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The Teachers’ Hall of Shame (2 Peter 2:10-22)

10 and especially those who indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise authority. Daring, self-willed, they do not tremble when they revile angelic majesties, 11 whereas angels who are greater in might and power do not bring a reviling judgment against them before the Lord. 12 But these, like unreasoning animals, born as creatures of instinct to be captured and killed, reviling where they have no knowledge, will in the destruction of those creatures also be destroyed, 13 suffering wrong as the wages of doing wrong. They count it a pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are stains and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, as they carouse with you, 14 having eyes full of adultery and that never cease from sin, enticing unstable souls, having a heart trained in greed, accursed children;

15 forsaking the right way they have gone astray, having followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness, 16 but he received a rebuke for his own transgression; for a dumb donkey, speaking with a voice of a man, restrained the madness of the prophet.

17 These are springs without water, and mists driven by a storm, for whom the black darkness has been reserved. 18 For speaking out arrogant words of vanity they entice by fleshly desires, by sensuality, those who barely escape from the ones who live in error, 19 promising them freedom while they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved. 20 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. 21 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 delivered to them. 22 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.”

8 Yet in the same manner these men, also by dreaming, defile the flesh, and reject authority, and revile angelic majesties. 9 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.” 10 But these men revile the things which they do not understand; and the things which they know by instinct, like unreasoning animals, by these things they are destroyed.

11 Woe to them! For they have gone the way of Cain, and for pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam, and perished in the rebellion of Korah.

12 These men are those who are hidden reefs in your love feasts when they feast with you without fear, caring for themselves; clouds without water, carried along by winds; autumn trees without fruit, doubly dead, uprooted; 13 wild waves of the sea, casting up their own shame like foam; wandering stars, for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever. 14 And about these also Enoch, [in] the seventh [generation] from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord came with many thousands of His holy ones, 15 to execute judgment upon all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have done in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.” 16 These are grumblers, finding fault, following after their [own] lusts; they speak arrogantly, flattering people for the sake of [gaining an] advantage. 17 But you, beloved, ought to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, 18 that they were saying to you, “In the last time there shall be mockers, following after their own ungodly lusts.” 19 These are the ones who cause divisions, worldly-minded, devoid of the Spirit.

Introduction

Certain theological and textual problems in 2 Peter 2 may perplex the serious Bible student. But I do not wish to focus on what is unclear about our text, but what is becoming increasingly clear. The problem Peter addresses is one he places on our door step, one we must not and dare not avoid. Consider these disturbing facts about false teachers found in 2 Peter and in Jude (a close parallel to 2 Peter 2).

(1) False teachers are not just a hypothetical possibility; they are a certainty. There have always been false prophets throughout Israel’s history, and just so there will most certainly be false teachers in our time as well (2 Peter 2:1-3).

(2) These false teachers are not only to be expected outside the church but within the church as well. They are not just found in other churches but in our own. These false teachers arise “among us” (2:1); they exploit us (2:3). They practice their sinful ways in our presence (2:13), and even at the most sacred of all occasions, the Lord’s Table (Jude 12).

(3) These false teachers are not secretive about their sin, but publicly flaunt it (2:13).

(4) In spite of their openly fleshly lifestyle, even in the church gatherings, the saints seem oblivious to their sin, failing to recognize these people to be false teachers (Jude 4), and thus these false teachers feel free to continue in sin without any fear of rebuke or correction (“without fear,” Jude 12).

(5) Rather than expose and expel these heretics, the saints seem content to embrace them as fellow-believers, and in the process provide them with prestige and a platform from which they subvert the faith of others, especially the weak and vulnerable (2:13-14, 18-19).

In his first epistle, Peter speaks to the saints about suffering, showing that suffering should be viewed as a normative experience for the Christian, and one that can be endured with grace to the glory of God, certain of the glory yet to be revealed at the return of our Lord. The false teachers do not face up to the certainty (and glory) of suffering. In their appeal to fleshly lusts, they speak of success, of avoiding pain and enjoying pleasure. And so it was necessary for Peter to follow up his first epistle with a second. Second Peter deals primarily with false teachers and their teaching which denies that suffering is a part of God’s will for the saints, and which seeks to convince men that they may pursue fleshly lusts without any fear of judgment. First Peter speaks of earthly suffering in the light of eternal glory; 2 Peter speaks of the false teachers who promote sinful self-indulgence in this life while denying the future judgment to come.

The first chapter of 2 Peter begins on a very positive note. Peter stresses the sovereignty of God and the sufficiency of His provisions for life and godliness. He urges the saints to diligently pursue godly character, assuring them this is the way God has provided for us to be blessed and to be certain that we will stand in the trials and temptations of this life. He ends chapter one by emphasizing the sufficiency of the inspired Scriptures, a “more sure word of prophecy” due to the coming of Christ and the revelation of His glory.

