Peter had reminded his readers about the divine inspiration of true prophets, but by doing so he obliquely called to mind the warning God had given about false prophets. This was especially germane to the believers living in the Diaspora. They did not have the same access to scripture as those who lived nearer to Jerusalem, they were less able to be involved in the yearly festivals, the rhythm of their religious calendar, the regular reminders of God’s word, which would be read aloud three times a year from the steps of the temple.
Though Jesus had now died once and for all, thus fulfilling all of the sacrificial and Levitical laws, still, those living in the Diaspora had drifted increasingly farther from the heart of Judaism. Now, as believers, they needed to remember the stories of their people and the words of God in their scriptures.
First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive [opinions]. They will even deny the Master who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.2 Peter 1:20-2:1 (NRSV)
The word translated “opinions” here is αἵρεσις in Greek; hairesis, the word we get “heresy” from. The better translation, just looking at the lexicon, would be “destructive-and-disruptive heresies-and-sects.”
For the largely Jewish assemblies Peter was writing to, this would have stirred up memories of God’s grave warning to the people about prophets who did make accurate predictions, who seemed to have the power God bestowed to authenticate God’s word.
If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods” (whom you have not known) “and let us serve them,” you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.
The Lord your God you shall follow
[God] alone you shall fear
[God’s] commandments you shall keep
[God’s] voice you shall obey
[God] you shall serve and to
[God] you shall hold fast.
But those prophets or those who divine by dreams shall be put to death for having spoken treason against the Lord your God—who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery—to turn you from the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk.
So you shall purge the evil from your midst.Moses, Deuteronomy 13:1-5
God had revealed to Peter that such prophets would arise among Peter’s readers just as surely as they had arisen in antiquity and led their ancestors astray. They will even deny the Master who bought them, Peter wrote, the Master they all belonged to as Jesus’ bondmen and bondwomen, the One who had bought them with the rare and precious ransom of his own blood.
You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ.1 Peter 1:18-19 (NRSV)
They would bring swift destruction on themselves, perhaps not in this world, but certainly in the spiritual realm, and for all eternity.
Even as he was penning these words—for the Greek of Peter’s second letter is a bit rougher than the first, indicating the possibility that a scribe was not at work—I wonder if the same vision that had haunted Moses all those thousands of years in the past now began to haunt Peter.
After delivering his warning to the people, a long passage in Deuteronomy that spanned several chapters, Moses had concluded their covenant with God, with a cry of anguish,
All the nations will wonder, “Why has the Lord done thus to this land? What caused this great display of anger?” They will conclude, “It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord.”Deuteronomy 29:24-25 (NRSV)
So now, Peter must have written with great sorrow the next line of his letter,
Even so, many will follow their licentious ways, and because of these teachers the way of truth will be maligned. And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words.2 Peter 2:2-3 (NRSV)
Jesus had warned about such deceptive leaders, saying, Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. Jesus explained, false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.
Apostle Paul experienced the same anguish as Peter when he said to the elders in Ephesus, I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them.
James also had strong words for those who would be teachers.
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.James 3:1 (NRSV)
Who Are These False Prophets?
- Will these false teachers be themselves deceived? Will they be believers who become convinced of wrong doctrine, then set themselves to the task of spreading it?
Yes, it is possible for us to be fooled by this teacher or that, to be taken in by wrong teaching. And we all have some things right, but some other things less than right. Nobody is perfect!
But the wolves will not be sheep. They will only seem to be sheep, that is the fundamental underlying truth of what Jesus was saying. They will be wolves -appearing as- sheep.
All of us who are believers are sheep. Our DNA is altered. We now are made of heavenly stuff. We are who we are, born from above, born of God.
We remain sheep from here on in, regardless of who we were before, regardless of whether we temporarily lose our way, lose sight of the path for a while, follow the wrong leader.
By way of extreme example, Paul made a cryptic statement in his first letter to Timothy. He said,
By rejecting conscience, certain persons have suffered shipwreck in the faith; among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have turned over to Satan, so that they may learn not to blaspheme.Paul, 1 Timothy 1:19-20 (NRSV)
Not wolves, but rather two believers who were teaching such wrong doctrine that Paul “handed them over to Satan” for a time, in order to get them back right.
- Will these false teachers be involved in Christian ministry, but not have put their faith in Jesus?
Possibly? It is conceivable for people who have yet to put their faith in Jesus to still do ministry. The central point is, do they lead in the worship of the one true God? Or do they invite their audience to worship “other gods”?
- Will these false teachers come with malevolent intent, in concert with spiritual darkness, with the express purpose of deception?
Certainly there will be some who mindfully, deliberately seek to lead Christians away from Christ. To them it might be evangelism, perhaps. Or, they might certainly (even without quite knowing or understanding) be working in concert with dark supernatural powers.
If they use their ability to rightly prophesy as credibility for their message to undermine or lead away from God, and the gospel of truth, that is the main thing.
- Will these false teachers once have been Christian and then . . . not Christian? And now “preach” a new, false gospel that denies Christ?
Some say yes, some say no—I am one of those who say no, based upon what Jesus made clear.
My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.Jesus, John 10:28-30 (NRSV)
Bottom line: Know the truth and keep to the truth.