that the Bible is given with no interpretation. Those writers were so close to the scene that they could not help but be inspired by God. Their personalities and writing styles all show through, but in the midst of it all is that radiation which is God’s inspiration.
We pick up the Good Book and treasure it and listen to it, and learn from it. It was not given through private interpretation, but today we have no choice but to interpret its meaning for our lives. We all must interpret the Bible, but sometimes we interpret it to our advantage.
The men’s group concluded from the verse that we must not be so sure of our interpretations. We must never arrogantly insist that our own interpretation of the Bible must be correct. We must approach the Bible with humility and make sure that we have not been guided by our own private wishes, but by the Spirit of God.
One of the most interesting passages in the Bible regarding interpretation comes in Matthew. In Matthew 22, one of the religious leaders tried to trap Jesus with a trick question, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” Jesus’ answer is one of the best-known and best-loved passages in the Bible,
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul, and with all your mind.’
This is the first and great commandment.
A second likewise is this,
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
The whole law and the prophets
depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).
Behind these familiar words are some keys to how Jesus read the Bible and how we should read it today.
The first thing that I find interesting in this passage is that Jesus accepted the question as appropriate. When asked which is the greatest, He did not say, “All of the Bible is inspired by God and every word is equally important to every other word.” No, he immediately concedes the point that there are commandments that are more significant than others.
To suggest that all of the Bible is on equal footing would mean that not only would we emphasize the love of neighbor as found in Leviticus 19:18, but we would have to put equal weight on the commandment found in the very next verse which says one must not wear a garment made of two different materials.
Some parts of the Bible are mountain peaks that take us to the very edge of heaven for a clear view of God and God’s Will. Other passages lead us into a dark valley where we sometimes find cultural accommodations that are far removed from God’s Will for today. A first task in interpretation is to determine which is which.
Jesus also showed us the importance of interpretation. Jesus was a creative and imaginative teacher, but much of his material was not original with him. He often quoted scriptures. But when he did, he also felt the freedom to interpret the scriptures for his day, and so must we.
Jesus was constantly doing this kind of interpretation. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus quotes a number of commandments and gives his interpretation of them. “You have heard that it was said to the ancient ones, ‘You shall not murder…. But I tell you, that everyone who is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22).
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you…. whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39).
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44).
What does this mean for us today? It means that we have the right and the responsibility to interpret the Bible. The reality is that we do it anyway, even though many of us say we just take it as it is. Some people say they don’t interpret the Bible, they just take it as it is. Those are the same people who accuse others of picking and choosing the Scripture they like. But if we look closely we find that they do the same thing. I haven’t seen many people around who refuse to wear clothes made from two different materials. I don’t think I have ever seen a person who has plucked out one eye because it has offended God.
Even those who claim to take the Bible at face value must interpret what they read. Interpretation does not mean that one does not believe the Bible. It just means that if we are to bring the message of the Bible into the twenty-first century, it has to be interpreted.
Someone wrote an anonymous poem comparing the Bible to the TV Guide. It goes like this:
They lie on the table side by side
The Holy Bible and the TV Guide.
One is well worn and cherished with pride.
Not the Bible but the TV Guide.
One is used daily to help folks decide.
No, not the Bible, but the TV Guide.
As the pages are turned, what shall they see.
Oh, What does it matter, turn on the TV
So they open the book in which they confide.
No, Not the Bible, but the TV Guide.
The Word of God is seldom read.
Maybe a verse before they fall into Bed.
Exhausted and sleepy and tired as can be.
Not from reading the Bible, from watching TV
So then back to the table side by side,
No time for prayer, No time for the Word,
The plan of Salvation is seldom heard.
But forgiveness of sin so full and free,
Found in the Bible, Not the TV Guide.
Let’s resolve to let our lives and be guided by the Bible. We must take the Bible seriously and take our task of interpreting seriously.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2005, Dr. Mickey Anders. Used by permission.