Snakes are deeply disconcerting. Not because I have some innate prejudice against reptiles or deeply visceral reaction when confronting serpentine issues. It’s because thanks to St Patrick, and the snake free life I enjoyed until moving here, I have no clue which are safe to cuddle, and which can kill me simply by looking in my direction. I think I know a tree snake from red-bellied black, but to be honest, I wouldn’t want you to take my word for it. Nor, come to think of it, would I take my own word for it. Perhaps you can begin to see why camping isn’t top of my list of ‘Things I love doing’, why I do everything I can to avoid long grass and why I find the bitumen and concrete of the city streets deeply reassuring. When it comes to snakes, I have absolutely no idea. Which is where I think most Christians are when it comes to false teaching.
Now I know there are a tiny minority of people who are always on the lookout for the slightest deviation from orthodoxy. But to be honest, I think those people are few and far between. For most of us, the problem isn’t that we’re too uptight – it’s that we are far too gullible. More and more people out there may believe in nothing – the problem is that we’ll believe in anything.
Which is why 2 Peter 2 is such an important chapter. Not least for those of us here at MPC. For we need to be able to spot false teaching.
At the start of 2 Peter 2, we read this: But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies,…
In the Old Testament, there were no shortage of false prophets. According to NT, we can expect the pattern to continue. In Matthew 24, Jesus himself had said that this is what we can expect between his comings – Matt 24:11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.
Now Peter picks up Jesus’ teaching and applies it to the churches in Asia Minor, for whom it is clearly a live issue. Since he wrote 1 Peter, these churches have gone off the rails because of exactly the kind of guys that Jesus had warned them about. Home-grown false teachers whose corrosive is eating away at the heart of the church.
In this chapter, Peter calls them out. And as he does it, he gives us a brilliant four step guide – here’s how to spot false teachers. Unusually, our focus today isn’t on ourselves as we seek to live for Christ, but on those who teach and lead us. That’s because their impact and influence is so crucial that we’re all called to watch them carefully: so first up, Peter says we need to pay very close attention to their message.
HOW TO SPOT FALSE TEACHERS
False teachers are always pushing what in verse 1 Peter calls destructive heresies
The word heresy has at its root the idea of ‘choice’ – picking or singling something out, or raising it up, either literally or metaphorically. Heresy isn’t usually about coming up with something that’s completely new. It starts with picking and choosing. Emphasising one truth rather than another. Deciding to ignore one strand of biblical teaching at the expense of another. False teaching usually starts not with a dramatically new idea that no-one has ever heard of, but a creative repackaging of the truth which deliberately privileges one truth over another.
Down through history, false teaching has almost always started with emphasising one truth and ditching others. Arius was an infamous 3rd
century heretic who almost led the entire global church down the garden path, asbat he emphasised Jesus’ humanity to the exclusion of his divinity. More recently, prosperity theology emphasises God’s grace, as expressed in material blessing, at the expense of the fact that God’s grace to us is also expressed in teaching us through suffering and sacrifice, and that the real riches come in the age to come. Or you may have heard of authors like Rob Bell, whose assertion that Love Wins
left out the fact that anyone gets judged; or Andy Stanley, who recently called Christians to unhitch our faith from the Old Testament and leave it behind. This is our world. It always has been and it always will be. And that’s why we really need to be able to tell the difference between false teaching and the real thing. So every time you hear a fresh repackaging of the message of the gospel, prick up your ears and ask yourself ‘What is being left out? What is truth being privileged over all others?’ When you hear something new and fresh, examine the message.
What was the specific issue for Peter’s readers? He doesn’t give a detailed breakdown, but there are plenty of hints. According to verse 2, they were downplaying the sovereign authority of the Lord Jesus: even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them.
That flowed into a denial that Jesus is our judge, and would return. The fact that Peter has to spend all of verses 4-10 insisting that God will act in judgement against them is a clear hint that they they were convinced that they wouldn’t ever have to answer to anyone, and so, in the words of verse 10, could follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority.
