Throughout his second epistle, Peter warns against the pervasive threat of false teachers who would "secretly introduce destructive heresies" (2:1) into the Church. At the same time, he urges those who follow Christ to "be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing" them (1:10), grounding their faith in Christ's work (1:1-4), calling them to live it out fruitfully (1:5-9), and confirming it again by the certainty of Scripture (1:19-21) which reveals it. Unsettlingly, Peter predicts that many who call themselves believers would be seduced by these false teachers and that the reputation of Christ and the Church would be shamed because of them (2:2). Even so, we are not to live fearfully-Peter appeals to God's holy and consistent judgment through the ages (before creation, in the flood, and at Sodom and Gomorrah) as the source of our comfort in the face of this reality: "the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment" (2:9).
After offering this word of peace, Peter's again picks up his invective against those who would subvert the Gospel: "Daring, self-willed, they do not tremble when they revile angelic majesties, whereas angels who are greater in might and power do not bring a reviling judgment against them before the Lord" (2:10b-11). These teachers are bold in their sin, not holding back even as they openly mock the Lord and His servants. What the NASB translates as "angelic majesties" is the Greek dóxas, which comes from the same root word used for "glory" or "majesty". Though it is not precisely clear from this who Peter refers to-other renderings here include "glorious ones" (ESV), "dignitaries" (KJV), and "celestial beings" (NIV)-the thrust of the argument is that false teachers, just like Satan, have no respect for the things of God.
The second piece of this sentence is also a bit puzzling-why would the Lord's angels not hold false teacher's blasphemy against them? Jude (whose letter very closely parallels this section of Peter's letter) helps shed some light. As we mentioned, Peter's allusion to fallen angels (2:4) appears to draw from the apocryphal Book of Enoch, and Jude relates this account in more detail: "Yet in the same way these men, also by dreaming, defile the flesh, and reject authority, and revile angelic majesties. But Michael the archangel, when he disputed with the devil and argued about the body of Moses, did not dare pronounce against him a railing judgment, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!'" (Jude 8-9). Jude refers specifically to Satan, Peter refers to those false teachers who follow his path, but in both passages, angels (who are in the presence of God and exist but to do His will) defer to God for judgment against those who mock them. They know that they are mocked because they do the Lord's bidding, and so they don't presume to defend themselves, stepping back instead to allow the Lord to judge those who rebel against Him.
Why does Peter include a passage that seems so confusing to us? First, the source he and Jude draw from here must have been familiar to those of Jewish heritage in his day, otherwise the allusion would lack instructive power. Moreover, what appears enigmatic in isolation is much clearer in Peter's larger context-these false teachers are ruthless in their aim to destroy Christ's Church and those beings (human and angelic) who protect and support it, and are utterly blinded to their own coming judgment. The Lord will indeed rebuke those who reject Him.
As his denunciation continues, Peter again pronounces the Lord's coming judgment while likening false teachers to the one their efforts serve (whether they know it or not): Satan. In 1 Peter 5:8, he writes that "your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour." Here, he says that "these, like unreasoning animals, born as creatures of instinct to be captured and killed, reviling where they have no knowledge, will in the destruction of those creatures also be destroyed, suffering wrong as the wages of doing wrong" (2:12-13a). They are so proud in their lies ("not trembling") that they do not even recognize what they rail against. They have left even the bounds of human reason and argument, preying on God's flock like ravenous animals. Just as a good shepherd will defend his sheep by capturing or killing the wild animals that threaten them, so the Lord will defend His Church by bringing judgment on her attackers.
The Lord, Peter says, causes false teachers to suffer "wrong as the wages of doing wrong." We typically think of God's judgment as a sort of "shock and awe" response to sin, but the text here seems to indicate that a life of sin itself is part of His judgment. Without redemption and repentance, sin begets sin, resulting in further alienation from the Lord and, ultimately, death. In this statement, Peter, echoes Paul's evaluation of the sinful world: "And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them" (Rom. 1:28-32).
Whereas they begin their attack on truth "secretly" (2:1), once false teachers and their followers have infiltrated the Church, "they count it a pleasure to revel in the daytime." Their whispered half-truths and distortions bear fruit in open wickedness, even when they pretend to be children of God: "They are stains and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, as they carouse with you" (2:13). "Carouse with you" seems to imply that believers were engaging in sinful activities along with the offenders, but the Greek is more nuanced. This phrase translates syneuōchoumenoi, literally meaning "feast together with you." Again, Jude helps us understand-the same word shows up in Jude 12: "These are the men who are hidden reefs in your love feasts when they feast with you without fear, caring for themselves." Perhaps Peter devotes so much time to alerting his readers because such people are already in their midst, attempting to join in fellowship with the church, staining worship and threatening to wreck fellowship.
These "daytime revelers" receive a full blast from Peter. He says they have "eyes full of adultery that never cease from sin, enticing unstable souls" (2:14). This damning indictment draws on Jesus' words: "The eye is the lamp of your body; when your eye is clear, your whole body also is full of light; but when it is bad, your body also is full of darkness" (Luke 11:34). This is both a poetic truth (in which the eye is a synecdoche for the whole soul of a man) and a literal description (in that our eyes express our thoughts and emotions). Peter says, in effect, that they are consumed with desire for adultery-another double meaning, in that they pursue all manner of sexual sin, but also that they join themselves spiritually to false gods (a metaphor used in Hosea 1:2 and throughout the Old Testament).
Moreover, they have hearts "trained in greed"-literally "having been exercised in covetousness"; with the verb gegymnasmenēn coming from the same root where we get "gymnasium"-they are not just absent-minded sinners, but they have practiced to be skilled at working evil. In each sense, they are seeking out "unstable souls", "enticing" those who are young in their faith, still learning to discern the truth. Mature believers may recognize false teaching and not be swayed by it, but we also have a responsibility to protect weaker brothers from falling prey to error and temptation.
Peter's malediction comes to a head here, in his statement that these false teachers are "accursed children" (2:14). This translates the Greek phrase kataras tekna, perhaps better rendered as "children of the curse" (along the lines of Paul's statement in Ephesians 2:3 that we were "children of wrath" before our salvation). They are fully sons of the world, and should not be welcomed as a part of the Church unless they repent and place themselves under the authority of God's Word alone. Otherwise, they only bring destruction.
Over and over through this chapter, Peter proclaims judgment after judgment on those who would distort the truth, malign the name of Christ, and lead astray those who have believed. We will conclude our look at his warnings next month, but this emphasis in his letter is amply clear already. What are we to learn? If Peter (and Paul, Jude, and John) devote so much of their teaching to guarding the Church from false teachers, should we not also be on alert? The dangers they saw are just as pervasive today, and will be until the Lord returns. May we be grounded in Scripture and never forget that we have an adversary who will use every means at his disposal to shake our faith and distract us from Christ's Gospel "which also you received, in which also you stand" (1 Cor. 15:1). If we abandon our foundation, everything about our hope falls also.
Justin Lonas is editor of Disciple Magazine for AMG International in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
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