#4. Beware of False Teachers (2 Peter 2:1-22; Jude 3-19)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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Peter's Denial of Christ Peter knew something about the danger of apostasy, which may have fueled his harshness against false teachers who would lead men to apostasy. Here is "The Denial of St. Peter" (ca. 1525-1530) by Flemish illustrator Simon Bening. Tempera colors and gold on parchment, 6 5/8 x 4 1/2 in., Brandenburg Prayer Book, in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Larger

Our society has become pretty tolerant of all kinds of teachings. We're not surprised to hear radically different ideas from different quarters. We think it undemocratic to stifle opinion. But too often the same kind of tolerance, an anything-goes attitude, moves into the church. In the last half century I've seen churches and people's lives destroyed because of false teachers and pastors departed from the teaching of the apostles to trumpet their own unbelief and flawed religious theories. In the latter part of the First Century, too, false teachers threatened to pervert and ravage the churches founded by the apostles. It couldn't continue.

One of the central messages of 2 Peter and Jude is to recognize the threat from false teachers and deal with it. That's the focus of this lesson, a kind of patchwork of passages from both 2 Peter 2 and Jude. Since both talk about the danger from false teachers, I'm not trying to do a detailed exposition of both texts, but the main points from each.

This passage may make you mad -- at me, perhaps, for my outspokenness, or at false teachers you know of. But in your anger, don't miss this clear apostolic teaching which is desperately needed for our time.

Contend for the Faith (Jude 3)

The first passage is from Jude, whom, you remember, seems to be the brother of St. James (author of the Letter of James) and a younger brother of Jesus himself.

"Dear friends, although I was very eager (spoudē) to write to you about the salvation we share (koinos), I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints." (Jude 3)

Jude tells his readers that he was planning to write them about salvation -- and "very eager" to do so -- but felt compelled to focus his letter instead on the danger from false teachers. "I felt I had to write to you" (NIV) is literally translated by the NRSV, "I find it necessary," using the Greek noun anagkē, "necessity or constraining as inherent in the nature of things, necessity, pressure of any kind."[1] Apparently the situation was getting out of hand, and Jude feels he must address it immediately.

His message is to "urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" -- that is, the basic message of the Gospel and salvation through Christ. "Urge" (NIV), "exhort" (KJV), and "appeal to" (NRSV) are the Greek verb parakaleō, "to urge strongly, appeal to, urge, exhort, encourage."[2]

"Contend" for the faith is the Greek verb epagōnizomai, "to exert intense effort on behalf of something, contend."[3] This is a compound word from the preposition epi-, "addition, increase" or perhaps "against," and the verb agōnizomai, "enter a contest, contend in the gymnastic games," then more generally, "to contend with adversaries, fight."[4] In other words, Jude is commanding his readers to take a strong position against the false teachers, not to ignore them. They are to contest and argue against the falsehoods and errors in their teachings. I try to avoid fights. I would rather not confront someone. But sometimes we must, and to avoid confrontations when they are necessary is a weakness. Jude tells his readers to enter the fray. It is too important to let pass.

Why? Because the false teachers are undermining the "faith." Here the Greek noun pistis means "that which is believed, a body of faith / belief / teaching."[5] Usually we see passages where pistis means "faithfulness" or "trust." This is an exception, but with other examples in the New Testament (Romans 1:5; Galatians 1:23; 1 Timothy 4:1, 6; 6:10, 21, and 2 Timothy 4:7; and perhaps Galatians 3:23-25; 1 Timothy 1:19; 2 Timothy 2:18; and Romans 12:6).

