Peter's Principles: Old/New Resolutions for 2021

By Neil Earle

Peter preaching: Few people knew Jesus’s true virtue better.

New Year’s Resolutions used to be very popular – at least the listing of them if not the keeping.

The Apostle Peter might have agreed with the practice. Any attempts at self-improvement would work with him since the outspoken Apostle left us seven “supplements to faith.” They’re found in the Biblical book named Second Peter. Peter had made enough mistakes in his life to know that after our reconciliation to the Father by the grace of God there were indeed steps Christians needed to take while living as “strangers and aliens” in this unpredictable world.

A Call to Christian Living

Peter’s Second Letter calls us to very practical Christian living, a most relevant assignment after a year like 2020. In verses 5-7 of 2 Peter, Chapter One we find what teachers have named “the Ladder of Virtues.” These were attempts to outline ethical behavior popular among many in the First Century. For Christian leaders such as Peter, Faith is set forth as the leading principle, as he tells us:

“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith, goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.”

And what are the benefits of prizing these specific virtues?

Peter lists them in verses 8-11:

  1. They keep us from being ineffective as Christians – we’re no longer “all show and no go” people who bring disgrace upon the Gospel
  2. They keep us from being spiritually blind thinking we “have it made” (Peter never minced words)
  3. They remind us that we are “trophies” of God’s grace, cleansed from sin to serve as lights in a dark world
  4. They keep us from falling into destruction – “never falling” is his term in verse 10.

The eight virtues are even more meaningful when we look at the Greek words used to drive these points home. Here goes.

Arete – the Greek search for Excellence. Statue of Arete in Celsus’ Library in Ephesus. Photo by Carlos Delgado, Wikimedia Commons

Virtue Added To Faith

Faith, when transliterated from the Greek reads as “pistis” and it has the basic New Testament meaning of being able to depend on God’s promises, like the patriarch Abraham (Romans 4:20-21). Unless we believe in the saving work of what God has done in Christ we have no basis for the Christian life at all (Acts 16:31). The Old Testament Patriarch Abraham is called, in the New Testament, the father of the faithful. Hebrews 11:8 tells us that Abraham set out to Canaan from Iraq “and he did not know where he was going.” All he had was God’s promises which he heartily obeyed.

We are a lot like Abraham as we gaze into this new year, 2021. It is an uncertain and fragile world we live in. We don’t know for sure whether things will be good or even worse in 2021, one reason we need trust, faith, that God will get us and our families through. Faith is that evidence available to our minds and hearts, the divinely given confidence, that God will see us through and work all things for our good (Romans 8:28).

Thus all New Testament writers agree: “pistis” begins the Christian life. But more is needed.

Good Behaviour

Here is where the Greek word “arête” comes in. Translated “goodness” in the New International Version (NIV) it can also be rendered “good behavior,” which has a broad application indeed. The Greek expert William Barclay tells us that “arête” was the word the Greek applied to the gods. It had the meaning of excellence, courage, something above the average and the mundane. Socrates demonstrated “arête” when he took the poison hemlock rather than go back on his principles. Jesus demonstrated arete when he firmly set his face towards Jerusalem on his last journey knowing the cruel death that waited him there (Luke 9:53).

Good behavior is walking the walk as well as talking the talk. It also helps Christians discern between the false and the true examples to follow.

There are many fakes or even well-intentioned rogues out there today who profess Christianity (some have their own TV shows) but “arête” turns the light of God’s truth upon them. Paul demonstrated moral courage and excellence of character when he announced his firm intention to visit Jerusalem even though the Holy Spirit had clearly shown him that danger lay ahead (Acts 20:22-24; 21:10-11). That kind of devotion rooted in arete strengthened and encouraged the early church. Arete got them through the savage persecutions of the next two centuries – else there might not have even been a Christian church.

Arête includes good works and acts of service which we find displayed all across the early church (1 Timothy 5:10). This is just another way the disciples Peter and James were in agreement, James stressing that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20).

Paul showed immense practical ‘know-how’ during a horrific shipwreck off Malta.

“Know-how” and Self-Control

Next comes “knowledge.” The Holy Spirit inspired Peter to use a different word for “knowledge” than is usual in the New Testament. “Sophia” is the usual Greek word for wisdom and it conveys the ability to make far-reaching decisions based on evidence or sometimes little evidence. But in 2 Peter 1:5 the word is “gnosis,” which refers more to “know-how,” how to deal with a tough situation among the host of everyday choices facing us. Paul showed “know how” more than once in the midst of a tempest at sea (Acts 27: 9, 21-42). Paul also exemplified “gnosis” when he lost his temper before the Jewish High Priest but turned the situation to his advantage: as soon as he realized his mistake he quickly turned on a dime and dug himself out of the hole with a quick apology and quoted a text to turn the tide (Acts 23:1-9). This was a good example of know-how, of moxie, of “smarts,” of getting oneself out of a jam in a hurry.

