False Teachers are useless and Dangerous (2 Peter 2:17-22)

I’ve watched a few online talks, sometimes the person doing the talk has a proper to start with, a coffee cup they pretend to drink from. It is embarrassingly obvious that they are miming with an empty cup. Why would you do that? We always make sure we turn up to our facebook afternoon tea with cups bringing full of tea or coffee.

There is nothing more tragic than seeing something you like or need, being filled with longing only to get there and be disappointed as it wasn’t what you expected. You order the delicious looking huge desert from the menu only to discover that portion sizes are not pictured to scale, you discover that your new watch is in fact a cheap imitation, you don’t read the poster closely and get to the concert only to discover it is a tribute act.

Or to give you my worst example, I remember on a trip to the US buying what I expected to be a delicious bar of chocolate, only to get an experience of what I can best describe as biting into a bar of vomit. That’s right, it was Hersheys!

There is a saying

“Perceptions can be deceptive”

Well, as we have seen, the False Teachers were deceptive. Peter wants to give as much time and space in his letter as possible to showing this. He wants us to know that they are useless, about as useful as a chocolate fireguard in fact. More than that, they are dangerous.

Let’s look a bit further.

The false teachers offer a deceptive mirage (2:17)

Peter describes the false teachers as like waterless springs. Imagine the scene, you have been walking for hours in the scorching heat but it is okay, you know that on route you are going to get to a spring where you be restored by dipping your feet, splashing your face and most importantly drinking cool refreshing water. So, oh the heart aching disappointment when you reach it and discover that it has long dried up due to the summer drought.

The imagery here echoes Jeremiah 2:13 where God tells the prophet that the people have committed two related sins, they have rejected his living water and have sought refreshment from dry, broken cisterns.  It further echoes and contrasts John 7:37-39 where we are told:

37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as[f] the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

False teachers are like these dried springs because they flatter to deceive. The claim to offer a way to find peace with God, they often promise success in life but in fact they have nothing to offer because they lack the Holy Spirit.  In the absence of true, living water they have to offer addictive rituals and behaviours. Gradually they trap people in who are far from satisfied but do not knows a way out.

They are like mist or vapour driven by the storm. Note here another echo, this time of Ecclesiastes where vapour is used to show that life and this world are fleeting and fragile. Here we are shown the instability of the false teachers both in terms of the content of their message and their own personality and behaviour. Their teaching is based on a lie and so you cannot rely on them. 

You cannot lead someone out of a trap when you are trapped yourself (v18-19)

False Teachers target those who are vulnerable. So, one way they do that is to seek out those who have “just escaped” or are “barely escaping from those who live in error.”  (v18)

Do you remember the Arab Spring. There was such hope as the citizens of Syria, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt rose up to overthrow oppressive regimes. That hope quickly faded. I am not sure that there is any country left that provides us with a surviving model of a fruitful outcome.  In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood quickly inserted themselves into demonstrations that started out as cries for greater freedom of the liberal democratic variety and so the result was an equally oppressive regime with a different ideology.  We so easily move from one bad situation to the next. Jesus warns about the man who has a demon cast out but not replaced with the Holy Spirit.  The result is like a house, swept clean and empty. The demon returns later with seven of his friends.

We have also seen how sadly people can escape unhealthy, abusive relationships only to quickly fall for someone else just as bad for them and get into an even more toxic relationship.

Similarly, watch for those who are not necessarily false teachers but are discontent, harbouring their own ambitions and/or pursuing their own vision and how they latch onto new people in the church. Practically, take time to ensure that newcomers are linked up with spiritually healthy church members.

Note that the emphasis at this point is on what the vulnerable have escaped from. I would be careful to call them recent converts because that implies that they have saving faith which raises questions about loss of salvation (which we will discuss later).  They have escaped in that they are no longer spending time in the company and under the influence of idol worshippers and false religion. They are no longer worshipping at the local pagan temple or sitting at the feet of a guru. In our case, we may see people who have recognised the futility of whatever addiction, sinful habit and/or context was entrapping them and are now spending time with us studying God’s Word. I also think of people who have left behind cults such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Prosperity Teachers and are starting to attend church to hear the Gospel but very quickly get targeted by others in the church with their own agenda.

V19 tells us that what the false teachers offer is in any case useless because they are themselves not free but are trapped, ensnared by their sinful desires. Note again that in this particular case, the sin they are entrapped by and ensnare others into had a sexual dynamic to it. It is my view that the link between sex and power means that there is almost always a sexual dynamic to abuse because the abuser primarily seeks a level of thrill and gratification whether or not they pursue it through overtly sexual means.

