When I was in college, I helped lead the high school youth group at the church I attended. One evening one of my students didn’t have their Bible with them and grabbed one off the shelf in the classroom. There was a problem, however; though this book looked like all the others on the outside and said it was the Holy Bible, something was different on the inside. When the student tried to find the passage I was referencing, he said that his Bible didn’t have that passage. Upon further inspection, I discovered he was right! The pages containing that section of the Scriptures had been torn out, and on the bit of paper left over were written these words, “I didn’t like what was written on these pages, so I tore them out.”
Most of us are aghast that someone would literally tear pages out of a Bible simply because they didn’t like what was written there, but the truth is this kind of behavior happens more than we would like to admit. I don’t think lots of people literally tear pages out of their Bibles, but there are many who do so practically. These false teachers declare that what the Bible says cannot be true, or cannot be trusted, or that they need to be reinterpreted for today’s times. The problem is that many of these false teachers look very much the same on the outside—they still call themselves Christians, they declare that they believe in the Bible—but upon closer inspection, we find they are missing important parts of the gospel message.
This morning we turn our attention to 2 Peter chapter 2, where Peter begins to instruct Christians in how to recognize false teachers as well as reminding us of what is at stake. He reminds us that there are some who claim to be Christians but are actually promoting a false gospel and tells us to be on guard against them.
A History Lesson
Peter starts chapter two with a brief history lesson.
But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. (2 Peter 2:1a, NIV)
Peter had just finished explaining that Christianity could be trusted in part due to the nature of fulfilled prophecy. He had reminded the people that the prophets in the Old Testament had predicted many things about Jesus, and they had all proven to be true. Now, he reminds his readers that even as there were the true prophets, speaking for God, there were also false prophets, who sought to lead the people astray.
There are many examples of false prophets in the Old Testament. Almost every one of the prophets of God found that there were also those who would prophesy against them. This typically happened when the prophets of God were predicting bad things. An example is when the prophet Jeremiah predicted that the Israelites would be enslaved by Babylon, but the false prophet Hananiah declared they would declared they would free themselves from Babylon’s influence. Though Hananiah’s prophecy was desirable, Jeremiah’s was true. Stories like this litter Israel’s history.
Peter makes a simple point—just as there were those who opposed God’s truth in the past, there will continue to be those who oppose God’s truth until Christ returns. He reminds us that we need to be on guard against false teachers because the false teachers are not going away and there is a great deal at stake.
Since these false teachers are not going away, Peter seeks to give us some insight about how we can recognize them so that we won’t be led astray.
Portrait of a False Teacher
In this passage Peter gives us several characteristics of false teachers for which we can be on the lookout. First, is that they act secretly. (v. 1) If false teachers told people they were false teachers, no one would follow them! False teachers act like normal Christian leaders. They talk a good game, even though they don’t really believe the truth. They have a tendency to use Christian terminology, but tend to redefine the terms.
We see this in practice when talking to Mormons. Mormons insist that they are Christians and will try to give evidence of that fact. If you were to ask a Mormon if they believe that Jesus is the son of God, they would say yes. The problem is that when they say Jesus is the son of God, they mean something different than Christians do. They would say that Jesus is the son of God in the same way that you and I are sons and daughters of God. But they do not believe Jesus is the eternal Son of God. That is false teaching, but on the surface it sounds like what Christians say and so they convince others they are Christians as well, leading them astray in the process.
False teachers also act secretly by twisting the Bible to support their own views. Just because someone quotes from the Bible does not mean that they are proclaiming the message of the Bible. I recently heard a very popular preacher who did this very thing. He was telling his congregation that they needed to ask God for bigger things—that instead of asking God to help them pay their mortgage, they should ask God to pay off their mortgage and give them a second house; instead of asking God to keep their car running, they should ask God to give them a new car; instead of asking God to help them make it on their current income, they should ask God to provide them with a job that will pay even more than they make now. He reminded his congregation that they should pray this way because the Scripture says, “You do not have because you do not ask…” He was correct. The Scriptures do say that, but there is more that comes after it! Let me read you the verse in its context.
You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:2-3, NIV)
This false teacher was proclaiming a feel-good message that he made sound very biblical. The problem is that He was twisting the Scriptures! Those words appear in the Bible, but what he was saying was contrary to what the Bible teaches.
These things are all hallmarks of a false teacher. False teachers are not only found in the pulpits of churches, but in many less obvious places as well. You can find false teachers hosting talk shows, being political analysts, writing books, teaching in seminaries or universities, or in the workplace. Many of these teachers are well-meaning and sincere, but by their teaching they are leading people away from the truth.
