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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

A Lot to Consider



 

“But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves." 2 Peter 2:1


In the first chapter of this letter, Peter tells us this, ‘I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live…’ (v.13). To remind believers of things which they already ‘know’, even things that they ‘are firmly established in’ (v.12), is an important part of teaching ministry.


Nowadays, when you go to a supermarket, there are staff constantly re-stacking the shelves. The shops open so early and close so late, that this replenishing is an all day, ongoing process. You never see the shelves without gaps. There are always items missing. When I was a boy things were different. Our largest local supermarket closed at 5.30pm. Then, the evening staff arrived. They restocked the shelves after the store had closed. My Mum did that job. It was called ‘facing up’. Even where there wasn’t replacement stock, all the tins of baked beans, etc., had to be pulled forward so that the shelf fronts were full. Sometimes, later in the evening, I might be allowed to go with my Dad to collect Mum when she finished. It was amazing! All the aisles were completely full. The following day, when the doors opened, and the whole world and his dog came in, not one gap would be seen.


That is what we should want from our time here. Teaching that pulls God’s truth forwards, so that we are ready for the unfolding of the days ahead. If it doesn’t then, perhaps, we are in the wrong supermarket! Because, Peter now has something very important to bring to our attention. He has just told us that the Old Testament prophecies that predicted the coming of Jesus were ‘completely reliable’ (v.19). But, there was something else. In those previous days, when the prophets faithfully brought their messages from God to the people of Israel, there were others who also raised their own voices. What they said wasn’t true. It sounded like it was. But it wasn’t.


Is it worth us considering what happened to Israel under the Old Covenant, or are we wasting our time? Peter thinks that we should consider and gives us the reason. Peter says, in effect, ‘Just as there was so, still, there will be.’ Verse 1 of our chapter reads, ‘But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you.’ It is certain. Therefore it is vital that we learn lessons from Israel’s mistakes.


Jeremiah was a true prophet. The people didn’t like his message because it made them very uncomfortable. Jeremiah spoke to Judah, which was a part of Israel. He told the people that the God of Israel was cross with them. They were ignoring the laws that he had put in place for their good. If they didn’t repent, and change their lives, then he was going to allow an enemy army to come and take them into captivity. Other, so-called, prophets stood up with a different message. They said that Jeremiah was a pessimist and that Judah wasn’t really that bad, and everything was going to carry on as it always had done. They even claimed that their message was from God. But God had something to say about this.


In Jeremiah 14:14, the Lord calls these things, ‘delusions of their own minds’. Jeremiah 23:30-32 reads like this, “‘Therefore,’ declares the Lord, ‘I am against the prophets who steal from one another words supposedly from me. Yes,’ declares the Lord, ‘I am against the prophets who wag their own tongues and yet declare, “The Lord declares.” Indeed, I am against those who prophesy false dreams,’ declares the Lord. ‘They tell them and lead my people astray with their reckless lies, yet I did not send or appoint them. They do not benefit these people in the least,’ declares the Lord.


So, who did the people believe? Those whose message actually, truthfully, had no ‘benefit… in the least’? Or, was it Jeremiah, who brought a message that, if acted upon, would have resulted in ongoing peace and security? Sadly, they rejected Jeremiah’s truth and swallowed what the false prophets served up. Why? Because the real truth was unpalatable.


Isaiah was another prophet who published God’s truth. He also faced opposition. The Israelites begged the false prophets for an alternative prediction. From their own, cloudy, perspective, they thought that they were actually looking for truth, an alternative, more appealing truth. But God’s unobscured view was very different. This is what he says in Isaiah 30:10 in the NLT. ‘They tell the seers, “Stop seeing visions!” They tell the prophets, “Don’t tell us what is right. Tell us nice things. Tell us lies.’


The surrounding verses detail the Lord’s opinion of what the people were really asking for. It was this, ‘stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!’ And there is a consequence promised. ‘Because you have rejected this message, relied on oppression and depended on deceit, this sin will become for you like a high wall, cracked and bulging, that collapses suddenly, in an instant.


This is a sobering prophecy. When we absorb falsehood, we may feel built up by it. It may appear to give us a foundation and make us feel comfortable. The more we focus on it, the higher that ‘wall’ may grow, and our confidence in it may increase. But, eventually, ‘in an instant’, it could suddenly collapse. It did with Israel. They ignored the harsh truth that Jeremiah and Isaiah brought. They did the same to Ezekiel.


