"There Will Be False Teachers!"
2 Peter 2:1-3
(Delivered Sunday, May 21, 2006 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
I confess that I was motivated to turn to this morning's passage because of a movie. This weekend, The DiVinci Code—the movie based on the best-selling novel—has premiered in theaters with a great deal of publicity. Everyone has been talking about it for some time—not only because it's a film adaptation of a very successful thriller, but also because it presents controversial views about our Lord Jesus Christ and the testimony about Him found in the Scriptures.
I'm not going to spend much time at all talking about The DiVinci Code. I'm not qualified to do so. I haven't read the book and have not seen the movie. To be honest, I'm not really interested in being entertained by a fictional story that seeks to propagate untruths about my Lord and Savior. But I feel that I need to, at least, say something about it.
Some people, who are advocates of the views expressed in The DiVinci Code have gone so far as to say that the historic scholarship that stands behind it—and the affirmations that are made in it—have now made it impossible for any intelligent person to continue to believe in the Christianity that is presented in the Bible and that has been preached by the church over the past two-thousand years. It's being claimed that these 'newly-revealed' ancient documents present a history of Jesus, and a record of the true nature of His teaching, that has been suppressed by the church and have been kept secret for centuries. It's being claimed that, now, the truth about Jesus can be known, and the 'greatest cover-up in human history' can at last be exposed. But I'm not alarmed at all by such assertions. The fact is that the propositions made in The DiVinci Code—and the documents on which they are based—have been circulated and well-known for a very long time. There is absolutely nothing “new” or “covered-up” about them. All that the novel—and now the movie—has done is simply repopularize Gnostic beliefs that have been around for over seventeen centuries . . . and that were answered by Christians long ago.
And what's more, I agree with those who are saying that the popularity of The DiVinci Code has, in fact, opened up new opportunities for the gospel. It used to be that, if you walked up to a stranger and said, “Hey, would you like to talk about Jesus Christ?”, they just might find the nearest hole and jump in in order to get away from you! But now, almost everyone is interested in Him and wants to talk about what is being said about Him. If you walk up to a stranger today and say, “So, what do you think about all this The DiVinci Code stuff?” they are likely to be much more eager to learn about Jesus Christ, and to be much more open to the idea of reading about Him firsthand from the Bible, than ever before. In fact, my suspicion is that if a stranger learns that you are a committed Christian, he or she may even be the one who initiates the conversation!
But all of that being said, I don't believe we should be indifferent about The DiVinci Code. I don't believe we should just shrug it off as a mere pop-phenomenon. I believe that what it proposes is a dangerous form of false doctrine that is eagerly grabbed hold of by people for all the wrong reasons. And personally, I can't be casual about its claims, which—if believed—would lead a man or woman to eternal loss.
So today; I'm going to take the opportunity—not to talk about the The DiVinci Code, because others can do that better than I can—but to point you to a portion of God's word that gives us instruction on how to deal with all forms of false teaching that arise up and claim to present an alternative view of Jesus Christ . . . including the one presented in The DiVinci Code.
That portion of scripture is the second epistle of the apostle Peter. And the particular passage I would like us to focus on is a very serious one—found in 2 Peter 2:1-3. It says,
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Think with me for a moment about Peter's second letter. It is a very short one. But it is a very wonderful and useful one. He wrote it to instruct Christians in how to deal with the very situation that The DiVinci Code presents to us.
There are two main ways that the devil seeks to attack the church and prevent the spread of the gospel of salvation that it is to preach. One way he seeks to prevent it is through the open persecution of Christians. That was how he sought to silence the church in its infancy. Peter's first letter was written to teach Christians how to stand strong in such times of persecution. But if the devil cannot silence the church through persecution, he will then seek to silence it in a second way—and that is through confusing its message through false doctrine. And Peter's second letter is all about how Christians are to stand faithful to the truth of the gospel when false teachers arise and attack it.
