THE LORD KNOWETH HOW TO DELIVER
2 Peter 2:1-9
THIS second chapter contains much more of a direct description of the heretical teaching and practices from which the converts were in danger, and is full of warning and comfort, both alike drawn from that Old Testament prophecy to the light of which St. Peter has just been urging them to take heed. The chapter has many features and much of its language in common with the Epistle of St. Jude. But the opening of the chapter seems a suitable place to call attention to a difference of motive which is manifested in this Epistle and in that. They resemble one another greatly in the illustrations which they have in common, but St. Peter makes a twofold use of them: while showing that the ungodly will assuredly be punished, he comforts the righteous with the lesson that, be they ever so few, even as the eight who were saved at the Deluge, or as Lot, with his diminished family, at the overthrow of Sodom, the Lord knows how to deliver His servants out of trials. Of this latter side of the prophetic picture St. Jude shows us nothing. The evil doings of the tempters must have waxed grosser in his day, and he is only concerned to preach the certainty of their condemnation. The unbelievers in the wilderness, the angels who sinned, the Cities of the Plain, the error of Balaam, and the overthrow of Korah are all cited in proof that the wicked shall not escape; but he has no word about the deliverance of those whose souls are tortured by the wicked doing of the sinners among whom it is their lot to live.
"But there arose false prophets also among the people, as among you also there shall be false teachers, who shall privily bring in destructive heresies, denying even the Master that bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction." It is as though the Apostle would say, Be not unduly dismayed. The lamp of Old Testament prophecy shows that yours is a lot which has befallen others. As Israel of old was God’s people, so the Church of Christ is now And among them again and again false prophet arose, not only those of Baal and Asherah, not only those who served the calves at Dan and Bethel, but those who called themselves by Jehovah’s name, and of whom He says to Jeremiah, "The prophets prophesy lies in My name. I sent them not, neither have I commanded them, neither spake I unto them: they prophesy unto you a false vision and divination, and thing of naught, and the deceit of their heart." [Jeremiah 14:14] The picture is exactly repeated for these Asian Churches. False teaching had attached itself to the true, used its language, and professed to be at one with it, except in so far as it was superior. For the history of corruptions in the faith repeats itself, and-
"Wherever God erects a house of prayer,
The devil always builds a chapel there."
It is the most perilous aspect of error when it parades itself as the truest truth. Hence the name by which St. Peter calls this dangerous teaching: "destructive heresies." They beguile unstable souls to their ruin. Their exponents choose the name of Christ to call themselves by, but cast aside the doctrine of the Cross both in its discipline for their lives, and as the altar of human redemption; And the men to whom St. Peter alludes were either among the teachers, or put themselves forward to teach; and there was a danger lest their authority should be recognized. They accepted Christ, but not as He loves to be accepted. He has called Himself Lord and Master, and has paid the price which makes Him so; but by their interpretations both of His nature and His office these men in very deed renounced and deserted His service, ignored their relation as His bondservants, and in this way denied the Master that bought them. Soon they chose other masters and became the slaves of the world and the flesh. Thus they entered on the path that leads to destruction, and soon it will come upon them. They who destroyed others shall themselves be destroyed. The lords whom they serve have all their empire in this life; and when the end thereof comes, it comes all too soon, and is a dread overthrow of everything they have set store by. On their lot the lamp of prophecy sheds its light: "How suddenly do they perish and come to a fearful end."
"And many shall follow their lascivious doings; by reason of whom the way of the truth shall be evil spoken of." St. Jude, who had seen the results of such teaching, says these men turned the very grace of God into lasciviousness; they perverted the teachings of the Gospel concerning the freedom which is in Christ, and their phraseology they made to have a Pauline ring about it. Did he not teach how Christ had made men free? Had they not heard from him that men should cast off trust in the bondage of the Law? In this wise they taught a doctrine of lawless self-indulgence, which they extolled as the token of entire emancipation and of a loftier nature on which the taint of sins could leave no defilement. In the blindness of their hearts, self-chosen blindness, of which they boasted as knowledge, they gave themselves over to the flesh, to work all uncleanness with greediness.
St. Peter knows that baits of this sort appeal to the natural man; that there is within the citadel of the heart a traitorous weakness which is ready to betray it to the enemy. So, with prophetic foresight, he laments, Many shall follow after them. And such sinners do not gin unto themselves: their falling away brings calamity on the whole Church of Christ. It did so then; it does so still. The faithful cannot escape from the obloquy which is due to the faithless; and the world, which cares little for Christ, will readily point to the evil lives which it sees in the renegade brethren, and draw the conclusion that in secret the rest run to the same excess of riot. Evil-speaking of this kind became abundantly common in the first Christian centuries, and furnishes the object of many Christian apologies.
