In Exodus 20:16, the Lord commands: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” This commandment clearly extends to the NT teachings dealing with honesty and love. Even worst is to bear false witness against God by falsely misinterpreting what He said in His Word—namely, saying things of God that God never said and/or proclaiming promises that God never promised. Embracing and asserting erroneous meanings of a text is typically due to one’s personal experience and/or a traditional interpretation, which was never properly (exegetically) confirmed.

Whether one adds to or subtracts from the canon of Scripture[1], or misapplies/misinterprets the intended meaning of the author, he or she is promulgating a false testimony of God, the ultimate Author. In 2 Peter 3:16, the Apostle Peter indicates that the “untaught/unstudied [amatheis] and unstable” distort the Scriptures. Biblical accuracy is utterly important to God—for faulty interpretations both controvert Scripture and destructively affect Christians who embrace them. So in 2 Timothy 2:15, Paul says to Timothy, “be diligent to present yourself approved to God.” In which Paul explains how: “As a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” Two important points here 1) Do not be ashamed of any part of Scripture whether they are tough to accept by the unstudied and liberal or offensive and 2) accurately handle[2] (interpret) the word of God.

 

Passages Most Frequently Misinterpreted

Although there are countless passages that can be offered, we have selected (in order of usage) John 3:16; 2 Peter 3:9; Jeremiah 29:11; Matthew 18:20; 1 Peter 2:24; Revelation 3:20; 1 Timothy 3:16; 3 John 1:2; 1 John 2:27; and 1 Corinthians 2:9:

JOHN 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

Problem: Although John 3:16 is arguably one of the most frequently quoted passages in the Bible, it is one of the most misapplied and misinterpreted passages in the NT. Basically, the problem is two-fold: 1- Coming to the text with the presupposition of universal atonement (i.e., Jesus’ atoning cross work was for every single person, but for no one in particular). Thus, many “traditionally” quote the KJV mistranslation of the Greek adjective pas (“all/every,” which the KJV renders as “whosoever”). 2- Along with pas, a universal meaning is also imposed on the term kosmos (“world”).

The following are some main features of John 3:16 and the surrounding context, which are key in attaining a correct understanding of the passage.     

 

  • Greek rendering. Houtōs gar ēgapēsen ho theos ton kosmon hōste ton huion ton monogenē edōkenhina pas ho pisteuōn eis auton mē apolētai all’ echē zōēn aiōnion – literal rendering: “To this extent, indeed, loved the God the world, that the Son, the one and only, He gave, in order that every one believing in Him not should perish, but shall have life eternal.”

 

  • The context actually starts in vv. 14-15 dealing with the snake in the wilderness (cf. Num. 21:6-9) with which Nicodemus would have been familiar. The particularities of the event are contextually interrelated with John 3:15-16. Note a few contextual facts: I, the bronze serpent was the only means of healing/deliverance for “only” God’s people (the Israelites), which relates to trusting in the Son as the only means of salvation, II, verses 14-15 read, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” Verse 15 contains the Greek conjunction hina (“that”) signifying a purpose and result clause. Thus, the purpose of the Son’s cross work (being “lifted up”) was for the result of every one believing in Him will have eternal life.

 

  • The affirmation of God’s redemptive love to everyone believing. The extent of God’s love is shown by His sending His Son into the world, to the ones believing, and give them eternal life.

 

  • Houtōs. Although most translations translate the Greek adverb as “so,” a literal and more accurate translation would be, “in this way, in this manner, in such a condition, to this extent”—to express the actual result. Hence, the love of God is demonstrated in the giving of His Son in order to bring about the eternal life of believers.

 

