Did the authors of the Epistles know they were writing Holy Scripture? To answer this question, I want to look at 2 Peter 3:15-16 and consider another text in 2 Peter 3.
2 Peter 3:15-16
and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, 16 as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Pet. 3:15-16)
- Note, first, that Paul wrote letters or epistles.
- Note, second, that Peter places Paul’s letters on the same level as “the rest of the Scriptures,” which refers at least to the Old Testament.
- Note, third, that Peter identifies some who are “untaught and unstable . . . [who] distort . . . the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” Now listen to Jude 17-18, “But you, beloved, ought to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, 18 that they were saying to you, ‘In the last time there will be mockers, following after their own ungodly lusts.’” These kinds of statements occur elsewhere in the New Testament. For example, here’s Paul in Acts 20:29-30, “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.” Listen to Paul in 1 Timothy 4:1, “But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons.” Here’s Paul in 2 Timothy 3:1, “But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come.” Here’s Paul again in 2 Timothy 4:3, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires.” And finally, hear the words of Peter in 2 Peter 3:3, “Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts.” What Jude calls “the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord” appear to be referring to written words, authoritative words, words contained in various places of our New Testaments.
2 Peter 3:1-2
This is now, beloved, the second letter [Gk. ‘epistle’] I am writing to you in which I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, 2 that you should remember the words spoken beforehand by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken by your apostles.” Here is the ESV, “that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles. (2 Pet. 3:1-2)
- “The predictions of the holy prophets” were written down. Peter recognized the authority of the ancient prophets’ written documents in 1 Peter 1:10-12 and in the book of Acts when he refers to the Old Testament (Acts 2).
- It could be that Peter is implying that “the commandment of the Lord and Savior through the apostles” is also written. If the words of the holy prophets were written, then the commandment of our Lord through the apostles is also written. Peter places the Old Testament prophets’ written documents and the New Testament’s apostolic “command of the Lord” on the same level of authority.
- As well, this would mean that more apostles than Paul (cf. 2 Pet. 3:16) are being referred to, since Peter says “apostles.” In fact, Peter identifies himself as an apostle in 1 Peter 1:1 and 2 Peter 1:1. He also identifies himself as an apostolic Epistle-writer (2 Pet. 3:1).
- Also, words very similar to “commandment of the Lord” are used by Paul. Here is 1 Corinthians 14:37, “If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment.” Written apostolic words are “the Lord’s commandment.”
- Interestingly, in the extra-biblical document the Didache, we read these words: “Nor should you pray like the hypocrites, but as the Lord commanded in his gospel, you should pray as follows, ‘Our Father in heaven. . . .” Michael Kruger follows this quote up with these words: “Here we have a reference to what Jesus ‘commanded’ and are told it is contained in a ‘gospel,’ and then this text proceeds to cite the Lord’s Prayer in a manner very close to Matthew 6:9-13.”
- The Didache also says this: “Do not abandon the commandments of the Lord, but guard what you have received, , neither adding to them or taking away.” This is an echo of Deuteronomy 4:2. Kruger comments: “Most noteworthy, the ‘commandments of the Lord’ in this passage of the Didache no longer refer to the Old Testament commandments in Deuteronomy 4:2, but now refer to the teachings of Jesus.” And the teachings of Jesus are contained in the four Gospels.
- All of this seems to indicate a “Scripture-writing consciousness” by Peter and other apostles. And this “Scripture-writing consciousness” traces back to the words of our Lord to the apostles in John 14-16.
- Though we do not know the point in time when the authors of the New Testament Epistles realized they were writing authoritative letters on the same level with the Old Testament, there is enough evidence in their letters to indicate that they did realize it at some point. The Epistles at various points indicate to us that what the apostles wrote and what was approved by an apostle carried with it the status of being from the Lord. Their writings are “the command of the Lord and Savior,” in the words of Peter. When apostles wrote as apostles, their words were considered as the words of our Lord. This leads me to a second and final consideration.
- The basis for the New Testament Epistles being on the same level of authority with the Old Testament Scriptures is not to be found in the apostles themselves. In other words, the apostles did not appoint themselves to this task. The apostles did not assume something of themselves that was not true of themselves. Their authority for writing Holy Scripture did not come from themselves nor did it come from the church. The church does not have authority to determine what is and what is not authoritative Holy Scripture for it. In fact, the apostles do not have authority in and by themselves to determine what’s authoritative Scripture for the church. This prerogative, this right, this power, this sovereignty is found only in our Lord, the cornerstone and builder of His church. Recall the words of our Lord to the apostles, “the Helper, the Holy Spirit . . . will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:26), “He will testify about Me, and you will testify also, because you have been with Me from the beginning” (John 15:26-27), and “He will guide you into all the truth . . . He will disclose to you what is to come” (John 16:13). Our Lord Himself is the basis for the Epistles being added to the Old Testament Scriptures as the written Word of God. Brothers and sisters, we can have confidence that what our Lord promised to the apostles He has fulfilled in their written documents contained in our New Testaments.
- Let me add some final words for unbelievers to consider. If you have followed my argument, you can see the reason why Christians believe the New Testament to be the written Word of God. In one sense, it is “the commandment of the Lord and Savior” Himself. The New Testament books are not contrary to the Old Testament books. In their unique way both testaments declare salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ. The Old Testament does this in the language of promise; the New Testament in the language of fulfillment. What God promised through the prophets He has confirmed in the written words of the apostles. “In the fullness of time [and in agreement with “the Scriptures of the prophets”], God sent forth His Son . . . so that He might redeem” or save sinners from the consequences of their sins. And, in agreement with the Old Testament promise of salvation, the New Testament calls you to believe upon Christ for the forgiveness of all your sins. Will you obey the Lord? I hope you will.
Dr. Richard Barcellos is associate professor of New Testament Studies. He received a B.S. from California State University, Fresno, an M.Div. from The Master’s Seminary, and a Th.M. and Ph.D. from Whitefield Theological Seminary. Dr. Barcellos is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA. He is author of Trinity & Creation, The Covenant of Works, and Getting the Garden Right. He has contributed articles to various journals and is a member of ETS.
Courses taught for CBTS: New Testament Introduction, Biblical Hermeneutics, Biblical Theology I, Biblical Theology II.