October 17, 2014.
Perhaps one of the most sobering warnings that is presented in the New Testament comes from Peter’s second epistle addressed to those of faith. Over the past month or so, I have gained more of an appreciation of this epistle than I have in times past. Before, I suppose I focused more on first Peter and looked at the second epistle as supplemental information. I have since changed my mind. The book of James is often thought of as a lesson in practical Christianity as James does not beat around the bush about things. I have come to see Peter’s second epistle as following along these lines as well. There is a lot of practicality in what Peter writes. He gives us the virtues, he expounds on theology and Christ and he gives practical warnings that can serve to keep us on the right path. Though practicality is often looked at as a good thing as it can help us directly, that does not mean that Peter’s words are always easy, nor are they sugar coated. Today I want to discuss a passage found in the second chapter that I believe many of us purposefully ignore at times, myself included, because we simply don’t like what it has to say.
“These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.”
(II Peter 2:17-22)
The people that Peter is specifically referencing here is false teachers that were among the brethren, comparing them to false prophets that were amongst the Jews before the time of Christ. False teacher has such a bad connotation that I believe it masks who a false teacher really is. When we read the bible, specifically the Old Testament, we forget that we are reading from the luxury of a third person viewpoint in retrospect, often with many details that the people in the story didn’t know. We can read about a false prophet leading the people astray and think “I can’t believe they fell for that! I would have seen through him well before they did!” I challenge that thought. When we read, it is hard to fully imagine ourself in the culture and situation that we find. How do you know you would have recognized this or that prophet as a false prophet? How do you know you would have known why the teaching was wrong and challenged it? In all actuality, we probably would have been very likely to do what the people did in the time. I know that’s not something we like to hear, but I believe an honest look reveals such.
When you read Peter’s words about false teachers, it also is very easy to say “Well, with the way he describes them, they much have been so easy to pick out!” This too, I don’t believe is the case. I think that’s why the New Testament gives so many warnings about false teachers. If they were easy to pick out, there wouldn’t have really been a need for warnings. They would have been immediately recognized and discredited as a teacher. But as it stands, and so as it is today, I believe that these false teachers were much more subtle than it sounds like Peter is describing, his words implying the level of danger and destruction they could cause, not necessarily how transparent they were. In fact, I think there were false teachers that didn’t even know they were false teachers, just as there were false prophets in the Old Testament that fully believe that they were true prophets (see II Chron. 18 for a good example of this). Today I believe we can have the same situation.
Reading through the passage above, it is not that difficult to see the severity Peter implies about this problem. False teachers were not just some little pest that didn’t really bother too much. They were going to be a major cause of falling away, leading many from the true gospel of Christ. Souls were in danger, and not just a few. The way Peter describes these teachers is quite harsh by today’s standards, but I think there is a reason for this. Peter could see how they would cause the destruction of so many souls, and for that I believe he was enraged. “…they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error.” False teachers preyed on weak Christians, on new Christians, on those who were just barely escaping the defilements of the world. I don’t think this was pleasing to Peter. But then he makes a statement that I think we all need to pay close attention to.
“They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.”
Can that not apply to any one of us today? The false teachers were slaves of corruption because they had been overcome with corruption, perhaps to the point where they could no longer even see it as corruption. Whatever we are overcome with, that is what we are enslaved to. Are you enslaved to anything or anyone? Paul references himself many times as a bond slave of Christ. This terminology fits well with the concept that Peter just presented, as we should be overcome with Christ. Yet are we? If I were to consider all the things that I might be enslaved to, I’m afraid the list would not have Christ’s name alone. Success, entertainment, power, money, friends, fame- all of these are very common things that we could be very well enslaved to, especially living in a society that encourages each of these things as our masters.
Think of all the things that are most important to you. List four out in your head right now. I’m sure that since you are reading this post and probably see where I’m going with this that you listed God as one of those four. That’s good, but I’m not sure if that is an accurate measurement given the context. In those four, did you specifically list bringing someone to Christ? How about specifically meeting with the church for the purpose of encouragement? Reading the word of God for a better understanding of His will for yourself and your duty? I know I might be stepping on some toes here, but I’m not saying that I faired any better in this test than you may have (and if you did list one or all of those things, great!). My point is that it is easy to say that God is a priority in our lives, but if our actions and motives don’t align with this statement, then what is the statement but mere words without meaning?
As if Peter’s words were not already blunt enough, he goes on to say the next statement that I find rather chilling when you understand it fully.
“For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first.”
These were not unbelievers. These were people who had come out of the world to the knowledge of Christ, and then were entangled again! These people were Christians who slipped back into the entanglements of the world, and Peter says that their last state is worse than their beginning! “For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.” What a statement.
It’s more than a statement, however. It’s a warning. It is possible to come out of the world through Christ and yet be entangled once again, the latter state worse than the first. This fits well with a similar warning that he gives in his first epistle:
“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
(I Peter 5:8)
“That could never happen to me!” Oh really? It is often the case that our biggest falls come when we think we are invincible. I think this is why Peter says to be sober-minded. Thinking that you could never fall is not sober-minded. It’s naive. Thinking you could never be entangled in the world as these false prophets were is also naive. Now, that’s not to say that we should believe that we are going to do these things, but simply to say that we should be mindful of the possibilities and prepare accordingly. We are to be on alert, not letting our guard down. As soon as we let it down, the advasary will strike. He know’s what he’s doing, and he’s good at it. We cannot give him a foothold on which to stand.
I know it may sound as if I am preaching harshly here, but as I said before, this is what I struggle with just as much as anyone else. I like to ignore that passage above as much as the next guy, because it has bad implications. It ascribes responsibility where we don’t want to have responsibility. However, it is our job as maturing Christians to take on this responsibility, through the power of Christ, and walk in step with the Spirit. We can overcome sin and let Christ overcome us, but it likely will not come easily, for we are fighting against the flesh. Keep on fighting. There are many times that we feel like all we can do is give up, but that is not all we can do. We must keep getting back up to keep fighting. The victory has already been won. Remain on the winning side. All the pleasures of this world will not be able to compare to the joy that will be found in the life beyond. We can make it through, but we must be sober and vigilant.
Take an honest look; what have you become a salve to?
Suggested Daily Reading: II Chronicles 18, II Peter 1-3.
Stand strong in the Lord.