2 Peter 2:14c-16 “False Teachers & Their Character, Part 3: Greed”
“Having a heart trained for greed; accursed children! Forsaking the straight way, they wandered, following the way of Balaam of Bosor who loved wages of unrighteousness. But he received a rebuke of his own lawlessness when a voiceless donkey speaking with a voice of a man restrained the insanity of the prophet.”
The third and final characteristic of false teachers under examination is here presented. Peter has been following the outline he provided as far back as 2:1-3 when he predicted that false teachers would come to infiltrate the church. These false teachers would be saturated in arrogance (2:2), consumed with immorality (2:2), and propelled by greed (2:3). Peter has been reassuring his audience that these prophesied false teachers would be judged justly (2:4-10a), but lately has been explaining why destruction is a just end (2:10b-16). That explanation has examined the false teachers’ attitudes of arrogance (2:10b-12), actions of immorality (2:13-14b), and now focuses on their motivation of greed (2:14c-16). The outline provided at the beginning of the chapter drives Peter’s explanation.
Peter utilizes another literary device to help maintain his outline. For each of his points (manner, means, motivation) he supplies an exclamation aimed at these false teachers. Regarding their arrogance he points out that they are daring! Self-willed! While addressing their immoral conduct he labels them stains! Blemishes! And here, while examining the motivation of false teachers, Peter pronounces them as accursed children! Far from being slanderous insults, Peter pronounces with pinpoint accuracy the state of these evil men. On a personal level, they are pompous, proud, self-willed and bold individuals. In relation to the bride of Jesus Christ, the church, they are spots and blemishes upon her beautiful face. And as they are assessed by Almighty God, they are pronounced as accursed children. Man is either condemned or acquitted by the condition of his heart. The heart is revealed by one’s attitude and actions.
These verses spend no time in convincing the readers that false teachers are consumed with greed but rather assume the fact. Peter is much more concerned with the dangerous implications of allowing greedy teachers to run amuck inside the church. Peter first examines their greedy motives and then exposes the depths of their perversion in order to make clear the danger these men pose to the church.
Motives Evaluative (v. 14c)
“Having a heart trained for greed; accursed children!”
We should not lose sight of the context. Peter has just mentioned the victims of these false teachers and referred to them as unstable souls (ψυχὰς ἀστηρίκτους). He is interested more in their immaterial stability than their physical strength. The preferred prey of false teachers are mentally, emotionally, and spiritually unstable, immature, and irrational. They are unprepared when these false teachers approach them, failing to notice the stalking predator in the shadows. Yet the predator is hardly so ill prepared.
The heart (καρδία) may be the center of emotion according to western thought, but to the semitic mind (of which Peter has) the heart is the seat of volition, decision, and will. Unlike their prey, false teachers will not be caught unprepared. The desire of their inner man prepares for one thing and one thing only: greed.
The term γυμνάζω (trained) is where we get our English term gymnasium. This Greek verb could be taken literally and thus paints the picture of an athlete training for the games. More likely a figurative idea is in view yet maintains the same sense of discipline and rigor. As a professional athlete exerts his body and steels his mind to accomplish great physical feats, these false teachers train their hearts for greed. The idea in Greek (πλεονεξία) is much the same as in English. The greedy person desires more than what is their due. To be greedy makes no comment regarding how much one already possesses. Most greedy people are those who have very little, yet they desire more than they are owed. The irony is that no man is owed anything from his Creator. Therefore, to desire more than we have at any time is a symptom of greed.
Greed or covetousness is a serious sin. There’s a whole commandment dedicated to it. Paul made it clear that greed is one of the marks of depraved mankind given over to their passions (Rom. 1:29; Eph. 4:19) while demanding that this crime not even be mentioned among the churches (Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5). Knowing that greed is usually associated with those in the position of authority, Paul made it clear to the Thessalonians that he and his team did not minister among them with greedy intentions (1 Thess. 2:5). From this we should see that greediness is a mark of the unregenerate world and has no equivalent among the redeemed. It is for this reason that Peter accuses these false teachers of being accursed children.
