Ambassador of Reconciliation
5/26/14 at 02:53 PM 8 Comments

What Are the Fruits? Part 2

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Second Peter 3 contains Peter’s last written words to us. He wrote both of his letters to stimulate his readers to wholesome thinking and to urge them to recall the words of the prophets and the command given by the Lord through the apostles (2 Pet. 3:1-2). He speaks of the last days (3:3ff), when the heavens and earth as we know them will be destroyed (3:7, 10-12) to make way for “a new heaven and new earth, where righteousness dwells” (3:13). Since the time is coming when all that is corrupt will be destroyed and Christ’s reign of righteousness will be ushered in, we ought to be living holy and godly lives now, as we look forward to that day (3:11-12). We should be making every effort to be found blameless and at peace with him (3:14).

Next Peter refers to “our dear brother Paul,” who also wrote with the wisdom that God gave him (3:15). Paul’s basic message was the same as Peter’s: “He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters” (3:16). Then Peter says of Paul, “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” (3:16).

Our Bible study lesson asked, “What specific problem is Peter addressing in 3:16? What are the potential consequences of this problem?” The problem is that Paul’s letters “contain some things that are hard to understand.” In fact, things that are hard to understand are found throughout the Bible, as Peter indicates when he says that people distort Paul’s hard-to-understand teachings “as they do the other Scriptures.” In other words, things that are difficult to understand are found not only in Paul’s writing but also in other Scriptures.

The consequences of this problem are enormous. The fact that some ideas in Scripture are not plain to see means that good Christians can be at odds over the meaning of a passage, leading to conflict and strife. Worse, people who are “ignorant and unstable” can distort the Scriptures, bringing about “destruction.” Denying that some Scriptures are difficult to understand and interpret does not help matters. On one of my posts, in which I suggested looking at 1 Peter 3:6 from a different angle than the traditional way, a commenter quoted bereansdesk to say, “There is only ever one interpretation to a text; but there may be many applications to a text.” In other words, there is only one way to interpret a text—my way. Anybody who doesn’t agree with the obviously correct understanding is guilty of eisegeis, if not outright heresy. This particular commenter muted me, eliminating the possibility of wrestling through the passage together.1

Why did God allow some Scriptures to be difficult to understand? Why didn’t He make everything in the Bible so crystal clear that everybody would agree? I don’t know. Unfortunately, as we well know from church history, wars of all sizes have been fought over the interpretation of the Bible. My plea is that we not allow our sacred book to become the source of hostility and fighting among believers.

Matson

So what should we do? First, I would encourage all Christians to be gracious in the way they treat others in the body of Christ with whom they disagree. What good does it do for the hand to poke out the eye? Or for the teeth to bite the tongue? Or for one foot to stomp on the other? The body functions best when the members build one another up, not tear each other down. We will never see eye to eye about everything with anybody, but we can be respectful toward others with different ideas.

We also need discernment to know which matters of interpretation are critical and which ones don’t really matter. Here are four different types of issues regarding biblical interpretation that can cause conflict:

First, there are the beliefs at the core of our faith—the ones that set us apart as Christians. As I wrote in a previous blog, “There are certain beliefs that are foundational to Christianity. All Christians agree on these points because they are the very ones that identify us as Christians; a person who does not hold these basic tenets is not called ‘Christian,’ because these convictions constitute the definition of ‘Christian.’” I went on to say that individual believers should not make their own definitions of the essentials of the faith; that was done for us very capably in the Nicene Creed, a statement that “embodies the essence of what it means to be a Christian.” It has stood the test of time and has been accepted by the majority of Christians around the world and throughout church history.

In contrast, the quote from bereansdesk above rightly states that there may be many applications to a text. The Holy Spirit can use the same passage to impress different lessons on different people. The same person can even re-read a text years later and come away with a different application than what he took from it earlier. We should be encouraged that God can apply His Word in a multitude of unique ways, depending on the present needs of the reader. It is absolutely unnecessary to insist that all Christians ought to take the same life lessons from a text.