In chapter 2, Peter turns from the truth to that which is false. He contrasts the true prophets and their prophecies with the false prophets of old and their successors, the false teachers. In verses 1-2, Peter described the false teachers very briefly. These teachers are to be found in the church (among you,” 2:1). They will exploit the saints (2:3). They live in sensuality, and they promote it, finding many followers who are attracted by the wiles of the flesh (2:2). Their teaching and practice are heretical, destructive to all who follow them (2:1). These false teachers do great damage to themselves and to others and bring reproach on the way of the truth (2:2). These teachers, and those who follow them, face certain destruction although it is still future (3:3).

In verses 4-10a, Peter turns back in time to similar situations in ancient history (namely the flood of Noah’s day and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Lot’s day) to show that God knows how to deliver the righteous from temptation and how to deliver the wicked to eternal punishment (see 2:9-10a).

Having assured his reader of the two-fold certainty of deliverance and destruction in verses 4-10, Peter now provides us with a description of these false teachers. Verses 10-14 describe the character and conduct of the false teachers. Verses 15 and 16 liken them to Balaam, an Old Testament prototype. Verses 17-22 describe these false teachers in terms of their destructive impact on those who follow them.

In this lesson, we will begin by attempting to characterize the condition of the churches to which Peter wrote. We will also seek to clarify our understanding of the evil which was becoming rampant in these churches. We will seek to characterize the false teachers and their teaching, especially its impact on others. We will consider the destruction which follows in the wake of these false teachers and their teaching. Finally, we will explore the implications of Peter’s teaching for our own day.

The Setting

We have already pointed out some of the conditions in the churches to which Peter was writing. A few more conditions can be inferred from the text. The false teachers had little respect for those in authority (2:10; Jude 8). They were grumblers and complainers who created strife and division in the church (Jude 16). They were greedy and self-serving (2:14-15; Jude 12). They used people for their own purposes and gratification (2:13-14; Jude 12, 16). They were immoral to the point of having no shame for their sin; they proudly flaunted their sin (2:13-14; Jude 13). These teachers gathered their own following of vulnerable saints (2:14, 18). If they were recognized for what they were, they were not dealt with as they should have been (2:13-14; Jude 12).

I can think of a church in the New Testament which sounds exactly like this—the church at Corinth. The church at Corinth was characterized by its factions (chapter 1), some of which even took members to court with one another (chapter 6). Some of the “leaders” of the church at Corinth seem to have belittled Paul and the other apostles, claiming apostolic authority for themselves (2 Corinthians 11). Paul’s suffering was cited as proof of his impiety, while the “spiritual giants” at Corinth knew only success (1 Corinthians 4:6-21; 2 Corinthians 4:7-15; 6:1-18; 12:7-13). Immorality was common (1 Corinthians 6:12-20), and even when the church knew of a man who lived with his father’s wife, they did nothing about it and were proud of their response to his sin (1 Corinthians 5:1-13). The saints at Corinth had made many questionable alliances with unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14-18). Their ungodly leaders were “smooth talkers,” making Paul’s simplicity of speech pale in comparison (1 Corinthians 2; 2 Corinthians 2:14-17; 4:1-2).

But the church in Corinth was not the only church which manifested these symptoms of spiritual sickness. Paul’s letters to Timothy indicate these symptoms characterized many churches (see 1 Timothy 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 2:14-26; 3:1-13; 4:1-4). The letters to the seven churches in Asia, recorded in Revelation 2 and 3, are addressed to some of the same churches Peter addressed in his epistles (compare 1 Peter 1:1 with Revelation 2 and 3).

Recent scandals involving prominent television preachers have become public in recent years and painfully parallel the description of false teachers given by Peter and Paul. But more than this, the descriptions of the church at Corinth and some of the churches in Asia are uncomfortably close to conditions in many of our evangelical churches today. Peter’s words to these saints of old are not mere history; they are prophetic words both of encouragement and of admonition for those who will hear and heed them. Let us listen well to what God has spoken through this inspired apostle.

The Profession of the False Teachers

False teachers do not wear name tags identifying themselves as such. They are hypocrites and deceivers, who have “crept in unnoticed” (Jude 4). They are “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15). They identify themselves as true believers, followers of Jesus Christ, and they profess to follow Jesus as Lord. They seem to operate in His power, and they do their impressive works in His name. They appear to oppose Satan (see Matthew 7:15-23).