The second characteristic of false teachers is that they are destructive. (v. 1) Any time people are being led away from Christ it is destructive, even if it is unintentional. Peter goes on to say that some false teachers will go so far as to even deny “the Sovereign Lord who bought them…” Sometimes false teachers will deny Christ outright, but often they simply ignore Christ as they teach.
There are some who call themselves Christians (and some who call themselves pastors) who will talk in fond terms about Jesus. They declare that Jesus was a great teacher and that we should listen to what he teaches us about love and compassion. These same teachers, however, will not talk about Jesus as being God, or about the only way of salvation being through Him. They may not deny Christ outright, but they will deny Him by choosing to ignore Him. Ignoring or minimizing Jesus is destructive, because He is our only hope!
Ultimately, teachers who lead people away from Christ do not have people’s best interests at heart. People with this attitude deny Christ and lead others away from Him, leading them both down a path to destruction. We must be on guard against those who no longer have Christ at the center of their teaching
The third characteristic of false prophets is that they are popular. (v. 2) Peter tells us that many will follow the ways of these false prophets. Now, Peter is not saying that anyone who is popular is a false prophet. The gospel message, rightly understood, should be a wonderful message—it really is good news!—and sometimes someone preaching the truth becomes popular. There are many very solid Bible teachers who are popular because they are solid Bible teachers!
At the same time, however, all false prophets seek after popularity. The only way to get a person to believe something that is untrue is to present it in a way that is convincing and desirable to them.
Think about a con-artist. Con-artists are masters of telling you exactly what you need to hear to get you to like them and trust them. No con-artist would ever get you to give them money if they told you the truth—that they wanted to rip you off. Since they cannot convince you with the truth, they have to come up with convincing ways to get you to trust them instead of really examining their claims.
False teachers take the same approach; they convince people to trust them rather than pointing them to the Bible. Some hide their false teaching under the guise of scholarship. They convince their hearers of how smart they are so that they will just blindly follow their conclusions. They use big, sometimes new, words whose meanings are unclear in order to obscure the fact that what they are saying is contrary to the Bible. They choose to make their teaching difficult to understand because if they were clear about what they were teaching, it would be obvious that their teaching was false!
Others tell people what they want to hear in order to gain popularity and influence. They tell people that God wants them to be happy above all else. They declare that the Bible teaches that God will make all Christians rich, healthy, and problem free. They put on a façade that pretends that they have no problems because the Christian life makes everything easy. They proclaim things that appeal to people’s desires regardless of whether the Bible teaches such things.
In the same vein, they will also not say anything that is offensive. As a result, false teachers rarely talk about sinful behaviors. They don’t tell people that they are being greedy, idolatrous, or immoral because they might offend those people. False teachers squirm when you ask them direct questions about whether Jesus is the only way to Heaven and if those who reject Him will go to Hell. They will try to dodge questions of absolute morality because they might lose their popularity.
Many churches in America are falling into this trap. We see this with the homosexual agenda. Churches and church leaders may start by affirming the biblical teaching that homosexuality is sinful and that marriage should only be between one man and one woman, as God designed it to be. But they will then realize that doing so offends some people and makes them unpopular, so they stop talking about homosexuality. As a result of not standing clearly on the Bible, the church begins to drift and people begin to question and reinterpret what the Bible says, to the point where the church eventually finds itself on the completely opposite end of the spectrum, accepting and even condoning the choice to live a homosexual lifestyle and supporting gay marriage. False teaching does not always require a false teacher—sometimes false teaching creeps in when we desire popularity over biblical fidelity and stop taking a strong stand on the truth.
Not every teacher who is popular is a false teacher, but false teachers rely on their popularity to continue having influence. You cannot trust a person simply because they are popular, passionate, or winsome. You must examine their teaching based on whether it is true or not—not based on how good it sounds.
Fourth, false teachers act shamefully. (v. 2) The Greek word that is translated as “shameful ways” actually has to do with sexual immorality. Many, though not all, false teachers will either engage in or condone sexual immorality. Part of this stems from their need for popularity. In our society, sexual immorality is becoming accepted more and more by the general culture. False teachers will not stand against the rise of adultery, sex outside of marriage, homosexual/transsexual perversions, pornography, etc. When you see teachers support (or refuse to speak clearly against) sexual immorality they are leading people astray. Sometimes they aren’t trying to mislead, but have arrived at this point by a slow slide away from the truth. I really believe there are times when these Christian leaders don’t even realize they have become false teachers.
