On the first evening I was in Israel, some of us took a stroll from our hotel down to the Western Wall. One group of about 4 left the hotel late, and followed what they assumed to be the tail of our group. It turned out it wasn’t. But they only realised once they’d gone deep inside the maze of streets that is the old city of Jerusalem. They were utterly lost. All they knew was that they were outside a sweet shop, of which there are an uncanny number in old Jerusalem.
They thought they were following a guide they could trust. In fact, the person they were following just looked like that guide. It was in fact a different person entirely, who was not leading them where they thought they were going, and they ended up lost.
But what if this happened with something more serious. Lots of people are looking for a guru, a person or some teaching they can follow through life. What if you’re following the wrong person?
If you get this wrong, you affect whether your life withers or whether you thrive. According to some religions, this could affect what happens after you die, the range of error being as wide as utter torment to unimaginable bliss, and we’re talking lasting forever.
You really don’t want to pick the wrong guide in life.
You look at the various alternatives. You could be a Muslim, a Hindu or a Buddhist. Or you could follow the most popular religion in Britain, which is secularism. And you think, “No: I’ll follow Jesus. I’ll be a Christian.”
We’re working our way through the short letter of 2 Peter together this autumn. The opening verses portray Jesus of Nazareth holds out nothing less than everything you need to fully alive, to become more and more into the person God wants you to be, climaxing in the future when are made like God – immortal, incorruptible, free of pain.
That makes him a pretty good choice. But so far the choice has been fairly simple. There are other religions, out there. And there’s Jesus, in here.
Today, it gets a little more complicated.
Because the choice is no longer between right ideas here, in church, and wrong ideas out there. No: The false ideas have invaded the church. So now the choice is between right ideas in here, and wrong ideas in here.
Look at verse 1. It starts with a contrast. Chapter 1 ended by talking about the Old Testament prophets who wrote about Jesus and can be totally trusted. Verse 1: “But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you.” Not “out there”. “… among you”.
And these wrong ideas are introduced into the church deviously, subtly, by the back door. “They will secretly introduce destructive heresies”. Which makes it hard to spot; we’ll come back to that.
But it means that Christians have to be discerning who you listen to. There are fakes around. If you go on holiday, and you go to a Christian church on Sunday, it is not automatic you’ll be hearing about the real Jesus. If you pick up a Christian book, see a Christian conference advertised, hear a Christian speaker on YouTube, they may not be teaching the truth.
And for those who are looking into the Christian faith, you need to make sure it is the Christian faith you are investigating. Just because a Christian leader says something, it doesn’t mean that’s actually what the Christian faith teaches. The real Jesus is just wonderful, so please make sure it’s the real Jesus you investigate!
Faking artwork is massive business. Millions are to be made by the most talented forgers. Last year, a court in New York ordered someone to refund $1.2m to Sotheby’s, because he’d sold them a forged painting supposed to be by the artist Parmigianino. About 18 months ago, an art gallery in France discovered 60% of their paintings were forgeries.
Faking Jesus is also big business, and there are a lot of forgeries out there. Peter tells us that it will always be so. So: Buyer beware!
What are they teaching?
Let’s start by piecing together briefly what these particular teachers were teaching.
There seem to be two main strands.
Firstly, they taught there is no judgement. This comes more clearly in chapter 3. We get it a bit here too, where it seems they laughed off any idea that God would judge them. If there is a judge, he’s fallen asleep on the bench.
Second, they taught that you can do what you like with your body. This is quite similar for a lot of secular sex education in schools today. Your body is there for pleasure, and as long as there is consent you can do whatever you like. Verse 2: “Many will follow their depraved conduct”. Verse 10: They “follow the corrupt desire of the flesh”. And more next time in the second half of the chapter.
You’d expect to find attitudes like that in the wider world. No judgement, and do what you like with your body. But the problem here is that these attitudes have invaded the church:
Which means, verse 1: they’re denying the sovereign Lord who bought them. This is a powerful picture. It’s taken from the slave market. In the ancient world, someone who got into debt could sell themselves into slavery to pay their debts. But then someone could come along and buy you out. Your debts are cleared, but you belong to them. You follow their instructions now. And if they were a good and kind master, you’d be really well looked after.
None of us lives the way God wants us to, which leaves us all with a debt we cannot hope to pay. When Jesus died on the cross, he came along quite wonderfully and paid in full. So we’re free. And Jesus is now our master. Which means we respect him deeply, we speak well of him to other, and we do as he says.
But these false teachers are denying the sovereign Lord who bought them. They’re speaking badly of the real Jesus, replacing him with a fake who will never return to judge the world. And they’re not living the way he wants, treating their bodies as if they were their own.
We see exactly the same thing happening today. We’re part of the Church of England. Sadly, within the Church of England, there are clergy who do not believe Jesus will return to this world as judge. And a lot of conversation certainly assumes there will never be a judgement. And some are working really hard to see the Church abandon the teaching of Jesus on marriage. Instead, we’d go along with the attitudes of the world, where all that matters is consent.
