“False Teachers among You” — Part One
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“False Teachers among You” — Part One

2 Peter 2:1–10  (ID: 2301)

The apostle Peter warned early Christians to be alert for false teachers among them, using examples from Scripture to illustrate the reality and inevitability of judgment for those who rebel against God. In this message by Alistair Begg, we learn about the strategy, impact, and destiny of those who would lead God’s people astray. As believers hold fast to the truths of His Word, we can have confidence in His sovereign power to keep us safe for eternity.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in 2 Peter

Growing in Grace 2 Peter 1:1–3:18 Series ID: 16101

Sermon Transcript: Print

We continue our intermittent studies in 2 Peter, and I encourage you to turn there if you would. And we’ve reached 2:1.

Of course, you know that there were no chapter breaks in the original writings. The chapter breaks have been inserted by the editors in order to try and help us find our way around the Bible, and most of the time I think they are of use to us. But the flow from chapter 1 to chapter 2 is almost broken by the chapter distinctions here. And you really need to recognize that he has been speaking very much about those who have spoken from God at the end of chapter 1—these people who did not have their prophetic words in the origin of their minds, but rather, they “spoke from God.”[1] And then he says, “Of course, there were also another group of people, and they were not speaking from God. We have reason to be thankful,” he said, “for the prophets whom God established and by whom he spoke his divine Word. But there were also,” 2:1, “false prophets, and there will be false teachers among you. And so you need to be alert.”

Now, the word which will perhaps stand out to you, and should, is the word “among”: “There were also false prophets among the people,” and “there will be false teachers,” notice, “among you.” It is one thing to fight a battle with those who are beyond the walls. It is quite another to be engaged in dealing with a fifth column that has crept into the city under cover of darkness.

And these words ought to make us think of the words of Paul when he leaves the Ephesians, with whom he had spent some years. And as he bids farewell to them in that lovely scene on the beach that is recorded for us by Luke in Acts chapter 20, he says to them, “Savage wolves will come in among you, … [and] even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!”[2] You have the same emphasis in the second-last book of the Bible, in Jude, where Jude warns, “Certain men … have secretly slipped in among you.”[3]

Now, it should be fairly obvious, but it bears saying that such individuals do not arrive wearing a sign on their hats which reads “Heretics,” and their stories will probably not be mentioned when they are interviewed for membership of the local church. Indeed, the thing that will perhaps appeal most to those who are conducting the interviews is the fact that these individuals are very obviously men with leadership qualities. They clearly are articulate. They understand a great deal about the Bible; it’s apparent just in interviewing them. And as they walk away from the interview, we may be tempted to say, “Now there is somebody who has a future in this church in terms of the potential for leadership.” In Galatians, Paul speaks of “false brothers” who “infiltrated our ranks … to make us slaves.”[4] So what you have here in this opening little section of the chapter is not something that is unique to Peter. Paul mentions it on these occasions. You also find that the apostle John speaks of those who “went out from us” because “they were not of us.”[5] But for a while, as they participated in the events that were going on, it was apparent, at least to those who lacked discernment, that these individuals were just one of the group.

Now, when we think on verses like this there are two great dangers to avoid. They are the dangers that we suggest to one another need to be avoided when we think about the devil. Danger number one: we become completely preoccupied with the devil, and we think he’s everywhere, around every corner, and we see him all the time; or the opposite danger, and that is to ignore him completely and to live as if he did not exist at all.

In the same way, when you think in terms of false prophets, destructive teachers creeping in, we have to beware of naively assuming that all is well, or, conversely, constantly ferreting around looking for falsity. And usually, in the balance of a leadership structure, it will be possible for those who are constantly looking for falsity to be balanced out by those who are a little more naive, and somehow or another, in his providence, God keeps it all together. But we do need to be careful.

Their Strategy

Now, Peter helps us by giving to us the strategy of these individuals so that we’re not left just wondering exactly how they may be detected. He wants his readers in the context of the first century to recognize that there were certain characteristics that marked their approach. And I just want to identify them for you. They’re there in the text; I’ll simply point them out.

