2 Peter 2:17-22 – “The Apostasy of False Teachers”
“These are waterless springs and mists being driven by a storm for whom the gloom of darkness has been reserved. For speaking boastful vanities, they entice, by sensual lusts of flesh, those who recently escaped those returning to error. Promising them freedom while they are slaves of corruption. For by what one has been overcome, by this he has been enslaved. For if they are overcome, having escaped the defilement of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ also having again been entangled in them, then the last has become to them worse than the first. For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness than knowing it to turn away from the holy command delivered to them. The true proverb has befallen them: “A dog returns upon his own vomit” and “A sow having washed returns to wallowing mire.”
Having painted a graphic and accurate picture of the exterior actions and inner motivation of the false teachers (2:10b-16), Peter turns the discussion to an ultimate evaluation. These six verses conclude Peter’s discussion specifically dedicated to false teachers and before he moves on to encourage the saints of Asia Minor (3:1-18) he doesn’t want to leave anything left unsaid. The major emphasis Peter has placed upon these coming false teachers is that they are no good. Upon a glance at the verses before us it becomes obvious that Peter defends his stance on their quality by asserting plainly that false teachers are apostates who have rejected the faith they once claimed. Here he presents two final observations from which he draws the conclusion that false teachers are unregenerate pretenders that will infiltrate and betray the church.
False Teachers are Worthless (vv. 17-19)
To say that false teachers are worthless is not to offer a slur in their direction. Peter does not insult these wicked men but simply makes an objective observation. If a man claims to provide a service and then fails to fulfill his claim, he is objectively worthless. If a false teacher claims to teach truth, but in fact produces lies, he is objectively worthless. This is the matrix Peter brings in order to measure these worthless fellows.
The introductory demonstrative pronoun (οὕτοί) “these” refers back to the false teachers who have been the target of Peter’s discussion for the entire chapter. These are the same ones who have forsaken the right way in favor for the way of Balaam, the son of flesh (βοσόρ/בָּשָׂר). It was there, in v. 15, that Peter broached the subject of apostasy. Yet it is here that he develops that thought. To be an apostate is bad enough, but these false teachers add to their sin with charlatan displays of shenanigans. Before Peter addresses their departure from the faith, he exposes the worthlessness of these people by pointing out what these fellows fail to do.
Failure to Provide Blessing (v. 17)
“These are waterless springs and mists being driven by a storm for whom the gloom of darkness has been reserved.”
There are two pictures used here, both of which point to the utter worthlessness of false teachers. Both introduce the idea of disappointment but from slightly different angles. Water has always been a sign of blessing throughout the Scriptures. This theme is well developed in the Old Testament in connection with the curse/blessing passages (Lev. 26; Deut. 11; 28; 1 Kings 8:35-36; Joel 2:21-27; Ezek. 37; Zech. 14). The value of land heavily depends upon the ability to irrigate it, thus Isaacs persistence in restoring the wells that his father Abraham had dug (Gen. 26). Yet the term in view is not well (φρέαρ) but spring (πηγή). A well is dug out to explore for water. The availability of water from a well is not consistent because it rises or falls with the water table. A spring on the other hand is a place where an underground aquifer gushes forth. Spring water is not stagnant but flows freely and provides sustenance and life to all it touches. This is the image Jesus uses in His conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4). He does not refer to the water He provides as producing wells of water, but a spring (πηγὴ) that gushes forth and produces life (John. 4:14).
These men are springs, yet without water. In other words, they’re just empty holes in the ground. Imagine the disappointment of coming to a place where a spring had been promised only to find a dry hole. The feeling of disappointment could easily be turned to despair, depending on how much the promised water was relied upon. Springs in the ancient world were used like gas stations today. A traveler would map out their rout based on the location of available water. A dry or waterless spring could result in the death of the whole company.
The second picture has a similar effect. A mist, or fog, brings the appearance of moisture. The air is humid, and the ground is damp yet there is no penetration in this moisture and the roots of the crops will receive none of the benefits. This mist is dismissed in a flash with the coming storm. A stiff wind is all it takes to make this hope of blessing vanish. The point then is very simple: false teachers promise to bring blessing to the people yet are utterly incapable of doing so. Their promises are empty, misleading, and very likely deadly. The readers should not fear for Peter continues to reinforce their certain destruction.
