A message without myths - 2 Peter 1:12-21
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
~~A message without myths
In 2016 the Oxford dictionary selected as its word of the year-‘post-truth’. We now live, we are told, in a ‘post-truth’ society. This doesn’t mean that no one believes in truth- you try persuading the cashier at Tesco’s that the five pound note you have given her is really a ten pound note and you would like some change and then see what happens! ‘Post-truth’ is not the same as ‘non-truth.’ Post-truth is an adjective which relates to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief. The point is we are often led in our decision making not primarily by the weighing of evidence, but by our desires, prejudices and long held beliefs and then we try to bring reasons in afterwards to justify what we have already decided on more subjective grounds. Someone has likened it to a man riding an elephant - the elephant is the big beast that decides to go its own way, and the poor man astride it is doing his level best to steer it. The elephant, it is argued, is equivalent to our desires and the man analogous to our brain playing catch up.
Here’s the thing: there is truth in the notion of ‘post-truth’. That we are creatures often led by desires is a biblical view- the desires of the heart. The heart in Scripture is the cockpit of the soul, the originator of desires, affections, perceptions, thoughts, reasoning, imagination, will and faith. And so the book of Proverbs admonishes us: ‘Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the well spring of life.’ In the 17th century, the French Philosopher, Blaise Pascal, made much of the way that for all their talk of the use of reason, philosophers were as much the victims of their desires as anyone else. This doesn’t mean there is no place for facts or reason; it is simply a reminder that things are a little more complicated when it comes to fallen human beings.
The danger for the church and the Christian, however, is that they too can fall foul of ‘post-truth’ thinking.
In the first instance Christians can surrender to subjective feelings as being the main arbiter when it comes to matters of faith. During the ‘Have You Ever Wondered’ series I was in conversation with someone from another church on the question of gender and homosexuality and they said that they were of the view that it was all a matter of interpretation (i.e. there were as many different ways of understanding Biblical passages as there were people reading them) and it ‘felt’ loving to them to be all inclusive and not judge. That is very much in line with our post-truth culture- ‘objective facts are less influential in shaping opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief’.
In the second place, the church itself can downplay reason and argument in favour of targeting the emotions- this, I think is very much in evidence at the General Synod of the Church of England when these same issues of gender and same sex attraction are raised- feelings take precedent over facts. And even when the facts are presented, they are invariably disputed, disparaged and relegated to a position of little significance in deciding what we should believe.
But do you know that the apostle Peter had to deal with people in his own day who had a similar outlook, they belonged to what were called ‘mystery religions’- and what mattered to them was the spiritual experience one had through a story or a ceremony regardless as to whether it was objectively true. What was offered was a kind of ‘inner truth’ and having this made you part of an ‘inner circle’. And they were quite popular.
However, one of the things about Christianity is that it claims to be offering public truth. It claims to make sense not only of itself-: who Jesus is, what he said and did; but our existence: matters of right and wrong, beauty and harmony, purpose and meaning. Of course to make a claim is one thing, but how do we know it is true- true truth- true for everyone? In order to answer that question, Peter appeals to the testimony of 3 sets of witnesses.
First, there is the apostolic witness- vv 12- 15. For some reason Peter feels that he hasn’t got long to live. Jesus had predicted that his life would end violently. And this sense of his impending death had raised a serious question in Peter’s mind and, no doubt, in the minds of the Christians he’s writing to, namely: ‘Where is the church going to look for answers to questions of belief when Peter and the other apostles have all died?’ Furthermore, ‘What is going to stop the church falling into the hands of heretics-who is going to challenge them when the apostles are no longer around?’ Here Peter begins to supply the answers.
The key idea is that of ‘remembering’ -look at v 12, ‘So I will remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth.’ v 13 ‘I think it is right to refresh your memory’, v 15 ‘I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.’ For Peter, Christianity is a religion of revealed truth- things that have happened, things are going to happen and they are to be recalled to our minds.
The Christian faith is first and foremost an account of what God has said and done in history in the person of Jesus Christ and its implications for the human race. So how is Peter going to make good his promise in v 15 that he will make sure that even after he has died, Christians will always be able to remember these things?’
Well, in two ways.
First, in writing these letters he is preserving Christian truth for future generations. That is why they have been preserved for us and why we need to read them and teach them over and over again.
Secondly, there is a strong argument in favour of the view that it was Peter who stood behind what is called Mark’s Gospel. Mark was Peter’s secretary and the vivid, racy, style of his Gospel, together with a number of other clues, strongly suggests that what Mark had done was to commit into writing Peter’s memoires.
