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2 Peter 2

14 Jan 2019

Contents

2 Peter 2:17–22

These people are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of the flesh, 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 ‘people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.’ If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are 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. Of them the proverbs are true: ‘A dog returns to its vomit,’ and, ‘A sow that is washed returns to her wallowing in the mud.’ (NIV)

Paths Not Trodden

As usual, there was far more to learn and discuss than I could pursue in the time I had available. False teachers vs. false prophets, the certainly of the day of judgment, the examples of God’s judgement (and rescue of the righteous), the fate of the angels who sinned, the ‘celestial beings’ of verse 10, the story of Balaam and the notion of apostasy were all clamouring for my attention (and these are just the things I consciously put aside).

This post is a general one and will address the nature of the false teaching in 2 Peter, the importance of knowledge (wisdom and discernment) in the life of the believer and give a few thoughts around false teaching in the church today.

It is a common practice in blog posts recommending or endorsing particular products to declare any conflicts of interest beforehand. In this spirit, I will admit at the outset that I really enjoy theology and the related disciplines – it’s fun for me, I’d do it even if it weren’t that important or useful. So I know that I may have a bias toward a particular reading of what Peter is saying here. I’ll share what I think the text is saying but, if you read this and disagree, know that I freely admit that I may err too far on the side of head knowledge because it’s something I particularly enjoy.

False Teaching

It seems that we don’t know a lot about the false teachers 2 Peter was written to refute. In his commentary, The Letters of 2 Peter and Jude, Peter Davids gives the following summary:

Some teachers among them have influenced them in a moral direction of which 2 Peter disapproves. One basis for these teachers’ rejection of traditional moral boundaries is their belief that the Parousia of Jesus and its concomitant final judgment will not happen. … the deeds done in the body belonged to the body and would not be judged in a final judgment. They are presented as stating (1) that there has been no apocalyptic divine intervention since the creation, (2) that there has been no return of Jesus within the time frame that the first generation of leaders of the Jesus movement expected, and (3) that Jesus would therefore not return and bring that judgment. (Davids 2006: 133)

Bauckham notes ‘three prominent characteristics of the OT false prophets which can also be applied to the opponents in 2 Peter’ (1998: 283):

(1) unlike the true prophets they did not speak with divine authority; (2) frequently their message was one of peace and security in contrast to the prophecies of future judgment uttered by the true prophets; (3) they were condemned to punishment to God. (ibid.)

From 2 Peter, we know:

  1. ‘They will secretly introduce destructive heresies’ (2:1, NIV)
  2. They will ‘[deny] the sovereign Lord who bought them’ (ibid.)
  3. They are condemned to destruction: ‘Their condemnation has long been hanging over them’ (ibid.; cf. 2:12)
  4. ‘Many will follow their depraved conduct’ (2:2), they entice new believers (cf. 2:18)
  5. They ‘will bring the way of truth into disrepute’ (ibid.)
  6. They exploit the church (cf. 2:3; cf. Davids 2006: 219)

The Day of Judgement is Coming: It Matters What We Do

There are people active on the ‘Christian scene’ these days who are described as false teachers – and I’m sure at times these accusations go both ways. I won’t write about anyone in particular because, frankly, I am not familiar enough with the ministries or teachings of anyone in particular. I can, however, talk about my own personal experience.

It seems to me that, at times, we preach a gospel that has grace but no works. It seems that, at times, we preach grace without works, which is, of course, not what we see in the Bible. I think there are many Christians today who struggle to understand the relationship of grace, faith and works. Any reader of this blog will know that I am one of these struggling Christians. My studies in 1 and 2 Peter are forcing me to reevaluate things that I have previously taken for granted. The Bible is so clear that we will be judged based on what we do (perhaps Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 is a sufficient example) and yet it seems to me that we place such an emphasis on what Jesus did that what we do becomes practically irrelevant. Naturally, the Christian message should focus on what Jesus did – without this anything else we have to say is utterly meaningless.

