In [Paul’s letters] 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. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness.
2 Peter 3:16b-17, NASB
I came across this passage the other day. I’d known about the very beginning of it before, the part about there being things in Paul’s epistles that are difficult to understand. But never before has the whole thing really hit me.
There are times in which I read a Pauline letter and am just overwhelmed that I do not understand them and am confused. Or, I’m overwhelmed in a deeper way when I feel like I understand them perfectly well but I have always thought that only unwise people talk like Paul is talking, and yet I have committed myself to a high view of Scripture, so I must believe Paul’s writings, because they are not only his words, but also the words of the All-Wise Creator God. I have grown in my understanding and faith over the years, but there remain many moments when I am simply perplexed.
But hallelujah! Peter has had the same experience. He thinks it worthy to write that the letters are “hard to understand,” and this is a relief to my heart. I do not have to feel that I am alone when I am confused or uncertain, because Peter the Apostle felt the same.
But the famous part of the passage is only the beginning. The “untaught”, the ones who have not been shown the full counsel of the Father, and the “unstable”, the ones who are not at peace, these men distort the deep mysteries. I may be correct that unwise people talk the way Paul talks. These people pretend to understand, and think they do, but they do not. They lack caution, or balance, or rigor, or breadth, or self-suspicion, or some other element which the wisest interpretation has acquired, the interpretation that says sounds so similar, but with all-important and subtle differences.
What do the unstable and untaught do to the Scriptures? They “distort” them. They take them out of context. They misquote or misuse. They invent wild hermeneutical acrobatics to justify the textual violence they do. They come to the text to confirm their thoughts, rather than forming their thoughts from the text.
This distortion and twisting happens “to their own destruction.” They hurt themselves by manipulating the truth. The twisting of God’s Word takes many, many forms. It could mean knowing that the moral law still exists, but forgetting that our consciences are cleared before God. It could mean knowing that to love is to forgive, but forgetting that to love also means to correct. It could mean neglecting a hurting friend because the friendship is difficult and they are “just not what I need right now,” or staying in an abusive relationship because of the word “forgiveness.” Blaming a genuinely modest woman’s attire for a man’s lust, or reassuring the world that no one goes to Hell because God is too loving for that. The distortion of religion brings profound spiritual harm. It surely happens to our own destruction.
This twisting does not just occur with Paul’s writings, but also with “the rest of the Scriptures.” All the law and the prophets are twisted by mankind. Notice that Peter is calling Paul’s letters Scripture. He does not say “The Scriptures,” but “The rest of the Scriptures.” This means that what Paul writes is included in the word “Scriptures.” So Peter, at least, thought that Paul’s letters belonged in the canon.
What are we to do with this warning? We, the “beloved” of Peter and God, are first of all to know it. Indeed, to know it “beforehand.” “Be on your guard.” Be ready for it. Realize that twisting happens, probably even among our own churches and friends — and even inside ourselves. Understanding God’s wisdom is difficult, and as the Avett Brothers say, “Ain’t it like most people? I’m no different. / We love to talk on things we don’t know about.”
We “know this beforehand” so that we would “take care that [we] are not carried away with the error.” The error of “unprincipled men” is to twist mysteries, and this is to their own destruction. But we should not let this become our own destruction in addition to theirs.
What would happen if we are carried away? We would “fall from [our] own steadfastness.” I love how the ESV puts it; “Lose your own stability.” It is deeply hard to understand how it is even possible to have stability in this world of terminal illness, sexual abuse, intentional, sustained lying, systematic and individual racism, suicide, parental failures, natural disasters, fleeing refugees, domestic violence, betrayals in friendships, mass shootings, institutionalized abortion, philosophies of nihilistic meaninglessness, starving children, violent activism, and worldwide murder of fellow believers. We are living in a vale of tears.
But Peter is telling us that the proper interpretation of Scripture does not uproot our stability and steadfastness; it does not leave us in an unendurable sense of defeatism or worthlessness, it does not give us a feeling of perfection and superiority, and it does not avoid the reality of life’s tragedies and evils. Rather, miraculously, it establishes us in stability. It soothes our guilt with the comfort of forgiveness and peace, and even joy. It reminds us that we have much work to do, and that our disease of sin is still within us and must be fought. It calms our fears with the promise that “The Lord is with us,” and reassures us that in the end, tragedy will be in the past, and evil will be defeated. Finally, it tells us that our stability is not of our own doing. It tells us to work to conform to the reality of our own stability, and yet it also tells us that our stability has been created and given by Christ’s electing to bring us to Himself. Our stability has been implanted, and it will not fail, because it is the power of the Holy Spirit.
Finally, who is it that is writing these words? A man who one moment sliced a servant’s ear off to protect his Lord, and the next denied him three times. A guy who witnessed just about the most profound and mysterious moment in history, and started babbling about making tents. Not a guy who tends towards stability, to put it mildly. It is Peter, the one who once had no stability. He would leap from here to there, in naïve confidence or shame. The Catholic Encyclopedia says it well, “Though of irresolute character, he clings with the greatest fidelity, firmness of faith, and inward love to the Savior; rash alike in word and act, he is full of zeal and enthusiasm, though momentarily easily accessible to external influences and intimidated by difficulties.”
Peter knows about losing his steadfastness. Yet, now, writing near his death, he wants us to avoid repeating his mistakes. Listen to stability, and guard it. Keep it precious in your heart. And never think that Scripture is against it.