First of all, they work undercover. They work undercover. “They will secretly introduce” things. So, it’s an undercover operation. They are smuggling things in. They’re not going to mention it up front.

At the same time, the material that they suggest, the stories that they tell, whatever they appear on the outside, are actually destructive, so that they tear down, they disintegrate, they divide, they destroy, they harm.

Also, these individuals are “shameful.” The activities that, if you get to know them and the kind of things they’re suggesting—the opportunities that they present to men and women are actually shameful. And the word that is used there for “shameful” is the same word that is used in verse 7 and is translated “filthy” and is the same word that is used in verse 18 and is translated “lustful.” So, you have already a picture in your mind: individuals working undercover with the notion of destruction and with activities that are shameful.

At the same time, they are the kind of individuals who take advantage of people. That’s the point in verse 3: “In their greed these teachers will exploit you.” They will seek to take advantage of you.

And they’re able to do so because they are very inventive—hence the phrase “with [the] stories they have made up.” Whether their stories are about themselves or whether their stories are about some new facet of the truth (which is often the case), the fact is, says Peter, that in contrast to those who “were carried along,” at the end of chapter 1—those who “were carried along by the [breeze of God’s] Spirit”—these individuals are simply full of hot air. And you need to be aware of that.

So, he is encouraging his readership to make sure that they are alert, that they are wise, and that they are sensitive to these things.

Their Impact

If that marks their strategy, then what is true of their impact? Well, actually, quite surprisingly, their impact is significant. Verse 2, notice the first word. It’s not that these individuals will have a marginal impact when they begin to exploit the people around them, but “many will follow their shameful ways.” So when this happens, there will be a whole scale getting on the bandwagon, as it were. And as a result of this, the way of truth will be brought into disrepute. So people in the world will say, when they see these events and they see activities, “How can these people possibly claim to be the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ? We do not believe the Bible, we don’t really have much to say about Jesus, but we know enough to know that the shameful nonsense that is going on there is something that does not concur with the Sermon on the Mount. We know enough to know that.”

And don’t you find that where, on the fringes of orthodoxy, there are all kinds of dramatic claims, all kinds of scurrilous notions, we’re on the receiving end of our friends’ questions? “What is possibly happening there?” they say. It’s not strange, says Alexander Nisbet—who sounds like a Scotsman, and he was—in an earlier era, “It is not strange to see [that] the most dangerous heretics have many followers; every error being a friend to some lust.”[6] What a good statement. They’re able to appeal to something in the hearts of men and women that is down there and deep and unsettling. And their impact upon a growing crowd is directly related to their strategy.

Judgment is inevitable, but it is not inescapable.

Says Mayer, there are a number of characteristics that define just why they’re so successful. First of all, they’re flatterers in the way they teach. Secondly, they have financial ambitions which they more than often suggest to their readers they can also enjoy. There is a greedy, exploitive dimension to what they’re doing. Their lives are dissolute. Their consciences are cauterized. Their aims are deceptive. And you say, “Well, why would anybody follow this?” And the fact is that people are quite willing to sign up for a religious experience where belief is confused and where behavior is compromised. It’s far harder to draw a crowd where belief is defined and behavior is demanded. If you want to draw a big crowd, offer to them a religious experience where belief is confused, or at least diverse or is self-actualized, and where behavior is not impinged upon by belief.

Their Destiny

Their strategy is clear, their impact is obvious, and their destiny is equally clear. Look at the words at the end of verse 3: “Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.” They may pooh-pooh the idea of final retribution, but they are doomed men, and they live on the edge of destruction. Was it McGuire who wrote that song “The Eve of Destruction”? Anyway, that was it; that would be their theme song: “The Eve of Destruction.” Their condemnation hangs over them, and God, who doesn’t slumber nor sleep,[7] according to Psalm 121, has not been naive to what has been going on. And the “swift destruction” of the end of verse 1—notice: “bringing swift destruction on themselves”—is exactly what will happen. They are responsible for bringing on themselves their destruction. They are guilty of denying the sovereign Lord: “the sovereign Lord who bought them.”

