In 2 Peter, what are the differences between false teachers (2:1-3; 10-22) and scoffers (3:1-4), both in content and function?
Alongside authentic prophets and after a passage that has asserted the reliability of prophecies regarding Christ, (1:20-21), Peter now describes that there have always been false prophets who receive God’s judgment. His use of the future tense in 2:1-3 (i.e. “there will be”) does not imply that false prophets had not yet come, but it alludes to Jesus’ prediction that false teachers would arise (cf. Matt 24:11, 24; Acts 20:29-31). The false teachers who had arisen fulfilled that very prediction.
Content and Function
The false teachers parade themselves as Christian pastors, teachers, and evangelists (cf. Jude 4) who secretly bring in destructive heresies. Such self-designed religious lies lead to division and faction (cf. 1 Cor 11:19; Gal 5:20) in churches that make a virtue out of tolerating unscriptural teachings and ideas in the name of love and unity.
The false teachers were overtly renouncing Christ, as well as denying Christ by their immoral conduct (2:1; cf. Titus 1:16) – showing the depth of the crime and guilt of these false teachers. Peter warns here that false prophets deny the sovereign lordship of Jesus Christ. While heresies may include the denial of the Virgin Birth, deity, bodily resurrection, and the Second Coming of Christ, the false teachers’ basic error is that they will not submit their lives to the rule of Christ, for all false religions have an erroneous Christology. They had a responsibility to submit to God, which they refused, thus describing the sinister character of the false teachers who claim Christ but deny his lordship over their lives. What results is their sure physical death and judgment at Christ’s return.
One of the saddest effects of false teaching is that the way of truth will be slandered by a watching world (2:2). By their immoral and greedy conduct, false teachers bring shame on Christ. Many people will profess to be Christians but deny Christ’s lordship over their lives, refusing to live as obedient servants to Christ and his Word, following instead the lusts of the flesh, the world, and the devil. False teachers and those nominal Christians who follow them will be included in the Lord’s condemnation of hypocrites at the judgment (cf. Jude 4, 7). Denying the lordship of Christ while claiming to be a believer destructively infects other people and discredits the gospel. As a result, the world mocks at the gospel of Jesus Christ because of nominal Christians who do not follow the Lord they claim and are revealed to be hypocrites.
From the detailed description of these hypocritical boggies in 2:10b-16, we discover numerous marks that cause them to stand out from among the crowd. They are self-willed, immoral, wicked, and bring the true faith into disrepute. The false teachers are bold in a reckless, foolhardy way and willful (stubborn and arrogant), behaving in ways that even the angels avoid. They blaspheme the glorious ones, probably evil angels (2:11; cf. Jude 8-9). In so doing, they recklessly dismiss any thought that these demonic forces have power or that their willful sins will open them to demonic attack. But good angels, like wise humans, do not take these evil powers lightly. Their behavior is simply irrational, like animals who following neither reason nor truth but instinct, ignoring even the most basic of human values.
What is shown to be the underlying motive of the false teachers was not love of the truth, but love of money (2:3; cf. 2:14), as they are seen to exploit people through their lies. God’s judgment for such insolent hypocrites is potent and will certainly come to pass, just as it was set in place in eternity past.
Similarly, 2 Pet. 3:1-7 describes scoffers who challenge the truth of Scripture concerning the coming of the Lord. Peter offers a biblical perspective on the skeptics who attempt to create doubt concerning the Lord’s return. While not denying Christ outrightly or trying to destroy the church by way of heresy, these scoffers debate with Peter about Christ’s parousia and thus cause doubts among the people. Peter thus shifts from denunciation of false teachers to exhortation of believers. The scoffers skepticism about Christ’s return required clear teaching: Christians need to hold onto the apostolic message about the day of judgment and live godly lives in anticipation of that day.
Peter wants the church to remember what the holy prophets predicted (3:2), and what the apostles handed down as the commandment of the Lord. The prediction Peter especially has in mind is, of course, the second coming. Peter was not merely predicting an event in the future; he was speaking about his readers’ situation.
Peter understands that the “last days” have already arrived – a time where scoffers will mock believers according to their own sinful desires, but also when God’s promises are fulfilled (cf Acts 2:17; Heb 1:2). The scoffers’ desire to live in sin with impunity drives them to deride biblical truth and those who believe it. Rather than using evidence and logic to argue, scoffers belittle and make fun of the truth (Prov 1:22; 9:7-8). In this fashion, they are similar to the false teachers of 2 Peter 2.
The unique content and function of these coffers is that they call into question the biblical promise of the Lord’s coming (3:4-6). They scoff at the promise of the Lord’s return, arguing that because everything has remained the same since creation, God will not intervene in the world (cf. 2:10b-11). They deliberately overlook and consciously ignore the fact that God did intervene when he created the heavens and the earth with the word of his mouth (Gen. 1:3-31; Psalm 33:6; Heb 11:3), and also when he judged the earth with water and it perished (Genesis 6–9). God in fact intervenes in his creation whenever he desires, as is evidenced numerous times in both the Old and New Testament. Peter cites two obvious occasions of God’s intervention: when God acted at creation to form the earth (Gen 1:6-10), and also when he acted decisively in history, destroying the earth by means of the flood in the days of Noah (Gen 7:17-24).
The unifying theme between false teachers and scoffers is Peter’s horror at counterfeit principles (2 Pet 2) set over against the reliability of God’s prophetic word (3:1-2; cf. 1:19-21). The biblical prophecy about the return of Christ (3:1-4) is aggressively offered as a rebuttal of scoffers who denigrate such prophecy. The faith that believers are to embrace is founded on the reliable word and prophecy of God, and that is why we should be encouraged not to entertain doubt about Christ’s return simply because it is delayed.