These false teachers attend the church and participate in its functions, including the Lord’s Supper (Jude 12). They appear to be “in fellowship” with the saints and are closely associated with them (2 Peter 2:1, 3, 13). They claim to be knowledgeable and are often regarded as leaders and teachers (see Matthew 7:15-23; 23:1-3; Acts 20:29-30; 2 Corinthians 11:13; 2 Peter 2:1-3; 3:1-4).

The Personal
Morality of the False Teachers

There can be little doubt about the spiritual condition of these false teachers. While they appear to be sincere Christians, they are not. They are “ungodly persons” (Jude 4) who are “worldly-minded” and “devoid of the Spirit” (Jude 19). They are spiritually ignorant (2 Peter 2:12; Jude 10), “slaves of corruption” (2:19), “children of a curse”52 (2:14). They are “doubly dead” (Jude 12). They are apostates, those who have heard the truth but have not embraced it and eventually turn away from it (2:15, 21).

The attitude of the false teachers is consistent with their ungodly nature. They are arrogant (Jude 16) and iron willed, hell-bent and determined to stay that way (2 Peter 2:10). They are “mockers” (2 Peter 3:3; Jude 18), who have no regard for authority, whether demonic or divine (2:10-11; Jude 8-9).

These false teachers are self-centered and self-serving, caring only for themselves (Jude 12). They use other people for their own self-gratification, rather than sacrificially ministering to them (Jude 16). Sexual immorality (including perversion, see Jude 7-8)53 is one of their primary characteristics, along with greed (2:14-16).54 This greed is not unconscious but a condition of heart that exists as a result of conscious development (2:14).55

The root malady of these spiritual charlatans is that they are dominated by the flesh, enslaved by its corrupt desires and impulses (2:19-20). Driven by impulse and instinct, they hardly differ from animals (2:12). They sin persistently—non-stop (2:14). They are so deeply enslaved to sin that they no longer know any shame. Rather than carry out their fleshly desires in private, they find pleasure when they sin in public (2:13). The inference of the text is that some of the fleshly indulgence practiced by these pseudo-Christians is carried out publicly in the church gathering (2:13), even at the Lord’s Supper (Jude 12). From what we know of the Corinthian church (e.g. chapter 5, 11), this does not seem unreasonable.

A word of clarification needs to be said at this point, due to some rather popular misconceptions concerning the fleshly indulgence of these false teachers. It is often thought and said that the evils described by Peter are “Gentile paganism.” The assumption is that Jews would not do the things described here but that Gentiles would.

One would be hard pressed to prove this point from the Old Testament or the New. Old Testament patriarchs like Judah were guilty of immorality, a kind which seemed to even shock the pagans (Genesis 38:20-23). The Israelites frequently fell into practicing sins of the flesh. They quickly fell into sin after the exodus (see Exodus 32:1-6). Balaam was instrumental in the downfall of many Israelites. It would seem that he knew all too well their vulnerability to sexual seduction and immorality (see Numbers 25:1-3). Adultery and immorality was practiced not only by the Israelites but by their prophets as well (Jeremiah 23:10-14). One can safely say from the Old Testament record that there were virtually no Gentile sins which were not also, at some point in time, practiced by the Jews. No wonder the people of God are sometimes referred to as Sodom and Gomorrah (see Isaiah 1:9-10; 3:8-9; Lamentations 4:6; Ezekiel 16:44-59; Amos 4:11).

The Jews may have thought themselves to be above fleshly indulgence, but Jesus did not allow them to think this way for long:

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; 28 but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart (Matthew 5:27-28).

If the Jewish religious leaders thought Jesus was speaking of someone other than them, Jesus made Himself crystal clear on this point:

25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also. 27 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 Even so you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:25-28).

14 Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things, and they were scoffing at Him. 15 And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God (Luke 16:14-15).

When Paul surveyed the history of the Israelites, he made it very clear they were habitually guilty of fleshly sins:

1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; 3 and all ate the same spiritual food; 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness. 6 Now these things happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved. 7 And do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “THE PEOPLE SAT DOWN TO EAT AND DRINK, AND STOOD UP TO PLAY.” 8 Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. 9 Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. 10 Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come (1 Corinthians 10:1-11).

Paul’s epistles give us further indication that fleshly indulgence is not merely a temptation promoted by Gentiles or to which Gentiles are more susceptible. A number of the warnings in Paul’s epistles concerning false teachers are clearly directed toward Jewish false teachers:

3 As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus, in order that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, 4 nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than [furthering] the administration of God which is by faith. 5 But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, 7 wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions (1 Timothy 1:3-7).

10 For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, 11 who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not [teach], for the sake of sordid gain. 12 One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” 13 This testimony is true. For this cause reprove them severely that they may be sound in the faith, 14 not paying attention to Jewish myths and commandments of men who turn away from the truth (Titus 1:10-14).

