2 Peter 1:16-21
1. False Claims in General
These days we are bombarded with people wanting to sell us things. There are door to door salesman (although they seem to becoming less often). There are telephone callers (although they are probably mainly scams). There are the catalogues in the mailbox, in the newspapers, or even posted to you—because some how you’re got onto someone’s mailing list. And there are the number of emails (which again you have to be careful about, because of those scams). And all this is addition to the usual television advertising, notice boards, and signs in shops telling you how much you could save, if only you would buy a particular product.
Yes, these days there are people who want to sell you all sorts of things. And, unfortunately, there are some who are prepared to go to any lengths in order to make a sale.
Is it any wonder, then, that along with the advertising we are told: “This is the best thing since . . ,” “It’s even better than . . ,” “It’s the only way . . ,” “It’s new and improved . . ,” “It’s a scientific breakthrough . . ,” and, “It’s good old-fashioned reliability . . .” Although the evidence for such a claim is rarely forthcoming.
So the question arises, can we really rely on what we’re told? After all, are the claims that are made about the products really true? And if the advertising is based on truth, has the truth been embellished in order to make a sale? Indeed, how can you prove that what you are being told is true? How can you separate the truth from the lies?
2. False Claims in the Faith
Well, not surprisingly the problem is one we all face. And it is one we face when it comes to matters in regard to our religious faith too. But in matters of faith, it is a far more serious issue. Because our whole life—our whole eternal well-being—may well depend on whether the claims are true or false.
So how can we tell truth from fiction? How can we tell truth from lies? How can we tell who to listen to and who should be ignored?
Well, the short answer to the things that are offered for general sale, is that we need to do our homework. And regarding all things religious . . . We need to do our homework too.
And in the context of religion, that job has been made a whole lot simpler for us, because of the experiences of the apostle Peter. Because Peter faced a similar problem. Only in his case, it was Peter himself who was being accused of being a liar—of embellishing the truth. And as a consequence, he had to come with a way of defending himself against such accusations.
And in his particular instance, Peter had been teaching that Jesus would empower all believers to live the Christian life, and that Jesus would one day come again to bring his people together. And it was because of this teaching that he was being accused of selling people false dreams. As a consequence, Peter’s response was that if they really wanted to know whether he was telling the truth, all they had to do was to follow two simple guidelines.
B. PETER’S SOLUTION
1. He Was an Eyewitness (16-18)
And the first of these was for them to test whether he was a genuine eyewitness or not to the things that Jesus had taught and done.
After all he had been there; he’d seen most of what Jesus had done. Jesus had spoken to him directly and personally. And being one of the inner three disciples, he had been a witness to more about Jesus, than just about any other person alive. Consequently, if he couldn’t be relied upon to tell the truth, then who could?
Yet even Peter acknowledged that being an eyewitness did not necessarily make him truthful. Nevertheless, being one of the inner three disciples, meant that James and John could be called upon to collaborate his story. And, if they said the same, and if their stories didn’t contradict one another, then that would be evidence to whether he was telling the truth or not.
So having provided the first guideline, Peter went on to give the only written eyewitness account of the transfiguration of Jesus that we have in the bible. And why did Peter choose to tell the story of the transfiguration at this point? Well, because the story of the transfiguration is a story about Jesus giving believers a foretaste of his power and a foretaste of his second coming—the two things that Peter was accused of making up. And it was a story that the other two eyewitnesses, James and John, could authenticate. (Because although the apostle James would have been dead at this point, what he had shared about Jesus would still have been in circulation at the time.)
Peter’s first defence, then, wasn’t based on whether he was a church leader, even though he was very high up in the church. No! It was based on the fact that he was an eyewitness to the events. And an eyewitness, where the facts of what he had seen and experienced could be verified by the evidence of others.
(And, incidentally, today we have the story of the transfiguration recorded in three gospels—in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And those stories would have been based on second hand, if not third hand accounts. And some of it may have originated from James and John. But none of the versions contradict the story from Peter.)
2. It is Attested by the Prophets (19-21)
For Peter, then, being a credible eyewitness was very important. Yet Peter was not naïve enough to think that people would be convinced on that evidence alone. No, he wasn’t that naïve. As a consequence, Peter’s second principle was to refer them to the scriptures. Indeed, he basically said, “If you don’t believe me, then check the scriptures for yourselves.” In other words he told them not to accept his word on his say so alone, but to check what he had said to see if it was consistent with what had been recognised to be the truth, from what had been taught before.
Now Peter knew that even amongst the Jewish Christians, they would take far more stock in the Old Testament prophets, than in a voice calling to them from the heavens. But then the prophets had been proven to be true, time and time again. As a consequence, at the time there was this feeling that if what was being said fitted what the prophets had said, then that was a measure of whether something was genuine or not.
And, consequently, Peter, who was far more concerned that the people should get the message right, rather than build up accolades for himself, basically said, “Whether you believe me or not, check it out in the scriptures. The scriptures will tell you that the Messiah will empower his people. The scriptures will tell you that the Messiah will not just come just once, but twice. And the second time he will gather his people together.” He basically said, “You may not believe me; you may think I’m selling you false dreams. But read the scriptures for yourself and learn for yourselves that I am telling you the truth. The scriptures will shine a light on what I say. Then you can decide whether I am telling the you the truth or not.”
