January 4, 2009

False Teachers: 2 Peter 1:16-2:9

Peter wrote this second letter to the Christians scattered in Asia Minor a couple of years after he wrote to them the first time to encourage them as they endured trials and persecution. By this time, local churches seem to have been established among the scattered Christians.

In the last two sermons, we learned that Peter has reminded them that those who are truly saved will reflect the nature of God in their manner of thinking and living. In other words, one’s goodness, knowledge, self control, perseverance, kindness, and love demonstrate that he or she is a Christian.

If you are saved, he says, you should eagerly seek these qualities—grow in your Christian walk so that you become better and better at them. God expects it, as a natural outcome of the new nature He has put into us. Or to put it another way: you belong to the Lord, working at growing in these qualities proves that you belong to the Lord, and you will be rewarded for your hard work.

Starting in verse 16, Peter turns to the basis of his own witness to them: he himself was present with Jesus and the words of the prophets are true because the prophets “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (1:21).

We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:16-21)

Note that Peter tells them they can know what the prophets wrote is true because he himself witnessed what the prophets had predicted about the coming and power of Jesus Christ. He also reminds them that he was a witness at Jesus’ transfiguration (see Matthew 17:1-5).

Then he states the principle: Scripture resulted from the Holy Spirit directing the prophets what to say; that is, that Scripture is inspired of God. He is telling them that Scripture is true and reliable as he gets ready to address the problem of those teaching false doctrines in the church.

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. Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping. 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, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; 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; 7and if He rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)—if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment. This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the sinful nature and despise authority. (2 Peter 2:1-9)

Just as there are today, there were people in the church who did not teach the truth. In these early days of the church, some taught about God in ways that were culturally acceptable. For example, one doctrine held that since the physical and spiritual are separate, the Christian could live any way he or she wants because there are no physical sins, only spiritual. Another false doctrine was that to be a Christian one had to strictly follow the Jewish laws. Some sought to justify emperor worship for Christians as a practical measure to enable employment, ownership of land, etc.

False doctrines and false teachers have existed throughout the centuries of the church, up to today. In chapter 2, Peter tells us some facts about false teachers.

Expect to encounter false teachers (1)

False teachers existed in the past and will exist in the future among God’s people. Peter is not ambiguous on this matter: “there will be false teachers among you.” John expressed a similar concern in 1 John 4:1-2: “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

There are false teachers among us now. Especially in this age of worldwide communications, we are to be alert to what we hear being taught and be able to recognize false doctrines. We should test all preaching and teaching against the Word of God.

Jesus said that false prophets will seek to mislead us: “watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15).

Neither Peter nor Jesus is referring here to honestly held doctrinal differences. They refer to doctrines taught with selfish or sinful motives, such as someone attempting to inspire a group to follow him or her, a doctrine to make Christianity more culturally acceptable (such as the health and wealth gospel), or ecumenicalism that denies the core beliefs of Christianity.

They will introduce destructive heresies (1)

Peter says they will do this “secretly.” False teachers do not announce they have come up with a doctrine that we will really like. The destructive heresies can sound really Christian, mixing false teachings with accurate doctrines, and telling us it all makes sense. The people who preach destructive heresies can be really likable and draw people to themselves and their message and ministry.

A well-known theologian, William Barclay, explains it this way: “A heretic [is]. . . a man who believes what he wishes to believe instead of excepting the truth of God which he must believe. What was happening in the case of Peter’s people was that certain men, who claimed to be prophets, were insidiously persuading men to believe the things they wished to be true rather than the things which God has revealed as true. They did not set themselves up as opponents to Christianity. Far from it. Rather they set themselves up as fine fruits of Christian thinking. Insidiously, unconsciously, imperceptibly, so gradually and so subtly that they did not even notice it, people were being lured away from God’s truth to men’s private opinions, for that is what heresy is”(from The Letters of James and Peter).

The worst heresy, Peter seems to be saying in verse 1, is the heresy that denies the Lord who bought us. And believe it or not, that very doctrine—the atonement of Christ—is one that is questioned in the emerging church movement today. There is a movement to be called “Christ follower” rather than “Christian” and to minimize the atonement as unreasonably bloody. Rather, people are told to believe in the kingdom now, rather than outdated notions of atonement and the future return of the Messiah.

When one takes a look at emerging church writings, he or she will quickly find phrases such as a “flexible approach to theology, ” a need to “reanalyze the Bible,” and even that Christians should reject traditional doctrines of evangelism and missions because they are inherently “non-inclusive.” Many in the emerging church movement even hold that other religions are valid; that Jesus, indeed, is not “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

We could probably develop a long list of false teachings, like health and wealth, new revelation, and other ideas we find in the church today. But rather than spend time doing that, let me simply state the principle: to deny teachings of Scripture is to deny Christ.

This is the point that Peter is making: we must teach what is in the Scriptures, because, as he writes in 1:21, the scriptures have been given by God Himself.

He also is not referring to critics outside the church. He is warning about teachers in the church . . . people who profess Christ and say that they are following Christ and building up His church but actually teach doctrines that, however subtly, deny or modify basic Christian truths.

Jesus may have been thinking of this problem when He said, in Matthew 10:33, “Not every one who says Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Peter also notes that false teachers bring swift destruction on themselves. They are responsible to God for what they teach. They could know and teach the truth, but choose not to. The idea here is that their destruction will be both certain and quick. They are not authentic Christians, and when the judgment comes there will be no discussion or excuses. There will be pure justice: sure and immediate. (“destruction” means to lose one’s well-being; to be ruined; to be wasted; to perish).

Many people will follow false teachers (2)

Peter is blunt in verse two. The term “shameful ways” refers to immoral actions or sins of lust or the flesh. What they teach may sound Christian but is not. False teaching may not be immediately apparent. It’s not openly anti-Christian, but perverted Christianity. For example, we often hear the claim that since God is love, He will not punish anyone, but accepts you exactly as you are. Another doctrinal error I have encountered in the church in the past is that God keeps kind of a balance scale, and you go to heaven if the good you do in life outweighs your sins.

More recently, I read recently one emerging church article that God’s love and grace are so inexhaustible that Christians are free to sin. That is not really typical of emerging church doctrines, but some do hold to it.

False teachers exploit their followers (3)

Peter makes the point that although false teachers may be involved in ministry, they are greedy. Verse 3 seems to be limited to the desire for money, favors, gifts, etc.—exploiting followers to give them money or material goods because of their position of teacher.

Paul issues a similar warning in Romans 16:17-18: “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.”

False teachers will be judged (4-9)

In verses 4-9, Peter launches into a mini-sermon to assure his readers that God will assuredly deal with those who would lead them away from their faith. God did not spare even angels who sinned, he writes. God did not spare the ancient sinful world, destroying those who had turned away from Him but preserving the righteous—Noah (“a preacher of righteousness”) and his family. God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah with fire, and they stand as an example of how He deals with the ungodly. God rescued Lot, a righteous man who was distressed and tormented by the sin in Sodom and Gomorrah. If He has done all this, Peter concludes in verse 9, then surely He can rescue righteous people and condemn the unrighteous.

In case I haven’t emphasized it enough, remember that false teaching is a big deal. Jesus warned about false teachers (Matthew 7:15-23). Paul warned about false teachers (2 Timothy 4:2-4). Peter warned about false teachers and said that many will follow them (2 Pet. 2:1-2). John warned about false teachers (1 John 2:18-20). Jude warned about false teachers (Jude 3-4).

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