"And in covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you." St. Paul in writing to Timothy gives a comment which throws much light on these words. He tells of men who consent not to sound words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, thus denying the Master that bought them. He speaks of them as bereft of the truth, supposing that godliness is a way of gain; and he adds, "They that desire to be rich fall into a temptation and a snare, and many foolish and hurtful lusts, such as drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, which some reaching after have been led astray from the faith, and have pierced themselves through with many sorrows". [1 Timothy 6:3-10] From the first days of the Church’s history we see, from the instances of Ananias and Sapphira, and of Simon, with his offer of money to the Apostles, that both among the disciples and the would-be teachers covetousness made itself very apparent. The communistic basis on which the society was constituted lent itself to the schemes of those who desired to make a gain of their Christian profession. In the time when St. Peter wrote the evil had spread. Teachers were discovering that, by a modification or adaptation of the Christian language and doctrines, they could draw after them many followers. These were the feigned words to which the Apostle alludes, and the contributions of their satisfied hearers were proving a gainful merchandise. The Gnostic teachers were of various sorts, but of all alike the language was boastful as coming of superior insight; great, swelling words they spake, having men’s persons in regard because of the prospects of advantage. The evil was a sore one, and is so wherever it finds entry. And later ages have also known somewhat of its mischief. It is the wisdom of all Christian communities so to order themselves that their teachers and guides may be safe from this temptation. For such teachers do not stop at small beginnings of error, hut prophesy smooth things, and close their eyes at evil; nay, in this case they seem to have encouraged sensual living, as though it were an indication of the freedom of which they boasted.
"Whose sentence now from of old lingereth not, and their destruction slumbereth not." In thought the Apostle reads the book of prophecy. It is as if he said, "It is written in the prophetic word." And when the overthrow of the sinners comes to pass, those who behold it may say, "Thus is the prophecy fulfilled." The doom of such sinners is sure. They may seem to live their lives with impunity, for a while, as though God’s eternal law were inoperative; but the issue is certain. None such escape. God’s mills grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small. And the lot of such men is destruction. Of illustrations the Apostle chooses three, applying each to a different vice of these teachers of error. These men were proud; so were the angels that sinned, but their pride was only a prelude to their fall. These men were disobedient; so were the antediluvian sinners, and would neither hearken nor turn, and so the Flood came and swept them all away. These men were sensual; so were the dwellers in the Cities of the Plain, and their overthrow remains still a memorial of God’s wrath against such sinners. Verily the sentence of all such men is written from of old.
"For if God spared not angels when they sinned, but cast them down to hell, and committed them to pits of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment." To each of the three instances St. Peter adduces the reader is left to supply the unmistakable conclusion, "Neither will He spare the sinners of today." The sentences are all the more solemn from their incompleteness. Some have thought that the reference in this verse is to the narrative found in Genesis 6:3; but that account is very full of difficulties, and there is no mention of a judgment upon those who offended. It seems more sound exposition to take the Apostle’s words as spoken of him concerning whom Christ has told us [John 8:44] that he was a murderer from the beginning and stood not in the truth, and of the condemnation of whose pride St. Paul speaks to Timothy. [1 Timothy 3:6] For him and for his fellow-sinners the Gospel teaches us [Matthew 25:41] that eternal fire was prepared, and an apostle [James 2:19] says that "the devils believe and shudder," it must be in apprehension of a coming judgment. All that St. Peter here says is implied in these Scriptural allusions to Satan and his fall; and it is more prudent to apply to them the highly figurative language of the Apostle here, which is exactly after his manner, than to seek for fanciful interpretations of the Mosaic story. We may rest assured by the way in which these things are spoken of, though but dimly, by Christ and His Apostles, that they formed a portion of Jewish religious teaching and constituted part of the faith of St. Peter and his contemporaries, though there is but little mention of the fallen angels in the Old Testament.
"And spared not the ancient world, but preserved Noah with seven others, a preacher of righteousness, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly." Here the Apostle points to a consolation for the converts amid their trials. The ungodly do not escape, be their multitude ever so great. A world full of sinners is involved in one common overthrow. Nor are the righteous forgotten, though their number be but few. The lamp of prophecy sheds much light here. Amid all God’s dispensations toward Israel, His faithful ones were the remnant only; but these were saved by the grace of the Lord, they were brought out from the destruction, and not forsaken, and had a promise that they should take root downward and bear fruit upward. The words in which St. Peter describes the chief person of the few saved in the Deluge appear intended to point out that feature in Noah’s history which most resembled the lot of the Asian Churches. They were now, as he was of old. God’s heralds in the midst of a naughty world; and to bring to their minds the thought of his long-sustained opposition and mockery could hardly fail to nerve them to stand fast. What lot could be more desperate than the Patriarch’s? For a hundred and twenty years by action and by word he published his message, and it fell on deaf ears; yet God was guarding him ( εφυλαξεν) through it all, and words could not express more complete safety than when the early record tells us, ere the Flood came, "The Lord shut him in."
"And turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes condemned them with an overthrow, having made them an example unto those that should live ungodly." These cities stood in a land fair enough to be likened to the garden of the Lord. To Lot himself their fertile fields had been a temptation, and by yielding thereto he brought on himself a plenitude of sorrow; and the sacred record counts his deliverance-rather to the faith and righteousness of Abraham than to himself. God remembered Abraham, and brought Lot out of the overthrow. One of the fairest parts of His world God condemned for the wickedness of them that inhabited it. Nature was defaced for man’s sin, and still lies desolate as a perpetual homily against such ungodly living as often comes of wealth and fullness of bread. After such a state were these false teachers seeking while they made their gain of their disciples; and in the later times of which St. Jude speaks, having fostered all that was carnal within and around them, in those things which they understood naturally, there they cast themselves away.
