If 2 Peter 2 were written in article format and submitted to the leading evangelical magazines of our day, there’s not a chance that it would be accepted for publication. The rejection notices would say, “Too harsh and judgmental!” “Too negative!” “Too critical of others’ ministries!” “Where is the grace?” “Rewrite in a kinder, gentler tone!”
Because tolerance has become the chief virtue of our culture and because the culture always creeps into the church, the church today is decidedly against anything that smacks of judgment or criticism of those who claim to be evangelicals. I often hear the mantra, “They will know that we are Christians by our love, not by our doctrinal correctness.” The implication is that love and correct doctrine are somehow opposed to one another. If we have to take our pick, we’ll go with love and overlook a lot of doctrinal weirdness and error.
Also, our evangelical culture has followed our morally lax worldly culture by mistaking God’s grace to mean that we get a daily allotment of free passes for sin. We wrongly think that grace means that God is like an indulgent parent who isn’t bothered by our sin. Over the years I have repeatedly been accused of not understanding grace because I have taught that salvation results in a life of obedience to God (Titus 2:11-14); a lifestyle of sin is evidence that we are not truly saved (1 John 3:4-10).
In contrast to our culture’s emphasis on being nice to everyone who calls himself a Christian no matter what he teaches, the Holy Spirit saw fit to put 2 Peter 2 in Scripture. In case we missed it, He virtually repeats it in the letter of Jude. Both passages give us this extended portrait of false teachers so that we will study it carefully, like a Most Wanted Poster, so that we will be able to spot these guys when they show up and avoid them and their teaching.
And so I would remind you as we study these verses that they are a part of God’s inspired Word, given to us “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, [and] for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Peter paints this picture to say that…
We should know the shocking characteristics, the deceptive methods, and the pitiful state of false teachers, so that we avoid following them in their sins.
Peter focuses more on the sinful lifestyles of these false teachers than on their false doctrine. We learn from chapter 3 that one of their main errors, which always has moral ramifications, was to deny the second coming of Jesus Christ. If Christ isn’t coming, there is no need to live in light of future judgment. They also seemed to teach that since we are free in Christ, we’re free to indulge the flesh. So the warning of these verses for us is not only to be on guard against erroneous theology, but also against any teaching that encourages us to tolerate sin.
After noting that these men “despise authority,” Peter adds, “Daring, self-willed, they do not tremble when they revile angelic majesties, whereas angels who are greater in might and power do not bring a reviling judgment against them before the Lord” (2:10b-11).
Peter describes their arrogance and defiance by saying that they “despise authority” (2:10a) and are “daring” and “self-willed.” Three times (2:10, 11, 12) Peter uses “revile” or “reviling” (NASB), from which we get our word “blaspheme.” It points to utter disregard for that which is sacred or highly respected. These men arrogantly pontificated on spiritual matters, but they did not humbly submit to God’s Word or fear Him.
There is debate, however, about exactly what these men were reviling. The NASB gives an interpretive translation, “angelic majesties.” The Greek word, literally, is “glories.” Some interpret this to refer to civil magistrates or to church leaders. John Piper takes it to refer to the glories of God and of Christ, especially with regard to His second coming (sermon, “Better Never to Have Known the Way,” on ). He thinks that it is unlikely that Peter would use “glories” to refer to fallen angels.
But most commentators understand “glories” (in v. 10 and in Jude 8) to refer to the fallen angels. Verse 11 is then saying that the holy angels (in contrast to the false teachers) don’t even bring a reviling judgment against these fallen angels. Jude 9 is more specific, “But Michael the archangel, when he disputed with the devil and argued about the body of Moses, did not dare pronounce against him a railing judgment, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’”
Jude is referring to an ancient Jewish story, The Assumption of Moses, in which the devil argued with Michael about Moses’ right to an honorable burial because he had murdered the Egyptian. Rather than rebuking the devil directly, Michael appealed to the Lord to rebuke him and the devil fled so that Michael could complete the burial (Thomas Schreiner, The New American Commentary, 1, 2, Peter, Jude [Broadman Publishers], pp. 459-460).
We don’t know whether Jude thought the story was historically true or whether he was just using it to make his point. But he was not saying that the entire story was divinely inspired. The point is, even Michael the archangel did not dare to bring a reviling judgment against the devil. But these daring, arrogant false teachers thought that they were more powerful than Satan and the demons are, and so they had no qualms about reviling them.
The same point is also made in Zechariah 3, when the prophet saw Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord. Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, representing his and Israel’s sins. Satan stood there to accuse Joshua. But rather than rebuking the devil directly, the angel, who is called “the Lord,” said to Satan (Zech. 3:2), “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! Indeed, the Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you!” Even the angel of the Lord appealed to the Lord to rebuke Satan.
So Peter refers to these fallen angels as “glories,” even though they are evil, because they have impressive power. Jesus even called Satan “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). He is not in any sense as glorious as God or even as glorious in might and power as the holy angels. But he does wield impressive power and authority during this present evil age. We do not need to fear the devil, but we should respect his power. In Christ, with our spiritual armor in place, we can stand firm against him and ask God to rebuke him. But he is not a force to take lightly!