Peter makes it clear that the preservation of the gospel is his reason for writing this very short, second letter. He was an apostle—entrusted by the Lord Jesus with the message of who Jesus is and what He has done on the cross for sinners. And Peter knew that he would only be alive on earth for just a short time; and that the time of his own execution was soon to come. He had faithfully taught the truth to the people of God in his own lifetime; and now, he wanted to see to it that the truth would still be protected after he was gone. And so, he said,
Here, by the way, you have a wonderful testimony from God—through His inspired apostle—of the reason why God saw to it that His word was written down. It was preserved as a written record so we will be able to read it again and again, and be “reminded”, and will not lose what we have been taught. How good and wise God is to have done this for us—to put it all down in black-and-white for the generations to come! Later in this letter, Peter writes,
At the very end of his letter—after having alerted his beloved brothers and sisters to the fact that false teachers would indeed arise; and after going to great lengths to tell these Christians what they must do to protect themselves against their false doctrines—he concludes by saying,
That's why this is such an important book of the New Testament for us to know in these spiritually dark days! If we—individually and as a church—faithfully do what God instructs us to do in this tiny letter, then we have nothing to fear from false teachers. We will not only stand strong in the face of their false doctrine, but we will render ourselves useful to God for faithfully proclaiming the truth about our Savior to a culture given over to spiritual counterfeits.
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Let's look closely, then, at these three verses at the beginning of chapter two. We need never be caught by surprise by false teachers; because it's here that we're told in advance what we need to know about them.
First, notice that Peter—under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit—tells us . . .
1. WHERE THEY WILL BE FOUND (v. 1a).
Peter says, “But there were also false prophets among the people . . .”
In his first letter, Peter made it clear that he was writing to Jewish Christians who had been scattered into various areas of the Roman world (1 Peter 1:1). And since he wrote this second letter to the same people to whom he wrote the first (2 Peter 3:1), he is clearly writing these words to Jewish Christians who knew the history of the Old Testament well. He simply stated a fact that they already knew—that in the Old Testament era, many false prophets arose from within the community of the Jewish people and led them away into destruction. He doesn't elaborate on this, because he wouldn't need to when writing to Jewish people.
But then, he adds that false prophets arose in the midst of the Jewish people then, “even as there will be false teachers among you . . .” And do you notice where they will be found? They will not found standing on the side-lines—outside of the church. They will not found among the ranks of those who are the open enemies of Christianity. Rather, they will be found “among you”—that is, in the very midst of the professing community of faith; and among those who call themselves “Christians”! In fact, these false teachers will insist that they themselves ARE Christians—even though they deny almost everything that Christians have historically believed.
The apostle Paul also warned that this would happen. He spoke to a group of pastors from the city of Ephesus and urged them;
Paul warns that these “savage wolves” would rise up “from among yourselves”. And do you notice something else very interesting about them? Peter said that, in the Old Testament era, “false prophets” arose among the people. But he doesn't then go on to warn that, likewise, “false prophets” would arise among the church. “Prophets”, in the Old Testament era, pointed ahead to something that was to happen—something new. If someone arose in the church and claimed to be a “prophet” in that sense, you wouldn't need to call them “false”. They would obviously be false! But instead, he warns that “false teachers” would arise. To present themselves as “teachers” is a much more subtle form of deception than to call themselves “prophets”.
Teachers don't come to point ahead to something new that God was about to do, but rather point backwards to guide others in how to interpret what was already done. And this underscores the deceitful nature of “false” teachers. They come with “a new interpretation” of who Christ is or what He has done on the cross. They arise from within the ranks of the believing community; but they come with the presentation of a new interpretation of Jesus for a new era. Beware, then, when you hear phrases like “a new interpretation of Jesus”, or “a new vision of Jesus for our day”—meaning something distinct from what the apostles taught. That's a trademark of a false teacher. We don't need any “new teachings about Jesus”. We need simply to believe the faith that was once-for-all-time delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
In the end, such “false teachers” are in the same category as the false prophets of old who arose from within Israel. They are frauds who lead God's people to destruction.
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This leads us, next, to notice . . .
2. WHAT THEY WILL DO (v. 1b).
He says that false teachers would arise, “who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them . . .”