Jude goes on to describe the faith as "once for all entrusted to the saints" (NIV, NRSV). "Once for all" is the Greek adverb hapax, "pertaining to a single occurrence and decisively unique, once and for all."[6]

And Jude talks about the faith's transmission: "delivered" (KJV) or "entrusted" (NIV, NRSV), using the Greek verb paradidōmi, "to convey something in which one has a relatively strong personal interest, hand over, give (over), deliver, entrust." Here it means specifically "to pass on to another what one knows, of oral or written tradition, hand down, pass on, transmit, relate, teach."[7] You're probably most familiar with its use in Paul's Words of Institution to the Lord's Supper (in the familiar King James Version): "for I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered (paradidōmi) unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread..." (1 Corinthians 11:23).

Now let's sum up the various elements of this important command:

"Necessity" -- Jude couldn't put off sending this letter. The situation was urgent and might soon reach crisis proportions if not dealt with strongly.

"Contend for the faith" -- Jude commands his readers to challenge the false teachers and make sure that the true gospel was contrasted with the false teaching and proved to be the authentic teaching of Jesus and his apostles.

"The faith once for all entrusted" -- Jude recognizes that the core of the Gospel is not to be repeated or superceded by later teaching, and that it was entrusted to us for us to protect against distortion or deceit.

This command takes careful thought and balance for several reasons:

  • We can easily become reactionary rather than proactive, spending our time renouncing false doctrine rather than spreading the Gospel to those who haven't heard it yet.
  • We can become contentious, that is, we can get a reputation for being "fightin' Fundies" (fighting Fundamentalists), rather than a reputation for love which is our hallmark.
  • We can become lazy and tolerant, and let false teaching go unchallenged.

We need to have a balance, so that our focus is on Christ's salvation, but we must have a ready and thought-out answer for the false teachings which circulate in our particular circles.

This is a warning to us who teach and preach. We have a high calling (James 3:1-2) and a charge from Christ himself -- "teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:20). We are not free to teach our own version or reinterpretation of the apostolic doctrine. We have received what has been passed on to us (2 Timothy 1:13; 3:10, 14), and we are entrusted with its clear and accurate transmission to those who will teach the next generation (2 Timothy 2:1-2).

This doesn't mean that we become doctrine police, attacking unsuspecting people who are only expressing what they've heard. We need to gently correct them and explain the truth clearly. Let's not treat the ignorant as false teachers, but reserve our main defense for those who are actively and knowingly propagating teachings which are contrary to the basics of the Christian faith.

However, dear friends, the fact is that all sincere Christians just don't all agree on all points. Let's not jump on one another in a judgmental way. Rather let us speak the truth in love and humility with unity as our aim (Ephesians 4:15).

In the 17th Century, German Lutheran theologian Rubertus Melendius put it succinctly: "In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity."[8] The early Restoration movement under Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone adopted another motto to maintain unity: "Where the Bible speaks; we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent."

Let's discusses the problems with false teachers in our day, while being careful not to bash denominations in the Forum. It's a fine line, but I expect you to walk it with me.

Q1. (Jude 3) Why must we "contend for the faith"? What is the danger in not challenging the doctrines of false teachers? What is the danger inherent in challenging them? How can we keep the correct balance?





A License for Immorality (Jude 4)

Jude goes on to describe the false teachers:

"For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord." (Jude 4)

In this verse we learn several things about the false teachers. They masqueraded as Christians.[9] They lived immoral lives, taking advantage of the fact that Christ forgives sinners. Where God offers grace, they offer licentiousness. The word "change" (NIV), "turning" (KJV), or "pervert" (NRSV) is the Greek verb metatithēmi, "to effect a change in state or condition, change, alter."[10]

The phrase "license for immorality" (NIV) or "licentiousness" (KJV, NRSV) in Jude 4 is the Greek noun aselgeia, "lack of self-constraint which involves one in conduct that violates all bounds of what is socially acceptable, self-abandonment," "immorality."[11] Jude is talking about sexual sins that seem out of control.