Oh, how often we wish we had that ability when facing the banker, the creditor, the principal, the false accuser. Saying the right thing and in the right measure – this is something we have to ask our heavenly Father to help with, and he is more than willing to do so (James 1:5).

Self-control follows know-how. The Greek word is “egkateia.” It means that reason must always go before passion or emotion. Jesus showed “egkateia” that awful night in the Garden of Gethsemane when his human self pressed him to escape the horror of the crucifixion. Through a supreme example of self-control Jesus mastered his body with perfect godly self-discipline and once more stood up boldly to face what was coming. This is the kind of self-control we are promised, a character trait flowing from God himself that will help steady us even in the face of death.

Fortitude and Piety

Ah, patience or steadfastness as the NIV calls it in 2 Peter 1:6. Barclay claims that the English word “patience” or even “perseverance” is too passive a word to bring out the full meaning of the Greek “hupomone” which comes next. Hupomone is patience all right but it is patience applied to a desired and realistic end. It is not just waiting it is waiting with expectancy and with gritty determination. The Greeks applied the term it to a plant which could thrive under hard and adverse circumstances. Hebrew 12:2 links “hupomone” to a firm fortitude that bears up and even thrives under hardship because of an expectation of victory. It is patiently waiting for healing when we are sick, for example, or for the favorable outcome of a petition from God.

The Psalms are full of this call to fortitude. “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits and I trust in his Word” say numerous Psalms. Accompanying such requests is a firm reliance on God’s loving power to be arrayed against whatever life throws at us.

There is a liveliness and an optimism attached to “hupomone” that will simply not go under. It is stronger even than our fear of death.

Next comes “Eusebia” or “godliness.” This word, not common today, is colorful and robust in that it points out how God’s people are imbued with a sense of calling and commitment. It makes us strive always for the best approach as opposed to doing what comes naturally. People at work – a boss, a partner, a fellow-worker – may try our patience and even sometimes go out of their way to treat us unjustly or to trip us up spiritually. But a commitment to godliness means we will react in a Christian way.

Paul’s words radiate “Eusebia.” “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…as far as it lies in you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friend, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:17-19).

Everyone has to admit that these are some of the hardest words to live up to in the whole Christian experience. But Paul doesn’t just leave it there. He takes us on to a higher plane of existence, a godly plane, when he quotes Proverbs 25: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:20-21).

This is quite a calling God has given us, isn’t it? But wouldn’t godliness change things in the board room, the cabinet room, the living room? Of course it would. Godliness always does.

“Brotherly Affection” and Love

“Affection” is the well-known word “Philadelphia” – the ability to love all men as brothers. This is a marvelous aim for 2021. Unfortunately we too often pervert affection by extending it only to people who are just like us. That is dangerous because cliques, clubbiness, divisiveness and a party spirit can develop which is about all we see on our news today. Cliques are bad because they turn inwards and often develop their own inner dynamic, leaving hard shells that bristle against others. In his famous work, People of the Lie, psychologist Scott Peck showed how some of the greatest evils are perpetuated by people in groups, such as soldiers in battle who feel alone and betrayed and that they must be loyal to each other no matter who gets hurt. This is how wartime atrocities often come about. It is “party spirit,” an ugly trait.

Godly love, however, the Greek “agape,” is immune to this distortion. Agape breathes the spirit of “all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:22). Barclay calls love the characteristic virtue of the Christian faith. “This agape, this Christian love, is not merely an emotional experience…it is a deliberate principle of the mind, and a deliberate conquest and achievement of the will. It is in fact the power to love the unlovable, to love people whom we do not like…Christian love must extend [even] to the enemy” (New Testament Words, pages 20-21).

This makes love the crown of all the virtues. This is where Peter’s Ladder of Virtues has led us. Love is always ahead of us, calling us to stretch ourselves, to keep ourselves in check, to turn over and over to our own best instincts and attitudes amid the turmoil of life, to cherish those attitudes that have been bathed in the warmth of God’s precious Holy Spirit.

Yes, highly prizing Agape, to always be thinking of the Other’s own best interests along the Ladder of Virtues, this can keep us sane and secure all through 2021…and beyond.