Then there are issues that may have a right or wrong interpretation, but they are not critical to our salvation or our Christian walk. Is our salvation or sanctification really affected by whether we were dunked or sprinkled? By whether we worship on the seventh day or the first day? By whether our church has a Presbyterian or Congregational form of government? These matters can be debated, and in some cases one way may be better than another, but differences in interpretation in these issues should not be cause for breaking fellowship.

Finally, there are the interpretations that do affect our Christian walk. I’m not talking now about the issues that determine whether or not a person fits the definition of “Christian” (like one’s understanding of the person and work of Christ). But there are other matters of biblical interpretation whose consequences impact lives in very significant ways. We need to prayerfully use all the tools at our disposal to try to come up with the right interpretations, but Christians can still differ on these matters.

You can make the Bible say pretty much whatever you want it to say. But obviously not all interpretations are good and right. I would like to offer one way to assess different interpretations: We should be asking ourselves, “What are the fruits of that teaching?” An interpretation that produces good fruit is more likely to be correct than one that produces bad fruit.

Peter says that some people distort the Scriptures “to their own destruction” (3:16). Are the consequences of an interpretation destructive in some way? Then we should question whether the interpretation is correct. An example that comes to mind is slavery. The Bible has been used to justify slavery, but the evil results of enslaving other human beings should tell us that God never intended His Word to be used to legitimize such a system. The Bible has also been used to promote anti-Semitism. Again, it is clear from the fruits of such thinking that God’s Word should not be interpreted to justify hatred toward the Jews. In fact, the Bible has been used in support of all kinds of violence against non-Christians, even against other Christians who don’t line up in some way. When the fruits of interpretations are in violation of clear principles of Scripture, we should take the hint—the interpretation is wrong.

But we don’t need to look to such extreme examples to find Scripture being misinterpreted and misused. I doubt that any of my present readers would support slavery, anti-Semitism, or violence, but we all need to ask ourselves if any of our interpretations have negative consequences. Think about your own interpretations. What kind of fruit do they produce in your life? What effect do they have on other people? In light of this test, do any of your interpretations need to be re-examined?

I shouldn’t close this post without adding that, although some parts of Scripture are hard to understand (as Peter acknowledges), most of it is crystal clear with regard to “what kind of people [we] ought to be” (2 Pet. 3:11). We are to develop Sermon on the Mount attitudes and fruit of the Spirit qualities. We are to cultivate the characteristics that should identify the people of God. Here are a few examples:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Col. 3:12-17)

Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. (1 Pet. 3:8-9).

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (1 Jn. 4:7-12).

Yes, there are parts of Scripture that are hard to understand. But what kind of people we ought to be—that’s not a mystery.

Part 1 of “What Are the Fruits?” looked at this question with regard to interpretations about a particular issue.

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1The commenter in question took issue with my understanding of the passage, to which I replied, “Abraham was candid with Sarah; together they deceived Pharaoh and Abimelech with a half-truth. Whether their actions were right or wrong is debatable, as evidenced by the fact that solid Christians take both sides. Was Abraham acting in faith when he came up with the say-you're-my-sister plan? If not, was Sarah's submission a model for Christian wives to go along with their husbands even they make wrong decisions? Did Sarah (rightly or wrongly) pressure Abraham into sleeping with Hagar? Into throwing out Hagar and Ishmael? All of these are questions that need to be asked and pondered thoughtfully.” My critic would not even read my comment in its entirety. She replied, “It's evident whatever I (and certain others) post to you goes in one ear and out the other. I will not and do not have to click ‘....more’ to know that reply to me is a defense of and continuation of your oft dialectic/emergent fueled eisegesis of Scripture. I will not read your replies to me anymore, I’m muting you. However, I will continue to warn readers of your many errors which include your heresy and your attempts to get others to question Gods Word and dialogue their opinions about Gods Word rather than encouraging them to accept Gods Word by faith and obey Him.” In other words, she is accepting God’s Word by faith, but I am attempting to get others to question God’s Word. This failure to recognize that some passages are not easy to understand leads to unnecessary hostility and suspicion among believers.

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