Now for us to grasp how incredibly powerful it was for Peter to claim to be an eyewitness we need to appreciate how vitally important eyewitnesses were for writing credible history in the ancient Greco-Roman world. This is how Professor Richard Bauckham puts it: ‘These historians valued above all reports of first-hand experience of the events recounted. Failing that…..they sought informants who could speak from first-hand knowledge and whom they could interview.’ And so the early Christians would be jumping up and down with delight having this letter and the Gospels in their hands because they were pure historical gold- matching up to the best practice of the day. Peter was actually there!!!
But not only do we have the human witness, there is also the divine witness vv 16- 18. Immediately, Peter places the Christian religion in a different league from many of the other religions around at the time, v 16 ‘For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power....’ The word used is ‘myths’. So Peter is saying, ‘Don’t put Christianity in the same category as a religious drug trip. This is not a made up story designed to convey some universal ideal. It is not a morality tale intended to tug at the heart strings. It really did happen. Jesus was God who came in the flesh. He died upon a cross. He physically rose from the dead and ascended into heaven and one day he is going to come again. The reference to ‘Jesus coming’ in v16 could refer to both his first coming and his second coming. ‘And we know all these things’ says Peter, ‘because we were there!’ As he says, ‘We were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honour and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.’
Let’s pause just there and take up three of the problems which people have with Christianity today.
First, the exclusivity of Jesus- that he is the only way to have a saving relationship with God. If what Peter has just said is true, how else could Christianity be but exclusive? Either God spoke from heaven and said, ‘This is my beloved Son’ or he didn’t. If he didn’t forget about trying to salvage Christianity by speaking such patronising nonsense that we are dealing with sublime myths. But if God did speak in this way, then Jesus stands alone above any other person who has walked this earth and is to take priority in my life for he is the Lord of the universe.
Secondly, we have the supernaturals of Jesus- can we honestly believe that Jesus walked on water and fed 5,000 people, isn’t this the stuff of myth? Well, if it is true that God himself came as a man to this planet- an unusual event in and of itself (to put it mildly), then should we be so surprised that his life was surrounded by unusual events? If there are such things as demons, then we could expect them to cluster around him and for him to cast them out. If he came to undo the results of our sins-like sickness and death, then miraculous healings would be expected. These are all part of the cumulative evidence regarding the identity of Jesus.
Thirdly, there is the historical distance of Jesus. People say, ‘But that happened such a long time ago, how can we be sure, what’s the proof? Well, of course you can’t prove Christianity like you can prove a chemical reaction by carrying out an experiment in a laboratory. But then again you can’t ‘prove’ that the Battle of Hastings took place, or any other historic event for that matter. It is more like ‘proving’ a case in law. Whether someone is guilty or not is a matter of providing proof beyond all reasonable doubt. And in most cases you are dependent upon the testimony of –eyewitnesses! The question is: are those witnesses reliable? ‘Ah,’ you say, ‘Mark’s Gospel was written some 30 years or so after the events. That is a long time. The memory can play all sorts of tricks. What is more, Peter was biased in his beliefs.’ Is that what you think? Well, let me tell you something. In 2002 my son Philip and I visited Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. There we heard a man called Don Stratton. Don had just turned 80 years old and for over 60 years he had not related the events of which he spoke in remarkable detail the day we heard him speak publically, except that earlier on he had been carefully quizzed by a historian. The day Pearl Harbour was attacked by the Japanese on December 7th, 1941 he was a 19 year old sailor who was in a gun turret of the battleship Arizona. After the first wave of Japanese bombers, 55 out of 60 of his fellow crew members at his station were lying dead beside him. He was only one of five who survived. He managed to get out and also save other sailors, which meant crossing through a wall of fire, hand over hand via a rope which was suspended 45 feet in the air. Don was then laid out on the grass with 60% of his body burned. He should have died. But he didn’t. He recovered and went back as a sailor into the war. Now what is the point of that? It is this: Don Stratton had an experience he would never forget. He was part of history. Every agonising second of that day was etched into his memory and burned into his skin. He could remember and tell in vivid detail something that had happened over 60 years ago as if it were only yesterday. Now I take it Don Stratton was an honest man, a modest man, he was certainly a brave man. But what would we say to someone who would dismiss the testimony he gave that day by saying ‘Well, he would say that, he was biased- he was an American! It was too long ago, who can remember what they had for breakfast last week let alone something that happened over 60 years ago? Surely we would reply, ‘But he was there; he was a witness and he has the scars to prove it- of course it makes sense to listen to what he has to say.’ This was a major life changing event- Pearl Harbour for goodness sake which brought the USA into the Second World War, you are not going to have an experience like that and forget it. Well, what is even that historical event compared to earth shaking event of God coming into the world? Here we are in the world of fact not fiction, based upon memories not myths. Pearl Harbour and the transfiguration share the same category of reality, operating on the same level of space-time history. And that is one reason why I am a Christian and not a Buddhist or a Hindu because Christianity is rooted in factual history, not fanciful ideas.