Ezekiel uses a similar metaphor to Isaiah. He talks of this ‘wall’ of false teaching. It was a flimsy wall, but in an effort to make it look better, it has been covered in Dulux. I think this is what we do. We cover up our deviation from God’s unchanging word, with pleasant sounding arguments, that ‘gloss over’ the truth. Ezekiel 13:10-12 says this, ‘‘Because they lead my people astray, saying, ‘Peace’, when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash, therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall. Rain will come in torrents, and I will send hailstones hurtling down, and violent winds will burst forth. When the wall collapses, will people not ask you, ‘Where is the whitewash you covered it with?’” And there is a sad conclusion (v.14). ‘When it falls, you will be destroyed in it; and you will know that I am the Lord.’


This may remind us of the well-known parable of Jesus about the wise and foolish builders. It appears in Matthew 7, where we could easily read it as a comparison between two builders who built in different locations. There is a subtle difference when Jesus uses this illustration in the account that Luke records, and I think this has something to teach us about false teaching. In Luke 6 the ‘wise man’ (which is how he is described in Matthew 7) represents someone who ‘hears my (Jesus’) words and puts them into practice’. We are told that he ‘dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock.’ The ‘foolish man’, by contrast, ‘does not put’ the words of Jesus ‘into practice’. He is likened to someone building upon ‘sand’ or ‘without a (proper) foundation.’


In Luke, they could well be digging in the same place. The houses that they are building represent the Christian life. The wise man digs the sand out of the way and builds on the bedrock. The foolish man is building above the bedrock. He hasn’t removed the sand first. Then, a ‘torrent’ comes. This represents the storms of life; the harsh reality of life itself. What is likely to happen to a Christian life that has layer upon layer of false teaching between it and the truth in such moments? What is likely to happen to that life that is built directly upon the foundation of the truth of Jesus? In the parables, one stands firm. The other does not.


These are serious things. With our feeble minds, how can we be discerning? The problem with Old Testament Israel, when faced with opposing views on a matter, was that the question they seemed to ask was, ‘which one of these things will be easier for me to do?’ This often led to the wrong answer. A better question that we can ask, when we are faced with different opinions, is ‘which one is likely to bring me closer, in my walk, to Jesus Christ?’ And there is something else that we should ask.


There is a ‘very great and precious promise’ (2 Peter 1:4) in James 1:5. ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.’ Stop thinking that you know it all already, and ask God. When my children ask me for help, sometimes I cannot. Sometimes I just don’t have time at that moment. Last week, I was asked to help with the question of how compounds are transferred into our cells. Before I spoke a word, my knowledge was exhausted! But God isn’t like me. The apostle Paul exclaimed, ‘Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! (Romans 11:33). And he always has time. David, in Psalm 34:15 tells us that ‘his ears are attentive to their cry’. Whose cry? David says, ‘the righteous’.


This is a really helpful word. It leads to our conclusion today, because we find this word in today’s chapter. In verses 5-7, Noah is described as ‘a preacher of righteousness’. Noah told people what was ‘right’ and true, even though they dismissed what he said and carried on their lives regardless. Another Old Testament character, called Lot, is described as ‘righteous’. At this point in Peter’s argument he is highlighting something else that has occurred in the past, which will also happen in the future. Peter is basically saying that God does not change. Just because false teaching isn’t dealt with instantly, doesn’t mean that he isn’t going to deal with it. Those that propagate myths among Christ’s family, who ‘exploit you with fabricated stories’ (v.3), ‘their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.


The problem is that we are too impatient. We want things dealt with now. In 2 Peter 3:9, he says ‘The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.’ Not only do we tend not to keep in step with his truth, but our understanding of time often differs to the Lord’s, as well.


Peter points to three things. Angels who sinned are still being held for judgement (v.4). They haven’t yet been judged. But they will be. The world of wickedness in Noah’s day just carried on unjudged, mocking God’s servant as he witnessed to the coming disaster. But judgment did come eventually, in God’s time. The ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah gradually descended into awful depravity. Unjudged. Until ‘the Lord rained down burning sulphur’, ‘destroying those living’ there (Genesis 19:24-25).


The Lord will judge. He will judge untruth. But, also, he will rescue. He will rescue ‘the righteous’. He saved Noah by means of the ark. He sent his angels to bring Lot to safety. So, the question is, when God brings (2 Peter 3:7), ‘the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly’, who are these ‘righteous’ people that will be kept safe?


