Let’s dive right into our journey in 2nd Peter. As we read through the letter we may wonder why Peter seems so worked up about false-teachers. He’s warned his readers in 2:1-3, proclaimed that God will judge false-teachers in 2:4-11, and now launches into something that reads like an angry diatribe. The answer to why Peter is so concerned is found in today’s verses and in a story he references from the Old Testament.
Peter said, “But these (false-teachers), like unreasoning animals, born as creatures of instinct to be captured and killed, reviling where they have no knowledge, will in the destruction of those creatures also be destroyed, suffering wrong as the wages of doing wrong. They count it a pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are stains and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, as they carouse with you, having eyes full of adultery that never cease from sin, enticing unstable souls, having a heart trained in greed, accursed children; forsaking the right way, they have gone astray, having followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; but he received a rebuke for his own transgression, for a mute donkey, speaking with a voice of a man, restrained the madness of the prophet.” (2 Peter 2:12–16, NASB95) Peter’s hot concern is a worry about the unstable souls false-teachers may cause to stray from the truth.
So, let’s recap for a moment. As we’ve stated in previous lessons wrong teaching is not necessarily false teaching. In this lesson, we’ll add that sometimes false-teachers speak truth, perhaps even empowered by the Holy Spirit, yet their hearts are still not turned. God will judge and punish at the proper time as we’ve seen in the previous examples of Noah’s flood and the destruction of Sodom.
Let’s also be clear that Peter wasn’t protecting a theological perspective but souls. His concern was that false-teachers could entice those weak, new, or not rooted in Christ away from the faith and into shiny and glitzy sin. To make his point Peter mentions Balaam.
Balaam’s story can be found in Numbers 22-24. In essence, Balaam was a kind of pay for prophet from Moab. Seeing the Hebrews approaching their land the king of Moab got worried and sent for Balaam to curse them. For a fee of course.
At first, Balaam pushes back. Saying that he can only say what God gives him. Sounds good but I have to wonder if he wasn’t holding out for a better deal. The king sends another delegation which Balaam again turns away. Then for some reason, Balaam decides to go. Again, declaring that he will only speak God’s words. But here’s where it gets interesting.
On the way Balaam’s donkey begins to act up. Three times the donkey refuses to obey Balaam’s guidance. Three times Balaam strikes the donkey to get him going again. Unseen by Balaam was an angel of God with a drawn sword ready to strike. After the third time the donkey spoke and Balaam’s eyes were open to the angel. Balaam goes on to meet the king and to prophecy in a way that blessed the Israelites instead of cursing them. Much to the king of Moab’s dismay. The story ends with – “Then Balaam arose and departed and returned to his place, and Balak also went his way.” (Numbers 24:25, NASB95)
Sounds like a pleasant ending but there is more to the story. Alluded to later in Numbers is the counsel Balaam gave the king. If you read Numbers 22-24 you have to wonder what Peter was upset about. Balaam seemed set to say the right things and, in the end, did say the right things under the power of the Holy Spirit. So why did the angel stand in Balaam’s way? Could it be that God knew Balaam’s heart and the corruption buried there?
Balaam’s heart is revealed in the counsel he gave the king of Moab. We don’t have those words in scripture although Numbers 31:16 alludes to them. “Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the LORD.” (Numbers 31:16, NASB95) That plague ended up claiming 24,000 people.
In the incident at Peor some of the Israelite men were enticed to have sex with Midianite women and began to adopt and worship their gods. This trap was laid by the counsel of Balaam. What he couldn’t achieve through his normal means he accomplished through cunning and stealth.
Peter’s warning is to watch for those like Balaam. They may say the right things, even do so under the power of the Holy Spirit, but their fruit will be tainted and crooked. The goal is always the same, to change the object of worship from God to anything else. Whether that is an idol made of wood or stone, sex, money, power, an ideal, pet doctrines, or self.
As described by Peter several times and exposed in the Sin of Peor in Numbers 25 illicit sexual encounters are often a gateway to straying into idolatry. Made even easier today with the explosion of Internet-accessible pornography. Any time someone speaking for God loosens the sexual morality found in God’s word there is cause for concern. This doesn’t mean that we turn away those whose life hasn’t been changed in this area. There is a vast difference between giving room for the Holy Spirit to convict of sin and a teacher that is enticing people to sin.
The important part for me is why Peter was so worked up about it. He didn’t worry about his reputation, the size of the church, the correctness of doctrine, or the amount of giving. His worry was that someone, anyone, might fall away. That someone may stray from grace because of corruption caused by false-teachers.
Our temptation is to shield folks. To build walls of doctrine and rightness that protect them. There is some value in that but there is also a better way. That better way is to teach folks to encounter Christ for themselves. Encouraging them to grow deep roots in Jesus and enabling them to discern the shepherd’s voice. God is a much better shield than we will ever be.