The word “heresies” is a transliteration of the word Peter uses. Originally, it meant “to choose” or “to have an opinion”. Sometimes the word is translated “sect”—indicating a group of people who hold to a particular opinion. Acts 5:17, for example, uses this word when it refers to “the sect of the Sadducees”. But here, the nature of this particular “choice” or “opinion” is revealed in the fact that Peter calls it a “destructive” one. It is “destructive”, because eternal “destruction” and eternal loss is what it leads to.
A “destructive heresy”, then, is a teaching or doctrine that is presented as a “choice” or mere “opinion”; but that, in actual fact, leads a man or woman to eternal spiritual loss. And this illustrates the way that false teachers often work. They introduce something as if it were merely a “choice” or a new “opinion”—just another way of looking at things—when in actual fact, it is a false teaching that will lead to destruction.
Peter warns that they will do this “secretly”. The word he uses means “to bring in something that becomes an addition to something else”.1 And this always reminds me of how false teaching is often brought into the church—under the guise of bringing in something else.
Let me give you a word to watch out for. You hear it more and more. It's the word “discussion”. You'll hear it used this way; “Yes, we know that these views are controversial. We know that what we're saying sounds 'heretical' when compared to that older, more traditional version of Christianity that you're used to. But there needs to be a greater freedom to 'discuss' these things. We may disagree; but we always benefit when we enter into a 'discussion' about these differences. Perhaps we can come to an agreement these things—a common ground—if we can just 'discuss' them.”
Now of course, there needs to be discussion about a lot of things. There are many things we can talk about that are not essential to the message of the gospel. But think about it, dear brothers and sisters; if I am faithfully holding on to the truths that ARE essential to the message of the gospel—the things that God's word says define the truth, and that are necessary to believe in order to be saved—and someone comes along who holds to views that are in clear contradiction to the message of that gospel; and if they invite me to enter into a “discussion” with them over those essentials; to take them up on their offer and meet them on a common ground would require that I—by necessity—release my hold on those essentials. That makes the invitation to enter into a “discussion” with false teachers such a dangerous thing—a “Trojan Horse”, as it were, by which “something else” is brought in.
We're commanded to believe the truth and hold faithfully to it. We're not commanded to enter into “discussions” about them. Beware, then, of those who seek to bring in destructive heresies “secretly” in this way. They aren't really interested in discussing anything in such a way as to learn. They only want to bring you into a “discussion” so that they can get you to release your hold on the truth and persuade you to buy into their own false doctrines.
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And I would suggest that one of the ways you can know that you are dealing with someone who is denying the essentials of the gospel message is found in the next thing Peter says. He says that these false teachers tip their hand by the fact that they are “even denying the Lord who bought them”.
This, I believe, is a reference to the redeeming power of the cross of Jesus. It speaks of the atonement for our sins that He purchased for us there. Our sins separated us from God; but He was “delivered up because of our offenses and was raised because of our justification” (Romans 4:25). The Bible tells us that God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). And you can recognize a false teacher by the fact that he or she fundamentally denies—fundamentally disowns and renounces—the atoning and redeeming ministry of Jesus; the Lord who bought them.
I believe that Peter deliberately put this in terms that a Jewish person would understand. It hearkened back to God's gracious deliverance of the people of Israel from their bondage in Egypt. He told them, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:1-2). And just as Jesus redeemed us out of our separation from God by His own sacrifice on the cross, He now has the right to be called our “Lord”—that is, our “Master”. These false teachers show themselves by the fact that they deny that Jesus was anything more than a mere man; and that His death on the cross had any saving impact upon us whatsoever. They may say that He was a great “example” of sacrifice; but they deny that His death “atoned” for anything, and they deny that He is “Lord”.
Don't let yourself enter into “discussions” that lead you, likewise, to deny the Lord who bought you!
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Now, these are very insidious things that these false teachers will do. And that leads us, thirdly, to notice . . .
3. WHAT EFFECT THEY WILL HAVE (v. 2).
Peter says, “And many will follow their destructive ways . . .” That is, they will persuade many people to go along with their way of thinking, and will get many people to follow after their manner of living.
