Beyond the Lectionary Text: 2 Peter 2
by Chelsey Harmon
There seems to be to basic questions underlying 2 Peter 2: (1) Will there be judgment? and (2) Who are you following?
Building upon where true prophecy comes from in chapter 1, Peter wants to make sure that everyone listening recognizes that not all who claim to teach are from God. Just as there were false prophets in the time of the true prophets, there are false teachers now, during the time of the apostles. Apostles, like the true prophets before them, bring God’s message. False teachers, on the other hand, bring human messages, have no divine authority, usually prophecy things that sound or feel better to the listener (such as peace in place of judgment) and ultimately, they are condemned by God.
One does not have to think very hard about the ways in which false teaching and hypocritical living has given Christianity a bad reputation— “bring[ing] the way of truth into disrepute.” And what a line Peter uses at the close of this opening section: “their destruction has not been sleeping.” It is not idle; it is already at work! Watch out, this is serious business!
Then it’s on to question to big question (1): Will there be judgment? Verses 4-10a are one very long sentence, the apodosis (focus) of which isn’t until verse 9. A helpful technique I learned in my homiletics class in Seminary was to identify the ‘trouble’ and the ‘grace’ in a text, and the key to finding the grace in the story is to look for the God active language. So what is God doing in this particular text?
“God did not spare… sent them to hell… he did not spare the ancient world… but protected Noah… he condemned cities… made them an example… he rescued Lot…” and “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment.”
In summary, God judges the unrighteous who chose a way other than what he set out for them; but God also saves the righteous who obey and follow his ways. Judgment is real but so is salvation.
It’s Jesus the Saviour who does the saving. We bring onto ourselves the judgment, but in Jesus we have the gift of his righteousness to cover us. Peter makes it clear that that righteousness is only for those who belong to the way of truth, who believe and therefore live in God’s ways.
These false teachers, Peter warns, are haughty and arrogant, talking boldly about things they have no right to. As the chapter goes on, Peter’s description of the false teachers gets uglier and more brutal. Is he trying to dissuade people from joining their ranks by painting such carnal comparisons? He started out by calling them condemned greedsters, and by verse 12 they are wild animals that leave humans no choice but to kill them for the safety of the community. Then, at the close, it’s as unappealing as it can get: dogs puking then eating it. Blech! Who’d want to join those ranks?
Verse 13 has an interesting word play between feasts/lovefeasts and what’s translated into English as deceptions or pleasures. In Greek the two words are similar to show the ways in which these false teachers pervert the meal of remembrance. The picture that Peter paints is of the community celebrating the Lord’s Supper along with these false teachers. As they share in celebrating Jesus’ sacrifice, the false teachers are described as sitting back, enjoying the ways they are infiltrating, tainting, and gaining followers to their way. It’s sinister! Here the community is remembering the ways that Jesus has freed them to live for him through his death and in their very midst are people who are teaching the opposite!
Don’t be fooled by them, Peter pleads, they are motivated for themselves and they take advantage of those who are new to the way of Jesus. Peter argues that if they consider how these false teachers work long enough and they will see that it’s all rooted in greed. They may claim that they are free from judgment and therefore can live as they want, but by accepting this teaching, as appealing as it may be, they have put themselves back under the curse that Jesus died to free them from. They know the freedom that Jesus offers—they have heard it— and yet they have returned to listening to their fleshly, earthly desires as the guide for living, and by doing so, they’ve returned to slavery. Peter recognizes that such notions are enticing, describing the false teachers are springs and mists, images of quenching desires, but they are springs without water and mists that mark a storm and struggle. They cannot satisfy.
People of the way of truth are slaves as well, but they are slaves to Jesus. Here is where I see underlying question (2): Who are you following? Go back to the beginning of the chapter: the Sovereign Lord has bought us, Peter declares, we are his slaves! To be a slave in that time was to show the character of one’s master. Furthermore, to have a disobedient lifestyle was to deny one’s master. To be a slave to the flesh and ways of the world, therefore, would include carnal and visceral sins committed under a false sense of freedom and autonomy. (Hence Peter’s harsh descriptors for the false teachers.) But to be a follower of the way of truth, a slave to God, is to follow in the way of Jesus; and though it is not earned or deserved, it is to try to live into his righteousness which he has so graciously bestowed upon us. It is his righteousness that saves us from God’s judgment. It is his righteousness that the Holy Spirit uses to transform us. It is his righteousness that “rescues the godly.”
Would you rather follow Jesus or dogs that eat their own vomit? Well, when you put it that way, Peter…
I recently prayed with someone for her mother who is waiting for test results; the doctors have warned them to expect a very bad prognosis. The woman I prayed with, though sad and anxious, was also adamant that her mother was fine, that she didn’t believe that her mother was going to die. Where did she get her confidence? From listening to a preacher on the radio that told her that positive thinking had the power to change things. What was even more telling to me, was that I had literally just (minutes before) preached a sermon on praising God even if God does not answer our prayers. I was more than a little concerned as to how this woman was putting the two narratives together. As I reflected on the morning, I realized that this instance is just one of many ways in which the teachings from the “outside” make their way into the church.
Or what of those televangelists who promise an answer to your prayer if you call in, right now, with your donation? One would think that enough of them have been exposed to discredit the industry, and yet, many people in this world continue to be enticed by their get rich promises, prosperity gospels, and proclaimed ability to unlock the key to answered prayer. A google search produces an ample supply of news broadcasts that expose the abuses and exploitations of such figures.
Might these be the modern-day equivalent to the false teachers Peter speaks of? Drawing on basic human desires and sinful instincts, making use of cultural expectations of riches as the way to happiness, and taking money from anyone— even if they can’t afford it—false teachers take advantage of those who don’t know their Scripture well enough to remember that the rain falls on the just and unjust, that Jesus promised hardship and troubles for those who choose to follow him, and that true fulfillment is found in Christ.
Another modern example of false teaching that traps its followers while pretending to free them is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). Michael Horton deals extensively with its dangers for the church in his book, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church. Accurately outlined on wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moralistic_therapeutic_deism the basic beliefs of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are:
1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
If one believes and lives according to these principles, then you are “freed” from the gospel message and the cost of discipleship. However, those who know the gospel story also know that it isn’t actually a matter of good people going to heaven, but a matter of sinners saved by God’s grace through Jesus Christ. Belief in this is the only way to heaven, not by doing good works. There isn’t enough good that anyone can do to save themselves, and to think so is to put yourself back under the curse that Jesus died to free you from. It’s called Therapeutic Deism for a reason: it makes us feel better about ourselves, but this is not the story of the one true God.
Rev. Chelsey Harmon is the pastor of Christ Community Church, Nanaimo, British Columbia.