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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Set Free to Serve


“They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for “people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.”" 2 Peter 2:19

Last time we took a diversion, to consider Balaam, that Old Testament character who Peter, in 2 Peter 2:15, says had a ‘way’. He had a ‘way’ about him that was false. Balaam did speak much truth. Truth about the God of Israel. Truth about the coming of his Son, Jesus Christ. But this didn’t mean that his heart was right with God. He spoke truth, but his underlying motives were false. When Jesus came to this earth he saw right through people like this.

Jesus was wonderful. He could speak to all kinds of people. He held good conversion with the lowest in society. He spoke to Israelites who had colluded with the occupying, Roman authorities; who made a living by oppressing their fellow countrymen, and were usually, therefore, totally despised. He also spoke to soldiers within the Roman army. He spoke to sex workers and those who were forced to beg in order to survive. Though he could debate, more than adequately, with people of considerable learning, he seemed to love to teach those who hadn’t had the privilege of a formal education. When he spoke to the masses his words were awesome. Matthew 7:24 tells us that ‘the crowds were amazed at his teaching’. His words were so powerful that they could stop people in their tracks.

This happened to some temple guards, as recorded in John 7:25-52. They had been sent by the religious rulers to arrest Jesus. But they didn’t do it. When the armed men reached him they could not arrest him. They went back empty handed and their masters were not happy. ‘Why didn’t you bring him in?’ they asked. Was it because Jesus was surrounded by an imposing set of burly bodyguards? Was it because he had a mighty sword? No. He had words! We could not bring him to you, they said, because ‘no one ever spoke the way this man does.’

There was a reason that those with religious authority wanted Jesus arrested. It was also because of his words. Because, although he spoke words of comfort, and gave real hope to those that were without, one particular group of people came in for criticism from Jesus. It was religious people; people who claimed that their lives were so pure and clean and upright, that God was happy with them, all because of their good deeds. They were false; ‘false teachers’. They had authority, which they should have been using to lead the Israelites to a better understanding of God. Instead, they were leading people away from God. Jesus, in Matthew 13:14, calls them ‘blind guides’, because they lacked any spiritual vision. He added this, ‘If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.’

Jesus really upset them. Not because he disagreed that they had apparently upright lives. He didn’t. Their lives did appear to be clean. But this just hid the self-serving dirt that lay beneath the surface. In Matthew 23:27-28, Jesus said this, ‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.’

This is similar to what Peter is dealing with in his second letter. False teaching can look and sound ok. But it is not ok. Jesus used hard words directed against the corrupt leaders of Israel. They angered him because of the disastrous effect that their teaching had on others. We see an intensity of language in Peter’s letter also, and likewise in Jude’s letter. We can feel their emotion. Why is this? Why do we feel God’s outrage, in the words of Jesus, and through his servants, Jude and Peter?

On the street where I used to live there was a lovely man who had a very different attitude to washing his car than I do. I have a car washing schedule. If I need to sell my car then I wash it! My car is not my pride and joy. This other man was different to me. It was a lovely example. Every Sunday morning, without fail, he thoroughly washed his car, even though it was already cleaner, before he washed it, than mine would be after I washed it. His car was his pride and joy. If you threw a bucket of mud over my car, I may not even notice. If I chose to do it to my friend’s car, I suspect he would have been outraged. That is because he loved to look at his car and see that it was ‘altogether beautiful’; it had ‘no flaw’. I borrow that language. It comes from that wonderful poem of love that we find in the Song of Solomon, in our bibles. Those words describe Christ’s view of his church; his people that he has purchased (1 Corinthians 6:20) for himself, that belong to him. We read in Song of Solomon 4:7, ‘You are altogether beautiful, my darling; there is no flaw in you.’ And that is the issue with false teaching. It has the potential to defile the church; to make it look dirty once again. No wonder God is outraged.

Did you notice the similarity between 2 Peter 2 and Jude’s letter? It is hard to miss. There are various theories as to why this is. The one I prefer is that Peter and Jude worked together at the point in time that Peter’s second letter was written. They certainly would have known each other and there are sufficient stylistic differences between Peter’s two letters to add weight to the theory that someone assisted with writing 2 Peter. It is possible that Jude’s letter was sent out to a group of believers first, followed by Peter’s more extensive letter subsequently, perhaps to the same group, or perhaps to another local church of Christ. There is an urgency in Jude’s writing. False teaching was evidently stealing a march, at this time. Jude changed what he had planned to write. He says, ‘I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share’, but instead, he says, ‘I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people’ (Jude 1:3). It is as if Jude is saying, ‘I was going to tell you some good news about The Good News (the gospel), but actually I have some bad news that you have to be aware of’.

