1 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. 2 And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; 3 and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.
My wife Jeannette and I recently spent several relaxing days in northern Ontario with Bill and Marilyn McRae.45 During our visit, I installed sensor lights to come on automatically as they approached their cottage. When I removed the existing light fixture, I discovered some of the insulation from the electrical wires was missing. When I removed a piece of the siding to gain better access to the wires, I was greeted by a little black head peering over the siding. At first I thought it was a mouse, but when it screeched and spread its wings, I knew it was a bat. Indeed, several bats tumbled to the deck, creating quite a commotion especially with our wives. Although I had not realized it, those little creatures had crept in unnoticed, nibbling away at the wiring insulation and creating a very real unseen hazard.
Peter writes in the second and third chapters of his epistle about the unseen danger of false teachers who arise within the church. Such teachers are often unrecognized, especially in their earliest forms, partly because they profess to share a “like precious faith.” Yet, they secretly introduce false teaching, teachings which are destructive to themselves and to all who follow them.
When we think of “false teachers,” our minds immediately turn to false religions or the cults. We think of a man like David Koresh whose bizarre teachings resulted not just in his own death, but the fiery death of scores of men, women, and children at his Waco compound. False teachers do prey on the church from without, but they can also arise from within (compare Acts 20:28-30). These are the “false teachers” Peter warns us about in his second epistle.
These two chapters in 2 Peter very closely parallel the teaching which we find in Jude. Jude therefore provides an illuminating commentary on the Book of Second Peter. As we study chapters 2 and 3 of 2 Peter, we will refer to Jude’s epistle.
False teachers and their teachings have always posed a danger to those in the household of faith (and those outside as well). After Israel’s exodus from Egypt, God warned that false prophets would arise:
1 “If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2 and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,’ 3 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you to find out if you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 4 You shall follow the LORD your God and fear Him; and you shall keep His commandments, listen to His voice, serve Him, and cling to Him. 5 But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has counseled rebellion against the LORD your God who brought you from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, to seduce you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 13:1-5; see also verses 6-18; 18:14-22).
False prophets did arise throughout the history of Israel (see 1 Kings 22:1-12; Isaiah 9:15; 28:7; Jeremiah 5:31; 6:13; 23:1-40; Ezekiel 13:3-4). The Lord Jesus also warned of false prophets (Matthew 7:15-23; 24:11-28). The apostles also had much to say about false prophets and teachers (Acts 20:28-35; 2 Corinthians 11:3–12:13; Galatians 1:6-9; Philippians 3:1-2; Colossians 2:8-15; 1 Thessalonians 1:3-12; 1 Timothy 1:3-7; 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 2:14-26; 3:2-8, 13; 4:14-18; Titus 1:10-16; 3:9-11; 1 John 2:18-29; 3:2-12; 4:1-6; 2 John 7-11; 3 John 9-10; Jude). In the first three verses of chapter 2, Peter begins to describe the false teachers who will arise. We must look carefully at his words, for such “wolves” as these will arise among us as well.
In the first chapter of his epistle, Peter summarizes the all-sufficient work of our sovereign God in making provision for our salvation and sanctification (verses 1-4). Included in these provisions are the “precious and magnificent promises” of Scripture which make it possible to “become partakers of the divine nature.” Peter urges us in verses 5-7 to make use of these divine provisions and to pursue the character qualities of the divine nature. Verses 8-11 spell out the fruits of the pursuit of holiness in terms of what we avoid as well as what we gain.
Verses 11-21 stress not only the importance of the Scriptures but their certainty. In contrast to the “cleverly devised tales” of false teachers, the Scriptures are a “more sure word of prophecy,” which come from men who have witnessed the power and glory of the resurrected Christ (verses 16-19). Peter diligently reminded men of the truths of the Scriptures while he was alive, but he also writes so that we can be reminded after his death (verses 12-15). These Scriptures must be interpreted correctly, through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, and in a way consistent with the interpretation of godly saints throughout history (verses 20-21). (I am much more comforted by knowing that my understanding of a biblical text agrees with the interpretation of a saint of old, who suffered and died for his faith, than by embracing the bizarre interpretation of a Rolls Royce-driving televangelist who lives in Beverly Hills and whose only suffering is measured by the number of viewers his latest scandal cost him.
As in his first epistle (1:10-12), Peter calls our attention to the prophecies of the Old Testament prophets which find their fulfillment in the Christ of the Gospels. These prophecies are “sure” when interpreted correctly. But just as God raised up prophets, false prophets also arose as we see throughout the Old Testament Scriptures. Peter assures us that we likewise should look for false teachers to arise as they have done throughout history. In chapters 2 and 3, Peter describes these false teachers and their teaching so that we may avoid them and the errors they promote.