Nevertheless, the Bible is clear, as it is in 2 Peter, that the day of judgement is coming, that God wants effort from those who claim to follow him (‘make every effort’, Peter says in 1:10). Douglas Moo wrote that ‘there are always those within the church who are attracted to new and different teaching, especially if, like the ideas peddled by these false teachers, it removes the bounds of moral constraint and accountability to a holy judge’ (1996: 94). This, I think, should serve as a word of caution to the church today. It seems that our teaching focuses on God’s grace to the neglect of his holiness as reflected in the Christian life.

I must admit that this is entirely based on my own (likely flawed) understanding of what I have seen and heard. I haven’t seen the totality of anyone’s teaching. I haven’t seen what they say to those close to them whom they are personally discipling. I also have my own filters – perhaps I have become so convinced of our laxity when it comes to the human response to God’s work in Jesus that I miss the way the church nuances its teaching and applies the paired truths of God’s work and our response.

The reason I am saying all this is that I seek primarily to be a student of my teacher and master, Jesus and, at least in my experience, God’s work has been well defined but the human response to this work has not. In other words, I see a missing piece in my understanding of the Christian life, of what it means to follow ‘the way’. I think that filling in this missing piece may be useful to others, but it is at least useful to me.

In addition to a focus on grace without works, I see a pattern of downplaying the trials that Christians must face in this life. The Christian life is not easy, yes, we are told that, but I do not think that we are told enough of the daily struggle that we must endure to live it. This seems to be at most an afterthought in how we talk about it. Christians must, at some level, look different from non-Christians, or the gospel will be void of its life-changing power.

I think finances are something that we seem to mishandle in the modern church. The call to use our wealth freely to serve God’s kingdom somehow seems to leave us with Christians in the modern world who look no different from their non-believing neighbours. On the question of Christians’ giving, C.S. Lewis says this:

I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc, is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them. (2001: 86)

He says that ‘if our expenditure … is up to the same standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little’. There is a call in the Christian life to holiness – living for Jesus radically reorients our lives to the point where we must live differently from those who do not. Lewis writes that ‘there ought to be things we should like to do and cannot’ – living for Jesus means that, at least at times, we consciously go against our own desires. This is something that the false teachers of 2 Peter were not doing and, I think, it’s something we don’t hear a lot about in the church today.

False Teachers Are a Real Threat: It Matters What We Believe

As Christians focus more and more on defending their faith on the basis of practicality—going to church has helped my family; my commitment to Christ has given me a better self-image—they will be less concerned to know the truth. Feeling replaces thinking. (Moo 1996: 98)

There are many Christians who seem to value the pleasures of this world more than Christ (I am one of them at times) and it comes out in how we talk about our lives and our churches. Think of how much effort some people put into finding wives or pursuing large salaries (and the things that come from this, houses, cars, holidays, etc.). In not a few conversations with Christian acquaintances of mine the conversation revolves almost exclusively around wives, children, jobs and houses. I can count on one hand the number of people who, after having not seen me for a long time, ask about my faith, who ask me ‘How are you doing with the Lord?’ I am guilty of this too. When I talk about my church, I’m far more likely to say something like, ‘I’m really enjoying it’ or ‘I’m happy there’ instead of ‘let me tell you how the Lord is using me’, ‘let me tell you how the Spirit is working in our church’, ‘let me tell you what God has been teaching me’.

The word ‘unstable’ (asteriktous) is again striking by virtue of its antonym; Christians, Peter urged in 1:12, need to be people who are ‘firmly established [esterigmenous] in the truth.’ It is precisely those who fail to become solidly grounded in Christian truth whom false teachers find to be easy prey. Like trees with shallow roots, they are easily swayed and toppled. (Moo 1996: 126)

Peter says we must ‘add to [our] faith … knowledge’ (2 Peter 1:3, NIV). Yes, I am a person who loves knowledge, who makes a hobby out of studying all manner of things and so I am biased. I still believe, however, that all Christians must pursue the knowledge of God – Peter’s words don’t only apply to those who enjoy it. There is an emphasis on knowing what we believe as something deeper than simply ‘accepting Jesus into our hearts’. As Peter writes, he ‘will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth’ (2 Peter 1:12, NIV) – this is not a one-time deal, we need to constantly be reminded of the fundamental truths of our faith.