The gloom and darkness that is reserved for them is certainly eschatological judgment. This is likely the same darkness (σκότος) Jesus refers to in Matt. 22:13, the final destination of the uninvited wedding guest. This judgment is likely what these false teachers have been denying all along. These false teachers promise blessing and fail to deliver. Yet they will not escape the wrath to come.
Failure to Provide Freedom (vv. 18-19)
Peter’s portrayal of these false teachers is so ironic that at times it borders on the comical. If the issue were not so deadly serious one might be inclined to laugh. Their failure to provide blessing lies in the fact that they were never blessed and thus are not capable of providing others with blessing. One who has no water cannot share water. That same vulnerable inept worthlessness continues in the next two verses. Though they be unable to provide blessing, they do their level best to procure a curse.
Baiting Refugees (v. 18)
“For speaking boastful vanities, they entice, by sensual lusts of flesh, those who recently escaped those returning to error”
Peter’s attention moves from the false teachers to their victims here. When he refers to those “who recently escaped those returning to error” he indicates new or immature converts to the faith. These are the same unstable and unsteady souls who are enticed (v. 14). In fact, Peter uses the same verb here (δελεάζουσιν) as there (δελεάζοντες) to describe this baiting or enticing activity. Their lure works in two ways. First, their words a boastful, broad, big, and promise the world. With nothing concrete to offer, they substitute fervid enthusiasm for moral sanity. To their words they add their actions. By their own sensual lusts of the flesh these waterless springs demonstrate the appeal of their lure. Both the words and the lusts address the means of the lure. If the speech is the hook, then the deeds are the bait. Their goal is to get to those who have recently escaped the world and recapture them under the guise of offering freedom.
Slaves Promising Freedom (v 19)
“Promising them freedom while they are slaves of corruption. For by what one has been overcome, by this he has been enslaved”
Here Peter makes no pretense about hiding the irony. Those who offer freedom are themselves those who are enslaved. It is likely that Peter is speaking about those who purposefully misunderstand and thus abuse the teaching of Paul regarding Christian freedom. A Christian is never free to do as he wishes but is made free in Christ to do out of duty that which pleases Christ. Christian freedom is the Spirit given desire to do one’s duty, not an antinomian license to engage in hedonism. The commands Peter issued in 1:3-11 still stand. The freedom in Christ is the desire to engage in these commands in the Spirit’s strength.
Peter is not just name-calling when he states that the false teachers are themselves enslaved. He presents a logical case that leads one to assume that the people in question are indeed enslaved to their own lusts and sin. They continue in the sin that had once overcome or overwhelmed them. Peter’s use of the perfect aspect here is most telling. It is because they have been overcome (ἥττηται) that proves that they have been enslaved (δεδούλωται). Both the overcoming and the enslaving are past actions with continuing results. These facts will forever be so. If there is no freedom from sin, then how can they claim to be free?
False Teachers are Wretched (vv. 20-22)
Peter’s focus changes between v. 19 and v. 20. Here, after establishing the worthlessness of false teachers in their inability to make good on their claims, Peter reveals them to be what they truly are: apostates.
Failure to Escape (vv. 20-21)
Peter reviews both sides of the same coin in vv. 20-21. The idea that false teachers would have been better off to remain in paganism rather than to apostatize is evident in both verses. In v. 20 Peter looks at this issue from a negative perspective. In v. 21, he adopts a positive point of view.
Apostasy Worse that Paganism (v. 20)
“For if they are overcome, having escaped the defilement of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ also having again been entangled in them, then the last has become to them worse than the first”
We must acknowledge from the outside that Peter is using phenomenological language here. It seems that he is describing genuine conversion when he speaks of escaping the defilement of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Has not ἐπίγνωσις (knowledge) already been used to describe regeneration (1:2, 3, 8)? Is it not imperative that one confess Jesus as both Lord (κύριος) and Savior (σωτήρ) to be saved (Rom. 10:9-11)? Peter does state that these individuals have lost their salvation but only refers to them as they are viewed externally.
These are those who rose up from within the church. This means that they did publicly confess Jesus as both Lord and Savior. They underwent the ordinance of baptism. They partook of the Lord’s supper. They were viewed as being part of the body. Yet conversion is never synonymous with regeneration. To escape the world’s defilement only to return back to it is not a mark of one who has been set free from sin. In fact, the fate of this man is worse than his original state.
