BETTER NEVER TO HAVE KNOWN THE WAY
May 8, 2009
(This teaching is a continuation from the message entitled "Destruction is not Sleeping")
TEXT: 2 Peter 2:11-22
Chapter 1 of 2 Peter is a positive, encouraging summons for us to confirm our call and election by availing ourselves of God's power for godliness through faith in his precious and very great promises. Chapter 2 is a very bleak portrayal of the false teachers in the churches who do not avail themselves of God's power and give themselves over to sexual indulgence in the name of Christian freedom. The main point of the chapter is that these false teachers and those enticed by them will in the end experience condemnation and destruction. The chapter intends to do in a negative way what chapter 1 aims to do in a positive way, namely, make us earnest about the business of confirming our call and election.
Read the previous message "DESTRUCTION IS NOT SLEEPING" taken from 2 Peter 2 verses 1-10 that the heresy of the false teachers is a moral heresy. They deny the Master who bought them, by promoting sexual license. Instead of submitting to Christ's way of sexual purity, they despise authority and teach that by grace we are free in Christ to use our bodies as we please. The more we rise above the limitations of the law, the more we magnify the grace of God. Therefore, as it were, let us sin that grace may abound (Romans 6:1)! Peter warns in verse 10 that God will hold such people under punishment until the day of judgment. Heaven and hell are at stake in whether we rely on Christ for our hope and obey his Word, or whether we deny him by our disobedience.
Now we will listen or read the rest of chapter 2 and try to see what lessons there are for us. We will go through verses 10-22 in four sections. In verses 10b-13a the focus is on the brazen willfulness and pride and self-sufficiency of the false teachers. In verses 13b-16 the focus is on their unashamed indulgence in sex and their love of money. In verse 17 the emptiness of their teaching is exposed. And in verses 18-22 Peter warns how these false teachers entice new and unstable Christians into moral apostasy where their last condition is worse than if they had never known the way of righteousness. Let us look at these sections briefly, one at a time.
Boastful and Reviling
First, verses 10b-13a. Describing the false teachers, Peter says: "Bold and willful, they are not afraid to revile the glorious ones, whereas angels, though greater in might and power, do not pronounce a reviling judgment upon them before the Lord. But these (i.e., the false teachers), like irrational animals, creatures of instinct born to be caught and killed, reviling in matters of which they are ignorant, will be destroyed in the same destruction with them, suffering wrong for their wrongdoing." It is possible that the "glorious ones" mentioned in verse 10 are the fallen angels of verse 4, and that Peter is saying: the false teachers are so brazen and cocky and self-assured that they revile the evil spirits as though they were safe from any supernatural evil influence at all. And to show the arrogance of such an attitude of false security, Peter says: even the good angels who, unlike the false teachers, are stronger than the evil ones, nevertheless do not presume to pronounce a reviling judgment on them. They humble themselves and leave judgment to God.
But it seems to be very unlikely that Peter would have used the phrase "glorious ones" to refer to fallen angels. Literally the term is simply "glories" and was used in 1 Peter 1:11 to refer to all the glories surrounding Christ in his exaltation and second coming. In 2 Peter the word "glory" is associated with the future of Christ's second coming (1:3, 17, where the transfigured Christ foreshadows the glorious returning Christ, 3:18). And in 2 Peter 3:3, 4 the false teachers are pictured as mocking this glorious second coming. So I am inclined to think that the "glories" which the false teachers revile are the glories of God and Christ, especially associated with the second coming. Then when it says in verse 11 that "the angels (notice it does not say 'good' angels since there is probably no contrast with bad angels in view), though greater in might and power, do not pronounce a reviling judgment upon them before the Lord," it probably means that the angels do not revile the false teachers, even though they deserve it and the angels are in an exalted position to give it. This contrast shows how incredibly puffed up the false teachers are. Even angels yield to the authority of God to pass just judgment. But the false teachers despise all authority and rise above the angels to scorn the glories of the holy God, probably by denying the second coming.
