17 These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. 18 For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. 19 They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. 20 For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. 21 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. 22 What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.” – 2 Peter 2:17-22 ESV
In describing the false teachers who were negaively impacting the believers to whom he is writing, Peter uses some comparisons that are reminiscent of Jude.
…they are like dangerous reefs that can shipwreck you. They are like shameless shepherds who care only for themselves. They are like clouds blowing over the land without giving any rain. They are like trees in autumn that are doubly dead, for they bear no fruit and have been pulled up by the roots. They are like wild waves of the sea, churning up the foam of their shameful deeds. They are like wandering stars, doomed forever to blackest darkness. – Jude 1:12-13 NLT
They are not what they appear to be, and they don’t deliver on what they promise. Like a waterless spring, they can only offer the hope of refreshment, but they lack the means to make it happen. Like a reef lying just below the surface of the water, they are a hidden danger, waiting to reek havoc on and all who come into contact with them. They are cloudless rains, suggesting the hope of much-needed rain, but failing to deliver. They are as unreliable as a wandering star. In a day when people used the stars to direct their paths by focusing on their location in the night sky, a wandering star would be a pathetically poor marker on which to base one’s journey. You would only end up lost and nowhere near your intended destination. And that is exactly what Peter is trying to say about these false teachers.
They were proud and arrogant, filled with boastful words that were little more than proof of their own foolishness. These men were ignorant, not knowing what they were talking about, but putting up a good front. They were persuasive and able to convince others that what they were saying was true. But Peter exposes them for what they really were: Liars and deceivers. “They promise freedom, but they themselves are slaves of sin and corruption. For you are a slave to whatever controls you” (2 Peter 2:19 NLT). Like a blind person describing the beauty of a sunset he has never seen, these men were speaking about things they were incapable of knowing. They could talk a good game, but it was meaningless, because they had no idea what they were talking about. These men were prisoners of their own lustful desires,
One of the things that makes false teachers so dangerous is their appeal. They have this innate ability to entice others into falling for their lies by appealing to their base desires. That’s why Peter says, “With an appeal to twisted sexual desires, they lure back into sin those who have barely escaped from a lifestyle of deception” (2 Peter 2:18 NLT). New and relatively immature Christians are susceptible to their rhetoric. Those who have just recently come to faith in Christ, having walked away from a lifestyle of sin and immorality are especially easy prey to the words of these deceivers. False teachers appeal to the senses, preying on feelings and emotions. They use man’s base passions like a bait to lure immature believers back into a lifestyle they had once left behind – all under the guise of spirituality. We can see it today in the messages of those who preach the prosperity gospel message. They appeal to men’s desire for material things, promising that God wants to make them healthy, wealthy and wise. They promise your best life now, complete with all the trappings of material success and financial reward. And people are drawn to these messages like a fish to a lure, not knowing that death, not life, awaits them.
Verses 20-21 have caused many to assume that Peter is teaching that those who place their faith in Christ can fall away from that faith. In other words, they can lose their salvation, “the last state has become worse for them than the first” (2 Peter 2:20 ESV). But if Peter has been pointing out the falsehood of these teachers, it would seem that he is once again addressing them. He describes them as those who have been exposed to “the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”, and appear to “have escaped the defilements of the world” (2 Peter 2:20 ESV). In other words, they look like Christians. They talk as if they have become followers of Christ, but “they are again entangled in them and overcome” (2 Peter 2:20 ESV). And, as a result, they are in a worse state than before. Why? Because they have been exposed to the truth of the gospel, but have rejected it. They never became true Christ-followers. In fact, they ended up preaching a different gospel. Paul spoke of these kinds of people in not-so-flattering terms.
Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. – Galatians 1:8 NLT
And he accused the believers in Corinth of willingly putting up with and buying into the message of these people.
You happily put up with whatever anyone tells you, even if they preach a different Jesus than the one we preach, or a different kind of Spirit than the one you received, or a different kind of gospel than the one you believed. – 2 Corinthians 11:4 NLT
The people Peter refers to as false teachers were not true believers. They were wolves in sheep’s clothing. Jesus warned about these kinds of people. “”Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves” (Matthew 7:15 NLT). He went on to say that you have to judge these people by their fruit, not their fur. They may look the part, they may say all the right things, and they may fool you into thinking they belong to the body of Christ, but “You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act” (Matthew 7:16 NLT).
Peter makes a sobering assessment of the state of these false teachers, saying, “ It would be better if they had never known the way to righteousness than to know it and then reject the command they were given to live a holy life” (2 Peter 2:21 NLT). In other words, they would have been better off if they had never heard the truth of the gospel and the salvation from sin made possible by Jesus Christ’s death on the cross. But to have heard it and then, ultimately to have rejected it, only makes their immoral lifestyle that much worse. Peter makes an interesting, yet often overlooked observation in this verse. To know the way to righteousness is a reference to understanding justification or a right relationship with God is only possible through faith alone in Christ alone. In other words, we don’t earn salvation by our good works. But Peter points out that our faith is to be followed by an obedience to the command of God that we live a holy life. That is the predominant message of Peter’s first letter.
14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” – 1 Peter 1:14-16 ESV
Had these false teachers been truly saved, their faith in Christ would have been followed by a change in behavior. But their actions had not changed because they had never accepted Christ as their Savior. As a result, they were conformed to the passions of their former ignorance. They had heard the message of justification, but had not accepted the free gift of salvation made possible through Jesus. And having heard, but rejected the offer, they stood doubly condemned. And Peter describes their state in fairly graphic and memorable terms: “They prove the truth of this proverb: ‘A dog returns to its vomit.’ And another says, ‘A washed pig returns to the mud’” (2 Peter 2:22 NLT). Notice that he refers to them as dogs and pigs. These are not terms Peter would have used of fellow believers. He sees them as what they are: Unsaved, unregenerate individuals who have turned up their noses at the true gospel and created their own version, which they use to justify their sinful passions and to lure others into their same false sense of security.
So, what is Peter’s point? Avoid these people at all costs. Stay away from them. Learn to spot them and then keep your distance from them. Be aware that they are an ever-present danger in the church. They will always show up in a local fellowship, like wolves in sheep’s clothing, infiltrating the flock and attempting to lead the weak and immature astray. The words of Paul to the elders at Ephesus would be wise for us to hear and heed.
28 “So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders. 29 I know that false teachers, like vicious wolves, will come in among you after I leave, not sparing the flock. 30 Even some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following. 31 Watch out! – Acts 20:28-30 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
– 2 Peter 1:16-21 ESV