First, Peter strongly infers that we should regard anyone who claims to be a “prophet” as a false prophet. False prophets arose in earlier days, and we should expect false teachers to arise in our day. Why this switch from “false prophets” to “false teachers” in verse 1? The reason is evident from Peter’s teaching in chapter 1. The apostles were raised up as God’s instruments to record God’s full and final revelation in Christ. They saw the power and glory of the resurrected Lord. Their writings were superintended by the Holy Spirit, who caused them to remember all that the Lord had taught while He was with them. Their prophecies, like those of the Old Testament prophets, are thus a “more sure word of prophecy” which provides sufficient light for us until the coming of our Lord (1:19). Paul was the last of the prophets whose writings are also inspired and authoritative (3:14-16). Since these original apostles have accomplished their appointed task, no further prophets are required:
1 For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away [from it.] 2 For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, 4 God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will (Hebrews 2:1-4).
Second, Peter teaches us to expect false teachers to arise. Although the need for prophets has ceased, the need for teachers of the Scriptures continues. Among those who teach, we should expect some to be false teachers. They hold a Bible in their hands and tell us they are teaching the Scriptures, but their teaching is false. Their interpretation has not come from the Holy Spirit but from their own will (see 1:20-21). False teachers are no mere possibility; they are likely, and we must be watchful so we are not led astray by them. Our knowledge of Old Testament history should prepare us to be on guard against false teachers, for they will surely arise.
Third, Peter teaches us to expect false teachers to arise from within the church as well as from without. In Old Testament times, false prophets arose “among the people” (verse 1). So also in our time, false teachers will arise “among us” (literally “among you,” verse 1). It is easy to identify false teachers in other religions or in liberal or apostate churches. It is relatively easy to expect false teachers to arise from without. But Peter tells us they will also arise from within the community of believers, from within our own church. This same warning comes from Paul in the Book of Acts where he admonishes the elders of the Ephesian church:
28 “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. 29 I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. 32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build [you] up and to give [you] the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:28-32, emphasis mine).
Fourth, the teaching of these false teachers is destructive to the teachers and to all who follow their teaching and practice. Peter calls the teaching of the false teachers “destructive heresies,” which will “bring swift destruction upon themselves” (verse 1). Their judgment is not “idle” nor is it “asleep” (verse 3).
Fifth, false teachers bring reproach upon true saints and the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of these impostors, “the way of truth will be maligned,” Peter says. We suffer from the presence of false teachers. “How?” you might ask. We suffer because these false teachers seek to gain status and recognition by identifying themselves as true saints and associating with true believers. In 1 Peter, we were instructed that unbelievers can be expected to react against the righteousness of the saints because they are threatened by it (1 Peter 4:1-4). We are to expect to be maligned for doing what is right (1 Peter 2:12, 15, 20). When the sin of false teachers is exposed, the unrighteous may almost delight in lumping all professing Christians together so that we are wrongly associated with the folly of fraudulent saints.
David Koresh is but one example of how this can happen. Koresh was not orthodox. One could hardly call him Christian (whether he or his followers did or not). While the evangelical community looked upon Koresh and his followers as a cult, the secular press has not been so discerning. Those who like to use the excuse, “The church is full of hypocrites,” see little difference between Koresh and his followers and mainstream evangelicalism. They leap at the opportunity to find a reason to ridicule us and reject our faith.
Sixth, these false teachers are not always readily apparent. False teachers certainly do not represent themselves as those who make a false profession of faith. They rise up as those who are one with us in Christ. As Jesus warned, they come as “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15). They carry out their ministry in Jesus’ name, and they are just as surprised at being called unbelievers as we are when we realize they do not share a “like precious faith” with us:
15 “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn [bushes,] nor figs from thistles, are they? 17 Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So then, you will know them by their fruits. 21 Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS’“ (Matthew 7:15-23).
Our Lord’s words here indicate that we dare not attempt to distinguish false teachers from the true merely on the basis of their ability to perform mighty works. A true prophet need not perform great works. Such was John the Baptist, a prophet without mighty works but with mighty words (John 10:41). If a prophet declares that something will happen, and it does not, then he is a false prophet (see Deuteronomy 18:20-22). But the ability to perform great works does not prove one to be a prophet. His doctrine must also conform to the Word of God (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). Jesus teaches that the “fruit” which distinguishes false teachers from the true is not just their mighty deeds. We must also take careful note of the fruit of their own character and that of their followers.
Seventh, false teachers can be identified by their morals and their motives. False teachers are driven by their own lusts rather than led by the Holy Spirit.46 Greed motivates their ministry—not grace (verse 3). They do not seek to give sacrificially to others; they seek to gain from others. They do not seek to edify others but to exploit them (verse 3). Their life is one of sensuality (verse 2), not true spirituality. More details will be given about the character and conduct of false teachers as Peter develops his argument in chapter 2. The false teachers of whom Peter writes are self-centered, self-serving, and self-indulgent (verse 10, 12-14). Worse yet, they are lost (verses 4-6, 12, 17-22; see Jude 4, 7-8, 12-13, 15, 19).
