2 Pet 1:20-21 are important verses for our doctrine of Scripture, and so it should come as no surprise that there are some differences of opinion on the meaning of the passage.
Peter begins in v 16 by saying, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (ESV). Peter is asserting his authority over the false teachers because of his direct experience with Jesus. One source of this first-hand knowledge is the Mount of Transfiguration experience (vv 17-19).
Peter continues by adding a second source of authority: the prophetic word (v 19), and then adds, “knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (ESV).
While there are a host of questions about the meaning of specific Greek words, the general meaning of the passage is clear. The audience of the letter should not listen to the false teachers but to Peter (and the other apostles). Their understanding of doctrinal truths is based on first hand information and on the direct work of the Holy Spirit, as was that of the original prophets. Sometimes, when looking at a passage with multiple questions, it is best to start with what we all agree on. So often what we believe in common is lost in the minutia of differences (as important as they may be) of a passage.
1. Who are the “we”? At least it is Peter, James, and John, since the three of them saw the Transfiguration. But it seems possible that Peter is thinking about all the apostles. However, in v 19 contextually it looks like the “we” is expanding to Peter and his audience.
2. What is “the prophetic word”? Again, letting context be our guide, it is probable that he is thinking of the OT prophecies specifically about the coming of the Messiah and his kingdom, which after all is the context of the discussion. It specifically is a “prophecy of Scripture” (προφητεια γραφης). It is also possible that Peter is also thinking about NT prophecies by first century prophets that agree with the OT message.
3. The ESV translates γινεται as “comes” in the sense of “come into being.” This is the most basic meaning of γινομαι. In this case, the issue is one of the origins of true prophetic interpretation.
4. But what is ιδιας επιλθσεως? “One’s own interpretation.” Certainly the gist is clear. The false teachers were coming up with their own — and therefore incorrect — interpretation of things. They were wrong to deviate from the apostolic understanding of things. But can we be more specific?
Contextually, Peter is saying that the prophecies of Scripture were not made up by the prophets from what they saw and heard in their prophecies and dreams; but what they understood them to mean was the result of the Holy Spirit carrying them along. They too had experienced the direct work of God, just as Peter had on the Mount of Transfiguration. But can we be more specific?
1. One view is to say the passage is talking about origins. These prophecies and interpretations came from God, as opposed to what the false teachers were teaching.
2. A second view is to say the prophecies are not open to any one person’s individual interpretation, but the interpretation must be in conformity to apostolic interpretation. For us today, this would mean Scripture in general.
At this point, I am not sure there is much difference between these two options. Prophecies and their interpretation come from God, not from individuals who vary from the apostolic teaching.
But the Catholic REB translates “No prophetic writing is a matter for private interpretation.” This would cement the seat of authority of interpretation in the church and not any individual teacher, preacher, or prophet, and exclude, among others, people like Luther. At one level, this is not saying anything different. The false teachers were wrong to come up with their personal (and different) interpretation of things. But I wonder how Peter would feel being told that his interpretation of the Messianic Kingdom was wrong because it was an individual interpretation and different from the prevailing (i.e., Rabbinic) views of the day. I suspect he wouldn’t agree.
For me, v 21 cements the interpretation that Peter is talking about origin. Moo states, “Believers are to pay attention to the prophetic word (the main point of v. 19) because they know first of all that it does not originate from human beings (v. 20), but from God (v. 21).
Any interpretation of the Messianic Kingdom that denies the future reality of the kingdom (as was true in Peter’s day, see 3:11-13), what Peter calls “cleverly devised myths” (v 16), comes under the same divine judgment as the false prophets in Jeremiah’s day, who “speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of God” (Jer. 23:16).
As is so often in Greek, the original language gives us the range of interpretive options, but usually it is context that makes the final decision. Greek is not a magic key that reveals the one and only possible interpretation; otherwise we wouldn’t have endless supplies of Greek commentaries.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts every Monday about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at www.billmounce.com.