Verse 12 adds that the false teachers are like animals in two senses. First, they are utterly ignorant of what they speak. Their reviling at the glories of Christ is like a wolf howling at the sunrise. And, second, they will be destroyed like the animals. They will come to an end in judgment, and all their howling will be silenced. We are admonished, therefore, to beware of spiritual pride. As Paul says, "Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12). We are utterly dependent on the grace of God and dare not boast in any self-sufficiency.
Carousing and Greedy
The second unit is verses 13b-16.
They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes reveling in their dissipation, carousing with you. They have eyes full of adultery insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! Forsaking the right way they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a dumb ass spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet's madness.
Here the brazen willfulness of the false teachers is seen in their doing in the daytime (v. 13) what other sinners only dare to do at night. The term rendered "carousing with you" in verse 13 means literally "eating feasts with you." The picture seems to be of an all-church banquet where these men and women show up as spots and blemishes (contrast 3:14) with their eyes full of adultery (v. 14). They cannot look on a woman or man without thinking about sexual relations. With hearts well-trained in greed they try to isolate the unstable new-comers and draw them away in licentiousness (v. 2).
Peter does not say how the false teachers aim to make money, but the analogy of Balaam (in vv. 15, 16) gives a clue. When the Israelites were approaching the land of Moab, Balak, the king, was afraid of them and sent for a prophet named Balaam and offered him money (Numbers 22:7) to come and curse the Israelites. This is what Peter zeroes in on in verse 15: Balaam loved gain from wrongdoing, specifically, gain from someone willing to pay for his prophetic services. Probably, then, the false teachers were not only luring young converts away into sexual license, but were charging them for their own special teaching. If you pay for something, you take it more seriously!
Notice who the false teachers go after in verse 14: "unsteady souls." We get an even clearer picture in verse 18: "they entice . . . people who have barely escaped from those who live in error." In other words, new converts; people who are unstable in their grasp of truth. This is a strong admonition, first, to establish our own doctrinal stability in the Word, but then, also to labour seriously to ground our children and all new converts quickly in the truth of Scripture. Let us be a church where we are constantly helping each other to send our roots ever deeper into the rock of God's truth.
Waterless Springs and Mists
The third section is just one verse. Verse 17: "These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm; for them the nether gloom of darkness has been reserved." Picture yourself in the desert with a parched tongue, longing for water to satisfy your thirst. You see an oasis with trees and grass. You run, thrown yourself down by the spring, and it is dry as a bone. These false teachers offer thrills and insight and freedom, but in reality they are empty and barren. They are like mists that seem to promise rain for the land, but are quickly blown away. O what a need there is in the church for discernment between waterless springs and springs of living water! The one bubbles up unto eternal life. The other sinks down into the gloom where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. We must become a deeply discerning people.
Distorting the Gospel of Freedom
The last unit is the most straightforward warning to the church about the perils of being drawn away in this false teaching. Verses 18-22:
Uttering loud boasts of folly, they entice with licentious passions of the flesh people who have barely escaped from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for whatever overcomes a man or woman, to that he or she enslaved. For if after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, 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. It has happened to them according to the true proverb, "The dog turns back to his own vomit, and the sow is washed only to wallow in the mire."
The way the false teachers entice new and unstable converts is by promising them freedom, according to verse 19. I think it is possible to get a pretty good idea how they argued. In 1 Peter 2:16 Peter says, "Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as slaves of God." The false teachers were right to promise people freedom. The call to freedom is at the heart of New Testament faith. But this was not a call to give free reign to your passions. For then you are really a slave of corruption as verse 19 says. The apostolic call to freedom recognises 1) that Christ had died to free us from the guilt and power of sin; 2) that we are free from the law in the sense that we need no longer strive to keep it in our own strength; and 3) that we are given new hearts by the Holy Spirit so that freely we delight in holiness.
But everywhere this gospel of freedom was preached, false teachers distorted it. And 2 Peter 3:16 shows that the writings of the apostle Paul were a sitting duck for this distortion. It says, "There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction." The false teachers take the unstable souls (of 2:14) and teach how to use the letters of Paul to justify their view of sexual freedom.