There are hints in both 1 and 2 Peter that the false teaching of which Peter writes has at least a Jewish component. In 1 and 2 Peter, there is mention of Old Testament prophets and their prophecies (1 Peter 1:10-12; 2 Peter 1:16-21) with whom he expects his readers to be familiar. There are numerous references to Old Testament texts of Scripture in 1 and 2 Peter. Especially significant are Peter’s citations from the Old Testament in 1 Peter 2:4-10. Here, Peter applies to New Testament saints (many of whom are Gentiles) Old Testament statements concerning Israel. In both of his epistles, Peter refers to Old Testament events (such as the flood—1 Peter 3:20; 2 Peter 2:4-5) with which he assumes his readers are familiar.

In the third chapter of his second epistle, Peter’s warnings concerning false teachers seem to have a Jewish flavor:

3 Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with [their] mocking, following after their own lusts, 4 and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For [ever] since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:3-4).

The expressions “the fathers fell asleep” (verse 4) and “the beginning of creation” (verse 4) have a distinctly Jewish (or at least Old Testament) ring to them. Why would we assume that some of the false teaching would not come from the lips of Jewish false teachers when other New Testament texts clearly warn Gentile churches of this danger?

If we think the asceticism of some Jewish false teachers was an antidote to fleshly indulgence, we are wrong. Often such self-empowered, self-denial served to inflame fleshly passions rather than subdue them:

20 If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” 22 (which all [refer to] things destined to perish with the using)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, [but are] of no value against fleshly indulgence (Colossians 2:20-23; see also 1 Corinthians 7:5).

The Jews of Old Testament times were often guilty of the very sins Peter condemns in our text. The Judaisers of the New Testament were often promoters of fleshly indulgence. How then do we dare suggest the sins of which Peter warns us are sins of Gentile paganism, sins which are “typically Gentile,” and not typically Jewish? The error of which Peter speaks is neither “Gentile” nor “Jewish.” The error is one which is “common to man,” regardless of race or culture. Fleshly indulgence may take various forms, but it knows no racial boundaries. It is for this reason that Paul can seemingly condemn the sins of Gentile heathen (Romans 1:18-32), only to turn to the Jews and blame them for the same offenses (Romans 2:1-29).

The Doctrinal Beliefs of False Teachers

So much is said about the moral life of the false teachers that we may be surprised at how little is said about their doctrine. In brief, these false teachers promote false teaching or what Peter calls “destructive heresies” (2:1). He states that they “even deny the Master who bought them” (2:1).56 I understand Peter to be telling us the outer limit of their heresy, the extreme to which they will go. I further understand Peter’s words here to be broad enough to refer to “denial” of the Master, whether that be in word or deed. I believe the natural course of events is that men first deny God’s authority functionally (in practice) and then, eventually, verbally. To disregard God’s command (2 Peter 2:21) is to deny His authority over us.

The false teachers forsake the right way, the way of truth. They reject the commandment of the Lord (2:21; 3:2), which I understand to be the gospel, as revealed through the apostles (see 1 Timothy 6:14; Jude 3). I would take it that the gospel is, in the final analysis, perverted both as to its origin (the atoning work of Jesus Christ, appropriated by faith alone) and as to its outworkings (the work of Christ in the believer, through the Spirit). In the context of Peter’s argument, these false teachers have distorted the grace of God through the gospel so that, rather than seeing the gospel as God’s provision for man’s freedom from sin, it is viewed as God’s provision for man’s freedom to sin (see Jude 4).

Elsewhere in Scripture, we are given more specific examples as to how the gospel may be perverted by false teachers (see Galatians 1:6-10ff.; 2 Timothy 2:18). Here, Peter is very general in his description of the doctrinal errors of the false teachers, while he is much more specific in his description of the moral failures of these apostates. Why is this? I believe it is because the cults and perversions of Christianity have great diversity in their doctrinal views, but the moral and practical manifestations are very similar.

By inference, it would seem Peter is suggesting that it may take considerable time for the false doctrines of the false teachers to become evident, while the moral failures of these folk are much more readily and quickly seen. Indeed, from what Peter writes about these false teachers, their moral collapse is evident to all (see 2:13; Jude 12). It is not that their sin is hidden but rather that it is not taken seriously enough (compare 1 Corinthians 5).

The Prey of the False Teachers

Just as wolves prey upon the young and the sickly of the flock, so these “wolves in sheep’s clothing” prey upon the vulnerable. This is what makes their sin so great:

1 Then the word of the LORD came to me saying, 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to those shepherds, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD,” Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? 3 You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat [sheep] without feeding the flock. 4 Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them” (Ezekiel 34:1-4).

