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- 2 Peter 2:17 - 22
You may have heard the story about the company Apple intentionally slowing down their i-phones. Customers had been complaining about slower speeds in their iphone 6, 6 plus, SE and 7 for some time. Well Apple finally made a statement about the situation about a month ago: saying, yes, to prolong the life of the lithium ion battery, they had intentionally introduced updates or (improvements) to the phone that would ultimately slow down its functions (and frustrate i-phone owners in the process).
Apple insists that there was no ulterior motive to bump people off their old i-phones to get new i-phones but some customers (including my wife) think that was exactly what they were doing. Perhaps time will tell. (For now, I will enjoy my i-phone 8 plus without worrying too much about it).
As we continue our journey through II Peter, we are learning about imposters in the church who definitely did have ulterior motives for being in the church. They are there to get something. They are there to have sway and influence and to make a profit. They stand in sharp contrast to the Great Shepherd Jesus Who lays down His life for the sheep so that the sheep can have abundant life. These imposters want to squeeze the life right out of the church. And Jesus does not like this and Peter, the servant of Jesus does not like this and so a letter got written up to warn the people, to heighten the level of awareness.
If there is a terrorist threat in the country, Homeland Security will raise the color-coded threat level from yellow to orange or from orange to red. The churches Peter is writing to are at threat level red. It is not a hypothetical situation. It is an actual, real life situation that needs to be addressed. That explains the intensity of the letter and the lack of formality.
You know that when your child is sick, the whole world stops spinning and that child becomes the center of all you do. That is what is happening here. Christ has directed His attention onto His bride to warn, guard and protect her from an influence outside of her control.
Recognize and resist
Chapter 2 is largely a description of what these imposters or charlatans looked like and sounded like. The end of chapter 2 will continue this description and the message will be the same: the church is to recognize the imposters and resist their influence. Recognize and resist.
Peter describes these opponents as “waterless springs and mists driven by a storm.” In a dessert region a spring was very important for sustaining life. People would walk for miles to get to a spring or a well where there was water and you can imagine how disappointing it would be to spend time and energy traveling to a spring expecting water and then finding it all dried up. What is the point of a spring if there is no water? This is exactly what these opponents were. They promised to offer something refreshing and life-giving but they can not make good on the promise.
These are not only waterless springs but also mists driven by a storm. A mist represents fog, darkness, a lack of clarity, the inability to see clearly. Where these opponents are there is confusion and unsettledness. A storm represents a sudden, intense, unforeseen event. Some storms are easy to predict. Some storms come suddenly and you know you are in a storm because the thunder has rattled the house. These people are not storms. They do not have the power of a storm. They are instead driven by a storm.
So the church is not to fear them or be rattled by them. Mists cannot hurt you although mists can send the church into confusion. This is why Peter has already said in chapter 1:19, that we would do well to pay attention to the prophetic word (the Holy Scriptures) “as to a lamp shining in a dark place.” Do not fear the mists. Look to the Lamp.
Instead of issuing a church edict to ban and scatter the opponents from the church, Peter points to their coming judgment. “For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved.” Now does this seem a bit unfair or harsh or over the top? Isn’t the message of the gospel, the grace of God in Christ? And who are we to judge anyway? And this is where our minds need to move closer to the Scriptures because this has little to do with us and everything to do with God Himself, as Judge.
The family of God
The church is the family of God and when family members are getting bullied or bossed around or treated unfairly, the Father gets upset. The severity of the judgment on these imposters comes directly from their proximity with God’s people. They are in the church. They are affecting the church. And that bumps this all up a notch. Because intruders have invaded God’s family and these intruders will need to answer to God Himself. In the meantime, the church is to recognize and resist their influence.
Folly and more
These opponents speak loud boasts of folly. They are the squeaky wheel in the room. When they speak, they speak with an air of confidence. However they speak folly, empty words detached from any loving motivation. Peter then moves into the ways in which the opponents will influence the believers with their words and actions.
It is enough that they don’t love Jesus, don’t know Jesus, don’t worship Jesus, don’t have any interest in following Jesus. They don’t want anyone else to know, love, worship and follow Jesus either. And so “they entice by sensual passions of flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error.” In short, they will prey on new believers by promoting sensuality or a form of sexuality that is expressed outside the bounds of God’s intended design.