Now, there’s a little phrase, isn’t it, to get you started in your home Bible study group? Immediately, Mrs. Smith jumps up and says, “Now, what does that mean, ‘the sovereign Lord who bought them’? How could they bring swift destruction on themselves if they were purchased? How could he have bought them and then they unbought themselves? I thought we believed in the perseverance of the saints. I thought we believed that once you were saved, you were always saved. Surely this turns the whole Bible on its head!”

“Well,” you say, “now, Mrs. Smith, please be careful. Maybe you could put the coffee on. We’ll talk about this when you come back.” But when she slips back in, we explain to her that when you find something like this in the Bible, you must always take it then and put it in the context of everything else that is there in the Bible. And if it is in contrast to the plain and main statements of Scripture, then you know that Peter is not turning on its head a truth which he propounds so clearly elsewhere. Therefore, you have to come up with some explanation which is reasonable without making confusion reign.

The best I found on this was actually Wayne Grudem. Many of you are helped by his material. He suggests—and I’m not going to delay on this, but I don’t want to jump over it, because I know someone will immediately come at the end and we’ll have a great discussion—but Wayne Grudem suggests that the best way to understand this is in terms of the people of old, in Deuteronomy 32, when God had redeemed his people from the bondage of Egypt; that it could be said of them that they “were rightly owned by God,”[8] that they were rightly bought by God. But what is also very clear is that those who were bought in that sense, who were brought out of the land of Egypt, many of them were ungrateful to God. Many of them did not love God in their hearts. And therefore, says Grudem, clearly “Christ’s specific work” of redemption cannot be “in view in this verse”[9]—that whatever else it means, it is not taking the work of the atonement and turning it upside down. So therefore, we need to ponder it further. But we have no time to ponder further this evening.

These individuals were showing that despite all of their ability with words, their denial of the Lord Jesus Christ was making it clear that they were not part of his body. And there’s absolutely no doubt about the condemnation that hangs over them and the dreadful destruction that awaits them. And then he says, “Of course, you shouldn’t be surprised by this.” And he takes them back through a little journey in the Old Testament with three examples of God’s unerring judgment. And again, each of these we could delay on for a long time, but for your encouragement, I want you to know that I’m not going to. I simply want to point them out to you again.

And his construction is clear: he says, “For if this, if this, and if this, then, therefore, this.” We understand that in the way that we write compelling papers for school or we have to marshal an argument in a law court or we try and get our parents to get us a particular gift for Christmas: “If this and this and this, then perhaps this.” And that’s exactly what he’s doing.

And he starts with the fall of angels: “For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell” and put them in “gloomy dungeons…” Now, immediately, of course, someone in the home Bible study starts off on this. They know everything about angels, apparently. They just read a large book that they got from somewhere that they shouldn’t even have gone, and now the whole thing is about to go dreadfully south.

Certainly, a tremendous amount of ink has been spilled trying to determine exactly the circumstances to which Peter is referring. It’s most often explained, I discovered, in terms of an equally obscure passage in Genesis 6. So you start with an obscure passage in the New Testament, go find an obscure passage in the Old Testament, put the two together, and try and bring clarity out of it. It’s a fairly daunting task. In the Genesis 6 passage, “the sons of [men]”[10] is taken to refer to angels. The trouble is, when you reread Genesis 6 and you read the commentary, and the commentary says, “This means angels”; any sensible person says, “Why?” And the more you read, the more you realize that they can’t tell you exactly why, but they just think it’s a jolly good guess. So if we can’t be certain that Genesis 6 applies to angels at all, then Genesis 6 is going to be a difficult passage to use as a key to unlock [2] Peter 2:[4].