"And delivered righteous Lot, sore distressed by the lascivious life of the wicked (for that righteous man dwelling among them, in seeing and hearing, vexed his righteous soul from day to day with their lawless deeds)." The thrice-named righteousness of Lot is perhaps thus set down because of the struggle which it must have been to maintain the fear of Abraham’s God among such sinful surroundings. Lot was in the land of the enemy, and his deliverance is pictured as a very rescue: he was saved, yet so as by fire. He had gone down into the plain with thoughts of a life of abundance, and it may be of ease, a contrast to the wandering life which he had hitherto shared with Abraham. Instead of this he found anguish and distress of mind, which no amount of temporal prosperity could alleviate; and to this would be added self-reproach. It was of his own choice that he was dwelling among them. The Apostle points his misery in the strongest terms. He was distressed; and of the sights and sounds on every side, and never ceasing, he made a torture to his soul. It was no mere offence to him that these things were so. It was very anguish to see men setting at defiance every law human and Divine. To behold the evils of a lascivious life waxing rampant in the midst of the Christian Churches, and countenanced by those who assumed the office of teachers, must have been an agony to the faithful akin to that with which Lot tortured himself. St. Peter would strengthen the drooping hearts of the brethren; and no greater comfort could there be found than this which he offers, taking the lamp of prophecy and shedding its rays of hope into the dark places of their lives.
"The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptation." Already he has given the lesson [2 Peter 1:6] that true godliness must have its root in patience. It is a perfect trust, which rests securely on the Father’s love, and willingly waits His time. The hearts of the faithful ones must have found solace in the thought which he here joins to his former teaching. The trials they endure are grievous, but "The Lord knows" is an unfailing support. The floods of ungodliness make His servants many a time afraid; but when they feel that there, as amid the raging ocean, the Lord ruleth, they are not overwhelmed. They are protected by Omnipotence; and the tiny grains of sand, which check the fierce tide, are an emblem of how out of weakness He can ordain strength. Hence there comes a knowledge to the struggling saint which makes him full of courage, whatever trials threaten. The world has its wrathful Nebuchadnezzars, whose threats at times are as a fiery furnace; but he is proof against them all who can say and feel, "The Lord knows." I am not careful nor disturbed; my God, in whom I trust, is able to deliver me, and He will deliver me. The Lord knoweth the way of the godly, and His knowledge means safety and eternal deliverance.
"And to keep the unrighteous under punishment unto the Day of Judgment." The unrighteousness, over them too God keeps ward. They cannot hide themselves from Him, and through their conscience He makes life a continuous chastisement. They may seem to men to walk on heedlessly, but they have hidden tortures of which their fellows can take no count. Even the offender against human laws, who dreads that his sin will be found out, carries in his bosom a constant scourge. Fear hath torment ( κολασιν εχει), and this it is of which the Apostle speaks. And if the dread of man’s judgment can work terror, how much sorer must their alarm be who have the fiery indignation of the wrath of God in their thoughts and stinging their soul. Such men are kept all their life long under punishment. Yet in this constant anguish we trace God’s mercy: He sends it that men may turn in time. His blows on the sinful heart are meant to be remedial; and those who disregard His chastisements to the last will go away, self-condemned, self destroyed, despisers of Divine love, to a doom prepared, not for them, but for the devil and his angels.
"BY THEIR FRUITS YE SHALL KNOW THEM"
2 Peter 2:10-16
THE Apostle now pictures in the darkest colors the evil-doing and evil character of those who are bringing into the Churches their "sects of perdition," those wolves in sheep’s clothing who are mixing themselves, and are likely to make havoc, among the flock of Christ. He hopes that thus the brethren, being forewarned, will also be forearmed. And not only does he describe these bold offenders: he also reiterates in many forms the certainty of their evil fate. They aim at destroying others, and shall themselves meet destruction; their wrong-doing shall bring a recompense in kind upon their own heads. They are a curse among the people, but the curse will also fall on themselves; they are agents of ruin, and shall perish in the overthrow which they are devising.
"But chiefly them that walk after the flesh in the lust of defilement, and despise dominion." These chiefly-that is, above other sinners-does God keep under punishment. It cannot be otherwise, for on them His chastisements have little effect. They have entered on a road from which return is rare, neither do they take hold on the paths of life; their whole bent is for that which defileth, not only defiling them, but spreading defilement on every side. They are renegades, too, from the service of Christ; and having cast off their allegiance to Him, they make their lust their law. The verse describes the same character in two aspects: those who walk after the flesh follow no prompting but appetite, have no lord but self.
"Daring, self-willed, they tremble not to rail at dignities." The Apostle passes on to describe another and more terrible manifestation of the lawlessness of these false teachers. They have so sunk themselves in the grossness of material self-indulgence that they revile and set at naught the spiritual world, and the powers that exist therein. In the term "dignities" the Apostle’s thoughts are of the angels, against whom these sinners scruple not to utter their blasphemies. The good angels, the messengers from heaven to earth, the ministering spirits sent forth to minister to those who shall be heirs of salvation, they are bold to deny; while concerning the evil angels, to whose temptations they have surrendered themselves, they scoff, representing their lives as free and self chosen, and at their own disposal. The two terms "daring," "self-willed," seem to point respectively to these two forms of blasphemy. They tremble not, they dare to deny the existence of the good, and they shrink not to mock at the influence of the powers of evil. Thus in mind and thought they are as debased as in their bodies, and by their lessons they corrupt as much as by their acts.