Because they had eliminated the ‘problem’ of judgement, they were free to push their version of freedom
to the vulnerable new Christians in church. This sounded great of course, but was actually a parody of the real thing: 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. 19 They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity-for “people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.”.
Their message sounded
good – as they spoke of freedom and joy in Christ, but the rub was that it just couldn’t deliver. In denying the Lordship of Christ and the certainty of his coming in judgement and salvation, they were not only selling people short, but leading them towards destruction.
That’s why we need to be people who listen well to the messages that are being proclaimed, constantly measuring everything against the truth of Scripture, supported by the rich consensus of Christian orthodoxy down through the centuries. So if someone comes up with something new, it’s probably safe to assume that it’s wrong. And if they never speak about the reality of judgement, then we need to realise we are getting into 2 Peter country. So pay close attention to the message
. We would also do well to make sure we are alert to people’s methods
One of the marks of false teachers is that they are into manipulation rather than proclamation
. You can see that all through this chapter – in verse 1, Peter says they will secretly bring in destructive heresies…
In the next verse, he explains that they are more than happy to play on people’s appetites
to entice them. Verse 3 affirms that they will exploit you with fabricated stories
. This is manipulation, rather than proclamation. This theme keeps re-emerging. According to verse 14. They seduce the unstable.
And again in verse 18… by appealing to the lustful desires of the flesh, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error…
the strategy of these false teachers is clear: (i) target the vulnerable, whether that is new believers, those who are particularly suggestible, or simply those who are drawn to a cheap thrill (ii) trade on people’s appetites (it’s striking just how much of what’s on offer revolved around self-indulgence, feeling good and satisfying your desires, with no talk of death to self, let alone suffering). (iii) make big, unconditional promises. Come with us and everything will be great! The methods false teachers use are sadly predictable, and when we see people operate like this, it should set all kinds of alarm bells ringing for us. Not least because it is so different
from the approach of Jesus and the apostles.
Contrast what these false teachers are doing with what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:2: We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.
No tricks. No manipulation. Just straightforward proclamation, and a deep conviction that God does his work through his word.
The challenge for us is to weigh up and assess what
we’re being taught, and how
we’re being taught, always asking is this based on proclamation or manipulation? And whilst we must always guard against cynicism, where we are wrongly attribute motives to anyone who does anything even slightly differently to us, it is equally important that we live with our eyes wide open. We are called to be thoughtful and careful, rather than gullible, and to allow God to define our methods as well as our message. Which takes us to the third mark of false teachers. Not their message or methods this time, but their motives.
What were the motives of these false teachers in 2 Peter 2? It’s not actually very hard to spot. Peter says these false teachers were motivated by greed, not the gospel
. 3 And in their greed they will exploit you … . 14 With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed-an accursed brood! 15 They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Bezer,
the prophet for hire in Numbers 22-24 who loved the wages of wickedness.
There are few things less Christ-like than greed. Few things will contaminate and undermine a ministry more quickly than greed – starting to think about what we can get, rather than what we can give. This is something we need to be able to spot in ourselves, and in anyone who sets themselves up as a teacher.
It would be tempting at this point to flash up a picture of say, Joel Osteen’s perfect teeth, or other carefully coiffed, white-suited, fake-tanned evangelists climbing into private jets. Those guys are perfectly legitimate targets. But I think we need to make sure we get the fact that there is a heart issue here that threatens all of us
. The issue here is not just excessive extravagance. It’s simply greed.
And what is greed? Greed here is simply doing ministry for what we can get out of it.
When we realise that, this passage starts to hit a bit closer to home. Yes, these guys had watered down the message. Yes, they were manipulating people. But why were they doing it? They were doing it for what they could get out of it.
They got paid. They got respect. They got followers. They got power. They got a reputation. They presumably got a buzz out of it. That, in turn, continued to shape their message and drive their methods. The pressure was on to keep the customer satisfied, supplied with what their itching ears wanted to hear. And when we see it like that, suddenly it becomes clear that any of us who gets involved in serving Christ at any level is instantly sucked into a struggle to ensure that our motives for serving Christ remain pure. The battle for all of us is to serve Christ by serving other people rather than living before an audience of one. And that is really, really hard.