It is necessary to remind ourselves that Peter does not slander or call names here. He makes a passionate, yet accurate observation. These false teachers are not redeemed people. They teach doctrine that is different than the apostolic gospel. Their pride does not allow them to so much as blush as they blaspheme the King of Glory. Their actions are objectively evil and wicked. Now their motives are exposed as greedy and self-centered. What else can we assume other than the fact that these individuals are marked vessels for destruction. They are not children desired for blessing but those who will receive a curse. Peter’s evaluation of false teachers is very simple: they are cursed.
Motives Exposed (vv. 15-16)
It’s one thing to state that false teachers are unregenerate people, it’s another thing to prove it. There’s a reason why Peter began by observing their attitude, then moved to their actions, only to end the tour of their character with their motives. A person’s motives are the difference between a stupid action and a sinister action. The action itself can be judged objectively regardless of motive. Any given action is either the right thing to do or it is not. One’s motivation will not transform the wrong decision into the right course of action or vise-versa. Yet, if the wrong action was performed on purpose, then the subject is worse than ignorant; they’re evil. Peter’s approach takes attitude and action into consideration first. From those two observations, the false teachers' motivation can be determined. At this point, they are exposed unregenerate insurgents who are motivated only by self-advancement, self-improvement, and self-appeasement. Regardless of what they may have once professed to believe, they are no longer considered to be Christians. Their trajectory is off the mark.
Ἐπλανήθησαν (they wandered) is the one finite verb in this verse. The participle phrase that precedes it (καταλιπόντες εὐθεῖαν ὁδὸν) answers the question why, while the participle phrase that follows (ἐξακολουθήσαντες τῂ ὁδῷ τοῦ Βαλαάμ τοῦ Βασὸρ) answers the question how. Why did the false teachers wander? Because they forsook the right way.
Greed’s Trajectory (v. 15a)
“Forsaking the straight way, they wandered”
The “right way” (εὐθεῖαν ὁδὸν) is a recurring theme in Scripture. One’s “way” is often equated with the manner or the principles by which someone lives their life. The lifestyle of the wicked will perish, but Yhwh knows the manner by which the righteous live their lives (Ps. 1:6). The way that these false teachers have forsaken is here called the right (εὐθεῖαν) way. Εὐθύς can describe a path that is straight, that is to say, one that has no bend or corners in it. It can also be used to describe the moral rightness or social propriety of a path or choice. This is the same sort of construction used to translate Isaiah’s prophecy of Messiah’s forerunner: “The voice crying, “In the wilderness, make ready the way of the Lord, make His paths straight” (Matt. 3:3; Mk. 1:3; Lk. 3:4). Paul uses this same terminology when confronting the Cyprian false prophet and magician: “You are full of all deceit and fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease to make crooked the straightways of the Lord?” (Acts 13:10). The Scriptures proclaim the way of the Lord. Those who twist the words of the Bible attempt to make crooked the way of righteousness.
Peter’s point is very simple. These false teachers have departed from Scripture. They no longer live according to Scriptures commands, believe what Scripture proclaims, or trust what Scripture teaches. There is but one single way that is straight and unbending and it is recorded on the pages of the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. Any departure from the way, no matter how slight, is always disastrous and assumes destruction. Forsaking the straight way of God’s Word is the very definition of wandering. These are apostates who are no longer a part of the single path, the only way, and the particular road. Greed has led on a trajectory of death.