Eighth, false teachers can be recognized by their methods. When false teachers “arise,” their heresies are “secretly introduced” (verse 1). They “creep in unnoticed” (Jude 4). These false teachers are devious and deceptive, not wishing to be known for what they are. In some cases, they do not even recognize their own condition. They not only deceive, they are themselves deceived (2 Timothy 3:13; see 2 Peter 2:13). They rely on slick methods rather than on the Spirit of God and appeal to the lusts of the flesh (compare 1 Corinthians 2; 2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:1-2).
Ninth, false teachers can be recognized by their message. False teachers deny the truth and deal in error. The “way of truth” is maligned, and their words are false (verses 2 and 3). Their doctrines are heresies which are “destructive,” while the truth leads to “life and godliness” (1:3). They claim to teach the Word of God, but they actually twist and distort the Scriptures so their interpretations justify their lifestyle and their lusts (see 3:16).
Both Peter and Jude inform us as to how far these false teachers will go:
1 … even denying the Master who bought them (2 Peter 2:1).
4 … ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (Jude 4).
Jude says they pervert grace, twisting it so that it becomes a pretext for sin. Peter might say that rather than seeing grace as an escape from our former lusts (1 Peter 1:14; 2:11; 2 Peter 1:4), it is an excuse for our former lusts.
The ultimate and most abominable error is that these teachers go as far as to “deny the Master who bought them.” I believe Peter’s words have their origin in the language of the Old Testament in reference to the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Jude also ties the “purchase” of these false teachers to the redemption of Israel from slavery in Egypt:
1 “If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2 and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,’ 3 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you to find out if you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 4 You shall follow the LORD your God and fear Him; and you shall keep His commandments, listen to His voice, serve Him, and cling to Him. 5 But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has counseled rebellion against the LORD your God who brought you from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, to seduce you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from among you. 6 If your brother, your mother’s son, or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend who is as your own soul, entice you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods’ (whom neither you nor your fathers have known, 7 of the gods of the peoples who are around you, near you or far from you, from one end of the earth to the other end), 8 you shall not yield to him or listen to him; and your eye shall not pity him, nor shall you spare or conceal him. 9 But you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. 10 So you shall stone him to death because he has sought to seduce you from the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Deuteronomy 13:1-10, emphasis mine).
4 For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. 5 Now I desire to remind you, though you know all things once for all, that the Lord, after saving a people out of the land of Egypt, subsequently destroyed those who did not believe (Jude 1:4-5).
For some, 2 Peter 2:1 is a proof-text for their view of the atonement or at least a very crucial battle ground. Those who hold to an “unlimited atonement” (those who believe that Christ’s atoning death was for the sins of all men, saved or lost) point to this verse as proof for their position. They believe Peter is saying that Jesus died for the sins of even these unsaved heretics. Those who believe that the sacrificial death of Christ on Calvary was atoning only for the sins of the elect say otherwise. My personal opinion is that Peter is not trying to indicate the extent of the atonement here, but rather he is indicating the extent of the error to which false teachers will go. To focus on the debate over limited or unlimited atonement takes our eyes off the truth Peter is trying to teach us here—the danger of unbelieving false teachers who deny the Master.
Peter chose to describe the false teachers of our day against the backdrop of the false prophets who arose after the exodus. Just as there were false prophets in those days, there will most certainly be false teachers in ours. And just as those false prophets denied the Master who purchased them from Egyptian slavery, making them His slaves (see Leviticus 25:42, 55), so the false teachers go so far as to deny the Master, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Just how do they deny Him? Peter seems to imply they deny His authority. The original word rendered “master” in our text can be transliterated “despot.” It is a term which describes the relationship of a slave to his “master.” The false teachers are arrogant, assuming authority which is not theirs. They have no respect for those in authority (2 Peter 2:10-11; Jude 8). They actively seek to undermine those in authority and to establish their own authority. As Satan rebelled against God’s authority, so he disguises himself as an “angel of light” by means of these, his servants (see 2 Corinthians 11:13-15).
Furthermore, the false teachers deny Christ as their Master by seeking to diminish His nature and attributes. They deny His humanity or deity (or both). They deny that He is the promised Messiah. They deny His promised return to punish His enemies and to reward the righteous. They deny His death and physical resurrection. They deny the sacrificial atonement which He accomplished at Calvary. As the false prophets rose up among the Israelites after the exodus and opposed Moses, so false teachers will arise among the saints and oppose the Lord Jesus Christ.
