Dry Springs, Empty Clouds, and the Enticement of Sin

2 Peter 2:15-22

 

In writing to strengthen the brethren to stand firm and grow in holiness, Peter spends much of his letter excoriating false teachers. At first glance, this seems at cross-purposes with his reason for writing, but this encouragement and warning are of a piece: "the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment" (2:9). Without reminding them of the certainty of coming judgment, the very presence of such false teachers might cause many to lose heart.

At the close of chapter two, Peter reaches a fever pitch, exposing any who would seek to lead the Church astray as sinful, hollow, deceived, and damned. From the beginning of the chapter, he has connected the threat of false teachers to the history of false prophets that plagued Israel, and in verses 15 and 16, he calls one out by name. He writes that these false teachers were, "forsaking the right way, they have gone astray, having followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; but he received a rebuke for his own transgression, for a mute donkey, speaking with a voice of a man, restrained the madness of the prophet" (2:15-16).

Recall briefly the story of Balaam, recounted in Numbers 22-24. Intimidated by the approach of the Israelites on their way to the Promised Land, Moabite king Balak and his nobles gathered funds to hire "freelance prophet" Balaam to curse Israel. At first, Balaam resists the commission to speak against Israel, but eventually succumbs, accepting his price. God warns him, however, to only speak the words He would give to him, but Balaam disregarded the Lord.

Upon travelling to deliver the message, though, God sent an angel to slay Balaam (rather than allow him deliver a false prophecy), and he was only saved because his donkey saw the angel and refused to keep walking. When he struck the donkey, the Lord opened her mouth to speak a rebuke to Balaam, and then his eyes were opened to see the angel. As a result, instead of speaking the curse he had been paid to deliver, he was only able to speak God's blessing on His chosen people and His judgment on other nations.

Likewise, some of the false teachers Peter attacks had turned from the truth to lies for the sake of financial gain-whether in terms of "fleecing the flock" or simply in the temporary reward of prosperity from compromises to avoid persecution. Peter is clear, though, that just as God rebuked Balaam (by some very unique means), so He will stop the influence of false teachers in His timing. In the long run, what is false will be shown to be false, and those who spread lies will be called to account by the Author of truth.

Peter then turns to another metaphor to show the corruption of these men: "These are springs without water and mists driven by a storm" (2:17a). The teaching of the Word of God (repeatedly called the "word of life" in the New Testament) refreshes weary souls, telling us of our salvation and justification before the Father, bringing truth and light so that we may see how we should live, and strengthening us to follow Him all our days. By contrast, Peter says that false teachers promise the same sort of benefits that faithful teachers deliver, but their words are fruitless, only bringing destruction and despair. Following them will prove as disheartening as finding a spring in the desert only to discover dust, or waiting for rain to water your crops only to see the clouds pass without relief. As with every other description he has offered, Peter bookends this one with a reminder of their coming judgment: "for whom the black darkness has been reserved" (2:17b).

Further, he describes some of the motives by which the false teachers operate: "For speaking out arrogant words of vanity they entice by fleshly desires, by sensuality, those who barely escape from the ones who live in error, promising them freedom while they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved" (2:18-19). Few come to the church teaching error without doing so in order to justify the lusts of the flesh-the Law of God serves to convict and restrain our sinful impulses, and it must be explained away in order for us to be "at peace" with our "fleshly desires." Here, Peter calls a spade a spade, warning believers that the primary appeal of the enemy is sensual, not intellectual, and that the end of any supposed freedom from God's Law is only death.

Peter has been teaching that our thoughts and beliefs influence our moral choices-"grace and peacein the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord" (1:2) lead to faith and righteousness; "destructive heresies" (2:1) produce all manner of sin and sensuality. What he illuminates here is that this is a two-way street-pursuing immorality degrades our belief in the truth and entices us to accept false doctrine. The temptation that subdues us enslaves us, so we must be ever on our guard not to compromise truth for sin. Peter's warning echoes Paul's assessment of sinful man: "For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creatorfor this reason God gave them over to degrading passionreceiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error" (Rom. 1:25-27). Unbelief is both the root and result of sin.

There is a theme of sexual sin that runs through Peter's description of these teachers. To be sure, this is a temptation common to all, and can certainly lead any of us astray if we let our guard down. Deeper than that, though is the metaphoric reality of sexuality. The union of man and wife is a picture of Christ and His Church-marital fidelity and spiritual fidelity go hand in hand. In the same way, physical promiscuity and faithlessness tag together.  The Old Testament consistently calls Israel's unfaithfulness to the Lord "adultery", as they turned from Him to other gods.

As the chapter draws to a close, Peter brings out the harshest charge: "For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment handed on to them. It has happened to them according to the true proverb, A dog returns to its own vomit,' and A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire" (2:20-22). Those false teachers who have been a part of the Church, learning Scripture and seeing it lived out will incur great judgment for their betrayal-so much so that it would have been better for them never to have heard the Gospel.

This passage urgently calls us to see that danger of falling away from the faith. Peter's stark pronouncement that blasphemy of known truth is a greater sin than blasphemy in ignorance unsettles us. Is this the unforgivable sin? Who among us is safe from this threat? Remember, though that he is writing to those who "already know [the Gospel message], and have been established in the truth which is present with you" (1:12). His purpose for them, even in such heated statements, is caution and comfort, not condemnation. If we are concerned, our response should be "to be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you" (1:10). God preserves and protects those whom He calls. This side of glory, none of us is free from sin, but our perseverance in belief and obedience are proof of His power and holiness, not of our strength and will. As Jude reminds us, it is God "who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy" (Jude 24).

Peter seems to indicate that those who knew the truth and turned away were never called by God to begin with. These are difficult words (cf. John 6:60-68), and we should not gloss over them or flippantly disregard them. All of us have known friends or relatives who grew up in the Church, under the instruction of Christian parents, and yet have forsaken the faith-perhaps you have even been in that place yourself. Where is the cure for our fears? Peter will answer this in the next chapter, reminding us that the Lord is longsuffering, "not wishing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance" (3:9).

God's judgment on sin and error should spur us to proclaiming again His message of deliverance, because no one in this life is beyond the pale of repentance and belief. This is precisely where Peter's letter will drive us, asking us "what sort of people ought [we] to be in holy conduct and godliness" (3:11) in light of the knowledge and love He has shown us. "O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood, to every believer the promise of God. The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives."

Justin Lonas is editor of Disciple Magazine for AMG International in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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