It’s important for every Christian to own for themselves what they claim to believe. It’s important so that we can deal with false teachers when they come – and they will come, they always have. The traditional creeds seem to have gone out of fashion in some places and I can see why – statements that we just recite can become just statements we recite, not statements we own, not actually statements of belief (and belief that affects the way we live). The knowledge Peter exhorts us to add to our faith in 2 Peter 1:5 is not ‘knowledge of Scripture per se’ but is knowledge that leads to practical action (cf. Davids 2006: 180; Green 2008: 193). Davids says that ‘Christianity is not so much a set of prepositional truths to be believed as a way of life to be lived, that is, an apprenticing of oneself to Jesus as one’s master’ (2006: 222).

Apart from the natural desire to know God, to search out the hidden things (cf. Proverbs 25:2), we have another motivation to pursue a knowledge of the truth: false teachers will come, false teachers have come. Each individual Christian must know enough of the fundamental truths about God and Jesus that, when the false teachers come, they can say, ‘No, that is not right’.

The false teachers in 2 Peter brought in teaching from outside1. This is something that happens all the time. The prosperity gospel that is rightly recognised as a false teaching is a line of thinking that’s been around for a long time – you will be rewarded materially in this life if you are good (or if you believe hard enough, have enough faith); if you’re not being rewarded materially, you are not good. It’s a teaching that was brought into the church from outside. The false teachers may make it look scriptural, but we know that ‘[God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (Matthew 5:45). Another example might be the new teachings on sexual ethics that are gaining in popularity – by selectively interpreting certain verses and importing external understandings of biblical concepts such as the love of God, a case is made for a change in the way we view sexuality. We must know scripture and have a good understanding of it to refute the teaching. ‘This is what I was taught to believe’ is not a good argument and it leaves one in a very unstable place.

False teachers are often deceptive, mixing enough truth with their error so that well-meaning but uninformed Christians will be taken in by them. (Moo 1996: 98)

Perhaps this is where elders come in. I haven’t settled on an understanding of eldership in the church, but I don’t think we can farm off the finer details of the believing (or knowing) part of our faith to others. I think we need to be firmly established in the truth and this is not something that happens once in conversion. I don’t think that being firmly established in the truth means simply believing in Jesus, I think it means pursuing wisdom and discernment in the Christian life every day.

I recognise that not everybody will pursue a knowledge of Greek (something I have only dabbled in). I know that not everyone will be passionately involved in discussions about the finer points of the atonement till the late hours of the night. I know that not everyone will want to develop their own understanding of baptism. But I think we’ve done with theology the same thing we’ve done with spirituality – we’ve farmed it out to other people. ‘Let the scholars be scholars’, we say, ‘It’s the pastor’s job to expound scripture’. What happens when our scholars go off the deep end? What happens when our pastors are in error? What happens when the people we’re relying on fail us?

I have found Douglas Moo’s 2 Peter, Jude commentary to be very helpful, but there is one point at which I think he and I disagree.

Faced with false teaching in Ephesus, Timothy is told again and again by Paul to devote himself to ‘sound [healthy] doctrine’ (see esp. 1 Timothy 4:6-8, 11-16). We need more pastors who have devoted themselves to living and teaching ‘sound doctrine.’ We need always to show the relevance of Christian truth and to deal with the issues in our culture that people are wrestling with. What will ultimately produce stable, growing Christians is careful, reverent exposition of God’s Word. (Moo 1996: 138)