Fifth, false teachers are greedy. (v. 3) False teachers are motivated by something other than the glory of God. It is important to point out here that greed is not the same thing as ministers seeking to be compensated fairly. The Bible clearly teaches that those who devote their lives to teaching others about Christ should receive their living from doing so (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:1-14 and 1 Timothy 5:17-18). A pastor asking to be paid a fair wage is not necessarily greedy. However, there are some teachers who are motivated primarily by money. The question becomes what is truly driving the teacher?
Money is not the only thing that can tempt people to greed. There are many other things that are of particular temptation to pastors and teachers. The desire for money, possessions, popularity, power, influence, prestige, respect, and many other things can cause someone to become greedy. When a teacher’s primary motivation is no longer to bring glory to God, but instead to get something for themselves, they are pulled away from God. Teachers who are greedy will be tempted to compromise on the truth of Scripture in order to get what they want.
The Effect of False Teachers
Peter tells us two major results of false teachers. The first is that “they bring the way of truth into disrepute.” (v. 2) Those who compromise their faith and lead others away from Christ undermine the gospel message. In essence, false teachers compete with the true gospel message, setting themselves up in opposition to the truth. They make it difficult for people to accept the true message of Christianity because they have been preaching a message that declares that God’s primary goal is to make everyone happy, or that we can save ourselves, or that God would never act in Judgment. People like that message and bristle at the notion of sin, repentance, and submission, even if it leads to forgiveness, grace, and eternal life. False teachers put up obstacles for the gospel message.
The second effect of false teachers is that they bring condemnation upon themselves. Peter tells us that false teachers “bring swift destruction on themselves”, and that “their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.” The Old Testament penalty for those who were false prophets was death. The harshest words Jesus had were for those who were leading others astray. He said it would be better to be thrown into the ocean with a millstone (a big, heavy stone used for grinding grain) around your neck than to lead people into sin. The Bible is consistent in its proclamation that false teachers will be judged harshly for leading others astray.
Peter reminds us of this fact to give us encouragement as we get frustrated by the false teachers in the world around us. We should be consistent in opposing and combating false teaching in the Church, but Peter also reminds us that even if we feel like we cannot win—that false teachers are prevailing—justice will be served. The destruction of those who oppose the gospel is certain and God will prevail.
False teaching is a problem that isn’t going away. False teachers can have a destructive effect on the Church and will push people away from Christ. Peter gives us this instruction about false teaching because he knows that there will always be false teachers and that we must guard against them, both for our sake, for the sake of other Christians, and for the sake of those who do not know Christ.
So let me give you some practical advice on how you can combat false teaching. First, learn to listen and think critically and biblically. In the book of Acts, Paul commends the church in Berea because they listened to what he had to say and then examined the Scriptures to see if what he said was true. Paul was not offended by this (in fact he praised the Bereans for doing so) because he was teaching exactly what the Scriptures did. When you hear someone say, “The Bible says…” ask them for a reference and look it up. Read the context of the verse they quoted to be sure that what they are saying is the same as what the Bible teaches.
In the same way, learn to listen to teachers actively. Ask yourself questions while someone is teaching. Think about the implications of what they are saying. Think through where this teaching ultimately leads (e.g. if God doesn’t want people to be sick, why do even faithful teachers die? Why couldn’t Paul get rid of his thorn in the flesh?) Don’t listen passively, engage your mind. Even if the person isn’t a false teacher, you will find your own faith growing as you think in this way.
Second, learn what the Bible teaches for yourself. We hammer on this a lot, but that’s because it is important. One of the best ways to recognize when someone is misquoting Scripture or twisting the Bible to say something different is to know what it says for yourself. Read the Bible daily, not just to gain information, but to grow closer to God and to know Him.
Third, be vigilant. Watch for the characteristics that Peter gives regarding false teachers. When you see people slipping into these kinds of behaviors, humbly and lovingly confront them. Try to clarify and confront false teaching in an effort to redeem someone from error. Similarly, encourage those who proclaim the gospel message boldly without reservation: those who point people toward Christ instead of themselves, who live consistently, who are concerned about what is right instead of what is popular, and who seek God’s glory above all else. Do not become complacent either assuming that every teacher is teaching the truth or taking for granted those who truly are.
Like a Bible that is missing pages, a teacher who compromises the gospel message is not only of little value, they are dangerous. We must heed Peter’s warning to be on guard against false teachers because every generation has them—and ours is no different.