Of course, we can only speculate about the relationship of Jude and Peter, and the relationship between their letters. Perhaps a better question to ask is ‘why has our Lord given us two warnings that seem virtually identical?’ It’s because it is really, really important for us to understand this danger.

A few years ago, my family went on holiday to the Isle of Anglesey. We paid a visit to Wylfa Nuclear Power Station. On the road leading to the plant were notices warning of the radiation risk. They were repeated at the entrance, and then again as we travelled to the parking area. We were only going to the Visitor’s Centre! Why the repeated warnings? Because the risk of harm was really serious. The power station is built close to the end of a headland and there is a public footpath that goes between the perimeter fence and the cliff edge. One evening, we sat on a bench there, with hot chocolate and food, and watched the sun as it set into the Irish Sea. We were evidently being observed. Someone was asking the question of who we were, gathered in such close proximity to that place. After a couple of minutes a police van pulled up just inside the perimeter, and a police officer jumped out. He looked at us through binoculars. He was carrying automatic firearm; a gun. Much as I love cheese, I made a mental note, that if a red dot appeared on my sandwich, I was going to drop it and run. Not only were there repeated warnings, the place was seriously guarded!

The church needs the same vigilance. The Lord is good to us. He has given us a repeated warning in scripture about the dangers of false teaching. He has appointed Peter and Jude as guards, armed with truth, and, through Jude’s call, in his letter, he wants us to be guardians in the same way; to ‘contend for the faith.’ Because we may make a mistake. We may read the list of characteristics of false teachers, given by these two men, and think that we would spot such a person. But would we? Are we fully aware of what we should be looking out for?

At Wylfa Nuclear Power Station, a family with children were scrutinised as though they were potential terrorists. Why? Because, terrorists don’t walk around waving banners saying, ‘I’m a terrorist!’ They try to look as innocent as possible. That is the problem. If the church isn’t looking then the church won’t see the threat. This is identified in the language of these two New Testament writers. Jude says that these people have, ‘secretly slipped in among you’ (v.4). Peter says, ‘They will secretly introduce destructive heresies’ (2 Peter 2:1). It won’t be obvious. We need to be switched on.

I think the list of characteristics that Jude and Peter give, don’t describe things that will all be present, in every person that brings false teaching to the church. I think they are an amalgamation. They give us various things that we can look out for; danger signals. They may not all be present but, when some of them are, we should be vigilant and ready to question. Things like ‘arrogan(ce)’ and ‘abuse’, ‘fabricated stories’, ‘empty boastful words’ (2 Peter 2 v.3, 10, 11, 18), spoken by those whose primary concern is not the wellbeing of God’s flock, but to ‘feed only themselves’; with an ‘instinct’ to ‘slander’ others, rather than to try to ‘understand’ them; ‘scoffers’ and ‘fault finders’, who ‘boast about themselves’. Yes, they may also speak well of others at times, but the motive for their ‘flattery’ is ‘their own advantage’ (Jude v.10, 12, 16, 18).

There is something at the root of this behaviour; an underlying error, that both Peter and Jude identify. Peter says, in 2 Peter 2:17 that ‘they promise… freedom’. Jude says, in v.4, that they ‘pervert the grace of God into a licence for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord’. It is the idea that believers have a ‘freedom’ ‘licence’. It can manifest itself in different, subtle, ways. It may be the idea that believers are now free to think any way they want to, or to do as they please. It may take the form of a church leader forcing others to behave in a certain way while, at the same time, choosing to behave contrary to their own advice. It is a level of behavioural ‘licence’ that is completely at odds with the whole of God’s truth.