"Whereas angels, though greater in might and power, bring not a railing judgment against them before the Lord." The explanation of this passage is not without difficulty, because of the indefiniteness of the words "against them." To whom is reference here made? It can hardly be questioned that by δοξαι, "dignities," literally "glories," in the previous verse the Apostle meant angels, the dignities of the spirit-world, in contradistinction to kurioyhV, "dominion," in which he before referred to those earthly authorities whom these false teachers set at naught. The verbs used in the two clauses support this view. The dominion they venture to despise, at the dignities they rail, whereas they ought to be afraid of them. Now even to the fallen angels there attaches a dignity by reason of their first estate. In the New Testament the chief of them is called by Christ Himself "the prince of this world," [John 14:30] and by St. Paul "the prince of the power of the air"; [Ephesians 2:2] and he has a sovereignty over those who shared his rebellion and his fall. Having described the railing of the false teachers in the previous verse as directed alike against the evil angels and the good, it seems preferable here to take "against them" as applying to the evil angels. Even against them, though they must be conscious of their sin and rebellion against God, the good angels, who still abide in the presence of the Lord, bring no railing judgment, utter no reproach or upbraiding.
There may have been in St. Peter’s thought that solemn scene depicted in Zechariah 3:1-10, where, in the presence of the angel of the Lord, that highest angel who is Jehovah’s special representative, Joshua the high-priest appears, and at his right hand Satan standing to be his adversary, and to charge him, and the nation through him, with their remissness in the work of the restoration of God’s temple. There the angel of the Lord, full of mercy, as Satan was full of hate, checked the adversary’s accusation, saying, "The Lord rebuke thee, Satan." The same application of the words "against them" is suggested by the apocryphal illustration in St. Jude (Jude 1:9), where in the contention about the body of Moses no greater rebuke is administered to the devil by the archangel Michael.
This exposition does not remove all difficulty. For as the angels in the verse appear to be spoken of as superior in might and power to these corrupt teachers, it seems natural at first sight to refer to them the indefinite expression, and to explain that the angels, though they be so exalted, bring no railing judgment before God against these teachers and their evil doings. But from what Scripture tells us of the angels, it is not easy to understand how or why they should bring such a judgment. Nowhere is such an office assigned to, or exercised by, these spiritual beings, nor are we anywhere told that the observance of the deeds of the wicked is in their province. They rejoice over one sinner that repenteth; they stand in God’s presence as the representatives of spotless innocence; they are sent forth by God as His messengers of judgment and of love; but we never find them as accusers of the wicked. That office Satan has taken for his own.
But the words which the Apostle uses seem hardly to make it necessary that the comparison should be between angels and these teachers of destruction. In the passage of Zechariah which we judge to have been in St. Peter’s mind when he wrote, the angel is that mightiest spirit among the angelic host who is identified in the language of the prophet with Jehovah Himself; and the angel in St. Jude’s illustration is the archangel Michael. Conceiving that by "angels" St. Peter intends these chief members of the celestial powers, the sentence may be taken to mean that the most glorious beings among the angelic throng, those who are greater in might and power than the "dignities" of whom he has spoken, bring no railing judgment even against the fallen angels, whereas these men presume to blaspheme beings of an order far above themselves. Such a conception of subordination in the spirit-world as is here suggested is not foreign to New Testament thought. St. Paul speaks of the angels in heaven as representing "principality, power, might, and dominion"; [Ephesians 1:21] and in the same Epistle the evil angels are mentioned in like terms: "The principalities, the powers, the world-rulers of this darkness". [Ephesians 6:12] Similar language is found also in Colossians 1:16. Taking this view of St. Peter’s meaning, the daring and presumption of these false teachers are set in a stronger contrast. Whereas the highest angels, those who stand first among the heavenly host and dwell in the immediate presence of the Lord, though they might accuse Satan and his angels of rebellion, yet refrain; these bold transgressors among the race of men cast forth their blasphemy against the whole spiritual world.
"But these, as creatures without reason, born mere animals to be taken and destroyed, railing in matters whereof they are ignorant, shall in their destroying surely be destroyed." The glory of man in creation is his reason. It is bestowed that he may freely, and not by constraint, consent unto the will of God, and also may by it discipline the body and hinder it from becoming his master. For the soul tabernacling in the flesh there is ever this peril, and by it these false teachers in the Asian Churches had been ensnared. Thus they were degraded, and were frustrating the end for which the light of reason was given. They were become like the horse and mule, which have no understanding. When the serpent tempted Eve, he set before her his own elevation through the fruit which to her was forbidden.
"I of brute human, ye of human gods," was his tempting speech. These men had given themselves up for a less noble bribe. The bait of sensual indulgence was offered, and their acceptance of it had brought them down to the level of creatures without reason. Their conduct and their lessons merited such a comparison, and showed how their nobler part had been warped by excess. To blaspheme against the powers of the spirit-world is conduct which can only be paralleled by that of the senseless animals, which, with utter ignorance of consequences, will rush upon objects whose strength they know not, and perish in their blind onslaught. But the beasts were born to be taken and destroyed; no higher fate was in their power.