And with that Peter concluded his defence.
Now let’s get back to our original question: How can you tell if what you are told is the truth? How can you separate truth and lies?
Well, in regard to all things religious, we need to take into account the two tests that Peter wrote in his letter:
Because whilst none of us have been eyewitnesses to the events of the New Testament, from time to time we may all have come across someone who has claimed to be an eyewitness to a spiritual event or who has claimed to have had received special insight in regard to what God wants us to do. And if we have, what did we do? Did we believe them or not?
Well according to Peter, an eyewitness, on their own, is not a guarantee of whether something is truthful or not. Indeed, there needs to be the evidence of corroborating witnesses. As a consequence, if someone claims to be an eyewitness, or have a special message—even for us today—we need to check the authenticity of what they have seen or said.
2. Authentication by Scripture
But in any event, according to Peter, we also need to test what we are told, with what it says in the scriptures. And if what we’re told is not confirmed in the bible, then we should not accept what they say.
Now in all of this, the importance of the scriptures—the Bible—cannot be overstated. Peter’s basic assumption was that the people would know the contents of the Old Testament, and in his case, the twelve books of the prophets in particular. And on that assumption alone, we should know the contents of the scriptures too.
Indeed in order to sort out truth from fiction, and not to be taken in by false teaching, one of our basic practices should be, to immerse ourselves in the pages of the bible. And that will involve reading it regularly, studying it, and even being a member of a bible study group.
And the reason I say that is because those people who don’t have a bible, and those people who have one but leave it to go dusty on a shelf . . . Those are the people who are setting themselves up to be taken in by false teaching. They are also the ones more likely to be living with false hope. Because without a depth of knowledge that the bible can provide, they have no basis to check the validity of what other people say.
a). The Need to have Faith
So if someone should tell us that there are many ways to heaven, and that we can get there by doing good works, by giving money to the poor, by being a member of a Guild, by spending time fundraising, or just by being a good person, we can check out what the bible says. And if we do that, we can read the words of Jesus that clearly says that that sort of teaching is false. Indeed, there is only way to heaven, and that is through faith in him. As Jesus said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6).
b). The Need to Worship
If someone should tell us that going to church isn’t important, that it’s not necessary, that one need only worship in private, and that time can be used for better things, then again, we can read what the bible says on that subject. And we can read the fourth commandment, which emphasizes the need to have a day of rest, and a need to make that day holy: “Remember to keep the Sabbath day holy. You are to labour for six days, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. You are not to do any work—you, your son or daughter, your manservant or maidservant, your animals, or any alien living with you. For the Lord created the heavens, the earth, the sea and all that is in them, in six days. But on the seventh day he rested. For this reason, the LORD has blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11).
We can then go on to letter to the Hebrews, which emphasizes the need to meet together: “Do not stop meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encourage one another—and even more so as you see the Day of the Lord approaching.” (Hebrews 10:25)
c). The Need to Care
If someone should say that as far as helping others in the community, that we should do our bit, give money, and help someone in need, but only in a token way, because there are other things in life. That we shouldn’t get our hands too dirty, and that it’s dangerous to get too involved. Then again, we can check out the words of Jesus. Particularly the story he told about separating the sheep from the goats. The sheep—the ones who cared for people and were prepared to get their hands dirty. And the goats—the ones who didn’t want to do any more than just a token gesture. And to the people’s question: “Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a foreigner, or poorly clothed, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t take care of you?” the answer to the goats was: “Truly I tell you in so far as you didn’t do it for the least of these brothers of mine, you didn’t do it for me” (Matthew 25:44-45).
d). The Need to Share
And if someone should say that their Christian faith is a private concern, that it’s something between themselves and God only, and not something we should talk about to others, then again we can read the bible and see the words of Jesus to his disciples: “He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. If anyone believes and is baptized, they will be saved, but if anyone does not believe they will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15).
Now, of course, we could go on and talk about numerous other things. Things that are said, which people believe, whether they are true or false. Things that people may well have gained from personal experience. But all things which can and should be validated by the authority of scripture . . .
So yes, we should still be listening to eyewitness accounts. But we should be checking them for their validity too.
As I said at the beginning, we seem today to be inundated with people wanting to sell us things. However as you know and I know, things aren’t always what they are claimed to be. And because of that, in life we need to have ways to check the validity of what people say.
And just as that is true regarding claims about the latest soap powder, so is it true regarding claims about all things religious too.
But fortunately for us the Apostle Peter has given us some guidelines. He’s given us a way to check whether what people say in Christian terms is true or not. As an eyewitness himself, he emphasized the need to check with others the validity of what he had seen and heard. And, perhaps more importantly, he also advised the importance of checking up what one is told with the evidence of scripture.
Consequently, if we really want to know truth from fiction, fact from lie, reality from embellishment, in terms of the Christian faith, we need to use the readymade tool we have been given for this very purpose—the Bible. Because without it—without using and referring to it on a regular basis—we have the recipe for getting it all wrong, for not knowing fact from fiction. Without it, we risk not only going astray ourselves, but leading others astray too. But with it, we have an invaluable tool to test everything religious—and maybe even beyond that—to test whether what we are told is right.
Posted: 14th January 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis