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Appearance vs. Reality

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Appearance vs. Reality


Peter Hubbard


March 19, 2023


2 Peter, 2 Peter 2:17-22


In 1978, a Czech poet and playwright named Vaclav Havel published an essay about a grocer who posted a sign “Workers of the World Unite.” But Havel’s grocer did not believe what he posted. He simply wanted to be left alone. He wanted to be a grocer. In a communist society, though, this slogan signaled conformity. He did what he was expected to do. But in his essay, Havel, who was arrested not long after he published this essay, imagines the grocer taking down the slogan. He knows he’s going to pay a high price. He will lose.

“By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearance.”

Purely through verbal and sacrificial transformation.

So much of what Jesus said was contrasting appearance with reality. Let me give you a few examples — Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

In other words, the kingdom is possessed by those who do not appear to possess. Or as we’ve seen in this series, Matthew 7:15,

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”

Or Matthew 23:27,

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

“Therefore, [Jesus said in John 7:24,] do not judge by appearances.”

To the church in Sardis, Jesus said in Revelation 3:1,

“I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.”

In reality, from God’s perspective, you’re dead. Or to the church at Laodicea, Revelation 3:17,

“For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”

That “not realizing” is key, which implies a striking contrast between the way the people were self-identifying — “I am rich” — and the way Jesus knew them to be — no, actually, you’re poor.

This means that Jesus’s contrast between appearance and reality is quite different from our culture of authenticity, because in our culture, authenticity typically is self-referential. What does that mean? You know, you’re authentic when you are true to whom? To you. So, you test your authenticity by looking within yourself. So, you know who you are by looking at who you are. Hmm.

So, today’s Havels will call us to turn from our false self to our true self by looking within our self. This is a bit like playing Russian roulette. Depending on the chamber you click, you may get some helpful information about yourself or not. Jesus is calling us away from appearance to reality by aligning ourselves not with ourselves, but the one who made us for himself, loves us, redeemed us, and relentlessly is shattering the world of appearances.

And in this final section of 2 Peter 2, we have seen in the first section the judgment and how God judges and rescues, and then we saw last week the two key features/characteristics of false teachers — their indulgence, and defiance. And this week we focus in this final section of chapter 2 on the danger of appearance over reality.

Now, one of the big challenges in looking at a passage like this is the prevalence of imposter syndrome. Do you know what that is? “I don’t really belong. I’m not really qualified to do what I’m doing. One day I will be exposed as a fraud.” A lot of studies say 70-80% of people at times experience imposter syndrome. I’ve been in the ministry over thirty-six years, and I many days wake up feeling like a complete fraud, and I have no clue of what I’m doing, how to pastor. And one day you guys are going to wake up and realize he’s a fraud.

So, what do you do when you struggle with that at times and you come to a passage like this, which is purposely designed to expose frauds? You have a perfect storm. And so, I am deeply burdened for two things — one, for sensitive souls who can easily be rattled and discouraged by this passage, but I’m also equally burdened that we not water it down and miss what God has for us here. Do you feel the tension? So, can we pray this old prayer together out loud as we continue to ask for help?

Psalm 139, say it with me.

“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”

Father, we pray that. We can’t produce this. If we try to fix ourselves, we simply jump out of the pan into the fire. We go from one problem to another. You are the one who sees the difference between appearance and reality in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. You see what is so. We see fragments of what is so and pieces of what is not. Our sight is so limited, skewed. Yours is not. That’s why we come to you, and we thank you that your Spirit right now, as your Word is proclaimed, is melting masks, removing costumes, convicting, cleansing, comforting, assuring. We wait on you. Speak now we pray in Jesus’s name. Amen.

2 Peter 2:17-22 makes clear that false teachers are not what they appear to be. And there are three contrasts between appearance and reality. Number 1, they pretend to refresh. Verse 17, they pretend to refresh.

“These are waterless springs.”