Men were meant for a nobler end, and it is only when the rein is given to appetite that they become from human brutish in their knowledge, more brutish than to know. Thus in their ignorance they rail at all loftier thought, and of their railing make a show of knowledge. Here they are more noxious than the unreasoning brutes. Their blinding lessons gain a hearing; and those who listen are drawn on by the same lust, and willingly follow after ignorance. But the work of all carries condemnation with it. Man, whose gaze was meant ever to be upward, is bowed down to earth like the beasts of the field, which are meant only for capture and destruction. On such perversion God will surely visit. They shall reap the fruit of their bold self-will, and in the time of their visitation they shall perish.
"Suffering wrong as the hire of wrongdoing." The Authorized Version translates a somewhat different text ( κομιουμενοι), "and shall receive the reward of wrong-doing." This is the easier sentence, and connects itself well with what precedes; but it has not the strongest support. By the text which the Revised Version has adopted ( αδικουμενοι), the Apostle does not mean that these sinners meet a punishment which they have not deserved, and in that sense suffer wrong; but that they are themselves brought under the penalties of the wrong into which they are leading others. As the Psalmist says, their wickedness comes down on their own plate, and in the net which they hid privily is their own foot taken. They differ from Ba-laam, whose example St. Peter is soon about to instance. These men secure the reward they seek, larger resources to squander on their lust; yet this, their success, as they would call it, proves their overthrow.
"Men that count it pleasure to revel in the daytime." They that are drunken are drunken in the night, and the same holds ordinarily of other excesses. They come not to the light because their deeds are evil. But these men have cast aside all such timorousness. They find a zest in outrage and in going beyond others, so as to add the daytime to the night for their indulgences. The sense of "luxury that lasts but for a day," that is ephemeral, and perishes in the using, is hardly to be extracted from the Greek; but with St. James [James 5:5] in mind, where the verb is connected with the noun of this verse, "Ye have lived delicately on the earth and taken your pleasure," it may perhaps be allowable, as some have done, to interpret ejn ημερα as signifying "the time of this present life." The men live as though life were bestowed for no other object than their revelry. "Spots and blemishes." St. Peter must have had in his thought the epithets which he applied to Christ: "a lamb without blemish and without spot." [1 Peter 1:19] Utterly alien to the spirit and life of Jesus is these men’s wantonness. They belong rather to him who is described as a roaring lion, walking about to find whom he may devour.
"Reveling in their lovefeasts while they feast with you." Here also the Revised Version accepts a text different from that rendered by the Authorized, which for the first clause has "sporting themselves with their own deceivings" ( απαταις). This refers to "the feigned words" with which they have been pictured as making a gain of the unstable souls whom they lead astray. They find a sport in their delusion, a pleasure, which is devilish, in the evil they are working. The other reading, αγαπαις, which is also found in Jude 1:12, refers to those gatherings of the faithful in the earliest period of the Church’s history where the brethren by partaking in common of a simple meal gave a symbol of Christian equality and love. It may be that this in its origin was the assembling of the congregation for "the breaking of bread," but we soon find the social meal had become a distinct observance. And we know from St. Paul’s letter to the Church of Corinth that disorder was introduced into these meetings, and that luxury and disparity ofttimes took the place of simplicity and equality. "In your eating," says the Apostle, "each one taketh before other his own supper, and one is hungry, and another is drunken…When ye come together tarry one for another". [1 Corinthians 11:21;, 1 Corinthians 11:33] In these Asian congregations the evil had gone to a greater length. Instead of a sober assembly, where friendly converse might form a fitting accompaniment to the more solemn breaking of bread in remembrance of their Lord, these lovefeasts were converted into a revel by the luxurious additions which the false teachers took care to have supplied. The Apostle calls them their lovefeasts, because it was from their conduct that the gathering took its character. The members of the Church were indeed invited, but these men made themselves leaders of the meal, and turned what was meant to be a simple repast into a scene of riot and indulgence. But such excess only opens the floodgates for more.
"Having eyes full of adultery, and that cannot cease from sin." These preachers of freedom from the restraints of the Law must make their evil liberty known, and so they shamelessly parade it even in the meetings of the brethren. They cast about them their licentious glances, and their lustful gaze is unchecked. Nay, they have so given it rein that now it is beyond their control. Their eyes cannot cease from sin. The original speaks of "eyes full of an adulteress." By this unusual expression the Apostle seems to point to the danger that such conduct would meet with a response, that the sisters in the Church would be beguiled and led to join hands with these teachers of license. With this we may compare the language addressed to the Church of Thyatira concerning "the woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, and teacheth and seduceth My servants to commit fornication". [Revelation 2:20]
"Enticing unsteadfast souls; having a heart exercised in covetousness; children of cursing." A very pestilence must such men have been to the Churches. For there are always many to be found who are not established in the truth, though it be present with them, men whom the bait of a promised freedom, with its assumption of superiority, will always catch. There is in it a witchery worse even than that which, in another direction, had once before led the Galatians astray. Satan himself offers the temptation, and finds allies within men’s hearts to help his cause. It is only by those steadfast in the faith that he can be withstood. [1 Peter 5:9] They look beyond today, and to a brighter, purer joy than any which he can offer. So they are safe. But, alas! in the Churches such men are often but the remnant, and the trade of the beguiler makes its gain in every age. And it was for material gain these men were laying themselves out; and, that they might be perfect in their craft, they had put themselves, as it were, to school, gone through a training. As was said of Israel in old time, [Jeremiah 22:17] their eyes and their heart are but for their covetousness, greed of defilement, and greed of gain. Children of cursing are they in a double sense: they are a curse to those whom they lead astray; and in spite of the popularity which for a time they will seem to enjoy, there is no blessing upon them. Their doom is foretold from of old. The lamp of God’s prophecy makes it clear that such men are the children of Cain.