I don’t watch much so-called “Christian” TV, but I’ve seen enough to know that some of the charlatans on there boldly proclaim that they are going to stomp on the devil and bind all the demons. The audience applauds such daring language against the devil. But they don’t have a clue about the power of the spiritual forces of darkness with which they are dealing! They’re like the seven sons of Sceva (Acts 19:13-16), who thought they could command the demons, until the demon-possessed man jumped all seven and subdued them! False teachers always exhibit this arrogance and defiance against spiritual authority. Peter next shows…
The false teachers no doubt prided themselves on their spiritual insight and knowledge, but Peter compares them (2:12) to “unreasoning animals, born as creatures of instinct to be captured and killed, reviling where they have no knowledge.” (There is a verse for all of you hunters to use against PETA!) Peter means that these men have abandoned their God-given rational ability and followed their lusts like animals. They were controlled by their feelings, not by reason informed by God’s Word of truth. The last phrase, “will in the destruction of those creatures [lit., “them”] also be destroyed,” could refer either to God’s final judgment on the fallen angels, or, more likely, to the destruction of all the animals on earth when God destroys the earth by fire (3:10, 12). The point is, the false teachers face God’s eternal judgment because they have lived like a bunch of animals, following their lusts.
When Peter adds (2:13), “suffering wrong as the wages of doing wrong,” he does not mean, of course, that they will suffer any injustice from God. Rather, it is a play on words (in Greek), which means, “they have harmed others by their unbridled lusts; God will inflict harm on them.” It is the same as Galatians 6:7-8, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.”
Peter further describes the lusts of these false teachers (2:13b), “They count it a pleasure to revel in the daytime.” Most people who sin do so at night, when their evil deeds may be hidden by darkness (1 Thess. 5:7). But these evil teachers threw off all restraints and partied all day long! If they had lived in our day, they would be on the daytime TV talk shows, delighting to tell lurid details about their sins.
Peter adds (2:13), “These are stains and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, as they carouse with you, …” Rather than being “stains and blemishes,” Peter later (3:14) uses the opposite words to say that believers should be “spotless and blameless.” “Carouse” should be translated, “feast with.” Peter is referring to the early Christian custom of coming together for a feast (like a “potluck”) before or after they partook of the Lord’s Supper. The parallel in Jude 12 says, “These men are hidden reefs in your love feasts.” The Greek word for “deceptions” (in 2 Peter) is similar to the word for “love feasts” (in Jude).
Probably Peter was making a word play, saying that the evil behavior of the false teachers was not worthy of being referred to as a “love feast” (Schreiner, p. 352). Rather, it was pure deception. They were deceiving the believers by attending the love feasts; but also, they were deceiving themselves by thinking that they truly were sharers in the love of Christ and the church.
Peter also exposes the false teachers’ lust by picturing them (2:14) as “having eyes full of adultery that never cease from sin, enticing unstable souls, …” The word “adultery” is literally, “an adulteress.” The idea is that these false teachers looked at every woman as a potential candidate to go to bed with. They preyed on the “unstable souls,” newer professing Christians who were emotionally and spiritually shaky. (Peter refers to these same unstable souls again in verse 18 as “those who barely escape from the ones who live in error.”)
Not only were these false teachers living to fulfill their lusts; they also were driven by greed. The New Testament often connects these sins (e.g., Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5). Peter says (2:14) that they have “a heart trained in greed.” We get our word gymnasium from the Greek word for “trained.” The idea is, these guys have worked out to get their hearts in shape for greed! They took the normal greed that we all wrestle with and pumped it up by frequent workouts!
Thus they are “accursed children.” That’s a Hebrew way of saying, “they are under God’s curse, bound for hell.” He then says (2:15), “having forsaken the right way, they have gone astray, having followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness.” Almost all of the Greek manuscripts and early versions read, “son of Bosor,” a name not found anywhere else. Some think it is a word play on the Hebrew word, basar, which means “flesh.”
When you read the story of Balaam (Numbers 22-24), he seems at first to be an okay guy. He is a prophet and on the surface, he claims that he won’t say or do anything unless God permits it. But, he was a cunning, self-seeking man who used his prophetic powers to line his own pocket. When God wouldn’t let him curse Israel, as the Moabite king wanted him to do, he instead advised the king to get his women to seduce the Israelite men. So the false teachers imitated Balaam both in his greed and in his enticing people by sensuality.
Peter adds (2:16) that Balaam “received a rebuke for his own transgression, for a mute donkey, speaking with the voice of a man, restrained the madness of the prophet.” Peter intends some humor, in that a dumb donkey had more spiritual insight than the greedy prophet did. When Peter calls him “mad,” he doesn’t mean that he was literally insane. Rather, he means that anyone who pursues greed and sensuality is crazy, because you’re really going after “the wages of unrighteousness” (2:15), which results in God’s judgment.