I don’t want to make too much of what Moo may or may not have been saying here, but I would at least extend his conclusion that ‘we need more pastors who have devoted themselves to living and teaching “sound doctrine”’ to apply not only to pastors (though that is important and perhaps I would say ‘teachers’ instead of ‘pastors’) but to all Christians. Teachers in the church need to teach the whole body to see the ‘relevance of Christian truth’, teachers need to show us how ‘to deal with issues in our culture that people are wrestling with’, they need to say that the way we wrestle with issues in the culture is by pursuing knowledge (wisdom and discernment) and owning for ourselves the lessons we learn and sharing them with others. A natural emphasis is placed on the teacher as the one who will equip the church for this work (and encourage us along the way), but I think the onus is on the individual to actually do the work of searching for and apply God’s truth to their lives. Moo went on to say that ‘if you are a Christian layperson, I challenge you: Learn Christian truth’ and ‘if you are a Christian minister, I challenge you: Teach Christian truth’ (ibid.: 139) so perhaps he and I do not disagree, we just communicate differently. Though again, I do think the onus is on even those who do not have the gift or office of ‘teacher’ to teach other believers and to make sure what they’re teaching is right (in the same way as those who are not gifted as evangelists still have a responsibility to share the good news). In Colossians, Paul encourages all believers to ‘teach and admonish one another with all wisdom’ (Colossians 3:16, NIV).

I think at this point of some of the more radical ‘health-and-wealth’ gospel advocates on TV and radio. They constantly harp on genuine biblical promises such as ‘If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer’ (Matthew 21:22). They make their message sound very biblical. But they can do so only by selective quotation. The problem is one of balance, but it is not a problem that those who do not know their Bibles well will spot. (Moo 1996: 98)

Moo wrote that ‘False teaching is often revealed in false living. “By their fruit you will recognize them,” Jesus told his disciples as he warned them about false prophets (Matthew 7:16).’ It is clear in 2 Peter’s attacks on the false teachers that their lifestyles were not fitting for Christians. Peter was able to appeal to the first-hand experiences of those to whom he was writing (e.g., ‘They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you.’, 2 Peter 2:13b, NIV).

While it is dangerous to leave the wisdom and discernment parts of our faith to our elders and pastors it is, I think, far more dangerous to leave these parts of our faith to people with whom we have no personal relationship. And this is simply because we will not usually be able to exercise the test our Lord gave us in Matthew 7, we won’t be able to see the lifestyles their teaching leads to. It is easy to look good to a camera, sound good to a microphone or write the right things with a keyboard.

‘“We all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). People can teach right things and still do many wrong things. But when we are faced with a teaching that we are not sure about and that we are having a hard time judging against the standard of Scripture, a careful look at the lifestyle of those who propose such teaching will often prove helpful. Do they teach with humility and love? Do they give evidence of seeking to submit all their conduct to the Lordship of Christ? Do they pray with fervor and sincerity? These are the kind of questions that Scripture encourages us to ask of those who would teach us.’ (Moo 1996: 113)

The scope of what the Bible teaches is broad. I don’t think anyone will fully grasp everything the Bible teaches (this side of eternity, at least; on the other side, ‘we will know in full’) and, naturally, different people will be more concerned with and apt to understand different teachings, but there is a core that we must all understand and own for ourselves. It’s not, for example, enough to simply assent to ‘grace’ as a teaching, we must have some understanding of our own of it.

Examples can be multiplied endlessly; and false teaching, while taking many similar forms throughout history, is always emerging with new nuances and permutations of errors. But it is the broad principle that we must latch hold of here: What we believe matters—and matters eternally. (Moo 1996: 99, emphasis original)

Don’t Tell Me What to Do (Just Affirm Me)

We live in an era that is deeply suspicious of absolute truth. (Moo 1996: 97)

I think we’re far more willing to talk about absolute truth when it makes us feel good than we are when it challenges us. Under the heading of ‘Four Liberating Truths for Those We Pastor’ in his book Everyday Church, Tim Chester and Steve Timmis wrote about 4 Gs as the main truths we tend to forget (Chester 2012):

  1. God is great, so we don’t have to be in control
  2. God is glorious, so we don’t have to fear others
  3. God is good, so we don’t have to look elsewhere
  4. God is gracious, so we don’t have to prove ourselves

These are wonderful truths that I need to be reminded of often and the 4 Gs can be a great help in seeing what is behind our sin, but they’re all about what we don’t have to do, which seems to be the thrust of the church in our time. Sometimes it feels as though we’ve taken the idea of our freedom in Christ too far, we’ve forgotten ‘the sovereign Lord who bought [us]’ (2 Peter 2:1).

