Commentary on 2 Peter 1:16-21
The primary question 2 Peter wants to address appears later in the letter: “Where is the promise of his coming?” (2 Peter 3:4). “His” refers, of course, to Jesus, whom the letter identifies as Christ, Savior, and Lord. And “coming” refers to Jesus’ end-time, or eschatological, coming. The false teaching that concerns our author centers on the denial of the eschatological return of Jesus. Intertwined with this tenet of the faith is the expectation that Jesus’ coming places on life in the present. If eschatology and ethics are woven together, then denying Jesus’ future coming pulls the rug out from under the call to faithful living in the present. If there is no future judgment, then why not always be “on the lookout for opportunities to sin” (2 Peter 2:14 Common English Bible)? In short, having rejected the church’s eschatological expectation and its linked promise of divine judgment, these false teachers relaxed their ethical mores: “They have left the straight road and have gone astray” (2:15).
Against this false teaching, 2 Peter sketches a series of counterarguments, the first two of which we read in today’s reading:
- The author supports the apostolic message by recalling the apostles’ firsthand testimony to the transfiguration of Jesus, demonstrating Jesus’ appointment by God to the future role of eschatological ruler and judge (2 Peter 1:16-18).
- The author grounds the apostolic message in the Scriptures, claiming that in them, “men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (1:21), and insists that their meaning should not be renegotiated according to personal whim (1:19-21).
Contemporary western folk are much more likely than the ancients to dismiss the transfiguration story as legendary, or perhaps, to attempt to explain it with reference to natural phenomena (say, a lightning strike illuminated Jesus’ face). Recent study of visionary experiences underscores the wisdom of taking more seriously reports of this nature, of setting aside modern prejudice against the plausibility of such experiences. Accordingly, the pivotal question is no longer one of veracity—Did it happen?—but of significance: What does it mean?
Matthew, Mark, and Luke relate an event in which Jesus ascends a mountain with three followers, Jesus is transformed in their presence, Moses and Elijah appear, Peter proposes to construct three tents, and the divine voice speaks of Jesus’ identity (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36). In different ways, each prioritizes Jesus’ identity by displaying in the present, if only for a moment, a portrait of Jesus’ future glory.
What role does the transfiguration play for 2 Peter? It validates the promise of Jesus’ future coming.
For 2 Peter, the apostolic message is not like those “cleverly devised myths” (1:16) people used to tell about the old Greek and Roman gods. Instead, their message is based on what the apostles had seen (Jesus’ majesty) and heard (God’s affirmation of Jesus). Note how the report concerning Jesus’ transfiguration is bookended with emphases on first hand testimony: we saw, we heard (1:16b, 18).
Speaking of Jesus’ status, the author piles word upon words: “majesty,” “honor,” “glory”—and so identifies Jesus with God, “the Majestic Glory” (1:16-17). To this the author adds affirmations from Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1: “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (1:17). The result is threefold:
- God appointed Jesus as messianic king, God’s coregent, so Jesus has divine responsibility as ruler and judge.
- Jesus’ majestic coregency with God does not rest on human claims or legends, but on God’s own voice.
- Therefore, the apostolic message of the coming, end-time judgment is not a fable but derives from God’s own action and declaration.
Since it was God who spoke of Jesus’ identity and status at the transfiguration, and since in doing so God spoke in the words of Israel’s Scriptures, it follows naturally that 2 Peter turns now to the reliability of those Scriptures.
Our author may have in mind particular scriptural texts that urge the belief that the long-awaited one must come to set the world right. This is possible, but the words “prophetic message,” “prophecy of scripture,” and “prophecy” (1:19-21) probably refer more widely to the whole of Israel’s Scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament. In the post-resurrection scene with the disciples in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus strikes a similar note: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). And Paul speaks of what happened with Christ “in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Which ones? All of them!
Jesus’ transfiguration thus serves, first, to interpret the Scriptures. We read this event in light of Scripture and we read Scripture in light of this event. Jesus’ transfiguration serves, second, as testimony to the dependability of the Scriptures. Not surprisingly, both the event of Jesus’ transfiguration and the Scriptures have their source in God.
Like the apostolic witness to Jesus’ transfiguration, the Scriptures derive their credibility not from human invention but from God’s action. 2 Peter will press further as he counters these false teachers, but we already see how the author bolsters the apostolic message that Jesus will indeed come as ruler and judge. And the promise of future judgment casts its shadow backwards, calling for holy, godly lives in the present.
1. For example, Anne L. C. Runehow, Sacred or Neural? The Potential of Neuroscience to Explain Religious Experience, Religion, Theologie und Naturwissenschaft 9 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007).
2. For example, Numbers 24:17; Psalm 2:8; Daniel 7:13-14.
February 19, 2023