If you’ve been following along this week, you’ll know that it’s L-Plate month on Coffee with the King, where students from my introductory preaching class are taking us through 1 & 2 Peter, and Jude. Unfortunately, the student originally assigned to write on 2 Peter 2:11-3:10 had to withdraw from the subject, so there’s a bit of a gap. For the sake of completeness, I’ve provided the edited text of a sermon I gave on 2 Peter 2 a number of years back. It’s a fair bit longer than your average post, so feel free to skip today’s if you haven’t got time and resume with chapter 3 tomorrow.
In previous centuries the church used to burn heretics; false teachers. These days they’re mostly tolerated, lest the church appear divided to outsiders, or be criticised in the media for being ‘narrow’ or ‘fundamentalist’. A biblical response, however, lies somewhere between having them over for a BBQ, and simply having them over a BBQ. What should the church’s response to false teachers be?
False teachers in the first century
In chapter 2 of 2 Peter, we encounter one response to false teachers in the Church. Let’s see how Peter deals with the problem in the first century.2:1 But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.
What, specifically, was this false teaching Peter was facing in his day? Based on the evidence found throughout the letter, the best theory seems to be that the false teachers were polluting the gospel with one particular type of Gk philosophy known as Epicureanism.
The gods are distant and uninvolved
There were two key features of Epicurean thought. Firstly: they believed that the gods were distant – they didn’t involve themselves in human affairs. People in the church from an Epicurean background started to apply this concept to the Christian God: God is distant and uninvolved. As v1 suggests, they even start to deny the fact that Jesus was God – after all, what kind of God gets involved enough to be born as a human being?
And of course, if God is distant and uninvolved, he’s not going to be coming in judgement, is he? Much of this chapter is in fact Peter arguing against the Epicureans on this point. He reminds his readers that God has intervened in judgement in the past – witness the flood, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – and so we can expect him to continue to do so in the future.
But the Epicureans would have none of this. They started to reject the idea of Jesus’ second coming to judge the world. The fact that there seemed to be a bit more of a delay than the first Christians thought made their argument more attractive:3:3-4 Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.”
If the gods are distant and uninvolved, we can do what we like
The second key feature of Epicurean thought follows on from the first. If the gods are distant and uninvolved in human affairs, we can live as we please. Who’s going to judge us? In the Graeco-Roman world, the Epicureans were known as the pursuers of pleasure, denying themselves nothing: fine food, entertainment and of course any kind of sexual activities they desired. Although homosexuality occurs in all cultures, the Epicurean philosophy often made a virtue out of it.
So the false teachers in Peter’s church were not only characterised by a denial of God’s impending judgement of the world, but a lifestyle that followed this rather debauched and immoral branch of ancient Gk culture. Peter describes their actions thus:2:13b-14 Their idea of pleasure is to carouse in broad daylight. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. 14 With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood!
You might ask: How did they fit this lifestyle into their veneer of Christian beliefs? V3 suggests that they twisted Christian truths and traditions to suit their own agenda:2:3 ‘In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories.’
A better translation may be the NRSV’s ‘deceptive words’. The Gk word is plastos – from which we get ‘plastic’. It means fabricated, man-made – almost ‘moulded the way we want’.2:3 (New Tim Translation) ‘these teachers will exploit you with their plasticine words.’
Essentially, they reinterpreted the bible to make it conform to their own culture & preferences. We get a bit more of an idea in the next chapter. Speaking of the Apostle Paul, Peter says:3:16b ‘His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.’
Paul’s teaching of grace – unconditional forgiveness – was regularly distorted into being a license to continue to sin. This is despite the fact that Paul warned against it:Rom 6:1-2 ‘What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?’
To sum up: the false teachers, influenced by Epicurean philosophy, were teaching that God was distant and uninvolved. That he wasn’t going to judge us; that Jesus wasn’t coming back; and therefore we could do as we like. And they distorted Scripture in an attempt to make it agree with their own agenda, and so deceive the church.
False teaching in our time
What relevance does this have for us today, though? It’s not like we have Epicurean philosophers living next door or infiltrating our church. Or do we? Allow me to give a frighteningly quick and overly simplistic history of Western thought over the last few centuries.
In the 18th century, Europe experienced what has been termed ‘the Enlightenment’. That’s where our modern, scientific, rational view of the world has its foundation. And a foundational concept of many Enlightenment thinkers was that God is distant. God has set up the world as a kind of machine, wound it up and then walked away.
