Last week I took a long excursus into Balaam’s story, because even though Peter brought up only one aspect of all that had lhappened, his audience would have remembered everything.
The point Peter was making rested on the illustration of the prophet Balaam’s willingness to curse God’s people for money. Balaam’s donkey saw God’s angel about to strike Balaam for his intentions, so the donkey tried to steer Balaam away from the disaster before him.
Peter was saying that an animal has sounder prophetic vision than a religious official whose moral sense had been perverted by greed and lust.
Jude was following closely with Peter’s narrative.
The Way of Cain and Korah
Woe to them! For they go the way of Cain, and abandon themselves to Balaam’s error for the sake of gain, and perish in Korah’s rebellion.Jude 1:11 (NRSV)
Jude was tracing the way sin, especially rebellion, develops in a life.
Cain went through the motions of worshiping God, but his heart was full of envy and self-centeredness and rebellion against God
Korah and his group openly and blatantly challenged the God‑given authority of Moses and Aaron. They felt they deserved the same opportunity to serve as priests, and to have the position of high priest available to them (rather than allow Aaron and his descendants to keep a monopoly on those coveted roles, even though it was God who had ordained it).
In judgement, God caused the ground to suddenly open up beneath Korah and his group and they went down alive into the pit.
The false prophets threatening the fist century church in the Diaspora shared these same two traits–they were in open rebellion against God, and they coveted the role of prophet and teacher among the people.
Peter described these usurping false prophets as
. . . waterless springs and mists driven by a storm;
for them the deepest darkness has been reserved.
For they speak bombastic nonsense, and with licentious desires of the flesh they entice people who have just escaped from those who live in error.
They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for people are slaves to whatever masters them.2 Peter 2:17-19 (NRSV)
They were as “clouds without rain” or “springs without water,” because they gave a lot of high‑sounding promises, they looked good at first, but they were barren.
They promised freedom, but they themselves were slaves of corruption.
Freedom or Enslavement
This last part of chapter 2 opens up much-discussed topics: human freedom and that grey area between claims of faith and falling away from faith.
There is much in the gospels that indicates human agency—Jesus offers the invitation to come to him, and he will turn none away. But the gospels also indicate the ability to believe in Jesus, and even to be drawn to him, are a divine work; for example, Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.”
Are we free to choose? Or are we enslaved in some way, and can only be set free by another?
Paul had much to say on that very topic.
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?
But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.Apostle Paul, Romans 6:16-20 (NRSV)
This is one of many passages that say much the same thing—the only spiritual freedom people have at all is the freedom either to serve God or to serve Satan and the powers of darkness.
One or the other.
And both forms of bondage lead the captive person in an inexorable direction.
It feels somewhat uncomfortable—does it not?—to use words like “bondage” and “enslavement” and “captive” in terms of our salvation. For us today, these words can only carry negative connotation. But, I am not convinced it was much different in Paul’s and Peter’s day.
Instead, they leaned into the juxtaposition of freedom and enslavement, and the concepts of “freedom from” as well as “freedom to.”
So imagine a life that seems to offer freedom from the authority of God, that leaves open the opportunity to write one’s own rules, develop one’s own ethic, to navigate through life as one sees fit. Imagine that life offers freedom to pursue whatever one pleases, to pursue happiness in the way one prefers.
And that is what the Gnostic teachers did seem to propose—freedom from the tyranny of a tin god and freedom to enjoy whatever physical pleasures life and earth had to offer. (Some Gnostic sects went in the opposite direction, urging extreme asceticism to free the spirit from the confines of corrupted flesh, but it seems these were not the menace Peter was concerned about).
But, Peter interjected, those false teachers are themselves enslaved to the very pleasures they are seducing you to indulge. The freedom Jesus offers is much different.
As Paul would also write,
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.Apostle Paul, Galatians 5:1, 13 (NRSV)
The more difficult topic—at least in my opinion—is this issue of faith. Some (and I include myself in this group) believe that once we have put our faith in Christ, he will hang onto us, no matter what. In his own words, Jesus says,
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 10:27-30 (NRSV)
Later, Paul said,
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.Apostle Paul, Romans 8:35-39 (NRSV).
So how is it that Peter would write,
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 overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first.
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 that was passed on to them. It has happened to them according to the true proverb,
“The dog turns back to its own vomit,”
“The sow is washed only to wallow in the mud.”2 Peter 2:20-22 (NRSV)
I think it has to do with a parable Jesus taught. Stay tuned!
[The Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah 555. Destruction of Korah. | Philip De Vere, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons