How to Spot a False Teacher
Topic: Expository Passage: 2 Peter 2:1-3
I’ve mentioned before that God did wonderful things in my life during my 4 years in college. I grew a ton in my knowledge of Scripture, theology, and godly living. And my heart was often full as I grew to understand all that Christ has provided for me in the gospel and the joy that I can experience through him.
But when you are on cloud nine, you don’t necessarily appreciate being pushed to think about negative realities. And I certainly felt that way when my professors brought up fighting doctrinal error and separating from it. I thought, “I just want to love Jesus. Don’t bother me with theological controversy and division.”
I remember sitting in a Contemporary Theology class one day, when Dr. Horn was going to lecture on separation from theological error. He knew that many in the class were struggling to see the point, so he began by reading Jude 3–4. He pointed out that Jude didn’t want to talk about controversy; instead, he wanted to write about “our common salvation.” He wanted to write a positive, feel-good letter.
But Jude says, “I found it necessary…” Dr. Horn proceeded to assert that Christians shouldn’t be lovers of controversy. We want to rejoice in the gospel and focus on the gospel. But we also must be realistic about threats to the gospel. If we love the truth, we must be committed to “contending earnestly for the faith.”
Those thoughts provide a good framework for studying of 2 Peter 2, because Peter is going to take off the gloves and go after the false teachers who were threatening his readers. This is not a warm, feel-good chapter of Scripture, but it’s absolutely necessary for all of us, not just pastors and theologians. Afterall, Peter isn’t exclusively addressing pastors. He wrote to the church, because all of us are responsible to “contend earnestly for the faith.”
With this background, let’s read 2 Peter 2:1–3. The central concern of this passage is the threat of false teachers. My outline is built on 3 questions I want to answer regarding these false teachers. The first question is…
I. Who are these false teachers?
Even though the men Peter has in mind are long gone, this is an important question. This is because the false teachers of our day are very similar. Satan figures, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” He continues to recycle the same methods over and over to divide and destroy God’s church. Peter makes this clear in his first description of the false teachers.
False teachers follow a familiar pattern in every age (v. 1a). This statement immediately makes me think of Jeremiah’s rivalry with the false prophet Hananiah in Jeremiah 28. God had commissioned Jeremiah to warn Judah that Babylon was about to destroy Jerusalem and take the people into captivity for 70 years.
But that’s not what the people wanted to hear. So, along came Hananiah, claiming to be God’s prophet, with a more likeable message. He said Judah’s captivity would only last 2 years and then God would fully restore Judah to the land and even restore King Jehoiachin (who was currently in a Babylonian prison) to the throne.
Naturally, the people preferred Hananiah’s message over Jeremiah’s. Even though he was a fraud, Hananiah won a big audience by telling people what they wanted to hear.
So, Peter tells his audience that there have always been false prophets. There always have been shysters who threaten God’s people with a feel good, false message that they claim comes from God. Peter’s point is that his readers were not facing anything new.
And the implication for us is that we should expect false prophets and false teachers in our day as well. We can’t bury or heads in the sand and pretend that every “Bible teacher” is sound and trustworthy. No, we should expect false teachers to threaten the church, and we must be ready to stand for the truth the same way God’s people always have. Second, Peter tells us…
False teachers arise from within the church. Peter says, “There will be false teachers among you.” In other words, the greatest threats to the church are not Muslim Imams or Buddhist priests who show up clearly intent on preaching another gospel. No, the greatest threats to the church come from within, from people who mostly look like us and talk like us.
In fact, notice later in v. 1 that Peter describes these false teachers as, “Denying the Lord who bought them.” “Bought” is the same verb we saw last Sunday in 1 Corinthians 6:20 for the price Jesus paid on the cross to redeem the church. So, the simplest reading of Peter’s statement is that Jesus paid for the redemption of these false teachers.
But this raises a difficult question. Specifically, how did Jesus buy people who are clearly headed to hell, as Peter states in v. 3? Some would say that these false teachers were once saved, but they abandoned Christ and lost their salvation. However, the Bible is clear that a genuine believer cannot lose his salvation, so this cannot be what Peter means.
Therefore, I believe Peter is affirming the truth that Jesus paid the full price of redemption for all humanity (including the false teachers). However, the Bible is clear that this redemption is only applied to the sinner, when he is born again. For example, Paul says that the Ephesians were “children of wrath” before their conversion, so Christ’s redemption is only a potential redemption until we receive it.
So, Peter describes the false teachers as those who were bought by the Lord in order to imply that they once claimed that Jesus was their Master and Lord. They had appeared to be redeemed (vv. 20a, 21). So, these guys came from within the church. They looked like Christians, and they talked like Christians. But they had since “denied the Lord.” They rejected both essential Christian doctrine and obedience to God’s commands.