It’s hard to stick to the truth when it upsets people. I don’t like it much when people get upset with the truth, because they tend to take it out on me. So the temptation? To avoid saying hard things, to steer away from the upalatable parts of the Bible, to make life easier for me. But to do that is to slide into the territory of the false teachers.
That’s why we need to ask of our teachers, our elders, are they willing to say the hard thing? Are they in it for the glory of Christ, not for themselves? Now at one level, we have to be realistic. Mixed motives go with the territory of being human. As God says so powerfully through Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
None of us will be free from the desire to please other people until the day we go to be with Christ. But let’s make no mistake. Pleasing people because we are in it for ourselves is a deliberate first step on this very frightening road.
So what are we to do? If you are a leader, the good news is there is no need to plunge into an endless cycle of self-examination. Instead, we need to commit ourselves to living in the bright light of the gospel. I came across an old article written by Thomas Chalmers, the 19th
century Scot, who helpfully compared self-examination to bumping around in a pitch black room. He said we’ll never see ourselves clearly simply by focusing more intently on ourselves. Instead, Chalmers says we must to go to the window and open the curtains. Let the light of Christ break into the darkness of your soul.. We need to soak in gospel sunlight!
And for the rest of us? We are to always look to the motives of those who lead us – because false teachers aren’t interested in listening; they don’t see themselves as accountable; they don’t think they need to grow; they don’t invite others to speak into their lives; they are simply in it for themselves. Which takes us naturally to a fourth tell-tale sign of false teachers.
The false teachers that Peter is tackling in this chapter are living proof of the fact that those who depart from the truth intellectually, sooner or later also depart from it morally. 2 Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. 10 This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority.. … 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,;
(which may refer to a proverb which said ‘A man of no shame has harlots, not pupils in his eyes’) they never stop sinning
In other words, these false teachers are morally bankrupt. They were strong on sex, and soft on sin.
It may not be apparent straight away, but sooner or later, cracks will always start to show in the lives of false teachers. One sure way of telling something is wrong with someone’s teaching is that their life doesn’t carry with it the savour of the Lord Jesus. A lack of godliness will almost always be a reflection of deficient theology. You can’t really separate the man – or woman – from the message. As Jesus said in the sermon on the mount, Matt 7:15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
This chapter makes it very clear that when it comes to teachers in the family of God, the message, methods, motives and morals must all match up. We must stay alert to the possibility of others messing up and leading the church astray, and of us doing it ourselves. This is clearly vital for the health of the church – but why? In the time we have left, let me point out two reasons why false teachers are so dangerous, and must be avoided at all costs.
WHY FALSE TEACHERS ARE SO DANGEROUS (AND ARE TO BE AVOIDED AT ALL COSTS)
- The impact of the false teachers
The first reason is because men (or women) like this have such a damaging impact on the life of the church. People like this drag the reputation of the church through the mud (verse 2). Τheir hypocrisy is not hard to spot as we’ve seen. According to verse 17, These people are springs without water and mists driven by a storm.
False teachers do real damage, especially to new believers- they promise much but deliver nothing – it may look like a storm is coming to bring refreshing, but by the time the mist reaches us, nothing! They woo people away from God and his truth to empty lies. This really matters.
When it comes to teaching in the church, it really cannot be a case of ‘anything goes’. The truth is at stake. People’s lives are at stake. This is not a game. So let me urge you to commit yourselves this second and for the rest of your lives of living with your mind switched on, with a humble, prayerful but steely resolve to do everything in your power to ensure that those who teach and what they teach is thoroughly gospel-shaped, and biblical to the core. This for me is, in part at least, why creeds and confessions are so important. They provide a bulwark against false teaching, and give us boundaries to live safely within. Because the alternative is to allow precious brothers and sisters to be dangerously damaged. So let’s take seriously the impact of false teaching. And more than that, let’s make sure that we are in no doubt about their destiny.