These false teachers also "deny Jesus Christ" (Jude 4). 2 Peter 2:1 also describes them as "denying the sovereign Lord who bought them...." In what way were the false teachers denying Jesus? They don't seem to have denied the divinity of Christ or apostatized from the Christian faith and turned to idol worship. Probably Peter and Jude intend something like Paul's phrase: "They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him" (Titus 1:16). They denied Christ by teaching and practicing immorality, the exact opposite of what Christ himself taught:

"For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander." (Matthew 15:19 || Mark 7:21).

Paul, too, was very clear about the standard of morality required of Christians:

"Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

The Mediterranean world was full of sexual immorality of all kinds, much like our Western culture today -- a tough place to live out a Christian life, but a wonderful place where light can shine brightly in darkness if we are not ashamed of our light nor afraid to let it shine (Matthew 5:14-16).

Q2. (Jude 4) In what way does sexual sin deny Christ? If Paul is right in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, that persistent sexual sin is incompatible with salvation, why have we Christians become so complacent about it in our culture?





Terrible Judgment for False Teachers (2 Peter 2:4-10)

False teachers, both Jude and Peter affirm, face an awesome punishment. Here we'll follow St. Peter's narration of their end.

"For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment;
if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others;
if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;
and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard) --
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, while continuing their punishment. This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the sinful nature and despise authority." (2 Peter 2:4-10)

His argument is that God brought judgment upon unrighteous angels, the corrupt ancient world, and the cesspool of Sodom and Gomorrah, while rescuing godly people who live in the midst of unrighteousness. So he will rescue his people from sin today, rather than turn his face while his people openly sin.

This passage is interesting in light of what it says about fallen angels:

"For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment...." (2 Peter 2:4)

This is similar to Jude's statement:

"And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home -- these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day." (Jude 6)

The phrase "sent them to hell" here is Greek tartaroō, "hold captive in Tartarus." In Greek mythology, Tartarus was a subterranean place, lower than Hades, where divine punishment was meted out on the spirits of the very wicked, particularly rebellious gods, like Tantalus.[12]

In popular American mythology, hell is the region where Satan reigns, chortling as he pulls people down into eternal torment. But that myth is only half right. Satan is not the monarch of hell but the prisoner of hell himself. The Bible teaches that fallen angels (demons) are imprisoned in hell, awaiting judgment when Christ returns. (On the fate of fallen angels, see also Isaiah 14:12; Matthew 8:29; 25:41; Mark 5:7; Luke 8:31; 10:18; John 8:44; 1 John 3:8; Revelation 12:7-9; 20:2-3, 10).

We'd like to have much more detail about all this, but the Bible only hints at the fate of rebellious angels (that is, demons). When we try to fill in the gaps with speculation we don't help matters.

Offering Emptiness (2 Peter 2:17-22 and Jude 12-13)

Now Peter describes the emptiness proffered by the false teachers:

"These men are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. For they mouth empty, boastful words...." (2:17-18a)
"These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm--shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted -- twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever." (Jude 12-13)

In a barren land, a spring of water which has gone dry is a great disappointment. A storm without rain but only mist is empty. A tree without fruit is useless. These false teachers offer no true encouragement, no spiritual sustenance, no promise of life to those sucked in by their lies. Instead, their adherents find themselves with no substance -- nothing!

Slaves of Depravity (2 Peter 2:14, 18b-19)

"With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed -- an accursed brood!" (2 Peter 2:14)
"... By appealing to the lustful desires of sinful human nature, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity -- for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him." (2 Peter 2:18b-19)

Sexual immorality seems to have been common among these false teachers. They seduce, they commit adultery. They appeal to natural human sexual desires as a way of pulling people to their teachings. People who have just been delivered from immorality by coming to Christ are sucked back into it. Jude charges that they "change the grace of our God into a license for immorality (aselgeia)" (Jude 4).

The phrase in 2 Peter 2:19, "depravity" (NIV) or "corruption" (NRSV, KJV) is the Greek noun phthora, "dissolution, deterioration, corruption," here referring to "inward depravity."[13] Peter echoes standard Christian teaching that continuing to commit sin demonstrates one's slavery to sin (John 8:33-35; Romans 6:6, 16-20, 22; 7:14, 25).