I have a lot of respect for Tim Chester, I have learnt a lot from him and don’t expect that to stop. I don’t think he would say that these are the only truths of the gospel that, if you know these four things, you don’t need to know anything else. But that’s the way we sometimes take teachings like this. And the 4 Gs are not necessarily helpful against false teachers whose error lies in going too far down the path of what we don’t have to do, who deny any human responsibility or the reality of the judgement. A false teacher could take the truth that ‘God is gracious’ and excuse a licentious lifestyle, which is what seems to have happened in 2 Peter.

In introducing the 4 Gs, Chester says that:

We exchange the truth about God for a lie. And because we do not believe in God as we should, something else comes to matter more to us than God. Sin is always the result of misplaced affections. Sin makes promises. When we believe those promises, we think sin offers more than God. This lie warps our affections. Our love, our delight, our fear, and our hope become misplaced. (2012)

Perhaps two more truths could be added to the list that I think lead to the same results, if we believe these lies, ‘something else comes to matter more to us than God’ (sorry, I couldn’t find words that started with ‘G’):

  1. God is holy (so it matters what we do)
  2. God is knowable (so it matters what we believe about him)

Perhaps Chester would say that when we forget God’s holiness and start to think that it doesn’t matter what we do that we’re really forgetting God’s greatness; maybe he’d say that when we forget that we can know God2 we’re really forgetting God’s goodness to us in revealing himself to us. He might very well be able to come up with something that makes a lot more sense, but at least I cannot see these truths in the 4 Gs so as a tool intended to expose the root causes of all the failings in my Christian life it seems to falls short. As always, it may make perfect sense to others, perhaps nobody sees the danger that I see in this – and I may be well off the mark. But it seems clear to me that the 4 Gs are a good example of the direction of Christian teaching – we’re focusing on only one side of the Christian life which is the things we don’t have to do and we miss the other side which is the things we do have to do. From what I have observed, this tendency to downplay the human responsibility in the Christian life sometimes comes from the ungodly desire not to be judged or controlled by anyone (even God). It seems to be a nuance of that most fundamental of sins: rack off, God, I’ll do things my way.

Another approach might be to extend the 4 Gs to include the human response in addition to the truth about God:

  1. God is great, so we don’t have to be in control, but we do need to let God be in control
  2. God is glorious, so we don’t have to fear others, but we do need to fear God
  3. God is good, so we don’t have to look elsewhere, but we do need to look to God and the mission he has given us for our satisfaction
  4. God is gracious, so we don’t have to prove ourselves, but we do need to treat God’s graciousness with respect and make effort in our faith to grow in virtue

These are truths that we don’t like to hear. Surely that’s a good thing? If the Christian faith only told me things I wanted to hear, I don’t think I would be able to view it as true. In the Christian faith we aren’t instantly infused with all the virtue we need and yes, it hurts, it’s tough, but it’s not going to be made any easier by ignoring what we are told we have to do. And it’s a question of submission to God – if we accept the words of the Bible as true, if we we accept that God is the one who will judge our actions, and if we accept that he is our master (he gets to tell us what to do and has given us the power to obey), then we need to do our best to maintain the balance of the Christian life between who God is and what he has done for us and our response to that.