So, imagine living in a dry area. You crave a cool drink of water. You see a spring, and then you realize it’s full of sand. I mean, that’s like pulling into a Chick-fil-A on Sunday. It’s like a Walmart without food. It’s like a beach without water. It’s like a bank without money. No, that last one doesn’t work, doesn’t quite resonate right now. They are pretending to have something they don’t have. They are pretending to provide something they can’t provide. Verse 17, another image.

“[They are] mists driven by a storm.”

Now, again, we don’t feel the weight of this in our culture, in a place called Greenville, as much as many dry cultures would feel it. For us, it’s whether we have a nice lawn or not. For them, it’s whether they die or live. But take the lawn analogy. There are times where you sow seed. You cover it with straw to keep it from washing away. And at the right moment, dark clouds move in. Winds start blowing. You can just feel the moisture in the air. You go in, and you tell your wife, “I timed it perfectly!” And nothing falls — no rain/false alarm. That’s the image that he’s giving here. They seem like they’re going to bring refreshing irrigation, but nothing really comes of it. They pretend to refresh, but in the end, they lead to gloom, to darkness. Look at the last half of verse 17.

“For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved.”

Now, one of two things is going on here. Either he’s mixing metaphors, which is common (moving from the meteorological to the physical or the psychological with gloom and darkness), or more likely, he’s connecting the darkness of fake rain, a fake rainstorm, with the darkness of a fake prophet. You pretend to provide refreshment and light and truth. In the end, you bring gloom and darkness, and you will experience that in this life. But he’s saying here it’s going to go on a lot, lot longer. So, number 1, they pretend to refresh.

Number 2, they promise to rescue. They promise to rescue (verses 18 and 19), to liberate. Now, how did they do this? And this is going to take a few minutes because he actually gives four examples of how they promise and don’t come through. Number 1, they promise confidently, verse 18,

“For, speaking loud boasts of folly.”

Heresy on TikTok and YouTube is compelling. It’s confident. It’s influencing. It’s novel. It’s self-assured. It sounds way more exciting than traditional teaching. There’s a reason Bart Ehrman sells millions of books. Folly, trends. They promise confidently.

Secondly, they promise sensually. Look at verse 18.

“They entice by sensual passions of the flesh.”

That word “entice” means “to allure, to bait,” as in bait a hook, set a trap. It’s the same word used back in chapter 2:14,

“They entice unsteady souls.”

So, how did religious leaders entice sensually? Well, these false teachers held to, most likely held to, what is known today as gnosticism, but it wasn’t fully developed till the second century. So, typically scholars describe this form as proto-gnosticism. It’s an early form that is still finding its feet. But gnostics believed in what is called cosmic dualism. Don’t get lost in the name. Just think “dual.” A superior god created the immaterial world so everything you can’t see he created and is good. An inferior god, known as the demiurge, created the material world, everything you can see, and it’s bad. That’s the idea of dualism. Good — immaterial; bad — material.

Here’s where it gets confusing, though. That same teaching branches off in two extremes. First version is what we could call a conservative asceticism or think “abstinence.” Paul addresses a similar version of this in 1Timothy 4:1,

“Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.”

Brace yourself. We’re about to hear what are teachings of demons — like our teenagers offering squirrels on Ouija boards. Listen to what teachings of demons are — verse 3,

“Who forbid marriage.”

What? That’s the teaching of demons? “Who forbid marriage” (couldn’t you do better than that, Paul?)

“and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.”

In this case, “teaching of demons” is forbidding what God has given as gifts — marriage and burgers. (Surprised I didn’t get my first “amen”!) So, this would be the legalism side of gnosticism, a conservative asceticism/abstinence. And the reason Paul gets really animated against it is because your holiness is measured by your abstinence. The more you give up, the more holy you become. So, you can see that’s undermining the gospel. That’s not where we get our holiness from. Then, that’s the conservative version.

Here’s the progressive version — a progressive hedonism. And that’s the version that Peter is addressing here. And the logic of this version, the libertarian version, is (it’s not political libertarianism) if God saved your soul, then it doesn’t matter what you do with your body. You’re free. Embrace your desires. And today it comes in the version of “if God gave you some desires, certainly he wouldn’t have given you those if he didn’t want you to satisfy those, right? So, go for it.”

Today, entire ministries are formed around doing what verse 18 describes. Maybe that’s too strong. Much of what they do may be good, but a big part of their ministry is enticing, verse 18, “by sensual passions of the flesh.” Red Letter Christians, the Reformation Project, ministries like this argue that if anybody questions your lifestyle choices, they must be motivated by one of three things — self-righteousness, anger, or hatred. They’re bigots because if they truly loved you, they would affirm any lifestyle you make. If you happen to be attracted to multiple people and want to define yourself as is bi, or beyond that, or same-sex, or the latest is MAP — minor-attracted people, then who are we to question what God designed you to desire? That’s the one modern version of “they promise sensually.”

And then 3, they promise selectively. In verse 18, they target

“those who are barely [or you could translate that ‘recently’] escaping from those who live in error.”

So, Peter is saying that these teachers target young or immature Christians, Christians who maybe have moved toward God and begun gathering with his people, but haven’t really severed unhelpful relational temptations, and they become like … If you’ve ever watched an animal show, and you watch a pride of lions go on a hunt. The pride of lions is not thinking “let’s find the strongest, fastest wildebeest we can find and take that down; let’s go after the gazelle that won the gold medal.” No, they’re thinking there’s a wounded, weak wildebeest; there’s a slower, younger gazelle. And they surround and consume. And this is what Peter is lamenting here.

And unfortunately, I’ve seen this so many times — young people who experience daily temptation with desires they never chose, never wanted. And yet they face that battle every single day. Well, one day they shed the world of appearance, and they begin to take steps toward being open and honest with those they’re in community with. They get help. They run to Jesus. They’re growing in their walk with the Lord. And then they get online, and they read a ministry describing “Listen, dude, God wouldn’t have given you those desires if he didn’t want you to satisfy. You can have both. You can have Jesus and your sensual desires.” Who can resist that?! Think about it. Imagine if someone went up to an alcoholic who’s been battling alcohol for decades. It’s destroyed his life. And finally, someone comes to him and says, “Man, God would not have given you the desire for alcohol if he didn’t want you to satisfy. Cheers! I’ll go with you. Drink it up!” That forms an almost irresistible temptation, right? When the inner cravings unite with the community around to say, “This is who you are. You need to march. You need to shed the shame. God made you to be an alcoholic. Embrace it. Drink yourself sick.”

This is what Peter is going after in various forms, and it comes … all the things we’re facing today were there in the Roman and Greek culture. There’s nothing new. There are technological versions of it, but at root there is nothing new. They promise selectively, targeting the weak and vulnerable, those who have been hurt by the church are easy prey.

Number 4, they promise hypocritically. Verse 19,

“They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption.”

By the way, that word “corruption” — same word used back in chapter 1, verse 4,

“having escaped from the corruption that is in the world.”

Here, the teachers are slaves of corruption.

“For whatever overcomes the person, to that he is enslaved.”

Roman philosopher Seneca said,

“To be enslaved to oneself is the heaviest of servitudes.”

These teachers are trying to sell something they don’t own. What I mean by that is if you have never faced a seemingly irresistible desire and begun to be open and honest with your community about that, sought help. And all of us have them. They just come in acceptable and unacceptable forms, but at some point, God is going to bring you to the place where you got to move from appearance to reality. And you learn over time struggling, failing, repenting, confessing, getting back up, weeping with your friend again. But over time, you begin to learn that there is a life on the far side of death that is true freedom, where you are not a slave of every craving that comes within you, no matter how seemingly irresistible it is. And when you have experienced that kind of freedom, you want everyone to experience that. And what Peter is saying is these false teachers have never personally experienced that freedom. They caved in and identified by their struggle too early. So, they don’t know what it’s like to be really, really free. And so, they’re trying to sell freedom when they’re not free. And therefore, they’re promising something they can’t deliver. Jesus said in John 8:34,

“Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.”

He’s talking about this bondage to sin.

“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free [indeed].”

