Series: 1 & 2 Peter
“But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. 2 Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. 3 In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping” (2 Peter 2:1-3).
Have you ever gone on a long hike, and in your excitement you packed the chips, biltong, sweets and cellphone, but you forgot the water bottles? I have! It’s fine in the Cape mountains where there are plenty of mountain springs to drink from, but in the dry Bushveld of Gauteng, it’s a fatal mistake! The snacks in my backpack soon made me nauseous, and who wants to share pictures on Facebook when you’re dying of thirst? My heart felt sick every time I came upon another dry river bed. It was so full of promise, yet so empty and unsatisfying. Soon all I could think of was a cool, clear stream to quench my thirst. But there was no water to be found, just empty mirages.
Waterless springs. This is one of the powerful pictures Peter uses to describe false teachers who will ‘secretly’ infiltrate the church and lead people away from the real Jesus and his true, life-giving gospel. Similarly, Jude calls them “shepherds who feed only themselves…clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead…wandering stars” (Jude 12-13). Ponder on Peter’s emotive warnings for a moment:
“These people are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. 18 For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of the flesh, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. 19 They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for ‘people are slaves to whatever has mastered them’” (2 Peter 2:17-19).
Like Israel’s false prophets in Jeremiah’s day, these false teachers in the Church promise people salvation and sustenance, but their teaching is actually a mirage. It’s empty. “They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord” (Jer 23:16). They teach what is palatable and accommodating, but not what is true, “filling people with vain hopes” (Jer 23:16). Ezekiel said that they paint over people’s broken lives with ‘whitewash’ (Ezek 13:10-12). They don’t lead people into freedom, but further into slavery.
But, in contrast to waterless springs, the real historical Jesus offers authentic, life-sustaining water that quenches our deepest soul thirst. He tells the Samaritan woman, “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14). And about the Holy Spirit, Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water'”(John 7:37-39).
But the real Jesus of the Bible also calls people to the ‘narrow door’ of salvation. He tells us that there is a high cost to being his follower (Luke 13:24; 14:33). The real Jesus calls us to repent of our real sin and to submit to him as Saviour and King (Luke 13:3; 5). The ‘water’ he offers is the only water that can wash away our sin and quench the deepest thirst of our soul (Heb 10:22; Eph 5:26-27). Christ’s living water is not just for now, but for all eternity (Rev 21:6; Rev 22:1).
But, in stark contrast, false teachers promise their followers freedom and a good life now. In the words of Jeremiah, “They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, “It shall be well with you,” and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you’” (Jer 23:14; 16; 17). They give people false security and false hope. Mirages.
According to Peter and Christ himself, the end of false teachers isn’t enviable (2 Peter 2:4-9; 13; 21-22; Luke 13:26-29).
Enemies from within.
But enemies from within are always hard to spot. Peter uses words like ‘secretly’, ‘entice’ and ‘appealing’ in his warnings. He says that they “seduce the unstable” (2 Peter 2:14). And Paul says that this subtlety shouldn’t surprise us, “for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14).
Lest we be offended by Peter’s harsh language or dismiss him as a conspiracy theorist, an un-neighbourly bigot or a paranoid fear-mongerer, consider this question:
How would you feel if you were a parent and saw a pedophile sex offender enter your house and start to groom your young children? This is the anger and outrage behind Peter’s impassioned warnings. These false teachers were twisting the gospel and threatening the eternal welfare of growing Christians. They were belittling the significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, encouraging people to care for the here-and-now, without any proper fear of God or an eternity separated from his love. They were closing off the only road to salvation and offering a detour to hell (Luke 11:52).
Actually, far from being paranoid, Peter is showing the oversight that all spiritual shepherds should practice when they see teachers seducing Christ’s flock with false assurances and changing the gospel (1 Peter 5:2).
Jesus gave exactly the same warnings, motived by the same loving protectiveness:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit” (Matt 7:15)… For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. 23 But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand (Mark 13:22-23)…
And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold (Matt 24:11-12).
