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by Warren Camp

2 Peter 2:17–22 . . .

“Beware of False Teachers!”

Several of today’s popular churches have always had and will continue to have false teachers in their midst, using Bible versions they created. In fact, prophetic Scriptures tell us that the closer we get to the end times, the more false teachers will appear within the churches. According to Apostle Peter, these false teachers are apostates.

True Christians become saved. They’ll persevere to the end because the Spirit of God remains active in them. However, unbelievers who profess to have a strong faith in Christ can sometimes apostatize. Our Lord taught in his Parable of the Sower that there will be professing Christians who seemingly live in a God-fearing manner but would fall away at some point (Luke 8:13–14 MSG). It’s only those whose hearts have been personally touched by the grace of God who’ll be saved while holding fast and persevering. No true Christian can ever apostatize!

In today’s six-verse passage, Peter uses a variety of descriptive expressions to describe the same class of people. His language is singularly terse, pointed, and emphatic. How much more expressive could he have been to assert that professed religious teachers of his day were like “springs without water… mists driven by a storm”! The metaphors in v. 17 utter the emptiness and disappointment that always results from accepting the teaching of apostates. Surely they’d have grievously dashed the expectations of those who’d sought life-changing, everlasting refreshment derived from the truths of Jesus’ gospel message.

False Teachers Entice with Empty Words (2:17–19)

Throughout chapter 2, Peter has been going after false teachers (highlighted in Warren’s commentary on 2:10b–16). He roasts them with the most vivid and vicious language. His denunciation of them is so strong that it’s difficult to see if he had any love for them. He became infuriated when he found Christ’s sheep being mis-led by apostates pretending to be true teachers of Christianity.

17These people are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. 18For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of the flesh, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. 19They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity — for “people are slaves to whatever has mastered them” (2 Pet. 2:17–19 NIV).

Peter resumes his tirade against false teachers by describing them as being “springs without waters” and “mists driven by a storm,” then revealing their deceptive methods. “Peter means that like a dry oasis in the desert, or a cloud that looks like rain but just blows over, these false teachers promise to quench your thirst but don’t deliver. These men were eloquent and persuasive. But rather than calling people to holiness and love for God, they appealed to their fleshly lusts and greed. They told them that God didn’t want them to deprive themselves of the pleasures of sex. They said, ‘We’re under grace! We’re free from the law. So indulge yourselves!’… Beware of any teaching that appeals to your fleshly desires, outside the boundaries God has prescribed for proper enjoyment. Sex and material things have their rightful place. But when they become the consuming object of our lives, we’ve fallen prey to false teaching.”[1]

For people living in Jesus’ day, water was a precious commodity. They couldn’t simply turn on a tap to draw water or activate a sprinkler system to immediately make water flow on their planted crops. They had to dig wells that provided fresh water or wait for it to rain. People depended greatly on the availability and value of springs and wells. Peter intimates that false teachers are something like a mirage in the desert. They make reassuring promises that water is available, but cannot keep them. Compare that with Jesus, who offered people Living Water, told them: “Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). False teachers claim to have essential resources available — but they don’t.

The message of ungodly false teachers was empty of genuine spiritual content; their allure was to the lusts of the flesh in their audience (v. 18). They promised freedom, but we know that freedom is never manifested in the “lustful desires of the flesh,” only in God’s Spirit. When we seek freedom in the wrong way, we become “slaves of depravity.” Then and today, those who are overcome by desires of the flesh and by false teachers become slaves to both (v. 19).

Everyone Will Be Judged Accordingly (vv. 20–21)

The last three verses of chapter 2 can be troubling, especially when taken out of context. They appear to question whether a believer can lose or walk away from his or her salvation. That’s why it’s helpful to read all three closing verses in the context of Peter’s two epistles. 

20If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. 21It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them (2 Pet. 2:20–21).

We first need to identify to whom “they” and “them” refer in vv. 20–22. Is Peter speaking here of the unbelieving false teachers or of their naive, Christian victims? It’s possible that the correct answer is both groups. Probably due to the context, Peter has focused mainly on the false teachers. But it also applies to those who fall for their deceptive teaching. For a while, they’d escaped the world’s degradation by knowing Christ as Lord and Savior. But once again they’d get entangled in such contamination. This last state was worse than their first.

Both verses raise two questions: (1) What does Peter mean when he says, “They are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning”? and (2) Is Peter saying that believers can lose their salvation?