Well Lot’s example holds out hope for all of us, if only we are prepared to admit the ‘truth’. Because Lot was a failure. His life choices were terrible. In Genesis 12, Lot’s Uncle Abram, or Abraham, as he would become, is promised by God that the land of Canaan, would be the inheritance of his descendants. Abraham believed God and left his own home behind. Lot went with him. They were both livestock farmers. In Genesis 13, they have become so successful that the land they shared, along with all their farmhands and animals, wasn’t big enough. This led to quarrels between the two sets of herdsmen. Abraham believes that they have to part company, and kindly offers Lot first choice on where he wants to live. Despite Abraham getting second choice, his is wiser. He stays close to the Promised Land. Lot’s decision is poor.


Even though he is aware of the prevailing wickedness there, Lot ‘pitched his tent toward Sodom’ (v.12 (AV)). He did it because he saw that that chunk of land was ‘well watered’ (v.10). This was a compromise. Lot was compromised. How often do we make that choice? We choose to stand as close to error as we can, but keep a little bit of distance because we are Christians. It is a dangerous game. We can easily be drawn in. Lot soon was. He began living in that city. But not before the events of Genesis 14, where Lot is caught up in ruin, and has to be bailed out by Abraham.


Peter tells us that Lot ‘was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard’ 2 Peter 2:8. I think that explains his waiting at the city gate, and inviting the two new arrivals to his home, in Genesis 19. He knows what is likely to happen to them and wants to prevent that evil. But Lot ends up in a high pressure situation that he does not have the capacity to deal with. His visitors are threatened with the awful ordeal of gang rape. Again, Lot comes up with a solution that is so compromised that it is difficult to find words for it. He is a product of his time, as we all are. The relative value that he has of women, indeed of his own daughters, is shocking.


Recently, the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police issued an apology for ‘the language, tone and terminology’ used by officers during the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper in the 1970’s. I think we can borrow something he said, and apply it to Lot. ‘Such language and attitudes may have reflected wider societal attitudes of the day, but it was as wrong then as it is now.’


Let’s not be unsure on this. Lot’s compromise is just plain wrong.


Lot inability to do the right thing continues. When Sodom in on the brink of destruction, the angels urge Lot to ‘hurry’ (v.15) and flee. What did Lot do? ‘He hesitated’ (v.16). Lot is almost dragged kicking and screaming from the place! Even when he has left, he is reluctant to go too far. I think this compromise contributes to his wife’s demise. Then we have the further account of Lot and his daughters. He allows himself to be compromised by alcohol, he fails yet again.


But Peter calls him ‘righteous’. How can this be? Peter points to Lot’s heart motive. Underneath it all, Lot was ‘distressed’ by sin. And like every one of the Bible’s wonderful collection of miserable failures, Lot’s problem with sin, made him look to the Lord, and like Abraham, he believed what God said. The Lord knew how to rescue Lot. He detailed it in the Old Testament promises. The book of Hebrews starts like this, ‘In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…


Ultimately, this is how God rescues his people – ‘by his Son’. Many people have a problem with the Bible’s teaching on this. They say, ‘how can a character like Lot be declared right?’ Many Christians ask the same question; not of Lot, but of themselves. Unlike many Israelites of old, these Christians accept that Jeremiah was a true prophet. They read such things as Jeremiah 17:10, ‘I the Lord search the heart…’, and ask the question, ‘How then can God be just and yet also vindicate me?


Our hearts may tell us that he cannot. This can rob us of ‘the full assurance that faith brings’ (Hebrews 10:22). But the answer is not found in the false teaching that our own hearts can often throw up. The answer is found in a different place and a different time.


Nearly two thousand years ago, outside of the city walls of Jerusalem, Jesus of Nazareth was put to death on a cross. He was the Son of God and our Saviour. There God searched hearts. He went into the deepest, darkest, recesses of Lot’s heart, and the deepest, darkest recesses of mine; and yours, if your hope is in Jesus only. What did God then do. The prophet Isaiah tells us, ‘the Lord laid on him the sins of us all’ (Isaiah 53:6 (NLT). Now, as Romans 3:26 tells us, he can be both ‘just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.’ This is truth like no other.


I have one last question. Peter poses it in the following chapter (2 Peter 3:11-12). Because of truth such as this, ‘what kind of people ought you to be?’ His answer is this, ‘You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.’


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