Therefore, what do we do? Be cautious. You’ve just come to a bone in eating the fish. Do what you do when eating the fish. Don’t sit around with the bone; you may choke on it, like the Queen Mother did on one occasion and had to be extricated very quickly from the dining room. Be very, very careful with that. Take the bone and put it on the side and eat the rest of the fish. Come back to the bone later if you want to fiddle with it. The main things are the plain things, the plain things are the main things, and two factors are clear. So take what is clear and move on, and what is obscure come back to when you have a lot of time—which most of us don’t have.

What is clear? What is the point he’s making? Number one, even angels are not exempt from judgment. Right? We can say that categorically. And as with Satan in Revelation 20, these angels are bound now, and they are destined for final judgment. Now, it seems to me that that’s enough. I really don’t need to know any more than that unless I’m doing a PhD. If the angels experience this and the angels experience judgment and if they are bound over for eternal condemnation and destruction, as is the Evil One as described in Revelation 20, then you ought to be on your guard.

And then he proceeds to the next illustration: “[And] if he did[n’t] spare the ancient world…” He moves from the angels to the flood. In Hebrews chapter 11 we read of Noah, “By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.”[11] You picture Noah, at work on his structure there in his backyard, being ridiculed by his neighbors: “What in the world are you doing here, Noah? Why do you have to go to such extremes? What do you mean that God will judge the world, Noah? Who do you think you are, standing up saying these things? And by the way, is his judgment inevitable?” “Oh yes,” said Noah, “his judgment is inevitable, but it is not inescapable. And that’s why I’m building this ark, and I invite you to come with your friends and your family and your cats and your dogs and whatever you have, and I invite you to come and take refuge with me in here, because the door is going to be closed. Judgment is inevitable, but it is not inescapable.” And so Peter’s inevitable message of judgment on a sinful world is not one of unrelieved gloom. It’s not a word of dreadful pessimism, for he offers the way of escape through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Noah was a man who preached righteousness, and he established the way of faith.

I don’t have children sing it anymore, but we used to sing it as little ones in Scotland. We had songs for just about every Bible story there was in the Bible, and this one was:

Mister Noah built an ark.
The people thought it such a lark.
And Mister Noah pleaded so,
But into the ark they would not go.

And down came the rain in torrents,
And down came the rain in torrents,
And down came the rain in torrents,
And only eight were saved.

The judgment was inevitable but wasn’t inescapable.

There is nothing that I know that induces scorn and contempt from my unbelieving friends more than the notion of God’s righteous judgment. There is nothing infuriates them more than that. And yet they take their bar exam, and they either pass or fail. They take their actuarial exams, and they either qualify or they don’t. They take their S… And so it goes on. But somehow or another, when it comes to the matter of the unerring wisdom and judgment of God, no.

And then the third and final, for this evening, illustration that he uses is from the cities of the plain. The angels, the flood, and the cities of the plain. “[And] if he condemned,” verse 6, “the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes…” And again, Peter is alluding to the destruction that took place there as a forcible reminder to the reader in his generation—and, indeed, to every generation—that unrighteousness will end in ruin.

We might note in passing and be challenged by the fact that Lot was “a righteous man” living in the middle of “filthy … lawless men.” And you will notice, verse 8, he says, just in parenthetically, “for that righteous man, living among them”—that is, in this filth—“living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard.” “Tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard.” It makes me think of Paul in Athens. Remember, it says that he was distressed to the point of paroxysms[12] when he realized how tremendously religious these people were, and yet they did not understand the truth. And so his soul is stirred within him.

Such a challenge to me! Most of the cities I go and visit, I’m taking photographs of them and looking at the architecture. I’m not thinking about the souls of men and women. I should be. And is it possible for me to be surrounded by filth and lawlessness and become so inured to it over time that I don’t have any response as Lot had in his day? We’re not isolating things for the sake of it, but Sodom and Gomorrah was representative of a dreadful form of chaos, if you recall the description there. And as a godly man, he was sorely “distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men.”

