My grandkids have a very common toy. It is a set of cubes that are hollow and have an open side with each cube being a bit smaller than the previous. The effect is that they can fit inside of one another or be reversed and stacked on one another. Peter has given us a similar kind of progression although I think he had something else in mind. Think back to the gospels for a moment and a particular fig tree that did not bear fruit, Matthew 21:18-22. I wonder if Peter had that fig tree in mind as he wrote: “Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:5–8, NASB95) Faith is the root, there is no fruit without faith. Moral excellence is the base, that part of the tree between the roots and the trunk. Moral excellence provides stability and helps the tree grow straight even if the ground is crooked. Which brings us to knowledge.
Following the tree pattern, knowledge would be like the trunk. The trunk is the largest single part of a tree, it supplies the tree strength but is also kind of boring by itself. However, there is a question that must be answered, what knowledge is Peter talking about? Earlier, Peter mentioned our specific knowledge of Christ, calling it the true knowledge: “Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.” (2 Peter 1:2–3, NASB95) But there is a slight difference in the original language of verse five that leads me to believe that Peter had all of our personal knowledge in mind.
Knowledge provides tree trunk like strength through the collection of experiences. We know how old a tree is by the rings of its trunk. The rings also tell us which years were ones of growth and which were times of drought. The layering of those experiences, of that knowledge, produces strength. However, when the trunk has been hollowed out by rot and disease the tree is weak even though it looks strong on the outside. Many things can eat away at our strength – judgmentalism, unforgiveness, pride, sin. All of these attack the true knowledge of God upon which the rest of our knowledge is anchored.
When talking about knowledge it is impossible to ignore “knowledge puffs up but loves builds up” 1 Corinthians 8:1 ESV. Knowledge by itself is not enough. But, based on 1 Peter, it is a vital part of the whole. Knowledge is not to be ignored or shoved into some corner or compartmentalized. In verse eight, Peter states that knowledge, along with the other character traits, must continue to grow. Neither is knowledge and experience to be lifted up as supreme. Knowledge, all that is gained through scholarly pursuits and our life experience, must rest on faith and encourage the growth of love. Like a tree trunk, knowledge cannot itself bear fruit but necessarily supports and strengthens that which does bear fruit.
Finally, it is interesting that Peter places knowledge between the guiding agents of moral excellence and self-control. The growth of knowledge and experience that is not guided by moral excellence and self-control will become all catawampus, that’s a grandpa term for out of whack and broken. Pursue knowledge, grow from your experiences, but remember that what we gain is only part of a whole which must be founded on faith and lead to the fruit of love.
*My thanks to Andrew and Brookelynn Schmeck for their assistance in understanding Greek.