  • Kosmos (“world”). Due to the presupposition of autosoterism (self-salvation), chiefly promoted by Arminians, kosmos is presumed to mean every single person, thus embracing the “traditional” (not exegetical) view of a universal atonement.However, many who misinterpret kosmos are unaware that in the NT, kosmos has over a half of dozen clearly defined meanings. It can denote every single person (cf. Rom. 3:19); non-believers (cf. John 1:10; 15:18); believers (cf. John 1:29; 6:33; 12:47; 1 Cor. 4:9); Gentiles, in contrast from Jews (cf. Rom. 11:12); the world system (cf. John 12:31); the earth (cf. John 13:1; Eph. 1:4); the universe as a whole (cf. Acts 17:24); the known world (i.e., not everyone inclusively [cf. John 12:9; Rom. 1:8; Col. 1:5-6])—the point is this: only context determines the meaning of kosmos.Although kosmos can have various meanings, rarely does it carry an all-inclusive “every single person” meaning. For example, we know that the “world” in verse 16 is not the same “world” that Jesus does not pray for in John 17:9; nor is it the “world” that John speaks of in 1 John 2:15, which we are not to love. In first century vernacular, the normal meaning of “world” was the “world” of Jews and Gentiles—as John’s audience would have understood (cf. John 12:17, 19). Contextually, then, in verses 16 and 17, kosmos (and the adjective pas, “all/every” as discussed below) is clearly comprised of all or every one believing, both Jews and Gentiles (same as John 1:29; 12:47; etc.).

 

Again, the Arminian universal understanding of “world” and “all” in verse 16 would make verse 17 endorse universalism (i.e., all of humanity [world] will be saved). It is true that God intends to save the “world” through His Son, but it is the “world” of the believing ones that He saves—namely, “those who are called, both Jews and Greeks” (1 Cor. 1:24; cf. Eph. 1:4-5); men “from every tribe, tongue, people and nation” (Rev. 5:9); “all that the Father gives” to the Son (John 6:37-40, 44); it is the world for whom the Son dies and “gives life” (John 6:33) and “takes away” their sin (John 1:29)—as the surrounding context (vv. 14-15 and vv. 17-19) indicates. It would be biblically untrue to read into kosmos a universal (all of humanity) meaning.

 

  • Pas ho pisteuōn (lit., “every one believing”). As mentioned, many use the mistranslation of the KJV (“whosoever”) to assert the view of a universal non-definite atonement. However, the phrase in Greek teaches no such thing. Rather, it is a promise of eternal life to all the ones doing the action of the present active participle, pisteuōn,“believing”—“Everyone now believing” has eternal life.

 

  • The Greek adjective pas (as in pas ho pisteuōn) means “all/every.” First, there is no idea here that indicates a universal undefined invitation to salvation, as many assume. Second, it is incorrect to translate pas as equaling “whosoever”— as in “whosoever will believe,” rather than what is stated in the original: “all, everyone who/whoever is now believing.” In fact, most modern translations accurately render the phrase pas ho pisteuōn as “whoever believes” (NKJV, NASB, NIV); “everyone who believes” (NLT, Holman, NET); or, and most literal, “every one who is believing” (Young’s lit.).

 

  • Pisteuōn (lit., “believing”). The verb here is a present active participle—denoting a present ongoing action—“believing.” In John’s literature, present active participles (on-going actions) are normally used in soteriological (salvation) contexts to denote the life of a true Christian (e.g., John 5:24; 6:35, 47, 54; 1 John 5:1, 5). Grammatically, the adjective pas(“all/every”) modifies the participial phrase ho pisteuōn (“the one believing”). As noted, both verses 15 and 16 contain the same participial phrase: pas ho pisteuōn (lit., “every one believing” or “all the believing ones”).

 

Verse 17- Hina- (“that”). “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” If one were to stay consistent in maintaining the notion that “world” in verse 16 refers to a universal “all” without exception, then he would have to accept a notion of universal salvation in verse 17.

 

Syntactically, the sentence starts with the postpositive conjunction (gar, “for”- “For God so loved the world”), which carries an explicative force to the continuation in the previous verse (hina, “so that”). The postpositive carries the meaning of “truly therefore, the fact is, indeed.” It is a “particle of affirmation and conclusion” (Thayer). Next, notice the adversative conjunction (alla, “but”) and a purpose and result conjunction (hina, “that”). The adversative conjunction demonstrates a contrast (“but, rather”) or an opposing idea. The postpositive clearly conjoins the contextual meaning of “world” in verses 16 and 17—it cannot be semantically divided.

In fact, the postpositive (“for”), the adversative conjunction (“but”), and the purpose and result conjunction (hina, “that”- lit., “in order that”) appear in verse 16.[1] Hence, the literal rendering would be, “Therefore, the fact is, God did not send the Son into the world for the purpose of judgment (condemnation), rather, for the result of saving the world.”  