The confusion and misleading ideas of the world are entering the church as fakes.
That was what the false teachers were saying in Peter’s day. There are some echoes of this in our own day; things may also be different.
The important thing is that we are prepared to live in a world where things are not neat. Where the divide is not error out there, truth in here. Where there is false teaching within the Christian church.
In today’s passage, there are three things we need to know if we are to navigate that kind of world.
They will be popular
First, they will be popular. They will be popular.
Notice how verse 2 starts: “Many will follow their depraved conduct”.
The picture is not of someone in the church teaching a different version of Jesus surrounded by a fan club of just three or four people, while the rest of the church is laughing and pointing out how wrong this all is.
Sadly, the picture is of these false teachers surrounded by a huge fan club, their teaching super popular.
Which suits the false teachers very nicely. They stand to gain as people sign up. Verse 3: “In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories”. As they gain a fan club, people reward them for being such good church ministers to have around. Their bank balances, their egos and their reputations are bolstered.
And no wonder they’re so popular. Teaching that says you can do what you like with your body, and God will not judge you, will always have a huge appeal.
What this means is that recognising false teaching in the church is not a democracy.
So if you’re out walking with friends, you climb a mountain, and you’re on your way back down and you and one other think you should turn left at a fork. The other 6 members of your group all think you should go right. So you go right. It’s most likely that the majority have remembered the correct way down.
It doesn’t work like that in church. You can’t just follow the herd, and do what the majority think you should do. Because false teachers will be popular. Many will follow them. The wrong option, the fake Jesus, will look right if you just look for popularity.
Someone once wrote to me after I said something in a sermon that they didn’t agree with. Amongst other things, they pointed out to me that the majority of churches in this area would not agree with what I’d said. Well, maybe that should give me pause to think. I care deeply that I teach faithfully, and so I welcome constructive feedback. But the fact that most people think something doesn’t make it right. Not automatically. The false teachers will be popular.
Which means it’s not easy to spot. If they wore a name badge or a T-Shirt that said: “I am a false teachers; I misrepresent Jesus; do not listen to me”, people wouldn’t be taken in. That’s exactly the point. They don’t identify themselves as false teachers. They claim to tell you about the real Jesus. Indeed, in many cases, they probably believe themselves. They don’t even know that they are teaching falsely. They think they’re on the right track.
But they’re really not on the right track.
Which brings me to point 2.
They will be punished
False teachers will be popular. Then second, they will be punished. They will be punished.
I’ve already said that they think there is no judgement. So in verse 3 you get condemnation and destruction treated like characters in the drama. And they’ve fallen asleep. A vivid way of saying that God, the judge, has fallen asleep on the bench.
Not so, says Peter. “Their condemnation has long been hanging over them (literally, it’s not been idle), and their destruction has not been sleeping.” There’s a delay, but their judgement, their condemnation, their destruction is surely coming.
I can remember my driving test. It was terrifying. If you do something dangerous, you fail the test. If it’s really dangerous, like driving onto a motorway slip road, the examiner stops and gets out of the car. Instant failure. Make your own way home.
But apart from that, the examiner will quietly note what you did on his clipboard. You’ve failed. You won’t be passing your driving test, not today. But he doesn’t immediately get you to pull over to the side of the road and give you a lecture. He lets you keep driving, keep concentrating, and thinks to himself, “we’ll come back to this”. Then, when the test is done, he explains what went wrong. The result is given. You failed.
That’s what happens with these false teachers. God’s clocked what they’ve been doing. They’ll fail. Judgement is coming. Just not straight away.
Peter gives three examples.
Firstly we have the angels who sinned. This may confused us, but he seems to be tapping into a tradition that’s only hinted at in the Bible. Satan, and the other demons, it seems were once good angels. But they rebelled against God, and God has their number. They’re bound over, awaiting sentencing.
Second example is the world in the time of Noah. We’re told in Genesis chapter 6 that people had become so evil, so cruel to each other, that God regretted ever making us. He washed the world clean, and started again. He destroyed all life with a flood. But only after some delay. It didn’t happen for many generations.
Third example is a pair of cities, Sodom and Gomorrah. They weren’t destroyed by water, but by fire. They were notoriously wicked cities, famous for homosexuality, for rape, for a total lack of hospitality to strangers, and for greed. And God destroyed those cities totally as fire fell from heaven.
Three examples that show God knows how to bring judgement to a close. You know the parent who counts to 10 before their toddler does something they’ve been asked. They get to nine. Then nine and a half. Then nine and three quarters. They can never bring themselves to say “ten”.
Peter uses these three examples to show that God will count, and give us time to mend our ways, but he does know how to say “ten”.
And notice how these three examples focus in. The first example is cosmic, angels. The second example is tighter, just the world. The third example is tighter still, two cities. By the end, it’s clear. God is prepared to judge on a big canvas, but he’s also prepared to judge individual men and women, people with names and birthdays.