There are two words to notice in this. One is the word translated “follow”. This is the word that Peter used in 1:16, where he says, “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .” It's a word that, in the original language, means “to accept someone or something as an authoritative pattern to observe or imitate”. These false teachers will actually get people to think like they think, or believe like they believe, to reject what they reject, or to act like they act. They will persuade people that they are “authoritative”; and that they represent the way to go. Peter warns that many people will be persuaded in this way by false teachers.
And there's another word he uses to describe the kind of conduct that the false teachers will persuade many people to follow—a word that's translated “destructive ways”. It describes the giving of one's self over to unrestrained behavior—the lack of self-control that crosses over the line of what is proper or acceptable. The King James Version translated it “pernicious ways”. The New International Version translates it “shameful ways”. The English Standard Version translates it “sensuality”. It describes an abandonment to lewd, licentious behavior.
And what Peter is saying is that these false teachers, and the teaching that they disseminate, will lead people to increasingly to ignore God's commands and instructions for proper living, and to a willingness to give themselves over to indecent conduct. Peter says, in verse 18, that, “when they speak great swelling words of emptiness, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through lewdness, the ones who have actually escaped [or “are barely escaping”] from those who live in error.”
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To put it bluntly: when false teachers are allowed to be heard—and when they are through with their teaching—the people who hear them will be far more willing to ignore the voice of God speaking to them through their conscience, and to engage in sinful behavior to the gratification of their baser lusts.
This has been proven again and again in the cults. And look at what Peter says will follow. He says that many will follow their destructive ways, “because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed” or “spoken against”.
There are a couple of ways to understand this; and I believe both are very possible. First, it can be understood to mean that the conduct of false teachers and of those who follow them—all the while claiming to be followers of Christ—will in fact result in the gospel message being spoken against by those who observe them. Unbelieving people cannot distinguish between those who are heretical and those who are not. The world looks at all who claim to be followers of Christ as being what they say they are. And when the world sees such people claiming to be Christians, and yet living worse than an unbeliever, then the world responds by “speaking against” the way of truth. They shake their heads and say, “Just look at how those so-called 'Christians' live!”
But I also believe that we can understand this to mean that those who engage in such sinful behavior will themselves speak against the way of truth. It's true that false doctrine always leads to loose living. That's why it's so dangerous. But we also need to remember that loose living also leads to false doctrine! People who choose to give themselves over to sinful behavior will always tend to develop doctrines that justify their conduct.
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Next, notice that Peter tells us . . .
4. HOW THEY WILL OPERATE (v. 3a).
He says, “By covetousness, they will exploit you with deceptive words . . .” We can see three things here.
First, we see their motive. It is “covetousness” or “greed”. They are concerned, ultimately, about what they can get for themselves. It may be financial gain that they're after. Even in our day, it's staggering to think of how much money is made off of books, or movies, or television programs, or radio programs that disseminate false doctrine! It's big business! Or it may be influence that they're after. They love to be respected and thought well of. They enjoy being interviewed, or asked to speak before large audiences that are willing to embrace their false doctrines. Or very often, it's because of the power that they love to be able to exercise over people.
Second, we see their method. They use “deceptive words”. They tell counterfeit testimonies, and present fictions as truth. They twist facts, and revise histories, and change the meanings of words. They distort Scripture, and try to make it mean something that it doesn't really say. The New International Version translates this by saying they will do this through “stories they have made up.”
And, we see thirdly their manner. They “exploit” people. They deliberately deceive them in order to take advantage of them and use them for their own selfish purposes.
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And this leads us, most seriously, to . . .
5. WHAT THEIR OUTCOME WILL BE (v. 1c, 3b).
Peter hints at this outcome in verse 1 when he says that they will secretly bring in destructive heresies, “. . . and bring on themselves swift destruction”. This speaks of a sudden end—a sudden “destruction.” And then, in verse 3, he speaks in very sobering words and says, “for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber.” Peter goes on to describe that judgment in terrifying terms in the rest of chapter two.