The warning for us is that everyone who claims to be a Christian is not necessarily a Christian. Every guy on YouTube that talks about Jesus is not necessarily trustworthy. The Mormon missionary who comes to your door, claiming that we basically believe the same things is not telling the truth. Little Johnny, who was such a nice boy in Sunday School doesn’t get a pass, when he turns to false doctrine. No, there is a core of doctrine and practice that every believer must affirm. We must be ready to discern the true biblical teacher from the false. 3rd…
False teachers are deceptive. Twice in the text Peter mentions that the false teachers were not honest about their intentions. He says in v. 1 that they will “secretly bring in destructive heresies.” Then in v. 3, Peter warns, “They will exploit you with deceptive words.”
Again, false teachers don’t generally show up saying, “I’m here on behalf of Satan to destroy your faith.” No, they want to look harmless, and they use lots of terminology and ideas that seem familiar. They want you to believe that they really aren’t that different; they just have a little different spin on things.
But Peter warns that it is all a ruse to get an audience for propagating “destructive heresies.” So, don’t let some teacher tug on your emotions in such a way that you take off your thinking cap. Be discerning. Compare everything you hear with Scripture. Take advantage of trustworthy pastors, theologians, and resources. Stay faithful to the gospel. 4th…
False teachers are greedy. Verse 2 warns, “Many will follow their destructive ways.” There’s actually more at stake here than destruction. Hiebert states, “The expression indicates excess and the absence of restraint; it generally has the connotation of sexual debauchery.” Notice how Peter describes the false teachers in 2:13b–14. These guys were corrupt and perverse. Their lives were overtly contrary to God’s call for holiness.
We don’t have to look far to see that many false teachers in our day are not that different. It’s stunning how many prosperity preachers of today live. They have private jets, massive mansions, and lavish lifestyles. It’s a far cry from the humble lifestyle of Jesus and the apostles.
It’s not a sin to have nice things, but lavish materialism is a big red flag that something is wrong. Even if someone seems to have his doctrine right, be very careful about listening to a materialistic and worldly teacher or preacher. Look for the character of Christ, not worldly passions.
Peter also mentions the blatant immorality of these teachers. You’d think that no Christian would listen to a “Bible teacher” who practices immorality, but sadly there are plenty of examples in our day. It’s amazing how many “Christian” teachers get away with overt immorality and perversion.
Sadly, there are even many evangelical pastors who have committed blatant immorality and will never again meet the pastoral qualifications in 1 Timothy 3. But they are out preaching and leading as if nothing happened. They use their big, charismatic personalities to inspire blind but passionate loyalty.
Character matters. If a teacher or preacher ignores the ethical demands of Scripture or creatively weasels around them, run the other way. It doesn’t matter how compelling, interesting, inspiring, or funny they may be. God says they have no place leading in the church.
Now I do want to add that not all false teachers are blatantly sensual. Mother Theresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, and many others have won an audience with sincerity and self-sacrifice. People look at them and ask, “How could someone who is so sincere be wrong?” You can be sincerely wrong. However, most false prophets and teachers fit the sensual mold. Don’t listen to them. 5th…
False teachers are destructive. In v. 1 Peter warns that false teachers “will secretly bring in destructive heresies.” Again in v. 2, Peter warns, “Many will follow their destructive ways.” Every false teacher is going to claim that he has someone wonderful to offer and often something that you won’t find anywhere else. They promise happiness, prosperity, peace, moral superiority, intellectual superiority, and so on.
But don’t forget that no one can improve on the blessings of the gospel. Yes, sometimes the gospel demands great sacrifices, and it calls us to hold fast to hard truths. But even in the most difficult times, God’s purposes are always good for his children, and they always end in eternal glory and the perfect joy of heaven.
As such, every alternative to the gospel is always less than the blessings of the gospel. Every one of them is a “destructive heresy.” So, I don’t care what someone tries to offer you or what improvements on biblical Christianity he may create. I don’t care what revelations or visions they say they have had. Your answer should be the same as Paul’s in Galatians 1:8–9, “Even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.”
In sum, these false teachers apparently had great appeal at least to a portion of the congregation, but they were ripe with problems. But maybe you are thinking, “Okay, these guys are bad, but why does the church need to stress about driving them out? Can’t we just love each other and trust the Lord to sort out the details?” This leads to my second major question…
II. Why are false teachers a dangerous threat?
False teachers appeal to depravity. Verse 2 warns, “Many will follow their destructive ways.” We don’t have to look far to see that this is the case. You can hop on YouTube or TBN and find many videos of blatantly false teachers speaking to massive crowds. Some of these guys sell millions of books and bring in huge salaries.
How do they do it? Remember that “destructive ways” in v. 2 is better translated “sensual ways.” I said earlier that Peter is specifically condemning the “sexual debauchery” of the false teachers. So, how did they appeal to sinners? The simple answer is through appealing to their sensual, temporal appetites. Afterall, what sinner doesn’t want a religion that allows them to feel spiritual while also pursuing their fleshly appetites?
It’s absurd, right? The Bible is so clear about matters of holiness and righteousness, but it doesn’t take much for sinners to latch onto someone who tells them what they want to hear and gives them justification for doing what they want to do.