Paul already knew that his teaching about freedom was open to this abuse, and he warned against it. For example, in Galatians 5:13 he says: "You were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another." But the false teachers were doing just that, using their freedom as an opportunity to indulge their love for money and their love for praise and their love for sexual pleasure. They probably quoted Galatians 5:1 with great power among the new and unstable converts: "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery!" "Away with the enslaving rules that govern the life of the body! You are not under law; you are under grace!" But they probably neglected entirely those other teachings of Paul, "If you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live" (Romans 8:13). So Peter blasts the trumpet of warning: they are twisting the Scriptures to their own destruction, and their promised freedom is a bondage to corruption.
Storing Up More Judgment
Then in verses 20 and 21 the decisive word of warning rings out to the church in danger of being enticed: if you turn away from the holy commandment and forsake the way of righteousness and by your actions deny the Master who bought you (v. 1), then you are not saved and your condition is worse than when you had never known the way. Peter pictures the real possibility in verse 20 that by learning of Christ some people make a start in the Christian life, and by all outward appearances have escaped from the defilements of the world. Then the cares and riches and pleasures of life (as Jesus says) choke the young plant, and it withers and bears no fruit and dies (Luke 8:14).
Two parts need to be stressed from these verses. First, notice the principle that the more you know of Christ and his way, the more severe will be your judgment for not trusting and obeying Christ. Better never to have known the way, Peter says in verse 21. And in this he simply preserves the teaching of Jesus. He said, "Woe to you Chorazin and Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you" (Matthew 11:21-22). The more evidence you have of Christ's reality, the more severe your judgment for not repenting. "Everyone to whom much is given, of him much will be required" (Luke 12:47, 48). Peter warns the new converts: if you forsake the way now, after all you have learned and experienced, your doom will be more miserable than the pagans'. The doctor gave me ten days worth of antibiotics and said, "Don't stop taking them after five days just because your sore throat clears up. If you do, it may flare up all the worse." So it is in the Christian life: if you stop trusting the heavenly doctor and disobey his prescription for your redemption, your latter state will be worse than the former.
The second point that needs to be stressed is that Peter is not teaching that God's elect can lose their salvation. He is most definitely teaching that church members can be lost, and people who make outward professions of faith and even begin to clean up their lives can turn away from Christ and be lost. But in verse 22 he explains to us in a proverb that we should not be overly surprised at this: dogs characteristically return to their vomit; and no matter how clean you make a pig on the outside, if it is still a pig, it will return to the mire. In other words, those who leave the way of righteousness, never to return, simply show that their inner nature had never been changed. This was Peter's way of saying what 1 John 2:19 says, "They went out from us, but they were not of us, for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that it might be plain that they are all not of us." Or as Jesus said, "He who endures to the end will be saved" (Matthew 10:22). Or as Hebrews puts it, "We share in Christ if we hold our first confidence firm to the end" (Hebrews 3:14). Or as Paul says, "I preached to you the gospel which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast" (1 Corinthians 15:1, 2). The whole New Testament is agreed: there is no salvation apart from persevering faith. And persevering faith always works itself out in the way of righteousness. Therefore, to abandon the way of righteousness is to exclude oneself from salvation.
But this can never happen to God's elect. If it could, verse 10 of chapter 1 would be nonsense. There Peter says, "Be the more zealous to confirm your call and election." If the elect could be lost, there would be no advantage in confirming our election. The point of verse 10 is that the elect will never fall but will enter into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. And therefore we should be utterly earnest about confirming our election.
And 2 Peter 2 was written to help us do just that. It aims to help us confirm our election by warning us not to deny the Master who bought us (v. 1) , and by strengthening us to resist the temptations of spiritual pride and self-sufficiency (11-13), the love of money and all its destructive tendencies (14-16), and the summons to unbridled sexual license (2, 7, 14, 18). It is not the kind of chapter we enjoy reading. But not all medicine tastes good. God, the great physician, knows our need. And every word is profitable. If it increases our earnestness in realising the full assurance of hope to the end, it will have succeeded. May God make it so. AMEN.
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