The single most effective method for studying any book of the Bible is accessible to every believer. You do not need to know Hebrew or Greek, earn a seminary degree, or purchase a shelf-full of commentaries. All these are helpful, of course. No carpenter spurns tools that will make his work more efficient and more polished. But these tools are not essential to acquiring an accurate understanding of the major themes and distinctive message of the various documents that make up God’s Word to us. If you are reading this paragraph, you already possess the most important hermeneutical tool you need to study any book of the Bible. The question is, how best to use it.
I am, of course, referring to the tool of reading. But not just any kind of reading. When you receive a letter from someone important to you, you probably do not read a few paragraphs and then lay it aside to finish over the next couple of days. Letters—even long ones—are read in one sitting. There is no substitute for reading the letters of the New Testament (including the longest ones) in single sittings. Several times. (In fact, there is no substitute for reading any book of the Bible in a single sitting, except perhaps Psalms.) No other study method allows you to get your mental hands on the major themes and emphases and message of any of the Scriptural writings.
Reading Letters as Letters
Versification is a mixed blessing. It allows you to locate specific passages efficiently. But it also creates a tendency to read any portion of the Bible as a collection of artificially isolated sacred sayings; it distracts from the sense of flow and context. All Bibles have verse numbers, but many now are at least printed in paragraph format (as opposed to dedicated versification, where each verse is indented as an individual unit), which is an enormous aid to contextual reading and interpretation. But thanks to personal computers and Bible programs, you can also create your own customized Bible text. If you have never made this part of your study of the NT epistles (it is workable but more unwieldy with longer books), try it. Copy the text of an epistle from a Bible program into a word processor document, eliminate all the verse numbers, run the verses end-to-end according to the punctuation, and divide the document into paragraphs—something like it might have appeared when it was composed as a letter by the original writer. Now print it out, sit down, and read it through in one sitting like you would any other letter you receive. Read it several times, like you would any other important letter that you either cherished or wanted to be sure you understood clearly.
Our focus in this column is 2 Peter, which you can read aloud (another helpful practice) and with ease in about ten minutes. We refer to it as the “book” of 2 Peter, but Peter did not write this as a “book” of sayings subdivided into chapters and verses. He wrote it as a unified letter. As you read it that way, look for repeated words or phrases that tip you off as to the major subjects he is addressing and the most important things he is trying to emphasize. Try to identify key exhortations or warnings. Use different colored pencils or highlighters to distinguish recurring themes.
“Wait a minute,” you may be tempted to think. “Isn’t that being kind of overanalytical? If I am reading this as a letter, doesn’t that imply some degree of casualness? After all, most of my letters are not riddled with ‘key words’ and ‘theological themes.’” But when we write any letter of importance, we have one specific thing in mind (sometimes more than one). If the recipient’s response is important to us, we weigh our words and choose our vocabulary carefully. There will usually be a strong thematic flavor not only to what we say but also to how we approach our topic and to how we express ourselves. Sometimes it even affects how we open and close the letter.
One characteristic of NT epistles is that they are occasional. That doesn’t mean “periodic” but that they are occasioned by some need or event; they were not merely “casual.” Paul and Peter and John didn’t just “drop a note” to see how folks were doing and catch them up on the latest apostolic goings on. They wrote with specific things in mind, specific needs to be addressed, specific ends in view. And more importantly, they wrote under the directive influence of the Holy Spirit. In fact, this epistle contains one of the key NT affirmations of this doctrine of inspiration (1:19–21).
Initial Impressions of Peter’s Second Letter
Having read Peter’s letter at a single sitting (preferably more than once), how would you divide up the major sections of the letter? What themes or recurring words do you notice? Let’s start from the end of the letter.
The Coming of the Lord. This theme is the dominant focus in chapter 3. Peter mentions it directly in 3:4, 10, and 12. But if you read carefully, you notice that everything he says in 3:1–16 revolves around this emphasis on the Lord’s return: its certainty (3:4–7), its apparent delay (3:8, 9), its suddenness and inescapability (3:10), its effect on our present life (3:11–14), and its practical application to the point of his letter (3:17, 18).
False Teachers. This theme is even clearer in chapter 2. Though “false teachers” are directly mentioned only once (2:1), there are nearly thirty more pronominal references to them throughout the rest of the chapter. This is clearly the particular threat that prompted Peter to write. The
introduction of chapter 1 sets the stage for this, and the focus of chapter 3 on the certainty of the Lord’s return (about which some, he says, had been generating doubt) drives home the point of our ultimate accountability to Him.
