There are some things in them that are hard to understand…

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
28th September 2005

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In his second letter, the Apostle Peter wrote of the Apostle Paul's letters saying: “there are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” (2 Peter 3:16)

This is an important little observation for several reasons.

Firstly, it is an acknowledgement that not all of Scripture is simple and straightforward but that there are some parts that are “hard to understand”. The scriptures are written for our understanding. They are not written to mystify or bewilder us. They are not mystical writings but the plain speech of people who want to be understood. As Peter himself wrote “This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring your sincere mind by way of reminder that you should remember the predictions of the prophets.” (3:1) and as Paul wrote to his second letter to the Corinthians “by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God” (4:2) “Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge, indeed, in every way we have made this plain to you in all things.” (11:6)

The scriptures then are written for our understanding. But Peter's observation that in Paul's writing there are some things that are hard to understand is still true. Not because Paul tried to be obscure or tricky, but because the issues that are being discussed are complex. Paul was writing of God and of life—these are not simple topics.

Secondly, the Bible, like any literature, is open to being twisted. This is the very nature of language. Writers can obscure their meaning while using words that appear to express their message. Readers can twist the message to mean whatever they want. It is of course a silly vain thing to do—either to write in order not to be understood or to read in order to think your own thoughts. Why bother! But it can be done and people are silly enough to do it—both in Peter's day and in our day.

This is not to say that we can ignore the author's intended meaning. Nor is it to say that we are unable to discover the author's intention. Communication by words is one of the great wonders of God in creation. We are able to communicate with each other with quite amazing accuracy. But some things are hard to understand and sometimes people twist words.

Thirdly, Peter observes that the twisters of words are “ignorant and unstable”. The ignorant in this passage are the untaught or uninstructed. It refers to those without learning. Paul referred to such people in 1 Timothy 1:7, “desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.”

The unstable are those who are easily enticed into sin (2 Peter 2:14). Their life's choices affect their misunderstanding of the truth just as their misunderstanding of the truth affects their life's choices.

Fourthly, Peter refers to Paul's writings as Scripture—“as they do the other scriptures”. This is an indication of Paul's authority as an apostle. It indicates that the apostles were conscious that they were writing Scripture. Specifically it shows that Peter was accepting Paul as writing Scripture. Peter's acceptance of Paul is critical testimony to the authenticity of the apostle who was “untimely born, the least of all the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (1 Cor 15:8-9).

Finally, reading Peter's other letter we find some things that are very hard to understand (e.g. 1 Peter 3:18-4:6). It seems then that Peter's comment about Paul is the apostolic pot calling the apostolic kettle black!