This is where things became more tenuous because the new believers in the church were coming out of a God-less, Christ-less lifestyle and into a life submitted to the good King. The opponents were trying to bring them back to that former, God-less, Christ-less lifestyle. The stronger, more established believers may have been able to sniff it out quicker. But the newer believers were not real established in their faith. And they became the perfect targets. To be “barely escaping from those who live in error” is to be super fresh, brand new, wet behind the ears, still getting their sea legs Christians. Peter is saying, “watch out, because they will go after them first.”
Slaves promising freedom
The imposters will promise believers freedom while themselves being slaves of corruption. The imagery is literally that of a slave. These people are all chained up, bound, not free. And in that state of being bound, they are saying, “you can be free like I am. I promise.” Slaves cannot offer the freedom that they themselves do not have. And this is why they are waterless springs, empty talkers, promise makers and promise breakers.
Jesus and Paul
Peter adds a comment that may sound familiar. “For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.” Jesus said something very similar in John 8:34, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” And Paul in Romans 6:16 echoes this, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” So it seems that we are all slaves. We all have a master. We are all submitted to something or someone. The Christian gospel says that people will only experience the abundant life, the refreshing water from the well that never runs dry when they are submitted to the will and ways of King Jesus.
These imposters have already chosen their master and it’s not the Lord. Therefore they cannot give you freedom. The Lord offers real freedom in serving and loving Him in response to Him first serving and loving us.
Peter moves on into a deeper description of just how far the imposters are from the Christian community. They are not just lost. They are doubly lost. “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.” There are variety of ways to interpret these 2 verses and instead of looking at every view, we will walk through it and hopefully arrive at some clarity.
Having an encounter with the truth
I think Peter is describing people who have an encounter with the truth, make some kind of profession, a decision, take a step toward Christ but are not born again. To escape the defilements of the world is to move away from a former lifestyle of disobedience to God. Defilements are basically the pollution of the world, the experience of being in a culture that does not know Jesus. So these people temporarily moved away from corruption and defilement and toward the “knowledge” of the Lord Jesus Christ.
And that was somewhat of a suspended state between being a non-believer and a believer. Of course, there are only 2 categories of people but there is somewhat of a continuum at least from our perspective. Some people lean more toward the church than others. These people were leaning in. And for a time, they embraced the Christian lifestyle, the way of God.
But the lure of the old way was strong and eventually pulled them back to their former lifestyle. They had become entangled again. And because they had gotten so close to being saved and had even learned a bit of the lingo, a bit of the Christian lifestyle and had still not believed, they had moved even further away from Christ.
Not true conversion
The words “entangled” and “overcome” let us in on what the imposters had failed to do. They had not gone all the way with the Christian faith. It was not a true head to toe conversion where all loyalty is transferred to God. The imposters allowed for the possibility of going back to the old way that they had always known and always been comfortable with. And so they were entangled and overcome. To be overcome is to be made inferior. It is to put oneself within the power of another.
Not taking the opportunity
So given the opportunity to become a slave of Jesus (like Peter was) and to give oneself over to the Lordship of Christ, they say, “no” and return to the former masters. We know that they are not born again and never were born again because of the words of John in I John 3:9, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.” The key expression here is “born of God.” It is an identity issue. The core nature for the imposters has not changed. So then, their lifestyle has not changed, even though they showed a few positive signs of improvement. (And we will get more to that in a minute)
Better to never have known the way
“For it would have been better,” Peter says, “ for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.” If we don’t think about this carefully, we may think that this is promoting some kind of works based righteousness. But that is not it all. This is actually the opposite. This is a way of stating that knowing the right way is not enough. Coming to Christ on your terms won’t work. Dancing around Christianity, learning about it, considering it, maybe even trying it, without faith in Christ is worse than ignoring it all together.
