By BARBARANNE KELLY|CONTRIBUTOR
In this week’s passage (actually, last week’s, as I was late getting this finished) Peter calls out false teachers and strips away their masks and pretenses to reveal the sordid truth behind their lies. This passage is not only difficult to read, it is necessary. For the same reasons parents everywhere warn their children to stay away from strangers, Peter is warning Christians to avoid false teachers in the church. At the end of his first epistle Peter wrote, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). The false teachers are on mission from our prowling adversary, attempting to lure the Lord’s sheep away from the safety of the truth, and Peter, appointed to shepherd God’s flock, is warning the sheep to be wary. It’s a warning we must heed even still.
Because of the length, severity, and self-evident nature of our passage, I’ll be flying ‘nap of the earth’ for this post, keeping close to the text and avoiding the temptations to speculation which dot the landscape. We begin by reading through our passage. (I have backed up to include part of verse 9 because 10 begins in the middle of a sentence where it feels like stumbling out of the gate.)
The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority.
Bold and willful, they do not tremble as they blaspheme the glorious ones, whereas angels, though greater in might and power, do not pronounce a blasphemous judgment against them before the Lord. But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction, suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you. They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.
These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.” (2 Peter 2:9b-22)
Peter’s tone is severely condemning of these false teachers. Not only because of their flagrant misconduct, but especially because of the harm they inflict on Christ’s blood-bought lambs. These are not good-intentioned believers who are missing the mark on a few details of the faith. They are self-indulgent, boldly and willfully blaspheming about things of which they are ignorant, irrational, destructive, reveling in their sin, insatiable, greedy, lustful, forsaking the way of Christ and enticing unsteady souls and new believers to follow them into the shackles of their depravity. Simon Kistemaker says of them, “they sin in self-willed ignorance, while they parade as teachers of religion.”
To suggest that these false teachers are “continuing in sin that grace may abound” (Rom. 6:1), seems too generous to me. There may be some who use such an excuse as cover for their actions, and while they may have claimed grace it does not appear that these Peter describes believe it themselves. What we believe flows from within us out into our behavior. These false teachers have perverted “the grace of our God into sensuality” and denied “our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4). John goes straight to the heart of the matter when he writes, “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 Jn. 2:22, 23). These false teachers are not mistaken believers, they are antichrists who know neither the Son nor the Father.
At the beginning of our passage (10b, 11), Peter writes that these teachers are so bold that they “blaspheme the glorious ones” (or, “celestial beings,” depending on your translation). It seems that these folks are fools who are “rushing in where angels fear to tread.” Kistemaker notes, “These people are bold and arrogant; they are unafraid to slander celestial beings; they blaspheme even the devils and in their arrogance transgress the limits God has set…These people, then, are devoid of any sense of propriety and show no hesitation in hurling insults at the devils.” Notice in contrast the restraint of the angels who are greater in might and power than these false teachers:
But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.” (Jude 9)
Peter gives us a clue to why they are so bold in their ignorance when he writes, “But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant…” (12). They have thrown off every respect for authority and are breathtakingly presumptuous about matters which are far above them. Contrast their attitude with the humility of a believer who recognizes his lowly position before our high and holy God, found in Psalm 131:1, 2:
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.
Peter condemns these teachers for their rejection of authority and reminds us who has the final word and what their outcome will be when he writes: “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority” (9, 10a), and, “[these] will also be destroyed in their destruction, suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing” (12b, 13a). Jude looks to ancient prophecy as he warns his readers to avoid false teachers:
It was also about these that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” (Jude 14, 15)
It seems obvious that to follow such teachers would be foolish, yet, they are a threat to the peace and purity of the church because they targeted their marketing at untaught, shallow, and immature believers. Peter tells us that many followed and were exploited by them (2, 3), unsteady souls were enticed by the sensuality they offered (14), and “those who are barely escaping from those who live in error” are being enslaved by their passion-driven folly. In his first epistle, Peter warned us not to be conformed to the passions of our former ignorance, but to instead be holy in all our conduct, because we are called by a holy God (1 Peter 1:14, 15). If there were no danger, there would be no need for a warning.
Manipulative appeals to our fleshly passions and our foolish weaknesses surround us in the culture of the world. The culture of our covenant community should be a respite from the world, but, sadly, this is where the enemy launches his most insidious attacks. John wrote that we should, “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). If something sounds ‘too good to be true,’ it just might be. Look for the reference point: Is this teaching pointing me to God’s glory, or to my own pleasure and comfort? Does this elevate God, or man? Does this throw shade or shine light on my sin; is it encouraging me to hide from my Savior or to repentance and holiness?
These false teachers are like “brute beasts,” or, “irrational animals” in their indulgence of their lusts of defiling passion, despising authority, following their instinctive urges and blaspheming, like dogs returning to their own vomit and sows wallowing in the mire (10, 12, 22). They match Paul’s description of unbelievers when he wrote, “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (Eph. 4:18, 19).
None of those descriptions sound very appealing. But, how about today’s mantras of “follow your heart,” “if it feels good, do it,” Or the new spin on self-love, “just do you.” These hit a little closer to home, don’t they? Paul clearly teaches where following our hearts was leading us when he wrote:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Eph. 2:1-3)
Girlfriends, we do not want to go back there. Follow the teachers who point you to Jesus.
Peter next compares the false teachers to the Old Testament prophet Balaam, from Numbers 22-24, who was hired to curse Israel. To be frank, reading only the account in Numbers leaves me confused, because it reads at first as if Balaam is trying to do the right thing and not curse the people of Israel, but instead pronounces blessings on them. Peter, however, writes that he “loved gain from wrongdoing,” and connects his actions to the attitudes of the false teachers who are seeking to gain at the churches’ expense. Since the same Holy Spirit inspired both Peter and Moses in their writings, we shall trust that this peek into Balaam’s motives is genuine.