We see a similar kind of sexual permissiveness in certain churches today. In many churches there is no discipline whatsoever. Sex before marriage is assumed; adultery, though frowned upon, doesn't necessarily disqualify one from church leadership. Some churches bless same-sex marriages and ordain homosexual clergy. The so-called "welcoming and affirming" movement not only encourages churches to welcome homosexuals into their fellowships (which we must do), but to affirm them in their sexual sin (which we must not do). The new morality in many of our churches is reminiscent of the heresy of Peter's and Jude's day -- promising freedom, while remaining willing slaves and vocal exponents of sexual immorality. How very sad!

Q3. (2 Peter 2:19) In what way can flagrant, defiant sin enslave a person? Is there any way out of these sins? If so, what is the path? How can we truly love the sinner and hate the sin? How can we steer clear of a quick judgmental attitude toward those who sin?




Entangled Again in Corruption (2 Peter 2:20-22)

Now comes a difficult passage:

"If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: 'A dog returns to its vomit,' and, 'A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.'" (2 Peter 2:20-22)

What does this passage teach us?

First, that through knowing Jesus we escape defilements or sins. "Corruption" (NIV) is better than "pollutions" (KJV) or "defilements" (NRSV), translating the Greek noun miasma, "literally of defilement connected with a crime," then focusing on the crime itself: "shameful deed, misdeed, crime."[14] Jesus died for our crimes and misdeeds and thus allow us to escape[15] them, while he bore the full penalty for them.

Second, that there is a "way of righteousness" (2 Peter 2:21) that we Christians are to walk in -- a safe path marked out for us.

Third, that it is possible for a person who has professed Christ, who was once freed from slavery to sin, to become entangled again in the sins that sent Jesus to the cross. "Entangled" is the Greek verb emplekō, which in Greek literature means "intertwine, braid, entangle, be caught in." In the New Testament, the word is used with the meaning, "to become involved in an activity to the point of interference with another activity or objective, be involved in."[16]

Fourth, that it is possible for a person who has professed Christ to be overcome by the entanglements of sin. "Overcome" (NIV, KJV) or "overpowered" (NRSV) in verse 20 is the Greek verb hēttaomai, "to be vanquished, be defeated, succumb." The same word in verse 19 is translated "mastered" (NIV; cf. NRSV) and "brought into bondage." In other words, a Christian can not only become entangled again, but entirely enslaved.

Fifth -- and this is very difficult -- Peter teaches that if the person who professes Christ continues to sin without repentance, that his final bondage is worse than the first. Before the Christian's salvation, there was hope for him. But having "turned their backs on the sacred command" to commit immorality with impunity, they have no other recourse. Since the false teachers and their followers have embraced a lie -- that immorality and Christianity can co-exist -- they are doomed to remain in their self-induced bondage. Peter is quoting Jesus, who said, in reference to his story of seven demons returning to the man who was delivered, whose house was "unoccupied, swept clean, and put in order," that "the final condition of that man is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation" (Matthew 12:43-45 || Luke 11:24-26).

Sixth, that their final state demonstrates these false teachers' animal nature -- he had referred to them as "brute beasts" (2 Peter 2:12). Paul called them "wolves" (Acts 20:29). Dogs and pigs were both considered unclean by the Jews -- dogs, because they ate unclean things, and pigs, because they were forbidden to Jews as ritually unclean. The dog has cleansed his system by vomiting, but can't resist eating again his own vomit (see Proverbs 26:11). The pig is washed, but returns to its filth.

