There is no doubt it both hurt and frightened Peter’s audience to read there would be ravenous wolves among them, masquerading as sheep for the sole purpose of ravaging the flock of Christ. Paul’s audience must have had a similar response of hurt, though Paul’s prophetic warning—delivered on his way to Rome—was important for them to receive.
But how should they prepare? And what would happen to them?
Peter gave three examples of God’s decisive judgment against abject evil, and one example of God’s breathtaking rescue of a righteous man that -no one- would have guessed was actually righteous. Peter was reassuring his readers through these examples that God had even this well in hand.
Aesop’s Fable of the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
A certain Wolf could not get enough to eat because of the watchfulness of the Shepherds. But one night he found a sheep skin that had been cast aside and forgotten. The next day, dressed in the skin, the Wolf strolled into the pasture with the Sheep. Soon a little Lamb was following him about and was quickly led away to slaughter.
That evening the Wolf entered the fold with the flock. But it happened that the Shepherd took a fancy for mutton broth that very evening, and, picking up a knife, went to the fold. There the first he laid hands on and killed was the Wolf.
The evil doer often comes to harm through his own deceit.Aesop for Children, Library of Congress
Aesop did not indicate God at work behind the scenes, but Peter certainly did! He drew three examples from the book of Genesis to show the evil doer coming to harm because the Righteous Judge intervened:
- God’s imprisonment of fallen angels in Noah’s day.
- The world-wide flood that cleansed the earth of all life except for what God saved within the ark.
- Five Cities of the Plain God judged with fire.
Just like Aesop’s wolf, Peter described how these wolves in masquerade would ravage the sheep.
. . . in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words.2 Peter 2:3 (NRSV)
Aesop’s shepherd unknowingly slew the wolf, though Aesop’s audience in antiquity would have approved and found great satisfaction in the shepherd’s wisdom and intuition. But the Good Shepherd who cares for his sheep will mindfully and knowingly deal with the wolves who come to savage his own.
Their condemnation, pronounced against them long ago, has not been idle, and their destruction is not asleep.2 Peter 2:3 (NRSV)
Peter may have been thinking about something Jesus had said concerning God’s judgment that John often spoke of.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned.
But those who do not believe are condemned -already-, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.Jesus, John 3:17-18 (NRSV)
God knows who is under condemnation, Peter was saying, God has not forgotten, and God will one day do away with all evil.
Jude—whose letter was most likely written after Peter wrote his letter (and was surely using Peter’s letter as a template)—also spoke of this.
Beloved, while eagerly preparing to write to you about the salvation we share, I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.
For certain intruders have stolen in among you, people who long ago were designated for this condemnation as ungodly, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.Jude 1:3-4
Example #1: The Angels Who Sinned
For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell [ταρταρόω]and committed them to chains of deepest darkness to be kept until the judgment . . .2 Peter 2:4 (NRSV)
Jude also wrote of this example,
And the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling, [God] has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great day.Jude 1:6
Peter (and Jude) took his text from Genesis.
When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose . . .
The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.Genesis 6:1-2, 4 (NRSV)
How did Peter know God had cast these angels (called “sons of God”) into hell? The word Peter used, ταρταρόω | tartaroo, means “cast-into-Tartarus,” a place identified in ancient Greek mythology as the lowest part of the underworld, a place of eternal fiery torment where the gods locked up their enemies. It is not as though Peter was talking about mythology, but rather, Peter was using a Greek word that could not possibly be misconstrued. He definitely did mean God had confined these particular angels in chains and cast them into the deepest, darkest, fieriest torment.
Interestingly, it is possible Peter was quoting from the book of Enoch, which would be a rare instance of an apostle using a text other than the scriptures to speak of God and to teach truth (Paul did so as well, from time to time).
[Fragments of the Book of Enoch have been found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Enoch is accepted as canon by the Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jewish Faith) and two Orthodox Christian expressions of faith.]
It seems certain angels rebelled at God’s choice of ministry for them, not merely to serve as messengers from heaven, nor to do the work of God as God ordained, but instead become sexually involved with human women.
There are other explanations for what might have happened in Noah’s day (you can read about those theories here), but it seems both Peter and Jude understood it as heavenly angles devising a way to become physically entangled with human women.
Accordingly, God imprisoned these angels—now fallen—to await final judgment in a time still future to us today.
Judgement will come.
Peter’s reassurance was to both remember a time when matters were even more desperate, and that God was not only aware but intervened. There would be a time of corruption and villainy, but then would come God’s decisive judgment in ways that would summarily dispense with the wicked and would rescue the innocent.
The Book of Enoch is fascinating! It seems that possibly Peter drew from 1 Enoch for his teaching on Noah in 1 Peter 3:18-20, and here, on the fallen and imprisoned angels in 2 Peter 2:4. Jude makes a third reference concerning Enoch himself in Jude 1:14-15.
Here is the passage in Enoch that speaks of God imprisoning the angels.
And I saw a deep abyss, with columns of heavenly fire, and among them I saw columns of fire fall, which were beyond measure alike towards the height and towards the depth.
And beyond that abyss I saw a place which had no firmament of the heaven above, and no firmly founded earth beneath it: there was no water upon it, and no birds, but it was a waste and horrible place. I saw there seven stars like great burning mountains, and to me, when I inquired regarding them,
The angel said: ‘This place is the end of heaven and earth: this has become a prison for the stars and the host of heaven. And the stars which roll over the fire are they which have transgressed the commandment of the Lord in the beginning of their rising, because they did not come forth at their appointed times.
And He was wroth with them, and bound them till the time when their guilt should be consummated (even) for ten thousand years.’
And Uriel said to me: ‘Here shall stand the angels who have connected themselves with women, and their spirits assuming many different forms are defiling mankind and shall lead them astray into sacrificing to demons as gods, (here shall they stand,) till the day of the great judgement in which they shall be judged till they are made an end of. And the women also of the angels who went astray shall become sirens.’
And I, Enoch, alone saw the vision, the ends of all things: and no man shall see as I have seen.1 Enocu:18:10-19:3, From-The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament
H.R. Charles Oxford: The Clarendon Press
[Illustration (1866) by Gustave Doré for Paradise Lost | By Gustave Doré and Henry Holiday, license cc-by-sa-3.0 for comparison: user:DL5MDA – old etchings, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7101150%5D