You know the ad where all the components of a Honda Accord are arranged so that each part moves the next, like a chain of dominoes? Then the tag line at the end: ‘Isn’t it nice when things just work’. That was the Enlightenment view of God & the world – God was the ultimate cause, but didn’t intervene after he set the world in motion. That means we can investigate the world scientifically, because it all works in a rational, natural way.
A former president of the Australian Baptist Union seems to view God in this way. Interviewed about why God didn’t intervene to stop the tsunami, he said:
“The idea that God is some divine clockmaker who can change the time and avert a crisis is not one I share. Only if you are deeply embedded with the idea of an interventionist supernatural god would you believe that God should have pulled the plug on the tsunami.”
Now if God is distant and uninvolved, we have to explain away the supernatural – any hint that God might have a direct involvement with his creation: miracles, angels, acts of divine judgement. They were all ways that our superstitious ancestors explained away things that they couldn’t understand – things that we can explain, because we’re scientists.
And of course Scripture became a casualty. Christian Scripture is by nature a co-operation between the divine and human authors. God speaking to humanity, but doing it through the styles, language, culture, and worldview of the human authors. However, with the Enlightenment, the emphasis started to fall on the human factors, with God’s inspiration fading from the picture. After all, God is distant and uninvolved, right? So the bible became just another set of human texts; a mere history book, contrary to what Peter said at the end of chapter 1:1:20-21 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Once God’s inspiration gets taken out of the picture, it’s authority is undermined. It becomes a collection of virtuous human thought. And it allows people to read Scripture according to their own preferences & agendas. Which means: we can live how we like, and use the bible to justify it. Starting to sound more Epicurean all the time, isn’t it?
How has it worked out in practice? We just need to look at the way many have sought to redefine the bible’s teaching on sexuality, on the uniqueness of salvation through Christ, and even the physicality of Jesus’ resurrection.
The Epicurean error is alive and well in many of our churches today. It tells us that since God is distant and uninvolved, we can read our own agendas and preferences into the bible and fool ourselves that it’s all OK.
But it’s not.
Let’s briefly see what God’s response is to the false teachers in our passage today.
Firstly, we find some of the harshest words in the NT used on them. Peter wants his readers to understand how dangerous these teachers are:2:10-12 This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority. Bold and arrogant, they are not afraid to heap abuse on celestial beings; 11 yet even angels, although they are stronger and more powerful, do not heap abuse on such beings when bringing judgment on them from the Lord. 12 But these people blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like unreasoning animals, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like animals they too will perish.
Essentially, Peter says they are wilfully ignorant. They follow their instincts and desires, and twist Christian teaching so that it allows them to continue in this manner.
(BTW, just as they are ignorant of much, we are ignorant of what the ‘celestial beings’ are in v10. ‘These men are not afraid to slander celestial beings’. In fact, the NIV is taking a guess and trying to interpret, as the word is simply ‘glories’. I’ve seen at least five interpretations of what ‘glories’ might mean, and I find none of them particularly convincing. Thankfully it doesn’t have a great bearing on Peter’s point, and so we have to remain content in our ignorance!)
Back to the false teachers: they are not just wilfully ignorant, but also grossly immoral:2:13b-14 ‘Their idea of pleasure is to carouse in broad daylight. They are blots and blemishes, revelling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed–an accursed brood!’
Further, they are described as greedy:2:3a ‘In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up.’ 2:15 ‘They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Beor, who loved the wages of wickedness.’
In some way, they are the televangelists of their day. (Without the television bit of course…) Like the story of Balaam in the OT, they are not only deceiving God’s people, but also making a profit out of it.
Ultimately, they show they were never changed by the gospel:2:22 ‘Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.”’
Now these are harsh words. But we need to remember that they were spoken not to the false teachers in angry debate. Nor to the world’s media; to outsiders. They were spoken in house to Christians. Why?
This was in fact a common technique used by the public orators of the day: the rhetoric of shame. Although the false teachers are the objects of the shame, they are not the primary target of the message. The church is. The false teachers are shamed so that the rest of the church won’t be led astray. This is part of the antidote to the false teaching: it might sound attractive and plausible at least on the surface – but if you follow them you will be acting dishonourably. You will be going against what is true, what is noble, what is right. You will be going against God himself. Beware that you do not follow them in their shameful ways!