 

In 1 John 4:7-10, John himself provides an excellent commentary of John 3:16:

 Both (John 3:16 and 1 John 4:7-10) speak of God’s love, the sending of His Son, and how the sending of His Son is a manifestation of God’s love, specifically in verse 9:

  • John 3:16: “For God so loved the world.”
  • 1 John 4:9: “By this the love of God was manifested in us.”

 

  • John 3:16: “He gave His only begotten Son.”
  • 1 John 4:9: “God has sent His only begotten Son into the world.”

 

  • John 3:16: “whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
  • 1 John 4:9-10: “so that we might live through Him. . . . but that He loved us and sent His Son to bethe propitiation for our sins.”

As mentioned, the term “world” in 3:16 (meaning the world of Jews and Gentiles) is not a universal statement. 1 John 4:9 clearly affirms this meaning: “The love of God was manifested in us.” The “us” to John is identified in verse 7: “Beloved, let uslove one another” – (Christians, both Jews and Gentiles).

 Summary:  

  1. The meaning of kosmos (“world”) in verses 16 and 17 is defined by the context: “all the ones” doing the action of the verb (“believing”)—i.e., both Jews and Gentiles. To suggest that “world” in verse 16 carries the meaning of “every single person,” would necessarily imply universalism or inclusivism in verse 17.  

 

  1. The KJV rendering, “whosoever” is an inaccurate translation of the Greek phrase, pas ho pisteuōn (lit., every one believing”).

 

  1. The adjective pas (“all/every”) grammatically modifies the verb (“believing”), all, without limit, the ones believing. Thus, in biblical contrast to the Arminian traditional understanding of verse 16 (viz. a universal atonement), verses 15-17 is God’s infallible promise, through the cross work of His Son—to provide eternal life to all the ones believing in Him. To them alone, He manifests His love by saving them.

 

  1. The Arminian interpretation of John 3:16 is generally based on a traditional understanding and not an exegetical one.Notes 

[1] “For [gar] God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that [hina] whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but [alla] have eternal life.”

 


 

2 PETER 3:9: “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”

Problem: Along with John 3:16, Arminians especially use this to support the notion that God’s desire is to save all of humanity (a universal atonement); however, because men supposedly have “free will,” many “choose” not to come whereby frustrating God’s desire to save all men. What does it actually mean? First, Peter’s letters were written to Christians (cf. 1 Pet. 1-2; 2 Pet. 1-2). Second, the main context of 2 Peter 3, is not salvation, but rather the second coming of the Lord. Third, from vv. 3-7, Peter is addressing (in 3rd person references) the “mockers” who deny the Lord’s coming (“mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming?’” (vv. 3-4). It is not until v. 8 that Peter now turns to his Christian audience: “But do not let this one fact escape your [2nd person pronoun] notice, beloved.” The switch from 3rd person references (“scoffers”) to 2nd person references (his Christian audience) is key to correctly understand v. 9.

Also, note the term “wishing” (“not wishing for any to perish”) is from boulomai (boulē), not thēlō (“to will”). The term underscores God’s counsel or purpose, His predetermined decree or plan (see Luke 10:22; Acts 2:23; Eph. 1:11). Whereas thēlō merely indicates a desire, which can be resisted (depending on the context). Hence, following the context: “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some [the mockers] count slowness, but is patient toward you [Peter’s Christian audience], not wishing [purposing/decreeing] for any [i.e., any of you] to perish, but for all [all of Peter’s Christian audience] to come to repentance.” Thus, God’s definitive decree (boulomai) is that no one perishes, and all (“who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God,” 1 Pet. 1:1-2) come to repentance and faith in His Son. (cf. John 6:37-39, 44; Acts 13:48; Rom. 8:29-30; 9:16ff; 2 Thess. 2:13).

JEREMIAH 29:11: “For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.”

Problem: This passage has been cited constantly to encourage disheartened Christians that God’s promise to faithful believers is prosperity, protection from calamity, and a future hope. Who would not want that, right? However, after a simple examination, no Christian can or would want these things applied to them in the defining context of Jeremiah 29. What does it actually mean? It is utterly amazing to me the misconceptions Christians have about their life here on earth—mainly due to bad teachings that promise that earth is their “Best life Now” and teach worldly discontentment resulting in an overly zealous need for financial prosperity, and being impressed with those who have it. Thus, a concentrated pursuant for earthly things is exactly what Scripture opposes: “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15ff.). Similarly, Paul teaches us to set our “mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2; cf. v. 3).