Which means that these false teachers are like cattle. Here’s verse 12: “But these people blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like unreasoning animals, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like animals they too will perish.”
They’re like cattle in that they’re irrational, unreasoning, they don’t even understand the damage they do.
But they’re also like cattle in that they’re destruction is certain. The thing about cattle is that, unless you keep a dairy herd, they’re bred for slaughter. They’ll be reared until their 6 months, a year old, and then they get taken for market. It’s why we rear them.
Do you ever look at a cattle truck driving along the motorway and feel sorry for the animals inside. Or look at new-born lambs dotted across the hillside, so cute, and with no idea what’s coming to them. Maybe you feel so strongly that you’re a vegetarian.
Well we’re meant to feel similarly sorry as we look at the false teachers that ravage Christ’s church. They’re like cattle, like lambs, like farmed salmon. It’s absolutely certain they’ll end up in God’s slaughterhouse. Whereas they think the delay means they’ve got away with it or even that they’ve done nothing wrong.
Which means we mustn’t be taken in by them. No matter how appealing their teaching is, no matter how popular they are, they won’t last. God will catch up with them eventually. When the big driving test of life is over, they’ll fail.
They will be popular. But they will be punished.
You must persevere
And third, you must persevere. You must persevere.
There’s another side to the examples Peter gives in verses 4 to 8. They’re not only there to tell us that God knows how to say “ten”. Look at verse 9: “… if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment.”
These examples are also there to show that God knows how to rescue the godly.
Noah, rescued in the ark with 7 others. Lot and his daughters rescued by an angel before the city was burnt down.
But we need to note exactly what we’re told about these two rescues.
Noah we’re told was a preacher of righteousness. We don’t find this in Genesis, but Peter knew of it from somewhere. While Noah was building his ark, he was preaching to his neighbours. He didn’t want them to drown. He wanted them to be rescued too. So he warned them, and urged them to live the righteous lives that would rescue them.
Noah the preacher.
Lot the agoniser. Verse 7: He “was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless”. Verse 8 he “was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard”.
That word “tormented” is a strong word.
In Mark chapter 5 Jesus met a man possessed by over 2000 demons. They said this to Jesus: “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” They knew their ultimate future was eternal torment, in hell. Those demons were some of the angels we found in verse 4. Long-term, they’ll have a future of torment.
But short-term, Lot was the one tormented, the same word. It was agony for him to live amongst such depraved wickedness, day after day. He was uncomfortable. He hated it.
Noah, the preacher, who was rescued. Lot the tormented, who was rescued.
Peter’s point is that we will be rescued too. But do we live as those who will be rescued? Much easier to settle down, and be content to live in a church where there is false teaching, as though such a thing was normal and doesn’t matter.
Noah and Lot kept living God’s way, and they kept seeing the world as God sees it. It distressed them greatly whenever they saw God’s ways scorned. They spoke against it, and tried to get things changed for the better. They longed for the day when God would rescue them from a world where truth and error are all mixed up together.
So we must persevere. We mustn’t become desensitised.
You know what they say about watching lots of violent films. Eventually you become desensitised. Things that used to shock you, should shock you, no longer do.
That’s what we mustn’t do in the church. We must not get to the point where it becomes normal to have people teaching things that contradict the teaching of Jesus – on marriage, on judgement, on other topics. We must not get to the point where we no longer notice. No longer shocked. No longer speak out.
I see this danger in my own life. Every week, there’s something in the news about leaders within Anglican churches or other churches compromising on vital areas of Christian teaching and living. And I have to do a little spiritual health-check on myself. Make sure I haven’t slid into a gradual weary cynicism, where this no longer surprises or bothers me.
You must preserve.
The true teachings of Jesu are so full of life and health that we must stick with them. And if we see false variations spreading within the Christian church it should grieve us greatly. And if we are ever in a position to speak against such things, we should take our opportunity to do so.
You must persevere.
At the end of the day, time and again we will find ourselves presented with a choice.
We can follow the Christianity taught by the apostles, Jesus’ first disciples, and the Christianity taught by the Old Testament. Or we can follow the Christianity taught by a huge menu of false teachers who will always be available for us.
In chapter 1, verse 16, Peter stresses that he and Jesus’ other apostles did not follow clever invented stories.
By contrast the false teachers, chapter 2 verse 3, tell fabricated stories.
If we follow the false teachers, we’ll be joining them on the cattle truck. God may still be counting to ten, and the driving lesson may not have finished, but destruction is certain.
On the other hand, if we follow the real Jesus, we will be on the path to life itself. He’ll give us the gift of life now, and when he returns he’ll transform us to be like God. We’ll be more alive than we’ve ever been.
This is not about what’s popular. It’s not about what’s appealing. It’s not about which kind of Jesus we’d like to have.
It’s the difference between a fake Jesus, a human invention, who will lead you to the slaughterhouse. And the Jesus of history, the Jesus of the Old and New Testaments, who will lead you to life itself.
The choice is yours.