While visiting with Bill and Marilyn, Jeannette and I had a chance to discuss this passage, and Bill pointed me in a very helpful direction. Bill related that this last year he was asked to speak to a group of Christians and was assigned the topic, “Who is Jesus Christ?” He wondered why they had chosen this particular subject and why it was considered important for this group of believers.
A little later, Bill had the occasion to spend some time with a very popular Christian speaker and apologist on the college campuses across Canada. Bill asked him what he considered the most significant question on college campuses today. Without hesitation, the man responded, “Who is Jesus Christ?”
You see, there are many Jesus’ proclaimed today. There is Jesus the liberator and Jesus the revolutionary. There is Jesus the teacher and Jesus the example. There is Jesus the healer and Jesus the burden-bearer. Homosexuals and adulterers point to “an unconditionally accepting Jesus,” seeking to show that Jesus is on their side. Even the demons are willing to accept certain aspects of our Lord’s identity, but not His authority.
We want to have “Jesus the way we like to think of Him.” We would rather conform Jesus to our views and values than have Him transform ours. In his early days as a disciple, Peter believed in Messiah, but he wanted nothing to do with a suffering Savior. The Jewish religious leaders, along with the nation Israel, also looked for the coming “Messiah.” But it was not the Messiah the prophets described. So they rejected the true Jesus, because He was not their kind of Messiah. He was the wrong Jesus, and they liked their kind of Messiah better.
In the parable of the soils, two of the soils initially received “Jesus,” but when they learned what kind of “Jesus” He really was, they fell away (see Matthew 13:5-7). The crowds congregated around Jesus when they thought He came to give them a free meal (John 6:22-27). But when He began to speak of His death, the crowds vaporized (see John 6:60-65).
The false teachers speak of “Jesus,” but it is a “Jesus” of their own making, a “Jesus” with whom sinful men feel comfortable and affirmed. They wish to follow and imitate such a person, but they deny the real Jesus, substituting a more palatable Jesus. So it is that false teachers gain a following by tickling the ears of those who will not have the real “Jesus.”
How do false teachers arise? Peter does not tell us exactly, but we can suggest some ways false teachers might arise so that our Lord and Master is denied. First, they distort the emphasis of Scripture. They emphasize the “acceptable” aspects of our Lord’s nature and mission, while minimizing or denying those aspects of His being and ministry which sinful men find offensive. One can always point to Jesus as “our example” with little chance of being ill-treated for doing so.
Second, false teachers can deny Jesus by narrowing the field of maladies for which the cross of Christ provides the solution. In evangelical circles, the cross is still the solution for our sin and guilt. But it seems to be inadequate for our “addictions,” of which there are many with more being added daily to the list. Many of the problems we once thought were spiritual are now considered psychological, and thus they must be solved by “trained specialists” rather than by simply being cleansed by the shed blood of our Savior.
The Bible calls addictions “sin,” and our bondage to these sins is only broken through our identification with Christ and His cross (see Romans 6). A well-known psychiatrist wrote a book entitled, Whatever Happened to Sin? One might just as easily ask, “Whatever happened to the cross?” We sing songs with words like, “There is power, power, wonder working power; there is power in the blood of the Lamb.” But do we really believe this? If not, the false teachers have already arisen, and we have fallen for their false doctrines.
Peter speaks of false teachers in this text, but he is speaking to each of us. He warns those who would become false teachers of the destruction which lies ahead for them (compare James 3:1-12). He also warns every Christian to be on the alert, for false teachers will arise. While Christian leaders have a responsibility to guard the flock from false teachers (Acts 20:28-39; 1 Timothy 1:3-11; 2 Timothy 2:23-26), this does not absolve us of our personal responsibility to be on guard for false teachers. There is only one way we will be able to spot false teachers: we must be knowledgeable concerning the truth of the Word of God. We dare not become lazy and expect others to do our studying and thinking for us (see 1 John 2:26-27).
Finally, this text speaks to those who may not truly know the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior. You may believe in “Jesus.” You may believe in Him as the Son of God, as a great healer, or a great teacher. You may believe that He was a great leader and that He cared deeply for sinners. But to be saved, you must believe in His atoning work on your behalf on the cross of Calvary. You must believe that He was the God-man who bore the penalty for your sins, and that, as the risen Savior, His resurrection is, for you, life from the dead. Not until you believe in the real Jesus of the Bible will you be saved. May God grant you ears to hear and eyes to see, so that you might turn to Jesus for salvation this day.
45 Bill was a fellow-student at Dallas Theological Seminary and a Bible teacher with whom I was associated at Believers Chapel in Dallas. He is now the Chancellor of Ontario Theological Seminary and Ontario Bible College in Toronto.