Second, the key point of understanding this passage is to recognize the specific group to whom the particular promise in v. 11 was given. The answer is found in v. 1: “Now these are the words of the letter . . . to the rest of the elders of the exile, the priests, the prophets and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile. . . .” This starts the context—the promises in v. 11 are specifically given to the “elders [and others] of the exile” (still in captivity!), not to anyone else (esp. the Christian church).

Note v. 10: “When seventy years have been completed for [at] Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you”—and it is in this context that the Lord declares His promises in v. 11 to them.

So, in light of the context and the specific recipients to whom the prophecy was given (those in captivity), it is incorrect to apply the promises of v. 11 to Christians—vv. 1-10 cannot be disconnected from the prophecy of v. 11. Now, here are many NT promises that are indeed applied to Christians—promises of peace/reconciliation with God, justification, glorification, prayer being answered according to His sovereignty, all things working out together for good, nothing being able to separate the believer from God’s love, etc. but Jeremiah 29:11 is not one of them. In fact, God never promised believers financial prosperity, happiness, or an exemption from calamity in this life (cf. Rom. 8:18; Phil. 1:29; Heb. 11). Rather, our absolute joy and happiness is reserved in heaven.

MATTHEW 18:20: “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”

Problem: Many use this passage to teach the idea that prayer is more powerful and efficacious when two or three (or more) are praying together. What does it actually mean? To say at the onset, there is great emotional and psychological benefit to corporate prayer. The early church did just that (esp. shown in Acts). God designed the church to function corporately—Christians encouraging and edifying each other (cf. Ps. 133:1; 1 Cor. 12:12ff.; Eph. 2:19-20; Heb. 10:25). However, this passage is not expressing the power in numbers regarding prayer, as if a lone prayer is weak and unproductive.

Simply, v. 15 starts the context surrounding v. 20: “If your brother sins.” Jesus then in the following passages provides the process of disciplinary actions among believers (ekklēsia). In v. 16, Jesus cites Deuteronomy 17:6 (as He did in John 8:17) regarding “the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses.” In the accusation of elders, Paul too uses the same law (cf. 1 Tim. 5:19; and cf. 2 Cor. 13:1; Heb. 10:28 where this rule is recognized). Thus, the context here are matters of accusation and discipline. So in these particular matters, when the church obeys this frequently utilized biblical rule of “two or three witnesses,” Jesus shows His approval: “Again, I say to you . . . where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (vv. 19-20).

1 PETER 2:24: “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.”

Problem: People abuse this passage by isolating, “by His wounds/stripes you were healed” making it a routine prayer or guarantee for physical healing. What does it actually mean? The context again provides the intended meaning. First, when a NT author cites an OT passage(s) as Peter is doing here, it is the authority of the NT author that provides the interpretation of the OT reference. This is a basic rule of biblical interpretation. Second, in the Greek text we find a purpose and result” clause denoted by the conjunction hina (“so that/in order that”). Hence, as Peter explains, the PURPOSE of Christ bearing our sins was for the RESULT of us dying to sin and living to righteousness. The context is clear: Through the passion (suffering) of Christ on the cross (i.e., “by His wounds”), we are healed of sin (“die to sin”) and now we can “live to righteousness.” Thus, Peter is speaking of a spiritual and not physical healing.

REVELATION 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.”

Problem: This passage is used frequently in revivals and other evangelistic events to present to an unsaved crowed that Jesus is knocking at their heart and all they have to do is open it and let Jesus in. What does it actually mean? Plainly, Jesus addressed these words, not to the unregenerate, but rather to Christians—the church at Laodicea. Jesus is constantly knocking at our door desiring more of us in our holy living, obedience, devotion, and in our continuous worship. That Jesus is constantly knocking on the door of all unbelievers begging them to open the door, yet many of them reject His offer, gives the impression that Jesus is a persistent failure that just can’t overcome the mighty will of man.

1 TIMOTHY 3:16: “By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, Seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.”

