Peter’s “Mussar” Teaching, Part 1

The wisdom sages said, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline” (Proverbs 3:11), the Lord’s mussar. And wisdom sages understood that there are many kinds of knowledge. Mussar is a kind of practical knowledge about ourselves and our relationship to good and evil.

The Second Letter of Peter is a response to a community which had been exposed to a contradictory set of messages. From Peter himself these gentiles in Asia Minor had been exposed to Torah and gospel (see the First Letter of Peter). They had been instructed in the idea of God’s kingship, the world to come, the judgment by angelic beings and Messiah and God himself of all powers and principalities opposing the redemption of the world from evil.

The “other” message is an unusual one. It is hard to pin down or imagine exactly what motivated the ones Peter opposes in this letter. It seems, perhaps, that they started with Torah and gospel but thought they found a higher “enlightenment” which took them beyond these foundations. I’m guessing that they had ecstatic experiences and assumed they had a connection directly with angelic mysteries. Being full of themselves, they claimed a freedom from moral restrictions. They were above good and evil, beings who — in their own mind at least — had ascended to realms of pure knowledge.

No messianic king was coming to judge the earth. That would be too physical, not celestial enough for these enlightened prophets. The truth was more ethereal, more angelic.

Peter’s letter is the voice of realism, the reminder that earth weighs us down. And this is not because we are unable to make the ascent, to leave physicality behind. This is not because we are truly spirit-beings trapped in bodily prisons awaiting liberation. It is because our source and destiny is, in fact, earth. The angels gaze on the beauty of earth and dream of New Jerusalem. God’s kingship is directed toward the world he made and will perfect.

Heaven is coming to earth.

There are several aspects of this Torah-and-gospel teaching which Peter brings out in his letter. Not least is his mussar teaching, his exhortation to virtue in this quite physical world:

… He has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature. For this very reason, making every effort, add to your faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge, and to knowledge self-control, and to self-control perseverance, and to perseverance godliness, and to godliness brotherly affection, and to brotherly affection love. For if these things are yours and abound, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah.

What arguments does Peter use to remind his readers that this way of life is true and good?

What goal does Peter look to as the future destiny of those in Messiah?

What promises does Peter refer to?

How does Peter show this is the better way than the celestial, immaterial enlightenment of the supposed masters who teach a new way of life?

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6 Responses to Peter’s “Mussar” Teaching, Part 1

  1. Andrew T. says:

    Derek, I would like to get some more of your perspective on the context of 2 Peter. First of all, should we assume Peter actually wrote it when most scholars maintain that he didn’t (and if not, should we rely on the teaching of a text that flat-out lies about its authorship)? Just who were these people the author was writing to? Were these possibly proto-Gnostics or influenced by Alexandrian thought? How spiritual should followers of Messiah be today? This is coming from someone who has come to rely on spirituality quite heavily when his faith in Biblical literalism has been shaken.

    • Derek Leman says:

      I can’t speak with certainty historically whether 2 Peter is written by Peter. And I have not thought too deeply about the matter. The main arguments against Peter are the obvious reliance on Jude and the excellent Greek which does not fit well with a Galilean disciple. I take a don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach for the moment. I like what 2 Peter has to say and think it fits well with the theology of the Hebrew Bible and NT. That is the factor, at the moment, that causes me to accept 2 Peter with a grain of salt.

      • Andrew T. says:

        I myself prefer to lean traditional unless there is a good reason to think otherwise. In other words, I hate the ultra-critical approach and all its works. I pretty much refuse to talk with someone who is a Jesus-mythicist or denies that there is a strong kernel of historicity to the Pentateuch. But there is good reason to think Peter didn’t write 2 Peter, just as there isn’t a strong reason to believe Paul wrote the epistle to the Hebrews. At the same time, just because the people people were spiritualists doesn’t necessitate a late authorship. The first great influx of believers witnessed an abundance of spiritual signs, but they didn’t let these experiences lead them astray on the fundamentals. The key difference is that the 2 Peter audience did, Gnostic or no Gnostic.

  2. Andrew T. says:

    BTW, I wouldn’t be surprised if the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas originated from a community with similar values to the one addressed in 2 Peter. I mean, I doubt Yeshua was actually handing down esoteric sayings to the disciple Thomas, but over half in the sayings in Thomas are analogous or even identical to sayings in the Synoptic gospel.

  3. Briana says:

    I just had a quick question about the phrase “This is not because we are truly spirit-beings trapped in bodily prisons awaiting liberation.” Are you suggesting that on earth, our beings are purely physical & we are not in touch with our spiritual side? Because I know I believe that our spirits/souls make up who we are, especially in Christ. Also, we believe that the Holy Spirit has been given to us to minister to our spirits. When I step back & look at life, I see God’s people as souls with bodies & us longing to be free from our bodies & at one with the Lord. 2 Corinthians 5:5-6 says “Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. Therefore we are always confident & know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.” Doesn’t this kind of prove that we are merely visitors on earth & that we have hope in knowing that our souls will soon be free to live forever with God?
    Sorry if I read too far into this. Food for thought! 🙂

    • Derek Leman says:

      Briana:

      In the chapter you quote from, 2 Cor 5, Paul says he longs to lay aside his tent (earthly body) and put on his eternal heavenly dwelling (the resurrection body). The hope of the afterlife is physical, not as disembodied souls. And 1 Cor 15 makes much of our resurrected body and how wonderful it will be.

      It is the decaying body we have now that is insufficient. But the thing that makes it insufficient, and here is where I think your confusion about what I was saying comes in, but the fact that death reigns in our present body. It is death that is bad, but the body is good. Our future self will not have death but will have the joys of physicality.

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