Green Tree Bible Study 20: Apostasy—The Awful End of False Teaching (2 Peter 2:18-22)

By Dr. Robert E. Picirilli

Peter has just been describing false teachers (vv. 10-17). In verses 18-19 he makes a transition from their character to the awful result of the teaching.

First, he indicates that immature believers are the false teachers’ prey (vv. 18, 19). The passage says the false teachers “allure” their victims (v. 18). This is the same word as “beguile” in v. 14, a word used in Greek for a fisherman’s bait. The bait used here is a “promise” (v. 19). They promise “Liberty,” a false liberty that indulges the lusts of the flesh (v. 18-19).

The falseness of their promise is picturesquely described as “over-swollen words of emptiness” (v. 18). But there’s a catch, a “hook.” They themselves are servants (Greek douloí: bond slaves) of corruption. And any person they catch will become slaves of the flesh as well.

Their target is those who just escaped from error (v. 18). There is some difference of opinion about the word translated “clean.” But the basic idea is not in doubt; the phrase most likely refers to people who are young in the faith, who have just got free from error and wickedness. Being immature and “unstable” (v. 14), they are pounced upon by false teachers.

Second, he reveals that apostasy is the outcome of false teachings (vv. 20-22). Verses 20-21 describe a real apostasy from the faith. This is clear, first, because the people referred to are described as converts in three different ways.

  1. They “escaped” the world’s pollutions (v.20). Peter uses the same basic root word in verse 18 and 1:4. All three of these instances refer to a freedom a Christian gains from his old bondage to depravity.
  2. They came to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (v.20). This phrase can mean nothing else. Peter’s word “knowledge” here (Greek: epignosís) is a more specific word than the usual one used for knowledge. It is used by him as equivalent to conversion in 1:3, 8.
  3. They also came to know the way of righteousness (v. 21). The verb “know”here has the same Greek root as the word “knowledge”in v. 20. The knowledge here is more precise. And “the way of righteousness”is another of Peter’s expressions for true Christianity like “the way of the truth”(2:2) and “the right way”(2:15).

The reality of apostasy is made clear here. In four different ways, the people are described as deceived and fallen from their converted state.

  1. They are again entangled in and overcome by sinful pollution (v. 20). The word “entangled” (Greek: empleko) literally means interweaving. It is a word used to describe a sheep caught in thorns by its wool. The word “Overcome” is used the same way in v. 19. It both instances it holds the idea of being bested or mastered.
  2. They have turned back from the holy commandment delivered to them (v. 21). In other words, they have forsaken the gospel truth that was preached to them. Their last condition is worse than the first (v.20). This is an obvious reflection on the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:45.
  3. They would have been better off never converted (v. 21). This further explains the point made in #2. It makes no sense except that they are now in a hopeless condition.
  4. They had become like dogs and pigs. Peter concludes the section with two proverbial illustrations: a dog eating its own vomit and a freshly cleaned pig returning to wallow in the mud. Both illustrate the idea of returning to something one has been delivered or cleansed from. Peter clearly states the point in 1:9: “he has forgotten that he was purged from his old sins.”

This passage makes clear that the issue of false teaching is serious indeed. We who understand that have more responsibility to instruct believers in truth, and to expose falsehood.