The Psychology of Scripture: A Brief Study of the Organic Thought-Pattern of 2 Peter

One cannot study the book of Second Peter without also encountering the book of Jude. A reading of 2 Peter 2 and the book of Jude seems to be an exercise in redundancy. Biblical scholars seek to determine who stole from whom. This endeavor is somewhat surprising since such scholars, on the whole, think that neither Peter nor Jude is responsible for the books that bear their names. In any event, most suppose that 2 Peter borrowed from Jude. On a rational level, this makes sense. Logically, it seems more likely that 2 Peter would be built upon the material of Jude than that Jude would be written independently after 2 Peter. After all, we know Jude wished to write about the subject of salvation (Jude 3); if Jude knew of 2 Peter’s existence it seems he could have just gone ahead and written about the subject on his heart and added at the end, a la Paul in Col. 4:16, an instruction to read 2 Peter.

In spite of this, there is good reason to believe that 2 Peter was written independently of Jude. Beyond the fact that 2 Peter 2 and Jude are not as similar as they initially seem[1]; an  intertextual reading of 2 Peter reveals the thought patterns of the author and the organic unity of his book.

The epistle of 2 Peter was occasioned by an influx of false teachers who denied the trustworthiness of the promise of the Lord’s return. While this only becomes transparent in chapter 3, Peter steadily builds his case throughout the letter. Christians are diligent to live a life of holiness because of the promise of a “richly provided…entrance into the eternal kingdom” of the Lord (1:11). The promise of this kingdom is not a “cleverly devised” myth, but was vouchsafed by the Transfiguration of Jesus on the holy mountain (1:16-18). The “prophetic word” is to be given attention, therefore, “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (1:19).

This dawning day and rising star is taken to be a reference to the second coming of Christ. Peter comes by this vivid imagery the sunrise and morning star honestly. The prophet Malachi (4:1-2) warned that the Day of the Lord was coming “burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble.” But that for those who feared the Lord, “the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.” In anticipation of the birth of Jesus, this prophecy of Malachi was explicitly referenced by Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist (Luke 1:76-78). At his birth, Jesus’ appearance was known through “his star” (Matt. 2:2). Even now, believers are able to walk in wisdom because of the light of Christ shining on them (Eph. 5:14ff). In Revelation 2:28 Jesus himself uses the imagery when He promises to give the one who conquers, “the morning star.” At the conclusion of the book Jesus makes the identity of this morning star clear, “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”

But the first use of this imagery is found all the way back in Numbers 24:17: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth.” This comes from Balaam’s fourth and final oracle. This seemingly passing allusion to the account of Balaam actually sets the agenda for the rest of 2 Peter.

Immediately following the echoing of Balaam’s words Peter addresses the source, or origin, of Scripture: “knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:20-21). According to Peter, no man sat down and thought to himself, “I think I will write some Scripture today.” Man does not have God’s word because man decided to write it. Man has God’s word because God decided to give it.

Is there any clearer example of this in Scripture than the Balaam episode? Here was a man who was being offered the riches of a kingdom to pronounce a curse on Israel yet he could only announce blessing. Balaam himself recognized the futility of trying to put words into God’s mouth. The constant refrain in Numbers 22-24 is that a prophet can only speak what God puts in his mouth (Num 22:18,20,35,38; 23:3,8,12,20,26; 24:13). And just in case the point is missed, God demonstrates that he does not even need a man to give His word: if he so chooses He can use a donkey (Num. 22:28-30).

If all we knew of Balaam came from Numbers 22-24 we would have to view him as true prophet of the Lord. Balaam is a perfect example of Peter’s statement about the origin of Scripture: it comes from God not man. But Balaam was not all he appeared to be. Following the glorious predictions of Israel’s blessed future because of the coming Messiah, the people fall into idolatry and sexual immorality. This wickedness led to the death of 24,000 Israelites (Num. 25). It is only later that we discover that immorality and idolatry of Numbers 25 occurred because of the counsel of Balaam (Num. 31:15-16).

Balaam appeared to be a true prophet of the Lord, only speaking what the Lord commanded him. Yet he could not hide his true nature: Balaam had a heart of greed and immorality. It is therefore not surprising to see Peter turn to the subject of false prophets.

False prophets deny the Master who bought them (2 Pet. 2:1): just like Balaam said he could only bless the people the Lord blessed and then instructed how that blessing could be thwarted. False prophets use sensuality to blaspheme the way of truth (2:2): just like Balaam taught the Moabites to lead the Israelites away from God though sexual immorality. False prophets are motivated by greed (2:3): just like Balaam who could not turn down the riches offered to him.

Peter then launches into an extended recounting of Old Testament examples of God judging the apostate (2:4-14). The culminating example of God’s condemnation, and the template of all false teachers to follow, is Balaam: “Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing” (2:15).

Finally, in 2 Peter 3:4, we discover that the substance of the false teaching was a denial of the Lord’s coming. Not only was this the substance of their teaching, it was the reason for their immorality. In this we see the close connection between theology and morality. If Christ is not returning to judge all unrighteousness why not eat drink and be merry? False teachers ignore God’s working in the past and deny his working in the future (3:5-7). There is therefore no reason to live a life of holiness and godliness (3:11).

At the root of it all, this was the cause of Balaam’s sin. What else could be behind a man who in one breath could proclaim the coming of a king who would crush the heads of Moab and then advise Moab on how to undo God’s people? Balaam obviously did not believe the word he had just spoken. Balaam could not wait for God’s promise, but needed immediate gratification. In this, he set the example for false teachers to this day (3:11-13).

Peter was not a lazy copier or sloppy incorporator of the letter from Jude. Peter had thought long and hard about the account of Balaam. Peter had meditated on what really went wrong with Balaam. Peter saw that the Balaam incident was not an isolated event, but a pattern for all future apostasy. From beginning to end, 2 Peter demonstrates the mind of an author who had carefully pondered the Old Testament Scriptures and was able to apply those Scriptures to the life of the church. In many ways, 2 Peter is an apostolic sermon on Numbers 22-24. Peter did not need to borrow from Jude: he had a mind saturated with Scripture.

[1] See the concise summary in Michael Green, 2 Peter and Jude, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1983), 53-54.