Just as the believer receives a foretaste of heaven, so for the willful impenitent there is an indication of hell.

Is it wrong for us to be distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men? Are we to assume that the gay rights movement and the lesbian lobby will just continue to march unchallenged through our land, and men and women who love righteousness and truth silenced for fear of being regarded as homophobic or judgmental? All that it takes for all of this evil to triumph is for the righteous to feel nothing, to say nothing, to do nothing.

And hope I you will notice that in relationship to the punishment there is an immediate effect and an ultimate judgment. Do you see that? These people are experiencing judgment now, and they will experience judgment then. That’s the significance of the phrase in verse 9, “while continuing their punishment.” “If this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment,” notice, “while continuing their punishment.” Just as the believer receives a foretaste of heaven, so for the willful impenitent there is an indication of hell. And look at verse 10: “This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the sinful nature and despise authority.”

“God Is Still on His Throne”

Now, the danger in studying in this way is that we get so close to it that we miss the perspective altogether. Let me say a word or two in summary and I’m through.

If you stand back from this passage and say, “Now, what is the broad sweep of the message being conveyed?” I think you’ll agree with me that it is this: number one, the reality and inevitably of judgment; number two, the unequivocal pronouncement on unrighteousness. There’s no shilly-shallying with the issue: “Well, of course, this is just their way of going about it,” or “This is a preference,” or whatever. No, it’s said in the very starkest and clearest of terms.

And also—and this will become more apparent as we read on—in the midst of all of that, Peter is reminding his readers of the keeping power of God as we look forward to “a new heaven and [to] a new earth,” which is going to be “the home of righteousness” itself.[13] You have to wait till 3:13 to get there, but that’s what he’s saying to them: “In keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.”

And so, let me remind you tonight, as we go into another week where folly has bred madness and wickedness, where shamefulness is all around, where it seems as though the score is the devil 10, Jesus 1, the secular culture advancing, prevailing, the church dwindling, confused, fighting itself, closing its doors, running in retreat, and here we sit, about to do as Jesus said… Some of us tempted to repeat the words of the disciples in the boat, “Lord, don’t you care that we are drowning here?”[14] And Luther’s words stand and tower and prevail:

And though this world, with devils o’er,
Should threaten to undo us,
We shall not fear, for God has willed
His truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
One little word shall fell him.[15]

Or in the more triumphal, in hymnody and choruses of the ’60s or the ’50s, probably:

God is still on the throne,
And he will remember his own;
Though trials distress us and burdens oppress us,
He never will leave us alone;
For God is still on the throne,
And he will remember his own;
And his promise is true, he will not forget you,
For God is still on the throne.[16]

Lift your eyes and look up.

Let us pray:

O God our Father, we pray now that you will grant to us such a sense of your presence that our feet may not stumble, our faith may not falter, and our fellowship may not be marred by the inroads of error and evil. Grant to us, Lord, that happy and necessary balance. Grant to us discernment, gentleness, wisdom, and grace. Surely, we’re not worthy to come to your Table, so clothe us with humility. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

[1] 2 Peter 1:21 (NIV 1984).

[2] Acts 20:29–31 (NIV 1984).

[3] Jude 1:4 (NIV 1984).

[4] Galatians 2:4 (NIV 1984).

[5] 1 John 2:19 (KJV).

[6] Alexander Nisbet, An Exposition of 1 and 2 Peter (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1995), 247.

[7] See Psalm 121:4.

[8] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity, 1994), 600.

[9] Grudem, 600.

[10] Genesis 6:2 (NIV 1984).

[11] Hebrews 11:7 (NIV 1984).

[12] See Acts 17:16.

[13] 2 Peter 3:13 (NIV 1984).

[14] Matthew 8:25; Mark 4:38 (paraphrased).

[15] Martin Luther, trans. Frederick H. Hedge “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (1529, 1853). Lyrics lightly altered.

[16] Kittie L. Suffield, “God Is Still on the Throne” (1929). Lyrics lightly altered.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.