5 “And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it is better for him that a heavy millstone be hung around his neck, and that he be drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of [its] stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes!” (Matthew 18:5-7).

We should not forget that in our Lord’s final words to Peter, He instructed him to demonstrate his love for his Master by tending the little lambs:

15 When they had finished breakfast Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others?” “Yes, Lord,” he replied, “you know that I am your friend.” “Then feed my lambs,” returned Jesus (John 21:15, Phillips; see also NASB).

The most vulnerable members of the flock are those who need the greatest care. And it is these on whom the false teachers prey:

“enticing unstable souls” (2:14).

18 For speaking out arrogant words of vanity they entice by fleshly desires, by sensuality, those who barely escape from the ones who live in error, 19a promising them freedom while they themselves are slaves of corruption … (2:18-19a).

6 For among them are those who enter into households and captivate weak women57 weighed down with sins, led on by various impulses, 7 always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 3:6-7).

The Methods
of the False Teachers

The false teachers are con artists par excellence. They have highly developed skills and the basest of motives. They are false. They are deceptive. They are evil.

They conceal their true identity. They represent themselves as something they are not—true believers (2:1-3). They even go so far as to claim apostolic authority (see 2 Corinthians 11:12-15). They associate with and among believers (2:13). They participate as members of the congregation, even at the Lord’s table (Jude 12). They do not reveal their true agenda, but slip in unnoticed and “secretly introduce destructive heresies” (2:1). They conceal their true identity and their agenda. They misrepresent themselves, their message, and their motives.

The false teachers are trouble-makers. They constantly agitate and seek to undermine God’s program by turning the people of God against their leaders. The false teachers resist and oppose authority (2:10; Jude 8; see also 2 Timothy 3:8). They grumble and find fault (Jude 16). They create strife and division among the saints (Jude 19).

False teachers oppose the truth. They deny the truth (3:3-4), or they distort it (see 2 Timothy 2:18). They teach falsehood (2:3), and they “reveal” truth which they falsely claim to have received from God (Jude 8; see also Ezekiel 13:9; 22:28; Zechariah 10:2). They distort the truth, such as by turning the grace of God into a pretext for sin (Jude 4).

False teachers are deceivers. They promise those who follow them things which they themselves do not possess (2:19). They promise their followers things which they do not and cannot produce (2:17). They use persuasive methods (“puffed up words of vanity,” 2:18) and seductive appeals to fleshly appetites (2:18). They employ flattery to gain the advantage (Jude 16). They are masters of deceit, of which they are proud (2:13).

The Impact of False Teachers

False teachers are disastrous in their effects. They introduce “destructive heresies” (2:1). Many will follow them (2:2). Unbelievers are no doubt drawn to their teaching, but Peter is not as interested in this dimension of the ministry of false teachers. They defraud their followers by promising what they do not produce (2:17-19). Those who follow them are misguided, just as a sailor would be who navigates by “wandering stars” (Jude 13). These false teachers prey upon the vulnerable and the weak. They “entice unstable souls” (2:14); they “entice those who barely escape from the ones who live in error” (2:18). They identify themselves and their sin with the saints and the church (2:13), exploiting them (2:3) and bringing reproach on them (2:2, 13). They incite grumbling and division among the saints (Jude 19).

The Fate of False Teachers

The only ones who gain from the ministry of the false teachers are the teachers themselves, and this but for a short time. They themselves are doomed for destruction, though they seem not to know it, because in their deceiving others, they themselves are deceived (2 Timothy 3:13). As they introduce destructive heresies, they are “bringing swift destruction on themselves” (2:1). Their judgment is certain: “Their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep” (2:3). The examples of the flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah serve to demonstrate that God knows how to “keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment” (2:9). Never is any other fate than destruction indicated for these false teachers (see 2:12, 14; 3:16). For such as these “accursed children” (2:14), “the black darkness has been reserved” (2:17; Jude 13-15).

The judgment of false teachers is greater than it is for others. Their judgment is even greater for them than it was formerly. Their “last state has become worse than the first” (2:20). This is for several reasons. These false teachers receive greater condemnation because they lead the vulnerable (“little ones”) astray (Matthew 18:6-7). They are more culpable because they have known and rejected more than others (Matthew 11:20-24; Luke 12:47-48) and because they claim to know the way (John 9:39-41). They have greater guilt and bear more responsibility because they are teachers who lead others astray (James 3:1).

Peter’s words in verses 17-22 have perplexed many believers:

17 These are springs without water, and mists driven by a storm, for whom the black darkness has been reserved. 18 For speaking out arrogant words of vanity they entice by fleshly desires, by sensuality, those who barely escape from the ones who live in error, 19 promising them freedom while they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved. 20 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. 21 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 delivered to them. 22 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.”