Problem: Because the English term “mystery” stands at the introduction of this high Christological hymn, many Christians (and even non-Christians) apply it to the Trinity. As a result, in response to questions and passing conversations about the Trinity, they obliviously say things like, “No one really understands it, it’s a great mystery”; or even worse, doctrinally apathetic pastors confine the entire doctrine to a “mystery” avoiding the responsibility and diligence of their calling. What does it actually mean? First, a plain reading of the context reveals that the hymn is specifically speaking of the incarnation (“He who was revealed in the flesh”), not the Trinity.

Second, the term translated “mystery” is from the Greek, mustērion. The term denotes something that was secret, previously hidden, but now revealed, made known (cf. Rom 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:7; 4:1; Eph. 1:9; 3:3-9; 6:19; Col 1:26-27). As with the “mystery” of God effectually calling the Gentiles to salvation through faith alone by Christ alone (cf. Eph. 3:3-9), the “mystery” here is the incarnational work of the Son, which is now plainly revealed to us in Scripture, which is not a “mystery”—“The Word became flesh” (John 1:14).

3 JOHN 1:2: “Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.”

Problem: Many eager Charismatic preachers and their followers take this passage to teach the idea that “faithful” Christians can/should have flourishing wealth and unrestricted physical heath. What does it actually mean? First, the content of this letter erases any such notion.

Consider this: 1) the letter was written to a man named Gaius, who, if John were teaching him how to get rich and healthy, would have had no idea what John was talking about given the content of the letter, 2) the term “prosper” is euodoō from eu (“well, good”) and hodos (“a journey, journey, path”). Hence, prosperous in a journey, to have a good journey, as exampled in LXX (cf. Gen. 24:21). We are not saying that the term cannot mean financial prosperity, but the content here opposes that meaning, 3) the phrase “Be in health” is from hugiainō. In Paul’s letters, this word always means sound teaching (e.g., 1 Titus 1:9, 13), but here and in Luke-Acts it is used of bodily health, and 4), mostly importantly, John wrote his letter in the typical format of the culture of the day. As with most the NT letters, there is an opening salutation, which includes the sender’s and/or recipient’s name. Thus, John’s is sending a normal greeting to beloved Gaius that he may prosper and be in good health, as his soul prospers. John is not promising Gaius (or any Christian) ultimate health and wealth. We send greetings in the same way wishing our friends or family well, or wishing them a safe trip, etc., but we do not send these greetings as a guarantee or prediction.

The fact is, contra to biblically thoughtless preachers who teach that riches and health God’s promise to faithful Christians, many of God’s faithful people were and are sick and financially deprived. For example, Paul told the Galatians that “it was because of a bodily illness that I preached the gospel to you” (Gal. 4:13-14). Faithfull Timothy had stomach problems and frequent illnesses (cf. 1 Tim. 5:23[3]). Paul was hardly a rich man when he explained: “To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless” (1 Cor. 4:11)—this was at least twenty years into his ministry.

1 JOHN 2:27: “As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things. . . .”

Problem: This passage is often cited to support the idea that one’s own interpretation of a passage (or God’s will) is determined by a subjective so-called “anointing” in which biblical confirmation becomes secondary and/or unneeded. What does it actually mean? As with Colossians, 1 & 2 John was written as an anti-gnostic polemic. The gnostic philosophy was a spirit (good) vs. matter (evil or non-existent) dualistic system—thus denying that Jesus became “flesh.” Gnosticism also taught that only those who possessed the so-called “Christ mind” received “special revelation/knowledge” (similar to Christian Science). Hence, contextually the Apostle declares to his readers that they do not need a “teacher” (i.e., gnostic philosophy), for they are born of God (cf. 1 John 5:1) having the ability and desire to hear the words of God (cf. John 8:43, 47; 1 Cor. 4:6).

1 CORINTHIANS 2:9: “but just as it is written, ‘things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him.’” Problem: Many misapply this passage by limiting its application to the heavenly afterlife, thus suppressing God’s gifts and benefits regarding spiritual discernment given to Christians in this life!