And that word “indeed” is a striking contrast between not just in appearance [but] in reality. It’s a kind of freedom that comes from within that it doesn’t matter what nation you live in. Whether you’re in prison or free, you’re free. That’s the real freedom Jesus is leading us to. Romans 6:15,

“What then? Are we to sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves as obedient slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”

In other words, grace is not a key to just get out of jail, which it is. But it’s also a gas card that fuels us to be able to do and go and become what God has made us to become.

So, they pretend to refresh but lead to darkness and gloom. They promise to rescue but lead back into slavery. And then number 3, they profess to reform. Look at verse 20.

“For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.”

This person has experienced some kind of deliverance, identified with Jesus and his community, but turned back into sin, and the last state (verse 20) is worse for them than the first. Why worse? So many reasons I could give. Let me just give you one. It’s worse because they think they’ve tried Christianity but haven’t. So, it’s worse in the sense they’ve tasted enough of the gospel to think they don’t want it.

Maybe they grew up in church around Christians, and they experienced hurt, disappointment, hypocrisy, felt neglected, and they turn away. Years later, they’re at work. Coworkers start sharing the gospel with them, and they’re just like, “Who are you telling me? I could tell you the gospel before you could even think about giving it to me. I know the Romans Road backwards in Greek. I tried that. It didn’t work. There are hypocrites in the church” Which to me, side note, kind of a funny statement when Peter’s saying,

“There are going to be hypocrites in the church.”

The whole passage is that. Not surprising! But you could see for this individual that sense in which “I tried that” puts them in a worse place because they’re not even open at all to hear.

Now many who stray like what I’ve just described, like the author of this letter, Peter, who strayed, denied, was restored, and God is doing that right now. Some of our hearts are doubting and straying. We may have been deeply hurt, deeply disappointed, doubts that we cannot find answers to. Peter is not surprised by that, but he’s not describing that. He’s describing false teachers who, based on who they are as non-followers of Jesus and not open at all (he summarizes it in verse 22), will return to who they really are.

“The true proverb says: ‘The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.’”

So, false teachers pretend to refresh; they promise to rescue; they profess to reform and change. But in the end, all pretense is removed. And notice how the end of this vivid description on false teaching ends with vomit and mud. You say, “That’s disgusting. You shouldn’t use that word in church.” Well, first of all, we need to establish it is disgusting. Anybody have a dog that does that? Shoot it. That’s just gross! It’s unacceptable in our home. If you’re going to throw up, don’t eat it. But the feeling, the grossness we feel is the image Peter is purposely painting that false teaching, though it comes as something very beautiful and attractive and novel and compelling, is like vomit that should not be consumed.

So, how do we process this? I feel like in some ways I’ve raised more questions than I’ve answered. So, shoot me some more questions for tomorrow’s AfterWord, and I will try to tackle some of those tomorrow. There are a couple that … Numbers of you have asked for the last few weeks that I haven’t gotten to, like how do you distinguish false teachers from true teachers and primary issues from secondary? I hope to deal with that tomorrow, but send questions, share praises, but for today, let’s land on three things.

One, can we thank God for warnings? I know this isn’t fun, but followers of Jesus receive warnings as gifts, not threats, gifts from God. Can you, even in your heart right now, say thank you, God, that you love me enough to warn me? God gives warnings as gifts. False teachers don’t see the point of warning. If you’re calling me a waterless spring, what’s the big deal? As long as people think I’m refreshing and what I give will refresh, as long as they think I’m alive and have it, because appearance is everything. It’s all about image for false teachers. But for followers of Jesus, it’s not about appearance; it’s about reality. So, thank you.

Do you have this mindset of welcoming warnings? I don’t have the mindset that I don’t need warnings as if false teachers are some kind of moral monster out there who are made of different things than the rest of us. No, I’m made of the same thing false teachers are made of, and when I read this passage, I see me without grace. That’s me — a waterless spring, a mist driven by a storm, someone who talks about freedom and then lives in bondage. That is me, apart from the grace of God.

Ronald Rolheiser says,

“We are as sick as our sickest secret, but we are as healthy as we are honest.”

