2 Peter 1:20–21
We can sum up what we have seen so far in 2 Peter 1 with three pictures: the hot fudge sundae, a man swimming against an ocean current, and a lamp shining in the night. In 1:1–4 the main point was that God has given believers divine power to lead lives devoted to brotherly kindness and love; and that this power becomes effective in real life when we stake everything joyfully on his precious and very great promises. When we keep the hot fudge sundae of God's promises in front of us, they exert on us a divine power to allure us on in the excellent way of love and into eternal life.
In 1:5–11 we are taught that God's divine power is given to us not to make us lazy or limp, but to make us zealous and diligent to advance in every Christian virtue. The evil remaining in our heart and the pressures of unrighteousness in the world are like an ocean current drawing us backward toward destruction. No one who treads water in the Christian life stays in the same place. You always go back. Therefore we must stroke diligently against the current of evil desires within and innumerable temptations without. In doing this (as v. 10 says) we confirm our call and election. The genuineness of our confidence in the promises of God (by which we are saved) is confirmed by the diligence with which we stake our lives on those promises in efforts to live like Jesus.
Then in 1:12–19 Peter zeroes in on the promise of Christ's second coming and says that this prophetic word has been made more sure by his own eyewitness experience of Christ's majesty on the mount of transfiguration. What Peter and James and John were granted to see in the transfiguration of Christ was a partial glimpse of what Christ would be like when he comes again. And in verse 19 Peter compares that hope to a lamp shining in the night. The prophetic word of hope is our lamp in the dark night of this world. It functions just like that hot fudge sundae—to keep us on the path until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts.
In a word the chapter has said: be a people empowered by hope to lead lives of love. Let your confidence in the coming day of joy make you compassionate in the present night of woe.
Reason or Manner?
Now we want to devote the rest of our time this morning to thinking about verses 20 and 21. First let's look at the connection between verses 19 and 20. All the modern English versions that I consulted made it harder rather than easier to understand the connection in the original Greek. They all begin a new sentence at verse 20 (and NASB even inserts a totally unwarranted "but"). But verse 20 is not a new sentence, and the version that preserves the original is the old King James, which translates verse 20: "Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation." Remember now that in verse 19 Peter is telling us to pay attention to the prophetic word about the coming of Christ as to a lamp shining in a dark place. So you can hear the connection when we boil the two verses down like this: "Pay attention to the prophetic word . . . knowing this first, that no prophecy of scripture is of any private interpretation." There is a very close connection between what we know about prophecy in verse 20 and our giving heed to it in verse 19.
Now what is that connection? I see two possibilities. First, verse 20 may give the reason why we should give heed to the prophetic word. So we could paraphrase it like this: "Give heed to the prophetic word because you know, first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation." The other possible connection would be that verse 20 tells us not the reason but the way to give heed to the prophetic word. So we could paraphrase it: "Give heed to the prophetic word by remembering this principle first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation." So it seems to me that in verse 20 Peter is either giving us a reason to pay close attention to the prophetic word, or is telling us how to pay attention to the prophetic word.
Whose Interpretation of What?
But which? Before we can decide that, we have to know what verse 20 means. What does Peter mean that "no prophecy of scripture is of any private interpretation," or, as the RSV says, "no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation"? I think it is only fair for me to mention three ways this verse has been understood, and then show why I only accept one of these ways. First, there are excellent evangelical Bible scholars who say that verse 20 has nothing to do with our interpretation of prophecy, but rather with the prophet's interpretation of history. In other words, when Peter says, "no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation," he means, "no prophecy ever came from a prophet's private interpretation of historical events." Rather, as verse 21 says, prophecies came from God through the Holy Spirit. So the connection with verse 19 would be: "Give heed to the prophetic word . . . because no prophecy is a mere private human interpretation of events; it is from God through the Spirit." I find that understanding of verse 20 almost persuasive, but not quite.