After painting this shocking portrait, showing the false teachers as being full of arrogance, defiance, lust, and greed, Peter goes on to reveal their deceptive methods:
Peter describes these men as “springs without water and mists driven by a storm.” He means that like a dry oasis in the desert or a cloud that looks like rain, but just blows over, these false teachers promise to quench your thirst, but they don’t deliver. These men were eloquent and persuasive. But rather than calling people to holiness and love for God, they appealed to their fleshly lusts and greed. They told them that God didn’t want them to deprive themselves of the pleasures of sex. They said, “We’re under grace! We’re free from the law. So indulge yourselves!”
As with all false teaching, there is both truth and error mingled together in those statements. God created sex to be enjoyed between a man and a woman who are committed to one another in marriage. In that context, it is a good gift to be enjoyed. But taken out of that context and pursued just to fulfill lust, it leads to slavery to sin. The world has psychologized lust as “sexual addiction,” but Peter calls it being a slave of corruption. The same is true when a person yields to greed, often expressed by compulsive gambling or stealing. He isn’t “addicted,” as if he were the victim of a disease. Rather, he has willingly become the slave of sin.
Beware of any teaching that appeals to your fleshly desires, outside of the boundaries that God has prescribed for proper enjoyment. Sex and material things have their rightful place. But when they become the consuming object of our lives, we’ve fallen prey to false teaching.
“For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment handed on to them. It has happened to them according to the true proverb, ‘A dog returns to its own vomit,’ and, ‘A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire’” (2:20-22).
Do these verses refer to the false teachers or to those who follow them? Probably due to the context, the focus is mainly on the false teachers. But it also applies to those who fall for their deceptive teaching. For a while, they had escaped the defilements of the world by knowing Christ as Lord and Savior. But then they got entangled in these defilements again. This last state was worse than the first. Peter compares it to a dog returning to its vomit (Prov. 26:11) or a pig after washing returning to the mire.
These verses raise two questions: First, what does Peter mean when he says that their latter state is worse than the first? Second, is Peter saying that believers can lose their salvation?
Peter may mean two things when he says that their latter state is worse than the first. It may be worse because if a person has heard the gospel and had some experience of the Christian life, it will be more difficult to restore him to a true knowledge of Jesus Christ. If you try to talk with him about what it really means to follow Christ, he is likely to say, “Been there, done that. It didn’t work for me.” (See Matthew 12:43-45.)
Peter may also mean that their latter state is worse than the first because everyone will be judged on the amount of light which they rejected (see Matt. 11:21-24; Luke 12:47-48). These people had been exposed to a lot of truth, but they turned their backs on it to pursue their own sinful lusts. They will be judged accordingly.
In response to the second question, the simple answer is, “No, a believer cannot lose his salvation.” Those whom God saves, He keeps (Phil. 1:6). Jesus said that He would not lose any of those that the Father had given to Him (John 6:39-40). No one can snatch His sheep from His hand (John 10:28).
But, to ask if a believer can lose his salvation is really the wrong question. The right question is, “What does it mean to be a true believer in Jesus Christ?” Or, “what is true saving faith?” In a nutshell, when God saves you, He changes your heart. He imparts new life to you so that your desires are changed. You now love God and seek to please Him. You want to grow to know Him. You love His Word. You hate your sin and strive against it. In other words, genuine saving faith always results in a life of growing godliness and obedience to Christ (see James 2 & 1 John). If that is not your experience, you may need to go back and make sure that God has truly changed your heart through faith in Christ.
But, how then do we explain Peter’s words here? He says that these people had escaped the defilements of the world. They knew Jesus as Savior and Lord. They knew the way of righteousness. For a while, at least, they had received the holy commandment of God’s Word. Some would say that they were truly saved, but they would lose their rewards. But Peter’s language doesn’t allow for that. That view flies in the face of chapter 2 and the entire letter (Schreiner, p. 364).
Probably we should understand Peter as using Christian terms to describe these false Christians because for a while, they gave every appearance of being Christians (Schreiner, p. 364). Like the seed sown on the rocky ground and that sown on the thorny ground, for a while they gave the appearance of new life. But they did not persevere and bear fruit unto eternal life. Genuine saving faith perseveres on the path of righteousness. This is not to say that Christians never sin. Sometimes they sin big time. But when they do, they genuinely repent and get back on the path. False believers, like these false teachers, are like dogs that go back to their vomit or pigs that return to the mire. They cleaned up the outside, but their basic nature never changed. Eventually, they act according to their true nature. They do not love God or the way of righteousness described in His Word because they have not been born again.
So, is Peter too harsh and judgmental of these false teachers? Should he join us more enlightened 21st century evangelicals in joining hands with them and singing, “We are One in the Spirit”? Or, did the Holy Spirit inspire Peter to give us this long, sad portrait to study so that we will be able to spot such false teachers and avoid following their sins?
Michael Green observes (The Second Epistle of Peter and the Epistle of Jude [Eerdmans], p. 122), “Why has Peter expended so much powder and shot on the false teachers in this chapter? Because he is primarily a pastor. He is concerned to feed his Master’s sheep (cf. John 21:15-17; 1 Pet. 5:1ff.), and he is furious to find them being poisoned by lust masquerading as religion.” Study this portrait carefully! Your eternal destiny may well depend on it!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation