Thrust Statement: The prophets of God did not unfold their own imagination as they revealed the thoughts of God.

Scripture Reading: 2 Peter 1:20-21

            As one approaches 2 Peter 1:20-21, one is conscious that the traditions of the church make it difficult, if not impossible, to read the Word of God correctly.  Since believers are so entrenched in custom, they have difficulties in hearing God accurately. It is not uncommon for individuals to cite this well-known passage to give validity to the notion that one cannot interpret the Word of God. This concept has become normative and has been passed on as an authoritative interpretation of this Scripture. As a result of one’s background, it is tough to listen anew to the biblical text. The objective of this essay is to call attention to the context in order to prevent someone from utilizing this text as a jumping off point to uphold his/her brand of orthodoxy. Hopefully, this examination will result in a concrete meaning of the words of the apostle Peter. This passage is just one among many Scriptures that are abused by many well-meaning Christians.

            As a young preacher, this author was taught that one could not interpret the Scriptures. Why? Peter says, “no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation” (1 Peter 1:20). During my early career with the one-cup and non-Sunday school fellowship, this Scripture reverberated from the pulpits on a regular basis. What this movement really meant was this: One cannot disagree with the traditions advanced by this odd fellowship. In the early seventies, a congregation (cups and classes) of several hundred in Montgomery, AL also castigated this author.  He was called on the carpet (1973) for advancing the notion that Ephesians 5:19 did not condemn instrumental music. An older preacher, who had been brought in by the extreme conservatives, stood up and cited 2 Peter 1:20-21 to inform the congregation and me that no one could interpret the Scriptures. This misuse of Peter’s remarks is still prevalent today.

Within the past week (3-1-01), a minister within the Churches of Christ cited this Scripture against me when I disagreed with his interpretation. He interpreted this Scripture without an awareness of its context. One’s misapplication of this pericope (a designated portion or unit of Scripture) can result in devastating consequences in one’s relationship with other believers. Frederic W. Farrar (1831-1903) captures graphically the logical consequences of the traditional employment of this text (2 Peter 1:19-20):

My opinions are founded on interpretations of Scripture. Scripture is infallible. My views of its meaning are infallible too. Your opinions and inferences differ from mine, therefore you must be in the wrong. All wrong opinions are capable of so many ramifications that any one who differs from me in minor points must be unsound in vital matters also. Therefore all who differ from me in minor points must be unsound in vital matters also. Therefore all who differ from me and my cliques are ‘heretics.’ All heresy is wicked. All heretics are necessarily wicked men. It is my religious duty to hate, calumniate and abuse you.[1]

As one approaches this Scripture, one does not always realize how challenging it is to study the Scriptures objectively. One’s own social background inevitably influences one’s perception of the Oracles of God. Consequently, it is very problematical for one not to study the Word through his/her own lenses.  Even though one should research the Bible with an open mind, nevertheless, it is still easier said than done. One seeks to be impartial, even in the face of almost insurmountable obstacles from one’s heritage.

            Before analyzing the context of Peter’s words, this article presents some Scriptures which refute the traditional interpretation of 2 Peter 1:20-21. An investigation of the negative aspects—what it cannot mean—of this verse should shed light on the positive aspects—what it means—in one’s inquiry for understanding. The words of Peter cannot be used to nullify other Scriptures, which encourage the use of one’s intellectual abilities to reason. Does he suggest that one does not need to seek out (interpret) the meaning of that which God has revealed through His prophets and apostles? Is Peter saying that one does not interpret the Sacred Writings? Just a perusal of this pericope reveals that Peter is not addressing the subject of explanation in the normal sense of the word. No, Peter is not dealing with the subject of elucidation, but rather he is calling attention to the source of the prophets’ writings. Listen to Peter as he places emphasis upon the starting point of the prophetic writings:

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation.  21 For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21).[2]

Peter is not saying that one should not read the Scriptures with a view of seeking to comprehend. One must apply reason in order to reach certain conclusions based upon the context. If Peter is saying that no one should study the Scriptures in order to clarify his/her conclusions, then one wonders why Paul told Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

            Again, Luke gives further information about Paul’s activities among the Jews during his missionary journeys in which Paul invoked his ability to reason and interpret the Scriptures. One must take for granted that Paul assumed that one could listen to his arguments from Scripture and draw logical conclusions to determine if what he said was true or false.  For example, during Paul’s visit to Thessalonica, Luke discloses:

When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue.  2 As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,” he said.  4 Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women (Acts 17:1-4).

            Once more, Paul’s contact with the Bereans also reveal the importance of diligent study: “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (17:11). If one approaches 2 Peter 1:20-21 with his/her mind already made up, then one will hear only his/her brain waves and never the thoughts of God. One will only confirm his/her own prejudices.  Does one interpret Scripture? Yes, everyone does. Did Peter inform his readers that no one could unfold the meaning of Scripture?  The answer is an emphatic NO! One must study to rightly divide the Word of Truth. The concern of every exegete is to discover the meaning of the author’s mind.


            Surface reading of Peter’s remarks, as found in the KJV, leads one to conclude that one does not interpret Scripture. But other translations help to clarify the intent of Peter as he seeks to get across to his listeners the origin or source of the Old Testament prophetic writings. The following chart with parallel translations should assist one in grasping the intent of the author:

2 Peter 1:20-21 (KJV)

2 Peter 1:20-21 (NIV)

Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. 21For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

            The KJV’s translation of the Greek phrase ijdiva" ejpiluvsew" (idias epilusews,  “any private interpretation”) is somewhat misleading.  This phrase is frequently wrenched from its context to advance the notion that one does not interpret the Scriptures. But this concept is not what Peter addresses in this epistle. Peter is calling attention to the fact that the prophetic writings did not originate with the prophets. In other words, the prophets did not put their own construction upon the God-breathed words they wrote. Peter is not saying that one does not have to explain what has been revealed, but rather he is saying that what the prophets wrote did not stem from the prophets’ imaginations, but from the Holy Spirit. A classic example of explaining, or interpreting, a prophet’s writing is found in the Book of Acts.

            Luke records the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). The Ethiopian was on his way back home after his pilgrimage to worship in Jerusalem. On his way back, he was reading from Isaiah 53. But, in the reading of this text, he did not understand as to whom the prophet had reference. Luke gives the following scenario concerning the eunuch’s encounter with Philip, whom the Spirit had sent to enlighten him: 

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. 31 How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him (Acts 8:30-31).

Luke then informs Theophilus that the Ethiopian was reading Isaiah 53. He did not understand as to whom the prophet had allusion: “The eunuch asked Philip, ‘Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?’” (Acts 8:34). Whereupon, Philip began to interpret, or explain, the meaning: “Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus” (8:35).  As Luke concludes his book, he tells Theophilus that Jesus explained to the His apostles the things spoken about Him in the Law, the Psalms, and in the Prophets:

44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.  46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.  48 You are witnesses of these things.  49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:44-49).

            The context of 2 Peter 1:20-21 indicates that Peter is addressing the Divine origin of the prophetic messages of the prophets.  He is seeking to press home the point that their prophecies did not come about through their own suggestions or inventions. In other words, their prophecies were not from their own opinions, but rather they came forth from a superior beginning—the Holy Spirit. Peter stresses that the prophetic utterances were not “in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (1:21).            Peter is declaring that the writings of the prophets did not start off in the human mind but were of a higher center.  John Mark Hicks, Professor of Doctrine at Harding University Graduate School of Religion and Professor of Theology, Lipscomb University , has pointed out in his excellent study the crux of Peter’s remarks:

The point, then, is clear. The prophets of the Bible did not interpret dreams, signs and visions with their own imagination. On the contrary, they provided their audience with a divine interpretation. . . . The prophets did not speak from their own imagination because their prophecies did not come by their own wills, but by the Holy Spirit who moved them. Verse 20, then says nothing about whether it is right or wrong to interpret scripture. However, it is a strong affirmation that the scripture has a divine origin. The Bible is not the product of human imagination or fables. It is the product of God’s saints as they were moved (literally, borne along) by the Holy Spirit.[3]

This Scripture (1:20-21) cannot be used to limit an individual’s right to read the Word of God for himself/herself in seeking to comprehend the author’s intent. Since the prophecies are of Divine derivation, then the reader will approach the Scriptures with reverence. Every child of God will move toward the Word of God with awe. Griffith Thomas (1861-1924) is correct when he writes:

The point of these verses is, in fact, not the interpretation of Scripture but the origin of Scripture; not what Scripture means but what Scripture is. Any use of the context to oppose “private opinion” is therefore entirely wide of the mark.[4]

Michael Green, Registrar at London College of Divinity, too, draws attention to the correct application of this much-abused text: “Peter, then, is talking about the divine origin of Scripture, not about its proper interpretation. If interpretation were his subject in this verse, then verse 21 would be utterly irrelevant to his argument.”[5] Statements found in the Old Testament writings also corroborate the words of Peter. For instance, the words of God to Ezekiel concerning false prophets agree with the meaning of Peter’s words: “Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who are now prophesying. Say to those who prophesy out of their own imagination” (Ezekiel 13:2). The false prophets were saying things that had originated within their own minds, not the mind of God. The false prophets issued utterances that were of their own interpretation. On the other hand, Peter affirms that the words of true prophets were not of their own interpretation.