Greed’s Type (vv. 15b-16)
“Following the way of Balaam of Bosor who loved wages of unrighteousness. But he received a rebuke of his own lawlessness when a voiceless donkey speaking with a voice of a man restrained the insanity of the prophet”
Not only have these false teachers begun a trajectory of death, but their historical examples have much to be desired. Peter here brings Balaam in as their primary prototype. Almost every English text reads Balaam son of Beor as is reflected in Numbers 22:5 (בִּלְעָם בֶּן־בְּעוֹר). Yet the critical text of 2 Peter 2:15 reads Βαλαάμ τοῦ Βοσὸρ (Bosor) rather than Βαλαάμ τοῦ Βεωρ (Beor). Rather than assuming that Peter made some sort of a mistake, perhaps it is best to consider that, once again, Peter is making a play on words. Bosor (Βοσὸρ) is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew בָּשָׂר or flesh. Balaam, the spiritist and medium, is called by Peter a son of flesh. As Peter will make clear, this Balaam has all the marking of a finite and flesh-bound reprobate.
First, Balaam was motivated by greed and covetousness. By referring back to the account in Numbers, we read that Balaam was offered a king’s ransom to come and prognosticate a curse upon Israel as requested by the king of Moab (Num. 22:1-20). Balaam loved his promised wages and was spurred to action because of them. Interestingly enough, Peter used this same phrase, wages of unrighteousness (μισθόν ἀδικίας) only a few verses earlier in v. 13 to describe the cause and effect of false teachers. They will be destroyed because they will reap what they sow. What did Balaam sow? His wages of unrighteousness. He loved being paid to commit unrighteousness. His greed outstripped his conscience. He certainly was a son of flesh.
Second, Balaam proves to be nothing more than a human being. He is credited as being a seer or one who divines. The idea is likely one who looks for omens of the gods’ favor in nature or in the entrails of sacrificed animals. He looks inside of animals to see what others are blind to. Yet it was an animal who saw what the seer could not. It was a mute donkey who spoke what this prophet did not. The seer is blind and the prophet mute. Yet the stupid and unreasoning animal saw and spoke with precision. Balaam is nothing more than those stupid animals good for nothing but being caught and killed that Peter has already addressed in v. 12. This son of the flesh possesses no supernatural abilities.
Third, this mad medium was restrained by a dumb beast. Sin never makes sense. Rebellion against God is always illogical. Peter connects Balaam’s transgression or lawlessness (παρανομίας) with this madness (παραφρονίαν) with another use of alliteration. To commit lawlessness is madness. If it were not for God’s provision of this mute beast, Balaam would have committed the stupidest of evils. This is a man who was told by God not to curse the children of Israel (Numb. 22:12). Yet he does not have the sense or humility to blush as he considers their increased proposal. The wickedness of his immorality will become apparent when he masterminds the licentious scene at Baal Peor (Num. 25:1-18; 31:1-20). For a little while this madness was restrained. Eventually though, Balaam’s greed would give way. With no donkey to restrain him, the false prophet would return to the nature of a dumb beast dedicated for destruction.
Balaam is the poster child of false teachers. Peter points back to this pagan false prophet and to show what motivates false teachers. The lack of humility and overt immorality should be plain to see. These things reveal a heart that is trained in greed. The character of false teachers is hereby revealed to be thoroughly wicked and extremely dangerous.
It would be a mistake to consider greed as only pertaining to money or material things. Greed is simply a desire to have more than one’s due. That more might include abstract things like attention, influence, and authority. Many false teachers lead their lemmings for fortune and fame, but others just want their own little kingdom. They enjoy being the answer man, the one relied on, the one looked up to. They get a taste for it, and they want more. This too is greed, and it is far more dangerous because it is far less obvious. So, if their evil motives are so subtle, how can we tell? How are we to identify these false teachers and their greed? By their fruit!
Peter does not present greed as their motivation in order to help identify who is a false teacher and who is not. Their greed is here presented to explain the justice of their destruction. Peter’s point is to explain the thorough evilness of these people. The saints smoke out false teachers the same way every time: evaluate their teaching. If the saints knew their Bibles, much heartache would be avoided. May the elders of Christ’s church arise to shepherd the flock of God among them.
Soli Deo Gloria!