- The destiny of the false teachers
The part of the passage that we have barely touched on yet is verses 4-10. After the statement in verse 3 that their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping. …
in other words, judgement is coming
, Peter then gives three examples of God’s judgement that took a while, but was dreadfully decisive.
The first is the trickiest. You can see it in verse 4: For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgement;
It’s not entirely clear what Peter is talking about: (i) it could be an incident alluded to but not described in Scripture like the Fall of Satan (ii) it could be picking up an illustration from some 2nd
Temple Jewish writings (like 1 Enoch) (iii) it could be talking about Genesis 6:1-4. There is much discussion about this, and given the fact I’m not convinced that Genesis 6 is talking about angels, I think the second option is the most likely. But in any case, the point is clear. God judged these angels.
The second incident is more straightforward: if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others;
God judged the world in Noah’s day, rescuing only him and his family.
The third example is that of Sodom and Gomorrah: 6 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;
ֹ God judged the world in Sodom’s day, and, verses 7-8, rescued only Abram’s nephew, Lot. Even if the details are a little tricky, the overall sense is very clear – God will act in salvation and judgement – and the false teachers will have a heavy price to pay – in the words of verse 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.
Peter is adamant that the very salvation of these false teachers is at stake. Even though they have emerged from the church, and sounded like they were Christians, their actions have made a very different statement. At which point he says this: 20 If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. 21 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. 22 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.”
Calvin colourfully comments ‘The gospel is a medicine that purges us as a wholesome emetic, but there are many dogs who swallow again what they have brought up to their own ruin.’
This isn’t really about whether someone can lose their salvation. Peter’s point is that when people who have appeared to all intents and purposes to have understood and embraced the gospel find a role as teachers, and teach a very different gospel to the one which was passed on to them
, they actually display that they didn’t get the gospel in the first place. The damage that they then cause both to themselves and to the church itself, means that it very, very unlikely that they humble themselves and repent. Please don’t miss this: false teachers will be judged by God for what they have done to his church.
These are sobering words. They remind us that what we’re doing here as a church family isn’t a game. It’s about life and death. The gospel is about judgement and salvation. I think these words bring a deep discomfort to our innate desire to keep things lite n easy. And it should move us to pray for our leaders – and ourselves.
JC Ryle once wrote these words:
You live in a world where your soul is in constant danger. Enemies are around you on every side. Your own heart is deceitful. Bad examples are numerous. Satan is always labouring to lead you astray. Above all false doctrine and false teachers of every kind abound. This is your great danger. To be safe, you must be well-armed. You must provide yourself with the weapons which God has given you for your help. You must store your mind with Scripture. This is to be well-armed. Arm yourself with a thorough knowledge of the word of God… Neglect your Bible and nothing that I know of can prevent you from error if a plausible advocate of false teaching should happen to meet you… You are the man that is unlikely to become established in the truth. I shall not be surprised to hear that you are troubled with doubts and questions about assurance, grace, faith, perseverance etc… I shall not wonder if I am told that you have problems in your marriage, problems with your children, problems about the company you keep… The world you steer through is full of rocks, shoals and sandbanks. You are not sufficiently familiar with either lighthouses or charts… . You are the man who is likely to be carried away by some false teachers for a time. It will not surprise me if I hear that one of these clever eloquent men who can make a convincing presentation is leading you into error. You are in need of ballast (truth); no wonder you are tossed to and fro like a cork on the waves. All these are uncomfortable situations. I want you to escape them all. Take the advice I offer you today. Do not merely read your Bible a little-but read it a great deal. . . . Remember your many enemies. Be armed!
Please do not think that truth doesn’t matter. Please don’t think that character doesn’t matter. Because they do. Our message, methods, motives and morals all matter, especially if we teach or lead. That’s why as we tremble at this frightening reality, all we can do is throw ourselves once more on Jesus, the one who is the way, the truth and the life. the one who is full of grace and truth, the one who is the author and perfecter of our faith, The one who goes before, and stands above and behind all other teachers. The one who insists we do not settle for less than the real deal, because he himself is the real deal. The one who has given us all that we need for life and godliness. Let’s come to him as we pray.