What does it actually mean? Simply, the next and following verse provide the proper application: “For to us God revealed them through the Spirit” (v. 10). Hence, in this life God has prepared for us (“those who love Him”) these things. In vv. 8-16, we see a contrast between the ignorance of the unregenerate (“nature man,” vv. 8, 14) and the wisdom of the regenerate Christian (“he who is spiritual,” v. 15) regarding the Messiah’s Kingdom. God grants grace, mercy, wisdom and discernment to His people here on earth (cf. 1 Cor. 1:30-31; Col. 2:2-3).

Without one taking basic steps to warrant an accurate interpretation, misinterpretation or misapplication is unavoidable. We as Christians must have a high view of Scripture. We must resist the temptation to read in our own presuppositions or particular “pet theologies” into the text, which infers we have more authority than that of the intended meaning of the biblical author!

“Every word of God is tested; he is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. 6 Do not add to His words Or He will reprove you, and you will be proved a liar” (Prov. 30:5-6).

NOTES

1] Canon addition is the process of adding to Scripture by way postulating a “new revelation” supposedly from God or by adding to the intended meaning of the biblical author (e.g., Catholics, JWs, and LDS). Further, many (not all) Charismatics are also guilty of this every time one presents a “new revelation” for the church. Whereas Canon reduction is the process of removing (or denying) sections or important biblical teachings (e.g., liberal Christians remove/deny in various ways the biblical prohibitions against homosexuality).

[2] The phrase “accurately handing” comes from the Greek verb orthotomeō, from temnō (“to cut”) and orthos (“straight”) literally, “to cut straight,” thus, denoting the idea of exactness or precision. In addition, the verb here is a present active participle (orthotomounta), thus denoting the continuous action of handing the Scripture with precision.

[3] See Galatians 4:13-14; 1 Corinthians 4:11

Since the reliability of the NT is constantly attacked (due to its main theme: Jesus as the only means of salvation), Christians should be aware of the nature and formation of the NT. Thus, the following is a concise summation of this important topic. First, it must be understood that the erroneous notion that the first-century church was without a functioning NT canon[1] because no formal ecclesiastical (church) pronouncement was made, is historically untrue. Note the following:

In 2 Peter 3:15-16, Peter establishes the letters of Paul as graphē, “Scripture.” This confirms that Paul’s epistles (most of them) were circulating (probably as a set) before the death of Peter around A.D. 64-66. In 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul establishes the book of Luke (10:7) also as graphē, “Scripture.” Note that here both Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7 are preceded by the phrase, legei gar hē graphē, “For Scripture says.” Further, in reference to the Apostle Peter, Jude remembers what “was spoken beforehand by the apostles” (v. 17). Then, in verse 18, Jude quotes from Peter (cf. 2 Pet. 3:3). The contextual correspondence between 2 Peter 2:1ff. and Jude 6ff. unquestionably substantiates that either Jude quoted from Peter or the converse showing that these books were also circulated, collected, and read by Christians in the first century.

As the NT record shows, immediately after the NT letters were written, they were collected (cf. Rev. 1:11), circulated (cf. Col. 4:16;[2] 2 Pet. 3:15-16), and read (cf. 1 Thess. 5:27; Rev. 1:3) in the original churches. Hence, the first century church enjoyed and recognized the apostolic teachings contained in the letters of the original apostles. They indeed had a functioning canon that was sufficient for the proclamation of truth.

 

Canon Criteria

Since the NT church was “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2:20) the chief test or norm of canonicity was “apostolicity.” That is, each book of the NT has either apostolic authorship or apostolic teaching. Canonization starts with the identification of what was theopneustos, “God breathed out” (2 Tim. 3:16).

 

First, there were several reasons as to why the early church progressively collected and codified (i.e., canonized) the NT books:

1) Books were prophetic,

2) Demands of the early church: Because they contained the words and actions of Jesus Christ and the apostolic teachings, these books provided theological and ethical instructions, edification, and encouragement for the church “so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). Thus, it was necessary to have a full collection of the NT books that could provide the authoritative norm for faith and practice,

3) Heretical challenges: When heresies began to surface, the church quickly and sharply refuted them by way of ecclesiastical (i.e., church) councils and definitive creeds. When the writings of apostles were purposely misrepresented and/or forged (e.g., the Gospel of Thomas, Judas, etc.), the church found it necessary to establish what belonged in the canon,

4) Missionary purposes: Because of the rapid spread of Christianity throughout other countries, there was a need to translate the Bible into other languages, and

5) Persecution: In times of persecution, it was important for church officials to preserve authoritative (canonical) books which might be handed over to the police and be destroyed.