The language Peter uses here is taken from a statement he heard the Lord say. In Matt. 12:45 Jesus summarizes a parable regarding a man who had once been cleansed of an evil spirit only to later be indwelt by seven evil spirits. Would it not have been better for that man if the one evil spirit would have remained? Was the temporary cleansing worth it? The point both in Matthew’s gospel as well as here is the danger of thinking that moral reform is synonymous with spiritual regeneration. What good does it do to reform one’s life outwardly only to revert to the same wickedness from which he has supposedly been saved from? Apostasy is worse than paganism.
Paganism Better than Apostasy (v. 21)
“For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness than knowing it to turn away from the holy command delivered to them”
In v. 21 Peter basically says the same thing from the other side. It would be better to remain a pagan than to convert to Christianity only to apostatize. The “way of righteousness” (τὴν ὁδὸν τῆς δικαιοσύνης) is in contrast to “the way of Balaam” (τῇ ὁδῷ τοῦ Βαλαὰμ) and synonymous with the “right way” (εὐθεῖαν ὁδὸν) in v. 15. It would have been better if this righteous way was never known (ἐπεγνωκέναι) to these false teachers. What good is it to have come into contact with the way of righteousness, a manner of living that a restored and redeemed life demands, only to turn away from the holy command?
The gospel is not a “get out of hell free” card. The message of Jesus Christ come to atone and returning to rule is a message that demands a response. That response consists of immediate repentance and continued submission through obedience. The gospel demands a changed life. The gospel imperatives (such as Peter delivered in 1:3-11) is what he refers to here as “the holy command delivered to them.” The singular ἐντολῆς (commandment) indicates the entire Christian life or, the way of righteousness. By referring to this command as “holy” Peter makes clear that this command is designed to segregate and separate. The command is to make holy what is common and profane and to keep it separate from that which will remain profane. The fact that this commandment was delivered to them implies a divine source.
These false teachers accepted intellectually the gospel of salvation and attempted to live under its commandment for a while. But because they remained slaves of sin and were never made to be slaves of righteousness, they found this command burdensome and so returned to their former ways. All the while claiming that one can be a part of Christ and not keep His commandment. It would have been better for them to have never known this holy commandment, nor participate in it temporarily than to now turn their backs on it and walk away.
Failure to Persevere (v. 22)
“The true proverb has befallen them: “A dog returns upon his own vomit” and “A sow having washed returns to wallowing mire.””
Peter concludes by presenting two proverbial sayings that well capture the apostasy of false teachers. The first comes from Scripture (Prov. 26:11), the second from secular sources. Taken together they prove the same point: false teachers are apostate.
A dog that returns to his vomit is a graphic picture of one who has ingested something that caused his bowels to reject the vile substance. Once purged, the substance is again lapped up. What a vile creature! The same is true of the pig who once cleansed searches out the mire to wallow in. What ingratitude! Interestingly enough, both the dog and the pig are unclean to the Jew. It is not what these unthinking beasts do that make them apostate. It is the fact that they are dogs and pigs that lead to their actions of apostasy. For this reason, even our Lord used these same images to refer to vile persons (Matt. 7:6). There is no reasoning with dogs and swine, for they will continue to return to what makes them sick and remain in the mirey wallows.
It is probably best not to overlook the obvious in this passage. False teachers are not believers. They may dress the right way, be accepted in the right circles, and be recommended by the right people. But these are apostates who teach a false gospel and live a life that is contrary to Christ’s command. Peter, the one charged by the Chief Shepherd to feed the sheep (Jn. 21) takes his task seriously. His final message to the sheep is plain: stay away from false teachers! There is no reason to make excuses for those who teach incorrect, irrelevant, or imaginative things. They offer blessings they are incapable of fulfilling (like the kingdom in our day or a kingdom in the making without Christ). These target the weak with bold words and enticing actions. They deny the necessity of holiness and embrace the culture around them. They must be separated from the flock, for they will be destroyed. May we put into practice what Peter has revealed to us.
Soli Deo Gloria!
 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of The Epistles of St. Peter, St. John and St. Jude (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1966), 328.  D. Edmond Hiebert, Second Peter and Jude: An Expositional Commentary (Greensville, South Carolina: BJU Press, 1989), p. 125.  Thomas Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2003), p. 358.  Hiebert, p. 126.  Lenski, p. 330.  Schreiner, p. 364-5.  Hiebert, p. 130.  Ibid, p. 131.  Ibid, p. 132.