- Before I Go
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This devotion is an excerpt from Early Christian Letters for Everyone by N.T. Wright.
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. – 2 Peter 2:1-3
‘I told you it was easy to get lost.’Our host stood on the doorstep with a wry smile on his face. We had assumed we more or less knew the way. We have a good sense of direction. We had even been there before; surely we would remember the route once we saw the landmarks? But no: we had taken at least one wrong turning, and there wasn’t an obvious way to cut across country and get back on track. So we had driven round back streets in small towns, trying to find a road that would put things right, and all the time worrying they would think we weren’t coming (this was in the days before mobile phones).
No harm was done, except to our pride. But the lesson is obvious. Don’t just assume, because you’re a cheerful sort of person and don’t like to think about possible problems, that the way will be clear and simple. It very often won’t be. And this applies especially in that long, twisting, complicated journey called Christian discipleship.
How we wish things weren’t like this. We would like, of course, a nice straight path, a smooth and easy road, so that we could follow Jesus cheerfully and without the worry that we might at any minute take a wrong turning. But, as Jesus himself warned us, things are not like that. Even among his own followers there was one whom he once called ‘satan’, and another one who did eventually do the satan’s work for him.
And now Peter, remembering perhaps how easily he himself had been led astray, utters a stern warning against false teachers and prophets. How we wish this sort of thing wasn’t necessary! Wouldn’t it be kinder, gentler, more … well, more Christian, to assume that people who claim to be speaking the truth, to be teaching the Christian way, are doing so in fact? Surely we shouldn’t have such suspicious minds?
Well, the same early Christians who tell us to be kind and gentle also tell us to be on our guard against being deceived. Jesus himself told us to be not only innocent as doves but also wise as serpents. It’s a difficult combination. But we won’t get very far in the right direction unless we work hard on both sides of our character.
Here, obviously, Peter is going for the wisdom of the serpent. There are false prophets and false teachers; the problem is that they don’t wear a label round their necks giving the game away. The devastating thing about such prophets and teachers is that they sound all too plausible. When you listen to them, your first impression is, ‘Yes: this is good; this is what we need to hear. It may not be quite what I expected, but I like the sound of it.’ Sometimes, of course, that is the sign that the teaching is genuine and true. There are indeed times when what we’ve heard before needs to be expanded, or seen in a different light. But sometimes this is a sign that all is not well. There is such a thing as paranoia, jumping straight to accusations of wicked heresy when in fact what is on offer is freshly glimpsed truth. But there is also, alas, such a thing as deliberately shutting your eyes to things, assuming or pretending that something is all right when in fact it’s all wrong. A church, or an individual Christian, that cannot tell the difference, or that assumes everything is always going to be more or less ‘all right’, is in deep danger.
So Peter is putting up a sign which says, ‘Danger this way!’ Right off the top he is offering danger-signs. False teaching will regularly ‘deny the Master’, saying that Jesus is only one among many teachers, or that perhaps his death didn’t really ‘pay the price’ (verse 1). False teaching will encourage ‘disgusting practices’—Peter isn’t more specific at this point, but even the general warning ought to put us on the alert (verse 2). Is this teaching telling people that behaviour which most Christians have found abhorrent is all right after all? Then he warns that ‘the way of truth will be blasphemed’: outsiders will look at such would-be Christian teachers and find them a soft target at which to fire their blasphemous barbs. Finally (verse 3) they may use their fake prophecies as a way of boosting income. Nothing like some strange ideas to get people buying books or signing on for lecture courses. There are always plenty of people who want to be told that proper full-blooded Christian faith and life is a mistake and that there’s an easier way.
Peter wants these believers that he loves to be on guard and to study the genuine so they can be sure to spot the counterfeit.