This affirmation of Peter permeates the whole of the Bible. David, too, was aware of God’s guidance through the Holy Spirit, which is exactly Peter’s point of emphasis. The Chronicler writes about David’s plans concerning the construction of the Temple, which involved the Holy Spirit activities in this revelation:

He gave him the plans of all that the Spirit had put in his mind for the courts of the temple of the LORD and all the surrounding rooms, for the treasuries of the temple of God and for the treasuries for the dedicated things (1 Chronicles 28:12).

The Chronicler reveals that the Spirit had put the plans for the building of the Temple into David’s mind. Yet again, the Chronicler pronounces: “I have in writing from the hand of the LORD upon me, and he gave me understanding in all the details of the plan” (1 Chronicles 28:19).  On another occasion, Zechariah (520 BCE), too, calls attention to the activity of the Holy Spirit in revealing the Words of God to His prophets:

But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and stopped up their ears.  12 They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the LORD Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets (Zechariah 7:11-12).

            Even Paul lays claim to his revelation as having had its origin through the Holy Spirit: “But God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10). Jesus, too, prepares the disciples for a greater understanding of the Spirit’s role in their ministry and says: I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.  13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come” (John 16:12-13).

God used human instruments to communicate His words to men and women, but these prophets did not create the words out of their own inspiration. Once more, Griffith Thomas correctly captures Peter’s remarks: “The meaning, therefore, is no prophecy comes from the prophets’ own unfolding, for prophecy did not come by the will of man, but by the Holy Spirit.”[6] Peter, in his first epistle, speaks of salvation that God ordained before the foundation of the world, which salvation the angels of God desired to stoop low and look into. The prophets wrote about this salvation, but, nevertheless, they did not fully grasp the time or circumstances in which these events would come to pass. The significant factor about their writings is found in Peter’s reference to the role the Holy Spirit plays in this revelation from God:

10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.  12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things (1 Peter 1:10-12).


Even though one has the Bible, one still has to explain or interpret in order to understand that which the Holy Spirit revealed to His prophets and apostles. For this very reason, God gave to the Christian community men who were gifted with the gift of teaching. Paul explains this particular grace of God to the Ephesians: “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service” (Ephesians 4:11-12). An excellent example of this need for teachers, as mentioned above, is the case in point of Phillip who put in plain words Isaiah 53 to the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40).

For a second time, ones attention should focus on Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica as he sought to give explanation or shed light on the Word of God to the Jews in the Synagogues (Acts 17:2, 4). Every believer is to engage in the art of exegesis (The use of critical and scholarly procedures to derive the meaning of a passage of Scripture) when he/she reads a text. God demands that every individual utilize his/her mind in one’s devotion to God. This concept of the mind’s usefulness in God’s kingdom is set forth in Jesus’ response to a Pharisee, an expert in the Law:  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  38 This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:37).  The following quote, though lengthy, summarizes succinctly the essence of this essay:

Interpretation is simply man’s view of God’s revelation. Revelation is what God says, while interpretation is the meaning we give to what He has said. We have a way of confusing the two, identifying what we suppose the scriptures to teach with what they actually teach. Those who deny that they interpret, but simply “take the Bible for what it says,” are only kidding themselves. There is no way to make sense of any literature except by ascertaining its meaning. This is true of the simplest sentences, whether in the Bible or out. If we are told “The man made the horse fast,” we have to judge by context what it means, for it could refer to hurrying an animal, causing him to go without food, tying him, or hurriedly carving him out of wood or stone. If Jesus tells us that he is “the bread come down out of heaven,” we don’t just take it for what it says. One who doesn’t interpret does nothing. It is important that we realize that we do interpret and that we are not infallible interpreters.[7]

[1] Frederick W. Farrar, “Religious Hatred,” The Early Days of Christianity,” cited in Carl Ketcherside, Mission Messenger 27, no. 6 (June 1965): 92.

[2] All Scripture citations are from The New International Version, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House) 1984, unless noted otherwise.


[3] John Mark Hicks, “Divine Interpretation,” Gospel Advocate 138, no. 6 (June 1996): 23.

[4] Leighton/Thomas, 1 & 2 Peter, The Crossway Classic Commentaries, Alister McGrath and J.I. Packer, Series Editors (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1999), 271.

[5] Michael Green, The Second Epistle General of Peter and the General Epistle of Jude, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 91.

[6] Leighton/Thomas, 1 & 2 Peter, 271.

[7] Leroy Garrett, “The Inspiration of the Scriptures,” Restoration Review 17, no. 8 (October 1975): 150.