To answer question 1, Peter may mean two things when he says that their latter state is worse than the first. It may be worse because, if a person has heard the gospel and experienced the Christian life, it will be more difficult to restore him or her to a true knowledge of Jesus Christ. Peter may also mean that their latter state is worse than the first because everyone will be judged on how much true light they reject (see Matthew 11:21–24Luke 12:47–48). These believers had been exposed to a lot of truth about Jesus but turned their backs on it when they pursued their sinful lusts: They’ll be judged accordingly.

To answer question 2, the simple affirmative answer is: No, a believer cannot lose his salvation. God keeps those whom he saves (Philippians 1:6); Jesus said that he wouldn’t lose any of those whom his Father had given him (John 6:39–40); no one can snatch his sheep from his hand (John 10:28). Pastor Stephen J Cole agrees: “When God saves you, He changes your heart. He imparts new life to you so that your desires are changed. You now love God and seek to please Him. You want to grow to know Him. You love His Word. You hate your sin and strive against it. In other words, genuine saving faith always results in a life of growing godliness and obedience to Christ (see James 2 and 1 John). If that is not your experience, you may need to go back and make sure that God has truly changed your heart through faith in Christ.”[2]

Assuming that Peter had in mind the people whom the false teachers were leading astray, perhaps it was the newer, less mature or less experienced believers; perhaps it was those who’d heard the gospel message but remained uncommitted (as presented in Jesus’ Parable of the Sower). These people, distracted and enticed by the false teachers, eventually became “worse off at the end” (v. 20). They’d begun to escape the world’s sinful corruption while associating with a community of believers. Sadly, the false teachers fooled them into resuming their prior sinfulness, thereby causing them to become “entangled in…the corruption of the world.” As a result, their concept of the gospel became tarnished.

And, in v. 21, we see that these people had heard and understood the gospel of Jesus but apparently hadn’t yet fully trusted in Christ. These apostates went back to their old forms of life, especially in the area of morality. They once clearly understood the way of righteousness and appeared to know the way of Christ and have a heart for holiness. But they drifted from Christ and then apostatized. Scripture confirms that merely knowing about God isn’t the same as having a saving faith in Christ (James 2:19). These prospective believers became misled by the false teachers who’d caused them to again be overcome and entangled in worldly corruption as a result of their ungodly acts.

Three Personal Applications (v. 22)

Christ has the power to break the bonds of sin and addiction that Satan and the world insist on restraining us with. Thankfully, he chose to set us free. It’s in this closing verse that we find three key personal applications for today’s passage.

22Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit” [Proverb 26:11] and, “A sow that is washed returns to her wallowing in the mud” (2 Pet. 2:22).

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Herein, Peter reveals us the true character of apostate false teachers: They are dogs and sows, both unclean animals. Jesus said this about dogs and swine. “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” (Matt. 7:6).

First, we believers mustn’t allow anything to master us. While we get tempted often, we have many strengths and weaknesses. We must be aware of every weakness, realizing that Satan wants to tempt, enter, and control us. Have you been tempted to love money? Maybe you procrastinate or are lazy. Possibly, one or more addictions have set in. Other temptations? God’s grace is sufficient to help you reject and refuse to be entangled by one or more chains that bind you today. If you don’t want to be a slave (v. 19), confess your sins to the Lord and prayerfully request freedom.

Second, we mustn’t continue to become entangled in worldly corruption (v. 20). Peter repeats this concept using even more vivid terminology about the dog and sow (v. 22). He says that it’s disgusting (and stupid) for anyone who’s chosen to dedicate/surrender one’s life to the Lord, then revert to living the former worldly way of life (Ephesians 4:22).

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Third, we must never turn our backs on the Lord’s sacred commands. Rereading v. 21, we see that it basically says, It’s better to be ignorant than to know the truth but disobey it. Most thankfully, all true believers remain blessed: We know the truth and we know God’s commands. We must take full responsibility and faithfully follow the Lord’s commands that he provides throughout the Scriptures.

It Makes You Wonder . . .
  • Q. 1  Can you put into context “springs without water” and “mists driven by a storm”?
  • Q. 2  What are one or two things that “entangle” you these days?
  • Q. 3  What must you do to finally and fully free yourself of such entanglement?
  • Q. 4  Why do apostates return to vomit like a dog and wallow in mud like a sow?

Thumbnail of 'The Last Supper' by James Tissot, 1886–1894. Warren Camp's 'Peter Masterpieces' photo album.

‘The Last Supper’ by Tissot
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Summary Video: “Second Peter”

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This Week’s Passage
2 Peter 2:17–22

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