However, Peter has one more witness to call- the Biblical witness vv 19-21. Peter talks about us having the ‘word of the prophets being made more certain’ and then speaks of the ‘Old Testament Scriptures’. Why bring these into it? Well, it all has to do with that little word ‘interpretation’ in v 20. You see, if you could persuade the wobbly Christian that the apostles were reliable eye witnesses, that is only half the battle, because the sceptic could come along and say, ‘Even if I grant you that these things happened. How do you know they have been interpreted correctly?’ That was the argument of our friend at the ‘Have You Ever Wondered’ session. Well, Peter anticipates that objection and answers it.
First, Peter says their interpretation as apostles of these events concerning Jesus is confirmed by the prophets, which is what v 19 is all about. He is saying that when, as an apostle he speaks of the deity of Jesus- the ‘honour and glory of God’ and his ‘coming’ and so on, these are not clever thoughts on his part, they are inspired truths on God’s part which are in line with the writings of earlier prophets which you can check out for yourself. In the Bible a prophet is someone who has been inspired by the Spirit of God to interpret events, past, present and sometimes future- God’s way. And Peter makes this point negatively and positively.
Negatively he says in v20 and 21a, ‘No prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things (literally ‘man’s unravelling’). For prophecy never had its origin in the human will,’ Prophecy is not like watching a TV documentary with the sound off, and the prophet trying to work out what’s going on. No, God himself provides the commentary. Neither is it a matter of wishful thinking- wanting this to be so- ‘the human will.’
Nonetheless we can ask, what guarantee is there that the prophets managed, as it were, to watch the picture and properly listen to the words which come to him? The positive answer is there in v21b, ‘but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.’ These men - like King David who wrote Psalm 2 and Isaiah who wrote Isaiah 42 quoted by God at the transfiguration- ‘This is my Son, whom I love with him I am well pleased’ and Peter himself in writing this letter, were not passive when they wrote these things down. The imagery Peter is using is that of prophets and apostles being borne along in a particular direction by the wind of the Holy Spirit like a boat blown by the wind of the sea. They were not passive instruments any more than sailors are passive passengers, but they were guided totally by the Spirit of God to God’s appointed destination- writing exactly what he wants them to write. So 2 Peter is a letter written by the man Peter, having all the stylistic characteristics of Peter, with some words consciously chosen and other discarded but the result is exactly the letter God intended to be written right down to the last detail. Do you see?
This means, that as Christians we must be Bible students. If I want to be sure about who God is and what he has done and what he wants of me, then it is to the Bible I must go. If I want to be led by the Holy Spirit then I must go to the book the Holy Spirit has inspired and be led. If I want to keep balanced as a Christian until Jesus returns this is the book I have to keep coming back to over and over again- v 19 ‘You do well to pay attention to it, as to light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.’
That is a lovely phrase isn’t it, but what does it mean? Perhaps what Peter has in mind is something like this: The glory of Jesus which he saw for a brief few minutes on the Mount of Transfiguration is at the moment veiled again. We live in a gloomy world: a world of lies, a world of post-truths, a world of deception and deceivers. But Jesus is reigning and what is more he is coming again, like the morning star shining at the break of dawn, his glory will shine again for all to see. In the meantime, we walk by faith, not by sight. But it is not blind faith for as we turn to this book we encounter the subject of the Book- the Lord Jesus Christ himself, and as we do so we have our hearts and minds illumined by the author of the Book- the Holy Spirit with the result that the light of Jesus shines in our hearts.
It was John Wesley who said: ‘"I am a spirit come from God and returning to God; just hovering over a great gulf; 'til a few moments hence I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know the way to heaven. God has condescended to teach the way. He has written it down in a book. Oh give me that book, at any price give me the book of God, here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be a man of one book.’ May we be men and women, boys and girls of that one book.
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