Does this mean that these false teachers were never true Christians after all? That they were always pigs, even though they washed briefly, at Christian baptism, but were masquerading only? That they lacked the Spirit (Jude 19)? I've heard some take this view, unwilling to allow that a true Christian can backslide permanently. Whatever you believe about the security of the believer, don't fail to grasp the serious warning found in this passage, which makes it clear that Christians must continue to follow Jesus and ultimately turn away from temptations to sin in order to enjoy Christ's grace-filled salvation from sin.[17] John Calvin comments soberly on this passage:

"The faithful also do indeed sin; but as they allow not dominion to sin, they do not fall away from the grace of God, nor do they renounce the profession of sound doctrine which they have once embraced. For they are not to be deemed conquered, while they strenuously resist the flesh and its lusts.... At the same time the godly are reminded to take heed to themselves, except they wish to be deemed dogs or swine."[18]

To put it crudely, can a professing Christian "live like hell," fail to repent, and still be saved in the end? Calvin would say, No. You can tell the faithful by how they live.

Q4. (2 Peter 2:20-22) If open sin is so spiritually dangerous, why have we churches stopped talking about it so much?




Divisive Teachers (Jude 17-19)

By this time you can see how serious this whole matter is. This morning my wife told me of an ordained minister we know who had just accepted a call to pastor a church in the Midwest. He is recently divorced and is now living with his fiancée -- in full view of his new congregation. How can he teach his congregation righteousness? How can he warn them from the immorality that may ultimately entrap them? Unless he repents publicly, he will be teaching a dangerous lie by his life and through his words (see 1 Timothy 5:19-22).

1&2 Peter with Jude, by Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback, kindle, or ebook formats.

False teachers in the Body of Christ are extremely dangerous to the flock. They were in Peter's and Jude's day, and they are dangerous today. Jude concludes our lessons with a warning:

"But, dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold. They said to you, 'In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.' These are the men who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit." (Jude 17-19)

Beware, dear friends, and do not fail to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints. A lot depends upon it -- human souls.


Father, forgive me for being passive in the face of false teachers, for wanting to avoid a confrontation more than I want to obey you. Help me to be a faithful servant of yours -- to proclaim your Gospel without being distracted by the false teachers, but to expose their false teachings, too, that your flock might be protected. Help me, Lord, to keep all this in balance. In Jesus' holy name, I pray. Amen.  

Key Verses

"Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints." (Jude 3)


Standard References https://www.jesuswalk.com/1peter/refs.htm

  1. BDAG 60-61.
  2. BDAG 764-765. The root common New Testament word means "call to one's side" for assistance. Elsewhere it means, "comfort, encourage, cheer up." The meaning is determined by the context. The noun form, paraklētos, is used as a title of the Holy Spirit in John 14:16, 26; 15:26; and 16:7 with the meaning of "mediator, intercessor, helper" and is variously translated "Counselor" (NIV, RSV), "Comforter" (KJV), and "Advocate" (NRSV) (BDAG 766).
  3. BDAG 356.
  4. Thayer 10.
  5. BDAG 818-820.
  6. BDAG 97.
  7. BDAG 761-763.
  8. Latin, "In necessasariis, unitas; In dubiis, libertas; in omnibus, caritas." Attributed to Rupertus Meldenius (possible pseudonym).
  9. It's possible they were itinerant teachers, who sometimes caused trouble in the early church (2 Corinthians 10-11; 2 John 10; Didache 11-12; Ignatius, Eph. 9).
  10. BDAG 642.
  11. BDAG 141; Bauckham, p. 38.
  12. BDAG 991; Green 110.
  13. BDAG 1054-1055.
  14. BDAG 650.
  15. "Escape" is the Greek verb apopheugō, "escape, escape from" (BDAG 125).
  16. BDAG 324. Besides its use here, emplekō is used in 1 Timothy 2:4, "become entangled in civilian pursuits."
  17. There are many scriptures to buttress this view, including: Jesus' Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:18-23 and parallels); 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (quoted above); Colossians 1:23; Hebrews 3:6, 13-14; 6:4-6; 10:26-31; etc.
  18. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, in loc.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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