 

Determining Canon Criteria

It is incorrect to assert that the church created the canon, for the church did not create the canon, but rather she discovered what was already recognized. As seen, immediately after NT books were written, they were collected, circulated, quoted, and read in the original churches. It was this process of canonization that shaped the post-apostolic church’s idea of canonization. The basis of canonicity, then, was inspiration: “God breathed out.” The NT authors wrote as God the Holy Spirit moved them. Hence, the instrument of canonicity in which God employed was the apostles—or those with apostolic authority: The absolute canonical test, then, was apostolicity. The central principles utilized by the church to determine canonicity were as follows:

 

1. APOSTOLICITY: Since the NT church was (aorist participle). “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2:20), the indispensable test for NT canonicity was apostolicity. Thus, every NT book was written by a “foundational” apostle (or one with apostolic authority). Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (c. A.D. 107) says: “I do not give you orders like Peter and Paul. They were apostles: I am [not]” (Rom. 4:3).

2. ANTIQUITY: Simply, if a writing was the work of an apostle (or an authoritative associate), it had to belong to the apostolic age. Writings after this could not be apostolic, and hence canonical. For example, even though the highly regarded Shepherd of Hermas (c. A.D. 120) was found in the Muratorian Fragment and some early codices, its late date of composition, precluded it from canonical status. Furthermore, most of the pseudepigrapha (i.e., “false writings”) were rejected for that reason.

3. ORTHODOXY: Genuine apostolic writings would be doctrinally consistent (i.e., orthodox) with the apostolic faith (regula fidei). For example, the so-called Gospel of Peter and Thomas are filled with silly stories and Gnostic teachings, which the apostles (and the early church) sharply refuted (e.g., Col., and 1 and 2 John were written specifically against the Gnostic heresy).

4. CATHOLICITY: The universal church collectively recognized genuine apostolic writings. If a book had only local recognition, it was not likely to be accepted as canonical. Naturally, the NT books that were first collected, circulated, quoted, and read by the original churches became universally recognized.

5. TRADITIONAL USE: Similar to the principle of Catholicity, books that were collected, circulated, quoted, and read by the original churches were, of course, well known among the churches. This criterion examines the church’s habitual (i.e., traditional) use of writings. It inquires as to what NT books were accepted as apostolic. For example, prior to Nicea (A.D. 325), the NT quotations from early church Fathers were so abundant that almost the entire NT could be restructured, based on these writings. The books of the NT were traditionally treated as Scripture. If a church leader in the third or fourth century submitted a book claiming its apostolicity and it was previously unknown, he would have great difficulty in gaining acceptance for it.

6. INSPIRATION: The church believed that only books that were theopneustos, “God breathed out,” were canonical. Thus, inspiration was the means by which the revelation of God was brought to the written record. The vocabulary belonged to the NT authors, but the message was God’s. “Paul wrote,” says Clement of Rome (c. A.D. 90), “with true inspiration” (Corinthians, 47.3). Inspiration, therefore, was a criterion of verification as to what books were apostolic and hence, canonical.

 

Categorizing the Canon

The early church Father, Origen, first grappled with the problem of the church not having an “official demarcation” between canonical and non-canonical books. Then, about a century later, the church historian Eusebius defined and modified Origen’s classification in the following four categories:

Homologoumena (“to speak the same,” i.e., books that were accepted by all): The Four Gospels, Acts, the Epistles of Paul, 1 Peter, and 1 John, and Revelation (although he went back and forth as to the category of Rev).

Antilegomena (“spoken against,” i.e., books that were disputed by some): James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation.

Notha (“spurious” or apocrypha, i.e., books that were accepted by some): The alleged Epistle of Barnabas (c. A.D. 70); Clement’s first Epistle to the Corinthians (c. A.D. 96); Teaching of the Apostles (i.e., Didache, A.D. 100-120); Hermas’s The Shepherd (c. A.D. 120); Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians (c. A.D. 110); etc.