These verses raise many questions, but they can be resolved by answering but one question: “Is Peter speaking here of the unbelieving false teachers, or of their naive, but Christian, victims?” The answer is actually both. I would suggest that the italicized references are to the unbelieving teachers, while the doubly underlined references are to their unsuspecting and naive Christian victims. I have reached this conclusion for the following reasons:

(1) It is evident in verses 18 and 19 that both the unsaved teachers and their victims are referred to. The question is simply, “Which is which?”

(2) According to Jesus’ reference to “dogs” and “pigs” in Matthew 7:6, we should conclude that neither are thought of as true believers. The false teachers must therefore be “dogs” and “hogs.”

(3) When Paul speaks of “dogs,” he is referring to Jewish false teachers:

2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision (Philippians 3:2).

(4) The “victims” referred to by “those” and “them” in verses 18 and 19 are represented as believers, new Christians who are weak and vulnerable, but those who have escaped from the camp of unbelievers.58

(5) Only the last state of the false teachers can be worse than the first. If a Christian falls into sin and is judged for it, he still remains a believer with the assurance of eternal life. Even when physically destroyed, he has the sure hope of heaven (1 Corinthians 5:5). The unbeliever never did have the hope of heaven. His last state of unbelief is worse than his first state because he has come to know “the commandment” (the gospel) and has rejected it. It is better to be judged in ignorance than in willful rebellion (see Luke 12:47-48).59

Conclusion

As we consider Peter’s description of false teachers, we should not expect that every false teacher will manifest every characteristic described. Rather, the characteristics Peter has given us should serve to cover the wide range of those who will arise as false teachers. In this regard, Peter’s list of characteristics of the false teacher is something like the description of the “ideal woman” in Proverbs 31:10-31. No woman will ever measure up to this “perfect woman” of Proverbs. I do not think it was ever thought any woman would or could. But in this picture of an ideal woman, we see qualities for which every woman should strive. So too Peter’s characterization of the false teacher is such that we see some of the earmarks of the false teacher who will arise in our midst.

Carrying the imagery of Proverbs a bit further, I am most impressed with the similarities between the false teachers of Peter’s description and the “strange or adulterous woman” of Proverbs. In Proverbs, the way of truth and wisdom is symbolized by “dame wisdom” (see Proverbs 1:20-33; 3:13-26; 4:5-9; 8:1-21, etc.). “Madam folly” symbolizes the way of evil and the seductions of those who would lead us astray onto this path (see 2:16-22; 5:1-23; 6:24-35; 7:1-27; 22:14; 23:27-28).

Notice, for example, the ways in which “madam folly” in Proverbs is like the characterization of the false teacher in 2 Peter:

(1) She flatters (2:16; 7:5, 21; compare Jude 16)

(2) Adulteress, immoral (2:16; 6:25; 7:5; compare 2 Peter 2:13-14)

(3) Forsakes the right path (2:17; compare 2 Peter 2:15-16, 21)

(4) Smooth talker and seducer (5:3; 6:24; compare 2 Peter 2:3, 14, 18)

(5) Promise more than they deliver; promise pleasure but deliver destruction (7:16-27; 2:18; 5:5; 6:26; compare 2 Peter 2:17ff.)

(6) Use people for their own gain (6:26; compare 2 Peter 2:3, 14; Jude 12)

(7) Prey upon the naive, the vulnerable (7:7; compare 2 Peter 2:14, 18)

(8) Boisterous and rebellious (7:11; compare 2 Peter 2:10-11, 13-14, 18)

(9) Brazen and shameless (7:13; compare 2 Peter 2:10, 13-14)

(10) Make sin look like a “religious experience” (7:16-18; compare 2 Peter 2:13; Jude 4, 12)

(11) Sensual (7:16-18; compare 2 Peter 2:2, 18; 3:3)

(12) Minimize consequences of sin (7:18-20; compare 2 Peter 3:1-4)

(13) No sense of guilt for sin (Proverbs 30:20; compare 2 Peter 12-14; compare 1 Timothy 4:2)

(14) Peter’s expose’ of false teachers helps me to better understand Paul’s personal convictions and conduct as he sought to disassociate himself from such folks as these. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul defended his right to be supported by those he taught, and then explained that he refused to accept such “support” for the sake of the gospel. Since some would have lumped him into the same category as the “religious hucksters,” Paul chose to clearly stand apart from them by being self-supporting (see also Acts 20:33-35; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12). He was also most careful in the way he handled funds which were given to minister to others (2 Corinthians 8:16-24). Paul also sought to differentiate his preaching methods (not to mention his message) from that of the false teachers (see 1 Corinthians 2; 2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:1-2).