Looking more closely at the text in Numbers, it seems that Balaam’s protestations against cursing Israel weren’t strong enough, and in fact, coupled with his stalling, may have been a negotiation tactic to raise his price. John Calvin sees God’s permission for him to go with Balak’s men (Num. 22:20-22) as “evidence of God’s indignation rather than permission.” Simon Kistemaker writes, “With this historical illustration Peter reveals the motives of the false teachers. He describes them as followers of Balaam and intimates that they shall have their reward. “Their condemnation has been hanging over them, and their destruction is not sleeping” (v. 3). Their reward is the same as Balaam.”
In the account of Balaam, God caused his donkey to speak with human words to restrain “the prophet’s madness.” If God can use a donkey to put Balaam in his place, we can trust him to care for us, the sheep of his flock.
The next word-pictures Peter gives to us reveals the lives and beliefs of the false teachers, and results of their teachings.
These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. (17)
Commenting on this, Kistemaker writes:
[Peter] borrows images from nature and in three short clauses discloses the true nature of these infidels.
- “These men are springs without water.” This is a picture of a desert in which a traveler looks for a spring. But when he has discovered the water hole, he finds to his dismay that it is dry. Similarly, the false teachers have nothing to offer the members of the Christian community: they are like dry wells.
- “Mists driven by storm.” What a disappointment to people who, having endured a drought, finally see storm clouds from which they expect abundant rain. But the storm pushes along swirling clouds that are waterless. So the heretics cause excitement in the community but offer nothing that is substantial and worthwhile. In a sense, they bring dejection.
- “Blackest darkness is reserved for them.” Near the end of the first century John writes, “God is light” (1 John 1:5). The opposite of light is absolute darkness. Whereas God’s children share his light, the children of the devil walk around in the darkness they have chosen. For them God’s judgement, which Peter describes as “blackest darkness,” is reserved.”
Again, these false teachers are not merely misguided believers in Christ, they are agents of our adversary seeking to lure us away from the light and life of Christ. True believers ought to seek to conform their lives to Christ under submission to his Word.
We move now to verse 19, where Peter asserts:
“They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.”
What do these false teachers have to offer, but a counterfeit freedom? Any freedom they proclaim would be freedom from God’s moral law, as John Calvin observes: “The name of liberty is sweet, and they abuse it for this end, that the hearer, being loosed from the fear of the divine law, might abandon himself unto unbridled licentiousness.” This is false freedom indeed, to throw off the bonds of love which bind us to our merciful Father in exchange for the slavery of sin.
“But the liberty which Christ has procured for us, and which he offers daily by the gospel, is altogether different, for he has exempted us from the yoke of the law as far as it subjects us to a curse, that he might also deliver us from the dominion of sin, as far as it subjects us to its own lusts. Hence, where lusts reign, and therefore the flesh rules, there the liberty of Christ has no place whatever. The Apostle then declares this to all the godly, that they might not desire any other liberty but that which leads those, who are set free from sin, to a willing obedience to righteousness.”
Paul issued the same warning to the church in Galatia when he wrote, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).
Typing this, I’m seeing the parable of the prodigal son play out before my eyes as the son in a misguided strike for freedom runs into the arms of depravity and bondage. He comes to his senses in a pig sty, and resolves to return to his father, seeking servitude in his home. Yet, the father has been anxiously awaiting him and runs to embrace his beloved son, celebrating his return in unrestrained celebration. This is a picture of our Father’s lavish grace toward us in salvation—and “the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses” (Eph. 2:4, 5). How could we submit again to a yoke of slavery?
Speaking of pigs, Peter finishes our passage with a final description of the false teachers taken from nature: “What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire” (22). Kistemaker comments: “By vomiting, the dog relieves itself of internal impurities; the sow, when it is washed, is cleansed from clinging external mud. Nevertheless, both animals return to the selfsame filth.” Let that sink in.
Peter writes of these false teachers that, “they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” yet “are again entangled in them and overcome.” Note carefully Peter’s use of pronouns here. He writes that “they” have escaped through the knowledge of “our” Lord. In this we see a distinction between them and us, which we discussed in-depth in a previous lesson (20). These false teachers were never true believers in Christ, for knowledge is never the final indicator of faith, but it must be accompanied by love, obedience, and fruit seen in the gradual sanctification of a growing resemblance to Christ, which are gifts granted by God.
Their knowledge served them only temporarily before they returned to the mire. The following passages encourage us to persevere in our God-granted faith, relying on his strength and not our own to escape from the corruption of the world fully and finally, having been set free from sin, so that the love of God may be perfected in us. To God be the glory.
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:3-8)
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. (Rom. 6:16-19)
Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (1 John 2:4-6)
The temptations to become entangled in our old ways of life, the passions of our former ignorance, are legion. Knowing that our adversary prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8), ought to set us on guard, reminding us to be sober-minded and watchful, humbling ourselves under God’s mighty hand in the sure knowledge that he cares for his children. I’ll give John Calvin the final word today, as comments on this passage being a reminder to steadfastness in the faith:
“the more earnest then ought we to be, to advance humbly and carefully in the course of our calling.”
 Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of 2 Peter, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1987), 298.
 Ibid., 297.
 My thanks to John Bennett for his helpful discussion on this topic. 😊
 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles: Commentary on the Second Epistle of Peter, translated by the Rev. William Pringle, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, reprinted 2009), 405.
 Kistemaker, 304-305.
 Ibid., 307.
 Calvin, 409.
 Ibid., 409.
 Kistemaker, 315
 Calvin, 410.