We Need to Be Prepared

We live in a society whose god is pleasure. We have defined the ‘pursuit of happiness,’ enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, as the pursuit of food, drink, entertainment, wealth, and sex. (Moo 1996: 135)

The echoes of the false teaching of 2 Peter are alive today. Of course, I am not immune to this and one way I think I let the world’s pursuit of pleasure take root in my heart is in the area of romance. The movies we watch, the songs we sing, the narrative of our society says that the best life (at times the only life worth living) is a life with your soul mate, and I bought into it, I felt defective, alone, forgotten by God because of my singleness. Marriage is a good thing, I’m not anti-marriage, but singleness is also a good thing and I haven’t (yet) been given the gift of marriage. A single Christian shouldn’t feel like they’re missing out, just that they’re blessed with the gift of singleness.

In my last post, I spent some time going through the meaning of each of the words in Peter’s sorites in verses 5–7 and came up with this list:

  1. Faithfulness (loyalty to God)
  2. Goodness (active moral excellence)
  3. Knowledge (wisdom and discernment)
  4. Self-control (against excesses, temptations)
  5. Endurance (amid temptation)
  6. Duty to God (piety, reverence, loyalty, fear of God)
  7. Familial love (to the family of believers)
  8. The decision to actively love (the wider family of believers, outsiders)

The Christian life starts and ends with God’s action but in the middle there is a part where we cooperate with the Spirit in our growth and I think this list of virtues is what we must put effort into pursuing in the Spirit. Peter says ‘His divine power had given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness’ (2 Peter 1:3) – it starts with God. Peter continues to say that we must ‘make every effort to add to your faith…’ (2 Peter 1:5a, NIV) – there is a call to human effort. Finally, Peter says ‘you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’ (2 Peter 1:11b) – it ends with God.

I don’t hear much talk about how we show our loyalty to God, about how we pursue active moral excellence, about what it means to work toward wisdom and discernment, about how Christians must be self-controlled against excesses and endure in the midst of temptation, about the Christian’s duty to God as our maker. Is what I’m saying making sense? I think we’re in a dangerous position as a church – there are echoes of the false teachings exposed in 2 Peter in our churches today and we’re neglecting the very things Peter told us to pursue to counteract them.

We live at a time when many Christians are succumbing to the siren voice of the ‘health and wealth gospel.’ Christians are promised health and wealth, these preachers proclaim. All you have to do is ‘claim it in faith and it’s all yours!’ This ‘gospel’ is certainly a ‘different gospel’ (cf. Galatians 1:6–9). Seizing on certain verses, usually out of context, it ignores the plain teaching of Scripture, that ‘we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:22). (Moo 1996: 116)

We think of difficulties as the exception rather than the norm. As a result, trials can bring a crisis of faith in which we question God’s plan, his love for us, or even his existence. (Moo 1996: 116)

Possible Misunderstandings

The purpose of this blog is to communicate what I’m learning as I go through the Bible. I am going to be wrong about a lot of things. If I don’t share what I’m thinking then I can’t benefit from the wisdom of others when they lovingly correct me. I won’t be surprised to find that I’ve been misunderstood – communicating effectively is a difficult task. I’m also open to the possibility that I have misunderstood others. The reason I mentioned Tim Chester was to give him credit for his work and ideas; in no way did I intend to suggest that he is a false teacher. My goal is always to try to give the benefit of the doubt to others and never to attack anyone personally. If you think I’m not doing a good job of this, please let me know.

References

Bauckham, R.J., 1998. 2 Peter, Jude, Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

Chester, T. & Timmis, S., 2012. Everyday Church: Gospel Communities on Mission, Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

Davids, P.H., 2006. The Letters of 2 Peter and Jude, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.

Lewis, C.S., 2001. Mere Christianity, New York: HarperOne.

Moo, D.J., 1996. 2 Peter, Jude, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

  1. ‘The emphasis, then, is not on the secretiveness of the behavior, but that something was brought into the community from the outside.’ (Davids 2006: 219) 

  2. I struggled to get my idea out in a single word, but God by God is knowable I mean God is revealed through his interactions with us and through the Bible and supremely through Jesus so it matters that we get to know him with all our faculties. 

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