"Forsaking the right way, they went astray, having followed the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the hire of wrongdoing." It is an aggravation of wrong-doing when those who know the good willingly choose the evil. Of such men there is little hope. To wander is their choice; and as wrong paths are many, and the right but one, they become wanderers to the end. That the closing of their eyes was in these teachers a self-chosen course we see from the example which St. Peter has chosen to illustrate their character. Balaam, however he gained his knowledge and however unworthy he was to possess it, certainly knew much of Jehovah, and had been used to keep alive the knowledge of God among the heathen round about him; but his heart was not whole with God. To be known as the prophet of the Lord was a reputation which he prized, but mainly, as it seems, for the credit it gave him among his fellows. When the chance came, he would fain endeavor to serve two masters. It has been for ever true, "Ye cannot serve God and mammon"; but Balaam resolved to try. He thought by importunity to prevail with God for so much liberty of speech as would gain Balak’s silver and gold. When his intention was thwarted, and his mouth was filled with blessings instead of curses, he still hankered after Balak’s honors and money, and wrought for Israel by his counsel the curse which his lips were hindered from uttering.
And these teachers of license in the name of freedom moved among the Christian Churches as though they were true brethren. They used. Christian phrases in their "feigned words," yet were ready to lead their followers in a way as dissolute as that which the son of Beor suggested to the Midianites [Numbers 31:16] that the children of Israel might trespass against the Lord. For these men’s hearts were set on the hire of wrongdoing. Yet their offence was even fouler than Balaam’s, for to their lust and covetousness they added hypocrisy.
"But he was rebuked for his own transgression: a dumb ass spake with man’s voice and stayed the madness of the prophet." The word which St. Peter here uses for "rebuke, " and which is found nowhere else in the New Testament, implies a rebuke administered by argument, a refutation such as reasonable persons will yield to. The dumb ass (St. Peter’s word is literally "beast of burden") appealed to her conduct all her life through. Was I ever wont to do this unto thee? Should I do so now without good reason? The reason was made plain at the sight of the angel. That presence made the rider bow his head and fall on his face. But what excuse was there for his lawlessness? For that is the sense which the Apostle puts on Ba-laam’s transgression. And the word which he adds makes the rebuke more strong. It was his own transgression. The swerving of the dumb beast was not of herself. She would have held to the right way had it been possible, but her master’s lawlessness was very madness; and he was the prophet, she the speechless brute. It has been said, "Quem Deus vult perdere prius dementat." But the proverb is not true. The destruction is not of God’s will; the madness comes of a self-chosen course of rebellion. Ever God’s voice is, as it was of old, "It is thy destruction, O Israel, that thou art against Me, against thy help". [Hosea 13:9] The ruin is self-destruction, an infatuation which will accept no remonstrance, brook no check. For the warning voice of the dumb beast only hindered Balaam’s evil project for a brief moment; and though the Divine power which loosed the tongue of the ass kept her master’s in check, the maddening greed for Balak’s gold was in his heart and at all costs would be satisfied, and led him to destruction. Such is the penalty of those who willingly desert the right way through love of the hire of wrongdoing. In forsaking God, they forsake the fountain of wisdom. Then their lawlessness degrades their human endowments to the level of the brutish, and the obedient drudging of the dumb beasts of burden speaks loud-for God gives it a tongue-against the mad errors of rebellious men.
ALTOGETHER BECOME ABOMINABLE
2 Peter 2:17-22
THE Apostle now describes these traitors to the cause of Christ under another aspect. They proffer themselves as guides and teachers. As such they should be sources of refreshment and help. But in every respect they belie the character which they have assumed. "These are springs without water." The blessing of a spring is only known to the full in Eastern lands. Hence it is that in Bible language wells and fountains are constantly used as emblematic of happiness. When Israel is brought out of Egypt, their destination is described as "a land of fountains." Mental and spiritual blessings are pictured by this figure: "The mouth of a righteous man is a well of life"; [Proverbs 10:11] "The wellspring of wisdom is a flowing brook". [Proverbs 18:4] The invitation which the prophet publishes in God’s name runs, "Lo, every one that thirsteth, come.ye to the waters"; [Isaiah 55:1] and the gracious promise is, "With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation". [Isaiah 12:3] To those who had been accustomed to language of this sort St. Peter’s words convey a picture of utter disappointment. Where men had a right to expect that they would find brightness and refreshment, where they were promised an oasis in the world’s desert, there proved to be only a delusive mirage; and for this the brethren were beguiled to forsake the living waters which Christ has promised to His faithful ones. "And mists driven by a storm." Here the same thought is put into another shape. Mists, resting above the ground, play a part like that of the watersprings beneath. They protect from scorching heat, and drop down blessing on the thirsty land. But when they are chased away by the whirlwind, they can furnish neither protection nor nourishment. And so helpless for those who followed them were these apostles of license. Like mists they were, it is true, but only in their blinding influence. They brought with them blasts of vain doctrine, in their craftiness, after the wiles of error, and so created a desolation for those who sought unto them. We cannot help comparing this description with the ever-increasing illumination that flows from the lamp of prophecy, making the world’s dark places light.