A second very important understanding of verse 20 is the typical Roman Catholic one. They have generally said, "No, verse 20 does refer to how we interpret prophecy, not how prophets interpret history. And the point is that no private individual can interpret prophecy on his own. Rather the Scriptures have been entrusted to the church, and the individuals must look to the official pronouncements of the church to know the true teaching of Scripture." Until twenty years ago and the second Vatican Council, that kind of thinking had kept the Scriptures concealed in Latin and had kept the average Catholic lay person in woeful ignorance of Scriptures. Much of that is changing now. But even recently I read a letter from a priest in California to a young man in our church urging him not to forfeit his connection with the Catholic church and its sacraments; and in three pages there was no reference to Scripture. And I got the distinct impression that had he used Scripture to argue for the church, he would have been compromising his principles. Because evidently it is still true for many Catholics that the church gives credence to the Scripture, not Scripture to the church. It is the same old problem of the Reformation: in practice, ecclesiastical tradition, not Scripture, is supreme. And I want us to be very aware that one of the hallmarks of our Protestant faith is that the church and its ministers are judged by Scripture, and not vice versa.
I will mention one other way of understanding verse 20. "No prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation" can mean no individual should interpret prophecy according to his own personal whim. You can't just give Scripture any old meaning you please. There is a true meaning (according to v. 21) which comes from God through the prophet, and this is our standard.
Now which of these three views of verse 20 is most likely Peter's view? As far as the usual Catholic interpretation is concerned, it just can't be gotten out of the text. There is not a word about who should replace the individual as the reliable interpreter of prophecy. That has to be read into the text. It can't be gotten out of it. So for me the choice is between the first and third views. Is verse 20 saying that no prophecy is the result of a prophet's private interpretation of history? Or is it saying that no prophecy, after it is given, should be twisted by individuals to make it mean whatever they like?
I think verse 20 is a warning not to play fast and loose with the meaning of Scripture. The reason I opt for this second view is that the false teachers which Peter has in view did apparently not deny the inspiration of the prophets, but rather twisted the prophetic writings to suit their own false teaching. We know that Peter had false teachers in mind here because the very next sentence in 2:1 says, "False prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you." And the key text for understanding how these false teachers related to Scripture is found in 2 Peter 3:16. In 3:15 Peter says that the apostle Paul has written about similar things in his letters. Then he says, "There are some things in them hard to understand which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures." These last words show how the false teachers related to the Old Testament Scriptures. They don't reject them. They don't deny that prophecies came from God. They twist them to suit their own private purposes. Therefore, since Peter is concerned in this letter with false teachers who twist the meaning of Scripture to fit their own personal desires, the most likely meaning of verse 20 is that the prophetic Scriptures may not be handled that way. "No prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation," means then, "no individual is entitled to interpret prophecy, or Scripture generally, according to his personal whim" (Kelly).
The Way in Which We Should Heed the Word
Now we can see the connection between verses 19 and 20 more clearly. When Peter says, "Give heed to the prophetic word as to a lamp shining in a dark place . . . knowing this first, that no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation," what he means is, "Pay close and careful attention to the prophetic word, and the first principle to guide you in how to pay attention is the principle that the true meaning of Scripture does not come from the mind of the reader." Or to put it another way: the principle that should guide our attention to Scripture is that its meaning is objective, not subjective. The meaning of Scripture does not change with every new reader or every new reading. It cannot be twisted to mean whatever we like. It is what it is, unchanging and unending. The first principle, therefore, in giving heed to Scripture is that there is a true meaning and there are false meanings, and we must submit our minds to trace out what is really there rather than presuming that whatever pops into our minds at our first reading is the true meaning.
God's Meaning not Man's
Now what verse 21 does is give the reason why we can't treat Scripture as though its meaning is whatever someone thinks it means. Interpretation of Scripture dare not be a matter of personal whim because Peter says, "no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." In a word, the reason we may not fill the words of Scripture with our ideas is that God intends that they carry his ideas. The meaning of Scripture is not like putty that we can mold according to our desires. It is the work of the Holy Spirit and carries a solid, firm, divine intention. The glorious truth of this verse is that in Scripture God has spoken and not merely man, and therefore (as verse 20 says) our aim must be to hear God's meaning, not merely our own.