This text also helps to explain Paul’s emphasis on the importance of godly character in church leaders (1 Timothy 3:1-13; 4:12-16; Titus 1:5-9). It explains why Paul makes so much of his own example in relation to his teaching (Acts 20:18-21, 33-35; 1 Corinthians 4:16-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12; 2 Timothy 3:10-11).

There is a very important principle underlying the teaching of the apostles as it relates to doctrine and conduct. It may be stated this way: There is an inseparable union between one’s doctrine and one’s conduct. While our doctrine should determine our conduct, it is most often true that sinful conduct is the first step to a perverted theology.

This seems to be the sequence of events envisioned in 2 Peter. False teachers do not “introduce destructive heresies” in a Sunday School class or from the pulpit, at least not at the outset. They introduce “destructive heresies” by seducing the saints to pursue their fleshly lusts. Once men have become enslaved to their passions, they will quickly rearrange their doctrine to square with their conduct. This is not the way it should be, but it is the way it often works. I believe Solomon’s heart was turned to his foreign wives before his doctrine became corrupt. Balaam knew that the way to turn the Israelites against the Lord was to first entice them to commit sexual immorality (see Numbers 25:1-2). The young man in Proverbs 7:21-23 suddenly went in to the seductress, and, not so suddenly, changed his theology. The simple fact is: our morality often determines our theology, rather than our theology dictating our morality.

Notice the close relationship between morality and theology in this passage:

18 Woe to those who drag iniquity with the cords of falsehood, And sin as if with cart ropes (Isaiah 5:18).

False teachers will become evident by their theology, but it would seem they are first evident by their ungodly lifestyle. This is exactly what our Lord is talking about in Matthew 7:13-29. False teachers (literally “false prophets”) will become evident by their fruits. These “fruits” are not found in their doctrinal statement. These “fruits” are not what we might expect. The false prophets of whom our Lord speaks claim to believe in Jesus as their Lord. They prophecy, cast out demons and perform miracles, all in His name (7:22), and yet our Lord will say that He never knew them. He will call them those who “practice lawlessness” (7:23). Those who are the children of God are those whose conduct is godly, those who are obedient to what they know of Him and His will (see 7:24-27).

This text in 2 Peter was not written to make the Christian question their salvation or their eternal security. Peter has already indicated how the saints can avoid stumbling—through the appropriation of God’s provisions and through the pursuit of godly character (see 2 Peter 1:1-21). Peter has already assured us of this fact:

9 The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment (2 Peter 2:9).

Paul has done likewise:

19 Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, “The Lord knows those who are His,” and “Let every one who names the name of the Lord abstain from wickedness” (2 Timothy 2:19).

And so has Jude:

24 Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, 25 to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, [be] glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen (Jude 1:24-25).

What should Peter’s words say to us? First of all, we should recognize that spiritual growth is not automatic, and that there are those who are eagerly seeking to undermine our walk with the Lord. There are those who pass themselves off as Christians and who would pervert God’s Word, redefining the gospel and distorting the teachings of Scripture which require holiness. We should be alert to the characteristics of false teachers, and we should contend earnestly for the faith (Jude 3). We should exercise special care for the newborn believers, for the weak and the vulnerable as God’s little ones.

We should look for false teachers; we should expect them, not only in other churches, and outside the church, but arising from within the church. We should expect false teachers in our church to claim to be Christians, to profess to serve the Lord Jesus and even to accomplish some impressive tasks. We should expect them to oppose Satan. We should recognize that spiritual leaders in the church should not be recognized too quickly and that Christian character is evident over time. We should recognize sin and immorality in the church not only as dangerous, but as one of the primary characteristics of the false teacher. We should see that self-indulgence leads to doctrinal deviation and ultimately to disaster. We should not give false teachers status and sanctuary in the church, but should put them out, protecting the flock from them and their devastating words and works.

We should, as we read such passages as this one in 2 Peter, be deeply touched. On the one hand, we should recognize that “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” We should see that the sensual lifestyle and distorted thinking of the false teachers was once ours, until God in His grace sought us out, saved us, and rescued us from the “corruption that is in the world by lust” (2 Peter 1:4). We should realize that false teachers find many followers (2 Peter 2:2) simply because they tell a lost world what they want to hear (2 Timothy 3:1-7; 4:3-4). We should realize that we still struggle with the pull of fleshly lusts (Romans 7), but that we must abstain from them (1 Peter 2:11).