"For Whom the blackness of darkness hath been reserved." Yes, for these also God has a destiny in store. It is reserved, as is the incorruptible inheritance, [1 Peter 1:4] which awaits His faithful ones. But it is in those pits of darkness to which the rebellious angels were committed. Yet even in the Apostle’s language there shines out somewhat of God’s mercy. The sinner’s doom is certain, but the blow has not yet fallen: the blackness of darkness is prepared, but was not prepared for men. Only those fall into it who persist in their rebellion. For them, in the words of Christ, it will be the outer darkness, where is the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.
"For, uttering great swelling words of vanity, they entice in the lusts of the flesh, by lasciviousness, those who are just escaping from them that live in error." St. Peter’s words are here very aptly chosen to contrast the boastful pretensions of these corrupters with the hollowness and delusion of all they promise. St. Jude [Jude 1:16] tells of the great swelling words, but does not add that further touch which proclaims their emptiness; St. Paul [1 Timothy 1:6] says that such men fall to their vain and boastful talking because they have swerved from purity of heart, from a good conscience, and from faith unfeigned. From such there is nothing to be expected but falseness and unreality; they arrogate to themselves a penetration which others have not. Theirs it is to have found a deeper meaning in revelation, to have worked their way to a freedom beyond the rest, a freedom in the midst of sin, which imparts to those who attain to it a freedom to sin with impunity. Thus do they entice in the lusts of the flesh by lasciviousness. Such a liberty suits the natural man; such guides find many to follow them.
True Christian freedom, the freedom of St. Paul, calls for constant watchfulness, earnest anxiety at every step, for life is full of treacherous roads. But forethought and carefulness are lacking for the most part in those who have just escaped from the entanglements of error. "I buffet my body," was the Apostle’s rule, "and bring it into bondage". [1 Corinthians 9:27] This was the discipline to free the soul. And to others he preaches in his letter to Timothy that "the grace of God hath appeared, bringing salvation to all men". [2 Timothy 2:2] But mark the pathway which leads to this life: "Instructing us to the intent that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world." Such precepts these men mocked at. There was a nobler knowledge, they said, a higher initiation. To this they had attained; to this they beguiled their followers.
Such men are unspeakably dangerous to those who have made but little progress in spiritual life. It is only those who, like Nehemiah of old, have become firm of purpose through prayer to the God of heaven, and know the dangers that everywhere beset them, that can withstand such temptation. As he labored amid the ruins of Jerusalem, which he was so zealous to restore, there came to him the invitation of the Samaritans, "Come, let us meet together let us take counsel together". [Nehemiah 6:7] No doubt the village in the plain of Ono, to which they asked him to come, was a pleasanter place just then than the bare hilltop of Zion, with its desolation and ruins. But his heart misgave him at the words of such counselors. "They thought to do me mischief." And his sturdy answer to the tempters is a pattern and a lesson for all time: "I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down." For it is always to come down that such counselors invite us, not to be afraid of putting ourselves on their level. They may cloak it under the name of elevation, as these Asian tempters did. They talk of this as liberty and power, just as the archfiend himself spake to the Savior, tempting Him to a boastful display of His trust in His Father: "Cast Thyself down." Those who fall, fall in this way, by a too ready yielding to some acceptable bait; and then they find themselves, not free, but prisoners. And the weak in the faith, those who are only just escaped from error, are those from among whom the deluders seek and find their victims.
"Promising them liberty, while they themselves are bond-servants of corruption; for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he also brought into bondage." Here we have two views of the same persons. First their own picture. They proclaim their superiority in lofty terms. Satan and his servants have always been liberal with promises. "Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil," "All these things will I give Thee, if Thou wilt fall down and worship me," are sample speeches of the arch-tempter. And these men follow their master; but, says the Apostle, they are themselves in the grossest slavery. He personifies Destruction as a power who holds them in her chains. And the idea sets sin before us in a terrible light. It begins in the single act, over which men fancy they have entire control; but the acts become a habit, and this, like a mighty, living power within men, but beyond their sway, overmasters their whole being, and drives them at its will. In the case of these men, no faculty was free; their very eyes could not cease from sin.