In the writings of the apostle Paul, he confronts similar things. The bible teaches us that, when we put our faith in Jesus, we are truly and fully saved from our sins (Acts 16:31). All our sins, past, present and future, have been dealt with by God’s grace; his gracious act of saving us through his Son. But, from this wonderful truth, a lie had been extrapolated. People had started to believe that what the gospel message was really proposing was that believers could now live as they pleased. After all, God’s grace would abound over and above their sin. Paul in Romans 6:1, asks this very question. ‘What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase?’ His answer? Well, I do like the AV on this – ‘God forbid’. Yes, our sins are all dealt with, but to say that this means that we can do as we please is to deny something. Jude says it, we ‘deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.’ The Lord is Lord over our lives. We should be subject to his authority; his rules; his rule. Is there something in the words of Jesus that leads us to believe that we should just live as we please? ‘God forbid’.

So, as believers, are we really free? Are people more free who haven’t come under the authority of Jesus? Well, I think this is covered by Peter. Referring to the false teachers and the message that they were giving, he says, ‘They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity – for “people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.”’ Peter quotes from what was, possibly, a well-known, contemporary proverb. Actually, Jesus himself said a similar thing, which is relevant to this consideration. In John 8:34, he says, ‘Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.’ This false message, that believers are free to serve their own passions and instincts, is false. We would then be serving sin. We aren’t making a free choice. Sin has mastered our thinking and our actions. We are sin’s slaves. We are tied to sin as our master, and we can expect a reward at the end of our lifetimes’ service. Sin promises to pay us. Romans 6:23 tells us, ‘For the wages of sin is death.’

We are all slaves to something. In Peter’s first letter, 1 Peter 2:16, he instructs believers in this way, ‘Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.’ Believers are given true freedom. Where there is a conflict between what we want to do, and what our Lord and Master commands us to do, we have a freedom that we never had before. We must choose, to say ‘no’ to ourselves, and to say ‘yes’ to our new master. Willingly; freely; indebtedly. Let’s not make the choices that we were compelled to make before. Peter likens that to a dog returning to its vomit, 2 Peter 2:22. Let’s not go back to the sickness and ruin of our ‘former way of life’ (Ephesians 4:22). The apostle Paul pleads with the Corinthian believers, in 1 Corinthians 6:11, ‘But you were washed…!’ And as Peter says, don’t behave like animals that have been washed, who know no better than to go straight back to the mud and roll in it.

Both Peter and Jude use watery metaphors. 2 Peter 2:17 likens these false teachers to ‘springs without water’, and Jude v.12 calls them ‘clouds without rain’. In our time and place, where we can just turn on the tap and get clean water, we have lost some perception of the preciousness of this resource, which is so vital for our lives. But, I think we still retain something of our ancestor’s instinct. Who likes walking alongside water; a stream or a river, or interacting with water by crossing it on stepping stones? On Thursday, I walked alongside Pudsey Beck, with my wife. That beck is no more than 2 metres across, but that description limits its scope. Water adds another, almost spiritual, dimension to a walk. I don’t think I am exaggerating. That is why Peter and Jude’s metaphors are so good. They are talking about the promise of water, something vital and precious. They are also highlighting reality. False teaching is an empty promise. What is the point of a spring if it runs dry, or a cloud that promises much needed rain but does not deliver any?

John 4 contains the account of a meeting between Jesus and a woman who was drawing water at a well. Jesus requests a drink and they begin a conversation. This woman thought she had freedom. Her husband had failed her, so she was free to choose another. That relationship had failed, so she was free to choose again. And again. And again. Then she felt free to give up on marriage altogether. What was the point of all that rigmarole when, in a short while, ceremony and vows would be forgotten. She thought her life was free. Jesus lovingly reveals her mistake. Life can feel like a dried up spring at times. Let’s just face facts. Jesus gave that lady a promise. Not an empty promise, but a promise of abundance; life lived to the full (see John 10:10). Jesus calls this ‘living water’. And in John 4:10 we have an amazing promise - you just need to know! Jesus says, ‘If you knew…’ ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.’

Do you understand what the Bible truly teaches about the ‘gift of God’? Have you asked him? You should. God is a God of his word.

If we have believed, what is the antidote to the snakebite of false teaching? What is the answer? Jude gives it in v.20 & 21. He calls us his ‘dear friends’ and tells us what to do. This must be part of the vision of Riverside Baptist Church as we go forward. ‘By building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.’

He who brought living water, which will never dry up, is bringing everlasting life. ‘Through’ him past, present and future are all covered. That is why I can confidently conclude today’s message with the confidence that Jude concludes his letter with.

To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and for evermore! Amen.


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