We should commit ourselves to doing exactly what Jude requires of us:

20 But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith; praying in the Holy Spirit; 21 keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life. 22 And have mercy on some, who are doubting; 23 save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh (Jude 1:20-23).

As I conclude this lesson, let me remind you that the error which Peter describes is one that is “secretly introduced” (2:1). It is not immediately apparent, but only seen in time. Fleshly indulgence is dramatically apparent when men and women live in adultery and sexual perversion. Fleshly indulgence was readily evident in Sodom and Gomorrah. But I fear that fleshly indulgence is all too common in evangelical churches. Not so much in open immorality (though that is becoming all too common), but in sensuality and self-indulgence that is more subtle, even spiritual in appearance.

This morning, as I was driving to a Bible study, I heard a missionary organization speaking of its ministry as “fulfilling.” We speak to the lost about “finding what they have been looking for” in Jesus. When we raise funds, we often appeal for motives which are fleshly (we will give a “free gift” in return, or we will put their name on a plaque for all to see). Jesus constantly spoke of His cross, and of the fact that those who would follow Him must take up their cross, daily. Why are we talking little about the cross we must bear, and so much about the fulfillment and satisfaction we can find, as Christians? While our fleshly indulgence may not have reached the dramatic proportions we see in the world, or in places like Sodom and Gomorrah, it is “alive and well” in the saints and in the church. This is not the way of the gospel, the way of the cross. May God give us the grace to heed Peter’s words.


52 “‘Children of a curse!’ The expression children of is Semitic and occurs in a number of forms: For example, ‘children [objects] of wrath’ (Eph. 2:3), ‘children of light’ (Eph. 5:8), and ‘children of obedience’ ((1 Peter 1;14).” It is similar to the phrase “sons of disobedience (Eph. 2:2; 5:6, NKJV).” Simon J. Kistemaker, Peter and Jude (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House), 1987. New Testament Commentary Series, pp. 302-303.

53 “Instead of shunning defilement, these false teachers take great pleasure in moral impurity. A literal translation, therefore, has the reading ‘those who walk . . . in the lust of uncleanness’ (NKJV). The Greek word translated ‘uncleanness’ refers to the act of polluting oneself and others. It is preceded by the term lust and forms the phrase lust of uncleanness. The phrase means a ‘hankering after unlawful and polluting use of the flesh.” Simon J. Kistemaker, Peter and Jude (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House), 1987. New Testament Commentary Series, p. 295.

54 Commenting on verse 14, Barclay writes,

“The Greek literally is: ‘They have eyes which are full of an adulteress.’ Most probably the meaning is they see a possible adulteress in every woman, wondering how she can be persuaded to gratify their lusts. ‘The hand and the eye,’ said the Jewish teachers, ‘are the brokers of sin.’ As Jesus said, such people look in order to lust (Matthew 5:28).” William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, [rev. ed], 1976. The Daily Study Bible Series, p. 331.

55 “They have their hearts trained in unbridled ambition for the things they have no right to have. We have taken a whole phrase to translate the one word pleonexia which means the desire to have more of the things which a man has no right even to desire, let alone have. The picture is a terrible one. The word used for trained is used for an athlete exercising himself for the games. These people have actually trained their minds to concentrate on nothing but the forbidden desire. They have deliberately fought with the conscience until they have destroyed it; they have deliberately struggled with their finer feelings until they have strangled them.” Barclay, p. 332.

56 As explained in an earlier lesson, I understand Peter to be saying that these rebels against all authority reject God’s authority over their lives, even though He has the right to demand and expect complete obedience. This statement, couched in terms of the exodus, does not emphasize the atonement of our Lord in particular so much as it does the authority of God in general, which the false teachers, like the false prophets who preceded them, reject.

57 I do not think Paul is being chauvinistic here, suggesting it is only women who are weak and burdened down with the guilt of their sins, making them vulnerable prey for false teachers. Peter’s instruction in our text helps us to understand Paul’s words more clearly. These false teachers are men, men who are immoral, men who have “eyes full of adultery.” Who else would we expect such depraved men to prey upon? They seek out weak women, not because there are not weak men, but because they want to use these women to satisfy their lusts. Unfortunately, the more corrupt these teachers become, the less likely they are to be drawn only to women.

58 If “the ones who live in error” in verse 18 are the false teachers, then this verse assures us that the weak and vulnerable saints will escape, although barely so.

59 How can these unbelievers, under sentence of eternal damnation, be said to have “escaped” in verse 20? They have not escaped from the camp of unbelievers, as have the vulnerable saints (verse 18); they have escaped, to some degree, from the defilements of their sinful and indulgent lifestyle by their association with the truth of the gospel and with the church. But their “escape” was neither full nor final.

Related Topics: False Teachers