If we find Peter’s warnings unpalatable, then we must dismiss Jesus and the other New Testament writers too.
Peter gives many red flags to help Christians identify waterless springs and stay away from them.
- False teachers are empty talkers (2 Peter 2:17-19; 3), often sounding impressive and appealing. They make up clever stories to manipulate people.
- They are boastful, bold, rebellious and arrogant– A law unto themselves. They have no fear of God and despise the leaders God has placed in authority over them (2 Peter 2:10; 18; 19; 12-14; Jude 11).
- They often have a following (2 Peter 2:2).
- They cause disgrace and harm to the body of Christ (2 Peter 2:1; 13; 2).
- They exploit ignorant and unstable people for their own ends (2 Peter 2:3).
- They celebrate and accommodate worldly pleasures and sinful desires (2 Peter 2:18; 13-14).
- They are motivated by greed (2 Peter 2:3; 14; 15).
- They ‘wander’ away from the truth of Christ, which suggests a gradual falling away (2 Peter 2:15).
- They eventually expose themselves (2 Peter 2:20-22).
- Their end game is not to bless, but to harm God’s people, as in the example of Balaam (2 Peter 2:15; Num 22:4-20).
Different clothes, same lies
False teachers haven’t changed their tactics or half truths since the first century, or the days of Israel. They’re new teachers, but they still proclaim an old twisted lie and produce bad fruit. In Peter’s day, they were lawless and all-embracing, openly celebrating sin as if it were normal and right behaviour. They loved money and the trappings of pleasure and power. They scoffed at the idea of God’s final judgment. They were people- pleasers, with no fear of God (Luke 6:26). They claimed to have a special, higher knowledge or insight that ordinary believers didn’t possess (gnosticism).
And today, false teachers continue to accommodate the culture in their distorted ‘gospels’. It’s not my place to name names, but there are many in today’s churches and on the internet. They teach a Feel-good Jesus; a Revolutionary Jesus; a Blessor Jesus; a Mystical Jesus; an Ultra-grace Jesus; a Motivational Jesus; a Tuckshop Jesus; a Morality Jesus; a Marxist Jesus; an Inclusive Jesus; a Nationalistic Jesus; a Rockstar Jesus; a Gnostic Jesus…
They continue to mislead people. They bend the truth of the gospel to exploit people’s thirst for pleasure and prosperity; status and sex; health and beauty; community and approval; justice and freedom; hope and certainty; purpose and peace. Humanity has always thirsted after these things and nothing has changed since the false prophets of the Old Testament:
“They have misled my people, saying “Peace” when there is no peace.” (Ezek 13:10; 16). “You dishearten the righteous falsely, although I have not grieved him, and you have encouraged the wicked, that he should not turn from his evil way to save his life” (Ezek 13:22). “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (Isa 5:20).
In an age where we can listen to sermons on demand, Christians are easy targets. There’s only one way to guard ourselves against false teachers and their plausible half truths. Peter says the antidote is to go back to the inspired Word of God, from beginning to end. This is a book that doesn’t have its origins in man’s imagination, but “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21).
The Bible isn’t just a collection of fables or human ideas about God (2 Peter 1:16). The Jesus described by eye witnesses and foreshadowed by the Old Testament, offers the only life-giving water that exists. He provides the only true cleansing for sinful humanity and the only truly good news. And Jesus Christ is the ‘morning star’ who will return to earth to rule in his full glory.
But until that day, we have the Bible as a light and the Holy Spirit to illuminate Scripture for us (2 Peter 1:19). We have God-fearing teachers and pastors to faithfully teach us his Word, leading us to the Living Waters that satisfy our deep soul thirst. If we want to be discerning instead of gullible, we need to refresh our memories and become firmly established in the truth (2 Peter 1:12-15). We cannot just run from mirage to mirage. We must be like those noble-minded Bereans, who “received the Word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily, to see whether the things were being taught were actually true” (Acts 17:11).
Listen to this beautiful song by Shane and Shane. It reminds us that in Christ alone we find the Living Waters of mercy and grace that we so desperately need.