When pastors in my church speak out against false teachings that are in today’s church, we’re not directing them at the false teachers themselves. (I think it’s unlikely they subscribe to our podcast.) And we’re not doing it to grab media headlines. We point out the errors – usually in far gentler terms than the Bible does – we do it for you. So that you don’t get exploited by ‘plasticine words’ or get led into ‘Balaam’s error’. So that in a positive way, you are reminded of what the right, true, honourable course of action is. And, negatively, you are reminded of how shameful it is to turn away from the truth of the gospel. Or to distort it in any way. Just like the apostle Peter reminded his people two millennia ago.
But as well as harsh words describing their depravity, Peter spends a large part of this chapter arguing that God does intervene in history – and he will do so again to judge these false teachers who threaten to lead his people astray. It’s one rather long and complicated sentence, as Peter is contrasting God’s protection of those who spoke the truth, with his judgement of those who did evil. I’ve simplified it a little by removing the positive examples, to make the word against the false teachers stand out more clearly:2:4-9 (edited) ‘For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment…if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people…if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly…if this is so, then the Lord knows how to … hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment.’
That is, God has judged falsehood in the past, and he will do so again. And the consequences will be terrible. Peter even says they would have been better off never having heard the gospel message; instead, they have known it but deliberately turned their back on it:2:20-21 ‘If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.’
This chapter stands as a warning to those who treat God’s word lightly. To those who dismiss its authority; who try to read their own agenda into it. And particularly to those who promote teaching that obscures the way of salvation: teaching that leads others away from eternal life.
Our response to false teachers
That’s God’s response. What should our response be? Firstly, we should take care that we aren’t led astray. Peter says that many will follow them:2:2 ‘Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute.’
Yet if we are attracted by them, we find that they promise much but deliver little. This is how Peter describes them:2:17a ‘These men are springs without water and mists driven by a storm.’
I hate hot weather. So I look forward with great anticipation to the best thing about living in Sydney: the southerly change. It’s hereditary, I think. My mother as a girl living in Sydney’s southern suburbs could allegedly smell it once it hit Wollongong. Being the computer geek I am, however, I follow its progress up the coast on the Bureau of Meteorology website radar.
But I tell you, there’s nothing worse than a lame southerly – one that arrives with a fanfare of thunder and rain, but an hour later it’s no cooler. The oven merely becomes a sauna. This is what the false teachers were like: they promised freedom, but delivered nothing except slavery all over again:2:18-19 ‘For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of sinful human nature, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity – for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him.’
Their teaching is appealing, as it plays to our sinful desires, enslaving us all over again. For example:
Instead of being rebuked by the bible’s stance on sexual ethics, we seek out a new interpretation that says in the 21st century, sleeping together before marriage is OK; that a homosexual lifestyle choice is OK.
Or instead of being chastened by the bible when we see ourselves living for wealth and comfort, we embrace a prosperity teaching says ‘that’s OK! Wealth is a sign you’re being blessed by God – enjoy it! pursue it!’
I think the prosperity, or ‘health and wealth’ gospel is the most dangerous error for Western Christians. Now for you, maybe it’s not the blatant ‘God will make you rich’ sort – we see through that OK. But I think we’re still open to the more subtle lie that says we deserve a certain amount of comfort. That seeks to rob the story of the rich young ruler of any relevance for today. That our goal in life is not to live for God and God alone, but instead to find balance between God, family, career and everything else our culture would have us do.
That’s one of the challenges we need to think about from this passage. What false teaching or distortion of the gospel message are you most susceptible to?
God will protect us
But we also need to remember that God is able to protect us. Amidst all of the negative historical examples of those who were judged for their rebellion, there were also positive ones. God looks after those who hold to the truth and aren’t afraid to stand up for it: Noah, who by the act of building the ark proclaimed the judgement that was to come; and Lot, who Peter says was distressed by ‘the filthy lives’ of the lawless inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Although holding firmly to the truth may make us unpopular in the eyes of the rest of the world, God will look after us when we do so. Not when we burn heretics at the stake. Not when we take our in-house disputes and air them in the media. But when we stand up for truth: humbly, politely, but unshakeably.
Peter refers to the OT story of Balaam in v16, reminding us that God spoke through Balaam’s own donkey to rebuke him. If he can use a donkey to correct false teaching, you can be sure that he is able to use us!