Now let me try to show how verses 20 and 21 fit into the chapter as a whole and then draw out several implications for our lives. Peter's main aim in chapter 1 is to help us confirm our call and election (v. 10). He wants us to enjoy the assurance of our salvation. As a means to that end he reminds us that the genuineness of saving faith (v. 1) is proved by whether it produces virtue and knowledge and self-control and patience and godliness and brotherly affection and love (vv. 5–7). But he also reminds us that God has already given us the power needed to live this way (v. 3). And he has told us that this power becomes effective in our daily lives through God's precious and very great promises. So as we keep our hearts content in the promises of God, we are guarded from sinful allurements and are drawn on in paths of righteousness into eternal life. And where are these promises to be found? Where shall we go to fan the flames of our hope? Peter's answer in verse 19: the prophetic word of Scripture. Do you need encouragement that the day is really going to dawn—that the life of self-control, patience, brotherly affection, and love is really leading to glory? Then go to the Scriptures. Go daily. Go long. Go deep. And when you go, remember this first: these are not the mere words of men; they are the words of God. "Men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (v. 21). Seek his meaning and you will find the lamp of hope. For as the apostle Paul said, "Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by the steadfastness and encouragement of the scriptures men might have hope."
Three Implications for Our Lives
Now I close with three brief implications of verses 20 and 21 for us. You can hang them on three words: discipline, humility, and the Spirit. Suppose that you are a platoon leader and had been trapped with your platoon behind enemy lines, and your commanding officer smuggles a coded message to you to inform you how to get out. What do you do with that message? Do you pass it around the platoon and collect everyone's impressions and then flip a coin to decide what it means? No. You sit down and you labor to break the code. Why? Because the impressions of your platoon are not what you need. The mind of your commander makes all the difference. The interpretation of that message has one aim—what did the commander will to communicate? And to that end you submit yourself to the severe discipline of memory and analysis and construction, until you have assurance that his meaning and not your own has been found. And then you stake your life on it.
So it is with God's Word. God's intention comes to us in human language. "Men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke (in Hebrew and in Greek) from God." How, then, can we know the mind of God? Answer: God has ordained that some in his family (and some outside) submit to the discipline of mastering Hebrew and Greek and breaking the code open into English and the other languages of the world. But even English is a kind of code. Children must accept the discipline of learning to read it. And adults need to submit to the discipline of learning to read it well. The more disciplined we are in construing meaning out of Scripture instead of pouring our ideas into Scripture, the better we will understand God's promises and the more power we can have for godliness.
The second implication is humility. If you believe that the Bible is the Word of God with authority over your life, it takes a good deal of humility to interpret it correctly. The reason is simple: the Bible often requires of us that we feel and think and act in ways that go against our natural inclinations. Therefore, the only person who will own up to these uncomfortable teachings is the humble person who is broken and open before the lordship of God and ready to do whatever he says. The proud person who still wants to give lip service to the Bible will twist the Scriptures to fit his own desires. In the long run sound interpretation comes only from the broken and contrite in spirit.
Finally, humility is a fruit of the Spirit. Therefore, we have great need for the assistance of the Holy Spirit when we read the Scripture. If he does not overcome our proud heart and rebellious nature, we will never submit to the uncomplimentary truths of Scripture. We will avoid them or distort them. The work of the Spirit is not to add new information to the Scripture, but to make us sensitive and submissive to what is already there. It was through men moved by the Holy Spirit that God spoke of old in the Scriptures. And therefore today it will be people yielded to the Holy Spirit who hear his voice most clearly in the Scriptures.
Therefore, let us give heed daily the prophetic Word with all diligence and humility and reliance on the Spirit, knowing this first, "that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own private interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God."