Now, more needs to be said there, but what he says is important. “We are as sick as our sickest secret, and we are as healthy as we are honest.” A recovering alcoholic once said,

“Sobriety is only 10% about alcohol or a drug; it’s 90% about honesty.”

And again, overstated, but important — appearance promises freedom and then strangles it. Jesus promises freedom and produces it. But it’s not a pain-free process. That’s where many of us can feel discouraged. So, warnings like this are part of the ongoing ministry of Jesus as he shatters the world of appearances. And I pray that he never stops doing that here. I have no desire to play church, no desire for us just to try to impress each other. We won’t gain anything from that. So, let’s thank him for warnings. And you know, there are huge implications of that. It means I’m going to be able to laugh at myself for how stupid I can be at times. I’m going to be able to receive correction and welcome it, even if it’s not all right, even if just part. I receive that. I mean, there’s so many implications of that when we thank God for warnings.

Secondly, don’t be surprised by false teaching. Don’t be surprised by false teaching. In 2 Corinthians 11:13 Paul wrote,

“For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.”

You might not even know until the end, but you will see.

Now over the last few years, it seems like false teaching has just exponentially increased and we could say, “It’s covid! It’s the internet!” It’s true — the internet has given false teachers new tools, but Paul is saying don’t be shocked. Nothing’s changed. It’s not covid. It was in Paul’s day, and until Jesus comes, there will be false teaching. So, that should not cause us to panic or be passive.

And then finally, I want to talk to sensitive souls for a couple of minutes and call you to rest in your Father’s promises because passages like this can be terrifying to sensitive souls. What are your go-to promises when you wake up and you question everything, or you fail again, and you think this is it? Let me give you a couple of mine.

Romans 8:28. And I’m trying to redeem this verse because people have so abused this. Christians don’t want to use it. I think it’s actually biblical. Romans 8:28,

“And we know that for those who love God, [how many things?] ALL things work together for good for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.”

You mean, he’s using false teaching to expose things in my heart and grow my dependence on the Spirit and allegiance to his Word? “All things.” To transform me into the image of his Son?

“in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”

Jesus is leading the way.

“And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called, he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

No wiggle room for that process to stop!

“What then, shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

Notice the passage says, “all things”? We know all things work together for good because he graciously gives us all things. Same thing he said in 2 Peter 1:3. Second passage, John 6:35, Jesus said,

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never, never cast out.”

2 Peter is not talking about losing your salvation — “Never, never cast out!” Dane Ortland highlights the reason we need this promise.

“Fallen, anxious sinners are limitless in their capacity to perceive reasons for Jesus to cast them out. We are factories of fresh resistances to Christ’s love. Even when we run out of tangible reasons to be cast out, such as specific sins or failures, we tend to retain a vague sense that given enough time, Jesus will finally grow tired of us and hold us at arm’s length … We cannot present a reason for Christ to finally close off his heart to his own sheep. No such reason exists … With Christ, our sins and weaknesses are the very resumé items that qualify us to approach him. Nothing but coming to him is required — first in conversion and a thousand times thereafter until we are with him upon death.”

Let’s pray.

Father, your love is like no other. Your faithfulness fuels our confidence. Nothing, no one can separate us from your love. So, we rest in your cleansing, keeping love, and that rest allows us to receive correction, receive warnings, to see parts of ourselves we didn’t want to see, to look into dark places in our hearts that we wouldn’t have the security to look into if we did not have the security of your love. We can be open with one another, and broken with one another, and not pretend, and not be addicted to appearing a certain way.

So, I pray for some here who may be too embarrassed to ask for help. We’d rather cover our spiritual nakedness with fig leaves than truly come to you. I pray, Lord, that we as a people would grow in loving and living in honesty rather than pretense and that we wouldn’t despise the mess that is made when we begin to deal with the things we would rather not deal with. We want to be a place, Lord, where those miracles are right in the middle of the mess. Thank you, Jesus, that you’re still doing that work of moving us from appearance to reality. And we are in for it, Lord. We want it. And we thank you in Jesus’ name. Amen.