This past summer I attended a pastor’s conference where one of the keynote speakers spent several of his sessions preaching from the text of 2 Peter 1. His goal, as best I could tell, was to speak about the moral formation of pastors, and he was using the list of characteristics in 2 Peter 1:5-9 toward this purpose. In case you are unfamiliar with that list, the NIV renders that passage as follows:
5For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.
I confess a few problems. Three to be precise. First, is that of all the New Testament books, 2 Peter is the most likely candidate for, shall we say, lack of authenticity. Many scholars don’t believe that Peter had a hand in writing this letter, and there are a number of reasons for this. For example, a large section of the book is exactly copied in Jude, which means either that Jude was written first and Peter borrowed from him, or that Peter wrote and Jude borrowed. Either way, it’s a little troubling. For another matter, the business where Peter defends both Scripture (1:19-21) and Paul (3:15-16) feels a little strained. It is only later, inauthentic books that attempt to shore up their own authority with these kinds of claims. That isn’t to suggest that 2 Peter doesn’t belong in the Bible, but only that we have to read it with some special attention.
My second problem with 2 Peter 1 is that I find this list a little tiresome and daunting. Whenever I hear it I feel a kind of undue pressure. Does this mean that in addition to all the other ethical practices I am meant to keep—the Sermon on the Mount, the Fruits of the Spirit, and so forth—that this metric of adding to virtue A virtue B, and to virtue B virtue C and so forth is the way forward in faith? Something about the math of the matter leaves me sour, especially the sense that in order to get to love as a quality I have to accomplish tasks A, B, C, D, and E. This seems like a contradiction to the witness of Scripture elsewhere. Third and finally, the conference speaker wasn’t particularly good, and although he was very enthusiastic the level of his energy, this, combined with the relative poverty of his insights, left me feeling rather dry and nonplussed in the audience. His interpretation of 2 Peter 1, in other words, did not incite me to greater moral formation.
So, as is often the case, while he preached I opened my Greek Bible and began to work my way through the text in question. What I found in 2 Peter 1—as is often the case when I attend to the original Greek text—opened my eyes and encouraged my faith. Let me see if I can share the same encouragement with you.
The message of 2 Peter begins in verse 3 and the first paragraph runs through verse 11. Other translations do an injustice when they break the paragraph into pieces—the whole section from verse 3 to 11 is really one thought. Permit me to offer (or maybe even forgive me for this) my own translation here. Things may sound a little wooden because I am being intentionally literal. Also, please note that the words in bold are directly repeated words and ideas in the Greek text. Peter writes,
Since all things of His divine power—the things for life and for reverence—have been given to us through the knowledge of the one who calls us to His own glory and goodness (through whom the honorable and great promises have been given, in order that through these things you might share fellowship with the divine nature, escaping from corruption in the world’s desires)—now, regarding this very thing, making making every effort in all haste, supply in your faith goodness, and in goodness knowledge, and in knowledge self-control, and in self-control obedience, and in obedience reverence, and in reverence brotherly love, and in brotherly love love. For these things are possessions to you and increasing, making nothing idle or fruitless for the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For in the person for whom these things have not come, he is blind and shortsighted, holding forgetfulness of purification from his old sins. Wherefore more, brothers, hasten to make secure your calling and election, for doing these things you will never ever stumble. For thus access will be richly supplied to you for the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
One of the funny things about the Greek language that make it difficult to translate into English is the way it uses verbs. In any given sentence you can have one main verb with a whole host of attached clauses—the trick is that the main verb doesn’t always have to be at the beginning. In the passage above, the first main verb we get is in verse 5, were Peter commands us to “supply.” That means that the whole of the first two verses are clauses explaining this action of supplying. What this means is that we can neatly summarize the main idea of the passage as follows: since all things of the Divine power have been given, therefore supply the following to your faith. Because of verses 3 and 4, perform the command of verse 5. The grammar points to the importance of verses 5-7.
As I looked closer at verses 5-7, however, more of my curiosity was aroused. The preposition used between each element is en, meaning ‘in’ or ‘within.’ This seems like an odd choice to translate as “to” since there are other Greek prepositions that can mean “to” (such as eis or even epi). That made me want to look up the translation options for the word which the NIV translated “add,” but which I have translated “supply” above. In Greek, that word is epicoregeo, and other immediate options for translation are “provide” “give” “grant” and “support.” This range of options warranted some further digging, and what I found was this—the primary meaning of the word is to “supply” or “furnish,” and its special usage is the action of a husband providing for his wife. This discovery piqued my interest.
I looked at other occurrences of the word in the New Testament, and more things came together for me. Of these (there are 5 total, including the two in our passage above), Paul’s use of the word in Galatians 3:5 was especially arresting. Paul writes, “So then, does He who furnishes you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” What a concept! The Church, who is the bride of Christ, has been supplied (epicoregeo) by the Spirit. Taking from the special usage of the word, Paul is implying that the Spirit is like the support offered by God to we who are His Bride. He is our deposit, our household expense account, if the image is not too irreverent.
With a fresh understanding of the word “supply” and its possible implications, I returned to 2 Peter 1 and reread the list. Things then began to shift. This is not a list of ethical addition at all. My faith is not a matter of adding x to y and to z in order to achieve love. Instead of addition, the dominant image is one of concentric circles. Faith is the overall picture, the biggest circle, but at the centre of that circle is love itself. The action of “supplying,” then, is the action making provision for the needs of my faith through these qualities. So, within my faith I supply goodness, and within goodness I supply knowledge, and within my knowledge I supply self-control, and within my self-control I supply obedience, and within my obedience I supply reverence, and within my reverence I supply brotherly love, and at the absolute centre of my being, the heart-of-hearts from which I operate all my faith, I am to supply love. The progression of my ethics is not adding action to action, but of a sanctified centre working outwards through all my behavior. The Christian life, in other words, is not a matter of adding qualities to attain to love, but of centering your life on love and then growing into these other qualities.
Suddenly, this passage in 2 Peter which had seemed obscure and, quite frankly, a little difficult, resolved into a clear message of Christian ethics. God is calling us into His Divine nature—to participation in His image and likeness. How are we commanded to respond to that call? By placing love at the centre of our lives, furnishing our faith with it as a husband furnishes living arrangements for his bride. If we reject this process, we are blind, shortsighted, and forgetful of our salvation.
My little Greek study made the conference more enjoyable. It overturned my previous thoughts on this passage. And it even began to change my perception of the second letter of Peter as being something of a fringe text. Indeed, read this way it would appear that the message of 2 Peter 1:3-11 is at the very centre of the Christian ethical life.