This indicates that, even though they may be active—even though it seems as if nothing bad is happening to them—even though they seem to have their day in the sun; their judgment from God is a very present reality. God knows what they teach. He knows how they have deliberately wondered from the way, and seek to encourage others to do so. He knows the destruction they bring into the lives of others. He knows they exploit people with lies. And He keeps record of it all; and even now keeps judgment in reserve for them, and will one day bring that judgment into full realization in their lives in a sudden and inescapable way. As Paul says, “For when they say, 'Peace and safety!' [just as the false prophets of the Old Testament era said; see Jeremiah 6:14 and Ezekiel 13:16], then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:3). The dreadfulness of the end destined to them is a reminder that these are people to keep far away from! “Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11).
Now, I realize that these words about the destiny of false teachers seem like very harsh words. They are harsh words. But they are not my words. They are the words of the apostle Peter, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We should bow to them as words of sober truth. How very important it is that we be on guard against these false teachers; and stay far away from them, lest we become partakers of their judgment!
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So then; Peter warned that there would be a day when false teachers would arise among us. And who among us would deny that we are living in those days even today?
But I am grateful to God for this letter from Peter—not only because he warns us against the false teachers, but also tells us what we must do to protect ourselves from them. Throughout the surrounding context of these words, Peter exhorts us to make preparation to stand against false teaching by cultivating our own spiritual lives before false teachers even arise.
First, Peter tells us to cultivate a confidence in our completeness in Christ. He begins his letter with a bang—and in effect, calls upon his readers to rest themselves confidently in the great spiritual riches that are already theirs in Christ—when he says,
Dear brothers and sisters, you and I completely frustrate a false teacher whenever we express such confidence in our riches in Christ that we don't need what they're trying to sell to us. You and I are the devil's worst nightmare whenever we rest in Christ completely, and trust confidently that “in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily”, and remember that we “are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power” (Colossians 2:9).
Second, Peter teaches us to make progress in a life of personal, practical holiness. He says,
The enemy of our souls seeks to silence our witness, and to render us unfruitful in our Christian life. And to harbor known sin in your life—or to stagnate in your Christian growth—is to present yourself as a ready victim to any false teacher the devil may send to you to make you stumble. Remember that just as it's true that loose living leads to false doctrine, it's also true that diligent progress in holiness before Christ protects us from its wicked influence.
Third, Peter says to maintain a trust in the testimony of the apostles. Very often, false teachers present the apostolic witness of Jesus Christ as a “cover-up” and a “fraud”. They try to show that they created a different “Jesus” than truly was. They argue that the apostles made claims about Jesus' deity that He Himself never made; or that they fabricated stories about Him that never really happened. In short, they call the apostles liars.
In 1:16-18, Peter himself points his readers back to the story in the Gospels of Jesus' transfiguration on the mountain. Peter was there, along with James and John; and Peter says,
Peter, and the others, placed their lives on the line for what they heard and saw of Jesus. And we completely frustrate false teachers when we tell them that we trust the apostles more than we trust them.
Fourth, Peter teaches us to be submitted to the authority of Scripture. It's true that Peter pointed to his own experience. But he also stressed that his own experience was secondary to the testimony of Scripture; and he calls his readers to give careful heed to what the word says. He writes,
The Scriptures are not mere human products. The hand of the Holy Spirit was involved; and He 'carried' them along in what they spoke and wrote. God has given us His inspired word to make us “wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). You are born again, “not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever” (1 Peter 1:23). Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; know God's word well—and submit to its authority obediently in the power and leading of the Holy Spirit—and you will be heresy-proof!
And finally, Peter teaches us to cultivate a hope in the coming of the Day of the Lord. This is a hope that false teachers deliberately ignore. They dread the judgment of that day. They mock it, and scoff at it, and do all in their power to deny it. Near the end of his letter, Peter wrote,
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These are truly spiritually dark days. False teachers and false doctrines abound. But if we follow God's simple instructions to us—given through the apostle Peter in this tiny second letter—we will be able to stand faithful in a day of falsehood.
1Pareisago; see BAGD, p. 774.
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