Pseudepigrapha: (“false writings,” i.e., books that were disputed/rejected by all): “Writings published by heretics,” Eusebius declares, “under the names of the apostles, such books as the Gospels of Peter, of Thomas, Matthias, Judas, etc. or the Acts of Andrew, John, etc. The point here is that no early church Father ever accepted them; they saw them as “false writings,” for most of these books were written by Gnostics.

 

The Earliest Lists

During the next two centuries, the controversy and doubts over the antilegomena books gradually faded away and there was a final and official recognition of all twenty-seven books of the NT by the universal church. Aside from the early partial NT lists of books, the first known writer to list all twenty-seven books of the NT was Athanasius in his 39th Easter Letter (A.D. 367). Later, in A.D. 393, the twenty-seven books of the NT were laid down as canonical at the regional Council of Hippo under Augustine’s See. Then, four years later, at the third Council of Carthage, the twenty-seven books of the NT were reaffirmed as belonging to the canon. Thus, these twenty-seven books that were universally confirmed at these councils, agree with the present-day canon of the NT that we have in our hands.

What is paramount in accurately understanding NT canonicity is that at these official councils, the early church did not invent or create the NT canon nor did they accept or reject books based on “church authority,” but rather, at these councils, the early church codified and confirmed what was already recognized and established by the people of God starting in the first century (as seen above).

The Canon is closed

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone (Eph. 2:19-20).

The foundation of the NT was laid once and for all. It was built on the apostle and prophets. The text does not say that the church was built on Christ, but rather on the apostles and prophets. Jesus Christ is the cornerstone that holds the whole church together. Paul does not envisage a succession of new apostles (as Rome teaches today). This is clear due to the fact that Paul uses the aorist passive participle form of epoikodomeō of (epoikodomēthentes, lit., “having been built”). Hence, the action of the verb indicates that the foundation that was laid once and thus never needs to be repeated.

The notion of ‘successive apostles’ as taught by groups such as Roman Catholics and LDS do not consider (a) logically, if there is a need for new foundational apostles, then, the foundation was never really laid to begin with. Hence, something foundational by definition never needs additional foundations, and (b) the idea that we need new apostles or even secondary ones who will add to the fundamental work of the first century are really implying that we need new foundations in addition to or regardless of the foundation that was already laid: viz. the NT “apostles and prophets.” Thus, each new foundation would logically require a new cornerstone.

In direct contrast to the Protestant concept of sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) is sola Ecclesia (i.e., “Church alone”), which is clearly the marrow of groups such as Catholicism. Hence, it is not that the Catholic apologist does not have the ability to exegete, but he has no need, for the Church has done the job for him. For the Catholic sees his Church, not Scripture, as the final sole authority in all areas of life and theology (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 84-85, 113).

 

The Canon is closed theologically and historically

1) Theologically (cf. Heb. 1:1): Every NT book was written by an apostle (or one with apostolic authorship). The apostolic age ended with the death of the apostles (cf. Acts 1:22). In Ephesians 2:20, Paul states that the foundation of the church has been built (never to be repeated) by these foundational apostles. Thus, there cannot be any “new revelation” for the church (contrary to what Mormons and Catholics believe), and

2) Historically: There is no historical evidence that any new foundational apostle has ever existed. Virtually every non-Christian cult has a new prophet or apostle(s) carrying new a message, which rejects and/or redefines the Jesus Christ of biblical revelation. Hence, they all have some reason as to why sola scriptura (Scripture alone) does not work.

 

NOTES

[1] The term “canon” refers to a set or list of authoritative biblical books that are regarded as Scripture (i.e., theopneustos, “God breathed out”; 2 Tim. 3:16).

[2] Colossians 4:16 reads, “When this letter is read among you, have it read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea.” The letter to the Laodiceans to which Paul is referring was probably the letter to the Ephesians for the following reason: 1) Paul does not say that it is a letter to the or of the Laodiceans, but rather ek Laodikeias, “from Laodicea,” 2) Paul wrote Ephesians around the same time as Colossians and sent it to another church in the same area, 3) the earliest MSS of Ephesians lack the phrase en Ephesō, “at Ephesus.” Note that Paul spent three years ministering to the Ephesians (cf. Acts 20:31), thus, it would be quite inconsistent for him not to mention the name of the people (or church) to which he wrote, and 4) there is no historical evidence that a “genuine” letter to the Laodiceans was known.