Stability. Summarizing a single theme for chapter 1 is a little more difficult. Peter’s concern for his readers surfaces in chapter 1 and keeps re-emerging throughout the letter. How would you sum up the essence of Peter’s burden for his readers? He wants them not to stumble (1:10), even though they are already established in the truth that they have (1:12), because the unstable are particularly susceptible to false teaching (2:14). The unstable twist and misuse the Scripture (3:16); in contrast, he wants them to beware lest they fall from their own steadfastness (3:17). I don’t think you’ll find a better single summary word for Peter’s burden than the word “stability.” And just as with animals and plants, stability comes from growth—a secondary theme that surfaces regularly.
The Knowledge of Christ. Their stability is rooted in something quite specific and concrete. Peter urges his readers to be grounded in the knowledge of Christ (1:2, 3, 8). But a mere surface knowledge of Christ that is not vital and productive and life-changing is still susceptible to deception (2:20). Believers must continue to grow in their knowledge of Christ (3:18).
The Centrality of Scripture. Stability and growth in the knowledge of Christ is not a mystical experience. It has a very tangible source—the word(s) of God. Note the many and diverse references to the Scriptures, and its indispensability for their stability and growth in the faith (1:4, 15, 19, 20, 21; 3:1, 2, 4, 5, 9, 13, 15, 16).
Putting It All Together
How do all these themes relate to one another? The essence of Peter’s second letter can be summed up this way: Spiritual stability, (growing in your knowledge of Christ through the Scriptures) is the antidote to the dangers of false teaching. Peter’s central concern in this letter (occupying the middle chapter) is the threat of false teaching (chapter 2). If his readers are not to “fall” for it (1:10; 2:14; 3:17), they must be stabilized in their faith. Their knowledge of Christ must not be a shallow, nominal, surface profession; it must be a living, fruit-bearing, progressively life-changing force (chapter 1). There are serious consequences for what we believe and how we live, for Jesus Christ is returning as Judge (chapter 3).
Value of Spiritual Stability: Personal Assurance (chapter 1)
- Stability starts with apostolic faith (1:1). This faith gives us the same acceptance and standing before God as the apostles, because we get our faith the same way they got theirs. This faith is not attained (something we ourselves produce or acquire by our own effort) but obtained (granted, given by God).
- Stability is rooted in knowledge of Christ (1:2, 3, 5–6, 8; 2:20; 3:18). Stability does not come from how much we know, but how well we know Him. Knowledge of Christ is not mystical but practical.
- Stability is possible because of divine power and promises (1:2-4). God has already provided everything we need to grow in grace and escape the corrupting influences of the surrounding world. We access it through His promises.
- Stability comes from growth in Christian graces (1:5–11). Why? Because our growth confirms the reality of our calling and election (1:10–11; cf. 1 Thess. 1:4–7). The assurance that “you will never stumble” implies stability.
- Stability is reinforced by constant reminding (1:12-21). Note Peter’s burden to remind his readers (1:12, 13, 15; 3:1, 2). Remind of what? The word of God (1:15, 19, 20). We already noted the emphasis on the importance of Scripture for spiritual stability.
Necessity of Spiritual Stability: Danger of False Teachers (chapter 2)
- Why you need to be spiritually stable: so you won’t be led astray or fall away. As Peter reminded believers in his first letter, the Devil is always actively on the prowl for victims, whether through temptation or false teaching (and often the two go hand-in-hand, 2:18–20).
Encouragement to Spiritual Stability: The Coming Day of the Lord (chapter 3)
- Remember our words (3:1, 2).
- Recognize the scoffers (3:3–7).
- Realize the divine perspective (3:8–13).
- Final call to spiritual stability (3:14–18).
Beware . . . but Grow
In his closing words (3:17, 18), Peter succinctly sums up his double-edged message to the believer, one edge a negative warning and the other a positive exhortation: beware . . . but grow. Peter crams into this conclusion almost every thematic element of the epistle, confirming all our instincts about the sum and substance of this letter: Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before [knowledge of Scripture], beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked [warning of false teaching], fall from your own steadfastness [spiritual stability]; but grow in grace [exhortation to progressive growth] and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ [knowledge of Christ].
Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC and is a Frontline Contributing Editor.
(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 2005. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)