This week, I was listening to a sermon by Kevin DeYoung on this text, and he said that human beings are not so much rational as we are rationalizing. We like to think that we are so logical and reasonable, but our sinful passions generally win the day. Rather than being anchored to truth, we twist the truth to rationalize believing and doing what we want to do.
And effective false teachers are generally masters of manipulating this tendency. They appeal to our pride by offering a path to moral superiority. You see this in various strict religious sects. Others appeal to our lusts by offering a form of godliness that ignores God’s holiness. Again, it’s amazing how many Christian movements, cults, etc., blatantly ignore biblical ethics.
Still other false teachers appeal to our fears. You especially see this today among “Christian teachers” with a strongly political focus. They prey on people’s fears about the future of our nation as a way to gain an audience. Then they teach a form of Christianity that has strayed from the eternal focus of the gospel and the Great Commission zeal God has called us to have.
Don’t listen to any preacher who spends more time talking about fixing America than about reaching the nations with the gospel. I’m not saying he’s apostate, like the guys Peter is describing, but he’s not being faithful to the eternal focus of Scripture. “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20).
In sum, we must live with an eternal focus and remain anchored to this book, not to our fleshly passions. Don’t be deceived by Satanic salesmanship. A 2nd reason why false teachers are so dangerous is…
False teachers dishonor the gospel. Notice the tragic statement with which v. 2 concludes, “Because of whom…” Peter laments how the false teachers were bringing shame on the name of Christ. It’s true that Christians are sinners like everyone else, but the world is right to expect more out of us than they expect out of themselves.
However, when unbelievers looked at these false teachers, they saw nothing more than a religious spin on an ungodly lifestyle. They didn’t see anything different, and they certainly didn’t see the resurrection life of Jesus transforming them. As a result, the false teachers brought shame on the name of Christ, and they hardened unbelievers to the truth of the gospel. Peter says they “blasphemed” “the way of truth.”
Sadly, that happens a lot in our day as well. How many people in our country have been hardened to the gospel by the shenanigans of prosperity preachers or the hypocrisy of others who claim to live for Christ while they blatantly disobey his Word? It’s tragic. We must always be careful to accurately speak and live God’s truth. If people are going to be offended, let’s make sure the gospel is what offends them, not our manner or lifestyle.
And when we see false teaching that dishonors the gospel, let’s call it what it is and send a clear message about the truth. A 3rd reason why false teachers are so dangerous is…
False teachers exploit God’s people. Notice how v. 3 begins, “By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words.” “Exploit” is such a tragic verb in this context. It was very common in the Greek world for traveling teachers to make a lot of money giving lectures. Peter says they were exploiting God’s people.
Of course, the same happens today. How many false teachers have gotten rich or built their own kingdom on the backs of the poorest people in society. Others have used their power to sexually abuse and manipulate. It’s disgusting. We ought to hate it and stand against it. Quickly, my 3rd major question about the false teachers is…
III. How will God respond to false teachers?
Verse 3 ends on a somber note. “For a long time…” The idea is that God hasn’t forgotten his decree of judgment against these men. This decree has not grown old or sleepy.
No, few things stir God’s wrath like dishonoring his own name and doing damage to his church. As a result, notice the warning in vv. 12–13a. God will judge. Therefore, it doesn’t matter how nice or genuine someone may appear to be. It doesn’t matter what kind of Christian language they may use.
If someone denies the essential truths of the gospel or the ethical demands that flow out of the gospel, we cannot extend to them Christian fellowship. They are not our brothers. “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds” (2 John 10–11).
IV. Conclusion: So, Peter has come out swinging in this passage. These are “fighting words.” But what should you do with them as you seek to live for Christ in the days ahead? I’d like to close with 4 positive applications.
Stay anchored to Scripture. I’ve yet to mention the important connection between 1:19–21 and 2:1–3. 1:19–21 told us that we have a trustworthy prophetic Word. Therefore, “You do well…” In context, this anchor stands in stark contrast to the false teachers of chapter 2. So, if you want to stand fast against all the threats out there, pay attention to this book. Live in it every day, and make it the loudest, strongest influence in your life.
Build a strong foundation of truth and discernment for yourself and those you disciple. As I said in my introduction, sometimes we wish we could just love Jesus and be happy. But the problem is that we are surrounded by wolves. We must be on guard, and we must build discernment into those we disciple. More than ever, our children need a strong apologetic foundation.
Follow your mind, not your emotions. No matter what the world says, don’t follow your heart, because your heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. Think, read the Word, and listen to godly counselors who will help spot your blind spots. Don’t be a fool who blindly follows deception. Evaluate everything by the Word.
Trust the Spirit. All of this can seem pretty scary. “What if I am deceived and end up in hell?” Praise the Lord that he has not left us alone in this struggle. “These things I have written to you concerning those who try to deceive you. But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him” (1 John 2:26–27). The Spirit will be faithful to his own. Let’s trust him and go forward in his strength to fulfill his mission.