"For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein and overcome, the last state is become worse with them than the first." "Corruptio optimi pessima" is a well-known and very true dictum, and the Apostle sets these false teachers before us as a notable illustration of it. The backsliders, the renegades who desert a cause, are sure to exhibit intense hostility to the opposition from which they have fallen away. They are constrained to do so that men may think they have a warrant for their conduct; and often they have an uneasy conscience, which they must try to silence by large assertion of the rectitude and wisdom of what they do. Satan himself is the great instance. The state from which by rebellion he fell was unspeakably glorious, a life in the presence of perfect holiness. Now he takes his pleasure in marring everything that is holy, in defiling God’s world and filling it with pollution through the sin which he has introduced. These Asian backsliders had tasted the good grace of God. The Apostle speaks of their knowledge of Christ as that true comprehension of His love and mercy which draws men away from the world and its allurements. They had escaped and found a camp of refuge. But to take service under Christ means to bear the cross, and to bear it patiently. Jesus puts His servants to the proof, and not all who have set their hands to the plough continue steadfast in their work till the harvest comes. They halt in the process of that growth of grace which St. Peter describes in the first chapter of this letter. In their temperance they should provide patience, endurance in well doing. Many, however, persevere but for a little time; and the world seizes the opportunity of their doubt and hesitation, comes forward with its allurements, and captures the weak in faith. And such were these men, and their capture was fatal. They were now in the toils of a net from which there was little chance of escape; they were overcome and made very slaves. In their first efforts to walk with Christ they had been enabled to wrest themselves away from their evil life; but now they were sunk down, overpowered, and blind, with a blindness the more terrible because they had known what it was to have sight. Their last state was unspeakably worse than the first.
St. Peter has in mind the parable of his Master [Matthew 12:1-50, Luke 11:1-54] which was spoken prophetically of the Jewish people. There Christ tells of the evil spirit which has been cast out, but no attempt made to fill his place with a better tenant. Soon finding no rest, he returns, and beholds his former home swept, and garnished, and unoccupied. Then he goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than himself, who enter with him and dwell there. With what solemn meaning come those words which follow the parable, "Blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it!" [Luke 11:28] To have heard, and not to have kept, indeed makes the last state worse than the first. "For it were better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment delivered unto them." These words of the Apostle point out the fear and care which should possess the hearts of those whom God blesses with large opportunities: fear lest they receive them amiss and fail to value them; care lest they pervert them to a wrong use. Our Lord’s own words form the mightiest homily thereon when He spake to those cities of Galilee upon which a great light was shining as He dwelt in their midst, but He could not do His mighty works there because of their unbelief. "He came unto His own, and His own received Him not." Hence the solemn denunciations of woe upon them: "It shall be more tolerable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon, for Sodom and Gomorrah, than for them"; "The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment against them and condemn." And more sorrowfully still He speaks to Jerusalem: "If thou hadst known in this thy day the things that belong unto thy peace, but now they are hid from thine eyes."
Christ went away unto the Father, but He left the Apostles their commission to teach the way of righteousness as He had taught it. "Teach them," He says, "to observe all things whatsoever I have told you; and lo, I am with you always." By the ministrations of St. Paul and his fellow laborers the feet of these Asian converts had been set in the right way. They had made a profession of faith in Christ’s sacrifice, and thus had been reckoned among the righteous, among those called to be saints. But the journey unto righteousness is made by daily steps in keeping God’s law; and if these be not taken, the road may lie open, the traveler may see it, but he comes no nearer to the goal. Nay, in this road there is no standing still. They who fail to press forward inevitably slide back. It was here that these false teachers had failed. The command of God checked their evil appetites and greed; and so they set it at defiance and turned aside, and taught their deluded followers that God’s freedom in its highest sense meant a license to sin.
Here one of the Apostle’s words is very significant. He says, not holy commandments, but holy commandment, telling us thus that the Divine law is all comprehended in the right ordering of the heart. In principle all God’s laws are one. If that inward source of all our right and wrong be kept pure, from it are the issues of life; and every action flowing from it will then have a righteous aim. Thus men lead holy lives; thus they keep God’s commandments in every relation. They do not in this life become free from offence; they stumble, because they are compassed by infirmity. But they act from a right motive; and this, and not the sum-total of results, is what the loving Father of men regards. Thus the Divine law is the law of true freedom, supplying a principle, but leaving the particular actions to develop according to the circumstances of each man’s life. This is the freedom of which the Psalmist sings: "I walk at liberty, for I seek Thy precepts"; [Psalms 119:45] and one of our own poets extols a life so ordered by Divine law as the truest, grandest freedom:-
"Obedience is greater than freedom. What’s free?
The vexed straw on the wind, the tossed foam on the sea;
The great ocean itself, as it rolls and it swells,
In the bonds of a boundless obedience dwells."
"It has happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog turning to his own vomit again, and the sow that had washed to wallowing in the mire." To describe in all its horror the abysmal depth, to which these false teachers have sunk, the Apostle makes use of two proverbs, one of which he adapts from the Old Testament, [Proverbs 26:11] while the other is one which would impress the Jewish mind with a feeling of utter abomination. The dogs of the East are the pariahs of the animal world, while everything pertaining to swine was detestable in the eyes of the Israelite. But all the loathing which attached to these outcasts of the brute creation did not suffice to portray the defilement of these teachers of lies and their apostate lives. It needed those other grossest features-the return to the disgorged meal; the greed for filth, where a temporary cleansing serves, as it were, to give a relish for fresh wallowing-these traits were needed ere the full vileness of those sinners could be expressed.
Solomon spake his proverb of the fool who goes back to his folly; but of how much grossest lapse is he guilty who, having known the mercy of Christ, having tasted the Father’s grace, having been illumined by the Holy Spirit, turns again to the world and its pollutions, goes back into the far country, far away from God, and chooses again for his food the husks that the swine did eat!
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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Peter 2". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany