There is a Wrong Way to Read the Bible: 2 Peter 3:15-16

There are so many different ways that Christians interpret the Bible. It is tempting sometimes to want to affirm everybody’s interpretation when there is so much conflict.

We want to bring peace and unity among Christians (Matt. 5:9; John 17:21). We want to be humble (Matt. 7:1; Rom. 11:34). But it is a mistake to think all interpretations are valid. Second Peter 3:15-16 shows us there is a wrong way to read the Bible:

“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”

Context

In 2 Peter, the Apostle Peter is warning Christians about certain false teachers. These false teachers are making doctrinal errors: they deny that Jesus is coming back (2 Pet. 3:4) and are saying some irreverent things about spiritual beings (2 Pet. 2:10ff). Their doctrinal errors lead them to all sorts of sin (2 Pet. 2:10ff).

Observation and Interpretation

Notice a few things about these false teachers:

  • They are using Scripture, both from the New Testament (Paul’s letters) and the Old Testament (the “other Scriptures”). But Peter condemns their conclusions. (They were most likely taking some of Paul’s words out of context.)1Most commentators agree with this. Their conclusion is based on a close comparison between 2 Peter and various letters of Paul that Peter seems to reference. They have identified references to Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, Romans, 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians in 2 Peter. For a brief survey of these references, see Terrance Callan, “Second Peter,” in First and Second Peter, in Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2012), 213-214. This means there is a wrong way to read the Bible; not all interpretations are valid.
  • They are using Scriptures that are “hard to understand.”2The Greeks used this phrase to describe the puzzling sayings of the oracles. See Douglas J. Moo, 2 Peter, Jude, in NIV Application Commentary: From biblical text…to contemporary life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 211. But their misinterpretation is self-destructive and brings them under God’s judgment (2 Pet. 3:7, 16). This means our doctrine matters and affects us, even when it is hard to understand.3I would also add, doctrine matters simply because if we love the Lord we should care about what he says. We may not immediately see the practical application of an idea in the Bible, but we shouldn’t reject it just because we don’t think it’s practical. If it is of God, then it matters.
  • Their misinterpretation is deliberate and brings them under God’s judgment (2 Pet. 3:5; cf. Rom. 1:18ff). This means deliberate misinterpretation is a serious sin.
  • They are foolish like animals (2 Pet. 2:12), which suggests (among other things) that they are irrational, acting on impulse and emotion.4Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, in New American Commentary 37 (Nashville: B&H, 2003), 349. This means interpretation ought to be responsible and biblical, not led astray by our whims, wants, and feelings.

Notice a couple things about Peter, Paul, and the “other Scriptures” too:

  • Peter affirms what Paul teaches and what the “other Scriptures” teach. This means the whole Bible is unified.
  • Paul’s letters came from God’s wisdom (2 Pet. 3:15). Peter’s letters came directly from the teachings of Jesus (2 Pet. 1:14, 16ff; cf. John 14:26). The “other Scriptures” were inspired by the Holy Spirit. (2 Pet. 1:20-21). This means the whole Bible is of God and comes with God’s authority.

Applications from 2 Peter 3:15-16

Having sound doctrine is important (2 Tim. 1:13; Titus 1:9). Here’s how we should respond to all of this:

1. Avoid the error of thinking that all interpretations are equal.

There is a wrong way to read the Bible, and bad interpretation can be so serious that it brings God’s wrath upon you. We are not doing anybody any favors by saying all interpretations are equal, whether in the name of love or humility or unity or anything else.5On the contrary, love is compatible with knowledge (2 Pet. 1:5-9), and humility is compatible with truth (James 1:21). As for unity, consider John 17 where Jesus prays both for the unity of all believers and also that they be sanctified by the word of truth (John 17:17). Likewise, in Ephesians 4, where Paul urges Christians to be unified, he also exhorts them to speak the truth to one another (Eph. 4:15). In fact, in that passage, Paul sees sound doctrine as pivotal to the growth and maturity of the church.

2. Take care to interpret the Bible correctly.

But how do we interpret the Bible correctly? Aren’t the “rules” of interpretation just systems invented by humans?

Yes, some systems may be. I think we forget, though, the Bible actually tells us how to interpret it. Second Peter 3 is a great example of this. Here are a few rules it shows us:

  • The Bible comes first in interpretation, not our personal feelings and ideas. This is responsible interpretation. Our personal feelings and ideas are not always bad and are never insignificant. But they need to be brought into obedience to Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 10:5). Wherever there is conflict, Scripture is king.
  • Read in context. The false teachers were most likely taking some of Paul’s teachings out of context, but we should avoid this error by considering the context of whatever passage we are interpreting.
  • Compare Scripture to Scripture (“analogy of faith”). The whole Bible is unified. Therefore, we should compare one part of the Bible with the rest of the Bible to help us interpret correctly. The Reformers called this rule the “analogy of faith.”6R. C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1978), 46.

3. Don’t give up on interpreting the Bible correctly just because it is hard.

Learning can be a process (Pr. 2:1-6). We cannot expect people to instantly understand everything they are taught.

This is not an excuse, however, for giving up on learning sound doctrine or refusing to be corrected. The false teachers were not off the hook simply because the Scriptures were hard to understand. Neither are we. Believing rightly is part of our sanctification, just as living rightly is.

Applications from the “Analogy of Faith”

4. God is gracious to Christians in the area of doctrine.

We are neither saved by works nor through having spotless theology; salvation comes by God’s grace, through faith in the blood of Christ (Eph. 1:7; 2:8-10; 1 John 3:23). So it is possible to have some incorrect ideas and still be a genuine believer in Christ.

Consider the Corinthians and the Galatians. They were falling into some very serious errors, both moral and theological, and Paul was confident they were still “those sanctified in Christ Jesus” even as he corrected them (1 Cor. 1:2; cf. Gal. 1:2-4).

For the false teachers in 2 Peter, part of the problem was that they were deliberately in error. But it seems the Galatians knew better too (Gal. 3:1ff). In the end, sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between a genuine believer who makes mistakes and a false teacher who is under God’s wrath.

This leads me to conclude:

  • If we persist in our errors, we stretch a thin line between us and unbelievers. Maybe we’re saved, but we don’t look like it anymore.
  • We are not necessarily under God’s judgment for poor theology. But if we care about our sanctification and holiness, we should care about learning sound doctrine too. Put another way, we need not fear for our salvation with every word we speak, but when we speak falsely, we must be open to correction and reproof from the Scriptures.

5. Christians should be gracious and loving toward each other too in the area of doctrine.

Learning and keeping sound doctrine can be a real struggle, just like struggling with sin. Let us be gracious toward professing believers who are struggling with their doctrine.

Divisions are sometimes necessary (1 Cor. 5:4-5; 11:19). Nevertheless, we should seek as much as possible to have fellowship with them because our unity is a testament to the gospel (John 17:23; Eph. 2:11ff).

When we speak the truth to them and show them the error of their way, this must be done from a motivation of love (Eph. 4:15). Out of a love and concern for our Christian brethren, out of a desire to see them grow in holiness, we should speak the truth to them.

At times, speaking the truth in love should be done with tact and gentleness (2 Tim. 2:25; Pr. 25:15; Gal. 6:1). At other times, a sharper tone may be appropriate, just like Paul with the Galatians (Titus 1:13; Gal. 3:1ff; 4:8-20), but it must always be done in love.

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