The point here is that they claim to offer freedom, they promise their hearers freedom from the suffocating rules and restrictions of the church and/or the elders but in fact they cannot offer freedom because they, themselves are slaves.

“whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.”

We can think that we are in control, that we are simply enjoying a pleasure and that we can choose to stop when we want. This is rarely the case, what we see is that unhelpful, unhealthy pleasures are addictive and habit forming. We discover that addictions grown in intensity so that the frequency and size of the hit, whether drugs, alcohol, sex or power trips grow whilst the satisfaction we gain from them decrease. False Teachers and abusers are addicts who seek to draw others into their own addictions. They need to draw more and more people in and have more intensive control over their lives

The fate of those caught up is worse than if they had never encountered the Gospel at all

The chapter closes with two vivid, illustrative images. There’s the dog who vomits up it’s breakfast and then goes back again, sees its own sick and licks it up and there’s the pig who washes it-self clean and then goes for another roll in the dirt (v21-22). The proverbs are meant to evoke revulsion at how disgusting the false prophets are but also to show the short-sightedness of going back on the Gospel. It suggests that we forget where we have come from and why if we do. We may at this point also remember the problem that Moses faced when bringing the Israelites out of Egypt.  They had been rescued from slavery, harsh punishments, the threat to life against their baby boys, they were on route to a promised land flowing with milk and honey but they quickly forgot both where they were going and where they had come from so that they grumbled and complained wishing they could just go back to Egypt.

These proverbs emphasise the danger for people who fall into the grips of false prophets and the false prophets themselves. Verse 20 could refer to the false teacher or to those mislead by them. I think it is best to see that both false teachers and mislead disciples are in mind here.[1]

The danger is that they have in some way escaped the “defilements of this world” and are at risk from returning to them.  I say “in some way” because the nature of how matters to assurance and security. Does the fact that this is through knowledge of Jesus Christ mean that they have in fact been converted,  become believers in Jesus and gone away from him.  A similar challenge arises in Hebrews 6.

Well, I want to suggest here that we cannot be talking about genuine believers in Jesus because of who he is and how the Gospel functions. It is not just that there are Bible verses that promise that Jesus will not lose those given to him and there is no speration but it is locked into the exact nature of the Gospel. Our status prior to faith is “spiritually dead” so in a strong sense we need to recognise that our role is somewhat passive. Regeneration is about a corpse being brough back to life. God is sovereign and he is the one who undertakes to rescue us from sin and death. The onus is on Jesus not to lose any from his hand. God loved you when you were still a sinner and sent his son to die for you and me. He gave us a righteousness not our own and he adopted us into his family. Further, Jesus is so wonderful, so lovely, so compassionate, so wise and so great and powerful that the idea we would want to pull out of the joy of that relationship is unlikely too.

However, we capture a sense that any encounter with the Gospel and with the life of the church is significantly deeper than we might assume. The person who has encountered the Gospel close up is still changed in some way. They’ve tasted the goodness of God, they have in many ways benefited from Bible teaching, from being away from ungodliness, from the ministry, love and care of the body. They have started to experience grace and have in fact been treated as under grace.

So to turn back on that is serious. It is not that they are ignorant of the Gospel but they have rejected it. They have seen the promised land and returned to slavery in Egypt, Their rejection of good and their embrace of wickedness puts them in a far worse position. There is no way that sinful pleasures can satisfy to the same degree as before and yet they will feel even more hopeless and even more trapped.

You know, whether it is the full embrace of false teaching, a choice to return to worldly behaviour or simply being caught up in gossip, slander and divisiveness in the church, it seems to me from my observations that recovery is rare and hard work. My heart sinks when I see people where there seemed to be so  much promise and hope caught in such traps.

Conclusion

So we have completed this detailed exploration of the life character and habits of false teachers from chapter 2. Next time we pick up in chapter 3 and our focus is on Christ’s return. We have not completely left the false teachers behind but there is a new focus.

This study neatly sums up the issue with false teachers

  • They are deceptive, relying on trickery.
  • They are useless (duds if you want alliteration) who have nothing to offer
  • They are dangerous because they  trap and ensnare vulnerable people
  • They are a danger to themselves because in their complacency they fail to foresee their own downfall.

There is a warning here to not allow ourselves to be caught up in these things and to repent if we have. There is a reminder about our responsibilities. We are to cling to Christ and be rooted in his word, we are to seek togetherness and not isolate ourselves from the body, we are to encourage one another. There is a charge to pastors, preachers, elders and vicars to watch carefully over the flock in our care.


[1] This is also the view of Schreiner, see Schreiner, 1 Peter, 2 Peter and Jude, 360.

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