So perhaps it could be imperfectly illustrated like this. You get a wedding invitation in the mail for the wedding of distant relative in Southeastern Ohio. You hem and haw over whether or not you should go. You are leaning toward not going and you see on the invitation that you need to respond by this week. So you make a decision. And you check the box, “unable to attend” and then you put it in the mail. At that point, it would be much more difficult to then go to the wedding after you didn’t really want to go and then sent a formal response saying that you wouldn’t go. You technically could still sheepishly show up unannounced but the ship has pretty much set sail.
That is the idea here. It is possible with the Christian faith to say, “been there. Done that. Tried it on and it didn’t fit me quite right.” That state is worse than having never tried it to begin with.
To turn back from the Holy Commandment delivered to them is to move oneself out of the governing, the leadership and the authority of Christ. The Holy Commandment is the teachings of Jesus Christ both in His own words and through the words of the apostles. It is Christian doctrine, beliefs and actions ignited by faith in Christ as Lord and Savior. This is very important because the gospel can wrongly be seen as a momentary transaction made between God and a person. The person says a prayer for forgiveness. God, like a cosmic vending machine or a genie dispenses salvation. Or another way of stating it would be our prayer is like a payment. We buy salvation with a prayer. And this obscures what conversion is.
Conversion is accepting or believing the facts of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection that secured our salvation. It is the confidence and belief that Jesus purchased our salvation with His blood and now offers it freely as a gift. It is appropriating the work of Christ for us personally. In receiving salvation, many things are at work in us: acknowledgment of our sin and need for grace, faith in the finished work of Jesus and the transfer of loyalty from our own efforts to be good enough to Christ’s effort to make us Holy as He is Holy. To be saved is to die to the old way and to be born again. That is the Holy commandment: believe in Jesus and respond appropriately. These imposters had not done that although they had feigned at it. So then, they are doubly lost.
As I mentioned earlier, the issue here is an identity issue, not the failure to make spiritual progress. Peter identifies it as an identity issue in verse 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.” This is not an ancient insult. This is actually a very helpful explanation for what was happening in this church. A dog and a pig were both seen as unclean animals by nature. And these animals do certain things because it is within their very nature.
A dog and a pig
A dog may be trained to not revisit his own vomit but curiosity will at times get the better of him. And when the master is not looking, the dog may very well gobble up lunch for the second time. Why? Because he wants to. And a clean pig does not stay a clean pig for very long. Pigs like the mud by nature. They prefer a mud pit over a pristine pool. And that is okay. They are pigs and pigs like the mud (for a variety of reasons.)
Here is Peter’s point, in the same way that a dog will act like a dog and a pig will act like a pig, non-born again people will act like non-born again people. They will return to the old way because that is what they prefer.
What needs to happen
Now, where is the silver lining here? Where is that ray of gospel hope? This description points us to the need for a radical transformation performed in us through the indwelling of Holy God. God must take residence in us or our small attempts to “change” will move us farther from God instead of closer.
Infusing gospel hope
So let’s infuse this with the gospel message. And it is beautifully described in Titus 3:3-7, “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” This is the true grace of God that the church is to stand in. God saves, changes and preserves sinners through His ongoing presence in us.
No room for holier than thou thinking
So there is no room for holier than thou type thinking in the church. Christ is our righteousness, not our niceness or our religious efforts, or our popularity, or our status in the community, or all around good temper. It is Christ Who credits us with having the righteousness we can never arrive at on our own. The old school theologians called this, “alien righteousness:” A righteousness outside of us given to us by a righteous and profoundly generous God.
Our salvation is based on a promise made by God. Titus 1:2, “God who never lies promised us eternal life before the ages began.” If the promise was made before the ages began, at the beginning of time, then how could what we do now cause God to break His promise? The answer is, it can’t. We can’t. But that is not end of it. Once we are brought into the eternal covenant of love made in Christ’s blood, we are given a new set of desires that are only satisfied in loving and worshiping King Jesus. We want to please the God Who saved us.
Persevering and being preserved
So we will persevere because we love Jesus. And we will be preserved because Jesus loves us. We work as He works in us. And there we see the gospel fully. God does not make robots. He remakes and creates sons and daughters who love and obey Him from the heart. And He does this to the praise of His glorious grace. Let’s pray and thank the Lord together.